When Lipton answered the front door, he was wearing a Boy Scouts of America tee-shirt and a grin so wide it was blinding. "Hey, guys. Welcome back. I'm glad you could make it."
The Toccoa gang used to do this kinda stuff more often. Back when more of them were in their twenties rather than thirties, the guys had hung out all the time. Now that they were all inching closer and closer to turning forty—most of them married and a few with kids—trying to bring everyone together was becoming harder and harder.
Then one year, after much insistence from Guarnere, Lipton agreed to host a pool party and barbecue at his and Ron's new house in the 'burbs to kick off the start of summer. That was three summers ago, and the get-together was now a much-looked-forward-to annual event.
This summer was no exception.
The whole gang was there. Frank Perconte and his wife Lucy and their two little ones, Camille and Frank Jr. Bill Guarnere and his wife Fran and their sons, Tommy and Mikey. Liebgott and Webster. Gene and Babe. Winters and Nixon and their dog Sam. Spina. Buck Compton and his girlfriend Carol. Muck, Penkala, Malarkey. Joe Toye and George Luz. Floyd Talbert and his girl Maggie and their dog Trigger. Pat Christenson and Bull Rendleman and Johnny Martin, and Johnny's wife Helen. Harry Welsh and his wife Kitty and their daughter, Alice. Skinny, Popeye, Smokey, and Grant. Even Tipper and Alley made it back into town for the annual Toccoa affair.
When Hoobler finally showed up—always the last to arrive—, the family reunion was in full force.
Always one for pool safety, Winters had already lined up all the kids to lather them in sunscreen and stuff their chubby little arms with floaties while Speirs checked them off a clipboard, clearing them to enter the pool. (Later, when Babe was sunburnt and looking like a lobster from hell what with that red hair and all the red skin, Gene would mosey on over to Winters and Speirs and mutter, pointedly, “Y'all forgot one.”)
As usual, Babe and Luz were on pool duty. Having grown up in big families, the pair were naturals with all the little Toccoa rugrats. Babe was sitting on the edge of the pool bouncing little Tommy Guarnere on his knee as the happy toddler splashed water onto the deck. The South Philly native had just exhausted himself chasing Tommy and Frank Jr around the pool. “I am so goddamn outta shape,” Babe had panted between deep puffs of air, scrawny body sprawled across the patio, the little ones crawling over him like a jungle gym.
Meanwhile, Luz was in the water playing with Cora, Ron and Lip's daughter that they adopted from Ecuador with the help of one of Lip's old Peace Corps contacts. "Hey, what's she sayin'?" Babe asked moments later, waving a hand towards Cora who was babbling aimlessly.
Luz flashed Babe a droll stare and began to ramble in true Luz-fashion. "I don't know, Heffron. I don't speak one year old. It's a very difficult language to learn, like Mandarin or something, but I hear once you're fluent, you don't have to take the CIA's language component."
On the deck, Joe Toye watched Luz playing with the kids. He had never considered himself a kid person, but seeing the way George's eyes lit up when Cora and the boys giggled at his antics, the way his eyes crinkled and his smile widened when those grubby little toddler fingers reached toward him, Joe thought, faintly, that kids might not be so bad.
"Funny, ain't it?" Gene was suddenly at Joe's side. There was gentle grin playing on the Doc's lips, a beer in his hand. "I never did like kids. Not cause they were loud or restless or somethin'. But 'cause they scared me. They're fragile, easy to mess up, ya know? But Edward, he's just got this way with 'em. He's a natural at it. Looks like your boy is, too."
Before Joe could respond—and no, he wasn't flushing red, thank you—he was distracted by a yell of “Cannonball!” and the consequential splash of a Harry-Welsh-size cannonball dropping into the pool. Harry's daughter Alice soon followed, as did Speirs, though Ron chose to slip simply into the water from the edge of the patio. He swam straight for his daughter, briefly relieving Luz of pool duty, and as Speirs began to toss little Cora gently up into the air, catching and cradling her just as her chubby legs hit the surface of the water, Frank Perconte snickered, "Funny how he can go from terrifying to disgustingly domestic and cute in two seconds, ain't it?”
No one was surprised when mere seconds later Speirs spoke, “I heard that.”
And though Frank pulled a face and quickly skirted away, the Toccoa family reunion continued to carry on jovially.
Winters and Chuck Grant planted themselves behind the grill, preparing the dozens of burgers and hot dogs for the annual feast. Buck and Tab played fetched with the dogs and a few well-loved, weathered tennis balls. Nixon volunteered to go on a beer run when the supply had started to dwindle. Bill planted himself on a deck chair and proceeded to holler at the older kids when they ran around the patio. Muck, Penkala, and Malarkey played darts on the board that hung off the shed door—Penk was winning until Shifty wandered over for a game. Popeye strummed away on his guitar, which he always kept in his car. And the wives and girlfriends...well, nobody really knew where they went or what they did, but presumably, they were having fun.
Sometime later, Lipton hauled out the kids' pool toys from the shed, and Liebgott was overheard mumbling, "Thank fuck they threw away the shark toys last year. I cannot handle another summer of watching Web reenact that Nat Geo shark documentary." Only when the toys were dumped into the pool, there were not one or two, but five shark toys. "What the fuck?"
"Language in front of the kids, Joe," Winters chided from his post at the grill.
"How in the-" Liebgott ground his teeth in frustration and curbed his tongue at the pointed looks from Speirs, Lipton, and Dick. "-world did those toys not get thrown away last year?” He jabbed a sharp finger at the rubber sharkies. “I put the bag on the curb myself."
"Oh, no, you definitely threw them away," Randleman agreed. Beside him, nursing a beer, Johnny Martin grinned, "But we couldn't deprive Web of his annual 'Sharks are Our Friends' lesson, now could we?"
Liebgott's eyes narrowed. "What did you two do?” he growled.
Bull and Johnny flashed him mirrored grins and clinked their beers. "We bought more."
And if it hadn't been for the kids, Lip wondered if Liebgott wouldn't have murdered them both right then and there in his yard. Instead, the brunette just nodded, clicked his teeth, and muttered, "you're both dead to me," before stomping off to find better company, his boyfriend already shrugging out of his tee-shirt and reaching for one of the plastic sharks floating on the surface of the pool. "Okay, guys,” Webster called in his trademark 'I'm not a professor, but shouldn't I be?' voice. “Who wants to learn cool stuff about sharks?!"
Liebgott pretended not to hear the volley of cheers that rang out from the gaggle of toddlers.
As the sun began to gradually dip along the horizon, it didn't take long for folks to start meandering towards the food.
"Hey, did Kitty bring her potato salad? I don't see her potato salad. It's not the official reunion if we don't have Kitty's potato salad."
"How many times do I have to tell you, Gonorrhea, garlic bread does not go with barbecue. Burgers, chips, coleslaw, fruit—but no garlic bread. Can't you quit being so staunchly Italian for one afternoon?"
“Didn't you say last year you were gonna bring an apple pie? Of course, I didn't forget, so where the hell is it? I want my pie.”
Only before the hungry masses could descend on the patio tables lined with delicious, summery foods, Lip shouted that there was an announcement to be made. He turned to Bill expectantly, but Bill just motioned with his beer for Lip to continue. With a blinding smile, Lip let his eyes dance across the crowd of Toccoa men and their families. These boys had been friends since what felt like the dawn of time—he looked at his own husband and their daughter, and Lip knew that they wouldn't be together without their friends. That the happiness and love he had found in life was inextricably linked to the incredible bonds of brotherhood he had formed with the men now gathered in his backyard.
Swallowing, Lip happily began, “We come here every year to celebrate each other—to celebrate our family.” A few cheers and whistles rang out. He glanced back at Bill and his wife, who grinned mischievously. “Well, next year, our family is going to get a little bigger. Bill, Fran, congratulations... Everyone, they're having a little girl!”
“Hey! A girl!” Luz beamed above the immediate roar of applause that broke out. “That's great! We need more girls around here, friggin' sausage fest.” A couple of folks laughed at that, and everyone instantly swarmed Bill and Fran to share their congratulations. A toast was made, many hands shook, and many jokes shared—most of them by Bill himself referencing, loudly, the conception of his soon-to-be baby girl, at which Fran just rolled her eyes and the fellas chuckled conspiratorially—, but eventually, the gaggle dispersed as folks began making their way towards the food.
As they ate on the deck with their feet dangling in the pool, Joe nudged Luz. “You wanna?”
“Do I wanna what, Joe?”
“Ya know...kids and shit.”
Luz blinked, fork paused halfway to his mouth. “I'm sorry, kids and shit? Wait, are you—are you saying you wanna have kids, Joe?”
Joe only shrugged. “I'm sayin'...if you wanna have kids, then...I want you to have 'em.” He gestured vaguely to all the mini-humans running around. “S'doesn't seem too bad.”
Suddenly, the ever so chatty George Luz found himself at a loss for words. He could only grin and kiss his boyfriend in response.
Across the yard, Babe and Bill were also chatting about children.
“Three kids, holy fuck. Think you can handle it?” Babe grinned proudly at his best friend. Being a pseudo-uncle to Bill's children was one of the greatest joys of Babe's life. And now their crazy hoard was growing bigger.
“Three? Whatta ya mean 'three'? I got four kids.” Bill ruffled Babe's hair while sporting a goofy grin. “And one of 'em's full grown! Ha!”
Blushing sheepishly, Babe shoved him away, smiling in spite of himself. “Aw, fuck off.”
...and so the reunion carried on. As day gradually faded to night, one-by-one their friends began to take their leave. The South Philly crew had a long drive back to the city, and Smokey and Popeye both had to be at work early the next morning. Those Toccoa boys who were now father themselves were also eager to get home and put their little ones to bed. So, with long goodbyes and plates stacked high full of leftovers, the party goers gradually trickled out until only Winters and Nixon remained.
Winters shook Lip's hand first, then Ron's. “Thanks again for having us all. I know its a big ask.”
Speirs smirked in agreement. “Now, its your turn to host,” he said bluntly, with a raised brow that was nowhere near subtle.
“Yeah, well, good luck with that.” Nixon stifled a yawn and tugged Dick closer towards the door. “See you folks next year.”
“Goodnight. Get home safe,” called Lip with a smile. Without further prompting, Nixon and Winters turned from the porch and strolled leisurely back to their own home—two blocks down the street.