Everyone knows that May is the best month for a cookout. The weather is warm, but not too warm. It’s sunny, having passed the month of April showers. People are in their best moods because it’s almost summer vacation, though that means less when you aren’t in school to enjoy a break.
While the end of May has the potential to be a little too toasty, mid-May is ideal to avoid that. Crisp winds float in from April, but the sweltering heat of June has not yet arrived.
Jay mans the grill because he is, in his words, “the man of the grill.” His apron is ratty: torn, off-white that has been stained from many a barbeque. Reddish brown splotches pepper the pockets, and one of the straps is beginning to rip, threads popping at the seams. He used to be able to fasten the tie around his front, but his stomach has grown over the years. Now he can barely tie it around his bare back.
Emblazoned on the middle of the apron is the phrase, “I’ll rub your butt for free.” It was a gift from one of his previous girlfriends, a girl who appreciated his insistency on grilling shirtless and never mistook him for the potbelly pig on the roasting spit. A girl who no one has spoken to in several years, but who Jay and I credit with making us closer than ever before.
He flips one of the burgers and presses down on the meat with his metal spatula. Juice oozes from the patty, and I sip from my drink to keep from reprimanding him. It’s all well and fine if he wants to turn our beef burgers into hockey pucks on any other day, but not for this cookout. The meat was too expensive for him to ruin.
At the grill, Jay finishes another PBR. He crushes the can against his flat forehead and laughs with his buddies about something, likely the pitiful season the Bears had this past year. Even though the entire state of Wisconsin is between our home and Chicago, Jay believes himself a Chicagoan. He roots for the Bears, the Bulls, and the White Sox. He can’t stand the Cubs, though he doesn’t have any reason for his dislike. If he wasn’t shirtless, he’d likely be wearing the Bulls jersey with our last name monogrammed on the back. I gave it to him for his birthday the same year his previous girlfriend gave him the apron. It doesn’t bother me that he’s wearing the apron and not the shirt.
I like the sight of his swollen belly pressing against the filthy fabric of the apron. I wouldn’t be able to see the pink, newly sunburnt skin and droplets of sweat if he were to wear his jersey. His head is bald, also red and sweating, and I assume he will soon ask me to get him the tattered CAT trucker hat he wears whenever we have sex.
These things remind me that he is mine, and that I am his. Our minds are the same, so he notices me staring. His laugh is overbearing, and he raises a beer in my direction.
Sometimes Jay reminds me of my dad. Dad worked in the forestry industry up until a year ago, when an accident left him in a wheelchair. During summer breaks, he would take me and Ma out to this remote cabin in the woods where we would fell trees to use as firewood for bonfires. He was the one who taught me how to use a saw while Ma sat in a ripped yellow lawn chair and sipped lemonade with red food dye.
“A chainsaw is too fast for a little girl like you,” he’d tell me as the saw’s flimsy teeth bit into the wood. “It can be hard to control, so it’s best to let a man handle it.”
But I didn’t want to let a man handle it, so after we shot and killed the game for today’s cookout, I showed Jay how to use a saw. How to bleed the creatures above the tub so dismemberment isn’t as messy.
Referring to animals we hunt as “game” is entirely appropriate, isn’t it?
“Callie.” Shelly Townsend is beside me. Sometimes people approach me, and I don’t notice until they’re speaking. “Callie, Liam wants to know if he can swim in the pool.”
Liam is her son, and she’s pregnant with a little girl. She and her husband are this neighborhood’s representation of the nuclear family. Possibly the town’s representation. Unlike Jay and I’s home, the Townsend’s have a cement driveway. A professional lawncare technician. Their pool is in-ground, so I’m not sure why Liam, who is used to more luxurious water, would be interested in our above-ground pool.
Shelly has a burger on her paper plate. Ketchup bloodies the crisp lettuce, and mustard drips onto her palm when she bites into the glistening meat. The rendered fat soaks into the bread, and I hope she enjoys the meal as much as I enjoy watching her consume it.
Whenever I smile, my right eyebrow arches. It’s like the muscles in my mouth are attached by a string to the muscles in my forehead, and any slight movement causes them both to rise at the same time.
“Of course you can, Liam,” I say, my smile widening. “That’s what it’s here for. For everyone to enjoy and have a great time.”
Liam scampers to the other neighborhood kids. He rips his shirt off and climbs the ladder to the pool. A child I don’t know hoists himself up onto the ledge and does a backflip into the water. Pool water sprays all over the dead grass.
“I was surprised to hear from you,” Shelly says. She takes another bite of the burger and swallows it before speaking again. “But not in a bad way. You and Jay have been a little off the grid recently.”
“Busy with work.” I watch Jay scoop a patty onto a friend’s plate. “You know how that is.”
“Definitely,” she says, but we both know she doesn’t. She only worked at the factory for a few months before she quit to be a fulltime stay-at-home mom. “I miss our lunch breaks, though. No one wants to listen to me complain about morning sickness.” She rubs her stomach tenderly, then gestures to it, like I should feel the baby’s resting spot, too. Like I should slowly caress her skin again.
Shelly was lucky. Jay never found out about my nights at the motel with her.
“I’m always around if you want to give me a ring,” I say, though part of me hopes she doesn’t.
That makes her smile. Her eyebrows don’t move when she smiles, but she does look younger.
“I heard Jay say that you were almost out of burgers,” she says. “I’m glad I got mine before the crowd.”
“Me, too.” I love sharing, even if Jay doesn’t.
“What seasoning did you use? I’ve never tasted anything this juicy,” she says. Then she leans forward and whispers, like it’s a conspiracy, “And that’s with Jay trying to squeeze the life out of every patty.”
We used to get trashed together and trash our husbands. When she discovered she was pregnant, that’s when we stopped. Everything. And she quit the factory.
But if she hadn’t quit the factory, I wouldn’t have met—
Sometimes people say I space out.
“Salt and pepper for seasoning,” I say. “A little Worcestershire sauce to keep the meat moist, but we didn’t want to impact the flavor.” It’s my turn to whisper as I say, “The rest is, of course, a family secret.”
“One of these days, you’re going to tell me all your secrets,” she says, biting her lip.
But I never will. Shelly is different from me. From Jay. Even if I strayed with her, and I strayed with the factory man, and maybe a few other friends spread around the states, these people don’t understand me the way Jay does.
Jay and I are made for each other. Nothing could ever get in our way. No one. We made a pact to ensure it.
He closes the grill, looks back at me, and shrugs.
We didn’t have enough meat to feed everyone, which is a shame. I would’ve loved to share my love with every person present. When Shelly’s husband offers to drive to the store to get more hamburgers and hotdogs, Jay goes with him.
I watch the kids splash in the pool. I watch the parents eat their burgers and throw out their plates. The plates greasy with blood and Worcestershire sauce. They don’t question the blood. All meat has blood. It all comes from a living creature.
It happened too fast. Bullets are fast, and surprise shots offer no fear. I think I would have liked to hear the way he screamed.
Katharine Bost holds an MFA in creative writing from Miami University, and her work has appeared in Memoir Magazine, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, The Nasiona, Tangled Locks Journal, and Mikrokosmos.