“You know what the problem is, don’t you?” Paul leaned forward. It had been a sunny day, but evening settled in cool. It smelled like grass and hot concrete.
Al knew this look, the tone. “Geez, Paul, can’t you wait until we start drinking?” He poured the scotch.
Earl took his glass. “Thanks, Al. Glad you came around to the Islay stuff.” He settled his big frame back against the patio chair, sniffing the glass. “The best.”
Al held his glass up, shot a warning look to Paul. “Welcome back, friends. To you, to us.” He tapped the glass on the bar, then raised it to his lips. Earl looked delirious as he took his first drink.
“I still live in Spokane, you know. You don’t have to welcome me back.” Paul set his drink down.
“Have you been talking to my Pops again, Paul? You sound all … I don’t know, belligerent?” Al looked at Paul over the rim of the his glass. “I’m going to be burping peat for a week.”
Paul scowled and drew in breath, a red splotch creeping up his neck. They’d been playing the game of “Who can make Paul explode” for 35 years. Earl cut in before Paul could say anything more than “W–…”
“I think it’s cool your Pops is here. Like old times. He doesn’t seem any worse than we was.”
“I mean, he lights stuff on fire. Boomers, man.”
“How’d you get him to leave his guns behind?”
Al’s youngest son, Lloyd, age 12, sauntered past, giving his dad and his friends side eye. Al took another drink, smiling.
“What was that?”
“I told you guys about Carrie?”
“Yes, Earl. It’ been over a year, and you sent us a hundred texts the night it happened. You also posted on Facebook and created an Instagram dedicated to burning her things.”
Earl lit a cigarette. “She’s remarried. Anyway. You getting any sleep, Paul? Little one keeping you up all night. About time.”
Paul almost choked. “That was fast.” He wiped his chin. “No sleep.”
“Al, how did you get your Pops to … ”
“Threatened to cut off his internet.”
“Did you guys see that thing–”
“Dad,” Al’s daughter called from somewhere. “Mom says to start dinner.”
Paul stood up with Al. “What’s the theme this year? Oh yeah, ‘teach Earl to cook.’ Again. How many years is it, now? Seven?”
Earl shook his head at Paul. They’d known each other since first grade. “Drink faster, bud.”
“Anyway, we can’t cook until we’re properly inspired. Time for some tunes. Tradition, boys.” Paul went in the back door. Al followed. Earl grabbed the bottle, then followed.
“How about this? Sound familiar? Name that tune.”
Earl and Al both said “Pearl Jam” before the music started.
“Jerks.” Paul looked into the living room where the remaining wives had huddled with the baby, Paul and Ellie’s first, barely 3 months old. “Hey, girls. Think baby is ready to learn about Gen X?”
If there was a response, Al didn’t hear it. Paul stayed in the dining room bopping his head. The ice in his glass clinked from side to side.
“This open concept thing is really working out, Al. I like how … open it is.”
Al looked at Paul.
“You can see the whole house, man.”
The remodel was a year in. “Yeah,” Earl said. “And those 2-by-4 cabinets are pretty cool. You make those?”
Al shook his head. “You get used to it. It all works, at least.”
Pops came down the stairs. “When’s dinner? It’s getting late.”
“It’s 6:30, Pops. Coming right up.”
Pops walked into the kitchen. “What is this garbage on the radio? Thought you outgrew that crap? Ain’t nothing on the stove. You grillin’? Girls are all in the living room.” He kept walking, out the back door.
Al pulled many things out of the fridge, then started chopping onions.
“Want me to do anything?” Earl said.
Paul had disappeared into the living room but hustled back when side one ended.
“Change it!” Pops called from the patio.
Al nodded at Paul. “Stones.” Paul put on “Let It Bleed.” “Gimme Shelter” came on.
By the time the onions were sautéed, garlic and red peppers had been added, and the girls had had enough of the Rolling Stones.
“Hey!” Pops said from the back. Lloyd came in from the patio and sidled through the kitchen, smirking.
Al turned on the Bluetooth speaker and pulled his phone out of his pocket, selected a playlist and hit play. “Black Hole Sun” came on.
“Nice,” Earl said.
Al nodded toward the shrimp. Earl shook his head. Paul came in from the dining room. “What gives, man? We always do vinyl the first night.”
“I know, sorry, but can you peel those shrimp?”
Earl smiled at Al. Al smh’ed.
“Earl, you know how to put water in a pot?”
Earl shrugged. “It’s Washington, brother. I can do all kinds of things with pot.” He took the soup pan and turned the water on.
Paul pulled tails off the shrimp. “Born to Run” came on. “It’s all the Koch brothers. Dark money. And the NRA, obviously.”
“The NBA?” Earl asked. The water overflowed the pot. Paul’s eyes bugged.
From the back door, Pops said, “I gotta hear this.”
Paul went back to the shrimp.
Al pointed with his knife. “You deveining those, too? No shrimp poops.”
Paul scowled. Al pressed out some dough and started feeding it through the pasta roller. Earl refilled everyone’s glasses. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came on, and the boys all paused. Pops laughed in the doorway. “That dough rise long enough?”
“Can you believe my girls are going to college?” Earl said. “College.”
“Lotta good that’ll do them,” Pops said.
“Easy Pops. Who poured you that drink?” Pops’ rum and Coke was full. There was neither rum nor Coke in the kitchen, or on the patio.
“I’m serious. College is a trap. You all gotta know that.”
“Well who’s fault is that?” Paul had a tiny knife in his hand, butterflying the shrimp and using his thumb and the tip of the knife to pull the vein out.
“The NBA.” Earl ventured, nodding.
“I teach college, Pops.” Al waved his tongs around. “You’re welcome.”
“Don’t know how that happened,” Pops muttered.
Al shook his head but said nothing.
“Student loans, man,” Paul said. “Hope your girls aren’t taking out any loans, Earl. It’s a trap.”
Earl giggled, then in a “Star Wars” voice, “It’s a trap!”
Lloyd poked his head around the corner. “Meme!” Then disappeared again.
“California Dreamin’ ” came on.
“Is that water boiling?” Al glanced at the stove. “Earl, man, the ladle is on fire.” The wooden handle had gotten pushed over the gas burner.
Phoebe, Al’s daughter, who’d just started driver’s ed, floated into the kitchen. “This song is beautiful. What’s for dinner?”
“That’s my generation right there, kiddo,” Pops said. “Made music right, we did.”
“Looks like pasta, sweetie,” Al said, shaking a handful of noodles in her direction.
Lloyd burst from around the corner and tackled his sister, just this year shorter and lighter than him.
Al’s wife yelled “Not in the house!” from the living room. The baby started crying, and Paul ran for the living room. Lloyd ran past Pops out the back.
Phoebe got up, big dramatic eyes and arms out. “What. The. Frick.”
Pops followed Lloyd out back.
“Wait,” Phoebe said. “This is Grandpa’s music? How is that a thing?”
Paul tossed the shrimp in the saute pan and laughed. “They weren’t always like this.”
“I heard that!” from the back.
“Grandpa, were you at Woodstock? My teacher was telling us about Woodstock and the Summer of Love. All that. That was you?”
Pops drank from his rum and Coke.
“Wild World” came on. The baby’d stopped crying.
“It’s hard to say.”
Paul came back into the kitchen. “It’s not that hard. They sobered up from the ’60s and ’70s and turned into yuppies, then drove it all into the ground!” He was on the verge of wound up. “And they continue to do so!” A bit of muttering, and Al thought he heard Merrick Garland’s name under Paul’s breath.
Earl had his head in his hands.
Al put the colander in the sink and chopped some basil. “It’s not like they said, ‘Hey, let’s drive it all into the ground.’ ”
“The Koch brothers! Have you read …”
“That’s exactly what we did!” from the back.
“Dad, I smell smoke.”
“That’s just the planet, Phoebe,” Paul said, then yelled at the back door, “There’s no deep state, you lunatic.”
“It just always seems like that, sweetie.”
Dinner was ready.
Lloyd came up from under the table into his seat. Pops ambled in from the back. The girls appeared from the living room. “Quiet, the baby’s asleep.” It was the point at which Earl might have been in his boxers, but they were all more mature now. “High Hopes” came on.
“Is there bread? I’ll get some butter.”
Al finished grating the Parmesan and brought it to the table.
Earl settled into his chair and sniffed. “Anybody need anything?”
“We’re fine, sweetie. You’re fine.”
“We couldn’t change things. We tried.”
“I really think the house is on fire, dad.”
“This is delicious.”
“I love butter.”
“Shhhh, the baby.”
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