“Tessa, no one likes your salads,” Lyle teased. “I don’t why you make them when you’re going to be the only one eating them,” he laughed, headed for the garage.
She paused for a second and then went back to chopping radishes, humming a song she seemed to be making up as she went. Bill and Eddie were outside starting the grill. Flames ripped through the grates and then quieted while they chatted about their favorite football teams, one giving the other a hard time for his choice. Jackie was still in bed, not sure she’d be joining the festivities.
“I’m so tired,” she complained. “I’d have to take a shower and…”
“You might feel better if you get up and get dressed,” I suggested.
“No, I don’t think so,” she turned her back to me. “I think I’m going to stay here…but, we’ll see.”
I stayed for a moment, not sure how to make my exit until I heard Mary come in, her loud, raspy voice filling the whole house.
“I’ll be right back…” I said and left to greet Mary.
She was a retired counselor and lived three houses down, spending her days gardening and tutoring children in the neighborhood.
“Hey, Mary,” I said, waiting for her to turn around and see me.
“What?” she set a pan of mac and cheese on the counter. “I didn’t think you were going to be here,” she pulled me in for a hug, patting my back like I was choking.
“I decided I needed to be here…” I said.
“Jackie?” Mary stared at me over the rim of her glasses. “Where is she?”
“It’s been a tough day for her,” Tessa said, adding Rotini noodles to her salad.
“She’s in bed,” I pointed down the hall. “She doesn’t want to get up.”
“Let me go talk to her…” Mary put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed as she walked towards Jackie’s room.
I went back to making a banana pudding, and Tessa started on another salad, one with beans–green, soy, and kidney–celery, bell pepper, red onion, vinegar, and oil. We couldn’t make out what Mary was saying, but we heard her voice, the way she held onto words, twisting them around her tongue. Bill was loading meat onto the grill, Eddie supervising with a beer in his hand.
Gloria and Glen arrived with a red velvet cake and deviled eggs. They dropped off the food in the kitchen, greeted us, and then made their way to the backyard, grabbing sparkling waters from the ice chest before sinking into two orange lawn chairs. Not long after, Tammy and Ruth came, and then Jerry, Eileen, Marty, Stella, and Barb joined. Tessa had made three salads and we were ready to start lining the long, empty table outside with bowls and platters of food, heavy-duty paper plates and cutlery, napkins and cinnamon flavored toothpicks, when Mary appeared, Jackie next to her dressed in a blue t-shirt and white shorts, her hair combed in the front, matted in the back.
“Come on everybody,” Mary ordered. “Jackie has something she wants to say.”
Bill flipped a few burgers and then gathered alongside Eileen and Marty. Eddie poked his head inside the garage, inviting Lyle to Jackie’s big announcement. We stood in a large circle, Jackie in the center, Mary not too far away for support.
“I’m really tired,” Jackie began, moving nervously from side to side. “I just wanted to sleep all day.”
We all nodded with sympathy, offering closed-mouthed smiles.
“Thank you all for coming though…” she rubbed her hands together. “Um…Trevor would have wanted to be here.”
No one spoke, giving her time to collect herself, giving ourselves space to step back from personal opinion, to remember that Trevor was always going to be her son, even if to us he had become something else: the reason we had stayed away so long, and for others the reason they’d never return.
“I know he’s where he needs to be…I do, but thank you all for coming,” she choked. “And thank you for not judging me for still loving him.”
Mary started clapping, encouraging everyone else to do the same, and we did. But it was a disjointed effort that never really came together and ended with a silence we filled with food and approving nods.