The Petrenkos were barbecuing people. They barbecued in sweaters and jeans, they barbecued in swimming trunks and bikini tops. The first clear weekend of the year, they rolled their venerable Weber out from its corner in the gardening shed and ratcheted on the attachments. With strips of steak and breasts of chicken arranged on a marble slab, they lit the mesquite and charcoal with a long match and grilled into the sunset.
Devout barbecuing people, the Petrenkos faithfully miniaturized the Great Outdoors in their backyard. It was nineteenth-century Manifest Destiny with candy-striped patio furniture. The kidney-shaped pool was as blue as Tidy Bowl water and the hose-fed slide, a kitsch Niagara Falls. Paths of crushed volcanic rock that stuck to bare feet wound between the tropical and jungly flowering greenery. The only way to leave without appearing desperate was through the patio door next to the grill, a door Ives Petrenko guarded with an oversized barbecue fork.
My father liked these warm-weather get-togethers, but he never really comprehended the whole barbecuing experience. The other scientists and spouses wore T-shirts and sundresses and shorts. Nathan showed up in his work clothes: black turtleneck sweater, brown slacks, and a corduroy sports jacket with patches on the elbows. He picked up his fashion sense from Carl Sagan in Cosmos. My mother, an infinitely more sensible person, knew well enough to throw on a pair of toreadors and a floppy-brimmed hat. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail and a pink plastic beach bag hung from the crook of her arm. Nathan and Ellen came off like mismatched dolls, Art Professor Ken and Spring Break Barbie in the Malibu Pool ‘n Fun play set.
Nathan and Ellen waited politely at the patio door to be invited outside by Ives Petrenko, whose attention was on the grill. Coughing from the fumes, he prodded an array of chicken breasts with his fork like they’d overslept. Nathan finally cleared his throat. Ives swung around waving the smoke away.
“Well, if it isn’t the Harland clan,” Ives said. A cartoon was printed on his apron, vanilla ice cream melting over a Greek letter. Under it, in Spencerian script: “Pi A La Mode.” He wiped his free hand on his denim cutoffs. He exchanged a quick handshake with Nathan and offered the same to Ellen. She fell forward and hugged him, trapping his arms.
“I’m so, so sorry Ives,” she said. “It’s so wrong what they’re doing to you.”
Ives didn’t return the hug, just blinked over her straw hat. The Petrenkos weren’t touchy-feely people. They put on an air of casual formality well-suited to Livermore’s brie-and-Chardonnay PBS subculture. Ellen finally released Ives and wiped away glints of moisture from the corners of her eyes.
“Really, Ellen, let’s not worry about it,” he said. “Today’s rule is, no discussion of loss, just future gains.” He forced a smile for our benefit, stretching his pepper beard so wide it nearly split in half. “I hope making it here wasn’t an inconvenience for you, with the short notice and such.”
“Nyet,” I said with a stupid grin.
Ellen spun around and took me by my upper arm. “We had a talk about this, young man.”
Ives dismissed it with a wave. “I’ve had much, much worse slung at me in the past two weeks.” He leaned forward and spoke sotto voce to me. “But I’d appreciate it if you could keep it under your hat. The rest of them,” he swept his fork over the other guests like a magic wand, “they think MIT begged me back. Now, Gene, you think could you help me out with that?”
He playfully poked the fork toward me. Considering what I’d said and the wringer he’d been pushed through, he was within his rights to spear me through my ribcage.
“I guess so,” I said.
“It’s not right,” Nathan said. “Twelve good years and they come at you with this…pettiness.”
“Now, you’ve already broken today’s rule,” Ives said, returning to the grill. “No talk of loss, just future gains.”
The fire leapt and a cloud of smoke hit Ives in the face. He pinched the bridge of his nose and stared down at his feet for an uncomfortably long time. His shoulders, as wide as a cyclotron, slumped inward. Ellen made a slew of unsubtle motions at Nathan, small nods and jerks that evolved into a new semaphore alphabet. Nathan, hands in his pockets, replied to her with nervous head shakes and shrugs, then relented. He stood beside his friend and patted his back.
“Ah, so, Ives,” he said. “How’s that chicken coming along?”
I pointed to a piece on the center of the grill. “I don’t think that one’s done yet.”
Ives glanced at the cindered leg, so black it could only go crunch when bitten into. He smiled weakly. “God, you’ve got a sharp mouth,” he said with a wet voice. His laugh whipped into a hack. He slapped his chest to knock the blockage free, then painted the burnt leg with more sauce. He smiled again, red-eyed, this time to let us know he was okay, for real.
Across the backyard, sitting at a glass patio table, Cookie Petrenko sliced vegetables on a cutting board. She waved to the three of us like royalty greeting the peasantry. Around her, the other wives chatted and sunned themselves. Ellen excused herself and hurried over to them, her flip-flops slip-slop-slapping. Nathan and Ives huddled closer to the grill. Nathan made idle comments while Ives barbecued away.
It was only March but it was one of those warm Marches we got in Livermore almost every year. Even at four on a Wednesday afternoon, with our big ball of a sun descending, it was short-sleeve weather. Nathan had knocked off work early for the party, as had a number of his coworkers, to attend the Petrenkos’ last hurrah before they left Livermore. I wandered around the pool kicking up water with a sneaker and listening to shards of conversation here and there. Wives complained about local schools and rated grocery stores. Someone’s daughter had passed the bar. Three lean bespectacled men—my father’s colleagues—chuckled over a technical failure at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Nathan sidled up beside them, hands deep in his pockets. He asked if he could interest any of them in an eighteen-million dollar Los Alamos doorstop. He kept his smirk to a low simmer while the others guffawed.
My father studied thermonuclear reactions. He could explain Nagasaki at the subatomic level. Ives Petrenko held degrees in optics, mathematics, and physics—Yale had a three-for-one that year, I suppose. Others around the pool specialized in supercomputing, laser technology, rocketry, and more. Our town supplied a comfortable environment for scientists to cogitate and tinker. Livermore, a permanent vacation resort for eggheads.
My parents were invited to Livermore. That’s how Ellen told it, as though everyone in town voted us into an exclusive club. In reality, only my father was invited, and not by a citywide quorum, but by The Lab’s higher-ups. The Lab, that’s how we referred to it. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to the world and to history, The Lab to us. Nathan’s 1965 postdoc—a leatherbound tome on neutrino detection—drew the attention of the cold warriors there. Fresh out of school and newly wed, a phone caller invited him to one of the most important research centers in the world, to fight the Soviets through brainpower rather than brawn, to work alongside Edward Teller and his handpicked cadre.
“Doctor Teller,” my father would remind me.
The Lab paid their moving expenses, found them a three-bedroom two-bath single-story, and even assisted with the mortgage. Growing up, I hunted Easter eggs on the Visitor’s Center lawn and ate Federal canned hams every Thanksgiving. A Santa Claus with a physics degree handed out gifts in the cafeteria, scaring the hell out of the youngest ones with his tinny ho-ho-ho. Now there’s a titular dilemma for you—is it Dr. St. Nick or St. Dr. Nick? Can one be beatified and secular at the same time?
The most significant Lab benefit, however, was Livermore, California. The Ivy Leagues’ snowstorms and Los Alamos’ desert heat was as foreign and distant to us as the Siberian permafrost. In our minds, the blank tan grazing land scaling our valley’s mountains extended thousands of miles past their peaks erasing everything beyond. Those peaks cast shadows over our valley all time of day, and we thanked them daily for it. Everyone, I suppose, except me.
Nathan and Ellen hated television so much they banned it from our house. Like any child, I was hooked on the boob tube and actively sought it out whenever the opportunity arose. So when one of the other scientists called us all into the Petrenkos’ living room to watch the TV, I have to admit that I bounded across the backyard to get a chance to self-medicate.
We gathered in the narrow television room, the younger kids on the floor, some still in swim suits with towels under them, while the parents took to the sofas and chairs drinking and smoking. We all watched Mr. Nakamura’s various fumbly attempts to manipulate the Petrenkos’ newfangled cable box, which was about as entertaining as anything the networks were programming at the time but with fewer double-entendres. Ives remained outside at the grill, his broad back to us all, a bit slumped over.
“Larry,” someone said, “what’s going on?”
“The President’s giving a speech tonight,” Mr. Nakamura said. “It’s big news.”
Seated behind me on the couch, Ellen squeezed my shoulder. “Where’s your father?”
“I don’t know,” I said. It came out du-no.
“He’s going to miss it,” she said.
I assumed it was an acute case of Nathan’s politica disinterestitus. Nathan could be characterized as socially liberal but otherwise apolitical. Feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, he’s all for it. Beyond that, Republican and Democrat are synonyms for professional liars. The only policy issue that made his voice turn squeaky was our country’s love affair with the English measurement system. If Nathan could issue one executive order, we’d be metric, boom, just like that. Yardsticks and bathroom scales would be burned in town squares, a Reichstag for the deca-fascists.
The Petrenkos lived in a Sunset Home, one of the economy models thrown up in the 1950s as fast as the developer could stamp them out. Even if you led me into one blindfolded, to this day I can still recognize them from their interior. The narrow hallways, the cramped dining room connected straight to the living room, the shallow built-in closets, the low ceilings, the white kitchen counter tiles with black grout. In the two-story models, the rapidly ascending stairs minimized wasted space below them. A front yard, a backyard, a pool, and a two-car garage rounded out the package. A Sunset Home was not so much a home as it was a list of checked-off checkboxes.
In the kitchen I discovered a buffet of all-American junk food presented in orange-and-yellow striped ceramic bowls, a cornucopia of weight gain and cardiac disease. The cabinets were empty. Stacked in the pantry were moving boxes marked DISHES, COOKING, CANNED, TUPPER, and so on in felt-tip pen. A peek in the dining room revealed more moving boxes and stacked furniture. Ives wasn’t messing around. The Petrenkos weren’t getting ready to move, they were moving. This was their big send-off, and like a cruel joke, the President arranged to overshadow it all with a national televised speech. It turns out it was an even more cruel joke than I realized at the time.
I grabbed fistfuls of cheese puffs and corn chips and M&Ms and dumped it all in one of the festive paper bowls Cookie Petrenko always provided for these get-togethers. When I returned to the television Nathan was stepping inside from the backyard.
“What’s this about, Larry?” he said.
“Dr. Teller’s thing,” Mr. Nakamura said. “High ionization plasma.”
“Oh, right, electron plus one,” Nathan said, leaving the rest of us, as usual, in the dark.
The graphic floating to the upper-left of Dan Rather’s head was a still of the Gipper, eyes gazing solemnly upward as though America’s bright future lay just a little beyond his reach. After Dan Rather’s rather brief announcement, the news studio switched to the White House. The Oval Office mimicked Hollywood’s version perfectly.
“This is it,” Mr. Nakamura said. “Hey, Ives, it’s starting.”
“I’ve got to take care of this,” Ives replied with a dismissive wave, still hunched over the grill and his back to us.
Nathan sat beside Ellen on the crowded couch, pressed up close to her. She watched the screen with what can only be described as mild interest. Nathan leaned in toward the tube, hands clasped between his knees, intent on what was about to unfold.
Reagan’s neck billowed like a vacuum cleaner bag as he spoke. His hair held the shape of black shaving cream. I’d begun to notice Reagan liked tricky wordings. He threw out catchphrases for John Q. Public, an analgesic to take with a meal and a glass of water. This time, however, the wordplay was absent. He spoke with more than his usual amount of earnestness. He complained about liberals in Congress trying to keep down military spending, and showed reconnaissance photos of Soviet build-up in the Caribbean. He threw out a lot of numbers. Politicians usually don’t like numbers. They put voters to sleep.
Then the conclusion. He stated the United States needed a system to “intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies.” This was the moment the scientists were waiting for. Those sitting sat up straight. Those standing leaned in toward the set. Their mouths were slightly open for what came next.
Reagan said, “I call upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.”
And that’s when I knew. Reagan said “scientific community” as though directing all the scientists in the country to unlock the puzzle of world peace, but in reality he meant Livermore, our little community.
Mr. Nakamura clicked the television off before Dan Rather’s talking head returned to the screen. “There it is,” he said, beaming. “A shield, not a sword.”
“What’s that?” Ellen asked.
“It’s something they’re starting to say around The Lab,” Nathan said. “A motto for the project.”
For those about to be destroyed, we have a slogan for you.
“I don’t get it,” I said. “How do you stop a nuclear attack?”
“A defensive system,” Nathan said. “Directed particle emission.”
“It’s been bounced around internally for a few years now,” someone said.
“Just some theories,” Mr. Nakamura said. “Not well-funded theories.”
“They’re going to be now,” someone else said. “With that kind of endorsement.”
The scientists dispersed, chatting among themselves and swapping notes. The rest followed still feeling a bit in the dark. Nathan remained seated. Ellen took his hand and squeezed. “Kind of unfair for this to happen during Ives’ and Cookie’s going-away,” she said to him. “Stealing their thunder like that.”
“It’s not intentional.”
“Of course not,” she said, “but still.”
Nathan’s eyes remained fixed on the black screen. “A shield, not a sword,” he murmured.
A boondoggle, not a bright idea.
Reagan really knew how to work that old-time Hollywood magic. No screenwriter ever had such grandiose material to work with, or a lead actor so hungry to sink into character. Dutch gave the word, and the word was kaboom.
Sun dimming behind rooftops and backyard lights coming on, I kicked around the pool wondering when we would leave. I continued around the shallow end until I reached the ice coolers. The red one was for the adults and the blue one for the youngsters. When no one was looking, I started to open the red one. Right then the diving board behind me sproinged and water droplets dusted my corduroy jeans.
Sara Petrenko shimmied underwater to the end of the pool, flipped, kicked, and shot back to the board, all on two lungs of air. She surfaced and flicked her blond hair back with one clean movement. Bobbing with the waves and lit by the underwater pool lamp, her blue one-piece swimsuit refracted and stretched and contorted every direction at once. Sara floated effortlessly, scissoring her legs and massaging the surface with her hands.
My mother tried to hook me up with Sara once, one of Ellen’s many failed matchmaking attempts. I told her I wasn’t interested, but Ellen’s granite patience should not be underestimated. She gave me twenty dollars and told me to take Sara out for pizza. Sara and I sat at a padded booth for two interminable hours. She talked as I studied the mozzarella shaker’s symmetry. She ate a green salad and a single slice of pizza, first peeling off some of the pepperoni, then sopping up the cheese grease with a napkin. Before biting in, she reminded herself out loud that she had to slide into her cheerleader outfit for that Friday’s game.
“Go Atoms,” I cheered weakly.
All she talked about was college. She desperately wanted to attend Yale, Ives’ alma mater. I told her I had my hopes up for Wassamatta U in Minnesota. She said that was fine and all, not that she was putting down my decision or anything, but careers depended on knowing the right people, and those people’s kids attended Ivy League schools. Discussing these distinctions filled a lot of my high school years.
My parents were at the kitchen table in their robes when I got home. Ellen made me file a full report.
“Too cerebral,” I said, feeling generous.
“Swinging bachelor, huh?” Nathan grinned at me with a grin I’ve seen from him perhaps twice in my life, smarmy and knowing. “Looking for something with a little more bounce?”
Ellen rapped his arm with a rolled-up magazine. “Sara has bounce. She’s a cheerleader.”
“She’s a cheerleader because she wants to get into Yale,” I said.
“Cheerleading?” Nathan said. “To get into Yale?”
“It rounds out the application,” I said.
“She’s a modern girl,” Ellen said to both of us. “Motivated and determined. You men need to climb out of the Stone Age.”
So Yale’s idea of a well-rounded woman is short skirts and synchronized leg kicks—the fruits of the Sexual Revolution, circa 1983.
“Well, there’s more fish in the sea,” Nathan said to me, not that he’s much of a fisherman.
After a week of silence on the matter, Ellen began toying with the idea of another date. What if we invite some of your friends over for a little party, and Sara too? Or, We’re going to the mall—why don’t you call Sara and see if she wants to join us? It got so I suspected Ellen had arranged a dowry with the Petrenkos, but she was simply worried I’d meet the wrong type of girl. Fortunately, Sara’s candidacy was eliminated when the FBI discovered her grandfather was a Communist. It was one of America’s little-known Cold War victories.
Communism, I’m convinced, is the only secular sin in our country. Nathan affirmed as much to me as we drove to the barbecue. He explained Ives’ situation while behind the wheel.
“Rules are rules,” he said, shaking his head, “but I find these consequences difficult to accept. This administration’s run by Booleans.” He drew two separate circles on the dashboard with his finger. “To them, either you’re Communist or Not Communist. Set theory just isn’t the basis of good policy.”
See, the FBI had screwed up Ives’ background check twelve years earlier. Soon after taking office, Ronald Reagan ordered fresh checks. It turned out Ives’ father had worked for the Communist Party during the Depression, probably handing out fliers or something equally paltry, but the FBI took it quite seriously.
All this was on my mind as Sara skimmed water in the pool.
“The water’s warm,” she called to me. “Did you bring your trunks?”
Ives watched me from the grill, his fork trembling over a hamburger patty. The smoke billowing around him grew darker and darker. The flames from below illuminated his grim expression, which was saying to me, Remember: We have a deal. MIT begged me back, nothing more.
Sara breaststroked over to me and rested her hands and chin on the edge of the pool. “I wish we didn’t have to move to Massachusetts.” She watched her parents out of the corners of her eyes. “The winters. No more pool. And that horrible accent. All my cousins have it. New Yawk. Wat-ah.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, eyeing Ives.
“Dad says Massachusetts gives me more opportunities to tour the universities I’m applying for,” she said. “Did I tell you my new high school has a mathematics club?” adding that our high school didn’t have enough academic clubs, which, in my opinion, depended on your definition of enough.
She surveyed the backyard. “We sure had some good pool parties here,” she said with a wistful smile. “Do you remember when Lauren was dancing and slipped into the pool? That was so funny! Or that time Kevin Dubro showed up with his cousin from Los Angeles? He was in that toothpaste commercial?”
I didn’t remember any of it because I wasn’t present for any of these events. I’d never been invited to her pool parties. Ives and Cookie invited my parents to their pool parties, that was the only reason I ever made it to this particular suburban Tiki paradise. Besides, Lauren was not the kind of girl who would deign to be seen with me in the halls. If Kevin Dubro had ever said two words to me in high school, I’d eat my yearbook.
“I wish I knew why Dad’s in such a rush to get out of here,” she said, eyeing her father. Then to me: “Well, I hope we keep in touch. I’d love to hear how things are going for you.”
It was one of those polite things to say, a request to stay in contact when we both knew there was zero intent behind it. Some inner clutch slipped, some mercury switch inside me twitched, and a snide little thought got fast-tracked to my big trap. “All you love is your friends and your clothes” emerged from the corner of my mouth.
Her smile evaporated and her rosy sun-kissed cheeks fell. I couldn’t have hit her harder with my hand. She lowered herself in the pool until the water lapped at her chin. She stared away from me. “You know, I’m going to miss Livermore.” She snapped a shoulder strap, pouting a bit. “Ives said I don’t have to attend school until we get to Newton, so I probably won’t see you after tonight.”
Before I could get a word of apology out, she pinched her nose and slipped underwater. With two sharp kicks she was at the other end of the pool. Then, starting with a determined breath, she began stroking across the diamond-blue pool, smoothly slicing through the chlorinated water with machine-like precision. That’s the last image I have of Sara Petrenko, her perfect swimming form and the minute splashes of her hands and feet.
I wonder if Ives and Cookie ever came clean with Sara. I wonder if she ever learned she was expelled from Eden for a fifty year-old nibble at a red apple. Just thinking about it makes a hollow pulse in my chest, just under my sternum. Hypocrisy makes me ill that way. Disconnection too. The hollow feeling throbbed as she kicked laps, not just for her parents’ hypocrisy, but my own. I didn’t like how she’d treated me in the past, and now look at how I’d treated her, my own pissy little bon voyage. I snagged two cans of beer from the red cooler, stuffed them under my sweat jacket, and plunged headlong into the dim backyard overgrowth.
At a previous barbecue I’d discovered a shaded pocket in the corner of the Petrenkos’ plywood fence. It was off the lava rock path, hidden behind two prickly shrubs. Bushes with floppy green leaves walled off the rest of the backyard, leaving a quarter-circle of bare ground for me to hide in. Rotting leaves matted the dirt and kept it moist year-round. The flowering arching trees blocked out the Petrenkos’ outdoor lighting system, making it a comfortable dark grotto that time of evening. It was my personal bunker, my last line of defense from the Petrenkos’ now-mangled slice of Livermore’s promise.
The first sips of the beer made me shudder, but once my tongue was coated the brew went down easy. I laid back in the dim light and crossed my ankles and waited. Moisture soaked into my pants and chilled my butt. After the chicken and burgers had been served, Cookie’s coconut cake would be doled out in fat slices with steaming cups of Mr. Coffee and cold milk for the kids. Eventually Ellen would decide we’d overstayed our welcome and walk around the backyard calling my name.
I laid there a long while, long enough to grow sleepy. Lava rock crunched nearby and jostled me alert. I went supine—partly to hide, partly to peek under the bushes—and was amazed. The light coming up the lava rock path softly illuminated Gwen Carlson’s approach.
Gwen had a notoriety that was hard to ignore. She was always too loud. She yelled when she talked and screamed when she shouted. She grew fascinated with razor blades in the seventh grade, a hobby she expanded into scarring her arms our freshman year. She argued with the vice-principal from the auditorium bleachers and elicited boos and cheers from the assembly when she was escorted away. I remember, once they suspended her for teaching the student body treasurer how to get high with nasal spray. She wore a variety of costumes, but usually she strutted the school halls in black lace, silver chains, and a studded glove with all the fingers cut off except the middle one. Her hair was an upright black tangle exposing shaven swaths of her scalp.
But now in my corner, peering through the bushes, I witnessed a purer incarnation of Gwen. She wore a long beige dress, no makeup, no jewelry, with flat shoes and short matching socks. Her crown of hair was combed down into a pageboy. Sneering through the shrubbery at the adults, she took a pack of cigarettes from a dainty black snap purse and lit up.
Now, I enjoyed my isolation. I liked sitting back there, staring up at the sky and letting my mind drift. Sometimes an interesting outburst from the party would entertain me for a while. Or the dog next door would snuffle at the cracks in the fence. If I had some food, I’d break off a chunk and toss it over to him. My corner view of Livermore’s test-tube world was a distant one. I didn’t want Gwen in there with me, screaming and howling, ruining the quiet time I looked forward to. I told myself if I was patient, she’d finish her cigarette and rejoin the party. But I had to watch her. She had that effect on me.
Gwen shifted the cigarette in her hand, pinching it between two fingers and cupping her palm. It looked unnaturally European. It also made her more mysterious. At age seventeen, that goes a long way. And she was hiding from everyone else, just like me. Maybe she needed some assistance. A dragon to rescue her from society’s royal court. A monster to usher her to his lair.
“Hey,” I said, “you have another one?”
She peered around, cigarette erect between her pursed lips. She pulled back the prickly bushes.
“Wow,” she murmured around the cigarette. “Man, you’ve got the right idea.”
I popped open the second can and offered it to her, just as I’d seen the cool people do in the beer commercials. She plunked down beside me and chugged. Her clove cigarette made the musty corner a little more savory.
“What are you doing here?” I said. I’d never seen her at the Petrenkos’ before.
“You know that fat guy? Manning the barbecue?” She was huffing from the long swallow. “My dad took over his program. I guess fatso and his perfect wife and daughter are moving to Vermont or something.”
“Sara’s not so bad.”
“You just like her in a bathing suit.” She took another drag. “Well, in any case, now my dad’s in charge of blowing up the world twenty times over.” She tugged at her dress. “Look at this. Can’t believe he made me wear this shit.”
She handed me her beer and cigarette. She rolled back and forth until her dress was damp and sticky with mud. Leaves clung here and there to her flat figure. She crimped her hair and shook it wildly until it was fanned in all directions, then dug through her purse for an earring stud. She clipped it through her eyebrow without wincing.
“Feel better?” I asked.
She took my wrist and inhaled from the cigarette still burning between my fingers. Smoke streaming out of her nose, she pushed it back for me to try. My lungs went hot and buckled. Clove smoke shot out in coughs.
“Quiet down,” she whispered, grinning at the spectacle.
I cleared my throat with more beer. Animated voices came through the foliage. I peered through the bushes and over to the grill.
The scientists had formed a semicircle around Ives and the barbecue. They were joking with him, teasing him I suppose, and he was eating it up. There was a story about some incident with Ives and a lens grinder, and another about Ives backing his car into some higher-up’s car in The Lab’s parking lot. Ives laughed hard, laughed a little too hard, I think. He always made sure to rebut any incriminating story with an equally sharp crack about the storyteller. This was Ives’ send-off for twelve years of fighting for the Red, White, and Blue: some corny jokes, some hum-drum stories of office incompetence, some back-slapping for a job well-done.
“Did you hear about the fat guy?” Gwen whispered. “My dad said they’re calling him a Commie.” She hissed it as though discussing an incurable disease.
“A man named Ivan? Red?”
At first that puzzled her, then she leaned back and laughed. The dog next door sniffed and whimpered through the fence.
“What’s the punishment for being pink these days?” I stroked my chin. “Hanging by the thumbs is so…McCarthyite. Maybe the rack?”
“No, water torture! See if he floats in the pool!”
“That’s it. We’ll stage The Crucible right here in the backyard.”
Gwen stared at me like I’d devised the craziest idea of all time. “We’ll nail him to a crucible, just like Jesus!”
“A crown of ice picks for the Trotskyite!” I was having too much fun to correct her.
She slurped beer and swallowed and slurped some more. Cheeks full of beer, she forced it out between her front teeth. She adjusted the stream’s arc until it hit the prickly bushes between us and the path. When the last ounce was out, she drew her face close to mine and belched softly. Little bags of alcohol had grown beneath her eyes.
“Excuse me,” she whispered.
“No problem.” Please. Belch all over me.
“I think being a Communist’s cool, personally. I’m sort of Communist myself.”
“And you’re sort of pregnant, too, I bet.”
That snapped her out of her lull. “The hell’s that mean?”
I cleared away some of the leaves between us. I drew Nathan’s dashboard diagram in the moist dirt, this time interlocking the circles. It was too dark to see them. “Communist or Not Communist. Boolean set theory.” In the intersection of the circles I pressed a dot neither of us could see. “You’re sort of Communist.”
“And sort of pregnant? What, you heard that around school?”
“No, you can’t be sort of pregnant but you can be sort of Communist.”
“You think I’m back here to bone? ‘Hey, listen up guys, Gwen and I did it all in the backyard—'”
I madly tapped the dot neither of us could see. “It’s a Venn diagram. You’re sort of Communist.”
She fumed. “Whatever.”
She moved her eyes to the fence, the bushes, then her beer can. I ducked my head to catch her glance, but she avoided me. The hollow pulsing of the balloon in my rib cage returned. I’d opened my freaking mouth once again. That’s why I talk to myself so much. No one else wants to listen.
The Petrenkos’ backyard stereo came on. Inane Sixties rebellion music droned from the waterproof speakers installed around the pool. I let the rest of the beer slither down my throat and crushed the can. Feeling drained, I peered through the bushes. The men enumerated physics jokes with Ives. Sara was gone. A few kids played Marco Polo in the shallow end of the pool, all of them glowing radioactive green from the underwater light. Wives lit cigarettes and guzzled their spiked drinks. Barbecue smoke and one-point-five pets and a built-in pool with a fiberglass slide. Livermore’s safety belt tightened a little more around me. Keep quiet, stay in line, and you’ll do okay.
Gwen stood and brushed off her rump. She reached down to me. I offered my hand, thinking she wanted to help me up. Instead, she took the clove cigarette and stamped it out.
“Don’t go,” I blurted.
She removed her eyebrow stud and dropped it in her purse. “Why not?”
I was seventeen, male, and full of beer. Reasonable conversation with the opposite sex was chemically impossible.
“You’re…kind of pregnant,” I said, forcing a grin. “You shouldn’t be on your feet.”
“Uh-huh. Yeah, keep that up. I’ll be laughing too after I tell everyone at school how you’re a whiny little virgin.”
She slid through the bushes to the pathway, tugging her dress free from the prickly leaves. The sound of crunching lava rock faded off. The hollowness in my ribs swelled. It filled every cavity in my body.
The dog next door panted in my ear. I squeezed a fingertip through the fence and he licked it. Dogs listen and dogs understand. I talked to this one while waiting for Gwen to come back, waited until I suspected I was being really, really dense. Then I hopped the fence and let the beagle smell my hand. The house seemed empty, so I rubbed his belly and scratched his chops. He didn’t ask about college; I kept my smart-ass remarks to myself. We played a little ball until I heard an automatic garage door shudder open at the front of the residence. I exited via a side gate and made it to the street undetected.
The smell of the Petrenkos’ barbecue stayed with me all the way home. It stayed with me all the way to my bedroom, even when I slammed the door shut and flopped into bed. I could smell the smoke in my clothes, I could smell the smoke in the sheets, I could smell it in the paint on my bedroom walls. It had gotten so I didn’t notice it. Livermore surrounded me, fire and smoke, smoke and fire.
Jim Nelson’s work has appeared in North American Review, The Erotic Review, Watchword, Instant City, Switchback, and other fine literary venues. His books include the short story collection A Concordance of One’s Life, the novella Everywhere Man, and his upcoming novel Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People. A native of California, he lives in San Francisco. He can be reached on the web at j-nelson.net.