There was a summer afternoon. Sun was falling full on the trees and their scattered light of leaves, on the curve of grey asphalt as it rose and fell. I was looking out of the window from the dim inside of my parents’ car. We were going to a graduation party – for Rachel, the daughter of a family friend. I had played with her when I was small, dressed in princess clothes and singing to the full width of small lungs. I hadn’t seen her since, and I wasn’t thinking at all about any of it as we drove to her house. I was fighting with my sister.
My mind was murky in an afternoon that cast long shadows, and I had to be with my family. I bickered, and she bickered back, and at this point I’m really too old to fight with my fifteen-year-old sister but that’s hard to remember in a bitter mood.
So we bickered. I was only half paying attention, even, and then my sister said something that struck me hard and stung tears into my eyes. I protested, blistered. Then I watched as my sister became indignant and my mother leapt to her defense and my father sighed and tried to ignore us all. I sank into silence against the cold hard window, forehead leaning against the separation from the sun. I watched the bright-lit leaves wash by, and closed my eyes against the hurt.
Finally we were there, parked tilted on the hill that led to their house. We trooped out of the car and headed into the house of these people I barely knew. My parents made introductions and I offered a smile and pleasantries to match. I griped behind the lilt of the pleased new conversation.
Once everyone had arrived, people went one way and another to get food and beer and seats in the grass or on the porch in the heat of the fading afternoon. I picked myself a plate and carried it to the table under the shade of the tent, away from the porch and far from my parents. There were four people at the table already. They were all wearing yellow polo shirts.
I sat, and scooped up a bite. After a minute, I said, “You’re all very yellow.”
Three of them – two greying men and a middle-aged woman with a bob – laughed to agree. They were the brothers and sister of Rachel’s mother, I gathered, and they had all worn yellow purely by coincidence. The fourth seated at the table was their mother, a wrinkled and bent woman who did not laugh at the coincidence. She looked too pinched to open her mouth at a moment’s notice for such triviality, but her eyes gleamed dark and merry at me from within their nest of wrinkles.
With several forkfuls of rice gulped down and an entire yellow family for distraction, I began to talk to the brothers. I might as well. The bearded stocky one inquired as to my school and interests, told me of his house in Chicago and about his job (all of which I’ve quite forgotten now). The other, a beaky drawn man with thinning hair, joked about the desserts and the amount of fat and sugar surely hidden treacherously within them. This was his means of a transition, whereupon he launched into querulous complaint about his diabetes. The sister, a plump-faced woman with lines curving around her mouth, gave the occasional kind comment or question. She wanted to know if I enjoyed college, and how lovely that was really that I did.
The consensus among the siblings was their mother. She was silent until apparently she found something interesting or entertaining. Then she would start up in her plastic chair and emit a cracked sound entirely incomprehensible to the table at large, though sometimes one of the siblings would attempt a translation.
She was very consistent about her movement, if not her contribution to the discussion. She sat hunched in her folding chair, sunk into herself, and as we talked and watched her, she slid slowly and inexorably to her right. Her shoulders would sag as if she were trying to lie prone on the ground, suddenly but gracefully slip to the grass straight from the height of her seat. Every time she slid down to the level of the table, her daughter would grasp her shoulders and right her, firmly and gently.
Her three children watched her slip slowly toward the ground. They rolled their eyes, or shrugged, or puffed sighs of exasperation. They tossed forth the occasional mention of her state and their voices were worried. But when she didn’t need setting straight again and they weren’t immediately preoccupied with looking to see her start sliding again, they talked in animated voices and ignored what she tried to say.
Halfway through the stolid party, one of the brothers – the bearded one – announced his intention to get more food, as it was reasonably good. The old mother burst into a cackle of laughter, and lifted her heavy grey head. She looked up and said, “Isn’t that funny?” and her mouth gaped smiling and pleased.
The siblings shrugged. I shrugged. The old lady sighed with laughter and drooped into place, shoulders bent and dragging slow through the air again, downward. She understood something secret and faraway, and simply couldn’t find the means to tell us. We went on. The son stood to get the food he had promised himself.
When he came back, we spoke a bit more quietly. We talked about cars and other countries and old books. A half hour passed that way. My mother came over to tap me on the shoulder to say they were gathering to go soon, and left again. I talked for a minute about literature and loving stories.
The old lady slid in her chair and rocked with laughter again for a moment. “That’s funny, now, it is,” she said. She nodded vaguely at me from her place curled against the plastic tablecloth. I shrugged again, somewhat helplessly. Her daughter lifted her, pushing her back upright to sit again. She tried vainly and briefly to adjust her mother, to pull her shoulders against the back of the chair, and she plucked for a moment at her mother’s limbs before settling into her own seat again.
The old lady looked up at me once more, chin lifted and black eyes focusing on mine for a hard moment. She looked at me, and then her voice was cracked but clear. She said, “Take the bitter with the better.” Then her voice swung in a sob of laughter once more, and she bent back down into the shade against the spreading sunlight of summer.