Let me tell you a story.
It is a summer evening in Knoxville, Tennessee. The day has been hot, but the hottest part is over. It’s still sticky outside, though, and the cicadas are singing in the massive, centuries-old hardwoods all around the big house on the corner in this grand midtown neighborhood. Inside, there is life in the coolness of the air-conditioned kitchen with the terra cotta tile floor, which feels so good against bare feet; sunshine spills through a west-facing casement window whose curlicue iron latch is thick with a lifetime of repainting. On the large harvest table set in the center of the room, a pair of brass trivets awaits the casserole dish of homemade macaroni and cheese that is about to come out of the oven; the cutout design on each trivet forms the blooms of creamy calla lilies.
A large bowl next to these is filled to overflowing with lettuces, thick and crisp and representing the entire color spectrum of greens; buried within are dried cranberries and black walnuts, and soon a homemade concoction of balsamic vinegar and olive oil and sea salt will find its way into all the nooks and crannies. There is also a long tray of crudité, the colorful rows of little vegetable fingers arranged neatly in parallel, and a small dish of ranch dressing for dipping; another plate is piled high with the reddest, juiciest tomato slices one can fathom. Next to this is a long, narrow stoneware boat filled with pitted Kalamata olives.
Atop a stack of plates next to the salad bowl are folded linen napkins and a jumble of flatware. There is also a stack of trays like the ones you might have pushed down the cafeteria line when you were in elementary school, with little compartments meant to hold the food groups, and a small one for the carton of milk in the upper right; there will be no milk tonight, but instead juice boxes upon juice boxes that fit in that little square well enough. There are also wine glasses set out neatly, with little charms around the stems: a brass telephone, a tiny pewter Eiffel Tower, a diamond ring, and other little icons that recall Monopoly game pieces. Next to these is a magnum of Cabernet uncorked, and a pair of wine coolers readied with ice and awaiting a bottle each of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. And there are tall glass pilsners in the freezer and beer in the fridge.
Just beyond the windowed kitchen door, outside a patio table is set with a long table runner in celebratory colors of the season, cheerful stripes in peach and mango and lemony yellow and robin’s egg blue and saturated lime green; a pair of citronella candles burns to shoo away the bugs, one at either end. Across the patio there is salmon and asparagus and corn on the cob on the grill, where a giant Shiloh Shepherd circles like a shark, with his nose pointed skyward to take in the smells. His name is Teddy Blue, but his people joke about calling him ‘Whore for Salmon’ instead; he stands so tall that the dining table is precisely the right height for him simply to slide his chin upon it and rest his head, his tail awag hopefully behind all 145 pounds of him.
A short flight of brick steps leads up off the patio to a narrow strip of lawn above it, and a long, curvilinear swimming pool that has been carved into what once was a driveway, where it curved around from the front and led behind the house into a garage; this has long since been converted into a home office space, with a pair of French doors that open onto the pool. At the deep end, farthest from the patio, a waterfall spills from a stone diving platform; at the shallow end, a pair of wood and canvas chairs offer the best vantage point to take in the entire scene. One can sit there of an evening and watch the night fall, with a good drink in hand and calming music coming from a small speaker nearby.
The pool looks like it has been there forever, even though it is new. It has a black bottom and a tile border that mimics the colors of the ancient slate roof on the house; above the tiles rise a tiered stone wall that accommodates the change in elevation from one end to the other. When the pool lights are on at night, something magical happens and one feels absolutely transported to an unknown Old Worldly destination on the other side of the planet, because the tall landscape around it—the laurel hedge and the mature bamboo stand, and an adjacent masonry wall to the east—conspire to make the surrounding horizon simply disappear, leaving one’s imagination to run wild. The pool cleaner crawls along the cement bottom, taking in the detritus of the day, which begins to fill the mesh bag behind it—dog hair, bamboo leaves, little brown beetles all find their way into the bag, which will need emptying by morning; the cleaner occasionally makes its way up, up, up the side of the pool, and the tail that whips along behind it, propelling it forward, escapes now and then and flings water into the air and sometimes onto a person sitting in one of the chairs. It is comical, but the mesmerizing action of the cleaner is enough to draw the eye for a long while despite the water hazard. We call it Jeeves.
Long before this moment, though, the house and patio are filled with the happy voices of children and their parents: a pair of identical twin girls and their older sister; another girl precisely the same age as the oldest of the sisters; and a boy whose age lies between them. One family will have brought over a bowl of berries soaking in a boozy, sugary glaze; the other will have brought a chocolatey dessert. As somehow seems to happen on these occasions, the men will congregate in a separate group and so will the women. When we sit down to eat, that’s when we come back together and engage as one; we’ll hold court with each other for long hours of spirited conversation. Our children will have had their supper by then, and found their way into the swimming pool, where there will be lively squealing and splashing; Teddy is the self-appointed lifeguard and paces around the pool deck, not at all sure this is okay. As the years wear on, the kids will still be drawn to the pool, but will spend less time splashing and more time sitting on the edge with only their legs dangling in the water, talking now sotto voce, and now animatedly, the way teenagers do; it will be only the twins to dive in and tread water in the deep end behind the waterfall, which will transform their colorful selves into abstract artwork.
We are close to each other, we three families, more like a single family altogether; we live scarcely a half mile away from each other. We share values and friendships and happy times. We also share sorrows and secrets. We make funny predictions about the future; some day our children will be sitting around another long table at a rehearsal dinner for somebody’s wedding, we imagine, and we will tell stories out loud to make them blush. One friend opines she will never be the doting parent when she and her husband march forward into the future, but instead will inspire her girls to call each other and ask, Hey, do you know where mom and dad are? (Mom and dad will have gone off on some grand adventure without telling.)
This gathering for food and company will play out again and again, in rotating scenarios from one house to another, all year long and for many years; on some occasions others will join our triumvirate with their children in tow. These children will grow up together, the progeny of people whose lives are steeped in fine arts and letters and performing arts, in medicine and education, in technology and television. Our village will be a powerful one, and then one day it will finally come apart, not entirely surprisingly, and not how any of us really imagined it would.
This is not a lamentation, but a memory, and some things are worth remembering. One of my son’s godparents is a writer, who long ago told me the story of how he penned the occasion of his younger daughter’s birth in a scrapbook for his older daughter, who was age four or so at the time. She thinks she remembers that day, he opined, and probably does not in truth, but because of the book, believes she does. Maybe this is true. I can feel some of my memories begin to fade after nearly a decade of intervening years, because a new, joyous chapter (and daring adventure) consumes me now. So, I am feeling the need to preserve them on paper as it were, before the fullness of time finally renders them in some soft hand with blurred lines bereft of the important details.
Much later on that summer evening in Knoxville, after our company gathers up their children and toys and towels and bags, and empties out of our house, the boy will be ushered upstairs to his bath. The dishes will have been piled high in the sink, and Teddy the opportunist will linger in the kitchen looking for scraps or plates to lick clean. Eventually the loaded dishwasher will purr and the house will fall silent; outside the air will still feel heavy in the darkness and I will take my wine glass and sit alone in one of the two folding chairs at the edge of the pool’s shallow end. My fingers will find their way to one ankle and I’ll realize it itches because of the large pink welt coming there, courtesy of a hungry mosquito. The stars are out and the cicadas have grown louder still in the trees, joined now by crickets; over by the kitchen door a cicada has left its perfectly formed casing on the stuccoed wall under the stained-glass window. I’ll leave its prehistoric-like figure alone and show it to the boy in the morning, and we’ll marvel how it looks like it could simply crawl away any second, but is completely empty inside.
So many years later, in spite of so much that went wrong, these are the best stories, the ones worth telling again and again.