It all started as a relatively innocent January evening—my wife and I are staying with her dad in Mississippi, a week-or-so-long vacation that we sorely need after a long and soul-grating semester of graduate school. Her dad, former Marine and consummate entertainer, loves fireworks, and so do we. We decide to gather up as many little rockets and Black Cat firecrackers as we can find, and as soon as darkness settles around the property—a great little house trailer surrounded by woods—we light ’em up! Rockets, smoke bombs, and firecrackers shoot up crackling over the trees, into the twilit sky.
Black powder smoke soon fills the concrete slab out front of the house. My wife’s father (we’ll call him Jim) heads into the house for beer. He’s all congested from the smoke, coughing up a storm as he tries to get the smoke out of his eyes and lungs. At this point his wife passes him as she heads out of the house to join us. She’s my wife’s stepmother, and though she’s a generally amiable person when sober, they don’t always see eye to eye. On top of that, by this point in the evening she (like the rest of us) has had a few. It’s just that she doesn’t hold it nearly as well as she should.
We’ll call her Barbara. That’s how we know her in the poem “Friend of the Family”—and at times she could be just that: an alternate person, running parallel to what we considered “family” but not quite there. Not really connected with the rest of us at times, Barb sometimes just watched TV when she could be doing other, more constructive things. And like I said, alcohol just intensifies matters. This is the point at which the poem’s narrative kicks in: Barb stumbling pinball-esque about the fire pit, giving us all what for. Spitting beer while she tells us in no uncertain terms that she is not talking to us at all. Beer bottles whiz into the pit and smash, glass flies, tempers flare, and we swear to God we won’t return, at least for a while. Prime material for poetry, especially when contrasted to her more sensible sober self. As the poem implies, we were sorry for her drunkenness, because it prevented the more rational Barbara from emerging.
We really did leave the house that night, fed up with how crazy things had gotten. Easing down the street may have been a generous verb, though—to paraphrase Shakespeare, we probably just got the hell out of that damned spot, and pretty quickly, as I remember. Since that night tempers have cooled, and we