Robert Frank, Fourth of July – Jay, New York, 1956 from The Americans (1958)

It was Solstice Day, and everyone was delighted when they woke to a bright sun and clear skies. Loveliest we’ve had in years, they agreed. Doesn’t get better than this.

The tables at the pavilion had been set up the night before, so it was no problem at all to get things going. Families started trickling in by midmorning. The younger kids held their parents’ hands and clunked along the sidewalk in soccer cleats and shin guards that reached above their knees.

Mae organized. She wore a sunflower bandana around her head and a set of bangles that slid up and down her wrist when she gestured. Mae wasn’t a big woman, but she had a gravity that pulled you. (The rest of her book club intimated that her husband left because he resented her power over him, but they often felt ashamed for doing so. She’s a real woman, they would add.  We wouldn’t have a have a PTA without her.) Even the men, titillated by the brown bags of charcoal, pocketed their lighters and followed her instructions. She wasn’t bossy, not even persuasive. She asked you to cut that watermelon, an inch thick and in eighths please, we want enough to go around, and then she was gone, helping fill the bubble machine or making sure the banner hung taut. Mae had the serene confidence of someone who knew her word was the path of least resistance.

Tables, lawn chairs, picnic blankets that spent most of the year folded up in station wagon trunks, a stereo, lighter fluid, juice boxes, cucumber salad, banana-scented sunscreen, napkins, beanbags, balloons, corkscrews, paper plates, cheese cubes, Ziploc bags, a row of coolers. It was all in place by midday.

The kids trundled off to play soccer up the hill. Their fathers sat at the picnic tables and held beers between their legs with guilty smiles, sharing recipes and retelling stories from high school. The mothers clustered around the vegetable platter and sipped mineral water. When they threw their heads back in laughter, the car keys jingled on the lanyards around their necks.  There were still carrots left when the hummus was gone, so Mae sent Mrs. Gutchewsky’s husband to the store for more. Their girls ran around in striped two-piece bathing suits, spraying each other with the hose until three o’clock, when the water turned off. The honey-sweet country songs issuing from the stereo melted in the warmth into an indistinguishable hum. The air was thick and sleepy.

Jonathan leaned his bike against the brick fireplace and wandered between tables, smiling. The municipal resource office had to work mornings, even on Solstice Day, and he had come right from work. The office was air-conditioned, but the picnic certainly was not. The pleated khakis and checkered flannel he wore began to feel heavy and hot. Brody McGregor, who coached Jonathan’s daughter when she still played volleyball, thrust a beer into his hand and pulled him into a seat.

“Beautiful day, no? Couldn’t be better,” he said. He had large hands and a smile that reached up and pinched the corners of his eyes.

Jonathan swallowed. “Nice. It’s nice. They say it’s the warmest we’ve had.”

“Can’t believe our luck,” McGregor leaned back, crossed his legs. “Feels like homecoming again, you know. All the kids and the music. Except I drank before I arrived back then. You’re allowed to smile,” he laughed. “I remember the lengths we went to—the number of shots we took in the back of that Subaru, it gives me a stomachache thinking about it. We would just sit there with the car running, in the Mary-Knoll parking lot. Can you imagine if I got caught doing that today? Drinking in the backseat, with the car running? I would die of shame, really die of shame, and that’s not even considering the fine. Worst part is, it would go right to your paycheck. Wouldn’t want to support our democratically elected hoarders, would I?”

Jonathan worked at the resource management office; this dig was nothing new. “Maybe if you got rid of those water tanks in your garage I would be more fun. Statute forty-six: necessary use. If I see you giving that Mongolian squirrel dog a shower, I’ll bring the almighty wrath of county code down on you.”

“You ruin a good time.” McGregor grinned into his beer. “I should have been paying attention when they taught us in school to deal with nosey bastards like you. Cheers.”

Jonathan managed a smile, sipped his beer. The bubbles burned his tongue. He held the cool can to his forehead.

Mae was pulling tin foil off of the oven tins and lifting strips of marinated meat onto the grill, where it sizzled and curled. She prodded it with the tongs, her face a mask of grim focus.  When she saw Jonathan, confusion flashed across her face.

“Jonathan! Happy you made it.”

“I’m glad. Something tells me you didn’t think I was coming.”

Mae moved between him and the grill. “You’re off work, it’s a party. Look, all the kids are here. You know these restrictions are just bureaucratic,” Mae said, a hand on her hip.

“How much do you have?” Jonathan peeled the tin foil off another tray.

“It’s a party, Jonathan. Enough for the whole neighborhood. And don’t ask me where I got it, I won’t tell you. Now, I don’t mind that you ruin this picnic for me, but if you’re going to start preaching to the kids again, you can go back to work. Soak in all that A/C. It’s a beautiful day, you should consider yourself lucky.” She licked the barbecue sauce off her fingers and shut the grill cover. The steaks hissed and popped.

Joe Maloney, Westwood, New Jersey, 1977, Ektacolor 74 Print

Jonathan sat down alone. He switched his phone off. It didn’t change much, but it felt like justification for not reporting the party. The meat ban hadn’t been around long enough to feel sensible, but he resented Mae nonetheless for provoking him.  Maybe she knew he would come.  That would be classic Mae, certainly: to go out of the way to prove her devotion to the neighborhood, even if it meant intimidating the county officers. She acted like she was protecting someone, but there were worse things than a ruined party. Mae had stopped reading the news.  He knew this because he saw the newspapers pile up on her front walk for months, bad news in blue plastic, until the deliveryman got the message and ended her subscription. He still read his, though. The fires were still burning in Florida. Cape Town had no water, New York was swimming in it. Mae’s book club had record-high attendance, though.

Jonathan leaned into the conversation down the table—Dr. Calhoun’s daughter was going to Harvard, which they reckoned had nothing to do with the new anthropology building he had funded—but he was toying with his drink before long.  “What a beautiful day,” he heard someone say. 

The little ones came down the hill from the soccer field.  Lizzie Calsyn was crying and the rest were looking away in shame.  They each dispersed to their parents, and the crying girl clung to her father’s arm.  Mr. Calsyn patted her shoulder and nodded with the conversation down the table, the neck of a beer bottle clenched between his teeth.

The sun was low in the sky, and although it was only two o’clock, its light had that dense, expiring quality that signals the end of the day.  The song on the stereo—beer and family and summer—buzzed on, a thoughtless ambience muted by the heavy air.  The tables were nearly set now—all those bright plastic plates of fruit salads and potato casseroles sweated under a gleaming film of plastic wrap.  The girls in the swimsuits had abandoned the hose.  It lay twisted in the dried grass like a snake that had died of thirst. The mothers clotted around the pavilion columns held themselves protectively, thin lips spread tight against white-toothed smiles.  The ice in their lemon water had melted, so they set down their plastic cups and grabbed new ones to refill.  This was complicated by Mr. Calsyn, who was bent double with one hand on the cooler breathing heavily, holding the ice to his forehead. “Don’t mind me,” he said. “Went right to my head. I haven’t drunk this early in a while. You ladies go on ahead, I’ve been worse. It’s a beautiful day, you enjoy yourselves.” The ice cube left a dripping red mark on his forehead, like a leper’s badge. His daughter was still crying. 

A thread of steam was creeping out of the grill cover. It rose lethargically through the heat, disappearing between the bare branches above. The blue sky was hard like metal. The sun hovered, pale and hot.

Mae opened the grill and lifted the meat out with a forked skewer. The steaks were red and laced with veins of fat, which formed pearly beads on the underside before it dripped to the ground. The grill bars left parallel black lines of blistered flesh. Mae shooed the flies with her oven mitt.

When it was time to eat, they pulled the plastic wrap off the store-bought vegetable platters like snakeskin and moved along the buffet. Mae herded the children and wiped the sweat from her forehead with proud bravado. Pools of ketchup glistened on the edges of their plates. They took fistfuls of potato chips and scoops of Jell-O salad, but left plenty of room for the meat.

It was gone in minutes.  Most hadn’t had any in months, and it tasted better than they remembered: red pepper, garlic, guilt.  They crouched and clustered in packs, sweating as they gnawed at the red meat, which they clutched with fingers dripping grease.  The beer bubbles rose slowly along the inside of the dark glass and disappeared silently into the humid afternoon air.  It was the finest winter solstice they had seen.  What a beautiful day.

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