Missouri Mayonnaise by Tess Hunter

The Scoville Family Reunion took place at a park in Charleston, MO on a muggy Saturday afternoon. The festivities were scheduled for 3 o’clock—that nebulous hour which meant the hosts didn’t have to provide lunch or dinner. Pete sat beneath the baking heat, magnified tenfold through the scratched windshield of his ’98 Audi and wondered if this was worth it. The AC had cut out somewhere between Flagstaff and Albuquerque, and he’d kept the windows sealed tight since crossing the Missouri state line. Given his luck, he wouldn’t survive a bout with West Nile.

The parking lot filled fast around him as families poured out of their minivans and trucks and SUVs in a flurry of carseats and sticky-fingered kids to gather beneath the shelter on the hill. They buzzed around the the five shaded picnic tables like bees over a honey pot and left the other dozen ignored. Near what looked to be a very meager buffet, a middle-aged blonde woman with faded roots was yelling at her young son while she scrubbed his face with a damp cloth. There wasn’t a keg in sight.

Pete heaved a sigh and leaned over the console to dig in the smattering of trash at the foot of the passenger’s side floor. He burrowed past empty Big Gulps and drive-thru paper bags til he found a mostly-used can of Buzz-Off. He sprayed until the nozzle sputtered and the fumes had settled his nerves, then grabbed the polaroid camera from the dash, looked over his options on the back seat and selected the apple pie over the bottle of wine—these people clearly didn’t appreciate the finer things—and flung open the door into sticky air.

He was sweating by time he made it to the shelter, polo-shirt sticking to the small of his back. Pete had learned to wear black in the midwest if he didn’t want to scare people off with his sweat-stains. He lingered around the buffet, listening to ebb and flow of conversation as he decided whether to put the pie between the half-eaten bag of Doritos or the store-bought potato salad that had been dressed up in a glass bowl to pass off as homemade.

‘Jim-boy, how the hell are ya? What’s it been—two years?’ A lean man with white hair, bowed-legs, and a disproportionate gut was approaching a younger man who lingered away from the crowd.

‘Bout that,’ said Jim, smiling tightly. He was a good-looking guy, well-built. But there were premature lines around his eyes and his skin was over-tanned from too much time in the sun.

‘How’s life at John Deere?’

‘Got laid off.’

An awkward pause. ‘Sorry to hear that. They shut down?’

‘Found cheaper work.’

The old man hissed between his teeth, shook his head. ‘Damn shame, that. It’s worse out by us though. Can’t go to the grocery store anymore without a linguistic’s degree. Count yourself lucky.’

‘Right.’

Pete seized his opportunity. ‘We’re hiring in Salt Lake,’ he said. ‘If you’re looking for a change of scene.’

Jim-boy blinked. ‘We?’

‘Sorry, should have said—Torro.’ Jim’s eyes got wider. It wasn’t a lie. Pete had seen the hiring sign off I-40.

Jim shifted on his feet. His right hand was buried deep in the pocket of his jean jacket. ‘Got the kids to think of…’

‘Course,’ Pete said. ‘How they doing?’

‘Well enough. Brett’s starting little league in the fall.’

Pete checked Jim’s ring-finger. ‘And the Mrs?’

That tight, bitter smile. ‘Running circles round me.’

The old man had gotten bored, wandered off to chat with those more sympathetic to his grocery store woes. Jim nodded to the camera hanging around Pete’s neck. ‘Haven’t seen one of those in a while.’

Pete shrugged. ‘It’s a hobby. Keeps me out of trouble.’

‘I should try that sometime.’ Jim rummaged in his pocket again. Pete raised his eyebrows.

‘Mind if I join you?’

Jim’s bitter grin turned wry. He jerked his head over to the deserted tables directly in the sun. Pete swallowed back his aversion and followed. When they were settled with their backs to the crowd, Jim pulled out the flask and passed it over.

‘Don’t tell my mom,’ he said, swatting absentmindedly at a mosquito.

Pete looked over his shoulder at the group and tried to guess which one was Jim’s mom. ‘Wouldn’t dare.’ He took a swig. It was whiskey. Cheap, of course. ‘I remember what she’s like.’

‘Hard to forget.’ Jim took the flask back and took a much longer swig.

‘Jim! What are you doing? You promised you would help—’

Jim jumped as the blonde woman with roots approached at a furious clip. She had her hands on her hips and a furious gleam in her eye that said she knew exactly what Jim was doing. ‘Your mother’s having a coronary cause your uncle and his new wife showed up without an RSVP and this isn’t my family, Jim. It’s not. So why am I doing all the work?’

Jim stuffed the flask back in his pocket. ‘Sorry, babe. I was just catching up with—’ Jim hesitated.

Pete stuck out his hand and said, ‘Pete Miller. Nancy’s boy.’ Every family had a Nancy.

The woman bit back her frustration—just barely—and shook his hand. ‘Abbie. I don’t recall Nancy having a boy—’

‘You look like you got your hands full,’ Pete said quickly. ‘Need help with anything?’

She jumped on the offer. ‘The cold food needs to get in the coolers. I don’t know who thought it was a good idea to mix mayonnaise and Missouri summer.’

Pete chuckled and followed Abbie to the buffet. ‘Oh, I recall.’

Abbie looked over her shoulder. ‘You live here?’

‘Not anymore. Just as a kid.’

‘Where you at now?’

‘Oakland.’

Abbie whistled. ‘Long journey.’

‘I’m used to it.’

‘Where’s your mom at now?’

‘A home,’ Pete said. Abbie stopped shuffling pies and narrowed her eyes. Pete patted his camera. ‘Promised I’d bring her a picture. Damn!’ He slapped a hand over his arm. A fly buzzed away merrily.

‘The flies bite,’ Abbie said. ‘But you’d know all about that wouldn’t you, Pete?’

His sweat went cold. ‘Right. Musta forgot.’

‘Hm, yeah. Mosquito repellant’s no good for the flies. Everyone uses organic.’

‘Right, right.’ Pete cut his eyes away from Abbie. He was on borrowed time. ‘Think we could get that picture now? I know my mom’s eager to see everyone—’

‘Funny, since my mother-in-law saw her a few months past—’

‘Family picture!’ Pete jogged to the center of the shelter.

‘Everybody gather in tight!’

They were slow to respond—it was no small feat gathering up a dozen different kids and hard-of-hearing uncles—but they did as they were bid. Abbie watched from the sidelines, arms crossed above her wide hips.

He was pushing his luck, but Pete’d be damned if he endured this heat and those biting flies for nothing. ‘You mind, Abbie?’

He handed her the camera, took off before she could argue.

Pete positioned himself just off-center in the front row. Grinned wide as Abbie said, ‘Say cheese,’ and took the camera from her soon as the film hit air. Pete flapped the photo into drying as Abbie stared.

‘Think I could get a copy?’ she said.

Pete wound the camera strap around his neck. ‘You know, I think it’s out of film. Let me just run back to the car—’

He did run. Didn’t look back at the shelter until he was peeling out of the parking lot. Abbie had a group of hulking men gathered around her. They stared after Pete and it was easy to picture the outrage in Jim’s drunken eyes.

He pulled over ten minutes down the road, heart still pounding. Put the camera back on the dash, looked at the photo pinched between his fingers. He was lucky he’d gotten as far as he had. The Scovilles had a strong German look about them that Pete lacked.

Another two dozen Petes and his families stared up at him from the glove compartment. Calgary, Des Moines, Boulder, Tallahassee. Pete grabbed the sharpie from the cupholder, scribbled, ‘Scovilles, Charleston, MO,’ on the back, dropped it in with the rest.

A few minutes browsing on his phone found his next destination—The O’Sullivans Second Annual Reunion. It was perfect. Nobody would question a newcomer at a second reunion, and Pete looked much more Irish than German. Not to mention the Montana dry would be a welcome relief.
Pete grinned and clicked on his blinker. Maybe the O’Sullivans would appreciate wine. Feeling much calmer, he checked his blindspot and headed down the road—windows rolled up, sweat at his back, and a trapped fly buzzing in his ear.

***

Tess Hunter began her career in screenwriting, specializing in genre television. Her SF screenplay placed in the semi-finals of the PAGE Awards. She eventually turned to prose, completing two novels, and procuring an MA in Professional Writing. Tess currently lives in Colorado and is seeking representation. Her website is www.tesshunter.com and she tweets @tesshunter.

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