TINY BUBBLES • by Carter Schwonke

Two years ago, Sophia, a lonely single police officer and her young son, settled into this perfect neighborhood. As it turns out, Friday is neighborhood barbeque night. This thrills Sophia, because she loves to share her recipes. No surprise that she’s tasked with buying a rack of ribs each week, trimming the membrane, applying her magic powders and spices, and delivering them to her neighbor, Fred, who always preps his Big Tex Smoker early.

“Hey, Sophia,” Fred says when she arrives early with ribs. Then more small talk before she rushes home to dress her raisin salad while the ribs smoke. When she returns, Fred’s laying out heavy foil to steam the ribs in their juices before crisping.

The twins arrive with coleslaw. Lilly, the older twin, is back from Afghanistan. “Tommy,” she shouts to Sophia’s son, spins her wheelchair around and opens her arms to bear hug him. Her twin, Deb, is the brainy librarian in town. They all chat and fuss with reusable plates and cutlery. Chen, from down the block, encouraged them to save the planet, so they’ve stopped using paper and plastic. He teaches high school physics.

By the time the pork loosens on bones, a large Oaxacan family arrives with chicken mole. Tony, a handyman, and a suspected petty thief, brings beer and wine. Teens gather in a nearby eucalyptus grove where branches clatter in the evening breeze.

There’s a chill when the sun drops below the redwoods, so all two-dozen neighbors zip their fleeces and bend towards the fire pit, leaving their offices, vineyards, construction sites, and classroom problems far behind. Ribs they’ve looked forward to all week? The surfaces are crisping lightly now.

“Might have party crashers tonight,” Tony warns the group. “I heard guys over at The Jug talking about our barbeques again. You know, girls and free beer.”

“Like we said before,” Chen repeats, stopping to check on his teen daughter who is laughing in eucalyptus breezes. “This is our private thing, right?”

“Maybe,” Sophia says with a hint of pride, “but my sergeant heard about it too. Out of nowhere, he says, ‘So you’re the one in charge of ribs?’”

Oaxacan family members exchange frantic glances. Vigorously, Sophia shakes her head. “No, no don’t worry. I won’t invite my sergeant.”

“Since you mention it,” Lilly says, “my hairstylist might drop by for some music later. Should I text her back, ‘No?’”

Fortunately, the smell of smoking meat and the sweetness of children milling around the dessert table gently persuades everyone to circle closer against real or perceived threats. 

“We have plenty of food,” Deb, the librarian twin, points out. “I don’t see the big deal.”

“What the heck?” Fred says. “Do we need strangers coming and going?”

Orange slices float in sangria. Sophia watches Tommy dance with Tony. The McWhorter brothers tune their fiddles. A screech owl calls from the oaks. Sophia’s heart is bursting. This is all too wonderful, too perfect. But, below the surface, it’s really not. October is still fire season. What if their homes burn this year or earthquakes swallow them or the drought gets more serious? What if interlopers ruin their fantastic Fridays?

Sophia has a sixth sense for trouble. In fact, on the job, she is a badass. Off-duty though, she is not a badass, she’s a romantic, slowly learning that sustained optimism comes with disappointments and pitfalls. On Fridays, anyway, she’s determined to chill.

“If Tony’s right,” Chen says, scanning four picnic tables loaded with the smells, colors, and textures of enormously diverse food. “I say, lock the gates and man the ramparts!”

Three Fridays in a row, Sophia has watched this interloper topic gain momentum. Chen in particular concerns her, rather, surprises her. She thought she understood him, but “ramparts?” We love our barbeques, she thinks, we enjoy each other in all our shapes and sizes. Look at us. We’ve done everything right!

No, no, since Sophia threw Tommy’s father out, she’s making an effort to see things as they truly are, not as she wants them to be. More importantly, she’s determined not to approach every off-duty problem with crippling doubt and self-blame, so her thoughts spin more widely. Have we lost control?

“Let’s give it a try,” Deb says. “You know, charge for food, maybe?”

“Am I hearing this?” Tony barks. “Cash and ramparts? He scoots Tommy away, picks up his beer bottle. “Are we gonna turn into a bunch of one-percenters with golf carts in our garages and security gates? Geez, I don’t want to live in a bubble, do you?”

Sophia thinks, without saying, that it’s complicated. The cop in her votes for the private gate, protective bubble idea. But, like most people, Sophia just wants to belong somewhere. She and Tommy deserve to belong.

Fred stands hot-faced at his smoker. “Don’t go there,” he says, pointing his long tongs at his wife, Marsha. “What are the chances that people with our skin tones can live next door to a police officer and be happy about it? Let’s not mess things up.”

Arms crossed, Marsha stomps across the porch where she and other neighbor artists have cleverly displayed their pieces. “Not another word about bubbles,” she says. “We aren’t like that. Remember? That’s the whole point.”

Under starlight, Sophia nods. She agrees with Marsha. Their status quo is right and good and principled.  It will hold, must hold, can’t hold. Tiny bubbles rise and tickle her nose as she sips her beer. For now, Chen, Tony, and Sophia laugh at a bunch of kids playing hide-and-seek. Tommy’s new Halloween vampire mask is making the little ones shriek.

Carter Schwonke’s fiction has appeared in a dozen literary journals including Gravel, Fiction Fix, Flash Fiction Magazine, Pif Magazine, Underground Voices, and Calliope. Her story collection, A Good Day to Start, was published by Adelaide Press in August 2020. She writes in Northern California.

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