We had a little shindig this past Sunday. Had some people over. It was mostly for the kids. We rented a big inflatable waterslide that costs an arm and a leg and we invited some neighbors, some of Arle’s family, some parents/ some youth. Some people came and other people did not. A few said they were coming but never showed up. There’s likely a variety of reason for this, many stemming from mental health issues, especially anxiety. I get that. Others, I think, are beholden to strange forces that may or may not be directly (or indirectly) linked to mental health stuff. In the end, I looked out over the yard and smiled.
Fuck it, I thought to myself. They don’t know what they’re missing.
Which is stupid, of course. Obviously they don’t know what they’re missing because they are not here, dumbass. Besides, there is an element of their consciousness that actually does know what they’re missing. At least when it comes to the bones of the situation, you know? Like, they know what these things consist of. People forcing conversation half the time/ talking through liquored-up lips the other half. Bbq smoke and distant music from a tinny speaker and the sound of children laughing or crying or both at once. It’s all supposed to be ultra-relaxing for adults but I think maybe that’s not always the case. Not everything that doesn’t involve work or whatever is a picnic in the park. People who have been around the mental block a few times know this. They understand that a simple gathering in someones yard will be easy for some people and not for others.
And for the ones it is not so easy for, there is basically fuck all to be done about it. There are no monuments out there for the uneasy picnicker. There are no songs about it as far as I can tell. Maybe Whip It by Devo but the jury is still out on that one, I guess. There are no talked-about indie films or hot new limited series streaming on Netflix or HBO that feature the loneliness of the long distance IPA drinker. Poets, or what’s left of them anyways (poor bastards), they ignore the specifics of the suffering and the exhausted/ the talked-out Dad with his dad bod jiggling around in his Walmart Purple Rain T-shirt/ the seen-it-all-been-there-done-that mom of tweens whose smile is mortally wounded Gettysburg artilleryman meets broken-hearted 1966 drunk American prom queen. The goddamn garden is rich with fat fruit for the artist who wants to paint The Potato Salad Eaters, that majestic breathtaking masterpiece depicting the subtle nuances of strange undercurrent ripping through summertime gatherings across the land. But no one cares.
There are no underground champions of the torn-in-two summer invitee. No one to bottle the gravitas beneath their paper thin smiles. Happiness, so natural for so many, she plays tricks on others. She leaves them wishing they could have a good time/ she finds them hoping no one knows that they feel as if they are standing in the slow-rolling search lights.
How are there no champions of these people? How are there no cul-de-sac graduation party Walt Whitmans??!!/ no country road toke-n-smoke (weed and ribs!) Thomas Hart Bentons??!! / no South Philly prison yard hibachi Bob Dylans??!!/ no riverside park family reunion Aretha Franklins??!!
How do we miss so much when it’s right there in front of our faces?
Maybe not showing up is the new showing up/ I don’t know.
I cooked chicken thighs on the new grill I got. The old one rusted away; the bottom fell out when I opened it this spring to gauge the winter damage. I don’t cover my grills because I don’t believe in it. I believe that charcoal burns better inside a stressed-out coffin. It adds smokey flavor, seasonal pain does. Maybe that sounds nuts to you but you never had one of my cheeseburgers off my old grill. Grillie Nelson, I called it.
Now it’s gone. I hauled it out to the trash a few weeks ago. Me and Arle had spotted some off-brand barrel grill in Rural King for half off. $75 instead of $150. I took the bait, splurged for it, and put it together one recent sunny Sunday morning over the course of like 3 hours and various be-bop records on Spotify for which many magnificent artists (or their estates) were paid not shit as I glommed onto all that joy.
That’s the way the cookie crumbles though, dog. Motherfuckers get robbed while people like me turn screws/ tighten bolts/ plan to do a whole pork loin marinated in olive oil and lemon and fresh oregano at some point this summer to really christen this Made in China puppy.
Rural King, my ass.
Rural Chinese King, you mean.
I don’t care. Trust me, I really don’t. The Chinese can come down my road tomorrow and I probably won’t even notice. My head is in the clouds. I’m 51 years old and I’m just trying to find that delicate balance between the flashing glimpses of true grinning I pull up on at times these days and my old familiar friend, Fuck Off.
It isn’t easy. It’s not motivated by obvious things. I don’t get too fired up about politics or sports or any of that amateur shit anymore, man. I left that stuff in the dust long ago. My plight is different. Deeper, if I may take the condescending liberty to say so. Standing there at my new grill, waiting as long as humanly possible to resist the temptation to tong the chicken before the skin is lightly- perfectly!- charred/ like a house fire cat/ I look into the flames with the searching eyes of a true woodland witch and the twitchy stroke-y gaze of an aging Uncle Tupelo fan.
As others speak, passively/ conversations speckled with laughter and peppered with over-complimentary niceties or else straight-up fucking one-sided self-obsessed domination (some people are DYING to speak about themselves at length to someone… ANYONE), I speak to flames and the heat and the dripping fat of a dead bird. What could be more beautiful than that, you know? To actively climb the walls away from the chattering masses in favor of listening/ intently, mind you/ to the hissing poetry of the burning flesh of a creature who would probably give its left chicken nut to trade places with you right now. Even if you are some kind of weirdo self-reflective fat Anthony Bourdain wannabe zoning out in the shadows of the one and only maple tree on the entire planet that you can rightfully lay claim to.
Old dog OWNS this motherfuckin’ big ass tree.
Old dog flipping that meat with the mouth-watering char.
Old dog spacing out down in the white hot coals (not match-lit).
Old dog looking up at the kids over on the water slide in his own backyard.
Old dog saying to no one in particular, for the thousandth time today, We didn’t have shit like this when I was a kid.
Old dog waiting/ patiently/ like a Jedi/ to flip them golden thighs.
Old dog finally flipping the first one.
It’s way burnt.
Old dog missed it.
Old dog wishes he could wiggle underneath the waterslide and drink some wine in the hot, hot silence of the oddest place.
I keep finding discarded cans around the yard. Pineapple seltzer crushed in the ferns. Dr. Pepper over by the peonies. By the grill I spot a Coke can, all classic red and white, and I lift it up and it’s empty. But the top is unopened. The kids had poked holes in the bottom and shotgunned sodas at the end of the evening as our Sunday party was winding down.
I hold it in my hands, turn it over a few times. It looks whole but it’s empty. I’m not used to that around here. They must have seen it on YouTube. One of them must have watched a video about how to shotgun a canned drink and then shared it with the rest of the gang. Or maybe one of these other kids who was a guest brought the intelligence and shared it between hot dogs and slides and all.
Like villagers from separate villages in the old days, one person brings new light into a stranger’s home and the world shifts a little bit. Things change slowly, but surely, as it goes.
I toss the can back down into the dirt by the pile of pine branches I need to burn once I get the fire pit happening. There’s always so much I need to get done, so much I’ve yet to accomplish or see through. Sometimes I feel so inspired to tackle it all at once. And then other days I just look at it, all the possibility there down in my hands, just to loosen my grip/ let it fall from fingers to live another day.
My shirt smells like chicken smoke.
It’s the same one I wore the other day.
I dig it.
To read the rest of this essay and more from Serge Bielanko, subscribe to his Substack feed HERE.
• • •
Serge Bielanko lives in small-town Pennsylvania with an amazing wife who’s out of his league and a passel of exceptional kids who still love him even when he’s a lot. Every week, he shares his thoughts on life, relationships, parenting, baseball, music, mental health, the Civil War and whatever else is rattlling around his noggin. Once in a blue Muskie Moon, he backs away from the computer, straps on a guitar and plays some rock ’n’ roll with his brother Dave and their bandmates in Marah.