“Well, we are here…barely!”
Valerie and her troop always arrived late. She made it sound like they had traversed raging rivers and rocky paths in order to get anywhere, though the sun was shining and cool breezes softened the oppressive glare of late Iowa summer. Even with “traffic”, such that there was, it should have been an easy drive from Grimes to Afterlick. Maybe twenty minutes?
Who lives in a place called Grimes and feels good about it? Or Afterlick.
As Kaden trudged behind, in a mask with camouflage print while studiously involved with his iPad, Tom struggled with Krystal who apparently forgot how to walk, despite the fact that she was eight. Valerie marched ahead of the pack like a commander and charged up the steps of the back deck to offer half-hearted apologies and a litany of excuses for their tardiness.
“I told them that we needed to leave home by noon, but someone had to get in a game of golf,” she chattered, to no one in particular, giving a dismissive nod to her husband who was still holding his squealing mass of a daughter in his arms, cajoling her to walk on her own two feet while kissing her on the cheek and nuzzling her solicitously.
“I’ve been trying to get them to go to online church, but, well…that hasn’t happened. It’s video-recorded. We can watch it later.”
Kaden wandered over to the side of the house to sit down by the garden hose, still masked and absorbed exclusively in his iPad as the other kids in attendance chased each other around the yard.
“I know you said ‘salad’, Jodi, so I got some of that kale salad with the feta cheese from the deli at Hy-Vee,” she continued, in a stream of yammer, while unloading her burden onto the food table and anyone else within earshot. She said “FEEEEE-tuh”, as if to accentuate its exotic properties.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry, hon,” Jodi, the hostess, assured the newcomer. “We are just getting going here. Steve has some burgers and brats on the grill. Oh, wait. Are you still a vegetarian? I mean, I can — “
Valerie waved her off.
“Yes, I’m still vegetarian, but I eat chicken and fish,” she said, producing some vacuum-packed seasoned chicken from her seemingly-endless grocery bag.
Still pulling out the goods, as if the bounty made amends for her lateness, Valerie persevered. “I brought chips and salsa. Everyone loves that, right?”
“I hope that wine is still vegetarian! God, I need a drink,” she admitted as she revealed two bottles of Riesling from a second bag.
“This one is for me…and what are y’all going to have?”
All the women laughed and tipped already-full glasses toward her in approval before taking another gulp.
“Tommmmmmmm! Your beer is still in the coolooooooller in the cahrrrrrrrrrr! And there are buns in that other saaaaaaackkkk!”
Other people say “bag.” Iowans say “sack.”
“I already got one, Babe. Thanks,” said Tom, lifting up a brown bottle and engrossing himself once again in his scintillating conversation with Steve, Bill, and Doug at the grill.
Krystal, no longer the object of her father’s attention, laid supine, helplessly, in the grass. Rhythmically, she pulled her knees up to her chest, and then she laid flat.
“So, how are you all doing?” Valerie asked, somewhat sincerely before launching into another monologue as she poured liberally into a red plastic cup.
“FINALLY, I was able to get in for an appointment yesterday!” she said, holding out her tanned foot, resplendent in spangled flip flops, maroon nail polish, and delicate white chrysanthemums on her toenails. “The lady I go to — she’s Vietnamese — has been closed for months because of COVID. She sent me an email telling me, yes, she’s open now, so I went in yesterday.”
“I forgot my ‘mask’,” Valerie offered, with air quotes, “so she gave me one. It was really cute. It has the logo for her salon on it. I should have brought mine with me before I had went in.”
Emma, with the reddish curly hair, the Iowa State Cyclones mask, and the walking sneakers, pulled down her mask for a minute to take a sip of her iced tea and shook her head.
“I’m not ready yet. I mean, I’d love a nice mani and pedi, but I still think it’s too soon. I know my hair is a wreck. I look like Ronald McDonald on a bad day!”
Allie lifted up a bottle of Chardonnay and then stopped herself.
“Oops. I was going to top you off, but I know you aren’t drinking these days. My bad!”
The women laughed again in unison as Emma curled her sneakered feet under the chair and adjusted her mask.
Lila pulled off her straw hat and proudly exclaimed, “I didn’t want to act insensitive…but…I am a whole woman again!”
Her hair was dark brown and shiny, with glints of auburn highlights. She shook it out with gusto, as if an imaginary fanfare heralded her debut.
“We started back to work last week, in person. I couldn’t show up with COVID hair. I was so embarrassed when we had to meet on Zoom. I’m just glad to get back to normal.”
“Where’d you get that at, Lila?” Jodi asked, coveting her hair.
Where’d you get that at.
“I got it at Mona’s. She’s open again. Actually, she was open all along, but she didn’t say so. Not to everybody. And she doesn’t tell people to wear masks.”
“I don’t how many of you are my friends on Facebook, but did you see that thing I posted yesterday?” Valerie asked enthusiastically as she turned her attention away from Lila. “It had a picture of a wine bottle and said ‘There’s a new vaccine for COVID!’”
Allie giggled and said, “Both of my kids are in the blue group, so I can start happy hour by noon on those days — AND take a nap. I don’t know what I would do if I had a kid in blue and a kid in yellow. That would totally suck. I tried getting the kids into day camp this summer, but even that was online. Gah! I’ve been sober during the day for the last six months! I feel like Emma!”
“Kaden wears a mask, even if we don’t tell him to,” Valerie volunteered. “He is better than Tom and me. He’s afraid of getting sick. I told him that there’s nothing to worry about, but he still wears one. He says he doesn’t want to get Grandma sick. It’s kind of sweet. We haven’t seen her, except out in the yard, for a few months. Next thing you know, he’ll refuse to leave his room! Karate is still online.”
Almost as an afterthought, Valerie said, with some seriousness, “He hates to go to school.”
Emma pulled down her mask and called to her kids in the yard.
“Cooper! Miranda! Come get something to eat!”
Because of Emma, the children could finally get fed.
Cooper and Miranda were masked. Flinn, London, Hunter, Dornan, and Gertrude were not. They held their plates out for Steve and Bill at the grill and awaited their meaty, greasy, and charred portions.
“Wait!” Allie cried, as she almost dove across the deck to the grill. “Dornan doesn’t eat meat!”
Dornan stood, wide-eyed with his plate in hand, not knowing that he didn’t eat meat. He looked forlorn as his mother filled his plate with kale and feta salad, three strawberries, and a pile of store-bought hummus.
“Wait!” Lila shouted, almost to the whole town of Afterlick, as she intercepted London’s recyclable paper plate. “London is gluten-free…or, um, gluten-intolerant. No bun. Just a burger. Is it one of the veggie ones I brought?”
London watched resignedly as her mother dressed her burger with only a squirt of both ketchup and mustard. She was allowed beans and pasta salad, along with a promise of more, if she vowed to watch her weight and agreed to try harder in gymnastics. London took away her plate glumly and stared at it in disdain.
“Is the chicken done?” Valerie inquired with interest as she approached the grill. “We’re vegetarian. No offense. We’re just trying to be healthy,” she said with a smile.
Steve unloaded the shriveled chicken onto a paper plate and handed it to Valerie.
“Go nuts,” he said with a smirk — straight man’s shade. “I’ll let you parcel it out to who gets what. Tom, looks like your chicken is ready.”
Tom took another swig of his beer, finished it, and set out to the car to get his cooler.
“Krystal! Krystal! Honey! Come get something to eat!” Valerie called from the deck.
Krystal hadn’t moved from her resting place in the grass. She was flat…and then she brought her knees to her chest. Like calisthenics.
“Baby, come on! Do you have to poop?”
Krystal stopped, with her knees up to her chest.
“She has lazy bowels,” Valerie explained to any audience at attention and about to take a bite.
“I sat with her this morning on the pot for nearly an hour, trying to get her to go. Elvis had it, too, y’know. He didn’t die of drugs. He died from a bowel obstruction. His colon was twice as long as anyone else’s,” she said, as she busied herself with fixing a full plate for Kaden and roughage for Krystal.
“I know that the school has a lot going on, and I don’t want to create extra work, but I asked the principal if they could give Krystal a little extra time to sit. Y’know…to let it just happen…right? We can go off-screen when she is at home…but at school. Right? Krystal won’t say anything. I wrote to her teacher who, by the way, isn’t very flexible. We all need a little flexibility right now.”
The other mothers nodded while pretending that everything was fine and that this was a Labor Day grill-out, not unlike any other.
Kaden, not yet 12, chose not to eat and watched anime porn on his iPad while his mother assumed he was introverted and liked to play games.
Steve tended the grill. Bill, Doug, and Tom, newly in possession of cold beer, parried about golf, the (lack of a) Big Ten football season, and the annoyance of wearing masks.