Monday, November 19, 2012

From the Empirical Archives: Picnic by Kenneth Weene


Picnic
Kenneth Weene
Originally Published in Empirical magazine in May 2012

Some days are just too good to have a hangover.

This one started with the light that came around the shades and the smell and feel of the air that came through the window; it was a crisp, comfortable air that made me want to breathe. Then there were the sounds—especially the calls of the birds. Strange how on some days all you hear is the caw of angry crows and on others, like this one, there are sweet songs and contented coos. I could even hear the insects—not annoying buzzes and hums, but productive insects scurrying about their day.

Days like that are enough to make a drunk want to puke, or maybe, just maybe, do something out of the ordinary. Ephraim and I met at the bathroom door. We were usually the last of the five boarders at Mrs. Buthyre’s rooming house to get up. We were also typically the last two to get in at night. If we weren’t
picking up a few bucks doing one dumb job or another, we were sure to be closing The Dew Drop.

The night before had been a fun one at our favorite bar. We’d drunk more than usual and were more hung-over than even we were used to. Still, it was one of those days, one of those get-out-and-enjoy days.

We washed and then sat in my room having another smoke to kill the aftertaste of the night. I’d pulled up the shade and opened the window as wide as it went. Ephraim stood looking out at Carlisle’s Church of Redemption. It was a redbrick storefront with parking in the rear. Out front Carlisle—that was the preacher’s name—had one of those church signboards. On this morning it read:

I CHRIST DOESN’T WANT YOU,
CAR ISLE S ILL DOES.


On the church’s left was a Quickie Mart, which was one of the great attractions for those of us who roomed at Mrs. Buthyre’s. On its right was an empty storefront with boarded windows and a beat-down appearance that proclaimed: this is the part of town for losers. Christ wouldn’t be caught dead here.

“We ought to do something good today.”

Ephraim had caught my mood before I’d had a chance to say a word. That was often the way between us—two guys from totally different ends of the world who ended up in the same place physically and psychologically. Sometimes it felt like we were long-lost brothers who’d stumbled on each other.

“Yeah,” I grunted agreement.

“What do you think?”

“I don’t know.” There was a pause like we were both thinking. “You got any ideas?”

“Nah . . . . , but we should do somethin’.”

“Yeah.”

We lit up another pair of smokes. I liked Marlboros. I don’t know what Ephraim liked. We both smoked Broncos; they were cheaper.

“When I was a kid . . . .”

“Yeah?”

“Before my mother took off.” He took a long draw on that smoke. “Before everything went to shit.” Another drag. “On days like this she’d say ‘Let’s have a picnic,’ and she’d load up that basket with good food: viands was her word, not food—viands. “She was one great cook. We’d have chicken and cornbread and pie, good old-fashioned fruit pies—my favorite was brambleberry, boy was that good. And we’d have applesauce and bean salad, and all kinds of stuff. And, yeah, the bread. She could bake bread that would melt right in your mouth. You didn’t even need butter, but we had that, too—the sweetest butter
you ever ate.”

By this point, he had my mouth watering and my mind trying to remember a picnic from when I was a kid. Trouble was there hadn’t been any, so I just nodded my head along with his talk. When he finished, I asked the only sensible question I could, “What’d you drink?”

“Not beer,” he half-laughed his answer. “We had spring water, and milk straight from our cows, and lemonade. My ma made the best lemonade you’d ever taste.” He stopped for a moment. “Course now I’d probably like it better with some vodka in it.”

“Or maybe tequila,” I added for him.

“Yeah, maybe tequila.”

“Anyway, Ephraim, that’s one great idea. Let’s have a picnic.”

It took us a good hour to delegate the work. I was going to do the food, and Ephraim was going to come up with the liquid refreshments. He took off for the Bevmo. I checked out what I had in the little, chipped ‘fridge that came with the room, and walked over to that Quickie Mart counting the money I had left after that fun night at The Dew Drop. It wasn’t much.

Ephraim returned with a large paper sack. He had two sixes of cheap malt liquor. “I know, I know,” he said before I could get a word out, “but it was on sale.” He stopped for a moment and added, “I wanted to save a little extra to get these.” He pulled out three bottles of lemonade. “It kind of makes me feel like home.” He put everything back in the sack and tucked it into my refrigerator.

I didn’t have anything in there, which was good since that bag just about filled it. I ducked my head in recognition and continued making our lunch. My buddy sat on the bed—kind of tossing the blanket back in place before sitting. I was in the only usable chair, sitting at the small phony oak table that matched the warped set of drawers. Our rooms came furnished. There was a second chair. It had a loose leg that was always threatening to give way. And there was a night table that was scarred and stained enough to be a hand-me-down from a whorehouse. In every room there was a picture, the same picture, one of those bleeding-heart-of-Jesus things that made no sense in a cheap boarding house. Mrs. Buthyre insisted they stay on the walls— kind of like Jesus was watching over us; and there was a mirror—mine cracked and losing its silvering, so I always looked like I was drunk and dying even on the good days.

I had a loaf of sandwich bread, some bologna that Herb at the Quickie had cut extra thin just for me, and some Kraft American slices. Herb had also cut a tomato into five roughly even slices. When Ephraim came back, I was spreading mustard and mayo on twelve slices of that soft, gooey bread. I was using packets I’d taken from the Quickie fixin’s table while Herb was getting my order. I was using one and a half slices of meat and one of cheese along with a slice of tomato in each sandwich. I’d figured on making five. Then I’d make one more with just bologna and cheese. I’d eat that one, and we’d have three each, which would be a real feast.

And then there was my surprise. I’d walked over to a fast-food burger place and bought a couple of those gluey, apple pie things. They weren’t brambleberry, but they would do.

I put the sandwiches and some napkins in a bag. When Ephraim wasn’t looking, I threw those apple pie things in too. Pulling the bag of drinks out of the fridge, I put in the leftover bread and cheese to keep it safe
from bugs and other animal life.

“Let’s do it,” I said with as much gaiety as I could raise. I clapped Ephraim on the shoulder and handed him the bag of liquid refreshments.

“Yeah, but where are we going?” It wasn’t something we had discussed. It wasn’t something I had even considered.

We stared blankly at each other with not an idea between us.

Finally, Ephraim asked, “Isn’t there a park around here?”

“Yeah, but it’s full of derelicts and winos.”

“Oh.” We went back to staring. “There’s another park,” I suggested, “over on Miller. It isn’t perfect, but it’s better. Cleaner and all.”

“Oh,” his voice brightened.

It was a longer walk than either of us wanted; but we didn’t have bus fare, so we hoofed it. I wanted to stop for one of those brews.

“Let’s wait ‘til we get to the park.”

“How come?” I asked, feeling put out.

“It won’t be a real picnic if we start in drinking.” Ephraim sounded so eager that I gave in. 

We trudged on. 

My thoughts of a great day sullenly turned to I want a drink. We arrived at Memorial Park. Surly as I had become, I did have to admit it was a better place. Not to say there weren’t any derelicts around, but fewer and hopefully not so likely to start asking for a brew or a sandwich.

We scouted for a suitable spot. What we needed most was some bushes right nearby so we could stow that sack of beer out of sight. If a cop came by, he wouldn’t see the whole stash. I wasn’t planning on drinking that lemonade, but we’d leave it out—another way to fool that possible cop. We found what seemed like a good enough spot, even with a tree to lean against. But it was kind of close to the playground, and I figured some mother might complain. “Move along, boys, move along!” I could hear the voice in blue in my head. 

So move along we did.

Finally, after what seemed like eternity without a drink, we found a spot that worked. Not near anything anyone would mind, a couple of bushes at hand—filled with discarded cans and broken bottles, but good for stowing. “We can collect some of these cans,” Ephraim said.

I’d been thinking the same thing, but we both knew the way the world works.

“If it isn’t somebody else’s spot.” Bums and drunks have their own rules. Ownership of can-scavenging spots is sacred. “If nobody comes to work it,” Ephraim corrected himself.

“Yeah, if.”

We settled on the grass: the sack of food between us, the lemonade bottles on display, and two cans of malt liquor carefully tucked into the curves of our bodies. Much as I wanted that brew—and I knew Ephraim did too, neither of us took a swig. It was like a special moment, like we were anticipating something really grand and at the same time knew the reality could never measure up.

“Shit.”

“Yeah, shit,” I echoed. We opened our cans and took deep draughts. I reached in the bag, pulled out a sandwich, and handed it to him.

“Thanks.”

“Welcome.”

“Hey, mister.” We hadn’t noticed them. There they were right behind us, watching us with starving eyes and too much sadness—a mother and her three jetsam kids. The oldest looked to be a girl, maybe eight or nine; her clothes way too big and in desperate need of a wash. The younger two seemed about the same age—maybe twins, a girl and what must have been the scrawniest little guy I’d ever seen—so thin his eyes seemed to take his entire face. He was the one talking. “Can you spare some food?”


The woman looked away in shame while the older kid kind of pawed the ground and tried to not stare at the sandwich Ephraim was holding in front of his mouth. “Charlie, that ain’t proper,” the woman said all the while somehow acknowledging that she had told him to ask.

“Yes’m.” He tried to smile. The effort made those eyes grow.

I heard Ephraim kind of gasp and knew exactly how he was feeling. “These your children?” I asked, giving her the opportunity she so obviously wanted.

“This here’s Charlie,” she replied putting her hand on the boy’s rag-mop head. “His sister, Darlene. They twins, but Darlene don’t talk so much.” She smiled revealing stubs of brown and broken teeth. “And this
is my oldest, Ruthann.”

“Say howdy, children,” she instructed.

“Howdy,” the boy and his older sister echoed. Darlene just stared and stared hard at that sandwich.

“What do you think?” Ephraim whispered. The little girl took the smallest step forward.

“What about you?” I asked him back already knowing his answer.

“I’d feel awful guilty.”

“Yeah, me, too.” We looked at each other for a moment. It was seconds, but I could feel the tension mounting in those little bodies. From the corner of my eye, I watched the woman. Her body seemed to sag beneath the weight of her ill-fitting clothes.

She oozed helplessness and resignation.

“What’s your name?”

“Lucile, not that it matters.”

“It matters,” I replied. “I like knowing who I’m breaking bread with.” 

With that, I gestured for them to come closer. They shuffled towards us with looks of disbelief, fear, and anticipation. I had regrets as soon as they got close enough to smell. How long has it been
since they’ve had a bath?

Ephraim held out that first sandwich to the older girl, who started to rip it into parts. “No, that one’s for you,” he said as he reached into the bag for a second and then a third.

I took one out and gestured it toward Lucile. 

It seemed to take all her restraint to hold back. “Are you sure?”

“We have plenty. Luckily, I got kind of carried away in the kitchen.”

They held the sandwiches, looking at them almost like they were afraid to take a bite. I pulled another sandwich out and handed it to Ephraim, and then the last one for myself. Smiling, I took a big bite and started chewing.

They followed suit—standing there, taking small bites and chewing carefully, trying to make the moment last.

“Sit down,” Ephraim suggested. They seemed to nod in unison but continued standing.

“Would the children like some lemonade?”

I asked feeling foolish to ask a question with such an obvious answer.

Lucile stopped chewing. “I’d think so.” 

I patted the ground and then opened the first bottle. Charlie plunked himself down on the spot I’d patted. I handed him the yellow liquid; he started to drink. “Charlie, where are your manners?” the woman demanded.

“Yes’m,” he responded. He mumbled, “Thank you, sir,” and took another sip before I could answer.

Ruthann took Darlene by the hand and sat her down next to her brother. She said nothing as I put another bottle in her hand. Lucile didn’t say anything about manners; clearly Darlene was going to remain mute.

“You, too,” I said to Ruthann, who thanked me even before she sat. “You’re very welcome.” 

I handed over her bottle.

“That’s right kind of you,” Lucile said with such a tone of pain that I might just as well have been torturing her children.

“I’m afraid we don’t have any more lemonade,” Ephraim spoke up. “Would you care for one of these?” He held his can aloft.

“If you can spare,” her tone suddenly lifted.

He got to his feet and walked over to the bushes. He came back with a can for her and a replacement. “You ready for one?” he eyeballed me.

I finished off my first in one gulp, threw the empty at him, and muttered, “Yep.”

Handing me the replacement, he went back to the bush for another. We were a happy, if wordless, group of
picnickers. The children nursed their food and their drink; between bites and swallows they’d take careful looks to see how much was left. Darlene was the last to finish.

When the final morsel was gone, she looked like she might start in crying.

“I’ve got a surprise for you kids,” I said. I pulled out those pies and broke them into halves. I gave each of the kids a half and the last to Lucile.

She wanted it; I could see she wanted it bad. But she handed it to Ruthann. “For you kids.”

“Yes’m.” The girl thought for a moment, looked at her brother, who ever so slightly nodded in agreement to something unsaid, and then handed that last half to Darlene. It was a moment sweet and sad, full of love. I wanted to do more, something, but knew there was nothing. I could feel tears starting to well, and I figured Ephraim would be feeling them too.



When the malt liquor was gone, I put all the empties in one of the bags and handed it to Ruthann. “You can turn these in and get some money.”

“I know. Thank you.” She spoke so softly that I had to strain to hear. “We usually get the ones in those bushes.”

“Oh, it’s your spot?”

She ducked her head in response. 

“Well, we’ll get out of your way.” Somehow a new and different discomfort had found its way into Ephraim’s voice. We had interfered with their routine, with their way of life. That wasn’t how things were supposed to be—not in our world.

Clumsily he and I got up. “I guess we’ll be going,” I announced.

“Okay,” Lucile answered in a tired voice that said go and stay at the same time.

“Thanks for the cans,” Ruthann said.

“Thanks for lunch,” her mother added as if from some sudden memory.

“Thanks for lunch,” Charlie and his older sister echoed.

It was Ephraim and my turn to bob our heads.

We got about sixty or seventy yards before a cop stopped us. “Hold up, you two.”

He was a young guy, probably pretty new to the force. He was holding a bicycle with his left hand and kind of fingering his stick with his right. I tensed and wished I could run but knew it was useless.

“Officer?” I asked—scared shitless and subservient.

“We weren’t doing nothing,” Ephraim half-whined.

“I was watching you two.” His voice was even, no sign of anger or beat-down. “That family come here every day?” It was a question, but he obviously knew the answer. 

“I think so—to collect the cans. I guess they need the money.”

“Right.” His voice seemed almost gentle this time. “They must be homeless.”

“Yeah.” This time Ephraim answered.

“You guys feed them?” Again, one of those questions that didn’t really need answering.

“They looked hungry.”

“I saw.” He reached in his pocket, took out a wallet, opened it and pulled out a ten. We watched him carefully, warily, wondering what he was up to. He held out that ten toward me. “It was kind of you.” He gestured with the bill.

“Take this and get yourselves something to eat.”

Tentatively I reached out and took the money. “Thanks.”

“Yeah, thanks,” Ephraim echoed.

The cop shrugged and started to turn away. “Just one thing,” he said as he turned back toward us.

“Yes, sir?”

“Don’t come back, not to my park. We got enough drunks of our own.”

“Yes, sir.”

He jumped on that bike and rode away.

“Shit,” Ephraim said.

“Yeah, shit.”


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