Neatly arranged trees throw shade over newly-mown grass; robins on their branches swap ideas through song, and two squirrels chatter in what may be agreement, but probably isn’t. This is an American small-town park in early summer and a gathering is afoot. Casually dressed people mill about under a pavilion’s peaked tin roof. They laugh, gossip, pick at foil-covered pots and pans and trays of food arrayed over picnic table surfaces. The aroma of the victuals is inviting.
The petite municipality where this takes place is tagged with the name Downard and this park, Downard Park, is its emerald isle; a slightly deeper shade of green than the LDS church’s lawn four blocks east, and a much more luxurious green than the cemetery across town.
At the north end of all this verdancy lies a wide stretch of pale gray: a parking area consisting of smooth stones too fine to be called gravel. It not only services the park, but also the connecting baseball field to the northwest, and the rarely used tennis courts to the northeast. It currently holds eleven cars, three pickup trucks, and two behemoth RVs.
Seven more vehicles line the streets along the park’s eastern and southern borders.
The assemblage of voices we hear in and around the pavilion seems a meaningless babble at first, but soon they single themselves out, and we can discern a certain twang in many of them, a certain southern-ness, which may lead one to assume that Downard inhabits one of America’s Dixie-land states. Such is not the case.
This event—a family reunion—is being enacted in a north-western state known for its starchy root vegetables, white men with scuffed cowboy boots and long rifles, and a heavy concentration of following a religion that seeped up from the state to the south.
Most of the reunited were born in this area, and are typically suspicious of those hailing from outside it, or do not, in some substantial way, have connections to it.
Two newcomers approach from across the baseball field; one tall, one short. Respectively, one male, one female. The first, a father, the other his daughter. They are holding hands.
The father’s brown hair is longish but not unkempt; the daughter’s hair is longer, corn silk blonde, arranged in big bouncy curls and adorned with green ribbons that flutter in the warm breeze. He wears a dark blue polo shirt, pressed gray slacks; she, a creamy jade-colored shirt and a pair of denim shorts.
The man’s hand not holding little fingers grips the white handle of a bright red cooler. The girl’s feet are clad in equally red sneakers, with white laces.
The pair tread up and over the pitcher’s mound, veer to the right of the wire-link backstop (with attached dugouts) and enter the park proper.
How long? the man wonders, How long until someone calls me—
His name is Preston Goode and he hasn’t been to one of these get-togethers—at least on the Brunnel side of his family—in more than 20 years.
“The guy’s a nut, is what I hear,” someone under the pavilion’s roof whispers. “I don’t know how Vera May puts up with it.”
“Yeah, he’s always been that way,” replies another whisperer.
The majority of those in attendance believe they have reason to dislike Preston, to distrust Preston, or, at the very least, to dismiss Preston, despite the fact few have ever spoke to the man beyond a hi-howya-doin two decades ago. It’s because they’ve heard things—they’ve all heard things— leading one to believe that the Goode boy will never be a good boy.
They heard tales of tomfoolery (the Cayenne pepper dusted over Mom’s peach cobbler when he was eight), tales of larceny (the swiping of a souvenir hand grenade from his late father’s footlocker), tales of terrorism (the brandishing of said grenade during “show-and-tell” at school), and, of course, the much more recent tale, this one of outright peculiarity: his desire to be referred to as Johnny B rather than Preston.