VOLUME 5, ISSUE 1
2022 • ISBN# 9781970033212 • 125 pp • 6" x 9" paperback
Night Picnic is a journal of literature and art. We seek to share and celebrate all that is strange, dark, jubilant, complex, confusing, scary, mystical, fantastic, multidimensional, and metaphysical.
This issue includes:
Rachel Sandell, Tower to Foundation
Ben Wrixon, The Winning Numbers
Richard Risemberg, Old Man Eating at a Window
Emily Newsome, The Train
Jordan M. Griffin, Medb
Spencer Harrington, The Peppermint Witch
John Pula, Of Two Minds
G.T. Shepherd, A Detour in Recovery: A Journal
Shane Delaney, The Starlight Lounge
John Grey, The Opinion & other poems
RC de Winter, rhythm & other poems
Martina Reisz Newberry, Astrológos & other poems
Rachel Anne Parsons, Gods & other poems
Phil Wexler, The Backstroke & other poems
Enjoy work from this issue below:
It was an opinion
not red meat
but the wolves descended on it anyhow.
I opened my mouth
and a rabbit popped out.
Hawks tore it to shreds.
The carnivores were still hungry, damn them.
They’d had at my children.
Now it was time to come for me.
They could have gnawed on my outsides
and there’s nothing I could have done.
But they wanted in.
So while I’ve no visible scars,
my insides are cut up
by teeth like you wouldn’t believe.
As for my mind,
it’s bleeding all over the place.
I’m surprised my eyes are still brown.
All I did was say what I really believed.
It was sincere.
Is it my fault it was also appetizing?
Knee-deep in garden mud,
you're wearing your rags,
clipping the ugliness
away from the beauty.
Hands in the pool,
you scoop away algae,
critters, even a frog,
until the surface is clear.
You scrape food-scraps off plates,
wash blood from the legs
with one deft pull of a tissue,
free the baby's nose.
You've scrubbed sex
from your flesh
until your skin sparkled
You've swept bad news
from any place
it was burying good.
You're such a clean freak
and yet soiled facades keep coming.
Bad breath sharp as a sword tip,
a face scarred from failed repair jobs,
licking shoes, sucking down tears,
thoughts soiled like the
well-thumbed pages of yearbooks,
reading old comic books,
dreaming of a clear syringe
loaded with morphine,
shadow on the brain
like a blanket of black snow,
guzzling cheap booze,
listlessly scraping the green
from front teeth with a worn-out brush,
collecting lifelong anxieties
like a squirrel does acorns,
mournfully defending the right
to wear the same clothes
three days in a row,
choking down cold coffee,
engulfed in the sludge of regret,
sitting in a chair
like hanging on a kitchen wall,
pointing the finger inward,
clutching a blank clipboard,
scratching an elbow
for the thirtieth time in a row,
swatting at flies and missing,
watching veins ride up the arm,
sensing the crap in the bowels,
reading the ugly future,
in the chili stains on a shirt,
staring down at where you expect heaven to be,
at best, a gravel trench,
at worst, the rat’s nest under the floorboards —
have you had enough yet?
get the hell out and
go see somebody.
That’s the mark. Right there.
It’s as far as the creepy little creepers crept.
And perfection perfected.
Rage and pointless self-aggrandizement rose no further.
Nor did autobiography.
Or rusted cars buried in long grass.
Stand against it
and you’re measuring ejaculations,
rheumy eyes, wind in the woods,
peripheral magic, blots in your diary,
front porch columns and macular degeneration.
That’s where things cut off
from the sandwich of your own invention
to the knuckles you bit as a woeful child.
Even when you grew up suddenly,
that’s as high as you went.
Not even the pitch of your breaking voice
could penetrate beyond.
Every rankling eye-sore,
mass of beads and trinkets,
gray three-piece suit,
diner on Allens Avenue:
stack them atop each other
and you know where this is heading.
And where it’s ending also.
You wanted more from your non-sequiturs,
fatherhood, lashing tongue,
inscribings on grains of rice,
flowers both real and plastic.
But it all reaches a point
where it can go no more.
It’s a mark.
It’s seen easily from above.
But you will never be above
to see it.
RC DE WINTER
what radiated between the distance of hearts
became an exquisitely bloody remove
facilitated and fractured by a universe
wearing the face of a traitor
all promises reduced to ellipses taken by the wind
the waltz now a frenzied dance of savages
in the unsyncopated signature of sorrow
round the fire that is the world
leaving me unpartnered to stumble through time
barefoot out of rhythm out of joint
ankle deep in the ash heap of memory
where once a garden grew
the garden sleeps
in the quiet of not quite spring
carries no message
sailing the unsalted sea of sky
unfurl in the anonymity of white
the river of time
a whisper on the tongue
that tells me nothing
the aftertaste of yesterday
and the hunger for so much more
in the blueblack night of this endless summer
wracked by the fury of outraged nature
i swim the saltsea of the world
tears in every tongue burning my throat
the hot liquid ash of heartache
slide into the scarlet waves
as i struggle to parse the construction of hatred
but the tide is pulling me
past the point of understanding
so stuffing all my softness into a corner pocket of my heart
i head for shore
to stand in the light of the leprous moon
and look reality in the face
all the while knowing it wears many masks
and a case will be made for every one of them
the only truth i know is love is the answer
but many are fearful and others
too damaged beyond repair to own it
still i keep a reservoir dammed behind my armor
where it rusts me from the inside out
now standing on the shifting sands of reality
i pray the drops fall on those
who will open wide and swallow
drunk and disorderly
standing with greg under a sputtering streetlight on a corner
somewhere between 23rd st and the ghost of christmas past
both of us denying honeymoon in three part harmony (his voice cracks)
our stolen megaphones blare echoing the jackinthebox foolishness
of the disappointed in love off the brick of tired buildings
any minute now a window will open and we'll be baptized in
stale beer or worse yet the stale piss of some sweatshop slave
trying to grab a few zzzzs before his next shift
drunk on the bravado of hopeless romantics
someone's got to warn the world and it may as well be us
every soul we save from the bailbondsman of matrimony
will shave at least a week off our sentence in purgatory
and that's something to shout about
so giggling in the innocence of the lost we stagger in
small circles around the streetlight that every so often spits a spark
of disgust flaring out in the city night dusting us with ash and regret and
when too hoarse to shout we collapse into an untidy heap of sweat and
last week's jeans waiting for the paddywagon to rescue us
i walk down that old familiar road
hard on the feet
harder on the heart
sometimes i twist an ankle
but i always twist my soul
until it hangs
sweaty and rumpled
on an old wire hanger in a closet i can never find
when i’m home
having the first of many drinks
i interrogate myself
a prosecutor who smells guilt in every pore
why do you do it
there are a million other roads to walk
yet you always choose this one
the question flies off unanswered
into the wideopen sky
where all lies of omission live
the ice cubes in my glass become eyeballs
deep brown irises floating in my confessional
that’s when i get up
to look at the sky crowded with lies
and in the distance
i hear a redheaded stranger laughing
MARTINA REISZ NEWBERRY
I looked for the meaning of dreams on a
rooftop under Orion, under Sirius.
Sometimes the dark air smelled clean,
polished as a newly-mopped floor.
Sometimes the air smelled ancient,
spoke of wishes I never made and
memories that were not mine.
Often afraid of what waited for me
in my small box of a house, I tried to
recall the rosary. Pot smoke sailed
from my mouth as my lips formed
“Hail Holy Queen…,” blew smoke heavenward.
Summer nights — I searched the stars for
Ophiuchus, the snake-bearer, and wondered
if he feared Scorpius who lay in wait beneath him;
guessed not — he was thought to be a healer
after all. I had a friend once upon a time.
He was a morphine addict — a gentle soul
who vowed he would always protect me
no matter what and, as I sorely needed
protection from what lived in my small house,
I gave my assent. All things die: my friend died,
my father died, my dog died. Many warm nights
on that roof, I searched for my friend, Arcturus —
Guardian of the Bear — a morphine addict — guardian of me.
Guardian of a quiet that speaks only for itself, nothing more.
Boxes of Shadows
Mother created 5-tiered Shadow Boxes;
scenes in a huge indented box on the
wall in the living room over the couch.
[tools of creation: magnifier, tweezers,
paint brush of two hairs, cotton swabs]
She preferred the Asian themes:
tiny bonsai trees and plants
tiny porcelain fishermen (wearing real straw hats)
standing on bridges fishing lines resting
on the tier below a glass pond with a small fish
leaping from its surface
two women in flowered kimonos, (real cloth kimonos)
they are carrying paper umbrellas on their way
to the jeweled temple and gardens
on the top tier.
I stared for hours and made stories of life in those boxes.
When Mother died, I knew she was somewhere where
they play the shamisen and the koto.
I saw her standing
on a tiny bridge, looking into a pond still as glass,
enameled chopsticks resting in her bunned hair.
When I Missed the Party
When I missed her party she was vexed.
“You always say you’ll be there, but you
don’t come,” she said. In her voice was the
accusation of an egregious
breach of faith.
I wanted to tell her
that being takes cunning for me and
showing up takes, not only cunning,
but courage as well. I said very
little. I apologized, stammered
At such times, I
feel an old damp grayness hovering
around me, passed to me–a daughter
(mother to daughter; a thing she’d give
in lieu of affection, easier than concern),
a scumbled passion.
Things rarely take hold of me.
All but you, my love, has had a watery
sort of grip on my selfness.
Often in those 3 A.Ms which never end,
the things I feel I ought to say are
carried by me on a hushed current.
My friend, Patrick, labeled those moments
“the 3 o’clock demons; those ones who
bring anti-gifts to beds and bedrooms.”
It is as our mothers told us when we made unpleasant faces.
Keep it up and your face will freeze like that, they said.
It is true of faces and souls. How to find your way home?
How to cleanse?
Bathe in chrism, dance naked in your living room, have sex
with Dismas the Penitent Thief or someone very like him,
forget dollars — sing for pennies or for free (make up the words
if you have to),
get a grip, be witless sometimes, think of your misdeeds as
being projected by a tachistoscope and the good that you do
as being projected in slow motion on a big screen in a large temple
suppress your appetite for celebrity with shallon berries. And,
if you have been easily bought by praise, think of
Nadia Boulanger was a most excellent composer in her own right
but, primarily, she taught others who became
more famous than she would ever be. Students Virgil Thomson,
Walter Piston, and Aaron Copland used her and used what she knew.
Think of Nadia Boulanger who, while she deserved so much,
was rewarded in death by a headline which said
Mademoiselle n'est pas du minerai.*
*Mademoiselle is no more.
RACHEL ANNE PARSONS
Is there anyone who doesn't worship
a god of their own?
Myself, I've had quite a few.
They appear in many forms.
The first is a god of hearth
she is a god of the sun
and she sings the old songs.
Her lesson is a simple one.
Happiness is a shroud that
you can wrap yourself in.
It is the vapor of a burning star.
The next makes order from chaos.
She sees patterns in tea leaves
and lines on palms
and stories from strangers.
She taught me about fate
and how to dance around it.
Shuffle the cards
but read them how you please.
The third god hews down
the barriers of conventions.
She owes no allegiance
to the status quo.
Her way is not a straight line
but a series of twists and turns.
She taught me not to fear
getting lost along the way.
The final god has been a shadow
at my side many years.
Reaching for her is as useless
as reaching for the moon.
She showed me that sometimes
a light is only reflection
on a cold surface.
It does not warm you.
Love and god, some would say
are the same.
To whom do you pray
This hall of the hereafter
with its shining summer saviors
who dine upon golden apples
in the glory of youth.
Should it crumble, I would not cry.
My shame would not stain
my cheeks, I am not a golden one,
or one for whom the world weeps.
I am some half-made thing
that fails to be a son,
that fails to be a daughter,
that trembles at the judgment
of the All Father, that old seer
who has been known to hang himself
from his own tree
from time to time.
All of you are part beast,
hide it under your clothes.
A few words from me
about your true nature showing
and you roar with indignation.
You rattle your jewelry.
I am a giant girl in a cave,
my own making.
You ask me, is nothing sacred?
nothing pure as driven snow?
I would not know.
It is my job to stir the coals,
to rake the muck,
and to gossip when in my cups
at a feast where I wasn’t invited.
I saw you, my lord,
when you sipped at knowledge,
laughed at the stupid peasants
who had not tasted that fine mead.
My lady, I heard you
when you pledged your love
and bartered it like currency,
you all said you didn’t know what it was.
My territory is chaos,
the world beyond the fence you stand behind
like cattle while I make merry fun of the tree line,
my shape changing as I pass in and out of sight.
Out here, I’m free.
I could be the towering monster you all fear,
and my appetite now could not compare
to what my wildfire would consume,
the meat, the bones and all.
I could put you to tasks.
Can you outrun thought?
Can you drink the seas empty?
Can you lift the world serpent to the sky?
Can you wrestle with old age?
This is the place
where you must stretch yourself beyond
your limits, test the boundaries you thought
were impenetrable before you followed me out here.
I cannot help it.
I am drawn to the fence, for without it,
there is nothing to escape, no border to cross.
See, I am a beast of neither side, but the in-between,
no more disguised as a giant than I am as a god.
We bought incense and admired the
trinkets on display in the magic shop.
They kept gold idols and energy crystals
to provide guidance and inner peace.
In the back, there was a psychic fair.
The palm readers looked at our hands.
They read our lifelines and predicted
that you would face a great challenge
and I should stop smoking cigarettes.
With a little divine inspiration, they
saw our past lives and told us about
how you were a queen, a priestess
a healer for the people who loved you
and in each life, I stood beside you.
I said I was sorry for that one past life
when I ran away and broke your heart.
You said maybe you'd forgive me in
the next life, but you needed more time.
I don't know if I believe in palm readers
but it was comforting to think that
we have been each other's friends before.
If there is a life after this one, I hope
that I meet you again, and just maybe
we will go to the palm readers, and they
will tell us about this life, when you
were a teacher and I smoked too much
the best life that I have yet imagined.
Look who brought a hammer to a gunfight,
swinging it in one hand,
slaying the capitalist swine with blunt tradition,
but I think he’s made a breakthrough.
With each nail he batters home,
the hammer rings and sings of someone
unfettered by the confines of convention.
A braggard, some would say,
a drunkard, perhaps, or else
he smoked too many peace pipes with me
around a campfire after a long day
of fighting giants and beasts.
We’d both of us rather stay out here
underneath these wilder stars,
and not wonder too much about what happens
when the All Father leaves it all up to us.
She promised to paddle toward me
if I kept my distance but I,
no swimmer, waded in deeper,
disobeying her rules even
at the expense of gaining
the only ground that mattered.
In the middle of her midnight,
marshy dip, her giggly splashes
seared my imagination
with such desire that I renounced
all vows and stumbled
into cattails, intercepting her,
off guard. Thus, brashly
violating her edicts, I fell
sharply out of favor as she
turned tail for open water.
I take us both as blameless
as she would, too, I’m sure if
rather than backstroking so far
away, so soon, she took pity
on me rumpled in the peat
of the marshland bog.
She waited at the bus stop as, nearby,
I shoveled snow. Dusk was upon us
and it grew colder. On and off,
she stroked her shearling collar
like a puppy’s neck but didn’t turn
it up. As she was about to, a truck
roared by smacking her arms back
down with a gust of wind. Shoveling,
I kept warm but shivered
when I paused to try to catch her eye.
No luck. Maybe she’d signal me,
I mused, by raising her collar or,
better yet, our eyes would meet.
Then I’d return to shoveling so she
could see how hard I’d work for her.
She was fixed on looking down
the street from where the bus would be
arriving, though there was no telling
whether it was a bus she was expecting
or something else. As it pulled in,
snow-encrusted and nearly empty, she
kept looking beyond it for what, heaven
only knew. The driver had to honk
to summon her attention to the open door,
to break the spell. Startled, she scurried
on board apologetic, swiped her card,
zig-zagged down the aisle, settling
on a bench at the rear. She turned
up her collar and stared out the back
window as if still keeping vigil
for the bus she was on, or some other
sign to set the universe right. Peering
at her diminishing face for some insight,
I could tell she saw nothing, including me.
Love Comes Down to This
After the bath, you dry
your body, wrap it
in a colossal white towel,
your hair in a pink turban.
I am fixated on droplets
of water clinging
to the crevices
of your red-nailed toes
and find myself helplessly
returning to the amply
explored territory of desire,
that we have become
no better than dreams
to each other, repeatedly
short on identity,
through fingers, fading,
not unlike the evanescent
wetness of your feet
as they carry you
to my arms for another
round of impersonation.
Tower to Foundation
Osha, Osha. The name still sounded false. Merely the thought of tasting it on her own lips made her recoil. Her name was for the townsfolk to say. Osha, Osha, they prayed, save us.
The open air was new to her. If she spread out her freckled arms, she would not touch another person’s skin, unlike back in the orphanage, where children huddled together for warmth and comfort. Now, the priests in their long, flowing white robes gave her a wide berth. She might have welcomed the space, once. Now, she yearned for the sound of breathing nearby, a warm friendly hand on her shoulder.
She wore white fleece with a gold hem, finer cloth than she had ever touched, and it dragged along the ground, erasing her footprints in the dirt. Their procession was slow, one step, another step, and yet another, under the burning gaze of the townsfolk. She could feel every whisper on their lips, and the hope ignited in their eyes itched and scorched — it hurt.
Osha, Osha. Chosen, pure.
She kept her eyes forward. The priests had counseled her not to look down, lest she offend the townsfolk, who gathered on both sides, watching her slowly make her way with the priests to the tower — its shadow hung before them. But the townsfolk’s jubilation left no room for offense. Her foot landed on a small rock, and it stung. She kept her head up, eyes forward. Her body moved as her mind got lost in the fog of her thoughts. Head up, eyes forward. But were they her thoughts anymore? No: her mind, her soul, her body belonged to the townsfolk now. Head up, eyes forward.
Osha, Osha, they whispered, thought, sang. Take it all away.
She hoped one of them might break free of the neat line along the way. How far had they walked (since dawn, at least), and not a single one of the townsfolk wore a speck of distrust on their face. Smiles curved upward, not thin but big and broad. She wanted one of them to throw something at her, sully her white robe, maybe even point a finger, curse her, and bring judgment upon the priests. No one did. Not one.
Her hood covered her head, and yet they called her radiant. Osha, Osha. Beauty of heaven. She was slight, barely into her teen years, and yet they clasped their hands, bowing as she passed. Osha, Osha. Gift of the gods. Wise and true, Osha. She wanted to scowl, to break the serenity. But beneath all the prayers of the townsfolk there lay a buzz of desperation, and she feared what they might do if she proved herself not a gift from the gods, but a tool of the solemn priests. They gathered closely as their procession neared the tower.
Brick behemoth that it was, the tower loomed over the village, casting its cool shadow onto patches of emerald-green grass. The stone itself was ancient, its brickwork worn and cracking. If Osha half-closed her eyes, she could almost see faces in the stone, though she was indeed known for an active imagination among those who lived in the house beneath the hill. Her brother often scolded her for it. That is dark, sister. That’s frightening. What could be so frightening about the sickly grey pallor of the stone tower, her new home, and the half-formed faces worn away in its brickwork? There were very few things that Osha feared. There were very few things that could hurt her.
At least she was not pitiable, like the long line of priests filing dutifully into the tower, swallowed up by first its shadow and then by its great wooden door. The priests bore some measure of guilt; she read it on their faces, beneath the straight lines of their mouths, the deep wrinkles on their faces. A doubt lingered in her mind, a suspicion that itched at her thoughts. Your name shall ring, they told her as they led her from the house beneath the hill. The dirty faces of the orphans peered out from behind corners. Your name shall soar.
What did any of their words mean? Osha never did understand. But the accent of lies tinged their voices. Their mouths creased like winding snakes. They lived under the house beneath the hill. Lower than dirt, deeper than darkness. You have been chosen by the stars, they said, by the Sun. They had set foot in the orphanage, and Osha had been sitting near the window, where the waning sun covered her in light, chatting with Elikai. As soon as they saw her, the priests leapt around, swinging their robes like dirty, wet sheets. They bowed to her, kissed her feet, and Osha shared an awed but confused glance with Elikai.
They said that she was the answer to all the village’s prayers. They did not give her a chance to speak. They dragged her out of the sunlight, and they ignored the other orphans’ high, frightened gazes. The priests’ claw-like fingers dug into the soft spot of her arm, but for once, Osha was too perplexed to scowl and fight as usual. Instead, Elikai, who had only ever been soft-spoken and smiling with warm almond eyes (the only one of those in the house beneath the hill who did pray daily to the Sun), sprang from the ground like a rabid animal, her brown hair splaying across her face. She latched onto the closest priest, tearing at his robes and demanding Osha’s freedom. Her only friend’s cries were the last sounds Osha heard from the house beneath the hill. The priests dragged her into the light.
The rest of this story is available in Volume 5, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.
The Winning Numbers
33, 17, 45.
I chose my numbers the day I turned nineteen. Like everyone else, the government mailed me my blank lottery card three weeks before my birthday. They want people to think before making their selections as if eighteen years wasn’t already enough. I still remember running to the etching station with a sheepish grin on my face.
The clerk wished me a happy birthday.
The lottery machine said to please play again.
Now an adult, I found myself in the lottery station stroking my card’s bent edge after accidentally running it through the laundry. Stupid. I’d be out three-hundred dollars (that I didn’t have) for its replacement if the clerk couldn’t scan it. A similar situation upstate ended in a shootout last month. A stray bullet cracked the window and let The Fog creep in, killing three people who couldn’t get their ventilators on fast enough. The government responded with a “mask-on” protocol that reminded everyone that bulletproof glass is reserved for people richer than the lottery — I’ll be 33, 17, 45 until the day I die.
My numbers are my history.
I wore thirty-three on my baseball jersey until my father died. He never missed my games and always gave my at-bats his full attention. When it came time to choose my digits on May 17th of 2045, the clear sky and gentle breeze felt like those baseball afternoons. I’m still thankful my father never lived to see The Fog force sports into extinction.
The old man would probably laugh at me for being here right now, I thought, my attention drawn to the beep of a scanned lottery card. Everyone held their collective breath until the machine chimed a sad ‘please play again’ for the woman at the kiosk. She left the station in a huff of stomped feet and expletives, vowing to never play again.
Someone chuckled behind me, “She’ll be back next month.”
“No doubt about it,” I said. “Some people never get used to losing.”
“Easier said than done. Have you?”
I shrugged and turned around. Conversation in the lottery line is rare; people typically keep to themselves, too absorbed in their own aspirations. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
My eyes wandered down to the man’s ratty shoes — his bare feet poked through holes in their toe-boxes. The laces holding them together bulged like a strained corset. He’d rolled the cuffs of his jeans with minimal effort, too. His general appearance made me a little less embarrassed about my stained denim and dusty work boots.
“You got kids?” I shook my head. “Shame, they’re a treat,” he said. “I finally told my little girl my numbers this morning, and you know what she said to me? ‘Daddy, those are terrible picks!’ The nerve on the brat, you know?”
No, I don’t. I forced a laugh.
Our conversation ended when the lottery clerk called me up to the kiosk. Advertisements for next month’s draw were displayed underneath its transparent glass countertop, reminiscent of how convenience stores used to sell candy bars before The Fog. The shotgun tucked away behind the clerk reminded me why the lottery still operates in-person — online cheaters and digital conmen can’t be shot through their computer screens, after all.
I handed over my lottery card. The damage done by its trip through the washing machine was impossible to ignore, but the clerk didn’t comment. He inserted my card into the scanning machine, and we both waited for the beep. It didn’t come.
The rest of this story is available in Volume 5, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.
Old Man Eating at a Window
He often bragged to friends that he had his own private Old Master painting — a real-life tableau that mixed the sense of light and the brushwork of a Vermeer with the composition and subject matter of an Edward Hopper. If it was the right time of day, he would show it to them, and they would have a good, if discreetly, suppressed laugh over it. It was indeed remarkably composed.
Carey lived in a "nice" apartment on a narrow street, and across the street from his kitchen window was another apartment. Carey was not sure whether it gave into a kitchen, as did the window he watched from, or into some sort of dining nook, but there was a table there, the top of which was just visible from Carey's window. It appeared to be of yellow Formica, but he could never quite tell. Almost every evening, at six-thirty by the clock, an old man sat down to eat at the table. He was a lean, serious-looking old man with his gray hair brushed back and a short gray goatee on his chin, and looked quite dignified in profile. Some evenings he wore gold-rimmed spectacles; sometimes he did not. The spectacles appeared generally in the winter, when the light outside was gone. However, the old man seemed never to glance outside. He sat quietly and dipped a spoon—always a spoon—into what must have been a bowl of soup. He also sipped from a wineglass which appeared to have white wine in it, regardless of the season. On the wall beyond the old man was a framed picture of some sort, but from across the street it looked to be nothing more than a jumble of dark shapes centered in a lighter field. There was evidently a lamp at the one end of the room, for when the man sat as usual on the left side of the window as Carey saw it, he was illuminated with a diffuse glow, but on the occasions when he sat at the opposite end of the table, his face was shaded, and the effect was unsatisfactory. This latter condition pertained only to certain times of the year, when the sun struck directly on the outside wall of the old man's building, leading Carey to think that the bright light annoyed the old fellow somehow, enough to urge a retreat into the shadows. The table was small enough, or the window big enough, that either way the old man was visible in it, near one edge of the aperture or the other. This asymmetry gave the composition a certain strength that a central position would not have benefitted from. Also, if the old man had sat facing the window, he would have been able to see Carey watching him, and Carey would have had to abandon the practice.
Carey ate later than the old man, and so he was often working on his own dinner in the kitchen while the old man ate. This gave him ample time to observe his neighbor. Also, when he had friends over, he was again often working in the kitchen during the old man's dinner hour, preparing for the arrival of his guests. That was when he would show off his tableau to early arrivals, and they often speculate together on the nature of the old man's life, who he might have been, what he was now. The old man never appeared in the window at typical breakfast or lunch hours, which puzzled Cary, though one of his friends suggested that the old man was one of those ascetic sorts who eat just once a day. Carey did not believe that one could survive on a bowl of soup a day, and argued that the old man ate his other meals in cafés or restaurants. Another friend, a woman named Celeste, suggested that the old man was nocturnal, as her grandfather had largely been, and that, were Carey to surveil the window in the wee hours, he might see the old man at table eating a more substantial meal. Carey leaped at the opportunity to suggest to her that she spend the night with him — a goal he had been pursuing for some time, without success — and they could determine whether the old man was in fact a night owl or an early bird, but Celeste laughed him off as she had when he had previously suggested a nighttime liaison. "If you want," she said, "I'll call you at two a.m. and remind you to spy on him." Carey demurred.
Carey felt it was odd that he never saw the old man on the street, as his neighbor had good posture and did not seem to be an invalid. Carey went out to work every weekday, walking down to the major road that offered a bus line, and he favored a little bistro of the sort that a courtly-looking old man might also like, but he never saw a face that matched the one in the window. His curiosity was aroused, but not excessively: he had his work, his friends, his books, a subscription to a streaming movie site, and his cozy apartment across the street from the old man's window. His interest in the old man gradually resolved into nothing more than an appreciation of him as a decorative artifact, one he would miss when the old man inevitably passed on, but one that he felt free to enjoy while they both awaited the approach of doom. The old man looked healthy, and Carey wished him a long life, out of both abstract compassion and a desire to maintain the Old Master tableau for his own pleasure and that of his friends. The old man in turn maintained his soup vigil with an almost mechanical diligence, and didn't miss a day in more or less two years.
Then something changed, and in a quietly spectacular way: the old man gained a peculiar and exciting companion. Although the face with the goatee never changed its expression as it sipped the evening pottage, a young woman appeared now at the other end of the table. Not every night, but often enough. She looked to be about thirty and was slim and elegantly, though not extravagantly, built, with small, firm breasts and agile shoulders. Carey could see these details because she was in fact naked, or at least naked from the waist up. Not only that, but she wore a carnival mask of sparkly silver angel wings that covered her eyes and nose but definitely nothing else. Her hair was shoulder-length and straight, a style favored in those days by many of his female acquaintances, and she sat with a relaxed grace across from the old man and his soup. She did not eat, but watched the old man eat, often leaning her chin on her joined hands, a pose that, given her nakedness, Carey found exciting. Naturally, Carey devoted more attention to the tableau than he had previously allotted to it.
The woman also never looked out of the window, which Carey found odd and also inconvenient. For some reason he felt it important that the woman notice him and know that he had seen her in her nakedness. It was evident that she was not concerned about being seen, as there were other windows in Carey's own building from which, in all probability, she could be seen. Carey was sure of this, even though the angles were such that he could not see her from any of the other windows of his own apartment that faced the old man's domicile. Sometimes, when the old man was through with his soup and put down his spoon, the woman would stand up, walk around to him, and hug him from behind, letting her breasts coddle the old man's neck. Carey found this arousing and actually made himself look away. All the more so because when he did not turn his gaze from the scene, the first few times, he saw the woman lead the old man out of the scene by the hand. At this moment a tiny flicker of a smile would cross the old man's face. Carey found himself feeling jealous, though he understood that his reaction was misplaced and, in fact, absurd. Of course the entire situation was absurd, mask, breasts, and all. Carey wondered where the old man had found such a woman, and why she expressed her dedication to him in such a peculiar, if exciting, manner. It was beyond Carey's abilities to speculate on the evolution of his neighbors' practice. He assumed that the woman now lived with the old man, though she was not at the table every day. Perhaps three or four times a week.
The rest of this story is available in Volume 5, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.
Moonlight and the sound of chirping crickets drifted in through the open windows of Theo’s bedroom. Blinking the sleep from his eyes, he lay in the darkness, listening to the soft hum of the fan in the corner and the slumbering summer night outside his window.
He’d been dreaming, and the longer he lay in his bed the more he felt the eyes of the frozen baseball players scattered along his wall watching him, the more he felt the unlocked memories drift through his mind like ghosts in the night. Memories of buying over-priced popcorn on trips to Yankee Stadium with his grandpa, and memories of the worn couch cushions beneath them both as they’d sit together in the living room watching game re-runs on TV, learning the players by name and memorizing their stats. Memories of raking leaves side by side in the fall to bag them up for the garbage man, and in the summer, his grandpa teaching him how to mow, the smell of freshly-cut grass floating in along the balmy air, through the open windows and into the kitchen, where somebody was always cooking something.
Suddenly, and without understanding why, Theo pulled back his dark blue sheets and swung his bare feet onto the cool wooden floor. Careful not to creak the boards beneath his weight, he made his way to his bedroom door.
He didn’t want to wake his parents.
The metal knob was cool beneath his tiny fingers. He twisted it and tiptoed through his house, his body pulled by an unseen force into the night.
Theo was greeted by willow trees and tall grasses blanketed in the moon’s glow. He watched them sway in the breeze, dancing. In the distance, he noticed a faint row of lights. Their soft, orange glow stood out like a beacon, disrupting the darkness.
As Theo made his way across the yard, he could smell coal and hear the low hiss of air brakes release into the stillness, interrupting the crickets. He jumped at the sound, trying to ignore the unsettled feeling that pooled in his stomach like heavy stones, to ignore the way the wind picked up, bristling the grass — the energy around him stirring as if something was waking up. He crept closer at an agonizing pace until he could just make out a large, looming shadow.
Up close, he realized the shadow belonged to the passenger car of a train. The train was so long it stretched across his family’s yard and into the next. Where it ended, he couldn’t tell. His heart thundered in his chest as he looked back toward his house in silent prayer, the house’s edges smudged in darkness. Surely someone would come running through the backdoor and across the yard at any moment now — frantic and calling his name, yelling for him to return to safety. Saving him from this strange, ghostly machine.
Yet, no one came.
He knew his parents were asleep, with miles separating them between the sheets, and his grandma asleep too — the opposite side of her bed empty. The ghosts of the living, isolated and alone. Their spirits abandoned, their lights winked out.
Theo’s eyes widened at the darkness around his house as the shadows began twisting, reaching out like claws. He gasped, feeling a pull within his chest, and took a step back. He’d been alone for months now, he knew. Since that day. The day that felt like yesterday and tomorrow all at once. The safety within the walls of his home was gone. His existence, voided by those consumed with loss.
Another release of air brakes jolted Theo back to the present, his eyes returning to the train. A flicker of movement behind one of the windows caught his attention and suddenly a door slid open. The sound of metal scraping against metal reverberated through his body. Light from within the train splashed out, illuminating the dark grass like a spotlight. A veiled hand emerged from the shadows of the car, beckoning for him to step aboard. Theo found himself being pulled up and onto the train before he could reconsider his actions. Stepping over the threshold, he left his body behind.
The rest of this story is available in Volume 5, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.
JORDAN M. GRIFFIN
There was a time I could call myself powerful. A time I would look out from my throne and judge myself a ruler — a queen, I could say, though we did not have that word then. If someone had knelt before my booted feet, asking what I feared most, I would have given them the wrong answer.
I was afraid of simple things then. I was afraid of succumbing to my brothers’ jealous squabbles, the single careless move that would oust me from my throne, death’s embrace which would take me with nothing to show for myself but wasted breath and greatness almost realized. Foolish, all of it. I should have known better, but I admit I did not. I was blinded, as we all were, by our own potential, the land over which we had been granted sovereignty, if we were cunning enough to take it.
I alone had the will. With the speed of the hare and the talons of the hawk and the blood of anyone who dared to stand before me, I claimed my throne. I led with a ferocity unmatched by the men around me and, bit by bit, carved out a domain for myself.
When my rule could not be denied, I took a string of consorts, birthed children to hold against my breast, doled out power to lesser creatures as I saw fit. I was a woman of reckoning, a goddess of sovereignty. I was powerful, and for that, I was happy.
I was also a fool. I did not know enough to hold onto it, did not think to fear that there might be something worse than returning to nature’s womb with my tasks unfinished. I was not afraid of falling to battle — had I been slain I would have gone back to the earth from which I came and embraced it as a child would its mother. I was not afraid of the sword or the spear, and for that I was considered dangerous, a force to behold. I was envied, I was hated, I was revered, and I wanted all of it.
Though I admit I may have failed, I tried to rule fairly. I informed the suitors that came to lay themselves at my feet that I demanded only three things: they be without fear, meanness, or jealousy. If I could lead men into battle, so could they; if I could return from the smell of wasting bodies and the sweat of combat and still have tenderness in my hands, so could they; I would not take their freedom, for I wanted my own.
For a time, this arrangement worked. I took vows to a king who’d fought bravely by my side and had pleased me in his bed. We joined our holdings, merged our army into one and I was content.
It did not last.
I have heard men say that women are fickle creatures. This may be true, but I find it is often men who change the rules, who enter a game only to upend the board and declare themselves the winner. My king had many lovers that were not me, and for this I was grateful. I thought it was a sign of our status as equals, that when I took the captain of my guard to my chambers it would only be seen as fair. When my king discovered us, he howled and cursed the halls. He spat upon my name and my house and the fact that I was not ashamed of my own attractiveness.
As he had failed to meet the bargain we had set, I offered him a choice. He could leave in disgrace, shamed by his own hypocrisy, or he could fight by the sword for my affections. He was a king, a leader of armies; surely he could best one man?
Both he and I knew he could not, but his pride would not let him back down, so he drew his steel from its leathers and shouted a challenge which my queensguard rose to meet.
A glorious battle it was. Both men heaved with the effort. Blood and sweat streamed from each of them. The air grew fouled with the stench of it. When at last I thought they could take no more, my queensguard slew my husband, laying open his throat with a clever sweep. My husband slumped to the grass, where the stain of him remained long after his body was taken away.
My queensguard looked to me then. I asked him, more seriously than I did my last husband, if he thought he could abide by my three conditions. He swore to me that he could, that we would come to this bond as equals and equals we would remain.
The rest of this story is available in Volume 5, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.
The Peppermint Witch
Our Scouts’ Mourning Dove calls are faint. Diana’s the first to hear the welcome sounds. We’ve been walking all evening, following a road from the valley floor to the hills. It’ll soon be dawn, time to camp. She waves us in the direction of the bird calls.
The road’s passable but slow-going, its asphalt heaved this way and that and overgrown by stilt grass. The full moon lit our journey when we started three days ago, but we soon lost its light under a canopy of hemlocks and white pines. It’s a thick, dark forest and we stumble through, lit by dimming solar flashlights.
We hear the calls again, this time louder. Diana motions us from the road into a wall of trees and ferns. Now we’re picking our way through the woods, our path punctuated by toads who hop away in alarm. The nocturnal symphony of crickets and frogs is as loud as I’ve ever heard, and soon we arrive at a meadow with a few stooped trees and the silhouette of two small figures in their branches, the dove calls’ source.
Boy Scout and Girl Scout toss apples down to us when we arrive. Their mouths are full of the fruit, a reward for their reconnaissance. They’re feral creatures, their hair long and knotted, their bodies covered in scrapes and insect bites. Their clothes, recovered from the flotsam of our past society, are even more tattered than our own. They aren’t so small anymore, and Girl Scout may soon begin to bleed.
We’re standing in an ancient orchard, most of the trees long dead. Those that remain are bent over with gnarled branches covered in lichen. Apples carpet the ground surrounding the trees, and our band, which numbers two dozen, bends to pick them up. Hunger is our constant companion, and for a moment we feed ourselves, apple juice running off our chins.
Girl Scout is the more articulate of the two. She tells us there’s shelter nearby, a ruined house and an adjacent building once used to house vehicles. I follow Diana up a hill through a copse of maples to another clearing where there once was a large white house that’s collapsed on itself. Diana examines the remains for useful items, while I inspect the side building. It has a poured concrete floor that’s in good condition but shows signs of prior use: the floor is scorched, and some ashes remain. Someone lit a fire here not long ago. The roof in the structure’s rear has collapsed, but the larger part of the building still provides shelter. It’s about as good a place to camp as we’ve ever found, and my spirits rise.
Diana soon appears. “You should see this. Follow me.”
She leads me to a clearing behind the house, then up mossy steps to a terrace where there’s another stand of perhaps two dozen maples. And chiseled into the trunk of nearly every one is a human face. They’re all male faces, mostly bearded, asleep, and remarkably life-like. Some appear gray and weathered and carved long ago, while others are fresher. The most recent still shows the pale color of fresh wood, another bearded man with a fleur-de-lis inscribed under his image.
“People,” she says, looking disappointed.
“It’s a good place to camp,” I observe. “It’s not surprising people have stayed here.”
“Looks like the same person carved them all.”
“It’s odd,” I admit. “But we should stay here. There’re lots of deer and apples.”
She nods. We return to the meadow and lead the rest of the group to the building. Dawn’s first rays are skimming the treetops and it’s our custom to camp to shelter ourselves from the insects and the day’s torrid heat. Our lore instructs us to be nocturnal, so we call ourselves Moon People because we travel by its light. Mosquitoes, black flies, and gnats take over the earth by day, but at night we escape their torment. Daytime camping also conceals us from other bands, some of whom still follow the sun’s path.
The women set up camp in the shelter. Bear will remain guarding them, and the other men, myself included, will search for places to sleep. The ruined house affords more protected spots than usual, and I’m soon asleep under a lean-to I’ve fashioned from sections of roof.
I wake up in the late afternoon to the whine of mosquitoes in my ear. It’s still far too early to rise, so I lie still considering our situation, now and then slapping at the bugs. My right eye is swollen shut and ringed with a crusted suppuration I break apart with my index finger. It’s painful and I wonder whether I’ll ever again be able to see out of it. The swelling started about a week ago and has worsened.
I worry about our fate more than the others. Maybe this is because I’m 29 summers, the oldest of our band, and will likely die soon. But also, it’s because I was taught to read and write so I could be the Moon People’s lore keeper. And so that’s the name my people call me, Lore Keeper. My job is relating our ancestors’ know-how and history recorded in our lore book.
Until recently, our lives followed the wanderings of deer. We sought highland camping grounds in the long summers, then moved to the valleys in the rainy season. We had our preferred places where there was natural shelter and we were unlikely to encounter other bands.
Everything changed when we found the twins. They were huddled under a rock outcrop, starving and shivering. One was clutching a dying baby boy. They were young, perhaps 15 summers, and their arms and legs were scarred with burns and ligature marks. We surmised they had escaped another group holding them against their will. But we’ll never know. They’re mute, possibly from their trauma, or possibly because they were born that way.
They were a remarkable discovery. People are scarce, women more so than men. They die of the same illnesses as men, but they die all the more so in childbirth. Our group immediately recognized the girls presented an opportunity: If we nursed them to health, they might well mate with us. We needed women outside our band because fertility is a problem for us. Our women have difficulty getting pregnant.
So, we nursed them back to health with dried deer meat and edible mushrooms. The baby boy died, and we buried it. For a time, the twins withdrew completely, never leaving the women’s camp. Then one day they joined us foraging. We took this to be a sign they would stay, but now our group was top-heavy with women. The twins would make us a target of other bands seeking women. We needed to find more remote places to camp and hunt. And so, Diana led us north into the hills. We’d never been this way before, but we knew that even before the floods and disturbances there weren’t many people there. And now, we figured, there’d be even fewer.
Our lore book grants Diana’s family leadership of our group. And though Diana in principle accepts co-leadership with Bear, in practice she makes all the decisions because her brother is simple-minded. She enjoys her role, is handy with a bow, and thus far has kept us safe and nourished. That’s all we can ask in these times.
It’s sunset when I finally emerge from my lean-to. My right eye is throbbing and my thoughts morbid: I’m not sure how I’m going to carry on. Out of my good eye, I can see Bear standing near the women’s quarters with a small deer slung over his shoulders. He and Diana have already completed the day’s hunt, and I usually assist Bear with skinning and butchering.
Diana sees me and says, “We’re being watched. I felt it in the woods.”
She says this matter-of-factly but it’s not welcome news. It likely means we’ll be leaving soon.
“Be careful when you forage,” she adds, because I provide most of our band’s greens and mushrooms.
The next day I awaken to a sharp, repeated Blue Jay’s cry of alarm. It’s Girl Scout. My stomach churns and my heart beats faster. I run to the women’s camp, but they’re already scrambling out of the old garage to hiding places they’ve planned. Boy Scout has shimmied up a tree to survey the landscape.
“A woman,” he calls. “She’s alone in the meadow.”
I make a face. This is strange: bands usually travel together for protection. This woman may be a scout, but scouts conceal themselves and observe. Especially female scouts. I look around for Diana and Bear. They’re missing, probably hunting. I grab a sharpened stick and motion to two of our men to join me to meet her.
The rest of this story is available in Volume 5, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.
Of Two Minds
We were at our locker packing our backpack when Luca approached from the edge of my vision. Roger hadn’t seen her and tried to hand me the Fifth Edition of Human Anatomy and Physiology, which landed with a belly-flop slap and drew the eyes of everyone around. I pinched his hand to express my disappointment, though I could also feel the pain. We don’t always agree or even get along; I’ve still got a scar on my hand from when he stabbed me with a pen without thought or care to how an injury might’ve impacted our performance of Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor. We still played beautifully and won the competition, of course, but he couldn’t have predicted that.
Roger’s here, doodling away in his sketchbook, and he’s just drawn a hexagonal shaft, sharpened at one end to a dark point and rounded pink at the other. He’s the mind for details, so I guess it was a pencil.
It’s unfair to say he hated Luca. Distrusted might be better. We knew three things about her: that she’d wept when we had to dissect a frog, that there was a rumor she’d been expelled from her previous school for beating a classmate half to death, and that we’d argued so long that she might have been the only other person without a date to prom.
I promised Roger at the outset of this little venture I’d represent his side of things, and I’m obliged to describe his caricature of Luca regardless of how inaccurate I believe it to be. That’s the only way this could work. It’d be pretty hard to write a memoir if your other hand was constantly throwing the notebook across the room.
His drawing is dominated by a capacious forehead striped by thin bangs, and the skin is everywhere volcanic, covered in gushers ready to blow. The nostrils are cavernous. Beneath her shirt are the barest bumps, so small they evoke smaller breasts than nothing at all might’ve. He insists that’s how he remembers her, though he laments our cruelty.
We’d once watched her at a track and field meet, which were sometimes held during school hours, and of which some teachers of end-of-day classes encouraged support. For most students, this amounted to sneaking away or sitting in the grass and ignoring the event. We chose to observe, though we didn’t cheer as Mr. Schneider would’ve preferred. We watched our classmates flop over bars like drowning fish and waddle their way around the oval. Throwing heavy objects seemed the most brutish and least athletic event and attracted the athletes only there to earn a letter or flirt — the track meets were coed, after all.
The throwers were mostly oddly-proportioned boys with either gangly limbs from which to fling the weights or pudgy bodies ill-equipped for other events. Luca was our team’s only female participant. We watched her throw the discus, twirling round and round more elegantly than we’d ever seen her move. It would’ve been like a dance were it not for her grotesque grunt upon releasing the weighted Frisbee. It went farther than even most of the boys’ throws. We’d assumed she’d won until a burly girl with a ponytail and a faint mustache jogged over and took her place in the ring. Her spin was tighter, more digital, a series of distinct steps so unlike Luca’s twirl, we could hardly believe it was the same technique.
Luca had thrown up her arms in victory before the disk left the other girl’s hand. Everybody else watched it sail up into the sky and descend with force to plow into the ground near, but obviously farther than, Luca’s disk. The girl’s arms rose triumphant. Luca was shouting and pointing at the ring, though her competitor looked incredulous. The judges conferred, but none of them had seen a toe cross the line. I didn’t either, but Roger did. Luca shouted and complained, but the other girl’s arms remained aloft. Luca was stuck with the red ribbon.
As the winner walked downfield to fetch her disk, Luca loaded hers and took her position. Her spin was masterful and quick and her disk left her hand like a UFO, with nary a wobble or curve. The other girl jumped when its shadow passed over her, and we all watched it dive into the ground just beyond the winning throw. Roger says there were inches between Luca’s foot and the line.
That little moment of mastery and defiance, along with an imagined scene of Luca beating a classmate, were all I’d thought about when she’d waved and Roger had dropped our textbook. I forgot them when I realized everybody was staring at us like the freak I knew Roger and I to be. We’d worked very hard to cultivate an air of normalcy and mostly succeeded. The key was to blend in, and dropping a book like a hot coal wasn’t very blendy.
We froze and both our hands shook a bit. This wasn’t the first time this had happened, and a chemical knife cut across our absent corpus callosum from Roger’s hemisphere to mine. Our awkward hypothalamus set us to sweating, but I did my best to exude calm. We are unified in body by happenstance, but I was asking Roger to choose unity-in-purpose. Both our hands retrieved the book as Luca approached.
“Hey Rome,” she said, meaning us. Nobody knows Roger and Louie. They know Rome. As far as they’re concerned, he’s one body with one mind.
We’d watched her get rejected by three other boys and a girl and wondered when our turn would come, Roger with a mix of sympathy and anxiety, and me with a touch of anger. It was one thing to be picked last in P.E., where we knew we had no ability, but to see her squander the opportunity to accompany us to prom felt downright offensive. We were a little stuck in our own head back then, and spending all day there tends to make it larger. As you’ll see.
The rest of this story is available in Volume 5, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.
A Detour in Recovery: A Journal
Sep 18. I nearly killed a man today. All because I had to take a detour driving to work this morning; I guess the town is finally fixing the Green Bridge. That thing was falling apart when my friends and I would look for nudie magazines among the tires, milk cartons, and shopping carts littered underneath it. Calls for repairing the bridge went ignored for many years, and it took an eighteen-wheeler nearly falling through to get the town to finally open its purse and get it fixed instead of wasting money on a bunch of flower gardens and statues like last year. I read last week it took three tow trucks to get it out.
The sign in front of the bridge directed me to a dirt road to the left that I had never taken before, let alone ever noticed in all the years I’ve lived in Milford. The road was narrow, barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other without one having to skirt the edge of the road, tall grass whipping the side of the car. Thick woods on each side, trees dropping leaves — it’s leaf-peeping season, and there was plenty to look at out here. I had no clue how much longer this route would take me, and I was pushing it already to make it to work on time. While putting together a plausible excuse for running late (distracted by the hangover splitting my head like a log to make kindling), I came to a sharp turn and realized I was going a bit too fast, and took the turn a bit wide, branches scraping the left side of my car. What surprised me even more was the second turn to the right, taking that turn even wider and, despite slamming the brakes and cutting the wheel sharply left, I clipped a bicycle with the right side of my rear bumper, sending it tumbling into the ditch towards a pile of trash.
I immediately pulled over, got out of the car, and asked myself three questions: was there any damage to my car; who the hell left their bike on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere; and who left their garbage bags on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere?
The first question was answered when I inspected the bumper — several thin scratches less than a foot long decorated the rear corner panel, just above the wheel well. Considering the condition of the rest of my used and abused 2006 Escort, the scratches won’t stand out in the least.
My second and third questions were answered when the garbage bag on the embankment moved. Or rather, stood. A man turned towards me; short, wide shouldered, with a beard longer than his shoulder-length hair but just as unkempt. He stood staring at me with an expressionless (and smudged) face. I noticed he was wearing a torn parka over a winter coat over a flannel shirt over an Iron Maiden shirt (I guessed he wasn’t wearing a ‘RON MAID’ shirt, the only letters visible) and realized he wasn’t as stocky as I believed and looked like a man who wore every bit of clothing he owned. Probably homeless.
As I walked towards him to offer my apology for hitting his bike, he walked towards me and asked me if I was OK, and that he was sorry he left his bike where someone could run into it. I told him I was fine. He went over to the bike that was lying next to where he was squatting previously, picked it up by the handlebars, and pushed it back and forth to assess the damage. The wheels were intact, and while one of them squeaked when it moved, it seemed mobile enough.
During his inspection, I noticed a plastic jug set on a flat rock below a black pipe protruding from the embankment, water dripping from the pipe into the jug. I guess he was so absorbed collecting the water he was oblivious to the accident.
I asked him if he needed anything — I was reluctant to offer him my lunch or any money, partly because I didn’t want to insult him, but mostly because it was the last bit of food in my fridge. He smiled and said he was perfectly fine and thanked me. He seemed fidgety and distracted, making little eye contact. He offered a dirty hand, and I shook it, noticing his hand felt particularly thin. As he turned back to attend to collecting water, I saw he was missing several fingers on his hand — at least two.
Ten minutes later, I parked behind Home Depot, realizing I was fortunate to have run into the bike — now I had an excuse for being late and the scratches on my car to prove it.
Maybe my luck will turn around.
Oct 10. I know I’m supposed to write in this several times a week. Mr. Peterson (or Douglas, since he doesn’t like to be called Doug — and looks more like a Douglas anyway) gave this journal to me last month, telling me it was a great way to express myself, an outlet for my feelings, and a tool to use for venting, complaining, or anything else I needed to get off my chest. Personally, I think it’s a load of bullshit. But he reports back to the court on my progress, so I need to play nice. Like he reminded me last week, if I follow his guidance, keep a job, and stay clean, he sees no reason not to recommend joint custody. So fine, I’ll write.
Most of the time I don’t know what to write; it’s not like my life is full of adventures. Work, eat, sleep, then repeat. Go to a therapy session here, an AA meeting there. I could just write about the last episode of I watched, but they cut the cable last week. That tends to happen when you stop paying your bill.
So, what am I thinking about now? Well, I’m thinking I’m not saving quickly enough to get a two-bedroom apartment I need so Natalie can stay with me again. Goddamn courts. Telling me how to be a good father. I need to go to bed before I do something stupid.
Oct 13. The pain is terrible today — my knee is hurting like a son of a bitch. I hope I can make it to my meeting tonight. I almost called into work again, but I’m already skating on thin ice with a verbal and written warning for being late. I’d be fine if I could work the registers up front, but I’m still stuck working back in building supplies for another month or two. I’ve had to pop a pill or two at lunch a few times just to make it through the day. If I lose this job, I can forget about getting a bigger apartment — I’ll have a hard enough time keeping the shitty one I have now.
I shouldn’t really rag on the place. When you don’t have much for rent, you take what you can get — in this case, a studio apartment over an elderly woman’s garage with crappy plumbing and finicky heat. I’m grateful Mrs. Green offered it to me, and for even less than I expected. Sure, she asks me to help her bring groceries into her house or take the trash out, but nothing I can’t handle, and she lives alone, so I’m sure sometimes it’s just an excuse to talk to someone. She even invites me in for dinner (terrible cook, but that’s one less meal I have to buy for myself) and afterwards, we usually watch together.
So, it’s not the Ritz, but at least I can squirrel money away from each measly paycheck. If I stay tight with money, I should be out of here by the end of the year. I hope.
They’re still working on the bridge (finished by the end of September my ass) and Homeless Guy was collecting water again today. It seems like he’s been there more often lately — every other day the past week or so. He parks his bike farther away from the road now as he collects his water, rarely noticing or acknowledging me as I drive by. Although he did notice me today and waved.
Oct 14. I missed the AA meeting last night. Fucking leg hurt from standing all day at work. My back didn’t feel much better from helping a guy hand pick a few dozen pressure-treated boards heavier than my fat, lazy supervisor and load them in his truck. I washed down an oxy with some bourbon. I didn’t have anything in the fridge and there’s no way I’m drinking the tap water — it’s darker than the booze.
Doc says that for this to be useful, I need to be honest here. If I lie to myself, I’ll lie to anyone, he says.
It was a few pills. And a lot of booze. It’s just to get me over the hump, I’ll stop. I won’t buy any more bottles. Of either.
The rest of this story is available in Volume 5, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.
The Starlight Lounge
It began modestly. Ginny, turning down the bed for the night, started to say something, and couldn’t quite find the word: “Oh, I was at the — I was getting toilet paper — you know, the big counter!”
And Don tidied up the sentence: “My heart medication at the pharmacy. Thank you.”
Don Salo and Ginny Mancuso had fallen in love fifty-seven years prior to that moment, among the cracked concrete and foggy windows of Brockton High School, and Don still loved the feel of Ginny’s soft cheek when he pressed his lips to it. They had become adults in step, Ginny supporting Don when he broke free of a commercial construction crew and put his own framing crew together; Don supporting Ginny through nursing school. The two of them raising three girls. All the hard work and sacrifice never crowded out the tender love and honest respect they held for one another.
Having been together all those years, the fact that Don and Ginny were finishing each other’s sentences was hardly a surprise. They hadn’t even noticed, in fact. There had already been years of it, maybe decades. But both had felt there was something different about that particular exchange, and neither knew what it was.
Then the tidying up of sentences became something — more. Don would begin to say something, and not only would Ginny finish the thought, she would find the most exacting words to speak it back to him, bringing new truth to the phrase, I couldn’t have said it better myself. Their counterpoint had articulated the thought perfectly, and sent it back out into the real world in the most familiar of voices.
A few months later, Ginny was ready before Don for a routine they’d fallen into in their 60s — Thursday night supper at the Red Wing Diner. She was in the kitchen, studying the magnets on the refrigerator of the places she and Don had travelled. None were recent — shoulder surgery had sidelined Don for a while, and Ginny’s increasing joint pain had limited her walking. Aging had naturally drawn comfort and routine closer as it simultaneously and silently disconnected them from things new. Ginny was looking at a plastic waterfall magnet that said Niagara Falls in the foam. They’d been in their twenties — it was a Saturday morning and Ginny was listening to a story about Niagara Falls on the radio as she cleaned. Don was on the roof fixing loose flashing. An hour later they were in the car to New York. The idea of shooting off like that felt impossible to her now, and she shook her head.
Don entered the kitchen but stopped upon seeing Ginny. Feeling his presence there she turned, and froze upon seeing Don.
Don looked at Ginny: brown flats, jeans, white button-down, navy jacket.
And Ginny surveyed Don’s outfit: brown boots, jeans, white polo, navy jacket.
Mother Mary, Don thought, when did she start parting her hair like mine?
Jesus Christ, Ginny thought, even our hair’s the same.
Don offered an uncomfortable laugh. Ginny smiled weakly and waved him back to the bedroom as if saying, get back in there, you crazy prankster. But it felt decidedly un-jokey to both. Ginny had noticed this years ago, maybe as far back as in their 30s or 40s, that their dressing began to — and this was the word that had come to her then — agree with one another. Ginny had a flowery style in high school and Don had a sort of greaser look. When their styles merged years later it was easy to simply pass off as maturing.
But this. This was uniform. This was cultish.
Back in the bedroom, Don didn’t know which clothes he should switch. He briefly considered stripping down nude and changing everything. He felt emasculated somehow, as if after all this time it had finally happened: he turned into his wife. And, just as bad, Don felt that he’d somehow made Ginny masculine at the same time. He changed his white polo for a blue t-shirt and pulled a gray sweatshirt on top. Still, it didn’t feel like quite enough.
He returned to the kitchen and found Ginny applying a thick coat of lipstick in the kitchen window. “That was odd, huh,” Don said.
“Oh, it was funny,” Ginny said, and he could tell she meant it. And yet, that lipstick was the brightest she owned.
Years earlier, when Don and Ginny were in their mid-50s, they had decided on diner out, opting for an old favorite, Antonio’s. Before even leaving, Don and Ginny had — unbeknownst to one another — decided to avoid their usual marsala and piccata in favor of something new. They had both felt the danger of routine at points in their marriage, speaking openly about it a few times. At one point — in their early 40s after the third baby girl was out of diapers — Don had told Ginny he believed comfort and apathy were two sides of the same coin. It was after a period where Ginny had been bored with work and domestic routines, and that dullness had soaked into her mind. She began opting for the same meals. For movies at home even when they could get a sitter. That image had always stuck with Ginny — the comfort/apathy coin. And it was what Ginny was remembering then, in their mid-50s, as they buckled into the car on their way to Antonio’s, the clicks of the seatbelts coming one on top of the other.
Ginny said, “I know the plan was Antonio’s, but let’s do something different.”
“Agreed,” Don said.
Ginny paused, feeling something off in what she was about to say.
“I’ve had this craving for—”
“TexMex,” Don said as he turned to Ginny, a little thrill running through him as he did.
Don and Ginny stared at one another, each lightly calculating the situation, which felt new and unfamiliar. And new and unfamiliar didn’t happen much in a relationship that was, at that point, pushing four decades. Eventually, Ginny nodded, almost imperceptibly.
“I knew it,” said Don, laughing as he did.
Ginny smiled, exhaling. “Ok, she said, burritos it is.”
Don’s laughter slowed, then stopped. He moved his hand from the ignition and set it in his lap, studying Ginny. But there was only one question to ask.
“How’d you know I wanted burritos?”
“Well, I don’t know that I did, exactly,” Ginny said.
“Gin, we haven’t been to Don Jose’s in years. And I never got burritos, not once.”
Back inside the house, Ginny fixed some grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. Don poured Ginny a white wine (with some trepidation, as he feared he’d anticipated her desire for it). He opened a Budweiser for himself.
“Musta been that detective show last night. They were in Tijuana; everybody was eating all the time.”
“Oh, come on, Don.”
“Well, what the hell am I supposed to say? It’s gotta be something.”
“It’s just — sometimes it feels like we’re morphing into the same person. That was just too weird, you know?”
“I know. I was purposefully gonna avoid the marsala at Antonio’s tonight for that reason. Predictability is a killer.”
Ginny took a shaky sip of wine.
“Gin, you ok?”
“Oh, Jesus,” Don said.
“You weren’t getting the goddamn piccata, were you.”
Ginny set her wine down.
“We need time apart, Don. We’ve always known in the past. You’d take the girls out for ice cream or something without asking me when I needed some time to myself. I’ve pushed you out to go play cards or go watch a game at the bar when I knew you were antsy.”
“This is different, hon.”
“I’m aware of that, Don. Even more reason.”
Don had been taking a long haul from his beer, but cut it short. He’d heard a seriousness creeping into Ginny’s voice he’d only heard once before, when they had been together for just a few years, and were newly engaged. But that tone had made an impression.
They were at the wedding of one of Don’s friends, and the bride’s cousin had clearly seen something she’d liked in Don, and Don had not hidden the fact he at least enjoyed the attention, and at worst wanted to act on it. They’d flirted at the table, they’d flirted at the bar, they’d flirted in the buffet line — and the wedding as a whole glanced with pitied eyes at Ginny.
Don had first heard that serious in Ginny’s voice on the phone the next day. That cold self-preservation and steely self-respect. Emotionlessly, she told him she’d taken off her ring. She didn’t say it, but in her mind, it was over. It was weeks before she let him even speak to her again. The anger was gone but the seriousness was not, and Don never wanted to hear that tone again, never wanted to feel that resolve against him, that distance she so easily created. But he heard the beginnings of it in the kitchen then. He offered Ginny a gentle nod, that of someone backing away, palms raised in peace. He knew this stubborn toughness was something that would not change about her, and something he had to, and did, respect.
Don took a breath to speak, hoping for a start at softening her, easing her.
“I need space,” she said, shortly. “I don’t like this hocus pocus stuff.”
Don nodded, waited for Ginny.
Ginny pointed to the driveway where the car was parked, still warm from their bizarre encounter in it.
“Never happened before tonight.”
Ginny had taken her space. She managed to gather a few girlfriends on short notice and was gone that Friday afternoon for the weekend. When she returned on Sunday night, she was committed to one thing and relieved by another. She was committed to the work of keeping their love a new and renewing thing. And she was relieved, because she had missed Don while she was away.
Don, as he fixed the gate into the backyard, as he painted the front door, as he tuned up the furnace, committed over and over to be better for Ginny, and was relieved how genuinely and deeply he was missing his wife. It was painful.
They had successfully reset something that weekend, and the years past — five, ten, twenty. Now, in their 70s, this new oddness had arrived.
The rest of this story is available in Volume 5, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.
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