Some of the cousins arrived early, before the party began, to help set up. Dad came into the house carrying an empty rum bottle and told us kids to go out and play. Mike and I went out to the backyard. We told the sisters to stay away from us because we hated girls.
At the back of the yard, between two lawn chairs, there was a watermelon standing on end. The top had been lopped off and placed back on like a lid. I took the lid off and saw that it had been hollowed out, its meat cut into bite-sized chunks and put back inside the shell. We ate a few pieces. The pieces tasted funny. We ate some more. We started to feel funny and ate some more. Then Dad came out of the house carrying a new bottle of rum. He yelled at us to get away from there or he was going to fry our asses.
“I’ll fry your ass!”
Whenever he said it, I pictured a cartoon image of myself with my pants down, squatting over a stove burner.
Then he poured more rum into the watermelon as Mike and I staggered off to play.
Dad and the uncles had firecrackers in their shirt pockets. They were walking around the yard drinking and lighting the firecrackers with their cigarettes, tossing them around while the mothers tried to get them to knock it off. Soon they got into a friendly slapping fight and Uncle Larry knocked the head off my father’s cigarette by mistake.
“The head of my cigarette went in your pocket!” Dad said, laughing.
“Ah, bullshit,” said Larry and did nothing about it.
“I ain’t shittin’ you,” Dad said. “It’s in your pocket.”
“You’re full of shit, too,” Larry said.
As he took a swig off his beer the firecrackers started going off. He dropped his beer in the grass and pulled his shirt out away from his chest as Dad and the other uncles laughed their asses off. When it was over, Uncle Larry had a hole in his shirt and powder burns around his left nipple. Some of his chest hair was singed.
Uncle Larry was in charge of getting rid of the mosquitoes before dusk. He replaced the muffler on his lawn mower with an insecticide bomb and cranked it up. The heat of the engine melted the insecticide and a thick white fog gushed out. He pushed the lawn mower along his property line, where the tall weeds bordered the creek, flushing out the mosquitoes with the fog and sending them our way. The fog drifted over, too, swirling around the picnic table where the mothers were putting out the food.
“Oh, for chrissakes, Larry! Larry!”
He couldn’t hear them over the engine, pushing the mower happily along in his red and white striped shorts that reminded us of pajamas, lost in a fog of pesticide.
Dad and the uncles were playing lawn darts. The darts were plastic, about a foot long, with heavy lead tips. You threw them like horseshoes at plastic rings placed on the lawn, one at each end. Dad was waving his beer around and telling somebody they were full of shit (somebody always was) when a lawn dart came down from the sky and struck him in the forearm and stayed there.
There was a pause while the uncles were deciding whether it was okay to laugh or not.
Somewhere during the party, a window got broken and my father put the pieces inside the trashcan.
A few days later, on trash day, I took the liner out of the trashcan and somehow managed to slice up my leg on a piece of broken window sticking out of the bag. I looked at the two eyeball-shaped holes that had opened on the back of my thigh. They weren’t bleeding yet and I could see inside my leg. I started crying and yelling for my mother.
The yelling really got her moving. She was there in seconds, just in time for the bleeding to start.
She took me into the house and doused the wounds in hydrogen peroxide while I screamed, then wrapped my leg in bandages and tape.
She was a nervous driver, and pretty shook up now, so she drove me to Mrs. Crackavella’s house up the street. Mrs. Crackavella was a nurse.
Mrs. Crackavella looked at my wounds, which were as deep and wide as eye sockets. She hadn’t seen my mother in a few weeks. She liked my mother and enjoyed having coffee with her. She wanted to have coffee now.
“I wouldn’t worry about it unless it was on the face of the leg,” she said.
I didn’t know what the face of my leg was but it was looking like I’d injured the wrong part.
She continued as the kettle on the stove started to whistle. “Just keep it clean. It’ll be fine. I don’t think it needs stitches.” She resealed the bandages while Mom watched.
The coffee smelled good. Instant.
Dad was working nights then and didn’t see my leg for two days. By that time, the wounds were gummy with puss.
“Goddammit,” he said to my mother. “He can’t get stitches now. You have to do it within twenty-four hours.”
Mom defended herself, but only for show. “You’re the one who put the window in the trash without telling anyone,” she said, but I could tell she felt bad about her part in it.
A few weeks later we went on vacation. We had rented cottages on a lake in Maine with some of the cousins. We had really been looking forward to it. But the wounds were taking a long time to heal and I wasn’t allowed to go swimming. Mom made me wear Saran Wrap around my leg and I could only go in up to my knees. Patti poked fun at me and I would have killed her if I could have swum out to get her.
Every afternoon, just before dinner, Dad had me lie face down on a picnic bench while he redressed the wounds. When he picked up the bottle of hydrogen peroxide I wrapped my arms around the bench and tried not to cry as all the cousins and siblings stood in a circle around me, watching.
Dad and Uncle Larry and Uncle Arthur were playing cribbage. It was sunny and hot, muggy, and the party hadn’t really gotten going yet. Dad lit a pack of firecrackers with his cigarette to shake things up and tossed them over the end of the picnic table.
My little cousin, Jimmy, had been sitting quietly on the ground at the foot of the table, eating something, when suddenly things were exploding on his head. Being a rather demonstrative kid, he yelled and jumped around, batting at his hair, even after the firecrackers fell to the ground and kept exploding.
He cried for a long time, dirt streaks on his face, giving Dad the evil eye as Mom and Aunt Louise pawed through his hair, looking for wounds.
It was late, near midnight, and some people were in no condition to drive. The party was winding down when somebody tossed a cherry bomb into the circle of old ladies sitting in lawn chairs. My grandmother was there, as well as a few great aunts, and even a great grandmother. They were all wearing old dresses, the only kind they had, and their bare shins caught the shrapnel. My grandmother had little red holes in her legs and she was trying not to cry. She’d been through enough, that grandmother of mine.
There was commotion and outrage as the uncles tried to figure out who had thrown it. The mothers were pissed off equally at all of them.
Why did it always get like this?
Off by himself, Teddy watched from the darkness, sucking on a beer. Teddy was Dad’s friend from work, not family. The uncles all wanted it to be him. It was the only thing that made sense to them.