Authors: Corina Vacco
“Go find the cooler, Jason. Now.”
Our basement is such a mess. I step over lawn chairs, oil cans, a baseball bat and cleats. I move gardening tools, dead tomato plants, a broken fan, and a bag of topsoil. Things we couldn’t sell in our yard sale. A deflated soccer ball. A dented drum set. Broken furniture we’ll never fix or use. Why am I the one who has to dig through all this junk?
I woke up hungry. Today is the Kuperskis’ annual cookout, and
they put out a huge spread, lots of meats and hot dishes. They don’t just invite people from Cardinal Drive either; they invite the whole neighborhood. Sid Kuperski is friends with a man who brings piles of hot wings packed in aluminum catering pans. Gloria Kuperski makes a mean six-layer taco dip, which is my all-time favorite food. Charlie doesn’t have a favorite food. He’ll eat anything, especially if there’s red meat or chocolate involved. The only person I know who doesn’t live for the Kuperskis’ cookout is Cornpup, because nothing grosses him out more than food from other people’s houses. He thinks there’s going to be a hair ball baked into one of the garlic meatballs, boogers in the pretzel cake, and weird strains of salmonella growing in the potato salad. He says there’s no end to the terrible things that can go on in a kitchen that’s not regulated by the FDA. If he comes to a cookout at all, he’ll bring his own grilled cheese sandwiches in a paper bag. But usually he doesn’t come.
“The cooler isn’t down here,” I shout. My tone is whiny, but I don’t really care. I’m not in the greatest of moods. I got about a hundred prank calls last night. I had to stay awake watching a horror movie marathon, picking up each call midway through the first ring. Otherwise our kitchen phone would wake up Mom. I try to think of something creepier than Kevin Thompson calling my house, again and again, never saying anything, heavy metal blasting in the background, but that’s about as creepy as it gets.
The cooler is under Dad’s camping equipment.
At first, I just stare. I am ambushed by a memory. It was two summers ago. I was at the beach with Mom, who was skinny then, and Dad, who would not live through the winter. I raced Dad to the pier, and I won. Seagulls were everywhere. Mom had filled the cooler with bologna sandwiches and cans of pop. She kept saying she was gonna “get a tan, dammit,” and Dad told her not to use vegetable oil, because he didn’t want to her turning into a lobster. I waded in the water, but it was kind of cold. It was going to be a good
day, a family day, and I felt luckier than Charlie then, because my dad would never snap his belt at me, would never pass out drunk on the couch with a lit cigarette.
But the day got cut short. A sudden storm rolled up on Lake Erie. The entire sky turned the color of dirty aluminum. A cold, hard rain began to fall. Mom picked up the blanket, and we all started running. Dad had the cooler. I had Mom’s beach chair. We were all giggling. We took Highway 5 home, past Bethlehem Steel and the Coast Guard base, over the Skyway bridge. Mom turned the radio up and sang in her bluesy voice. I can’t remember what the song was, and it bothers me that I can’t remember.
Dad was the last person to carry this cooler. I don’t want to touch it. I don’t want to be the one to wipe his fingerprints away.
“It’s about time,” Mom says to me. “I thought you got lost down there.” She makes me take the cooler out back and rinse it with the hose. Then she makes me put a T-shirt on. “You’re not going to the Kuperskis’ in swim trunks. You’ll look like a hillbilly.” Never mind how she’s wearing puffy Windbreaker shorts and a
MERV’S HOT DOGS
T-shirt big enough to be a pop-up tent.
I walk to the back porch and turn on the hose. I rinse dried grass and a suspicious gooey pink stain from inside the cooler. I flood a couple of anthills, just because I can. I am pretty much in a daze. Dad is on my mind, no matter how hard I try to push the thoughts away. I could stand here forever, just letting the water run and run and run.
“Jason! How long does it take to rinse out a cooler?” Mom says. “Charlie’s on the phone.”
I turn off the faucet. I’m supposed to coil the hose over a hook on the side of our house, but that’ll take too long. As a rule, Charlie doesn’t hold on the line for more than a minute or two, if that. I leave the hose in a sloppy heap and jog back to the house.
“Holy loudness. What’s going on over there?” Charlie asks. He’s eating something crunchy.
“My aunt Ellen just pulled up in her crappy car. You’re supposed to be on your way over here. Is Cornpup with you?”
“He’s sick again.”
“Oh. Did you get the candy?”
“Nope. Randy wouldn’t take me to the store. But we have Popsicles in the freezer.”
“Those’ll be good,” I say. “But hurry up. My mom’s making me do stupid little jobs around the house.”
Charlie hangs up without saying goodbye.
Mom says, “Do you want to tell me who kept calling at all hours last night? Was that Charlie?”
“No,” I say. “Some little kids found our number in the phone book, is all.”
Ellen, who is skinny, walks into our house without knocking. She’s carrying a casserole dish in one hand, and my little cousin, Bryan, on her hip. She says, “Lynn, you’re going to be hot in that big old T-shirt,” and I shoot her a dirty look, because I don’t care if it’s nine thousand degrees outside; Mom should be wearing more clothing, not less.
“Wow, so you’re going to be a high schooler in a couple of months,” Ellen says to me. “Are you excited?”
“Not really,” I say, but she’s only half listening.
Mom runs into the bathroom to change. She comes out wearing a one-piece bathing suit and the same pair of Windbreaker shorts, but
a shirt. She embarrasses me constantly. I don’t get a break.
When Dad died, Mom started eating double helpings of everything; sometimes she even goes back for thirds. I don’t think she all of a sudden got hungrier. I just think the sadness dug a real deep
hole in her, and she’s trying to fill it with stuff that tastes good. Things haven’t been easy for her, I know, but she’s not the only one hurting. And it’s not like it would be that hard for her to ride her bike to the air products plant a few times a week. Or eat salads every once in a while.
I go to my room and find a T-shirt to wear with my swim trunks. When I return to the kitchen, Bryan is holding a bag of balloons.
“Fill these with water for me,” he says. He is standing on a step stool and has already tried to fill two blue balloons himself, but they’ve exploded in the sink.
“Fill them yourself,” I say. Ellen goes out back to smoke a cigarette.
“Hey, guys.” Charlie has let himself in. He doesn’t look angry or embarrassed. It’s like the things I saw last night—the bottle of Jäger, the crying mom, a fist to the eye—never happened. He tosses a box of Popsicles into the freezer. He has on an old Sabres ball cap with tar on the brim. He drinks our green Kool-Aid straight from the pitcher.
“Charlie! Charlie!” Bryan shouts. “Fill these for me, okay?”
Charlie is always nice to little kids, which is something I’ve never understood. He fills thirty water balloons to a near-bursting size, while Bryan jumps in place for a full minute, the way he does when someone flushes a toilet and he gets to see the water swirl.
I help Charlie pile the water balloons into a laundry basket. He gives Bryan a Popsicle, and Mom makes him eat it on the front porch, because she just mopped the floor. I’m so hungry I can’t make it to the porch; I eat my Popsicle over the sink.
Ellen comes in from outside and almost drops the potted plant she’s carrying. “Charlie, my God! You’re so tall. You and Randy could be twins!”
“I’ll be way stronger than Randy by the end of summer,” says Charlie.
Mom packs suntan oil and a hairbrush into her purse. She tells Charlie to stop drinking all our Kool-Aid. Then she says, “Your mom’s not coming? Is she busy with her flowers?”
I glare at her. She already knows Mrs. Pellitero has a black eye. I told her what happened last night, because I had to tell someone, and she promised not to say anything.
Charlie looks down at his sneakers. “She’s not feeling well.”
“Did she send a dish along with you?”
“He brought Popsicles,” I say quickly.
Charlie’s hand covers his mouth as he grins. Either he doesn’t pick up on Mom’s nastiness or he doesn’t care. He gets the box out of the freezer. “Want one, Mrs. Hammond? I got grape, cherry, or green.”
I almost laugh out loud. She never says no to food these days.
She chooses grape. “Didn’t Randy apply for a warehouse job at Mareno Chem a while back?”
“Yeah,” says Charlie. “They never called him, though. It’s hard to get a job there because the pay’s so good. There’s a wait list or whatever.”
“Interesting,” says Mom. “Because I heard someone shot and killed a whole bunch of birds and then piled the corpses in front of the Mareno Chem administrative office. Did your brother have something to do with that?”
Charlie stops smiling. “Randy wouldn’t shoot birds.”
“So that’s your story and you’re sticking with it, eh?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I glare at Mom.
Charlie is as quiet as a stone.
We make our way out the door, single file. Charlie carries the cooler. Mom has her beach bag. I lug the basket of balloons. Bryan
follows us across the street, shooting our backs with his squirt gun. I think of Kevin Thompson, how he probably would shoot me in the back with real bullets if he could get away with it.
“What a beautiful day,” Mom says. “Blue skies still feel so new to me. When I was growing up, back when the steel industry was really booming, ore dust and ash from the Bethlehem Steel furnaces used to block the sun, making the sky glow orange, like it was the end of the world, like the waterfront was on fire. It’s so different now. Buffalo gets a lot of sunshine, and over here, we’ve got smoggy skies mostly.”
I know what she means. Whenever we drive along the shores of Lake Erie, it’s like touring a ruined kingdom. You see castle-sized factories; rotting barges with no freight on board; giant smokestacks, like organ pipes, cutting through the sky; and you realize it’s all a bunch of skeletons. Industry is dead in Buffalo. The warehouses and foundries still in operation are found here, in Poxton. You look out your window most days and you see swirling gray till you’re almost seasick. Sometimes we get a different kind of smoke, opaque white in color, and my sinuses drip down the back of my throat, filling my mouth with a weird taste that makes me think of rubber bands.
Today is a great day, though. Today I don’t catch a whiff of anything I don’t like. Burgers, a charcoal grill, citronella candles, and fireworks. That’s how summer should always smell.
The Kuperskis’ backyard is filled with people. Sid has on a plastic apron. He’s got a split-level grill with wings on the top, hot dogs on the bottom. Gloria, dressed in red, serves drinks. Every glass is topped off with a paper umbrella.
Valerie and Jill are at the far end of the yard, sunbathing on lawn chairs. “Two hot girls and free food,” says Charlie. “This cookout officially rules.”
I stand next to him, frozen. Sometimes I wonder why Charlie, who always takes the best of everything, has chosen Jill—a cute girl,
yes, but not
. Val is the really pretty one. I can’t believe I forgot to read her note last night. It’s still folded up in my jeans at home.
“Why are they giggling?” I ask Charlie.
“Girls giggle. That’s what they
All summer, I’ve been waiting for this day. I came here to stuff my face and get barbecue sauce all over my T-shirt and do cannon-balls into the pool and have a food fight with Charlie. Now my appetite is sort of gone.
Valerie is smiling at us, or maybe at
, and I pretend not to notice her. I’m not like Charlie, who can stand over a pile of greasy wings and still look cool. Charlie, who isn’t shaken up by suntan oil and bikini straps.
“That bikini is … Wow,” I say.
Mom sits at a card table with some of her friends from the air products plant. Two of the women have already been in the pool; their hair is stringy and wet. Ellen flirts with a mechanic, some guy with biceps the size of car batteries, while Bryan digs holes in the pile of fly ash that spilled over the privacy fence. Three men I don’t recognize are drinking beer on the Kuperskis’ roof. One of them jumps into the shallow pool, and I am sure he’s going to snap his neck and die, but he climbs out of the water with a triumphant grin on his face, and a couple people laugh and cheer like he’s some kind of hero.
Risky behavior. Dad would never have done that, and he’s dead, while this jumping-off-the-roof guy is alive and
. It’s like a bad math problem. I don’t get it. I really don’t.
Charlie bites his thumbnail. “I might out-eat your mom today. There’s a very good chance.”
“Not even possible. She’s been sucking down cookies since we got here. She has an insurmountable lead.”
I’m not a horrible person. I don’t exactly like it that we rip on
Mom all the time, but if she wouldn’t eat so much, people wouldn’t say stuff.
“What’s up with that guy who keeps jumping off the roof?” says Charlie. “He’s splashing all the water out of the pool.”
“We should tell him to stop. Sid won’t say anything. He’s too nice.”
“Or we could just swim at Two Mile later.” For Charlie, our creek is always the first, best choice.
The Jell-O salads are attracting flies. One card table, the one filled with brownies and Polish desserts, is surrounded by kids. We carry our plates to an unoccupied table next to a picnic bench, where Theresa Seaver is fanning herself with a Frisbee. Theresa was one of the people who told Dad to keep his mouth shut when Mareno Chem resumed production of Phenzorbiflux. She told him it was a secret project so he should mind his own business. He said five-ton containers of an illegal chemical
his business, especially when he was forced to work with it every day in the processing plant. She was supposed to be his friend, but she couldn’t risk losing her job. And when he died, she still didn’t speak up about Phenzorbiflux. She just shrugged her shoulders, like Dad was crazy.