“Lua” says my father when Lua is on the picnic table. He picked her up and put her there and she’s barefoot on the wooden slats and he’s holding her hand in the air over her head. I’m not allowed to stand on the picnic table without shoes because I’ll get splinters. She’s browner than I get even in August even though it’s just July. It’s July 4th. She has a white dress on and it has orange drops down the front even though I heard Mela tell her to keep it clean this morning. “Lua” says my father.
“Lua” says my father. “Lua, I crown thee the Orange Queen!” Lua is smiling at her feet. “Wave to your people, Lua!” She waves all around but eventually only at me. My father hoots and picks her up and swings her in a circle in the air and her skirt puffs out like the girl in the music box in the red room, and then when he puts her gently back on the grass she runs to me and sits with me on my blanket. “Did you get splinters?” I ask.
Luckily she didn’t because otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to play in the fourth of July games. They happen when it’s starting to get dark but not really, like that time when the colors get colder because the air is? The colors in the sky. We played after hamburgers and I’d already gotten mine and my popsicle but then Javi knew I wanted another one and he brought me another one, hiding it behind his back when he walked over, and it was strawberry.
I said “Mom want to come play with us?” but I didn’t think she’d want to because lately she hasn’t really been in the playing mood. She said “No sweetie, but thanks for inviting me.” I said you’re welcome and then Lua and I went to where my brothers were waiting for us because we had a few hours before fireworks and when it’s really dark and I’m not allowed in the grove anymore without adult supervision because there are no lights and I could get lost and then I would be stuck outside all night and cold.
It was me and Stephen and John and Henry and a few of my friends from school who had come all the way for the party and then a few of the pickers’ kids which was nice be- cause then for once Lua wasn’t the only girl, which I didn’t think mattered but then my mom said the other day that sometimes that’s hard. John wanted to play Red Rover but I didn’t want to because people always just come running at me and no one else no matter what side I’m on because I’m the youngest. We played tag instead.
Those aren’t the real fourth of July games though I guess. Those are during the day when it’s hotter out. The yellow part of the day. Those are the sack race and the water balloon toss and the egg race and anyone can play who wants to. Normally it’s all the kids, all of us and Lua and the pickers’ kids who aren’t shy, and they happen by the pool. I was on the team that won the egg race this year.
For those games I was in my bathing suit because I was swimming in the pool before. All the kids were in their bath- ing suits for most of the day. Lua didn’t put her white dress on until dinnertime even though she got it in the morning in the kitchen I think when I was there, because that’s when Mela said she had to be very careful with it, that it was a present from Mrs. Laine and very special. Lua said yes then but later she got drops on it from an orange. I’m worried that Mela is going to yell at Lua later. I hear her do that some- times and I don’t know what she’s saying but I know that it’s not good. I want to tell her first not to because it’s not her fault, she was peeling it for me and she’s normally so good at peeling that she doesn’t spray anywhere even when it’s a good one. I’m worse but usually I do it anyway and I should have done it this time but Lua did it for me. In the summer there is always yellow from the peel under my fingernails and it smells like middle of the day yellow. The only times it’s not there is right after I get a bath and Mela or my mom cleans them out, sometimes so hard it hurts, but then later when I get in bed my nails are empty underneath and I put them between my teeth and bite I like how they feel. I don’t think Lua does it because she says that Mela just cuts her nails short when they’re too long and doesn’t clean them but just cuts them. I don’t know why that’s not what we do with my nails but it’s not.
I don’t know if my Mom does that ever because I can’t see if the tips of her fingernails are yellow since they’re always bright red and perfect like lollipops. And she doesn’t smell like oranges either, but only if you get really close, which I do less now because I’m older and don’t sit in her lap as much. But when I used to sit in her lap I remember when my nose would be close to her neck and it smelled different because of her perfume.
My mom was supervising us in the pool before the games. She was in a bathing suit too but she didn’t go swimming, which she does sometimes. Sometimes when she does that I go over to where she’s standing and shake my body like I’m a dog and she gets sprayed but I have to be careful and use my judgment about when to do it because sometimes she goes “AH oh FUCK—oh, Michael!” and wraps herself into a towel caterpillar and turns over. But normally she goes “OH! Is there a dog somewhere?” and I go WOOF and go over and she scratches the top of my head.
The pool is shaped like a kidney bean and really blue, bluer than the pond water or the water in the ocean. My mom was on a pool chair where the bean curves in. She had lemonade with her in a big pitcher but when I tried to pour some in my cup she said not to but Mela could get me some. Mela’s lemonade is really good and she puts mint in it, which the kids at school thought was weird but then I made them drown the leaves and wait til they had finished the whole cup and then dig out the wet leaves. They’re sweet and when you bite the leaves more lemonade squeezes out of them into your mouth and the sugar rocks crunch in your teeth.
One funny thing happened when I was in the water. I was treading water and Lua was counting how many seconds I could go for with my hands in the air but I could see my mom behind Lua and my Dad was sneaking up behind her holding a water balloon over her head. He was stepping like the pink panther and he winked at me and put his fingers over his lips but I was already laughing and my mom looked up and their my Dad was, a big pink balloon covering his face like a giant bubble gum bubble but instead of popping it my Mom screamed and scrambled out of the chair and my Dad started chasing her. “NEIL!” she said, “NEIL! DON’T YOU DARE! I—NEIL! OH, FUCK, AH—NEIL!” when he dropped the balloon and it burst on the grass and sprayed up at his legs in an explosion, but didn’t hit my mom, because she was still running. He was faster though eventually and he picked her up and carried her towards the pool. We were all cheering for him to throw her in and he rocked her towards the pool three times like he was going to but in the end he just put her gently back on the grass. She punched him in the stomach two times but then she started laughing too and he kissed her on the head.
The morning was a normal morning I guess. I wake up re- ally early almost always unless I’m sick, when the sun comes through my window or even before. My brothers say it’s be- cause I’m little but I hope it doesn’t stop because that’s the best time. I usually go downstairs and out the back door in the kitchen because that’s the quietest hinges and I walk past the pool and press my face against Lua’s window. Through the screen I whisper Lua until she wakes up—sometimes I have to say it a lot of times and it stops sounding like her name and just sounds like sounds, Lualualualualua, Lua, Lu- aaaa—and when she finally hears me she gets out of bed and presses her hand against the screen where my face is like she’s high-fiving my nose. Then I sit in the wet grass until she comes out and we have an hour or two before breakfast.
So usually we go to the streams and try and catch the frogs there, the little ones, or the dogs follow us and we play fetch with the oranges. That’s the other good thing about the morning when it’s early: you smell things besides the oranges, like the wet and the flower smells and mud. When it’s hot out in the middle of the day the orange smell takes over every- thing, like when we did tie-dye and I dunked my shirt into the purple pot and it was like blood, really purple blood, and only purple. It’s like that but with smell. Orange dye. Sometimes we make forts. The one by Stephen’s Mound is getting really big, since it’s got good base structure from when my Dad and Peter built up the stumps. Lua and I can’t carry very much but when we use the wagon for the garden we can carry more, like tarps and ropes.
This morning we went to the Fairy Clear to collect more fossils. We found two this summer already and one was from Indians. This was from before breakfast when Lua got the dress, but I knew she was going to get it because my Mom had told me the night before but that it was a surprise.
“You’re getting a surprise,” I said.
“Really?” she said. We were combing through the grasses. “Yeah. My Mom told me.”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you know what it is?”
“What is it?”
“I’m not supposed to tell you.”
“Yeah tell me!”
“No I’m not telling you!”
“Come on you can tell me!”
“No! I’m not allowed!”
“NO I’M NOT TELLING YOU!”
She got quiet and then I said “It’s a dress.” “Why?”
“I don’t know.”
When we got back to the house my mom was on the phone in the room I don’t go in. She was in her nightgown on the couch and had the cord wrapped around her fingers like she does when she’s there for a long time. She waved when we went by the door but then she rolled onto her stomach.
Dad always has breakfast with us. We all fit at the picnic table in the backyard and it’s pancakes today because it’s the fourth of July so they have strawberries and blueberries in them and there’s whipped cream because red white and blue.
There’s maple syrup too and I’m glad that Mom is inside for that part because the way I like it she says I’m drowning them but it’s just how I like it. After Mela brings everything out she sits with us too usually but she’s really busy today because even though there are other people who are going to cook for the party she has to help my Mom manage everything.
I was wrong before. Mela didn’t give her the dress. My Mom did and then Mela talked to Lua about it when we were outside again. My Mom came out while we were eating pancakes and stood on the porch leaning on the doorframe in her nightgown with her arms crossed smiling.
She said “Lua!” and Lua looked up. My Mom said come here with her finger and Lua wiped her mouth on her arm and got up and went up the porch steps. I got up too and went with her and then my Mom turned and we followed her up the stairs to her bedroom and she still didn’t say anything.
She went over to her dresser and opened the top drawer and pulled out something in orange and white striped tissue paper and tied with a pink ribbon and gave it to Lua who wiped her hands on her shorts first because of the syrup and the whipped cream. “This is just a little fourth of July surprise,” she said and she watched while Lua opened it slowly like she was going to save the paper for something. “Just rip it!” she said and laughed and drank from the glass she had.
When the tissue paper was on the floor there was a white dress for Lua. Lua held it and looked at my Mom. “I had my friends mail it here from New York for you,” said my Mom. “I thought it would be fun for us to get a little dressed up for the holiday. Do you like it, sweetie?”
Lua nodded and said “Yes, Mrs. Laine. Thank you, Mrs. Laine.” My Mom smiled and leaned back on the dresser and drank again. “Good,” she said.
So Lua didn’t put the dress on until after the real fourth of July games. That was when we went inside and changed because my Mom said she wanted us to look nice since it’s a holiday and we’re going to take a family picture.
My mom had put out the clothes she wanted me to wear on my bed. There were white shorts and a red and white checkered shirt with buttons that she wanted to help me with but I told her I could do it since I can, I’m old enough, and she said yeah I guess you are. I guess you are. She said it two times and then my father came into my room wearing only pants and with shaving cream on half of his face still like he’s half Santa.
He put his hand on my mom’s shoulder and said Hey, babe, you want to come get ready? And she said yeah I was just helping Michael. He said Michael, you got things under control? And I said Yes!
During hamburgers I sat on a blanket with my mom. My father was talking to the pickers who were sitting on blankets all around us like islands, and my dad was the captain of a ship going from island to island to island and shaking their hands and clapping people on the back. My brothers were somewhere I don’t know and Mela was supervising with Javi and my mom was with me. Lua was wearing the white dress and she was helping Mela.
When my father got to our island he put his hand on my mom’s shoulder and kissed her on the top of her head and said how you doing, babe? And she said
“Neil—Neil, look at the light.”
“The light?” he was crouching down and on his toes with his arm around my mom and he was looking out where she was looking with his head lined up next to her head.
“Yes, the light—do you see it? Right now? The way the colors are bleeding and the atmosphere is bleeding? Do you know what I mean?’
“I think I do. Can you tell me more?”
“It’s like—it’s like a Frankenthaler. Like in a Frankenthaler the way the green is bleeding back into the grass and the trees because the air is making things bluer? And purple and colder. Like the air is cooling down the colors and they’re all bleeding into each other and up and out and out,” she was waving her arms, “but then other ones are coming back in—do you see it?”
My father kissed her on the head and said, “I see it, baby. It’s beautiful.”
After hamburgers we played tag. We played freeze tag and TV tag and normal tag and then we played capture the flag because we had enough kids. Lua and I were on the same team and we guarded our flag together because we’re not as fast. We both forgot that Lua was supposed to keep her dress clean but I didn’t think it got that dirty and even if it did get dirty Mela would wash it.
Part of why we got dressed up I think is so that we could take a family picture. Lua was in the picture too in her white dress. I stood in front of my mom for it and then my brothers all stood next to my father and Lua stood next to me. We took it before hamburgers I think?
After a long time it was dark out and then a little after that it was time for fireworks. Lua and I went back to our blanket island and this time my father just stayed on the island with us and my mom snuggled into him the way I used to snuggle into her and still do sometimes. I snuggled into the back of her and she turned back towards me a little and put her hand under my head and that’s how I lay there during fireworks, with Lua on the other side in her white dress.
After fireworks it was even darker and the pickers started walking away from the house and through the trees carrying their blankets and their flashlights. After not a long time I couldn’t see them but I could see their lights bobbing in lines and clumps and it was like ghosts were walking through the orange trees but I knew that’s not who they were.
Then after that we went and sat on the porch. On the steps. My father was sitting down and I was leaning my head on his knees because I was so tired. My mom was sitting with us too and Stephen but my other brothers were playing with firecrackers I think. Lua sat with us too and Mela and Javi were going up and down the stairs helping finish carrying things inside like the pitchers and some of the blankets. On one trip Mela said something to Lua and Lua stood up but then my mom said no, let her sit with us for a little? And Mela nodded but Lua had already gone.
She was trying to help so she went to pick up a jug of orange pink punch that was on a table, to bring it inside, but it was heavy and near when she was at the stairs it spilled and some of it went on the dress but it wasn’t her fault. Be- fore that I don’t think the dress was that dirty but then after she spilled it was orange and pink in some big spots. Mela saw it happen and she started saying things really loud and fast and then Lua dropped the whole jug on the grass and it sprayed up at her and there was even more on her dress but it was also running all over the grass in a river and was going over her feet and toes. It was an accident but Mela grabbed her arm and was pulling her up the steps to go inside and then my dad was standing up all of a sudden and saying whoa whoa whoa and my mom said it’s all right! It’s all right! But Mela kept on yelling and Lua was inside.
My dad went inside after them and then I looked next to me and my mom was crying. I didn’t know what to do so I kept sitting there and then my dad came out and sat next to her and put his arm around her and said it’s okay, it’s okay, they’re all okay and my mom said it’s my fault! It’s all my fault!
My dad said sweetie, you were just trying to be nice. And she said no, Neil. No. Everything. It’s my fault. And he said Michael, I think it’s time for bed. Can you go tell Mela it’s time for you to go to bed now? And my mom started crying harder and she said that’s what I mean, Neil! That’s what I mean!