“Uncle Bennett is voting for the liberals,” Cousin Laurel whispers at Easter brunch. I pinch her hand under the table, the white plastic tarp excuse for a tablecloth brushing over my knuckles.
“Gran said no politics on the holidays,” I tell her, unsticking my nails and smoothing my fingers over her hand apologetically, taking it in mine.
Laurel is relentless. “The liberals!” She whispers it louder this time, looking around her shoulder to where our uncle sits with each of our parents by the grill out on the lawn. I watch my mother pull her hair out of its ponytail, wrap it around her fist, and twist it up into a bun before securing it again. Uncle Bennett, ever the big brother, leans over and pulls a strand of it out of place and laughs as my mother swats at his arm.
“You think Gran knows?” Laurel begins to pick at her food, two deviled eggs that she mushes back together, the olive oil staining the paper plate in blotches. “’Cause I bet she don’t know.”
I don’t answer her. Instead I grab another small roll of bread and shove enough into my mouth that I can’t possibly talk. Laurel is hoping I won’t be able to help myself. She hopes I tattle. I know if I don’t, she will. Last year she got our cousin Honey thrown out of her middle school by tattling on something she done with a boy in the girl’s locker room after gym. I never asked what it was she done. I think I know, but I don’t think I want to hear anyone say it to me.
“I think we ought to tell her. I think we ought to tell her before Easter’s over, or then he’s going to leave and we won’t be able to tell her then.” Laurel shoves a fork through her eggs and stares at them as if they were about to throw a fit about Uncle Bennett and his business.
“You’re not really gonna tell her, Laurel, are you?” I’m getting fidgety and my nice yellow dress is too warm for the heat in the yard right now. “Gran’s in a good mood and her knee’s been bad this week.”
Gran’s knee is probably fine, but she don’t let us forget it wasn’t always, and sometimes she uses it to get us to stop making noise, or to make us get her things from the back room when she don’t feel like walking too much. I think the knee is a lie, but I’d take it to make Laurel shut her mouth.
“You’re the only one who wouldn’t find this interesting,” she says, and her red hair whips violently over one shoulder as she turns again to look at the adults on the grass. The white lace bow her mama stuck in her hair that morning had been discarded about an hour or so before, and was now lying in the dog house with Gran’s dachshund, Bert.
Sometimes I want to tell Laurel she’s behaving bad. I think she might not know what she sounds like, though. She never had any sisters or brothers, and my Aunt Elaine works nights every night but Sunday, and I don’t think she ever had someone to tell her she’s being foul, like I did. Now she’s just kind of rotten, but I don’t think she means it. I try to tell her myself sometimes but she’s older than me by a year and she don’t listen to me anyhow.
“How do you even know he’s voting for the…them?” I ask quietly, trying to pick the green bean bits out of my ham casserole.
“Pete told me,” she says smartly.
I stare at her. “Laurel, last Christmas, Pete told you Christmas trees weren’t flammable because of a spiritual protective wall.”
“Yeah, but this is different,” she says.
“Laurel, you set a tree on fire in our living room—”
“Completely different, Uncle Bennett told him!”
She’s turning pink in her cheeks now. Over her shoulder, I see my dad get up to offer Gran his seat as she walks over.
“He says right before Pete went off to college in August, Uncle Bennett took him out to shoot and told him he was gonna find himself at college and himself might not be who he thinks he is.”
“That doesn’t make sense, Laurel.”
She hums impatiently, pulling idly at her ponytail. “So he said that Pete didn’t have to vote for the Republicans, he could vote for the liberals, and he knew he could vote for the liberals because he voted for them!”
I stand up quickly. “I’m going to go sit by Gran and Mom. Finish your ham.” I move to step over the bench we’ve been sitting on, and she grabs at my leg, the skin of my knee pinching between her fingers and the crinoline underlining my dress. “Laurel, let go.”
“You gonna tell them?”
“No, Laurel, I’m not—”
She stands up too, moving quicker than I do and bouncing back a little bit.
“Fine, don’t tell them. See if I don’t though.” She’s off running before I can grab her, her white ankle socks catching the afternoon sun as she skirts across the lawn, and I can hear her laughing and I don’t think it’s that funny. I set off after her but I’m slow and she runs for a soccer team and by the time I make it to the adults I’m panting and heaving and Laurel is in the middle of ruining Easter.
“—and who am I voting for this year, Gran?” she’s asking, and her smile is all unkempt like her hair and her dress and she looks back at me quickly to make sure I’m watching.
“Nobody. You’re thirteen, Laurel, you don’t vote,” says Gran, drinking her fourth diet coke, her hair all waved around her round face. She’s holding my mother’s hand in hers. I swallow stiffly and glance at Uncle Bennett. He leans forward, shag-blonde hair on his shoulders, listening to Laurel.
“But if I could? Like, if I was voting tomorrow, who do I vote for?”
She’s needling and everyone can tell. They don’t know why she is, probably, but it’s always obvious when Laurel is trying to get at something. Her voice goes real high and sweet and she twists her body at the ankles back and forth like she were two years old.
Mom speaks up. “You just go ahead and vote for whoever you like, darling.” She’s stirring a sweet tea and looking more at me than at Laurel and I don’t know how to tell her Laurel’s being a brat without Laurel hitting me.
“But I should vote for somebody, right? There is, like, somebody who I should vote for? Who’s the best? That’s why they win.” Nobody answers and Laurel looks at me. I shrug. She tries again. “Who are you voting for, Aunt Janet?”
My mother smiles obligingly at her and talks for a moment about a few men I seen running for president on TV. I don’t know much about them anyhow, but I try to nod smartly and glance at my dad to make sure he thinks I’m paying good attention. He’s whispering something to Gran. Behind us, back by the tables, our littler cousins are trying to make towers out of their sweet rolls and green beans. I wish I could join them, but I’m here with Laurel, sweating through the armpits of my nice dress.
Laurel’s done waiting. “What about you Uncle Bennett?” she asks, cutting my mother off in the middle of a sentence about lobbyists. “Who are you voting for.”
Uncle Bennett’s eyes close and he smiles, head hanging down briefly for a second. He opens his eyes and takes a sip of beer, nodding to the others.
“I think I’m going to go check on dessert,” he says, and stands, wiping his palms on his jeans. Dad waves idly and there’s a calm silence over the group. I watch Laurel’s face pinch. Her trouble is, she don’t like to tattle on people she can’t see. It takes all the fun out of it. Uncle Bennett walks across the yard and through the back screen door. Nobody says anything.
Laurel fusses with her ponytail. “How am I supposed to learn about politics when he won’t even—”
“Laurel!” Aunt Elaine snaps, setting her plate down on the arm of her lawn chair. “Don’t you think you’d better go find your ribbon before one of the children takes it?” She gestures to her daughter’s hair and Laurel glares at her, before looking at me.
“Tonya doesn’t like the bow either, do you Tonya?”
I don’t answer, I just look at my mother, who smiles a little. I shuffle my feet.
“I’m going to go help Uncle Bennett with dessert,” I say finally.
Gran hums approvingly. “Good girl. He only got so many hands.”
I go to leave, but stop short. I turn quick to Laurel and cup my hand over her ear, whispering, “You’re such a little nasty sometimes, Laurel.”
I feel her hand come to swat at my hip but I’m already headed back toward the house, past my little cousins and up through the screen door into the kitchen. Uncle Bennett is scooping trifle onto plates. The radio over the stove is on, and a man’s voice, thick and slow, is rumbling out of it. He looks up at me.
“You come to help me, kid?” He smiles and I tug at my skirt a little.
I take a deep breath. “I don’t care if you’re voting for the liberals.”
He blinks twice. I’m still holding my breath and I glance nervously behind me as if Laurel and Gran will be there, staring at us through the mosquito netting. Uncle Bennett picks up two plates of trifle, catching the radio in the crook of his elbow and sitting at the table. He reaches out a long arm and pulls lightly at my hand, moving me forward and onto his lap. He straightens my dress out and turns the radio up. The man is saying something about something gone horribly wrong in a place I’ve never heard of. I try to nod again. I always thought nodding made you look like you knew what was on.
“Do you understand what he’s talking about?” Uncle Bennett asks.
I almost say yes. “No…not really, I suppose.”
“Thought so.” He hands me a fork and takes a bite of trifle. “You don’t need to yet, honey. You’re eleven years old, you’ve got time. You’ve still got a little time.”
“I’m twelve,” I correct. “I’m twelve and three months. That’s twelve and a quarter.”
“Twelve and a quarter,” he agrees. “But you don’t have to worry about this stuff till you’re eighteen and some change. So don’t let Laurel worry you about it.”
I turn on his knee to look at him. “I’m not worried for me, I’m worried for you! What if she tells Gran?”
He laughs, his chest puffing and his head thrown back a little. It’s a big laugh. It’s a laugh that’s not afraid of Laurel.
“You think my old lady doesn’t know? I came home from my first year of college with a ‘Dukakis is on your side’ button on my jacket, and he was as left as it goes. No, kid, Gran knows. She just thinks it’s best we don’t bring it up at Easter is all.”
I suddenly feel a little silly, and my face is warm again, even inside the cool kitchen. “I told Laurel, Gran said no politics at the holidays.”
He laughs again. “It’s a family event, there’s always going to be politics.” The radio crackles with the sound of cheers. Uncle Bennett listens for a moment. He kisses my head, rests his nose against it.
“Do something for me, Tonya,” he says, and I nod. “Take a deep breath.”
“Now hold it.”
I don’t let it out.
“That’s what the entire family is doing,” he says. “Now let it go.”
I exhale and he looks at me. The man on the radio is talking about the future.
“Now take another deep breath—now hold it.”
I get a little dizzy this time, but stare at him, cheeks puffed out.
“That’s what the entire nation is doing,” he says. “Let it go.”
I release my breath heavy this time, and he looks outside through the screen.
The radio interview ends, and a song about America starts to play.
He says quietly, “Do you know what the whole world is doing?”
I shake my head, and he smiles.
“One more time. Hold your breath.”