The Cookout by Liz Wride
Note from the editor: content warning, gun violence
I noticed first, that I was different, at old Mrs. Withers’ Labor Day cookout. By that I mean, her cookout was the first place anyone had ever treated me different.
She lived in the next town over, and would host her neighbourhood every year. It was real important to my mom and my Grandma Rose that we go, so my sister and I spent more than a half-hour getting our hair combed into respectable styles, before my mom settled on the most appealing; gelling or clipping it into submission. My hair was militarian in its obedience to the gel: resulting in a middle-America, middle-part. Years later, I’d look back at the photographs of myself from that day and realised I looked like a total milkcarton-kid. If ever I went missing, that middle-part would sure as hell guide me home.
My sister’s hair, even then, at four years old, was a very specific beast. It looked exactly like the scribbles she drew on crayon self-portraits, that hung in the kitchen art gallery of La Refrigerator. Her hair would have a solid two hours, before it suddenly sprung forth, unleashed from the bobby pins my Mom painstakingly stuck in it. It would go full medusa.
Along with this very specific hair routine, it was extra important that everyone brushed their teeth—and flossed. Our teeth had to gleam.
I’d get buttoned into a bright white shirt, my sister zipped into a pinafore dress. My mom would carefully tuck the cardboard sales tag into the collar, so that the make, size, barcode and price, were very well hidden.
“Now you be careful in this, or we aren’t gonna be able to send these back.” She said, straightening my collar. She doesn’t give my sister the same waring, although I remember, she is more docile. As the rhyme goes: Sugar and spice and all things nice.
My mom and Grandma Rose spray cans and cans of hairspray at their curls, before my mom turns to my Grandma Rose, “Mom, please can you wait a while before you light your cigarette?” My Grandma Rose obliges until my mom’s back is turned then pulls a cigarette from the pocket of her pants. She smiles at me as she lights it.
“What’s the worst that can happen, kid? If I go up in flames, they can use me as firelight for the barbeque. If I’m still burning by sunset, grab some graham crackers and some marshmallows—and we’ve got ourselves some s’mores!”
Right before we’d set off, I’d see my mom reach into the box beside her bed. She’d take the thick gold band, and slip it onto her fourth finger. When I asked her about it, she said it wasn’t respectable to go to cookouts without wearing jewellery. Grandma Rose told me that gold rings fit cookouts well. They shone under the glare of the sun, and that was important. I knew my mom was faking being married.
So, in our still-tagged clothes, with hair that could collectively withstand a hurricane, we head off for Old Mrs. Withers’ house, in the Old Buick. I liked that old car: the torn leather on the seats, the way it always seemed to smell of salt water taffy because someone lost a candy down the back of a seat cushion years ago.
I’d been assigned the task of holding whatever food we were taking. I didn’t realise that I was setting myself up for (basically, a life-long job). Grandma Rose told me that she’d hold the side-dish next year, or she’d hold the side dish when she quit smoking. I held that damn side dish in the back of that torn up Buick for every damn barbeque, cookout, and community gathering, until the day we lowered my Grandma Rose into the ground.
That year, Grandma Rose had opted for a seven-layer pasta salad. My mom had covered it in saran wrap and all I could see, staring at me from the top layer, was row after row of tomatoes. I hated tomatoes. I secretly hoped they’d wilt beneath the saran wrap and the whole thing would spoil. Of course, nothing happened to it.
Now and then, my sister rhythmically kicked her feet together, as if make-believe jumping rope, or some of the other games girls played during recess that, even then, as little kids, was totally alien to the boys. Occasionally, she mumbled a rhyme of eye spy to herself. Nobody answered her, so she searched the car’s interior with her eyes, before setting them to rest on some mundane object, and proclaiming herself the winner.
Being the oldest, I got to sit by the window, but I wasn’t allowed to wind it down. My mom had a fear of windows, like I was suddenly gonna try and stick my whole head out of it, the way the neighbour’s dog, did. In the end, I had to settle for my Grandma Rose providing all the air through her half-open passenger window, which she spent half the time blowing cigarette spoke out of.
Our neighbourhood seemed better from the back of the Buick. It was like someone had cracked open a pack of crayons and stamped on them. It all went by in a sudden blur of colour. Flashes of orange grey for people’s rusting chainlink fences, the yellow-green of the slowly drying lawns, the grey-black of strewn roof tiles and the bright red of the fire hydrants. The brown black of biscuit, the neighbourhood stray who escaped from the pound time and time again. The chalk red brick of the public library and the milky-white of the broken sign: LIB ARY. The flaky primary-colour paint of the park: the jungle gym and the swing-set. The bright blue of the policeman’s siren, as someone was pulled over, further down the road.
As a kid, I saw the whole place like some vast finger-painting that someone had smudged. I just liked seeing the colours run into one another. My mom kept her eyes on the road. My Grandma Rose regarding the world outside through half-open eyes and a haze of cigarette smoke. My sister, as always, thought with her belly.
“I’m hungry.” She grumbled.
“There’ll be food a-plenty at the cookout.” My Grandma Rose, said. “There’ll be buffalo wings and corn.”
“Ice cream, too, I guess.” My mom chipped in. “I’ve also been told that Mrs Withers makes the best home-made lemonade you’ve ever tasted.”
“Won’t that rot our teeth?” I asked.
“Don’t you start with me, Evan…” my mom warned.
“Patricia, the boy’s got a point.”
When we pulled up outside Mrs. Withers’ house, it looked how the White House front lawn looks on Easter. People covered the grass, just waiting to get inside the house. Some were holding baskets, others carrying saran-wrapped bowls. My sister needn’t worry—there would be food a-plenty, alright. There were a couple other kids, none who were my friends.
One kid was even dressed as Leonardo from the Ninja Turtles. I wanted to go up to him and ask if he’d swap it for a clean, white shirt with a tag still on, that stuck in your neck like a wasp. But I couldn’t get anywhere near. It was Grandma Rose that saw my longing look. It was Grandma Rose who had got the television fixed, so I could sit too-close to the screen on weekends, feeling my eyeballs square-off, as amphibians beat each other up with all the rhythm of my sister’s imagined jump-rope and I lifted too-sugary cereal to my mouth. It was my Grandma Rose that leaned down, and spoke through cigarette breath: “I bet that kid’s still got the label on his clothes, too.” My caught the end of the too, like a Chinese-whisper passed around the school yard: Bernie Paulson eats his own boogers…Paul’s son eats his own boogers…Ronald McDonald eats his own booger-burgers—my mom just ushered me and my sister right over to Mrs. Withers.
She was an odd-looking woman: thin and bendy, like a red vine. Her back seemed to be curved, but she seemed to stoop that way, so she could look down her nose at folks. Her hair was stuck-up, like half-chewed salt water taffy and her skin was pale, like milk. Her clothes seemed to hang stiffly on her: a dress of too-bright, too-flowery fabric.
“Janet…” My mom said to her, nodding towards me and my sister, “These are my children: Evan and Samantha.”
Mrs. Wither’s body snake-hooked so she could bend down far enough to regard us on our level. “Took you long enough to RSVP…” She mumbled.
“Janet, things are busy, with work and all…”
“I can imagine so.” Mrs. Withers said. “I mean, technically, Halloween isn’t that far away. It’ll be upon us in no time. You’re bound to have a rush on toilet paper, down at the store…”
Her body contorted again. She was eye-level with me and looked me dead in the face. She seemed less concerned with my sister, who was transfixed with the butterfly-pattern of some lady’s dress. “He’s got a weird eye.” Mrs Withers said, her voice matter-of-fact.
She was talking about my heterochromia. My left eye was a light, piercing blue; the right a greenish-hazel. Up until then, no adult had ever pointed it out in such an unforgiving way.
“Only man I ever knew with a weird eye was my Uncle Frank. Lost an eye in the war. Got it replaced with a glassy, blue thing, that he used to pop out on Halloween to frighten the neighbourhood kids. Strange man. Strange eyes.” She straightened up again, her eyes darting about, ready to greet potential guests on the horizon.
My mom put her hand on my head. I could see her face get real red, the way it does sometimes before she yells at me and my sister.
“Mrs. Withers, may I ask you a question?” I suddenly piped up.
“Well of course, child…” She said, with all the warmth of a cartoon villain.
“Are the store tags still hanging on your clothes? Are they just tucked in, at the collar?”
A look of sheer horror spread across Mrs. Withers’ face—a smirk across my mom’s. Mrs. Withers tried desperately to find the words for a response. The first Carmichael child had embarrassed her, and the cookout had barely begun. Of course, this was nothing compared to what my sister would do later on.
Inside her house was like some sort of morbid zoo; a penitentiary for unfortunate beasts (of which she was perhaps the most unfortunate). Animal heads of every description: boars, stags, bears were mounted on the wall. Their eyes were glassy, dull and glazed—but still, they seemed to watch over Mrs. Withers kitchen and den area with all the precision of a hidden hunter, ready to pounce. There were so many people that we shuffled like a queue waiting for a fairground ride. I hear their chatter:
Do you suppose she hangs fairy lights on the antlers at Christmas?
That bear—the bear from the bear-skin rug—I hear it ran into their cabin, when they were staying in Vermont. It well and truly earned its place, by the sofa…
My mom and my Grandma Rose managed to distract my sister from a complete dead-bear-related-meltdown, by not repeating the Buick game of eye-spy. She would spot the grizzly sofa throw and immediately think teddy bear. The crowd paid no mind to my sister. They held their own kids in their arms, while poking at the antlers of the long-dead deer. Kids made pistol shapes with their fingers, shot each other dead, and rose again—before repeating the sequence.
What I learned that day, in the queue for Mrs. Withers’ backyard, was that where there were dead things, not too far away, was the thing that killed them. As I craned my neck, looking beyond the silent heads, I saw guns secured to the walls. They seemed held up by some invisible force, the unseen hand of the unseen hunter, victorious even in his absence. They gleam with more life, than the eyes of the beasts.
Then I realised that this wasn’t a queue, this wasn’t the destination—this was the party. People had congregated in Mrs. Withers’ den to ogle the hand guns in glass cabinets, to feel the weight of them in their hands, and discuss at length, the things they had, or wished to kill.
At that age, my knowledge of guns was limited. Everything was comparative to a water pistol—specifically the water pistols that you got from the 99 cents store, that jammed after about the second dual of the water fight—leaving you drenched and ashamed at high noon out of the drive way, as the neighbour’s car drove by. The one gun was the length of the mother-of-all-water pistols. Some were the size of a regular water pisto—but these were in a glass cabinet, like the glass box Bernie Paulson brought in for show and tell, except his was full of old stones.
Mrs. Withers’ backyard was the backyard of my dreams. The lawn with worthy of any major league baseball stadium and the lawn furniture gleamed a dazzling toothpaste-white. In this town, the sun seemed to shine a particular shade of lemon-yellow, and the air smelled heavily of barbeque food and sugary sweet joy. It made my little kid brain happy to see that the adults too, had been forced to wrestle with combs and barrettes before they were allowed out their front door. Women wore flowered dresses, some to the knee, others to the ankle. Some were in cream coloured slacks and sorbet-coloured tops. They had clipped big, gold earrings to their lobes, or looped bracelets over their wrists—I knew because I found one lady’s big, green earring slowly sinking in the orange pop at the kids’ table. The men were dressed, as the men were dressed. I didn’t see many men, and had little idea how they dressed at cookouts or at any other time. Part of me was reassured to see that they were in white shirts, as well. Some had undone their top buttons, or rolled up their sleeves. Some had gotten barbeque sauce down themselves.
I didn’t realise it then, but what I was witnessing was a sort of a slow death. These people in front of me—the men in their shirts, and the women in their floral fabrics—wilted in the afternoon heat. Over the hours, they would turn from sausage-skin-pink to chargrilled, and depart holding the ice from their drinks on the deep rose of their sunburn. There was an odd formality about them, as they stood around, unwittingly destroying Mrs. Withers’ lawn with the heels of their shoes. They didn’t venture much from the people they knew, and the women acted as if they laughed too hard, they’d get pricked by the thorns on their dresses, or their floral pattern would wilt.
It was only the kid in the Leonardo costume who truly enjoyed that afternoon. He ran from the kids table, to the barbeque and back again. He followed his own imagined racetrack, that looped a figure of eight on the floor. I always remember envying him. He got to do whatever he wanted. Me? I was sat at the kids’ table, paper towel stuffed into my collar, as I turned my fingers brownish-red with barbeque sauce. My sister was fixated on the corn. It was yellow and shining, like her as-yet-unleashed hair.
As I stuffed chargrilled meat into my mouth, I felt someone watching me. I through first of Mrs Withers’ bear. Maybe it has walked out behind us in the queue. Maybe it had growled great lung-fulls of air, baring its teeth to the afternoon sun. Maybe. When I turned, I saw a pair of very real, very brown, very animal eyes staring up at me.
Not a bear, but Mrs. Withers’ dog.
The tag around his neck told me that his name was James.
Even as a kid, I immediately felt uneasy. There’s always something unsettling about people who give dogs human names. I’d learn later that this was often a character trope of the childless, who attempted to fill the void. It was also a trait of the recently bereaved. I forever remembered James the dog. Even though, for all his puppy-dog eyes and low growls, I never shared my barbeque-covered chicken strips with him—he had a profound effect on me. Years later, I’d get my own dog—name it after myself—and put the name and phone number on the dog tag. What a way to pick up girls. All because of some crummy Labor-Day Cookout. Although, I’m kinda lying. I did share my food with James—unintentionally.
You see, the sound of the gun going off made me jump and I dropped my chicken strip. It hit the evergreen lawn—a piece of dead meat. James waited, and baring his teeth lunged at the chicken, like he was hunting it, even though it was already dead. The sauce covered his gums and teeth like blood. Even after he’d eaten it, James continued to repeatedly lick the spot where the chicken had landed.
All around me, the adults moved like a videotape on fast-forward. They became the fabric of their clothes, the skirts of their dresses pressed against their legs as they ran; the crinkling of the men’s sneakers as they moved with a sudden sharpness. Everyone instinctively cowered, covering themselves the way we due at an Earthquake drill in school. There was only one person that never flinched—that was Mrs. Withers.
She simply stood, blood pouring from her right eye.
Now she was the heterochromatic: one eye blue, the other blood red.
She slumped suddenly, like a quickly deflating balloon.
Was it Mr. Withers? Back from the dead and angry that more people hadn’t paid any mind to his trophy bears?
No, it was sugar and spice, and all things nice. My kid sister—holding one of Mrs. Withers’ pistols in her hand like it was a water pistol from the 99 cents store.
A particular kind of horror was etched across my mother’s face. For a moment, I could have sworn there was a joyous disbelief—a similar sort of emotion felt by Dorothy when the Wicked Witch was flattened—but there was something else, also—a sheer, sheer, terror.
My sister had dropped the gun instantly—shock of the noise.
She had brought to an abrupt end, Mrs. Withers’ annual cookout. It was rumoured that that day—my sister became a hero. Upon the unlikely event of Mrs Withers’ death— then the hosting of the cookout, it transpired would fall to Soccer Mom Extraordinaire—Stacey Wallace. I heard years later, that Stacey’s house was thoroughly respectable—that her dead animals lay shrivelled in their hamster cages from malnourishment, or unfortunate cat-related accidents— rather than hanging proudly on her wall. The neighbourhood welcomed this. It had been time to tone things down. Mrs. Withers’ had been too extreme. She’d made her own lemonade for goodness stake. Who had time for that? Especially when the cans were twelve for two dollars, seventy nine.
From that day, I got my own bullet. Did I walk over to Mrs. Withers, with all the innocence of a child, as the adults stood in shock, the flowers on their dresses blossoming into lilies—and place my finger firmly into her bloody eye socket? Did I reached in, amid the red and the squilch, grabbing the bullet like a candy-grabber-claw at the video-game arcade? When I lifted the red-stained shrapnel into the sun, did the adults look away, because they’d only ever rented this level of corn-syrup soaked violence from the video-store? Did I take the only remaining scrap of Mrs. Withers’ brain with it? Is it true what they said—that if you stood real close to Mrs. Withers, and leaned over, there really was nothing but empty space and air? Mrs. Withers’ cookout became another finger-painting smudge. It became the way our neighbourhood looked from the back of the Buick, only this time, it was the dirty-brown of blood and rust. The electric red and blue of the police siren, gave a flash of primary colour—and the chicken strips sat on their plates, still dripping barbeque sauce.
Liz Wride is a writer from Wales. Her short and flash fiction has appeared in Milk Candy Review, Mental Papercuts, Okay Donkey Magazine, VampCat Magazine and others. In 2015, her short story "Potato" was shortlisted for ELLE UK’s Talent Awards. She is editor-in-chief of @FlamingoLit, an online literary magazine inspired by flamingo-print shirts and Alice in Wonderland.