So, in this town, we have a chicken barbecue every year the third week in August. On barbecue day it is always sunny, except when it’s not and the firemen wear rain gear as they spin the chicken over the half drums with a smattering of hot coals at the bottom. The chicken is clenched by giant flyswatters, at least to a nine-year-old kid that’s what they look like. And in the rain they have to make sure the coals don’t go out so they are shuffling and shuffling to keep them lit, and adding more because the chicken must cook at a certain temperature or it doesn’t cook.
But it never really rains on chicken barbecue day. It is almost always warm, sunny days that flicker into breezeless, tepid evenings and then turn cool under starry nights too early, too soon. It is not like Fourth of July when the sun is up for what seems like forever and school has just let out. It is not like the beach has opened and there are pretty girls out for the summer only, floating on rubber rafts, and we deftly kick below our inner tubes to make it seem the current is bringing us closer.
It is not like the fireworks night that never seems to get dark enough until we are so tired. The first mortar pops from its tube and bursts above us, waking the beach full of people and the bay full of boats. We share our wonder in unison, applauding after the grand finale, and then walk back to our cars with the ghosts of starbursts seared in our retinas. The day after it is still summer and will be for a long time, for months almost, until that third week in August when the sun sets sooner, too soon, and the night is cool.
“When are we going to the barbecue?” I ask, and am told, “Around six. We’ll walk,” since it is only down the road from us, on Klen’s Field, Klenawicus International Airport. Imagine that, an international airport on tiny old Shelter Island. The airport is closed to air traffic that particular day. The big circus tent is just east of the airstrip, on the corner of Cartwright and Burns. It’s been up for five days and slowly, like a time lapse film, the cookers, tables, chairs, port-a-potties, fences and finally people appear in stages in and around the big top.
Now folks from the marina down the road are walking past the house, talking excitedly. “I don’t want to go,” I say. “Why is everyone so happy and laughing? No one cares the summer’s over.” I hide in my room, silent to my mother’s heeding. “I’m not going!” I shout finally. And she says fine, suit yourself and I hear them leave and I peek from just above the window sill and watch them walking, my kid sister skipping around them, and my aunts and uncles laughing and gesturing.
The house is quiet, except for sounds of laughter from outside as the marina people file past. It makes me not like them. I start to cry. They’ll go away soon and I’ll stay and the bus will pick me up at the corner every morning and bring me to that crummy school. I’ll be stuck there when the water is still warm and the snappers are bigger than ever and my dad’s still leaving the dock every morning for fluke and bluefish. And the Yankees are still playing every night but I can’t watch the end of the games, and the sun is setting ever so sooner and the girls at the beach are back in the city, back at their own schools where I can’t paddle to them.
I hear them laugh, down below me on the road, the girls in pigtails and shorts. They are bouncing and laughing, casting long shadows on the pavement. The crickets are chirping and the guinea fowl are flitting one by one from the yard to the walnut tree branch for the night. The girls’ shrieks are fading; I am on my bed face to the mattress, bouncing my legs like a swimmer.
Through our backyard and Mrs. Byington’s front yard I run and reach my family. My aunts make a big show. “It’s Jason,” they squeal. I shoot them a scornful look. I want to run back to my room. Instead, I drift apart from the group, ahead of them, anxious to find my friends in the buzzing, oscillating scene unfolding before me as I near the airstrip.
“Jason, you’re here alone?” asks a booming voice. It’s Mr. Morgan, the fourth-grade teacher, towering above me. He will be my first man teacher and has a reputation for being very strict. His punishments, such as writing, “I will not disrupt Mr. Morgan’s classroom in the future,” seventeen thousand times, are legendary. I stumble over my words as I gesture down the road at my approaching family. “Oh,” he exhales, barely satisfied. Then he says what I knew he would say, what I did not want to hear, what had made me hide in my room until I couldn’t stand it any longer. “I’ll be seeing you in ten days.” I manage a “yessir” and slink away. As I backpedal toward the main tributary at the front gate, I hear him say, “I look forward to it.”
“Well, I don’t” I mutter very softly, as I lose myself on one side of the gate behind the crowd and wait for my family. I join them and we take our place. Everyone is saying how do you do to everyone else; summer people and locals, old and young, people with long hair and those with crew cuts, wearing sandals or loafers. The line is moving and the chicken smells so good my mouth is watering. Ice in chests crunches as firemen dig for sodas and beers. The women’s auxiliary forms an assembly line, with Mrs. Lennox doling out the chicken and Mrs. Reeves slinging potato salad. I cringe. Soon they will be plopping open-faced turkey sandwiches smothered in gravy on my plate in the school cafeteria.
We push our plates over the string of folding tables, stopping short of the watermelon that we’ll return to collect later. I face the endless rows of tables, half filled with diners, and look beyond the tent ropes and red snow fence skirting the back of the compound to where kids are running to and from each other. My impulse is to drop my plate and join them, but I know to not even ask. “Where do you want to sit,” my father asks the group. “Just sit right here,” I want to shout as we pass the first empty table. Apparently, he’s seeking a consensus vote, inviting a grating, uneven chorus of opinions from my aunts. As we wander aimlessly, shrieks and protests from the field behind the fence pierce the general din, and I ache to join the game. We finally sit at the most random table under the tent.
Sated and armed now with a slice of melon, I search for a rear exit in the fence. “Why the hell isn’t there a way to get out? It’s Shelter Island for Pete’s sake: are they really that concerned about people sneaking in?” I hurriedly pace the perimeter like a caged tiger watching the activity on the other side. I see friends and strangers, boys and girls engaged in tag, some eating watermelon and spitting seeds at each other. Pig tails and pony tails twirl in the cool twilight, freckled faces frame cringing noses and armored smiles, amber arms stretch and retract, lanky smooth legs lead to bare feet pattering on the flattened grass. My senses are alive, aching to join the milieu and find a chance encounter, a whisking of shoulders, a tickling touch of a tag, an arbitrary collision resulting in a fall of two bodies, the tangling of limbs and the contact of soft tissue. Like I could almost taste the sweet juicy chicken leading up to the barbecue, I could just about feel the singular tantalizing tingle of being touched by a girl.
My daydream ends as I trip over a tent line. Embarrassed and on the precipice of defeat, prostrate I clearly glance swirling legs and realize I have found a breech at the bottom of the fence. I retrieve my watermelon, no worse for wear, and crawl through the hole, stifling whimpers as the sharp strands of wire graze my arms and legs.
I stand up, with the tent, the tables, the people eating chicken all miles away now and no sound but that of youthful thrill as I enter the fluid universe of satellites haphazardly orbiting whomever is “it”. A girl, with golden pony tails and amber arms, laughs as she lunges at her targets, and I, feigning a stumble to preserve her dignity, let her soft fingers graze my bare shoulder.