Land of the Free, Home of the Brave

We arrive at Uncle Frank’s house while he is squatting beneath the gas grill trying to read the instructions for starting the barbecue. “Let’s see now, push in knob and turn left…there that should do ‘er.” The hiss of escaping gas sounds like the distant wind of a storm heading our way. Frank rises to his feet, shakes himself down trying to remember where the hell he put the matches.

Frank stands over the grill now and pulls a match from the pack. The match doesn’t quite make it halfway across the back cover when a whoosh of blue flames strikes back at him, drawing a gasp from the party. He ducks like a batter avoiding a fast inside curve.

Uncle Lowell guffaws loudly from a nearby lawn chair. “Hey Frank,” he whoops, his burgundy face flush from alcohol and sun. “I thought the fireworks didn’t start till after dark.” Lowell laughs at his own joke until his laughing suddenly evolves into a wet loose cough. He coughs so much I fear he’s going to choke but he recovers and shakes a Marlborough from a pack and pops it in his mouth. The coughing fit has momentarily humbled him and for a while he’s silent as he lights his cigarette, looking out through watery eyes.

Out front my parents have pulled up. Mom carefully exhumes a bowl of potato salad from the floor of the back seat. She’s in charge of this operation and she wants Dad to help by just staying out of the way. The bowl is sealed as if it were radio active plutonium. Like one too many pallbearers at a funeral, Dad lends a well-intentioned, yet useless hand to the bowl that Mom carries.

“Where the hell did those hot dogs go to?” Uncle Frank yells.

A pickup truck arrives next. My cousin Steve hops out wearing a tractor cap over his long thin hair. He unloads a sack full of fireworks and a rocket launcher. He carries enough explosives to blow up an Afganistani village.

Inside the house the kitchen table is loaded down with bowls and plates of food. The men snack on chips and cheese, talking about the pitiful state of professional sports. The women try to out-compliment each other on their salads and desserts. For some reason, Dad is attempting to name the members of Nixon’s Cabinet.

Suddenly there is a lot of commotion. Looking out the window it appears that Uncle Frank’s barbecue is on fire. He waves the gray smoke away and rescues the hot dogs like bodies pulled from a disaster. They are curled in agony, crispy and black. There are no survivors.

After supper, Steve sets up the rocket launcher and ignites the first round of fireworks. Kids scream and yell. There are aahhs and oohhs. But each successive rocket fails to live up to the one before and soon everyone is slapping mosquitoes and heading into the house. Steve and Lowell, with their cigarettes, stay out there sitting, lonely silhouettes against the fading sky.

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Poem of the Hour

The Revenant – Billy Collins

I am the dog you put to sleep,
as you like to call the needle of oblivion,
come back to tell you this simple thing:
I never liked you–not one bit.

When I licked your face,
I thought of biting off your nose.
When I watched you toweling yourself dry,
I wanted to leap and unman you with a snap.

I resented the way you moved,
your lack of animal grace,
the way you would sit in a chair to eat,
a napkin on your lap, knife in your hand.

I would have run away,
but I was too weak, a trick you taught me
while I was learning to sit and heel,
and–greatest of insults–shake hands without a hand.

I admit the sight of the leash
would excite me
but only because it meant I was about
to smell things you had never touched.

You do not want to believe this,
but I have no reason to lie.
I hated the car, the rubber toys,
disliked your friends and, worse, your relatives.

The jingling of my tags drove me mad.
You always scratched me in the wrong place.
All I ever wanted from you
was food and fresh water in my metal bowls.

While you slept, I watched you breathe
as the moon rose in the sky.
It took all of my strength
not to raise my head and howl.

Now I am free of the collar,
the yellow raincoat, monogrammed sweater,
the absurdity of your lawn,
and that is all you need to know about this place

except what you already supposed
and are glad it did not happen sooner–

that everyone here can read and write,
the dogs in poetry, the cats and the others in prose.