The Annual Picnic
On the third Sunday in July, the parishioners of St. Lawrence Church host their annual picnic. It’s not a hokey picnic run by ancients with a sampling of baked goods, but a real throw down. Visitors come from all over the Midwest to stuff themselves on kettle beef, liver dumplings, and fried chicken. Dinners are $10 for adults and carry-outs, and $5 for children. The old ladies start preparing the liver dumplings several days before the picnic. Mothers make pies and cakes. Fathers set up tents, tables, and beer booths, and the kids, over the age of 12, serve the visitors sweet tea, coffee, and dessert in the basement under the church. Picnic proceeds pay upkeep on the church and for the parish kids’ tuition at St. Agnes and Ste. Geneviève as most of their parents being farmers cannot afford it. After the visitors eat, they carry their beer-buzzed bodies up the hill to a covered shelter where they play bingo. At 6:00, the raffle starts. Shannon hums Little Pink Houses—what she can hear from the live band between the echoes of the bingo caller. She is suffocating in the basement. She wants to escape, not just the picnic, but the whole town.
This isn’t Shannon’s first time serving. She got a break the first summer they moved from Los Angeles to Lawrenceton two weeks before the picnic, but she has served every summer since. She’s almost 16. Still, she is always nervous at first, interacting with strangers, but picks it up quickly and some of the visitors start tipping her. It nips at her conscience, but it’s only a dollar here and there, so she keeps it.
A young man, who wears his hair in a Mohawk, dyed black and loose (not glued and spiky like Shannon has seen on MTV) seats himself at one of her tables. He wears silver loops in his pierced ears, is tall, thin, and hot—a dangerous type with a serial killer smile. He doesn’t belong here, but neither does she.
She tops off his tea and he slips a $20 in the pocket of her apron. He doesn’t touch any skin, but she feels heat between his fingers and the material. She should give it back, but wants the new Duran Duran CD, so she pretends it’s not really their singing through the soft, thin material of her over washed apron. She walks back to the serving station.
When she thinks it’s safe to look in his direction, she uses her hand to wipe away sweat from her brow and cover her eyes that are searching for him, but it’s no good; he is staring at her and then he smiles. Not with teeth or from ear to ear, just a simple smile telling her he sees her. The air between them is connective.
Usually, she is the one that sticks out here, but today he takes her place, and she is granted refugee status. Locals eye her with pity for having to serve this foreigner.
He motions for her to come back. There are letters tattooed on his fingers. Deep down Shannon knows she should turn away, leave, her shift is nearly over, but she walks towards him anyway. She feels faint. It’s stifling in the church basement and the air circulation is poor.
He asks her when she gets off. She asks why. He says you know why. She says, do I? He says I like you. I think you like me. She says nothing.
He lingers past dessert, and then when she is busy wiping down her last table, she notices he’s gone. She feels something between disappointment and relief, but after counting her tips she finds that she has made $32.
Shannon has promised Eddy, who has been in love with her since she moved to town, that she’ll come by his tent. He’s made over dozen birdhouses to sell. She painted flowers and white fences on a few. A butterfly.
She spots his tent near the parking lot, hitting up people who are worn out from the hot day and are leaving the picnic empty handed.
“Birdhouses for sale. Handmade,” he calls out to some that are way past hearing him and only want to get into their cars that have been baking in the sun since noon and drive home to Indiana or Illinois, or maybe another distant small town in Missouri.
“Hey, looks like you sold a lot.”
She’s being kind. There are only three empty spaces.
“A few. They keep trying to haggle me.”
Shannon rolls her eyes and says, “Don’t let them. People are so cheap. At a church picnic, too.”
“Right. How was the basement?”
“Freaking hot as hell. I made some tips, though, she pats he apron pocket and then realizes she’s still wearing the frilly number Lena gave her and quickly unties it, rolls it up into a ball, like some dirty underwear she is ashamed of.
“Really? That’s allowed?”
“Not sure, but I can buy ‘Rio’,” she says in a sing-song way.
“Cool. How much?”
She lies and says, “Fifteen.”
“Oh, well. You deserve it for sweating your ass off. Don’t tell anyone.”
Eddy’s voice starts to fade out. He’s saying something about judgy people, but most of what he says is lost, because she sees that Mohawk hasn’t left. He’s leaning against the door of a black Camaro, drinking a can of Busch. She wonders how long he’s been standing there watching her talk to Eddy, and is now self-conscious, because Eddy looks so young and goofy. The same primal feeling in the church basement comes back.
“You’re not even listening to me. Hey, come back to planet earth.” Eddy snaps his fingers in front of her face.
“What? Huh? I’m so listening.”
“What did I just say then?”
“People and tips. Wait, don’t look now, but there’s some weird dude in the parking lot next to a Camaro.”
Eddy turns his head to see and she says, “Eddy, what’d I just say? He totally saw you. Oh my God, now he’s walking over.”
He struts, literally struts across the gravel, taking his time but on point. Now, she sees all of him: Doc Marten combat boots that she has wanted forever but can’t afford, another tattoo on his forearm she didn’t catch in the church basement. Shannon picks up a birdhouse pretending to be interested, and then he’s there, standing next to her.
“Yo, sup, man?” He gives Eddy a high five, but Eddy sort of misses his hand and then puts his own hand limply down.
“Whoa. When did you get here? What’d you do with your hair, man?”
Shannon hates it when Eddy tries to sound cool, but she realizes that Eddy knows Mohawk and her curiosity gets the best of her, so she stays.
Mohawk rubs the top of his head, laughs, and says, “Last night.”
“No one told us.”
“Yeah, it was late. Mom didn’t know either. Scared the shit out of her when I unlocked the door and walked in.”
Shannon doesn’t know if she should introduce herself, or walk away, but now feels so out of place she decides to go, and says to Eddy, “Catch you later, alligator.”
Alligator? So stupid, stupid, stupid.
“Wait, Shannon. Stay. Hey, this is my cousin, Victor.”
It didn’t fit—them belonging in the same family. Victor holds out his hand for Shannon to shake. The formality feels funny.
“When you done here, cuz?”
“I guess when I sell everything.”
“Shit, that’s too long. I’ll help you out. How much is that one?”
“You don’t have to.”
“I want to. I’ll give it to mom,” Victor looks at Shannon and says, “You pick.”
For some reason this decision weighs heavy on her, like one of those mind games, the kind of game that you tell yourself that if you make it back to the TV before the commercial is over your crush will like you.
She hands him a small white chapel with a miniature copper bell in the steeple and yellow bird on the roof that is far too large for it. Eddy starts to put it in a bag, but Victor shakes his head no. He can just walk it over to the car, and then he asks if they want to go for a ride, except he is only speaking to Shannon.
She can’t help herself and asks, “How old are you?”
“What’s that got to do with the price of tea in China, baby girl?”
Eddy answers for him, “He’s 22.” He seems mad.
Victor says he needs to get away from all the old people. They’ll come back for Eddy. Twenty minutes. Tops. He’ll even wait for Shannon to tell her mom.
Shannon doesn’t tell her mom she’s leaving. They both know they won’t be come back in twenty minutes.
While Victor unlatches the T-tops and puts them in the back of the car, Shannon braids her hair into one long braid. He spins his tires tearing out of the gravel parking lot, but only a few people notice, and they don’t care. It’s late afternoon, the beer is still pouring, and some have started sipping under the table.
She turns the station to KWIX, all new wave. He doesn’t seem to mind, and then because she feels bold and his stuff is just as much hers, she opens the glove box and begins pulling out its contents.
Black Sabbath cassette. Yeah, he had that Satan worshipping thing about him. He kept it simple, though. No pentagrams or skull rings, no stacked bracelets she thought ridiculous on a boy. Just a black tee and dark blue Levi’s.
Marlboro Reds. She snuck her stepdad’s from time to time, but she likes Menthol better. She tells him, and he says he can stop at the gas station. He’d get her some. He’d do anything for her. She belongs to him now.
A letter from the Navy. She opens it. Discharged from service. That’s where he’d been.
A pint of Jim Beam.
“I see you carry the essentials.”
He laughs, “Yep, you got that right, baby girl.”
“Why’d you give me $20? It’s more than the cost of dinner.”
“Needed to get your attention. It worked.”
“You kept staring at me? Don’t you think that’s just a little bit creepy?” She squeezes two fingers together in front of his face to emphasize “little.”
“Are we playing now? Is that how you want to go at this?”
“You were staring…just saying.”
“Just saying,” he mocks her.
“I mean it.”
He does stop then and asks, “What else should I stare at? You’re beautiful. I wasn’t sure I was at the right picnic. Where’re you from, ‘cause I know it sure as shit ain’t from here.”
“Yes, you are. Did you forget your wings there?”
“That’s not going to work on me, you know?”
Shannon takes a sip of Jim Beam. Victor takes the bottle, has a long draw and keeps it.
“Like I could get drunk off one sip…besides I drink.”
“Why? You got sorrows?”
“Whatever. I have a stepfather.” The bottle is in between his legs. He lets her take it back.
“Is he that bad? I can take him out.”
“Oh, right. You’re so special forces.”
“What if I was?”
“Hell no. I hated that gig. Someone always telling you what to do, what to eat, what to wear, when to sleep. I hate people telling me what to do, but that’s all done now and I’m free.” He momentarily takes his hands off the steering wheel and flaps them. “Where’s your real dad?” He asks this seriously.
“Oh, I’m sorry. How’d he die?”
“Man, the military sucks. Was he in the Marines? That war was such bullshit.”
This is what everyone says to her when she answers with ‘Vietnam,’ and it bothers her because it sounds like they are saying his death was bullshit, but she never knew him to know whether it was or not. Her mother doesn’t talk about him. He’s attractive in the photos, but there are none of him holding her; he was killed when her mother was six months pregnant.
“The Army. If it’s such bullshit why’d you join then?”
She hands him back the bottle, he takes a nip, leans over her, and puts the bottle back in the glovebox. Guess I’m done, she thinks. The rules between them are getting laid.
“Why else? Get out of here.”
“If I stayed here. I’d probably be in prison. You know that idle hands stuff.”
“So, you’re bad news? Should I be afraid?”
“Nope, not anymore,” and then he asks, “Do I scare you, babe?”
Yes. In a good way. In the way I want to be scared. She shakes her head no.
They are a good distance down Highway Y. She wants him to slow down but won’t admit it. They are coming up on the intersection where the school bus makes its last stop before dropping her and Eddy off at St. Agnes School.
“Where are we going? I don’t want to meet your mom.”
“She’d love you, but no, she’s at the picnic.”
He pulls into the parking lot of The Dew Drop Inn. This is her stepdad, Dale’s, hangout.
“We can’t go in there.”
“Come on. One beer and we’ll go back.”
“They’re not going to serve me.”
“What are you 16, 17?”
“I’ll be 16 in 4 months.”
“So, in other words you just turned 15.”
“Shut up. My stepdad hangs out here.”
“Is he here now?”
She looks around at the mostly empty parking lot, but she knows his Blazer will not be parked here. “Nooo, he’s at the picnic with your mom, mine, Eddy, and everyone else.” Where I should be.
“Well, I think you should be with me and I’m here. Come on. I know these folks. There won’t be a problem. Promise.”
Victor sidles over to the passenger’s door, opens it, reaching over her body for the door handle. His forearm brushes her lap and that same heat penetrates through her shorts. He comes around where she has already crawled out. The Camaro is much lower than Dale’s Blazer. Then he drapes his arm over her shoulder, cradling her neck almost like a chokehold but looser, possessive. He directs her towards the entrance. She feels like his.
The Dew Drop Inn was converted from a mill into a bar, and still has the original wooden siding with multiple layers of white cracked paint. A neon red and white Budweiser sign hangs from the second story, near the window of a room. In the countryside where people have long driveways and acres and acres of land, it is the last light you see on Highway Y for twenty miles either way.
Shannon never thought she’d ever set foot in this place. Mostly bikers and semi-trucks stop in from St. Louis, on their way to Cape Girardeau and beyond.
It is dark and musty and reeks of old smoke, the kind of place that stays on your clothes and hair even if you only walk in, walk back out. It doesn’t have central air, but there is a large window air conditioner that is propped up with two by fours on the backside of the parking lot. There are couple of fans; the fan blades are coated in dust and are spinning on high. One is behind the bar and blows on Tina, the bartender.
Victor aims Shannon in the direction of a booth with a window, although the shade is down. Aside from Tina, there is a man sitting at a high top. He glances up when the door opens, and a light streams against his weathered forearm, but then resumes drinking his rum and coke. He looks like some ancient bygone wizard, but of the darker variety. Shannon has the feeling that everyone is hiding out here.
Tina is wiping down liquor bottles with a white rag. When she sees Victor she calls out, “Hey there, want a Bud, Vicky?”
“Yeah, make it a bucket, would you Tina?”
It doesn’t take long, and Tina sets the bucket on the table between them and asks, “You two hungry?”
“I’m not. Been at the picnic but get whatever she wants.”
“Betcha forgot my liver dumplings you promised me last night?”
“Nah, I didn’t forget you girl.”
“They in the car? Cause they’ll spoil out in the car.”
“I’m going to get them later. Bring them back, see?”
“Yeah, I see. You hungry, girl?”
“Can I have some fries?”
“Cheers.” Victor taps his bottle on Shannon’s and says, “So, Shannon. What you doing here?”
“Someone invited me on a ride.”
“You enjoying it?”
“More or less,” and then adds, “Vicky.”
He beams at her. His teeth even and very white.
“A girlfriend?” Shannon nods her head in the direction of Tina. She’s been around the antics of her mom and stepdad to pick up on these types of things.
Victor leans back into the back of the booth, stretches his legs underneath the table, and wraps them around her ankles. Shannon leans back, too.
“Baby girl, I’m never going to lie to you, and nah, she’s not a girlfriend. She may have been friendly, but I swear it was all her. You don’t have to worry about anything.”
He is very serious, and she believes him in this moment. There’s a slight inflection between lies and truth that Shannon has learned. Subtle, but Shannon knows it and what Victor is saying from behind his teeth, what his full lips are forming, and his tongue speaks sounds like truth, or at least he believes it now, and she wants to believe him.
“I know,” she says but looks away from him anyway.
He pulls out a cigarette, lights it, hands it to her, and then lights one for himself. He begins speaking some more of his truth, romancing each word.
“When I saw you, I thought, well, here we go. This is what everyone talks about. Never felt it, not once. I thought I want to know every bit of this girl. Not just physical. I can see you think it’s all I want, but it’s not. It’s right to be suspicious, though,” he stops to take a puff, “You’re a good girl. I can tell. Wouldn’t want it any other way.”
“Don’t call me a good girl. I hate that. I mean it.”
Shannon feels her neck start to burn, the heat creeping up her face and ears. She knocks his feet out of the way, scoots out of the booth, and asks where the bathroom is. Victor uses his cigarette to point to a hallway between the bar and kitchen.
The ladies’ bathroom is surprisingly clean, probably for never being used, and smells very strongly of perfume. She throws the cigarette in the toilet and sits down to pee. There’s a curtain around the sink. Underneath—a curling iron, Aqua Fresh, tampons, a makeup bag, baby powder. Obviously, Tina’s bathroom.
She washes her hands, takes several paper towels out of the dispenser, wets them, and wipes her face, arms, and legs down. She is sticky from picnic sweat. She lifts up her shirt to smell her underarms, rummages under the sink, and finds deodorant and Tina’s perfume. She looks closely in the mirror at herself. When she was eight, she climbed the tallest diving board at the YMCA swimming pool. Her legs just took her up the ladder, but by the time she walked across the gritty board she was trembling. She was too terrified to climb back down; she would have to jump. Her toes clung to the edge of the board, but she couldn’t jump. Kids were lining up on the ladder and on the other end of the diving board. The lifeguard was yelling at them, “One at a time. I’ve told you all before one at a time.” The kids behind her shouted at her to jump. A boy walked forward, acting like he was going to push her, so she leapt off. When she swam to the surface, she felt so alive. She felt the same way now staring into the mirror, except that her braids make her appear young and no one was here to push her. She pulls out her braids, running her fingers through them, and sprays some perfume in her hair. Then she wets some more towels, adding some soap, and wipes between her legs.
LA Woman is playing when she comes out, and Victor is adding more money to the juke box. Tina places a platter of fries on the table right after she sits back down, tells her she smells good, and walks away.
Shannon would normally feel ashamed, but for the beer and liquor. She doesn’t care that Tina knows she went through her stuff. Shannon considers herself a master at keeping it together. Life, or maybe survival, requires pretense, and all the bad has to be tucked away in the secret closet in your head. In the moment if it gets too heavy, you can fold it, hang it, store it away, deal with it when you run out of space; she’s young and had a lot of space left.
She isn’t drunk, but more than tipsy. Victor ensures they won’t run out of tunes. Not 80’s, but she recognizes The Eagles and Young, the stuff her mom and Dale still listen to.
They talk about nothing and everything as if they hadn’t seen each other in years and have so much to get catch up on. Music, places they’d been, who and what had wronged them, where they were going now, and Eddy. When Eddy comes up, they both understand it’s time to go. Plus, some hardened picnic goers trail in and Shannon is nervous someone will eventually call her out for being there.
Victor leads her to his car and puts her in the passenger seat. Seconds later, he is in the driver’s seat. He grabs her face with both hands and kisses her. Somehow, he manages to pull her over the console and onto his lap without stopping. They both are breathing hard, and then he is undoing her bra, and it is too much, so she pulls back, and crawls back into the passenger’s seat.
He starts the car. It is getting dark now. They are heading away from the sunset. About a mile before entering Lawrenceton, Victor pulls off into a driveway that at one time went somewhere, but nowhere tonight, and turns off the engine.
He rests his head on the steering wheel. He says he wants to cry. She says she does, too. He says he wants this more than anything; he knows he can convince her to come with him, but he just wants to do the right thing by her. She keeps asking him why, what? Why can’t he stay here? But he needs keep going down the road, if not tonight then tomorrow, or the next. They belong together she tells him. He yells at her, to make her stop telling him the truth they both know, and then tells her to get out.
She thinks he is leaving her here in this empty driveway with empty promises, but he comes around and forces her back on the hood. He pushes and pulls on everything she has. He has one small breast in his hand. He jabs his tongue into her mouth, yanks her zipper to her shorts down, pushes his fingers into her, and she is naked like never before. It hurts. Not their agreement, but Shannon stops asking herself what she’s doing. This is it. Against the metal hardness of a Camaro with a stranger.
In part, Shannon wants this more than Victor. It solidifies what everyone already suspects of her. She can quit pretend fighting. He’s inside her and the incessant drumming of July cicadas suddenly stops, as if someone realizes they hadn’t turned them off before leaving for the picnic in the morning and has now flipped the switch. There are only the cars going home and Victor zipping his pants asking if she is ready.
She feels Victor’s hand on the top of her arm, pulling her toward the passenger door. He opens it and nudges her in. When he cranks the Camaro on, Little Pink Houses is blaring. He doesn’t turn the station or turn it down, though it doesn’t seem like his thing and then she vaguely recalls hearing it earlier today when things were different than now.
He parks off the side of the road in front of the church. The picnic is over. People are cleaning up. He kisses her one more time, deeper and harder than before, as to say he can do that to her. He doesn’t open the door. He doesn’t reach her for the door handle. She understands his silence. She gets out.
She stands in the graveled parking lot of the church.
He says without looking at her, “Wait.”
Again, he says, “Wait.” He fumbles behind his seat with one hand. She hears a small tinkling. The church bell. He reaches her the birdhouse and she takes it—like the prize from a carnival—balloon darts, ring toss, an oversized teddy bear, cheap and flammable. He says something about getting her number from his cousin. She cannot meet his eyes. She looks down. There’s a to-go container with half-eaten liver dumplings on the ground. Ants are already crawling on it. He says, “Eddy has it, right?” But she hears something else, a lack of interest in his voice and she doesn’t respond, just stands in between the open passenger door holding her consolation prize. She pushes his door shut lightly. He drives away. She thinks, bye Vicky. She thinks, see you later alligator, and she chucks the birdhouse across the street into a ditch.