VOLUME 5, ISSUE 2
2022 • ISBN# 9781970033236 • 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.
Jery Hollis, Nix
Ryan Thomas LaBee, Spoiled
Carla Ward, The Garden
Zach Murphy, The Most Beautiful Things Could End Us
Gary Duehr, Table for One
W.C. Perry, Anthology & other poems
Paula Reed Nancarrow, Bodie Bride & other poems
Simon Perchik, Again you hear the moon & other poems
Todd Lewis, Devour
Grant Carriker, The Home
Enjoy work from this issue below:
I was born from a Ram’s ear,
body of a human, body of a horse.
Nightly, I pull from your words,
every letter a new row of teeth,
hideous and Bovine.
Chivalry is Dead! declares the Times,
but you’re still here, aren’t you?
Grainy image of an open window,
two coffee cups, one
without your teeth marks
on its edge.
Paranoia is valid.
Maybe everyone really is out to get you.
It wouldn’t take long to build an ark,
to pack a suitcase with the precious parts of life.
Black-billed geese take flight from the park.
Gone for the night, the painting’s subject shoulders her purse.
Traffic is light on I-75, meaning the trip would take no time.
man of law:
Cars run on decayed bodies of dinosaurs.
Shitty memoirs are salvaged from oceans of trees.
There are very few things they forgot to outlaw,
yet I am every single one of them.
wife & pardoner:
We shouldn’t beg for forgiveness, but we do.
Candles are sold for that reason,
bones of saints are bones of pigs made twice as holy.
Every wife in America builds the door,
cleans its frame, sets the hinges…
Bedsheets flutter and catch
on a single, unnamed emotion
colored blue and white.
It needs no telling, but death tastes like a black grape.
An old woman once told me the story of mountains
who forgot they were ever landmarks,
drinking spring water from plastic bottles
and donating to charity.
Of course, nothing’s worth continuing.
Luck is like rot climbing a tree, it takes from the root...
Forget what you’ve read, forget what I’ve written.
There’s always enough salt,
but never enough ocean.
I’ll Live Long Enough to See I Was Wrong
the slowness is what will kill me.
apologies, my love, but I’ve ruined your favorite green sweater.
the tags were choking back paper laughter and when
the neckline sprung free from seam like crust from a child’s ham sandwich
I wept. I brought out the sewing kit and tried to fix it, I promise!
it kept flapping its endless mouth and threadbare gums —
do you still love me enough to have evening coffee?
I’ve been thinking
about making ice cubes from cream
to watch them melt in the glass,
but that requires waiting. tap, tap, tap. (those are my fingers)
I’m a jazz tune with made-up tempo,
instruments forged from clay
taken from the kiln too soon.
nothing painful is enough; I need more!
fashionable slurs tailored onto my clothing,
I buy a three-way ticket to Russia
to see what the kids are into these days: it’s astounding!
oh, yes, see how they frame my likeness in wax and set it ablaze,
I’m a candle, my dear, watch me burn!
close the curtains, my corpse is getting cold.
twenty is the new ninety; I’ve had my share of failure, then some.
I’m a megaphone blasting ideas into the atmosphere.
I’m tasteless water. I’m sooner awake than lip-synching everything
my blood is not forwards and backwards. fear of doors opening.
fear of doors closing.
listen: I know you’re tired of metaphors, but time
slips like sand, quick and dull
grains blister and burn your feet.
I’m running, but I can’t see where to.
the cracks of your palms cradle my words like currency —
I’m waiting for the bus, its midnight,
and mom is wondering when I’m coming home.
Hold The Name
Hold the name
like a mouthful of alphabet soup
still cold like Chicago in November,
every letter slips down your throat, away
like the homeless in winter, dead
mosquitoes until next spring.
I must admit, I’ve only ever been to that city once.
Every intersection had a Starbucks with a line down the block.
You held me while letting me go.
And that’s the closest I’ve been to successful death;
I’m no Plath, it’s hard to finish things;
when video games get hard, I turn them off.
Crawling off the pretty grey carpet, I catch the light
dripping in through the blinds,
myself as a blonde in winter, dysphoric shadow.
Oh, I give it all up!
Does the coffee scalding your tongue remind you of a miracle?
Does the calm exchange of body cause you unhappiness?
Call it what you want: the word “green” isn’t even green here, it’s black.
Don’t Take This Personally,
but your ancestors were worms,
and before that, single-celled organisms
retching through space
if this is what we dub humanity,
gawking down from pyramid tops,
then you, too, are mouth-to-ass
just like your invertebrate relatives.
you wriggle on the floor, don’t you?
your jeans two sizes too small, but who
would know or care about that?
those seminal, five-hearted sequences
penned: trauma, formative, life event
this is what brought you here.
the carved-out bulk of a canoe.
somatic movement of water.
PAULA REED NANCARROW
The women who answered such ads
as a rule were often peculiar
but they rarely brought furniture
with them. Yet there she was
with the clothes on her back
a suitcase full of bricks
and that ridiculous chaise lounge,
insistent on seeing
the credentials of the judge
and marrying right there
on the railway platform.
Still, once the door was shut
in the house he built
she spread her legs where
and whenever he wanted
cooked and cleaned without
complaint. The chaise lounge
soon became his favorite place
to screw her from behind
since there he could not see
her empty and unyielding eyes.
“What were the bricks for?”
he finally asked, exasperated by
the wall she built without them.
“To drown yourself
in the reservoir?” A tiny smile.
“I hadn’t thought that far.”
Eventually he learned
they were all that was left
of the home she was born in.
Her father had torched it
for the insurance; had
pawned the chaise lounge
before that, after her mother
died of consumption upon it.
How she got it back she
wouldn’t say. Nor did
she seem to care
if he ever struck it rich
but after he did
it became a game
to see what might bring
a flicker of light
to her features. First
the blue paint on the dresser.
Then the wallpaper
ordered from back East.
Finally, when he suggested
rocks from the quarry
to fancy up the hearth
she brought out, sheepishly,
the suitcase of red bricks
and offered some up
for the mantle.
*I am grateful to Will Pearson, whose 360 degree virtual tour of the ghost town of Bodie, California at https://www.willpearson.co.uk/bodie/ inspired this poem, and to Lou Ann Muhm, who thought to use the site as an imaginative prompt in her poetry class around Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town.
For Ruth Ann Miller, 1958-1966
Slag from Calumet’s Tamarack mine
seldom bruised the landscape. Like copper
it had many uses: grit blasting, insulation,
keeping pavement from cracking in winter.
Like the tree Tamarack is named for, French
Canadian corruption of the Algonquin
akemantak, “wood used in snowshoes.”
Tough wood but flexible, tied to soft
moccasins with red leather straps.
Tamarack the mine, then known
for copper and the Cousin Jacks
who dug it from the earth; now
as the grave of dark-haired Ruth,
seven years old, who fell down
the mile-deep shaft in a game
of hide and seek, long after
the mine was spent. Ground gave way
beneath her. The shaft was a vertical drop.
Exhausted veins could not release her —
could produce only verdigris,
the bright exhalation of the dead.
The Gardener’s Burial Mass
The Earth remembers yesterday
the cool moist loam I dug
with mitered trowel: the Soil
I would become, and not dry dust.
When I lost my identity, she
knew me not as gardener but
Garden. My guts became
a feeding ground for gentles.
Around my weeping sockets
she finds so many ways to make
a party for my restless DNA
while I (her daughter Still) brew compost tea.
Let Demeter hold Persephone
all seasons dark and light, until
her body will not burn the life
it loves, and Dust can sing to stars.
Again you hear the moon — it forgets
just minutes ago it asked and you sing
over and over the same lullaby
that's used to loneliness. sure
your lips were once blossoms, would open
as the soft breeze still wandering
keeping watch for a voice
that could be hers bending down
scraping the ground to hear again
where love goes when it falls asleep
still listening for what is now grass
and the step by step among the small stones
broken off though you sing all night
without a sound from the pieces
closing their eyes with your fingertip.
At the evening roll-call you yell, Here
as if your shadow would never leave you
though not that long ago it began to lean
the way these walls gathered to grieve
were warmed around a wooden table
with its pots and plates and bowls
shining all at once where the ceiling
should be, poured from this small pitcher
half as the first morning on Earth, half
filling it with the darkness your shadow
still needs to go on alone, leave you
never sure there's a shore to rest on
close enough to watch your voice rise
circle back as an echo, louder and louder
as the Alone that lost its way.
Like this bedside lamp that knows no rest
you wait for a click to widen the hole
already filled with some star hiding inside
the way your fingers are set on fire
by some darkness once you're reminded
and mid-air return as the night sky
— it's not worth it! in this wall, circling down
are the same demons you see in your shadow
making its way closer till the pillow
is covered with songs from the 40s
has heard it all before as kisses
now that it's alone and naked on the bed.
Nineteen million years from now
a bent over glance will be enough
— the remedy will arrive at the site
and the dead sit up to rub their eyes
as if nothing happened though nearby
you will be falling through two hands
shaken by time to come looking for proof
the first scar came out when one hand
took hold another's — even then
care was counted by twos. one
to look around while the other stays
as something close by to nod
where to send the needed dose
already the small stone that cures
by clinging to the one that's waiting.
You think it's odd to mistake the ceiling for a floor
and wrong side up see the stars at your feet
as darkness rises and begins to ripple
escapes the one night more by hiding you
just below the surface, lets you slide into madness
the way every wall now takes the time it needs
when changing places with the almost human silence
that once was stone and though your eyes are closed
they are still washed with the light from a sky
no longer there — in such a darkness
you become the sea again. are overturned, emptied
by some distant mountain that is not the sun.
Why the insatiable hunger, you ask?
Sit with me a moment, as only a listener,
so you may know what I know.
Who knows, you may find yourself
ravenous as well.
Are we not all…. OF each other?
Inside us all, the inside of all others
we share sun, breath, flesh
first emerging from the very ground upon which we trod.
Alone would we be special
Earth’s single seed with all the universe to make it bloom.
But as one of not one, the many steal my moment
and make me commonplace among the common.
Wicked am I not, but wicked be my means
a bitter evil to unknowing eyes
which are better shut to be shut up
the unworthy flesh-bags plodding
onward but never forward
will nourish me as the soul of a God.
Outside my window they lurk
diluting me before my creator
mocking shadows of who I am
and who I’m meant to be
they are me, they are mine
they are creatures of my fallen flesh
walking dead among my living.
The little ones most perplex
partial humans with stubby limbs and small minds
their ignorant joy and petty dreams
a thing of my past
to be both missed and misunderstood.
I relish how they will taste,
bitter to the tongue, but sweet to the soul
as I consume their flesh that is mine
flesh but borrowed by these pre-person insects.
Forgive me — I mean not to bypass the hors d’oeuvres
of my narrative in favor of an ill-cooked entrée — I shall pick their
stringy flesh from my teeth soon enough — I weave my
story too quickly.
You may think me an abomination of nature,
but ‘tis nature who made me, nature who mothered me
whose teat I suckled — whose milk tasted of the salty flesh of man.
She hath pushed me from her loins and abandoned me
with nothing but my hunger to feed me.
So I took to flesh at a fresh age, starting with my own.
Hang nails, cankers, any part protruding to tease me,
I would nibble and gnaw till the taunting was silenced.
Not long to discover that devouring myself was a futile pastime,
for there be only so much me to devour the rest of me,
I sought to broaden my palette — to desire the… unfamiliar same.
We are a consuming creature, are we not?
With our eyes, we ingest images of naked temptation,
our ears seeking out praise, false or otherwise,
to feed our fragile egos.
We work to feed our lust for things…. Things
to own, things to consume, things to make us
more than we think we are.
Have I not but perfected this act of consumption?
I’ve painted myself a model man
in this place where boredom lives and breathes.
Not a second look upon me as I perform the mundane,
collecting… things, creating false memories, smiling
through teeth more meant for tearing and gnashing,
but left to being a façade for my feral face.
What I am cannot be accepted.
I shall be glared upon as an abomination,
a monster, a devil in flesh seeking flesh
that bows not to laws of a God or society
that falsely tells the world to look but not taste.
So, in shadows shall I squat. Let darkness
cover my darkness, and let light illuminate
my prey. For in the end, I shall leave with
a belly full, while they shall spill what’s left
of their bellies onto the cold, dark pavement.
I bring them peace. They give me immortality.
Nature set the rules and I obey
to prey or be preyed upon
no choice to be made, I chose the former.
With every bout of indigestion, I add dimension
taking back what was mine all along,
if only to borrow for a tiny span of time.
As I consume, one day shall I be consumed.
And with my tongue I will thank the tongue
that tastes me, and give myself to the self
that I’m to help become.
Indeed a beast walks among you, and I shan’t be a rat.
His secret is my secret — his needs my needs.
For it is when your back is turned that you will
feel my breath on the back of your neck,
the moist caress of my tongue,
the prick of my teeth as they violate you,
but fear not. I’ll be quick, for fear sullies
the taste of you. As you pass my lips,
you will be savored. You will be loved,
and you will be…. Me.
Nowhere in my life is Plato's Doctrine of Forms more evident than in my late father's farts. Or, rather, his attitude toward his farts, which was the same as his attitude toward reality. I'm sorry to be so irreverent, but it's the best example. Really.
All you need to know about Plato is that, for him, there was one universal Form of everything. This Form, being universal, contained within it every possible variation or instance of a thing. There was a Form for Woman, which made possible every particular instance of a woman. There was a form for Man, which made possible every particular instance of a man. And so on. But it wasn't just that. The Form was not infinite. It couldn't be and still be called a form, since form by its very nature suggests contour, shape, and therefore limits. So, the Form of woman contained W, X, Y, but not Z, and that was that. Same for the Form of man. If something fell outside of the possibilities inherent to its Form — like a man putting on a bikini and performing a sensuous pole dance — rather than being uniquely himself, he was aberrant, monstrous, corrupt, and had to be returned, with violence if necessary, to the standards of his Form. You can see how badly this idea might play with physical appearance, sexuality, race.
For my father, he believed that loud farts didn't stink. They could vary in intensity, from a squeak to a peel of thunder, but they did not smell. This was their Form. “Loud won't smell,” he'd say, letting one rip in the TV room or truck or shopping mall or wherever we happened to be. And if by some chance it did stink, stink really bad, like you'd stuck your head down an outhouse outside a military field hospital, and you noted it, he'd reply, “Really? It shouldn't.” So much for Plato.
But not so much for my father and his own spin on the Platonic doctrine. There was in fact very little in the world that was real for him, or, rather, reality had this crazy tendency to be too frequently unreal, or Formless. Dogs, for instance. If they did not chase cats, or had to be held in the arms like fashion accessories — I'm thinking of those decorative chihuahuas — they were not real dogs. If he encountered one that was off in some way, suspect in its behavior, he'd ask, “That breed — what was it created for? What was it meant to do?” If you answered, “They were bred to catch vermin on river barges in Belgium in the nineteenth century,” or, “They were introduced to Scotland to chase small game between cairns in the Highlands,” then your pet belonged to a world of verifiable things. It had a function — the real, after all, was a place where things got done, where everything had a codified reason for happening — something instrumental to give your dog being. But if you didn't have a good answer, then your dog wasn't a dog, it was a phantasm. You might have been able to touch and pet it, call it by name and have it come to you, bend down and it would lick your face, but it might as well have been a specter slamming chairs in the attic. Your dog was in exile from the possible, like planes gone missing over the Bermuda Triangle or the coded advice of Delphic oracles or the unfathomable truth of the Holy Trinity. The idea of dogs in my father's head, their Form, that was real. But that mutt over there — with its refusal to eat table scraps, sleep outside in the doghouse, kill rats on sight, tear into the flesh of strangers instead of wagging its tail, or sacrifice its life for its master when those strangers turned out to be home invaders — that mutt was not.
It was the same with everything. If my father heard that one of my brothers had punched a kid who'd been teasing him in the nose, he'd nod, That's a real boy. If one of my sisters brought him a beer at the end of a long day he'd say, “You're a good little woman.” Here was the W, X, Y of being a woman — domestic, helpful, kind — manifest, as it should, in my sister. Those other women, the ones manifesting Z, resistance or refusal, they were from an alternate world, another dimension, a place engineered out of some fake ideology, like feminism. Those other women, the ones who didn't deliver dinner and beer, were trespassers placed on Earth to fool us, to lure us into delirium, or, as he put it the time one of my brothers made the fantastical decision to help our mother clean the kitchen — to indoctrinate us. That's what he said that night, sitting in the chair to which he'd moved after dinner without also moving his plate and glass to the dishwasher: “You've been indoctrinated.” What women like my mother did was not work. Not real work. Because if it came to her naturally, as a matter of course, if women were hardwired to keep house, to clean, cook, do laundry, educate children, if all of it was a biological imperative, if they couldn't help but do those things, then how could you call it work, much less thank them for it? Did you thank a stone for being hard? A pool of water for being wet? Oxygen for being breathable? No, you did not. There was nothing and no one to thank.
Work, classically defined, was done by men. First, they had to figure out what they were going to do — be doctors or pipe fitters or carpenters or astronauts. Second, they had to learn how to do it — at trade school or college or university. Third, they had to rise from bed every day and make the conscious decision to expend their energies on and stick to the job. This reasoning made it easy to come home after eight hours a day and watch my mother, who'd also done her eight hours, put in another two or three while he sat in front of the television. If it wasn't work he didn't need to help, and if he didn't need to help, then he didn't need to feel guilty about doing nothing. You couldn't call a man lazy if what he was avoiding wasn't work. And if, by some chance, he saw or heard of another man who helped out, who came home and assisted with dinner, or got up and cleared some dishes, it was because he'd been indoctrinated. It was because he wasn't real.
But it haunted him. The illusory dogs haunted him. Boys that didn't punch bullies haunted him. Girls who told their fathers to get their own goddamned beers haunted him. He was beset by ghosts. The whole problem of a reality that kept manifesting Z, or what it shouldn't be, was at its least intrusive when he was in the presence of art — beauty was the only indeterminacy he could tolerate — but even here reality was unstable, slippery, fragile. He loved Millet's painting, The Angelus. The peasants, man and woman, praying in the fields at dusk, backs turned to the city, lost in a background of sin and haze. He loved Bartók's "String Quartet Number Five" — its eerie lament. He loved Tolstoy's short stories, especially "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" It swept away the complexity of life with one simple deathly gesture. But even here he couldn't help but be Formulaic. Artists were born with the gift of talent. A real artist was there from the start, refining a talent already present in full force. It wasn't something you could cultivate, work at, or will into being. When I suggested that great composers, musicians, writers, artists, almost all of them, practiced for six, seven, eight hours a day, he said it didn't matter. We could do that too, him or I, and we'd never in a million years think of composing something like that thin vibrating string in the second movement of Bartók's quartet, like a tracery of light, the smallest possible unit of consolation against the onrushing dark. “How do you know?” I asked. “Maybe it's the work that brought out the ability to compose like that, maybe talent is nothing but the effect of discipline and dedication, and either way we'd still be way better at painting or music or writing than we are now.” He replied that they didn't need that much practice, none of them. He said that in 1847 Liszt did a concert tour of Russia, travelling in stagecoach over the country roads, with only a wooden plank painted with piano keys to practice on. He played silent sonatas across every Russian mile, city to city, along the whole tour. “But that's still practice,” I said. “No,” he replied. “Not real practice. The notes sounded only in Liszt's head. It could have been a torrent of imaginary sound, the greatest sonata of all time, a virtuosity unparalleled before or since, but not a single one of those notes were actual sound,” he argued. You were either born with genius or you were not, and there wasn't a lesson, a practice, a discipline that could change that. Reality could not be managed or transformed. There was no place in it for human agency. The final law of the cosmos, speaking personally, was inertia.
The rest of this story is available in Volume 5, Issue 2 of Night Picnic.
RYAN THOMAS LABEE
The last of my teeth fell out today. I gave my left canine the smallest pushes with my tongue until it tore from its home. It danced around the porcelain sink before disappearing into the darkness of the drain below. To all join the others.
Two detectives came to speak with Mother and me. It must have been the first week or so after you had gone missing. They asked a lot of questions.
"You probably know your brother better than anyone. You're twins, after all. Where would you go?" The older, fatter detective asked.
Fat Detective had a slight yellow stain on his shirt, and his gut protruded over his belt like a round shelf, perfect for catching any food lucky enough to fall from his clutches. He disgusted me the same way Mother disgusted me. You know how Dad had no patience for the fat and uninitiated.
I didn't bother giving the detectives the usual spiel about how we were not identical but fraternal twins. Instead I said, "He talked about New York a lot. He said he wanted to go there after we graduated."
I knew you weren't in New York. And I think the detectives also knew this, but it didn't stop them from asking their questions and scribbling down everything I said in their little notebooks.
"Anywhere else, he may have gone?" The smaller, more professional, Detective asked. The Small Detective kept sniffing the air like a bloodhound. "Do you have pets? A dog or a cat, perhaps?"
Mother fidgeted in her electric wheelchair. The wheels squeaked in agony from the weight shift, "No. No pets. Why?"
"Just curious," Skinny Detective sniffed once more before wrinkling his nose and going back to his scribbling. "Any other ideas where Chris might have gone?"
"I'm Chris," I interrupted, "my brother's name was Adam."
"Was?" Fat Detective asked. His tone was accusatory.
"Is Adam. I'm Chris." I said. Fat Detective's eyes were magnifying glass hot. He shot a glance at his partner before turning to his notebook to write something. "Maybe he's with Dad," I said, turning to face Mother. "My Dad left my mother a few years ago. Maybe Adam finally found him."
"Ma'am, if you know where your husband is…"
"Ex-husband," She corrected Fat Detective, "and I don't."
"Chris," Skinny Detective started in again, "how did you get the rash on your neck?"
"The woods," I tried to stop the shaking in my hand as I touched the side of my neck. "I was hunting. Out at my spot. Must have picked up some poison ivy."
"Your spot?" Fat Detective asked.
"What do you hunt?" Asked Skinny Detective.
"Squirrels, mostly, this time of year."
I don't know if the two of them believed me, but the questions stopped. They finished writing in their notebooks, thanked us for our time, and were on their way. Mother didn't speak to me for almost two whole days after they left. She locked herself in her room. I could hear her weeping through the thin imitation wood walls of our mobile home.
Remember how Mother would come to every one of your basketball games? I would, of course, be forced to tag along. Mother always insisted on sitting in the front bleacher row. It was the only place she could park her scooter. I was always right next to her, holding all her concession snacks. She would cheer every one of your passes, steals, or scores, and I would watch her thick arms, hanging low like overfilled garbage bags, swaying as if caught in the wind. I'd find myself imagining them bursting open and spilling all of her onto the basketball court.
Dad hardly ever joined us. I think he wanted to but couldn't stand being seen in public with her. She never seemed to notice the embarrassment permanently plastered on your face. She didn't want to see it.
You are so much like Dad. I understood that look. That shame. I am just far better at hiding it. As soon as we graduated, I knew you would leave just like Dad. You'd flee from the stigma of being born into this family, leaving me behind. The lesser of the two, I would be forever doomed to a life of servitude. I'll be stuck washing and feeding Mother day in and day out, like a farmer tending to cattle, until her feet finally give out from the weight, and she is confined to the prison of her bed. I don't necessarily blame you for your desire to flee. I admire your courage to try and get out of here, but I have never been as brave as you.
The night you were seemingly eaten up by the universe, the entire town searched for you. They searched, and I pretended. They prayed, and I was a charlatan. We put out big fluorescent posters. Mother said the neon-yellow would draw people's eyes. The posters were adorned with a picture of you in your basketball jersey. You hated the picture because you said you looked cross-eyed. I selected the photo.
As I hung posters in Stevens' Grocery, Old Man Stevens asked me how I was holding up. He said he'd pray for our family, especially for you, but he was confident you'd return.
“He's a young man of fifteen, more feral cat than a boy! Probably ran off with some girl,” he said. “He'll get tired of all the fun and come back when he's hungry, just in time for the big homecoming game. The team needs their all-star starting sophomore, after all.”
I didn't tell him you already had a girl. The girl. The prettiest cheerleader on the entire squad. I just nodded and told Old Man Stevens he was probably right.
Joy came by the house. She told me I reminded her of you. "It's the eyes," she said. I used to daydream of having any reason to talk to Joy Pollard, and here she was seeking me out. I held her as she cried. I told her she could pretend I was you if it made her feel better. She said it didn't and left. I can still smell the lavender in her hair.
Remember the hunting trips with Dad? He would pack us into his faded and rust-pitted red Ford pickup. We would venture out, dressed in our hand-me-down camo and orange, into the blue-black morning twilight. So often, you were the one who gravitated towards the more "manly" things, but hunting was never for you. You always complained about getting up before the sun and the biting morning cold.
Not me. I never complained.
"You're a natural hunter," Dad said to me one morning as we made the trip out to our spot. "You don't hesitate. You're not sentimental. You know Man has been hunting beast since the time before Christ, and by God, you were born for it. Your brother's got his talents, but you have yours as well."
I looked at you, your head rattled on the metal door frame, your mouth hung wide, wet with drool, and I wished so hard you had been awake to hear him.
You had been gone only a few days when I first noticed the rash. It started as a small red blotch to the right of my left nipple, near my heart. God, it itched. I scratched and scratched, removing layers of skin until I realized there was no end to it. I taped a small wad of toilet paper over the frayed flesh and spots of blood that were forming. I hid the bulge of makeshift bandages under a shirt and hoodie and headed to school. All day, I squirmed from the uncomfortableness but told no one. I assumed that if anyone noticed me writhing in my skin, they would chalk it to grief.
When I returned from school, I ran to the bathroom and removed the bandages, which were stained through and dripping with blood. What was once a tiny red blemish had spread across my chest and far past my belly button. The originating spot was a sticky, wet stain the size of a quarter and brownish-green in color. There was a sweet, sour smell.
It was not merely a rash but appeared to be rot.
The rest of this story is available in Volume 5, Issue 2 of Night Picnic.
Rose Hill, Kansas. May 21, 1984. Joyce Dawson perches on the twin bed in her daughter’s room, gazing up at the Hello Kitty poster tacked to the wall above the dresser, the drawers of which still hold Mandy’s adorable size-eight clothes. Hello Kitty, in her pink overalls, stares back at Joyce, unblinking, mute.
Dust motes dance in the bar of morning light pouring in from the window, spotlighting a Raggedy Ann doll on a bookcase on the opposite side of the room. Joyce comes to her feet and moves in that direction, drawn as if by magnetism toward Mandy’s favorite possession.
She lifts the Raggedy Ann from its place next to a modest collection of Golden Books and buries her nose in its red yarn hair. After several sniffs, she finally finds her child’s scent. Faint, but there.
“I’m planting the garden today.” Her voice breaks the church-like silence of this sacred space. She hugs Raggedy Ann to her chest. “And don’t worry, I’m not planting radishes. I know how much you detest radishes.”
Faces in framed photos, poised atop the bookcase, gaze up at her: a candid of Mandy’s second-grade class, a four-by-six of an old family portrait, and a Polaroid of Mandy holding her kitten, Tigger. Joyce drags her eyes from the tabby furball. It hurts too much to look at him. “Won’t be the same, planting everything without y—”
Knife-like pain, deep under her sternum, steals her breath.
Another heart spasm.
Doubling over, she leans against the bookcase for support, jostling its contents. Books lurch, dolls flail, something small falls over the edge of a lower shelf and lands near her foot.
When the cramp subsides, Joyce opens her eyes and scans below, eager to restore order to her daughter’s treasures. A tiny red box lies on the hardwood floor, inches from her bare toes. She sets the rag doll aside and picks up what she now recognizes as a box of raisins. To her surprise, the contents rattle, sounding more like Tic Tacs than dehydrated fruit. When she lifts the lid and peers inside, she discovers five little white things resting at the bottom.
So this is where Mandy kept her lost-tooth collection. She upends the box in her palm, closes her fingers, and hugs her fist to her bosom. Each time Mandy lost a tooth, she wrote a note to the tooth fairy, asking permission to keep it. Each time the tooth fairy visited, she honored the girl’s request.
Joyce uncurls her fingers and gazes down at the small array of incisors. Tears fill her eyes, and a few slide down her cheeks, landing on the precious pearls in her hand, baptizing them in her grief. “I wish I could have you back, sweetie.” Sniffling, Joyce reluctantly pours the teeth back into the red box, closes the lid, and returns it to the shelf. Then she carefully straightens the tilted books and toppled dolls.
“I’d better get to work before it gets too hot out.” She blows a kiss. “Love you.”
After a meager lunch of crackers and peanut butter, Joyce slips on her work gloves and wheels the gas-powered rototiller out of the shed. This is the third summer she has had to dig up the garden area herself. Previously, her husband, Gary, had been in charge of all chores involving power tools or lawn equipment. He’d once said the country air brought out his inner carpenter.
As the manager of the men’s department at the Sears store in Wichita, thirty miles north of here, Gary had hardly been the DIY type, but after he and Joyce purchased the property in Rose Hill, an old farmhouse with two acres of land, he’d started collecting all the Craftsman brand tools and gadgets he could afford.
At least he did for a little while.
When Joyce reaches the garden plot, she yanks the rototiller’s pull cord to start the engine and shifts it into gear. The machine’s thick blades bite into the soil and turn over dark, rich dirt, releasing an earthy aroma, one that used to conjure thoughts of summer and family fun, but now only reminds her of loss.
Forty minutes later, the invisible claw around her heart squeezes without mercy. She kills the rototiller’s engine, resigned to head inside to rest. If she takes a break, she might keep the next wave of pain at bay.
In the kitchen, she downs a glass of tap water before venturing upstairs to Mandy’s room. Easing herself onto the corner of her daughter’s bed, mindful not to muss the rainbow-patterned quilt, she labors to catch her breath, hardly aware of how warm the room has become since this morning. A few minutes later, the constricted walls of her chest relax.
“I’ve sure missed you today.” She mops her slick forehead with the back of her hand. “You were a big help last summer. Remember how much you liked planting the seeds? You even used a ruler to measure the space between them.”
A vehicle roars past on the gravel road outside, ruining the quiet.
“Damn grain trucks,” she mutters. “Sorry, kiddo. Didn’t mean to curse.”
Mandy had been the hall monitor of the house when it came to swearing. Joyce could still hear her daughter’s little voice scolding her and Gary for any use of expletives. Even words like crap and darn were banned. Mandy had once explained, “Those are gateway words. If you use them, you’ll soon be on your way to the queen mother F-word.” She’d been eight going on eighteen.
Joyce attempts a smile and fails. “You were a real hoot.”
She stands and drifts toward the box of raisins resting on the bookcase. Her fingers twitch, eager to touch the enamel stones again. Though they aren’t a cure for her misery, she’s certain another look will ease her suffering for a while.
She grabs the red box. “I know you can’t help with the seeds” — she pours the teeth into her hand —“but you can keep me company.” As she selects one she guesses came from the top row of her daughter’s mouth, she can almost hear Mandy whisper, You’ll plant lots of corn, won’t you, Mommy? That’s my favorite.
“Of course, I will.” Joyce slips one little pearl into the watch pocket of her cutoff jean shorts before putting the others away and shelving the box. Patting the tiny lump resting near her hipbone, she trudges back downstairs, ready to return to work.
By five-thirty, Joyce’s tank top clings to her like a second skin, dirt clogs her fingernails, and filth covers her knees, but the garden is nearly finished. She kneels at the end of the last row of corn. There is space for two more kernels, but she only has one left.
So close to perfection.
“Plant me, Mommy.”
The voice is soft, almost lost in the hot breeze raking over the land, but Joyce is certain she heard it.
“Come on. Plant me in the last spot.”
Clearer now, the voice seems to be coming from her pocket. Joyce pulls out the tooth and holds it between her thumb and index finger. “Is it really you, sweetheart?”
“Who else would it be?”
Joyce utters a strangled sound, half laugh, half sob. “I can’t believe it.”
“If you plant me, I can come back.”
Sweat meanders down Joyce’s forehead as a tortuous throb invades the upper left quadrant of her chest. Her vision warbles. Wincing, she waits for the discomfort to pass. After several unsteady beats of her failing heart, it does.
“Are you sure you want this, kiddo?” Her voice wavers. “You won’t have a night light out here.”
“Don’t worry. I’m not scared of the dark anymore.”
Joyce deposits the last corn kernel before setting her daughter’s tooth in the trench at the end of the row. White enamel gleams in severe contrast against the black earth. “You’re absolutely certain about this, honey?”
“Yep, I’m ready.”
“Okay.” After kissing the tip of her finger, Joyce touches the bright pearl. “Nighty-night.” Scooping loose soil from both sides of the trench, she covers the tooth and gently presses down. It’s been two months since she last tucked her daughter into bed. She weeps with joy.
The rest of this story is available in Volume 5, Issue 2 of Night Picnic.
The Most Beautiful Things Could End Us
My family has the luck of a penniless black cat at a high-stakes casino.
When I was twelve, my mother, my father, and my older brother Jeffrey took a vacation to Hawaii. Jeffrey went surfing in the deep, blue ocean while I stayed ashore and observed jittery sand crabs as they popped in and out of the warm sand. I’ll never get the screams out of my head that I heard before I gazed out and saw the top of Jeffrey’s head and flailing arms sink into the water and never come back. When the paramedics recovered his body, his legs were painted with jellyfish stings.
After my brother was gone, my dog Sylvia became my only friend. She slept soundly by my feet every single night, licked my face in the morning, and longingly waited by the front door each day for me to come home from my soul-crushing days of high school. One day, when I was walking her around the neighborhood, she chased a squirrel into a colorful flower bed and ate a chunk from a Lily of the Valley. She never did come back from that, and I still haven’t decided where to put her ashes.
I truly admired the sun for a good portion of my existence. The sun makes the days brighter. The sun brings colors to life. The sun helps vegetables and fruits grow into their most nourishing forms. The sun also took my mother away. I still can’t comprehend how one tiny, unassuming mole could completely rob someone of their smile.
My father had a midlife crisis before he hit midlife, and I didn’t blame him. I just wish his parachute would’ve worked properly when he went skydiving over the Poconos Mountains. People at his funeral would say, “At least he died doing something he loved,” and I would think to myself, that makes it even worse.
As for me, these days, I attempt to surround myself with the ugly things instead of the beautiful things. I just always worry that I’ll never be able to figure out the difference between them.
Table for One
You must place your reservation at least 18 months in advance. Accepted only via personal messenger, the note is tied to the end of a long stick to keep it away from the sweat of the runner, whose tattoos depict a tiger crouching amidst a cloud of pink peonies. The restaurant location remains undisclosed.
In the hotel lobby you are blindfolded, execution-style, with a white linen napkin, then sped to your destination on the back floor of an Escalade, whose rubber mat thrums against your temple. After being seated at a velvet banquette, the napkin slips to your lap. No other diners are visible. All around you is a vast darkness, like the middle of a lake. You hear the waiter’s footsteps pad closer from a distance. He is barefoot. Sleek, youngish, he has a pale robe draped over his shoulders that shows a woman swimming downward with a knife clenched in her teeth. She glares at the coils of a dragon’s bejeweled tail on the seafloor.
There are 37 courses, served over six hours from midnight till dawn.
The first appetizer features a mound of shaved ice, into which the waiter injects, through a small syringe, the smell of a childhood alley in autumn: lilac and woodsmoke. You imagine you can hear a dog yelping as it drags its chain across asphalt.
Next up is a shot of vinegar, with notes of toffee, sage, and peat, meant to be gulped straight down. It scratches your throat.
Other appetizers include a wafer-thin slice of grilled red snapper with a melancholic haiku (about an owl’s cry in fog) inscribed in squid ink, intended to be licked; a puff of acrid cigar smoke, like that of your father’s, blown by the waiter into your face — you cough, and your eyes tear up (any moisture is salvaged by the waiter with a silver dropper for later use); and translucent strands of angel hair pasta, onto which the waiter rubs crumbs from a wedge of parmesan, the plate’s rim littered with pencil shavings like those from your third grade sharpener.
A cocktail clears your palate, made with duck fat-steeped gin, absinthe, egg whites, and a dusting of bee pollen. The sugared rim is set afire before serving.
Featured entrees include a shallow blue platter filled with seawater, wherein a fleet of live snails, wriggling like commas, reenact the Battle of Trafalgar — the losers are dipped in garlic butter, then popped whole into the back of the mouth; a stained and spotted page from Emily Bronte’s lost diary, circa 1844, onto which a poached robin’s egg on toast is perched in a feathery nest of her own slate-colored hair; and a projection from an unseen source of the shadow of the Chicago El, circa 1967, from your first time there on family vacation, shuttling across the damask tablecloth.
After the last course you rise, so the waiter may wrap a silk scarf around your shoulders. Looking down, you make out seafoam, orange lotus blossoms, and the undulating scales of Koi fish. He presents you with a katana Samurai sword — slender, gently curved, its handle wrapped in shark skin. The waiter draws his own sword and crouches with his weight on his back foot, the blade raised high behind him like a torch. You understand that only one of you will survive to dessert.
Carol Bennett: 47, a steadfast cynic with a permanent proverbial pain in her ass
Howard Bennett: 46, a pragmatic pushover, Norman Bates
Stephen Bennett: 23, a well-meaning stoner, aimless, causing more damage than he means to in any situation
Donna Degroot: 78, an unhappy bulldog with a handbag
Dennis Hogan: 36, a mountain, professional, a murderer with manners
Charlie Hook: 35, petite and scrappy, a ticking bomb
The Man: 50-70, an impish agent of chaos in biker-hippie drag
The Officer: mid 30’s, an implant from the Brainerd police department
The Chief: early 50’s, stern browed, mustached
Mount Meyer, Iowa. February. Early 2010’s. Three days.
The action primarily is split between The Bennett Family Funeral Home, the no man’s land of Stephen’s hallucinations, and a short scene in a hospital room.
This is a comedy. A black comedy. A tragic, black comedy. If you wanna get specific, it’s a tragic, black dramedy with socioeconomic commentary. It’s personal, political, comical, absurd, perturbed, and fantastical. There’s prose and poetry. There’s new beginnings and many ends. There’s the erasure of a world where morality and money are utterly incompatible…and an angry old widow with a loaded pistol. Welcome to The Home.
(In the black, tranquil music begins to play at the top of a radio commercial.)
Carol, V/O: (Over the music.) Are you grieving? Have you suffered a terrible loss? Has a loved one recently passed and you just don’t know where to turn? Turn to us, The Bennett Family Funeral Home. The Bennett Family Funeral Home has been burying your loved ones for three generations with the utmost care. Located in Mount Meyer, off IA-92, we make sure that your last days with your deceased are ones you’ll never forget. Because, at The Bennett Family Funeral Home, our home is your home. (The music fades.) Can we try a different one?… Okay. (The music comes back up.) We make sure that your last days with your deceased are ones you’ll never forget. Because, at The Bennett Family Funeral Home, we treat you like— wait, wait, stop. Stop. (The music fades.) Is that really the music?… Can we get something upbeat?… Why?… It’s a little “don’t kill the puppy.”… You know what I mean. That commercial…isn’t she trying to get us to not kill the puppies?… Okay, “don’t kill the puppy”, “save the puppy.” It’s the same thing… Well, if no one’s calling her up, they sure as shit won’t be calling us… Whatever. Do it again. (The music comes back up.) Because, at The Bennett Family Funeral Home, we treat you like family. (The music stops cold.)… I don’t know! Some sweet and homey shit like that. “Welcome to The Home! We’d love to bury you.”
(Grand organ music starts to play. A curtain rises to reveal The Home in the middle of a funeral service.
The first floor, far stage right, is the reception room. When The Home was once a home, this room functioned as a living room. There is a shelf with little antique knick-knacks in the back. The center of the room has two dainty armchairs on either side of a rickety coffee table. Directly upstage of the coffee table is an early 20th century sofa from which dust billows off upon each sitting.
Downstage center is the viewing room. Metal folding chairs are scattered about the room during services, and the caskets are placed against the back wall of the room. A small hallway separates the room from a staircase upstage center. You have to walk through the hallway to get to the viewing room or the reception room.
Downstage left is the office. Inside is a large wooden desk, a bookshelf, and a large portrait of the exterior that was sketched during The Home’s heyday.
Upstage left is the front door that leads to the wraparound porch outside, which is visible to the audience.
The staircase upstage center leads to the second floor. Up here are two bedrooms, both untouched and creaky. They wouldn’t be out of place in some old-fashioned bed and breakfast. One of the bedrooms is directly across from the top of the stairs, above the reception room, and the other is off center, left.
There is a wooden casket center stage with a — and this is an overstatement — modest display of flowers on it: five yellow chrysanthemums. There are a few mourners scattered about The Home, all blue-haired and clad in black. A few women are reading their programs, a pair or two are talking to each other, and a few men are asleep in the folding chairs.
The organ music abruptly cuts off. Harp music plays. Howard Bennett is greeting some of the mourners.)
Howard: Thank you for coming. Thank you for coming. Please keep us in mind for future services.
(Donna Degroot comes straight up to Howard holding a funeral program. She pulls him aside.)
Donna: Mr. Bennett? Mr. Bennett, what does this say?
Howard: What is it?
Donna: Read it.
(Howard pulls out his glasses and takes a look at the program that Donna is holding up for him.)
Howard: “Today we gather to honor the life of Ralph Degroot. Devoted farmer and loving…and loving hubband.”
Donna: So my eyes aren’t going. “Loving hubband”?? What is that? A hubband?
Howard: I’m sorry, ma’am, that looks like a typo. I’ll have that corrected before the burial tomorrow.
(He removes his glasses and puts them in his jacket’s breast pocket.)
Donna: You better. Then go consult your optometrist. Or a grammar book. And also, these flowers, Mr. Bennett. (She motions to the display atop the coffin.) They just won’t do. I told you I wanted something uncommon. Maybe we have different ideas of what constitutes common, but chrysanthemums are certainly common. Let’s see to getting those switched out as well.
Howard: What would you prefer instead, ma’am?
Donna: Am I supposed to do everything for you? I’ve got bigger fish to fry.
Donna: (Shaking her head.) All these people claiming they knew Ralph at all. Where were they when the seed business was going under or the truck tire burst? I mean, can you believe the nerve of some people? So tactless, uncaring.
Howard: Funerals attract all kinds of people from the past.
Donna: But none of his army mates. Not one soul from his division. It figures. Put your life on the line for the country and get almost nothing in return. Of course most of them are dead now.
Howard: They don’t make them like that anymore.
Donna: They certainly don’t. He never asked for any handouts, never relied on the government. Now everybody wants something. Greedy, greedy, greedy. Give me this, give me that. Everyone wants more without taking stock in what they’ve got.
Howard: I guess I don’t need to ask you what the eulogy will sound like!
Donna: Don’t be funny.
Donna: So strange. Things really seemed like they were turning around and then, all of a sudden, he goes out.
Howard: (Directing the conversation back.) If you give me a better idea what type of flowers you would like, I’ll get them today.
Donna: Oh, I don’t know. Something nice. Roses maybe. They’re vulgar, but if they’re white they might be fine. Not red. Dear God, never red.
Donna: “Okay” is not a word.
Howard: I think it— alright.
(They’re almost to the front steps. Howard about to ascend.)
Donna: And— wait! (She hustles back through the front hall, pokes her head in the viewing room, surveys the area, and goes back through the hall to Howard.) Get some more chairs for my guests. They need a place to sit.
Howard: I will.
Donna: They’re very old. One could break a hip if they stand for too long. They could die.
Howard: I’m sure we’d appreciate the business!
(He laughs and this does not amuse her.)
Donna: Are you practicing some routine?
Howard: I— uh, no. Sorry. (He makes his way up the stairs, facing her.) I’ll get your chairs for you in a moment. I have something to attend to first.
Donna: What could be more important at this current moment?
Howard: It’s just some business that—
Donna: Business? Oh, is my husband’s wake getting in the way of your business? Stupid me, I thought that was your business.
Howard: It won’t take long, I swear.
Donna: What is it?
Howard: (Snapping.) It’s none of your business!
Donna: None of my business?? What is that tone?
(He recognizes his error and makes his way back down the stairs.)
Howard: I’m sorry, Mrs. Degroot. I shouldn’t have responded that way.
Donna: You’re being quite flippant, Mr. Bennett. You should want to be more respectful.
Howard: You’re right, you’re absolutely right. I should not have spoken to you like that and I apologize.
Donna: I am in mourning. I deserve a little respect. Hell with that, I deserve a lot!
Howard: You certainly do.
Donna: You keep that in mind.
Howard: I will.
Donna: Take care of whatever you need to do. Then get the flowers.
Howard: Right. Red roses coming up.
Howard: White! Yes, right. White.
Donna: Get the chairs. And make it snappy! I’m not getting any younger!
(She leaves down the hall and enters the viewing room to speak to a few guests.)
Howard: Neither is your husband, bitch.
(Stephen Bennett walks through the front door and catches his father on his way up the stairs. He shakes snow off of his stocking hat.)
Howard: Hey, bud. Still coming down out there?
Stephen: Yeah, it’s fuckin’ beastly.
Howard: Go see if your mom needs any help in the office.
(Howard exits upstairs to a door in the back and Stephen knocks on the office door before entering. Carol is inside the office eating a sandwich. The knocking startles her and she bites down on her tongue.)
Carol: Ow, fuck! (Stephen enters.) Hey.
(She cups her hand under her mouth in fear of dripping blood. She reaches into a drawer during the following exchange and pulls out tissues to stuff in her mouth, pressing them against her tongue.)
Stephen: Hey. Everything okay?
Carol: Why did you knock so hard? I bit my tongue. Where’s your dad?
Stephen: He went upstairs. He told me to ask if you need anything.
Carol: An ENT now.
Stephen: Is someone hurt?
Carol: No, an ENT. Not an EMT.
Stephen: Oh, sure.
Carol: Go see if your dad needs anything.
Carol: (Suspicious.) Where’ve you been?
Stephen: Getting ice cream with a friend.
Carol: A friend?
Stephen: Someone I met.
Carol: (Begins interrogating.) Where’d you go?
Carol: What ice cream did you get?
Carol: Who was working?
Stephen: Some girl named Dakota.
Carol: Her hair color was…?
Carol: How many teeth did she have?
Stephen: I don’t fucking know.
Carol: How many fingers am I holding up?
Stephen: Mom, stop grilling me. All I did was get some ice cream. It wasn’t even good. They forget the nuts.
Carol: I’m just making sure.
Stephen: I’m good, like honest to blog.
Carol: Dakota is an awful name. If you name your daughter that, she won’t get presents.
(At this point she has a fat wad of tissues in her mouth.)
Stephen: I don’t think I’ll have kids.
Carol: Don’t say that to your mother. Every mother wants to be a grandma. It’s in our blood! Children give life a purpose and meaning.
Stephen: I just don’t know…
Carol: Everyone wants to have kids.
Stephen: Maybe I’m not like everyone. I don’t even know if I wanna get married.
Carol: Your dad and I weren’t sure if we wanted to either until we found each other. Maybe you haven’t found the right person!
Carol: (Difficult to discern.) You could always adopt. There are plenty of kids who need a home.
Carol: (A little clearer, but mostly louder.) I said, plenty of kids need a home!
Carol: Of course, it’s all about what you want. (She reaches over to take his hand.) I love you, honey. I just think it might be something you want to try. It might make you feel like you’ve got it together. Or, at least, everyone will think you do! And sometimes, appearing like you’ve got it together is all that really matters.
(She smiles and some blood spills from her mouth onto the front of her dress.)
Stephen: Ew, Mom. That’s nasty.
Carol: Oh, shit. Can you get me a paper towel?
(Stephen puts down his backpack in the office and exits, down the front hall, and to a door in the back of the set. Howard exits a room upstairs with four folding chairs in each hand. He struggles a little maintaining his grip on them, readjusting a few times. As he makes his way to the stairs, he knocks a vase over which shatters. Trying to save the vase from falling, he lets go of a few chairs and they go clanging down the stairs. All the guests in the viewing room and Carol poke their heads up at the noise. Carol exits the office and Donna leaves the viewing room; they arrive at the stairs one after another as Howard stares nervously down the staircase.)
Carol: (Reprimanding.) Howard!
Donna: What on Earth are you doing? (Seeing the chairs.) I didn’t need them that badly! Quit throwing things. You’re causing all kinds of commotion. You’re risking a heart attack in the other room if you keep that up.
Howard: I am so sorry, ma’am.
(Donna notices Carol, bloody drool all over the breast of her dress.)
Donna: You look terrible.
Carol: I had an accident. I bit my tongue.
Donna: (Back to Howard.) Keep it down! I won’t ask again. And get my white roses!
(She exits down the hall.)
Carol: I can’t wait for her to end up in an ER.
Howard: We should have mentioned our two-for-one special.
Carol: (Motioning to the chairs.) Help me with these.
(They begin picking up the fallen chairs, Stephen enters and passes Donna as she’s about to enter the viewing room. She notices him.)
Donna: Who are you?
Stephen: I’m Stephen.
(He puts out his hand to shake and she just looks at it. He puts down his hand, nervously.)
Donna: (Pointing to the paper towel.) What’s that?
Stephen: It’s for my mom.
(She just stares at him and then exits the conversation to enter the viewing room. She walks to her husband’s casket and reaches her hands inside, likely straightening his tie. Stephen is a little stunned, but walks through the front hall to the entryway, where Carol is picking up the chairs. Howard exits from the office with a broom and dust pan.)
Stephen: Mom, here.
Carol: Thanks, honey.
Stephen: Dad, do you need me to do anything?
Howard: No, buddy you’re— well, actually, yeah. Could you pick up some white roses?
Stephen: Sure, totally. The greenhouse?
Howard: Don’t bother with the greenhouse. Go to Skunk Drug Store and pick some up. They’ve usually got some in the back.
Stephen: (Smiling.) Ixnay on the reenhouse-gay?
Howard: (Unamused.) The Drug Store will be quicker.
Stephen: (A little embarrassed.) Okay.
Howard: Use your debit card, I put some money in your account. Don’t withdraw any. Just pay for the flowers.
Stephen: (Embarrassed, defensive.) Okay. I wasn’t gonna anyway. (He walks to put on his coat and Carol looks at Howard. They have a silent, mouthed conversation with one another until Stephen turns around again.) Be right back.
Howard: Okay, bud. Be safe.
(Stephen exits the front door, lights a cigarette on the porch, and walks offstage. Carol looks through the front window to make sure he’s gone. Howard begins to head upstairs.)
Carol: I knew he was still smoking. (To Howard.) What’s going on with the greenhouse?
Howard: They’re done.
Carol: (Alarmed, she follows him up the stairs.) What?
Howard: Quote, “You still owe us for the last three funerals. We’re done bugging you about getting the money, but we’re withholding business until we do,” unquote.
(He begins sweeping up the broken vase.)
Carol: That’s a joke.
Howard: For once, no, it’s not.
Carol: What did you say?
Howard: What could I say?
Carol: You could have said something.
Howard: What would you have liked me to say?
Carol: We’re the only funeral home in town? We’re your biggest client? Good luck getting buried when you need it?
Howard: They’re the only florist. We need them more than they need us.
Carol: Still that— ugh. (She pauses as he continues sweeping.) Well, fuck them. We’ll do it on our own. We’ll grow some roses or something.
Howard: Red, not white.
Howard: There’s a typo in the program.
Carol: I’ll fix it.
Howard: I can do it.
Carol: No, it’s fine. It’s easier if I do it.
Carol: I just wanna get through the day.
Howard: This woman’s like a hawk. Every error’s a field mouse she’s sweeping down on.
Carol: I was gonna say she’s like a bulldog, barking orders left and right.
Howard: I guess we can’t be picky. Gotta take what we can get.
Carol: Oh, that reminds me. Have you talked to Dennis today?
Howard: About what?
Carol: Him and Charlie say they’re stopping by tonight.
Howard: Where will Stephen be?
Carol: I’ll make sure he’s got something to do. He said he met a friend.
Howard: Yeah, who? And where?
Carol: He didn’t say.
Howard: Some junkie?
Carol: You don’t know that.
Howard: Come on.
Carol: You don’t know that.
Howard: He hasn’t met a single friend who wasn’t.
Carol: I don’t wanna talk about this.
Howard: What did Dennis have to say? What does he want to talk about?
Carol: All I know is it’s something both him and Charlie need to talk to us about, so they’re stopping by after everyone else is gone. After dark.
Howard: Is it about a job?
Carol: I don’t think so. I don’t know. Let’s just get through the day. Where do the chairs need to go?
Howard: Viewing room.
Carol: Okay. (Slight pause.) Just be easy on Stephen. He’s trying.
(Carol walks down stairs, grabs a few of the chairs, and takes them to the viewing room. She’s followed by Donna as she sets up the chairs.)
Donna: Mrs. Bennett, I need to speak to you.
Carol: (‘Not you again.’) Just a moment, Mrs. Degroot.
Donna: No, now.
(Carol puts down the last chair and follows Donna out into the hall.)
Carol: Alright. What is it?
Donna: Mrs. Bennett—
Donna: We’re not familiar enough.
Donna: “Okay” is not a word.
Donna: Mrs. Bennett, I am going to be perfectly frank. If it had been up to me, I would not be burying my husband with you.
Carol: I guess we should feel fortunate it was your husband’s choice and not yours.
Donna: There is little that is fortunate about this situation.
Carol: Is that all you had to say?
Donna: No, I haven’t gotten to my point yet.
Carol: Then could you expedite the process of getting there?
Donna: (Donna shifts.) The point is your son.
Carol: (Quick pause, readjustment.) What about him?
Donna: Do you think it’s appropriate for him to be here? Carrying out your business?
Carol: Can you tell me why it might not be?
Donna: We both know why.
Carol: Remind me.
Donna: It’s not appropriate to say.
Carol: Forgive me, but you’ve gone this far in insulting my business and my family. I think we are passed what is appropriate and what is not. Why don’t you cut to the chase and let me know what has got your panties in a bunch?
Donna: Pardon me??
Carol: You heard me.
Donna: (The point.) I don’t need some drug-addled adolescent around me on the day of my husband’s wake.
Carol: My son is 23, he is not an adolescent, and I can assure you that he is not on drugs. Even if he were, you won’t be dealing with him directly so it’s of no concern to you.
Donna: If he is around on the day of my husband’s funeral, it is of my concern.
Carol: We take great pride in our business—
Donna: (Humorless.) If you mean that, my dear, that is a travesty.
Carol: (Through gritted teeth.) We take great pride in our business and would not do anything to jeopardize our business. We take care in tending to its longevity. I can assure you that if I am unconcerned with his presence, you should be too.
Donna: Fine. But if I see him again I will not be happy.
Carol: (Too sweet.) I am here to serve your happiness.
Donna: Good lord, give me a break.
(Donna exits to the bathroom. Howard comes down the hall with the rest of the chairs. Carol stops him.)
Carol: Is Stephen back?
Howard: He’s getting the flowers.
Carol: Okay, let’s make sure he is in, then out. That hawk/bulldog hybrid has got it in for him and I want as little hiccups as possible.
Howard: Hey, do you think Dennis is mad because we didn’t get them a wedding present? Do you think that’s what he wants to talk about?
Carol: Get who a wedding present?
Howard: Dennis and Charlie.
Carol: What are you talking about?
Howard: They got married.
Carol: To who?
Howard: Each other.
Carol: They’re gay?
Howard: Enough to get married to one another.
Carol: Since when?
Howard: I don’t know.
Carol: I mean that could be it. Seems like a petty thing to get upset about.
Howard: People have got upset over less.
Carol: We’ll tell them we’ve got something in the mail and it’ll all be okay.
Carol: I really didn’t know that they were gay.
Howard: Did you know the inventor of Pringles was buried in a Pringles can?
Howard: Me neither.
Carol: Good one. Put down the chairs.
(Howard walks into the viewing room to put down the rest of the chairs. Carol exits to the office. Stephen comes walking up the front porch carrying a bouquet that is covered with white wrapping paper as to not damage the flowers. He is smoking the last of a cigarette which he throws down and mashes under his shoe. Carol does not see him enter. He walks straight to the viewing room and goes up to Howard.)
Stephen: Hey, where do you want these?
Howard: Hey, swap them out for those chrysanthemums on the casket and then you can head home.
Stephen: Are you sure? I can pass out programs.
Howard: No, you’re good, bud. Swap out the flowers and then you can go.
(Stephen walks up to the casket. He pulls over a wastebasket from nearby and begins tossing in each of the chrysanthemums. Donna returns from the restroom.)
Donna: What are you doing?
Stephen: Oh, I’m swapping out these flowers.
Donna: Don’t touch those!
Stephen: You— you don’t want these flowers?
Donna: I don’t want you touching them.
Stephen: I’ll be real quick like.
Donna: I said don’t touch them! Get your hands off my casket!
Stephen: (All in good humor) To be fair, I think it’s his casket.
(He points a thumb at the inhabitant of the coffin and snorts a little.)
Donna: You people are amazing. Give me those flowers and get out of here! (She rips the bouquet out of his hand and tears off the white wrapping paper. Underneath is a bouquet of bright red roses. Her eyes go wide and she gasps.) You have GOT to be kidding me.
Howard: (Howard’s turns around.) Stephen, what is this? I said white roses!
Stephen: They didn’t have any! I asked, but all they had was red and I figured it would be fine so I got them.
Donna: Oooof course you did. Red’s your favorite color, isn’t it? Color of your eyes. Color of the blood in those veins you put in God-knows-what.
Stephen: Hey, I don’t do that! Those who shoot are never cute.
(He reaches to take off the last chrysanthemum.)
Donna: I said don’t touch those! (She begins hitting him over the head with the roses, chasing him around the casket. He swings the chrysanthemum on its stem trying to fend for himself.) You get away from my husband, you degenerate!
Stephen: Dude, I didn’t do anything!
Howard: Stephen, stop! Just get out of here!
(Carol’s head pops up from her desk and she rushes out into the viewing room. Howard is trying to get ahold of Donna who is after Stephen who is using a chrysanthemum as a mace.)
Carol: What the hell??
Howard: A little help!
(Screaming and hollering ensues throughout the rest of the scene. At some point, when they are in front of the coffin, Donna swats Stephen in the face and he falls backwards, fumbling over the coffin, knocking it over, heels-over-head. Donna collapses in a chair and cries out. Three elderly women rush to her to console her. One of the elderly gentleman and Carol run to help Stephen up. Two other gentleman and Howard all try to heave the coffin back on its place and realize it is much too heavy for the three of them, but they try. Squinting and grunting. The harp music has played the entire time. At the climax of chaos, the lights go out.)
The rest of this play is available in Volume 5, Issue 2 of Night Picnic.
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