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Chapter 1: The Family Reunion
On the last day of our family reunion, we roast a pig in the backyard, which really is the beach and then it turns into the lake. I ask Dad if a tide will come in and drown the pig, and my cousin Barry, who is seventeen and has started to shave, says, "Presley. It's already dead." Then he scoops up a handful of sand and sprinkles it over my head. Even though I know I'm going to have to unbraid my hair, shake the sand loose, maybe even wash it again, I don't say a word, because Barry is bigger and stronger and also the cutest of all the cousins. His dad, my uncle Tim, who is digging a grave for the coals, turns to catch Barry salting me like an ear of corn, and when he shouts out Barry's name -- first, middle, and last -- Barry dashes into Lake Michigan and swims fast beyond the bobbing red buoys, far away from a spanking he has long outgrown.
At nine o'clock in the morning, it's already 84 degrees. Dad says it will take all day to roast the pig, even with the coals simmering underneath its belly and the sun dissolving in the sky above. I pull on my sandy braid with one hand and, with the other, tug at my purple one-piece that's grown tight since we bought it in June, when summer began and eighth grade finally came to an end. Mom says it's too close to the end of the season to buy a new one, and now I've got this suit that creeps into places it has no business going. I catch Dad raising his eyebrows as I try to sneak my suit back into place, so I grab my jean shorts from the patio chair and hoist them over my hips to hide what happened these past few months, this expansion I cannot seem to control.
"Better shake that sand out of your hair before your grandma sees it on her clean floor," Dad says.
"I'm not going inside. I'm going out front to roller-skate for a while."
"Well, don't go too far." He calls Uncle Tim to help him lift the pig up over the fire. The pig is stretched out and bound to a stick and looks like it fell asleep during a magic trick. Last year I had to do a group project on farm animals, and Misty Thompson, who wore only designer jeans paired with various cotton-candy-pink angora sweaters, quickly took charge of the assignments. I got stuck with the pig, and other than it being a main dish, the only thing I could remember was how farmers would sometimes train them to find little tumors of fungus buried in the ground below. That and their tendency to pee in their own trough. I cannot imagine eating any pig. I don't want to see my meat in its natural state, in the shape and form it took as a living thing. I prefer a flat, boneless chicken breast cloaked under cream-of-something sauce.
I'm slowly backing up toward the porch where I left my skates when Betsi, my mom's sister, pops her head over my shoulder and whispers, "Not a chance in hell I'm eating any of that," and then she makes loud snorting sounds. I giggle and plop down on the patch of lawn to pull on my royal-blue skates blackened with skid marks. Betsi crouches down to help me with the laces.
Betsi was only a teenager when I was born, and because she still understands why I roll my eyes when Mom tells me to wear a hat and scarf in the winter, I've never called her Aunt anything, just Betsi. She ties my laces extra tight, and when I stand up on my skates, ready for motion, I spot my brother, Peter, through the back windows of our cottage. He's sitting in the big beige recliner, the upholstery worn soft like the fur of an old dog. Barry would kick Peter out, but he's still seeking refuge in the water, so Peter basks on his temporary throne. He's nursing a bowl of soggy cornflakes, milk dripping from his spoon onto the book about earthquakes balanced on his knees. Peter's only nine, but he never had to learn how to read, he just knew. On road trips to Florida to see the grandparents, Dad would ask me to read billboard signs aloud, but by the time Peter was three, he was beating me to it. Though he might have been destined for recesses filled with wedgies and swirlies, he is without enemies. The other kids may avoid him, but they are polite enough, the way I am toward my best friend's mother or my teacher. He wears his glasses thick and large, his clothes neat and self-pressed, and carries his only constant companion: a book, any book. And he never complains.
"Goddamn, it's hot!" Betsi announces this to no one in particular. She runs her fingers through her hair, what's left of it, and I wonder if she's forgotten that she chopped it away. Now it's just a dark red eraser on top of a pencil. When she first showed up at the cottage a few days ago, pulling into the driveway in her dusty black Jeep with the top off, I wanted to cry. Her hair had been past her shoulders, thick curling cables, the same color as the wine she used to drink. Betsi didn't seem to notice the look on my face as she bounced over to give me a hug and hand me her bags. I grabbed one of the duffels but couldn't take my eyes off of her. She laughed when she realized why I was frozen, and told me most women kept their hair long simply because boys made them think they'd be ugly without it. She tried to convince me to join her, but I said no way. Then she said I was oppressed, and I said no, actually I was pretty happy, it was just that I liked having braids. Then she sighed so loud her nostrils flared, so I've kept my hair in braids for nearly the entire week just to prove I meant it.
"How many ribs do you want me to save for you, Bets?" Uncle Tim hollers.
"Zero," she yells back. "I think I'm going vegetarian. You've scarred me for life." She nods toward the pig they are holding prisoner.
Uncle Tim laughs. "Coming from the girl who can put down twenty White Castle sliders on her own, I find your statement hard to believe."
"The difference is, no one cooked the cow on a pole in front of me."
"We'd better get this up on the coals," my father interjects.
"Right," Uncle Tim says. "Betsi, if you change your mind, you just let me know."
Barry's still in the lake, practicing flips off the floating diving block in the distance. All of the grandparents -- Grandma and Grandpa Dunn, and Dad's mom, Biddie -- hover indoors, where the temperature is more forgiving, taking their places around a card table for their usual post-breakfast game of bridge. Mom and my dad's sister, Helen, and her three kids, Kristen, John, and Mark, went into town for groceries to make side dishes for our pigfest, cheesy baked carrots and Caesar salad. Aunt Helen's husband, Richard, her second, stayed only two days because he's a lawyer and he says the courts of justice do not take vacations.
"What a pig." For a second I think Betsi is talking about dinner, which Uncle Tim and Dad have successfully hoisted over the pit and are studying like a painting in a museum. Then behind them I catch the sun bouncing off of something light, a reflection from a mirror, maybe, but it is Barry, shorts pulled down, back turned, aiming his naked ass right at us, a gleaming polished tooth. His body shakes with soundless laughter.
In one flash of motion, Betsi yanks her Michigan State tank top over her head, steps out of her black nylon shorts, and sprints into the lake, her red string bikini wrapped like licorice ropes around her skin. Betsi's slender but swims strong, approaching the diving block in no time, her baby-oiled body melting a path behind her. Barry's swim trunks are now pulled up again and he stands on the far end of the wooden block, smug and sure, arms folded. His skin is the color of cinnamon toast, and long wet locks of black hair fall into his eyes, green as washed sea glass. Just as she reaches the ladder, he dives away on the opposite side, and the water quickly erases all evidence of his entry. Betsi hoists herself up onto the dock, her hair in wet spikes, her chest rising and falling and practically spilling out of her suit. Her cheeks are puffed as if she's holding her breath, but really, they're full of the water she's trying to save until Barry surfaces.
But I don't see him. Not near the diving dock or the buoys or the shore. And when Betsi swallows her ammunition, I know she doesn't see him either. I am about to say something to Dad and Uncle Tim, who are poking the pig with a stick, when I hear a great gasp of water and turn to see Barry shooting up like a geyser behind Betsi. The splash blinds her as he grabs her ankles and pulls her in with him. At first she fights him, spitting water in his face with her yelps and screams, beating on his chest while trying to stay afloat. But then he pulls her to the farthest side of the block, and the splashing and shouting stop. I can't see what they're doing anymore -- it's just the water quietly licking the shore -- so I skate around to the front and practice Crazy 8's in the driveway while I wait for Mom to come home.
* * * * *
The pig is gone. Its flesh is in the bellies of everyone but me and Betsi, and the parents have taken their swine-filled stomachs to the back porch, protected by screens and surrounded by the zap of the bug light that glows purple and white from where it hangs in the tree. They smoke cigars and sip after-dinner drinks, hot coffee that smells good, like mint, but Mom won't let me have a sip.
After announcing that we ate too late, the grandparents have all gone to bed with a few afghans and comforters added to their sheets, though it's still hovering just below 80 degrees outside. The humidity hangs in the air like a secret. It's hard to make out what is really going on in the thickness of the night. Barry and Betsi have gone for a walk on the beach. They've been gone for at least an hour, and with Peter's nose buried in another book, I join Kristen, John, and Mark on the floor in the living room. We sprawl out on the shag caramel carpet, studying a game of Pick-Up Sticks. I can still hear the parents' voices on the back porch, puzzle pieces floating in through the window.
"I think she looks good," I hear Mom say.
"Kath. It's only been eight weeks." It's my father's voice.
"Well, I just don't want you to get too hopeful. This isn't going to be easy for her," Dad says to Mom, then, "You want me to top that off for you?"
Uncle Tim says, "I'll take some more. I agree with Kath. She looks good, she seems like she's in a good place. She's stronger than you think."
"Your turn, Pres."
"What?" I say, snapping back to the living room.
"Your turn. Come on, hurry up." Kristen wants to win.
Pick-Up Sticks is not my best game. My hands shake even when I'm not trying to move something small and insignificant, and the other kids know this, that I am a weak opponent. I go for what I think is an easy one, the blue stick on the far right, but its neighbors tremble slightly.
John is the first to announce, "You're done. It moved."
"No, it didn't!" I argue, but they have already gone on to the next person. "This is a baby game, I'm not playing anymore," I say as Barry slips inside and Betsi darts upstairs, calling out, "Going to the bathroom!"
"Can I join?" Barry plops down next to me.
"We're in the middle of a game," Kristen tells him. Her thirst for victory is tempered by her concern for the rules and making sure we all know and abide by them.
"Well, me and Pres are partners now, aren't we?" Barry says. He makes me nervous, and I know that it's wrong to feel like that. Not nervous the way Chris Carroll makes me, beautiful Chris Carroll who sat behind me in math and English last year, drawing on the back of my neck with a pencil whenever I wore my hair in a ponytail. It's different than that, like small butterflies tumbling the words in my throat before they can make their way out of my mouth, and by that time, nothing I say makes any sense.
When Barry's around, it's still hard not to think about his mom, even though her funeral was over three years ago. Her name was Marie, and she had the same glass-green eyes as Barry, the same sloping nose. Her hands were thin and delicate but strong, and she used to teach piano and play at every family gathering. Everyone agreed that her pumpkin pie was the best, with just a hint of cinnamon and honey. Mom has been trying to re-create it ever since Aunt Marie died, but it's not the same, though no one will admit it. We add extra Cool Whip and nod and make "mmm" sounds. The pretending has become sort of a family tradition.
At her funeral, Barry wore a tie and sunglasses. He never took them off, not in the church or at Aunt Helen's house afterward. He sat by himself on a bench in Aunt Helen's backyard, and every time someone moved closer to him, Barry would stand up and wander even farther away.
"Let me try," Betsi had told my parents. I had watched as she approached Barry, and I waited for him to shift locations again, but he stayed still, even when she sat down next to him. She held her cigarette pack in her hands and a book of matches, and leaned in closer to Barry to whisper words I couldn't hear. Whatever she said made him smile, then laugh, even if it was just for a minute. Then Betsi struck one of the matches, blew it out, and lit another one. She kept doing this until there were no matches left, and then she pulled out another book from her pocket and handed it to Barry.
"Do-over." It was the only word I could make out as she squeezed the matchbook into his palm, holding on to his hand as she led him back toward the house.
"Thank you," Uncle Tim had mouthed to her from across the room.
She was the only person I saw Barry speak to the entire day.
Everyone had arrived after the service at Aunt Helen's bearing food, cold fried chicken and deli trays and spaghetti casserole. There was also a yellow sheet cake on the table, frosted in sugary white with purple and green flowers, but without a declaration. No "Happy" this or "Congratulations" that, and there were no presents stacked and waiting to be unwrapped. Family and friends milled about the house, with some spilling out onto the back porch to smoke and talk about the cancer and how quickly it had come, and that poor boy and his father, and wasn't it just a beautiful service, and had they tried the cake yet because it was quite good, and who wanted coffee.
"I'm going to get some coffee," Barry announces after he's lead us to victory in the Pick-Up Sticks game.
Kristen's eyes get wide, and she says, "You can't have coffee. That's a grown-up drink." Again with the rules.
Barry laughs. "What do you think I am, a kid? I'm going to be a senior, you know." Kristen looks like she's going to run and tell, because I guess that's what you do when you're ten and all concerned about the rules, but Barry just smiles and pushes himself off the carpet and heads toward the kitchen. Kristen bites her lip and begins to put the game away while John and Mark fight over the television remote, so I'm the only one left. We haven't seen Betsi since she went upstairs. I know she's not on the porch with the parents, because they're telling stories and laughing loudly and I don't hear Betsi's laugh.
I walk past the kitchen on my way to find her. Barry is standing in front of the refrigerator. The glow of the interior fridge light and a little bit of the moon from outside cut across his face, showing me who it is. I wonder if he's looking for milk for his coffee. He still has his swim trunks on and his red hooded football sweatshirt with CAVALIERS and the number 26 on the back. I think about how I will go to the games in the fall with my friends Hannah and Jill and Karen. The older girls sitting in the bleachers with us will squeal about how cute Barry is and try to guess who he will ask to homecoming and even prom. As soon as he makes a touchdown, I'll point him out on the field and tell my friends just loud enough for everyone around us to hear, "Yeah, that's my cousin," as if it's no big deal. And even though I'll be a freshman and he'll be a senior, Barry will invite me and my friends to Telly's for burgers after the game. We'll order salted fries and peanut-fudge sundaes and coffee, of course, and I'll take mine with milk the way Barry does, and one of his friends will say something like "Man, you two really are related." Everyone will laugh, and I won't have a curfew because I'm out with family, and when we finally leave at midnight after the restaurant closes, Barry and his friends will give us all a ride home in Uncle Tim's maroon truck that can seat six but we will pile in eight. He'll drop me off last among the girls, get out of the driver's seat to let me out, and hug me goodbye even though his friends are all watching from the truck. The windows will be down, and as I'm walking up to my front door, I'll hear them say, "Your cousin Presley sure is cool."
Barry looks up from the refrigerator and sees me standing in the doorway and says, "You lost?"
"I, uh . . . I'm looking for Betsi."
"Well," he says, looking into the fridge and then back at me, "she's not in here!" He's laughing again.
"Oh, I didn't mean in here. I meant, you know, somewhere in the house." Shut up, shut up, shut up.
"Yeah, I know what you meant." He finds the milk and places the carton on the counter next to his old Boy Scouts mug. "I think she went upstairs."
I nod and scurry out, heading toward Betsi's room. Barry is bunking up with Peter, John is sleeping in the same room as Mark, and I'm stuck with Kristen, but Betsi got her own room, and we were told not to ask why or complain. The door is slightly open and she's got a candle burning next to her bed, a peach votive sitting in a beach shell. The window is half open, with just enough space to crawl through to the overhang, and Betsi is sitting outside on the roof smoking a cigarette in her nylon shorts and a long-sleeved gray T-shirt. She makes a "shhh" motion over her lips and waves for me to sit down next to her. We're right above the parents, but the noise has simmered back down, and it's more difficult to make out their voices.
"I think they've been talking about me," Betsi whispers, and sort of giggles. "But I can't tell for sure. They might be talking about what time everyone is leaving in the morning." Most of us live on the east side of the state, a good five hours from the cottage, and I know we'll leave last because Dad likes to "close up the house," which means I won't be home in time to call Hannah. Betsi hands me her cigarette, but I shake my head.
"Good girl," she says, and takes another drag.
Just before I was born, Betsi convinced Mom to let her name me. Betsi said she had rights because she was Mom's only sister, never mind Dad's siblings. Later, Betsi told me she had pretty much decided on naming me Betsi too, but then Elvis died, and that was when, as Mom puts it, all hell broke loose. Betsi just loved Elvis, I mean really loved him, more than I love raspberry slushes and vanilla-peanut-butter Häagen-Dazs, more than I love Chris Carroll, even more than Mom loves Dad. She says she believed he was on the verge of a big comeback, and she'd saved money from her summer job at the Dairy Queen to buy tickets for a concert, but then he died on the toilet on August 16, 1977, exactly one month before I was born. Mom says Betsi wept for days, and the days turned into weeks, and even when a month had passed and Mom was starting her labor, Betsi was still red-eyed and teary and sad. Mom felt so bad she made good on her promise, so Betsi decided I should keep his memory alive, and that's why she named me Presley.
After Betsi's breakdown, Dad worried she might carry on Elvis's spirit in his other children, a son named The King, or worse yet, a daughter named Priscilla. "It's bad enough I've already got one tainted by her obsessions," he said, and even though I was only two, I knew he was talking about me, and my name, and what it all meant. So Dad put himself in charge, and when my brother was born, he chose the name Peter, which has absolutely nothing to do with Elvis, Priscilla, or Lisa Marie.
"Why are you sneaking a smoke up here?" I ask Betsi as she stubs her cigarette out on the bottom of her tennis shoe.
She shrugs. "Eh, you know how they are," she says. "I don't want anyone to see and start worrying or something. I'm fine."
* * * * *
Here's the thing. I've been told this is "family business," which is just another way of saying a "secret," but Betsi was "sick." That's what Mom and Dad said. Betsi was "sick" and had to go away to this "special hospital where they make you better," and this weekend is the first time any of us have seen her since she went there. With all the cryptic speak, at first I didn't understand exactly what was wrong with Betsi and I panicked, asking Mom if she was sick like Aunt Marie. Mom said, "No, no, no," and sighed. She said sometimes people get sad or mad and do things that are bad for their body, like eat too much or drink too much. Mom said this was more like the drink-too-much kind, and Betsi had to go to this place where she learned how to control that. Why Mom didn't just come out and say Betsi had a drinking problem, I don't know. I guess my family has a tendency to choose the words they think sound the best versus just telling it like it is.
I didn't remember Betsi being sad or mad, I just remember she always had a glass of red wine in her hand and seemed to fall asleep at family gatherings if she came alone, or she'd show up really late, talking very fast, with lots of different guys. Bo was a car salesman who had two kids and an ex-wife he called The Fish. Then there was Roger, who had tattoos of skulls and snakes and drove up to our house with Betsi on the back of his motorcycle, neither of them wearing helmets. The last one was Eddie, who had big hard arms and talked mostly about the Detroit Lions and drank his beer from cans, popping off the tabs in some sort of special way, and then handing them to Betsi and saying, "That's for later," and wink. No one liked Eddie very much. I could tell that from the way Mom talked through her teeth to him and Dad always found some sort of garage project to escape to when they'd stop by. Eddie wasn't very cute and he seemed way too old, and I couldn't figure out why Betsi hung out with him because I was certain she was very pretty. This was back when her hair was still long, and whenever she'd take me to the mall, guys would always end up following us around or make up stupid reasons to come talk to her, like asking her where did she get that shirt or did she have the time.
Anyway, Eddie was the last one, at the beginning of summer, and I'm still not sure what happened with him, but it must have been serious, because Betsi showed up at our house really late one weeknight. Dad didn't have summers off like we do, and he had to go to work early. I think it was a Tuesday, and when I heard all the noise downstairs, first our doorbell ringing again and again and again, then the heavy footsteps on our stairs, then the voices, I tried to come down too, but Mom snapped at me to go back to bed and I knew she meant it. Before I turned around, I saw Betsi with Mom on the couch while Dad paced in front of the two of them. Betsi was crying and holding her arm, and even though I was only there for a few seconds, I could see some sort of bluish marks because she was wearing a tank top and Mom had flipped the light on in the living room. Betsi was sort of talking, but her words were all slurred like when you're crying really hard and nothing comes out right. Before I closed my bedroom door, I heard Dad say, "That's it, Betsi. You're going to get some help. You're just as bad as he is, and being around that asshole has made it worse. You've got to stop." Hearing my dad say "asshole" made my stomach hurt, because he doesn't swear unless something is very, very wrong.
The next morning Betsi was nowhere to be found and it was as though it had never happened, except Mom made a lot of muffled phone calls. Before Peter and I were allowed to go to the park pool, she sat us down and explained about the "family business" and that we probably wouldn't see Betsi until the reunion at the cottage but that everything was absolutely fine. Then she gave us five extra dollars to spend at the pool concession stand and sent us on our way.
* * * * *
Betsi taps out another cigarette and shoves the pack down the front of her shirt into the strap of her bikini. She pulls a lighter out of her pocket and gets a flame on the first try. The exhale floats over her head as she lies down on her back, stretching her arms above her head and her legs out, pointing her flip-flopped toes. I lie down next to her, staring up at the sky that seems different from the one at home, because out here there are so many stars I never get to see. Just then one streaks across the sky, and I say, "Did you see -- " and Betsi says, "Yeah. Wow," and I love that we both saw it at the same time, just the two of us.
Betsi says, "I'm going to go home with you guys for a little while. Did your mom tell you that?" Mom did tell us that, me and Peter, just a few days ago, but she also told us to not make a big deal out of anything to Betsi and to "give her a break." I'm not sure what qualifies as a big deal, so I just say, "Hmm," and dig into my pocket for my cherry lip balm. Betsi reaches out her hand and I pass the tube to her when I'm done. She rubs it slowly on her lips, still looking up at the sky, and says, "You know what I missed most when I was at the clinic? My music. That's the first thing I did when I left. Got in my Jeep and popped in one of my Elvis tapes and just sat there and turned it up real loud and listened before I even left the parking lot." She takes another drag, the smoke dancing slowly from her lips. "One of these days, we're going to Graceland, Presley. You and I." She places the lip balm in my palm, and I pull off the cap like I'm going to put more on too, but I just smell the top, cherry and wax and her nicotine, and wonder if people named after the King are allowed into Graceland for free.
Copyright ©2006 by Sarah Grace McCandless
Posted November 27, 2010
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