VOLUME 5, ISSUE 3
2022 • ISBN# 9781970033250 • 123 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.
Philip Gambone, The Hazardous Life
Charles Townsend, The Trunk of Boothbay Harbor
Michael Paul Hogan, On the Beach / Rain
Joseph J. Dowling, VHS Memoirs
Christopher Hadin, Beastly
Richard Risemberg, On the Boardwalk
Lee Landey, Amorphogermen titanum
Ivana Mestrovic, A Short Story About Love
David M. Alper, Soft Lividness Is Wintry & other poem
RC de Winter, ancient wisdom & other poems
Gale Acuff, One day I’m going to die & other poem
Massimo Fantuzzi, Duality no.3 & other poems
Mark Scharf, Dark Matter
Rollin Jewett, Socky Tells All
Evan Baughfman, Midnight Snack
Enjoy work from this issue below:
A Short Story About Love
I gave the man a hat.
It had been worn before.
“Please put it on,”
I said. He did
for he was kind.
He wore it for awhile
gladly as if it fit him,
as if it were his own.
Indeed the band conformed
to him with wearing
and our weather.
In the end we parted
and divvied up our lots.
I am back where once I started.
The hat is mine again
DAVID M. ALPER
Soft Lividness Is Wintry
A brisk breeze is on
a great willow long ago
down to its roots.
Crops are still buried
a great hill.
The clouds have tumbled
against one another
at the dead of night
with dreadful lightening
into the dark;
I still have not figured out
how to go with one foot in front of the other
as I go
through this life.
But now I can walk
in fresh air
for the night
in a sturdy embrace.
In a warm room
as evening descends
silence cloaks the yard
crickets are heard
clicking like billiard balls.
When I walk
behind my favorite tree
the breezes whisper
the trees breathe
a sigh of undying love
for each other
and the sky.
The Calcinations Blue the Hurricane
a flashlight in the nacelle with its wick the light of your world
the fingers of mine that hold yours at sea’s sigh
and again the starlight
the ocean lapping
against the side of your house
we are tangled like the rays of a caress
like the strands of a rope
that are meant to be braided
as they rise
like the earth in the sunrise
like a waterspout
from a hurricane
that swirls in
like a dream
the receding tide’s final touch
and then the shore is sandy
in my arms
lifted from the sea
drift back to the sky
and the words that were so aptly
descriptive of a path of romance.
RC DE WINTER
there was a
time when i cut those
who wronged me
off with no
remorse but i’ve learned that was
the wrong thing to do
who are out to get
give up and
there you are ignorant of
the slings and arrows
your way damaging
you in the
eyes of the
world so now i keep a line
open to the word on
the street and
though i refuse to
i know their treachery
and can deflect the
of others without
it — Sun Tzu said keep friends close
it’s been an impossible day
full of nothing but frustration and regret
so i opened my tattered bag of coins
and tried to bribe the universe
but the only answer
was the laughter of invisible gods
sorrow flowed over the dam of my heart
decorating it with hairline cracks
guaranteeing a continual trickle
just enough to stain every day
no matter how happy with a tinge of blue
a constant reminder of all my losses
there’s no arguing with heartache
it’s deaf to all but what it carries
the slow steady stream of what could have —
should have — been the unresurrectable joy
of life in the key of love now muted
by the laughter of those indifferent gods
waiting for the wind
lately i’m often lost for hours
musing on what was and what might or might not be
in places having nothing to do with the here and now
the present is no present to me
an autumn leaf loosed from the mother tree
fallen gently into wonderland
with no firm fix but the moist hungry earth
on which i rest
hoping for the rescue of a gentle wind
to take me somewhere beautiful
uncluttered with the past
sunday coffee god and all the rest of it
i sit sipping coffee by the window in the kitchen
as the procession of the faithful summoned by sunday bells begins
car after car carrying people dressed up for god and each other
rolling by on the way to whatever form of worship soothes their souls
but i an impenitent unbeliever reject the credulity called faith
that’s been fractured and reshaped into innumerable incarnations
and whether or not there’s a judgmental old man in the sky
remain unworried about my final disposition
i haven’t been good enough to deserve heaven
nor bad enough to deserve hell
so if he exists i’ll be lounging in some nebulous corner of the universe
with the vast majority of the great unwashed
where the law of averages reigns
which is pretty much an approximation of the way i’m living now
One day I'm going to die and I don't
want to but that doesn't matter, it will
happen and I'll be right there with it and
it's natural they say at regular
school but at church and Sunday School even
though it's also natural it's to be
avoided but only by preparing
for it, saving all you can of yourself
— that would be your soul, as for your body
it's kind of a lost cause but always was
and probably always knew it would be
crucified so what's left is Heaven and
Hell, at our church at least, and the better
choice is Heaven, which is good, I think,
but I'll miss my body. We're pretty close.
My sister's building
something with sugar
cubes and when she turns her back I sneak a
sweet brick but I don't know it's got the mor
-tar of Elmer's glue on it so I get
sick and retch like a son of a bitch and
I guess I was lucky that I didn't
choke to death or unlucky that she did
-n't, which is terrible of me to say
but then I'm thinking for me then, not now,
and as for the future she died last week
and there are half a house's worth of bricks
or blocks or just plain unglued cubes
left and I'd build her a mausoleum
in miniature but I bet I'd eat
it before it was done. That’s kind of sweet.
Neither flows nor sloughs,
Oblivious the sickle to its own fury,
Stinger, to its honeyed kiss.
Feverish skin of ashen texture
(medicinal itching gone for the trenches)
Drowsy, his drained face
(callous soil, eyelids, crying slabs)
Elongated intentions shadowbox ahead in the red evening’s carmine.
Will this last strike of cobalt ever sprout?
(burial, echo, sprout, sprout)
Spatchcocked between opposite piano keys?
(him and his Finale, these unlit candelabras)
Medusa, rossa medusa.
Blood on shirt and grey cufflinks choked in bugs and worms the far side of this oak torso spirit of the thousands march above him like a spotlight over one next town in pompous dissertation over parting rituals the Road is woman pastel brightens the sand rinsed by sweat spill and fatigue I reappear.
(Milonga in Sirmione, 1991)
Sight of you, longed spectacle poured and parched
over the end of lines. Contemplative blackness
breathe in concert on this lake on this oily night.
Through our toes runs our dare, rock and water
disappearing traded with the prickly frosts of a million burns,
each tide of a blush and a promise. Count my curls,
each ripple throb fostering our pull.
Fleeted under a crammed moon und woodland,
young bodies gesture forth. Twos in twos, carved in full
sur la paumé of promenades, foreign beauties, odors and similes.
My brittle friend the iron taste queues up nostrils and palate
where sibyls’ corpses are still crawling sifted: some dried copper,
some bronzed jar looms of a humble swelled mound,
and posthumously over our neatly soften forms and caked nails.
Gradually carved, little gush: Verb miracle of savannah,
those two lapilli your newest blood irks and sears
the surface the branded skin forever sculpted.
Blossom, blisters ring to life
blinds in scratches and cherry sweat
lines and palms open to protect, complicit with every thrust,
having just about remembered where the key is.
Hum and spin, what ravenous walls
the jingle jangle of chrysanthemum
around your back tattooed might instill.
To make whole of spheres again, hunted tongues
lap within me silvered sprayed and charred slung. All their trembled pry
is to replay thy coy run in the shower, thy even shyer return,
and how we’ve left Mamma Giliola with the mop-up of her lifetime.
Here and There, a Glimpse through the Abbey
(The importance of review and metacognition)
Scribble of this holding hands during showers of resonance, swerving nude
meadow longing armistice to where the grain is fair,
to the other side where martyr of bitterly perfumed parsley
mash into a most disharmonious bridleway of lop-sided penance.
B: (Staring at the man unconscious on the bed center stage. Long pause.) Sure you are not mistaken?
A: Have I ever been mistaken?
B: Mistaken. Once. Give it here. (Grabs a stack of loose pages from T. Quickly glances through then points out a particular paragraph on one of the sheets.) There! Velvet. Took it for violet and sold it back to him. That finished him.
Winter’s growing will cover for small appearances
staring at the glass where sincere necessities
will pace a fantasy embracing snap of treasured manners, a gone
parade of modest bread conversed of oil and aniseed for good luck.
A: Call that a mistake!
B: Botched rationale.
I pray. Your skin to materialize again brighter, tailored ordeal
conned to dress more and remember less, here to tell
the ensured and the encompassed where to joy and not to nest.
A: The outcomes! See? The end product. (Points somewhere above their heads.) Sitting on the top branch. Third from the left. Quarter down. Plummy and titillating: simple question of fruition!
B: (Opens his arms.) These the sweetest fruits we’ve had in years. And the sweetest they are, look. (Points at the man occupying the bed.) The messiest they land.
A: You shouldn’t make fun of him: without him…
B: (Exasperated, slaps the papers with the back of his hand.) They have never really met! Did you forget that?
A: (Snatches the paper from B. Quickly glances through.) A little dancing went on. (Points out a particular paragraph on one of the sheets.) Here! We have the vomit incident outside her car, 3 Russel Square, pass the steps, pass the aqueduct. There is the episode of the frozen dinner, Chez-Luca of 47 Jordan Avenue. (Pause.) In addition to that… (Browses further.) Here! At least three locations, three, visited, spent, engraved, recorded all in accordance with the best-of-the-century practice.
B: Derails, seaward, noting more, off they went and by looking at him, might be the reason why streets around here still spell inhabitable.
A: Something will grow back, it always does.
You to stay. Part to canvas, to cast aligned new skies.
At your tortured feet: I am your useless dying sister to bless
to verge grass or country lane, to drain
lead and pore a cover over the balcony of my motives undone.
The Hazardous Life
For the past several years, the Academy had not offered a fourth year of French. Three years of a foreign language were required for graduation, and that’s as far as most of the students wanted to go. The one or two who occasionally opted for a fourth year were allowed to take an evening course at the Extension School down in Cambridge, for which the Academy gave them credit.
What a pity to send the students elsewhere, Mason Chastain always thought. As the Academy’s senior French teacher, he knew these kids so well, knew what they needed, not only with regard to their studies but also in terms of their emotional growth. Their spiritual growth, he was tempted to say though he suspected that sounded old-fashioned. As so often, his favorite poet, Rimbaud, had expressed it perfectly: “I would have liked to show children these sunfish, the fish of gold, the singing fish on the blue tide.” Mason doubted that the students the Academy sent to the Extension School would be shown those golden, singing fish. They’d be treated like mere adult learners rather than the intense, eager, romantic young people they were.
Then, in the final year of his forty-three-year career, a surprise occurred. Six students, the minimum needed to justify offering the class at the Academy, signed up for French IV, and the dean of studies asked Mason if he would teach the course. It would mean, he said, that Mason would have to give up one of his sections of second-year in order to teach the seniors. Not a fan of the dean, Mason said he’d need a few days to think about it. Let him sweat it out, Mason thought. But when he drove home that afternoon, he was already putting together a reading list. The blue tide was swelling.
As he circled the Back Bay looking for a parking spot, Mason knew it was petty to keep the dean in suspense, but there was something about Tony Krikorian that just rubbed him the wrong way. From the moment, six years ago, that Krikorian arrived as the new dean of studies, he had grated on Mason. It wasn’t any one thing, but the whole package: Krikorian’s youth (he was thirty-five), his good looks, his privileged Ivy-League education. The guy wore his lucky breaks — good genes, good breeding, good schools — with irritating self-assurance. He had an easy way with the kids, an easy way with the faculty. Mason had turned sixty that year. Krikorian’s arrival had put him on guard.
The coup de grâce came three years ago when Krikorian, who was straight, volunteered to be the faculty advisor to the Gay-Straight Alliance. The previous faculty advisor had moved to Seattle with her wife and Krikorian stepped in to fill the vacancy. In another one of his countless irritating moves, he renamed the club the LGBTQIA+ Discussion Group.
The damn know-it-all, Mason thought as he circled the blocks around Commonwealth Avenue, looking for a parking space. Krikorian prided himself on being so au courant, so right-up-to-the-minute on all the latest, politically-correct views. Fifty years ago, when he, Mason, was in high school, it was just gays and straights — simple as that — with an occasional nod to the bisexuals, who no one really believed were bisexual at all. Now… my God, being gay was as humdrum as coq au vin. LGBTQIA+ indeed!
It was the middle of April and the magnolias on the sunny side of Commonwealth Avenue were in glorious full bloom. If the weather held, these blowzy, delicate pink blossoms would be resplendent for a week or so. Every year since he and Mary had lived in the Back Bay, Mason looked forward to the appearance of the magnolias. And it saddened him to contemplate how soon they would disappear. Recently, he had been feeling the poignancy of disappearing things ever more acutely.
There were no parking spaces on Commonwealth. He turned left on Fairfield — none there either — and then right onto Marlborough. His daily circle around the neighborhood in search of a place to park. Every year it got worse.
Before Krikorian had taken over the Gay-Straight Alliance, the Academy’s headmaster had approached Mason about assuming the role of faculty advisor. After all, the headmaster said, Mason was a senior member of the faculty, had relatively small numbers of students, and had in the past led other clubs — French Club, Opera Club, the Spring Trip to Europe. Besides, the only gay member of the faculty now, Frank Fidby, the obvious candidate, was already teaching an extra section of chemistry and had no time. The headmaster thought that since it was a Gay-Straight Alliance, the group should occasionally be advised by a straight “ally.”
How extraordinary, Mason thought. The Academy had certainly changed since the day when he first arrived, a young French teacher right out of the University of New Hampshire. Forty-three years ago, there had been no Gay-Straight Alliance. There had certainly been no teachers who would have declared themselves gay or lesbian. But now, everyone wanted to get in on the act. The woman who had previously run the GSA had even invited her students to her wedding when she married her wife. And Frank Fidby always brought his husband to soccer games and dances, when it was his turn to chaperone.
Even more remarkable, students at the Academy were now openly identifying themselves as gay and lesbian. And, it seemed, as every other variation along that rainbow spectrum — bisexual, transgender, non-binary, gender-fluid, genderqueer. The categories bewildered Mason. He suspected that many of them, certainly the younger students, weren’t even sexually active. The labels they gave themselves described what were still, he assumed, just abstract concepts for them, hardly lived experiences.
There were no spaces on Marlborough Street either. Mason circled the block again.
He thought back to his own teenage years. In the eighth grade, his best friend had been a boy named Gordie Henderson, whose hobby was photography. One day, Gordie gave Mason a tour of his basement darkroom: the enlarger, the developing trays, the dim, film-safe red lightbulb. Then he pulled out his collection of photo magazines. Leafing through them under that dim red light, Gordie pointed out the various articles, which were full of technical information on things like lenses, composition, film speeds. Each issue always included a suite of art photographs. Mason remembered one such spread in particular: it featured a wholesome, rosy-cheeked young woman kneeling in an outdoor setting. Her arms were raised above her head in order to keep a wide-brimmed hat (the only article of clothing she wore) from blowing off in the wind, a pose that thrust out her ample breasts in fulsome, robust vitality.
Gordie told Mason that these were “artistic” shots, taken by a highly regarded professional photographer, but the next time they got together — it was always on Tuesday afternoons after Confraternity of Christian Doctrine classes — Gordie started rubbing his crotch, exclaiming how much the girls in these beefcake spreads turned him on.
“Yeah,” Mason agreed, wanting desperately to feel what Gordie was feeling.
For the rest of the winter of their eighth-grade year, he and Gordie spent each Tuesday afternoon in the darkroom masturbating to the magazines. Mason’s eyes always strayed from the photographs to Gordie’s cock, ready at a moment’s notice to shift back to the photo spread in case Gordie noticed that his friend’s attention had drifted. Mason liked the tight quarters of the darkroom, which meant that his body — his arms and hips — often touched Gordie’s body while the two of them indulged in their separate bouts of self-pleasuring.
The car behind him honked. Mason looked up and saw that the stoplight was green. He turned onto Newbury Street. A block down, he spotted a parking space, pulled up, and eased into it. A lucky break on a Friday afternoon. And now the car could stay there all weekend without his having to move it. Unbuckling the seatbelt, he grabbed his briefcase and headed off to the little market down the block. The street was crowded with end-of-the-week shoppers and café patrons.
And, for an hour, I fell into the hubbub of a Baghdad street.
He’d been reading Rimbaud again, fiddling in his spare time with translations that he hoped would capture some of the astounding lyricism of that boy genius. The older he got, the more Mason found himself drawn to Rimbaud, to the beauty of his words, the outrageousness of his vision, a wild but perfect harmony. How astonishing that Rimbaud had produced most of his greatest work when he was still a teenager. Younger even than the seniors he would teach next year!
The weather was warm enough that a few guys — Back Bay gym rats — were jogging down the street, their lean, beautiful bodies another declaration, like the magnolias, that the dash and brio of springtime had returned. Ah, yes, Mason thought, buttoned-up Boston was throwing off its winter tweeds. Let the hubbub begin!
By May of that eighth-grade year, Mason was in love with Gordie. He loved the intimate playfulness of their darkroom antics, the physical closeness, Gordie’s happy-go-lucky attitude toward sex. He tried to imagine more with Gordie — what would that be? Maybe they’d go on vacations together, just the two of them, without their parents. Or end up roommates at the same college. As he and Gordie wacked off in the darkroom, Mason imagined an entire life with his friend. Then one day, watching Gordie panting in pre-climax excitement, Mason leaned over and tried to plant a kiss on Gordie’s cheek. Gordie recoiled. “Fuck, man, what are you doing?” he barked. “Gross!” Mason was never invited back again.
The little Newbury Street market was crowded. Everyone there seemed to have the same idea on this beautiful springtime afternoon: prepare a nice meal, drink some wine, be with the ones you loved. Mason recognized at least one gay couple whom he often saw at the market. One was holding the grocery basket while the other picked items off the shelves — fresh pasta, a couple of artichokes, a quart of strawberries. Mason wondered what it would be like to feed a strawberry to another man, holding it to his lips, feeling his tongue touching his fingers.
The fall he entered high school, he and Gordie were blessedly not in the same classes. From the sidelines, Mason watched Gordie become quite the ladies’ man, while he, in turn, buried himself, and his shame, in his studies. French — so foreign, so romantic, so beautiful — became his favorite subject. More than that, it became his refuge. He managed to stop mooning over Gordie, though he could not help having secret crushes on other boys, none of which he dared to act on. Senior year, his French teacher assigned them Gide’s Symphonie pastorale. The other students in the class weren’t as proficient as Mason, and they labored over the book for months. Mason was bored out of his mind — with the story, with the pace, with their teacher’s tedious droning on and on. This story of a secret, unrequited heterosexual love was not the story he needed to read.
That final year of high school French had been so bad that Mason almost didn’t take another French course when he got to college. But his advisor at the University of New Hampshire told him his French preparation had been so strong — and his Achievement Test so high — that he could pass into upper-level courses if he wanted to. Mason thought he’d give it a try. The poetry course he took turned out to be excellent. As did the other French course he took that year, “Proust and His World.” By June, he’d declared himself a French major. It was the first time in his life that he was absolutely sure he’d made the right choice.
He was less sanguine about his decision to join a fraternity, but fraternities were the way to go back then and so he did it. At his first boozy frat party, Mason got drunk and then never again. He was afraid of what he might do if he let his guard down. At other parties, when his fraternity brothers told jokes about fags and homos, he responded with fainthearted smiles. The guys began to see him as the goody two-shoes of their house. They nicknamed him Chastity Chastain. “Chastity, isn’t it about time you got banged in Boston?” they teased. By junior year, Mason was secretly wishing he could drop out of the fraternity. And then he met Mary.
She was five years older than he, a graduate student and teaching fellow in the course he took that year in abnormal psychology. Often after class, he’d linger to ask her questions. At first, she gave him only a minute or two of her time before she went off to do more research at the library. But one day, she invited him to join her for coffee. With guarded casualness, Mason brought up that week’s topic: the recent decision by the American Psychiatric Association to depathologize homosexuality. With equally guarded casualness, Mary acknowledged that it was a “landmark readjustment,” one that would have profound consequences for how gay people — he had already noticed how she preferred that word over “homosexual” — how gay people would think about themselves from now on. “Lesbians, too,” she added. He remembered how she had looked down at her coffee cup and then back up at him, fishing for a reaction.
The next Saturday, they went to the White Mountains with the hiking club. It turned out that Mary was an outdoor enthusiast. Though she was a few inches shorter than he, Mary had a rugged, boyishly-athletic body, and could hike at quite the clip. Mason had never been on a hike before, and had a hard time keeping up with her, but he enjoyed talking to Mary about psychology and French and their similar blue-collar backgrounds. When the weather got too cold for hikes, they did other things together — concerts, plays, trips into Boston for the museums (his choices); basketball games, skiing, bird watching (her choices).
One day — it was the spring semester and she was no longer his teacher — Mary told him her story: married at twenty-one, a child (now three years old), and a divorce about to be finalized. “I’m not sure there was ever much of a spark there,” she told Mason. “Bob and I were just two people, much too young to get married, who happened to share a passion for psychology. Not enough reason to keep a marriage alive.”
“What do you think does keep a marriage alive?” he asked.
She gave him another one of her sober, direct looks. “Well, for starters, the courage to make a go of it together, I’d say. I think in the end, Bob and I just couldn’t muster that kind of courage.”
Those sounded like such beautiful words — courage, making a go of it. He thought about what it would be like to share a long life with another person: keeping a house, raising a child, working side-by-side at the dining room table after supper, bandying ideas back and forth, taking trips to Europe. When he tried to imagine sex with Mary, he thought he could give that a try, too. Two weeks later, they slept together. He’d forgotten to bring a condom and Mary said she was not on the pill. So they just slept together, and this seemed fine with both of them.
“I think I’m a lesbian,” she told him halfway through that night.
“I think I’m a gay man,” he told her. Though tenuous, it was the first declaration of his sexuality he had ever made to anyone.
In the market’s wine section, Mason picked up two bottles, a Merlot for himself, a Chardonnay for Mary, her favorite. Then he put the red back on the shelf. Otherwise, he knew he’d drink the entire bottle over the course of the evening, and probably finish Mary’s bottle of white. He was doing that a lot lately. He thought he should probably slow down.
A month after he graduated — by then Mary’s divorce had been finalized — they got married. It was a crazy decision, and yet it wasn’t. He couldn’t imagine another person who would ever know him — and accept him — as well as Mary did. They had grown fond of each other, enough to embark on an outwardly conventional partnership in a quietly unconventional way. Mary said that they were forging “a common front” against everything they hated — shame, theories of abnormality, the frat boys. Remarkably, they had been making a go of it together ever since. Mason’s fiftieth high school reunion was coming up next year. He wondered if Gordie would be there and what he would say when Mason showed up with a wife.
Just before he got into the checkout line, he added a bouquet of tulips and a quart of strawberries to his basket.
The rest of this story is available in Volume 5, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.
The Trunk of Boothbay Harbor
Every June, for eight years since the end of the war, the Pilsner family traveled to Maine. For the last six of those years, their daughter Helen went with them. For the seventh year, the final year, their baby son, Albert, traveled with them as well. It would be the last time the Pilsner family set foot in Boothbay Harbor.
“Sleep” by Fred Waring & the Pennsylvanians played softly from the scratchy radio in the front seat. Helen and the others bumped when Pop’s 1925 Ford ran over the occasional rock. Rapidly alternating green-tinted shadows and late-morning light illuminated the interior from the frames of the open windows. A dark strip of clouds in the distance inched closer. It would snuff out their window of sunshine before the day was out.
Baby Albert, called Alb, gazed up at Helen in her yellow dress and blonde hair with big, curious eyes from his cradle to the right of her. In his hand was a new toy her mother had gotten him, likely no more than a week old. Like all the other toys. She glared at him and held her old doll close. To her left, big brother Andy pulled on his smelly cigarette and flashed smiles and waves outside the window to the rare passing vehicle or walker. He wore his brown uniform, like he always did. The cuffs fine, the fabric spotless, the tie and lapels tight and neat. No light or flickering shadows came in from the back seat, as it was filled to the ceiling with luggage.
In the driver’s seat, Pa kept his eyes hard on the road. The corners of his mouth and eyes curled upwards in a cheery, relaxed smile. His suit jacket was off, and his suspenders clamped down his thin, sweaty dress shirt. Tufts of graying hair puffed out from his hatless head. To his right, Mother knit away at a scarf. Her blonde hair was tucked away cleanly under her black cloche hat. Jewelry hung from her neck.
“Heyo Pa, what’s the time?” Andy asked after a pull from his cigarette.
“Hm,” he said, checking his watch. “We’ll be there soon.”
“Soon, soon… but what’s the time?”
“It’ll be another half an hour or less.”
“Pop, just the time, what’s the—”
Mother spoke up. “Get over the time, Andrew! Heavens, must you always ask for the time every several minutes?”
“Ma, I just wanna know the time!”
“Perhaps if you bought your own watch instead of losing your money in cards with your friends—”
“God! It’s always about my friends with you, isn’t it? Always these comments about how I spend my money and time—”
“Enough!” Mr. Pilsner roared. “It’s five after eleven.”
They were all quiet after that.
The trees and grass glittered from the early morning rainfall. Cows from neighboring fields watched them go by with glassy, lazy eyes. Boothbay Harbor was too familiar to be exciting to either Andy or Helen. She couldn’t talk to him, though. He was too distracted. Too old for her and for talking. He needed excitement, things to see and do on his own. He was reluctant enough as it was to join them on the trip.
“But you’ve got no wife or family,” Ma had told him when he protested. “And no place of your own.”
That bothered him.
When they arrived at Boothbay Harbor, Andy looked around even more distractedly than before. His gaze stayed on a passing group of girls more than once. He’d wave at them wearing his big smile and they’d maybe wave back or giggle. Salty ocean air wafted in. Helen fixed her eyes on her doll and tried to ignore his shifting motions next to her. At the Boothbay Harbor Grand Hotel, they parked on the roadside. The Grand Hotel would be considered grand compared to the town, but compared to other hotels in bigger tourist locations it’d hardly be considered second-rate. The hotel was nothing more to Helen and Andy as “the place they stayed for a week” each June. Familiarity kills the attraction of mystery and novelty.
The brick building loomed four stories overhead, arcing out by its top with flagging, buttress-like stone. The first floor was not brick but large blocks of limestone. As soon as they parked, a door-boy in a purple suit walked up to them with a wheeled rack. The Pilsners opened the back doors of the automobile and allowed the bellhop and another one to unload their luggage, which was also strapped to the roof. Mrs. Pilsner had brought too much, as per usual.
Dark, shuttered windows lined the hotel front. Below each row of windows was a long, stone ledge carved with Atlantic patterns of ropes and anchors. They walked through the doors and entered a marble and wood interior; a mix of fancy and local. A glittering chandelier over a circle rug, the centerpiece, sent sparkling rays from the electric lights lining the corridor. Helen and Andy immediately took seats by the wall, Helen tasked with carrying Alb in his cradle. She lugged the cradle over and dumped it on the floor, gentle enough to not make him cry but aggressively enough to signal to Andy that she wasn’t interested in doing the labor. He wasn’t paying attention; his head was turned in the direction of a pretty woman at the end of the hall reading from a folio. Helen returned her glare back to baby Albert. He met her eyes with his own, and he let out a high-pitched cackle and reached up at her with little fists. She crossed her arms.
The family was led upstairs to the second floor. They knew the way up, being regulars at the hotel for the past decade. Mr. Pilsner paid off the door boys who took up their baggage. Inside, their rooms were plain and lacked the grandeur of the foyer, but were homey. Yellow and white wallpaper reflected the light let in from the windows once Pop opened them. The boards creaked under their footsteps. Helen begrudgingly accepted the couch in the side room, as always. Andy got his own room and key, which left Helen more sour than before. His room was connected to hers by use of a door locked on both sides. Neither of them intended to use that door. Her room had a closet where the door to the hallway would’ve been, making her only exit Andrew’s room and her parents’ room. And the window, if she was counting that at all.
Even worse, Albert would be staying in her room, too. He never cried, which was unusual enough to get mother concerned at times, but that wasn’t the thing that bothered her.
“Pretty fine, eh, gal?” Pa said, rubbing her head. She took a step away from him, her doll tucked against her chest from her crossed arms. He sighed. “Yeah, yeah that’ll… mm.”
She closed the door to her side room and plopped herself onto the couch. It was springy and not cushy. She growled and slid off of it, pulling out the three drawers of the bureau instead. Empty, empty, empty. Crossing the room and the large carpet that dominated it, she went to the closet. When she opened it she took a step back, a mix of surprise and curiosity on her face. Inside the closet, barely able to fit, was a trunk. A foot shorter than she was, sitting on its long side, the trunk was a dark gray, with tarnished and aged metal corners and clasps. Old scratches and nicks marked its leather sides, which were so old and battered she wasn’t even sure if it was still leather. Weathered stickers from past hotels and trips with indecipherable words dotted the exterior. Little light illuminated the closet, leaving the trunk mostly cloaked in darkness, save some of its front side.
Sounds from Ma and Pa died out. A special sort of gravity of silence radiated from the trunk. A bending of time, sight, and sound. For a moment, just a moment, Helen forgot about the trip. Forgot about her parents, Andy, and Albert. Forgot about the whole entire world.
It was just she, the girl, and it, the trunk.
The rest of this story is available in Volume 5, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.
MICHAEL PAUL HOGAN
On the Beach / Rain
Harry’s 1958 Thunderbird turned off the road and onto the beach. All four doors swung open and each of us got out. It was six in the morning and the beach was deserted. The sea was purple and the sky was orange and the horizon a thin line of green. Harry took a handgun out of the glove compartment and started shooting at an empty Budweiser bottle that Billy Ray had thrown out into the sea. Billy Ray took another bottle out of the crate in the trunk and went and stood over on Harry’s left, watching the spurts of water the bullets kicked up, tilting the beer in a long, smooth swallow while Harry reloaded out of a box on the driver’s seat. Eight-Ball Eddie had wandered off up the shoreline some ways and was holding a bottle of Four Roses and skimming coins across the surface of the sea. I felt a little cold and kind of sat, kind of leaned back against the hood of the Thunderbird, gripping my own bottle of Bud between my knees while I lit a cigarette. I’d had the idea of a story taking better and better shape in my mind during the whole time we were in The Blue Parrot. It had survived the noise of the jukebox and a whole load of tequila shots and eight or nine games of pool and it would be sad to lose it now, now that we were out at the beach. I inhaled and exhaled and imagined I was in my college room and sitting in front of my Remington portable and typing it down. It had been raining for nine days. The color had long ago bleached out of the world and the cupolas and the domes and the rooftops were pewter-gray. Imagining typing a story was a good way not to lose it. I visualized the keys hammering a sheet of paper and mentally slammed the carriage shift each time Harry shot a bullet into the sea.
It had been raining for nine days. The color had long ago bleached out of the world and the cupolas and the domes and the rooftops were pewter-gray. Even the sky was saturated, and it rippled in the breeze like a photograph in a developing tray. She said, “Do you remember Thailand? It rained so hard the street became a river. A boy caught a fish with a fishing rod from the balcony opposite our apartment.”
“And that time in Key Blanco? People rowed boats down Perry Street. We waded knee-deep to buy groceries at the store.”
“I remember that too.”
She laughed. She said, “You’re a writer. You’re a cheat! You remember everything!”
The rain was like a slender curtain between their veranda and the rest of a saturated world. A fine mist of dampness permeated the air. They could feel it on the rims of the glasses from which they drank and breathed it as a fisherman might breathe in a fog. He said, “It’s strange. It’s as though each day of rain is washing away another layer of recent history, exposing forgotten layers of the past…”
He remembered walking along a beach somewhere in the tropics, with the sea on his right and palm trees on his left. There was no sound at all, no birds either visible or hidden in the foliage, and the sea was as still as a bowl of mercury. Ahead of him, drawn up on the sand so far that it was nearly in the shade of the palm trees, there was a boat, an obviously abandoned boat, in length about thirty feet, barely listing, its stern extending almost half-way to the edge of the sea.
He reached up and ran his fingertips along the gunwale. It had the texture of stippled plaster and contained traces of the original red and blue paint on the crumbling ridges. The name of the boat, once stenciled in black letters, was now too faded and weather-worn to make out, but he intuited, he knew, that it was the name of a girl the owner of the boat had loved but had lost while he was out at sea. And then suddenly, as though the curtain had been raised on a vast stage — no, as though the curtain had dissolved as he had walked through it — he saw a young woman standing in the shallows, holding up the hem of her dress with one hand and shielding her eyes with the other. The distance between them was no more than twenty feet and yet she seemed very far away. It would have been no more possible to call out to her than to call out to a ship on the horizon, but he remembered an overwhelming urge to speak to her, to be the focus of her attention even if only for a moment or two. Then the memory rippled and faded and he was again alone on a tropical beach next to an abandoned boat that seemed to hold within its timbers all the salt of a thousand days at sea.
He smiled at the memory. He said, “Would you like another drink?”
“In a minute, when I’ve finished this one. What were you remembering? You were very far away.”
“A boat abandoned on a beach. A girl. But it wasn’t like a memory. More like a waking dream.”
“Dreams are only shattered memories, put back together by the mad and blind,” she replied.
The veranda upon which they stood had four steps leading down to a semi-circular patio surrounded by lawn. The lawn was entirely underwater, the grass-blades an expanse of flowering coral, and the rain had covered the patio to the elevation of the first of the steps. She said, “It’s like a swimming pool. When I was a child, I always wanted a swimming pool. I wanted to dive into it wearing a skin-tight one-piece ivory-colored bathing suit. Like on the cover of Vogue.”
She raised the hem of her dress with her left hand and descended the steps. She looked over her shoulder. She said, “Do you remember?”
“When I was reading Holberg’s Subterranean Voyage of Nicholas Klimn and eating the box of chocolates you’d given me because I’d caught you smiling at some girl on the Auto-Shuttle –”
“I remember the chocolates. I don’t remember the girl.”
“– and I flattened out the foil that had been wrapped around the crème noisette and used it as a bookmark. And the more I used it and the more flattened it got the more beautiful it became. A sort of meeting point between poetry and spatial physics. Or better still the after-image caused by a combination of Rayographs and driving very fast down Fifth Avenue on a late December afternoon in the pouring sleet and rain. Oh, and incidentally, the girl was memorable, the chocolates were not.”
“But you remembered the chocolates.”
“But you failed to remember the girl.”
The rest of this story is available in Volume 5, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.
JOSEPH J. DOWLING
I reach out from an exquisite fog, and my surroundings swim into focus. A familiar smell registers, like a hit of weak cocaine. I know the place intimately, but my jumbled memory has fragmented. Pieces float past, out of reach, then it hits me. I’m standing in my local video store — Take Two Video.
I haven’t been here in over two decades, and with good reason — the store closed down at least twenty years ago. I look around the place, finding it exactly as I remember. My fingers run softly across the faces of the empty VHS boxes, wedged together in rows, their covers facing out. The slightly dappled surface of the vinyl and the cheap pine of the display rack feel real, unlike the absent tactility of dreams.
One other person occupies the room. A man similar in age, with lightly tanned skin and wispy, sandy-colored hair, thinning on top with a high forehead, where his hairline has receded like so many routed soldiers. He wears a friendly smile, exposing near-perfect front teeth. Hidden behind five-day ginger stubble, his face is moderately good-looking, yet forgettable, but his haunting blue eyes are sharp and alive, and they draw me in. They’re a swirling cauldron of conflicting emotions, yet impossible to read.
He wears the casual uniform I remember Take Two employees always wore — black trousers, a white short-sleeved shirt and a red waistcoat, no tie — but I’ve not seen this man before, and I knew every employee by name. His nametag says David, below the embossed yellow logo in a slanted Eras Bold font, Take Two Video.
Despite never having worked here, I have the same uniform on. I touch the nametag pinned to my chest and lift it towards me. Samuel. My name.
In a soft voice, neither high-pitched nor deep, the man speaks, like a doctor talking to a patient awakening after a great trauma. “Hey Sam, how are you feeling?”
I hesitate, unsure of what to say. All I manage is, “What’s happening to me?” My voice sounds strained and rough, like I’ve been screaming.
“It’ll come to you soon enough, Sam. There’s no rush,” he says, returning to his task of cataloguing the stack of new arrivals sitting next to the stock computer. The ancient, flat desktop PC has a twelve-inch monochrome green monitor sitting atop its discolored plastic shell, which has turned from off-white to an almost nicotine yellow. Its old hard drive buzzes like a vitriolic autumn wasp, just as it always did.
The fog clouding my brain eases, and images of recent events slowly swirl behind my eyes. Memories of my fateful science project: the cold extraction of codeine from sixty-four co-codamol tablets, then washing down the foraged opiate with a few bottles of good red wine. I thought, why go out drinking the cheap crap? Afterwards, I lay on the bed and fell into gentle marshmallow oblivion. Warmth enveloped me. Worry and regret slipped away, and the infinite vantablack welcomed me in its benign embrace.
So, I must’ve died. Then is this purgatory? Have I been wrong all along about death being the everlasting nothingness they promised me in fantasies of motorcycle emptiness? Am I facing an inquisition to ascertain which version of the afterlife they’ll eternally thrust me into?
I turn to David. “Am I dead?”
He laughs softly and shakes his head. “No, Sam, you’re not dead. You’re still alive, but on life support in hospital.”
“So why am I here? Is it some hyper-realistic dream induced by whatever they’ve put in my system to chase out the opiates?”
“Long story short, you’ve got a decision to make. We’re here until the store closes at ten tonight, after which time you can continue with your chosen path, and they pull the plug. You’ll die, like you wanted to.”
“And if I decide otherwise?”
“They’ll do everything they can to pull you through. It’s how they deal with unsuccessful suicides now. Human rights and all that. It’s no longer considered ethical to prevent suicide, but if you fail, they’re obliged to give you a chance to reconsider.”
In my mind something sparks, and I recall reading a science article about some new technology for coma patients, where doctors plug them into a virtual experience to communicate with their unconscious mind.
Another, far more malignant memory blindsides me, as clear and fresh as an alpine lake under a moonless night, and every bit as dark. Waking from an entirely different opiate-induced slumber. Lauren’s crumpled form next to me, purple, bruised, and distorted. After the investigation and autopsy came another crushing blow — a one-two punch which perhaps set me off to my ultimate attempt at destruction — I hadn’t even known she was pregnant.
So, was that incident the catalyst for my decision, or had the path leading me to suicide begun many years before? Working it out was a knotted shoelace — unpick the wrong thread and it would tighten like a snake coiled around a struggling mouse. Choose correctly and it could unravel with ease. The shackles might finally slip off. I look at David for help. He says nothing but gives a half-smile and shrugs while I circle the store, eyeing back-to-back rows of densely packed cases arranged by genre, all spine-facing, like books. So many movies I’ve forgotten. Signposts of my life from childhood, through adolescence, adulthood, and finally here, at what might be its approaching end. The Muppets, Weekend at Bernie’s, Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas, Life Is Beautiful.
The store always ran a midweek promotion, Monday through Thursday. Rent three videos and get the cheapest one for free. I sometimes took hours to peruse the store and make my selections. Perhaps I enjoyed the procrastination of choosing as much as watching. One day, as I returned three tapes in their blue hard-plastic cases, plain except for the Take Two Video sticker on the front, I found the shelves empty behind a locked door. The business had gone, vanished overnight like a guilty one-night stand.
While my doomsday clock ticks onwards, I allow my mind to wander deeper. John, the real owner of Take Two Video, with his curly hair and Magnum P.I. moustache, always took time to chat, unlike the surly younger assistant, who eyed me with indifference, or perhaps disdain. I understood why as I grew older and also despised boys that age, with their sickly-sweet smell of early pubescence, their inane interests, and weak conversation.
But John never flashed me a look of annoyance as I eulogized about some silly movie. He never projected the air of a stressed man, trying to save a failing business. Updating their vast video library with DVDs was beyond their means, while down the road, their formidable chain-store competitor owned numerous copies of the expensive major new releases on both formats. John’s store usually had just one tape. If someone had already rented it, you could reserve it and they called you up when it came back. After the store closed, I never saw John again.
The rest of this story is available in Volume 5, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.
The field was mostly brown now. A few green leaves remained, low on the tough, woody stems of weeds, but these too were showing hints of yellow in the damp November air. Carl Morgan parked his station wagon and walked past the plexiglass map at the edge of the parking lot. The Eagle Scout that made it had put a covered wooden box to hold trail maps, but once the maps had all been taken, no one printed any more. Then someone had crammed the box full of bagged dog droppings and the box began to rot from the inside out.
Carl had come here nearly every day for fifteen years. It was Monty’s favorite place. As a young dog, Monty had menaced the wildlife of the preserve, bounding through the brush, putting birds to flight and frightening rabbits back down their holes. Then canine middle age set in and he preferred the trail.
But even now with Monty’s ashes in an urn on the mantle, Carl was occasionally drawn to the preserve for walks across the field and the pathways beside the stream. Thousands of walks on these trails allowed his mind’s eye to overlap with the scenery before him, and he could half-see Monty beside him. As the years progressed, the dog went from jumping over logs on the trail, to climbing over until finally, as his hind legs stiffened, he needed to be lifted over each obstruction, then put down gently on the other side. Carl could still see it. The memory of lifting Monty over fallen logs was as much in his arms and back as it was in his mind. At each log, he remembered how it felt to pause and bend over, and how Monty had lowered his haunches, allowing himself to be scooped up.
Earlier in the spring, someone went through the preserve with a bow saw and cut out sections of the logs that had lain across the trail for years, allowing little geriatric dogs to pass with ease. It was a sign of how blind Monty had become when he stopped at these points along the now-cleared trail, waiting to be lifted over logs that were no longer there. Carl had tried to show him that he was now free to walk the trail unencumbered. But Monty couldn’t see that there were no longer barriers in front of him, nor could he hear Carl urging him on. In his prime, the dog had known hundreds of human words, or seemed to at least, responding to and executing complex two-part commands. Except for the sense of smell, it was doubtful he had any senses left to negotiate his world.
On the day in mid-September that Monty did not go stand by the door, Carl did not take him. It was clear that he had stopped enjoying his daily walks, and only participated out of habit. Carl carried him to the back yard where he dutifully completed his business and then stood, as though before a log, waiting for Carl to pick him up and carry him inside to his bed. A few days later, he died quietly in his sleep.
Since then, Carl’s visits to the preserve were irregular. He had spent most of his time in the house, doing nothing for exercise, and he quickly put on ten pounds. This weight gain was noticed by his doctor. “You need to get back out there. Get another dog. Adopt one, and if you don’t want to do that, you need to take yourself for walks. Take yourself out. You gotta attend to your own care and feeding. Ever read those James Herriot books?”
“My daughter did.”
“Herriot advised against a mourning period. Your little fellow’s memory won’t be tarnished by going over to the shelter this afternoon and seeing what they have.” Carl nodded without much conviction while his doctor scribbled on a pad. “Here you go.” He handed over a prescription. "Take this to the shelter and have them fill it.” Carl took out his glasses and read: “Canine accompaniment for 1 hour walk, 2X daily.”
Carl chuckled and put the paper in his pocket. “Okay, I’ll think about it.”
“Walk while you think. Those ten pounds need to come off. Then another ten.”
And so, on a dreary morning in November, he finished his coffee and by a force of will, made his hand go to the back of the door, take his coat off a hook and put it on. He was directing himself in a detached way, taking his animal body for a walk as instructed. Perhaps a dog would come later. It was difficult enough to get his bipedal mammalian self to do what he told it to do.
At the preserve, Carl walked through the field, noting the persistence of asters and other scrubby little blossoms where only a few months before, Queen Anne’s lace had reigned amid black-eyed Susan and bee balm. Now their stalks were dead, the dried flowers spilling tiny seeds into the wind.
The path entered the woods. It led to a stream where old farm roads had once met, crossing the water in the distant, rural past. When Monty was alive, Carl tended to avoid these old roads with their stone walls and rows of sugar maples. They were frequented by phone-engrossed people who walked their dogs off-leash, staring at their screens, unmindful. Interactions with the dogs of road walkers often led to aggression, which Carl noted was never initiated by Monty, but, in the manner characteristic of his breed, he never backed down from a good fight either. Because of this, Carl and Monty always walked the rarely used trails that skirted the edge of the ravine, where the stream was ten to twenty feet or so below the forest floor.
While walking along an unusually high side of the ravine, where the stream had cut deeply into a small hill, Carl came upon an odd construction of logs and branches. At first, he thought someone had made a fence across the trail, but when he got closer, he saw that there were actually two parallel fences, perpendicular to the trail and the edge of the ravine. The two fences formed a kind of chute, instantly calling to mind the fences of a stockyard, where cattle were driven onward to the knives and cleavers that turned them to steaks, roasts and burgers.
The fences were woven with deadfall from the surrounding trees and must have taken someone several hours to construct. He reached out and tried to give one of them a shake, but it was surprisingly solid and resisting. Someone had been very determined, but to what purpose? Carl was wondering what Monty would have made of it when he looked down and saw a series of deliberate scratches in an exposed slab of rock. He realized it was lettering, a small, very crudely gouged sign that said: “this way ↑.” It was meant to be read from the mouth of the chute and it pointed to the edge of the ravine. Carl stepped back and took in the scene. The fences were there to guide victims to over the edge of the ravine where they would haplessly fall onto the rocks below.
“Boys,” he said aloud. Only boys would be able to marshal the energy needed to collect all the deadfall and construct the crude fences in the naive hope of causing someone to fall into the water. Only boys, with their morbid fascinations and malicious instincts, would devise such a trap and, in the absence of proper signage, sit down, rock-to-rock, and scratch out letters urging the witless on to their doom.
Of course, the trap would catch no one. It was all an elaborate game. Few visitors to the preserve looked up from their phones long enough to know that the ravine side trails even existed, even though, as Carl liked to think, these trails probably predated the coming of Europeans by hundreds or perhaps thousands of years. They were no doubt ancient, these footpaths along the ravine, like trails alongside rivers all over the world. “The land is timeless,” he whispered to himself. He felt, for just a moment, an expanse of time where the coming of fields and paved roads and ranch houses was merely a blip in a vast continuum. He forgot where he was for a second.
He looked back down at the fences and wondered how many boys had worked on the project. Probably six or seven he reasoned, since the energy required to gather that much wood would have exhausted the attention of one or two of them. No, it was probably more.
He smiled as he pictured how it would have gone. The idea would have formed with one or two ringleaders and the reason for it would have been self-evident — to get people to fall off into the ravine. He had undertaken similar projects when he was nine or ten — clever contrivances designed to make girls trip and fall down. He could imagine them working together. “Guys! Guys!” one boy would say. “Guys! We need more wood!” The ringleader would of course be the taskmaster. “Come on! We gotta make this fence and get someone to fall!” Perhaps the second in command would announce that they needed a sign, and he would have looked around for a rock to scratch out letters in the soft, crumbly schist. Looking back in the woods, Carl saw piles of leaves that had been scuffed off the forest floor. A series of unmistakable arrows pointing to the chute had been swept into a pathway, most likely with their feet, kicking away the leaves down to the bare soil.
The rest of this story is available in Volume 5, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.
On the Boardwalk
It was the sort of day that brings people to Los Angeles, thinking they’ll start over again in a new and freer life — and we were in the sort of dump they end up in, if they're not careful. A warm day in February, sitting at the outdoor tables of a sandwich stand on the Venice Beach Boardwalk, with the ocean a blue bulge in the west.
"Look at this place," Rod said. "A boardwalk with no boards. It's just an asphalt street! Why call it a 'boardwalk,' anyway?"
Rod was my work buddy; we had a little landscape job at a house just off the beach, planting what the owner called her "victory garden," like it was World War Two and she might starve if she didn't hire us to grub in her dirt. And Rod was right: the Boardwalk was just a stretch of asphalt between bright sand on one side and dreary, old apartment hotels on the other. The hotels crowded rows of souvenir shops and marijuana dispensaries into the ground floor storefronts, but upstairs they were the kind of places where old drunks go to die. Maybe that was part of the glamour of the Boardwalk; the tourists could pretend they were slumming somewhere bohemian and a little dangerous, but with good weather and the beach, and free entertainment mocking the freaks. There was no motor traffic, at least, except for the police cars creeping by with snakelike deliberation. No one on the boardwalk liked the cops, least of all the street merchants lined up on the beach side of the strip, slouched in sagging chairs with their backs to the sand, hawking bad paintings and clumsy handmade jewelry, or telling fortunes, or moaning songs to the jangle of out-of-tune guitars. The indoor shopkeepers hated the street merchants, the street merchants hated the indoor shopkeepers, and the cops hated everybody and wished they were someplace else. The eateries at least made out fine, feeding everybody, or at least everybody who had money.
So I was sitting at a cheap tin table with a plastic basket of what were alleged to be french fries in front of me, and Rod across from me with his own plastic basket where a burger awaited its fate. It was lunch time, and what better place to spend it than in this dented paradise that the world flocked to visit, at the edge of the continent, with the blue Pacific watching from a distance, hoarding its storms and tidal waves till the mood should strike it to wipe us all out.
We were watching the parade of freaks and tourists while we ate — what Rod called the "floor show," by which he specifically meant pretty women showing skin. The local phonies, poseurs, and lost souls were trying their hardest to epater les bourgeois, and the bourgeois were doing their best to cut loose and fit in, despite their clean clothes, tidy haircuts, and sunburned boobs. They tried hard, all right, the men showing pale knobby legs in baggy shorts, the women flaunting cleavages they would never have approved of in someone else back home, the children sneering at the hairy half-naked locals with their cancerous tans.
"The sad thing is," Rod said, "that damn near everybody here sees this place as the apotheosis of civilization. And sometimes I think they're right."
"There's plenty of people that hate this place," I said.
"Sure there are. But they don't come here. Or if they do, they don't stay."
"No one stays for long. There's a lot of die-off."
"Don't exaggerate. Sure, the druggies die young. But there's a lot of guys like him," Rod said. "Gals too." He pointed his chin at one of the local patriarchs, a withered, old white man with an eternal grin showing through his tumbled-gray beard. He was wearing his usual outfit of baggy camo pants under a knee-length rainbow robe. Another lost hippie who thought it was still 1969 and he still meant something. "I swear I saw that guy here when I was a kid, and he looked just as old back then."
"You really believe it’s the same guy?"
"I don't believe anything I see here," Rod said. "Even in the mirror. Especially in the mirror."
"How much time do you spend looking into a mirror on the Boardwalk?"
"Every time I buy a pair of sunglasses from Howard the Punk. He's got a mirror on his stand. They always look better there than when I get home. It's some kind of trick mirror, I'm sure of it."
The rest of this story is available in Volume 5, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.
Today I returned to the garden. Coming north, the train ducks underground a few stops before spitting out over the western burgs. I’ve lost my job, so it’s around eleven I get moving, the sun diagonal on the haze and sparking the hump of the botanicum as we rattle around the old depots and into view. Eleven is the slow hour, when everyone should be where they’re going. A wheezing snore next to me dips with the car’s rocking. She probably spent the night on the train. A ratty jacket covers her head. Eleven. I used to sort mail downtown. There’s less mail now, but who knows what that says. Do people talk less? I do. But in the street it’s like everyone is talking. There’s no corner of silence in Franklin. Every tunnel has its drips and moans, and the garden its green hiss and library mutters. The empty train screams.
My mother’s mother came to Franklin City sixty years ago from out east. She ran the wrong way, but lots made that mistake. The garden wasn’t new then either. From some war before that one. She’s who told me about the flower. She said it was there before they built the garden. I don’t know how that could be true, but she said so.
My grandmother liked plants. She knew things. She came from far outskirts, where they only caught a ration from bigger places of sound and chaos, in their kitchen, den, the woods behind their house. She talked about the early times in Franklin, before my mother was born, when she would come to the garden and sit by herself under the big glass dome and listen to the jungle rush, waiting for the Dead Flower to bloom; Amorphogermen titanum. That’s the Latin. It bloomed erratically, a purple hand flopping open to spill rotten honey on its neighbors, once, twice every hundred years. The color of eggplant twilight, springing wide to drown near flowers and waxy ferns in syrup and then hibernate for another generation. Why’d they let it be, if it wanted so much for itself? The spectacle, for one. Franklin likes a strong competitor, she said. Franklin likes a rarity.
She spoke of a petal at the center. The Dead Petal, if we’re keeping with idiot names. A different shade of violet, with a red eyelet, and a point like a knife. My young grandmother, sitting patiently in nude tights with her handbag, waited for the lusty time when the flower would pop. She wanted the petal. And why? She never said. But all those years later in the run-down home on Bleecker Street after Mom died, still it stuck its knifepoint through her brain fog enough that even then, to me, she thought to mention it.
The flower shows signs, she said, before it pops. When she first came to Franklin it was budding, prodding from the wet earth with unripe elbow. That means come back soon and keep watch. So she had come. She worked days then as a typesetter for the Herald, living on her own in a small Southtown flat. Each day after work she’d put in the time, till evening and the botanicum’s closing gates, and all weekends with the weak sun on the windows. For if she was there when it popped, she had a chance.
When the time’s near, she said, it rises like a bent snake, its shriveled neck dragging the ground. The unfolding is quick, its nauseous odor renowned. Then the splash of sweet bitters, the encircling flora withers, and the red-eyed petal smiles up piston-hard.
Be watchful or you’ll miss it.
She missed it.
The day it blossomed was the day of the Big Quake, and is thus overshadowed in record and memory. She rode the F train that Saturday morning toward the botanicum when the rail over Westriver shattered, and its passengers found themselves gripping white-knuckled to plastic seatbacks as they dangled over the steep embankment and sludgy trough below. It did, in fact, collapse, sending two dozen on a bumpy ride through rancid rapids, resulting in half as many deaths. My unwed grandmother clung desperately to a dislodged luggage rack beside a young man she would come to spend a number of unhappy years with, until his own demise in duller days from a lung condition. They managed to conceive my mother between these episodes.
And what about the flower? By the time she made it back to the garden, after a brief stint at St. Rags Memorial with a bruised temple and jangled nerves, it was curled sleeping amid its desolation, a wrinkled brown thing in the dirt. Spoiled circlets of ferns swept in low waves from the epicenter. It was a poison pebble on the earthen pond.
She died in the home on Bleecker Street, alone but for the overworked help. I’d see her sometimes, a weekend now and then. I’d bring flowers. I think I missed the point. She told me so, anyway. It wasn’t until layoffs that I thought about it, years after she was gone. One misty morning, waking to find a dry vine crawling over the small window of my apartment, I reeled in bed to the purple silhouette, as she’d described, dressing the back of my eyelids.
It’s coming, is what I’ve learned. These days the pale green elbow juts amid bracken, sucking the last moisture from old kills. The mail’s dried up so I watch from the clamorous woods, alive with mister-hiss and visitors. The interregnum is ending. The pogrom will come soon.
By the time I reach the garden it’s nearly noon, and the glass plates of the dome radiate heat under a low haze. I take the southern entrance, strolling past the visitor center and its rheumy minder toward branching footpaths. This way passes first through the deserts, with pale sands and ribbed cactus. Taller specimens are crowned in clusters of pink florets, and a species of hummingbird has been allowed to propagate for purposes of pollination. Their hurried wingbeats trace low altitudes, pushing feather-breath currents as I navigate a grove of thorns. I find an arid introduction eases my transition to the jungle dark.
Past the desert comes dusty outback, with peeling eucalyptus and flat acacia vying for space. Some kids jaunt through the pathless dirt. Beyond lies the palm garden, where small ponds collect sagging fronds in an obstacle course for turtles. Sometimes I’ll stop here, where it’s most quiet. Today I push ahead, first to lilies, and past the white library. A bridge crosses the water. Next come roses, a crazed arrangement of color, under-pruned and wild, clawing over the path with brittle spines. And finally, behind fogged glass, dripping hot with condensation, the heavy green looms.
I shoulder through the suction seal of doors as the customary damp slaps my cheeks and jacket. A lungful of water and I’m slouching ahead past dim couples in the mist. The Dead Flower waits left of center, crouched below a long girder of dome. My shirt’s plastered to me by the time I reach our favored bench, a low iron thing beside the plot’s enclosure. Now, mostly, I sit.
These days the garden is in disrepair, somehow under-watered but overgrown. The desert humming-birds have run wild, and elsewhere brown vines overtake unswept paths. City money wanders to other ventures while the garden festers, a forgotten project. Still, admission is free. One walks into a forested bus stop. If you were to wander gloomy paths you might find errant couples humping against trees in the mist, or groaning junkies under wet ferns. I sit where my grandmother sat in more subsidized days, and stare at the stubborn green nub where it pokes from the earth. On a hot day like today, faintly the expanding girders can be heard to creak high above in the foggy roof. The environment controls gutter with white noise, and two young men recline against the banister smoking wet cigarettes. The jungle has its regulars.
The rest of this story is available in Volume 5, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.
"The past is what you remember, imagine you remember, convince yourself you remember, or pretend you remember."
A: 50’s/60’s, any race and gender
B: 50’s/60’s, any race and gender
C: 50’s/60’s, any race and gender
The Present. A front room with a window looking out on a front yard.
(Darkness, then soft dim light that leaves all in silhouette.
As if a switch were flicked “on,” an inordinately loud white noise blasts the theater. It holds for a moment then is abruptly switched off.
Lights rise revealing A is standing while B sits. B holds and presses a few buttons, then holds it out towards A.)
(A’s VOICE from the Cell Phone Speaker:)
Hi… Guess you’re busy. Listen… please give me a call as soon as you can. Something’s wrong. I came downstairs and I don’t know what I’m doing. Something is wrong. I’m very confused. I’m looking out the window and I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what’s going on. I’m confused. I’m very… confused. Call me back. Okay. Bye.
A: I don’t remember saying that.
B: None of it?
A: I remember making the call — that I called you.
B: Want to hear it again?
A: It won’t help.
B: But you remember making the call…
A: Yes, I remember that much.
B: I called you back when I got the message. You kept saying it was Monday and you had a lot of work to do. But it was Wednesday.
A: I remember being in a conference call earlier — and texting you it was a boring meeting from hell.
B: What was the meeting about?
A: I don’t remember what was discussed.
B: Who else was on the call?
A: I don’t know exactly.
B: Exactly? So, you remember something.
A: No, but it was a conference call we have once a week. I’m sure the usual suspects were there.
B: But you’re guessing?
A: That’s right, I can’t say for sure. I couldn’t swear to anything in a court of law.
B: You must remember something.
A: Why must I remember anything?
B: It made an impression. Something happened — or didn’t happen that affected you. You decided it was a boring meeting from hell. You made a judgment based on something.
A: Maybe it just was. Maybe it was an observation. Like the sky is blue or its cold out or that tree is dead.
B: The tree in the front yard?
A: Sure. Why not? The tree in the front yard.
B: Are you sure it’s dead?’
A: Very sure. I’ve looked it at closely. No leaves, stripped of any bark — if it had bark, I don’t know. Like an old woman’s crooked, skinny finger extended up from the earth pointing at the sky — accusing the heavens of neglect.
B: I see. What kind of tree is it? Or, rather, was it?
A: Who cares what kind of tree it is? It doesn’t make any difference; it’s dead.
B: So, you say.
A: So, it is.
B: I think it’s a Japanese Maple.
A: A dead Japanese Maple.
B: Lots of dead Japanese Maple trees around here. It must be a fungus attacking them.
A: How many?
B: How many what?
A: Dead Japanese Maple trees!
B: I couldn’t say. I didn’t count them.
A: But you noticed what they were and that they’re dead.
B: I suppose so.
A: You suppose? You either did or you didn’t.
B: All right, I noticed they were dead Japanese Maple trees.
A: So, we agree on that. We both remember the dead tree.
B: What’s next? What’s the next thing you recall?
A: You coming in through the door. And other people, I think…
B: The ambulance crew.
A: I remember stepping up into the ambulance through its back door — and someone asked me what month it is. I don’t remember anything else till I was in the room at the ER. I don’t remember the ride or arriving at the hospital or checking in or changing into the gown or speaking with anyone. Not till you were in the room. I don’t know how you got there, but I remember you sitting in that white, cramped room.
B: I drove myself. Do you remember them taking blood?
B: They took blood for tests. Then they took you for a CAT scan.
A: Don’t remember it.
B: You rode in a wheelchair.
A: Damn it!
B: What’s the matter?
A: I don’t remember riding in an ambulance and I don’t remember a wheelchair!
B: Don’t get frustrated. It’ll make things worse.
A: It can’t be worse. I don’t remember!
A: Flashes — like snapshots really… But these… these moments are islands surrounded by nothing. That’s what scares me.
The rest of this play is available in Volume 5, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.
Socky Tells All
Andy: childlike, 17-25 years of age
Nurse Todd: kind, professional, 20’s to 40’s
Dr. Baxter: heavyset, 30’s to 60’s
Day, Mental Institution, Patient Room.
The room is small with a bed, dresser, desk with reading lamp, and a wooden chair. Next to the bed is a small night table. There’s a window upstage center with bars on the outside. The door to the room has a small window with mesh wire. Next to the door is a buzzer that the patient can ring for service.
(Andy sits in bed reading a comic book. He’s a prisoner of sorts — a patient in the Whispering Oaks Sanitarium, a private mental health institution. In the crook of his arm is a small sock monkey he calls “Socky.” There’s a knock on the door.)
Andy: (To Socky.) Company, Socky. (Loudly.) Entre-vous!
(Nurse Todd enters carrying an assortment of fresh linens. She’s attractive, though somewhat severe-looking in her uniform. She has a cordial, but professional manner.)
Nurse Todd: Good morning, Andy. Did you sleep well?
Andy: Oh, yes, Nurse Todd. Thank you. Socky had a bit of a coughing fit and woke me up... but I was able to get back to sleep all right.
(Nurse Todd gives him a sharp look, places a few linens on the desk and goes into the bathroom.)
Nurse Todd: (From bathroom.) I hope you’re not going to start with that “Socky” business when Dr. Baxter comes to check on you.
(She comes out of the bathroom with some crumpled towels.)
Nurse Todd: This is something of a decisive opportunity for you, Andy. Dr. Baxter is an important man in this institution. I hope you realize the extent to which your behavior with him today can help or hinder your release.
Andy: (To Socky.) You hear that, Socky? If we’re good, they’ll let us out of here. Then we can go out and play with the grown-ups. Won’t that be fun?
(He makes Socky shake his head “no.”)
Andy: Oh, come on now, Sock. Don’t be like that. We’ll be good, won’t we?
(He shakes Socky’s head “no.” Nurse Todd throws the towels on the floor in a heap.)
Nurse Todd: Now, you’ve got to stop that, Andy! I’m serious! Dr. Baxter will be here shortly and if he sees you talking to that stuffed monkey, it might spoil your chances. Let me have those sheets now.
(Andy gets off the bed, holding Socky.)
Andy: What’s this one like?
(Nurse Todd takes off Andy’s sheets and tosses them in the pile. She puts on new sheets as she talks.)
Nurse Todd: Oh, he seems qualified enough, I suppose. A little on the plump side, about fifty. In addition to being the new chief-of-staff, he’s also head of the out-patient program, Andy. That’s why you’ve got to be at your best.
Andy: Why hasn’t he been by to check on us before?
Nurse Todd: Well, Andy... he’s only been here a month and a half. He’s been very busy... learning our procedures and familiarizing himself with the books and staff.
Andy: Familiarizing himself! (Laughs.) And what happened to that nice Dr. Gavinski? Why hasn’t he been by to see us?
Nurse Todd: Now, Andy... you were right there when he had the... breakdown. I suppose he’s resting somewhere.
Andy: Oh. That’s too bad. We liked him, didn’t we, Socky?
(He shakes Socky’s head “no.” Nurse Todd turns to him sharply.)
Nurse Todd: Look, Andy... I want to give you some advice. You’re a smart boy. I don’t think there’s much wrong with you and I’ve said as much to Dr. Baxter. But you’re going to have to do your part. If you want to get out of here... and soon... you’re going to have to stop this... Socky crap.
Andy: (Feigning shock.) You hear that, Socky? Nurse Todd said a naughty word.
(Places his hands over Socky’s ears.) Naughty, naughty, naughty!
(Nurse Todd throws up her hands. She picks up the towels and linens and heads to the door.)
Nurse Todd: Andy... you’re going to blow it again. I don’t know why you have to start this every time a new doctor comes to see you. You’ve been here two years now and there’s not a thing wrong with you. (Shakes her head.) Well, it’s out of my hands. I just wish you’d stop and think about what you’re doing. It’s such a waste.
(Andy sulks. She goes to him.)
Nurse Todd: Now look... I may not be here much longer. There have been some changes in the way things are run... and in the staff. I just don’t want to see you get hurt, when you might be better off...
(He lays his head against her shoulder. She pets him a moment, then presses the buzzer. The door buzzes and she leaves. Andy jumps back on the bed with Socky.)
Andy: Don’t pay any attention to her, Socky. We know what we’re doing... don’t we? (Nods Socky’s head.) You’re the only one who understands me, Sock.
(He kisses the monkey and picks up the comic book. A knock on the door is heard.)
The rest of this play is available in Volume 5, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.
Figure/Sebastian Queen: famous horror author, sneaking around in the dark
Julia: head librarian; frustrated and finally taking things into her own hands
Scary mask, backpack, smartphone, jar of pickled pigs' feet, book drop
Midnight, outside a small city library at the book drop.
(A Figure in a black hoodie quickly surveys the dark scene and then approaches the book drop, near the front entrance door. The Figure also wears a scary rubber mask, completely concealing his or her face.
Once at the book drop, the Figure removes a jar from a backpack. The Figure opens the book drop, ready to place the jar inside of it, when…
Julia, a librarian dressed in dark clothing herself, steps from the shadows behind the Figure. Julia shines a flashlight right at the Figure’s back.)
Julia: Step away from the book drop!
(The Figure, jar in hand, freezes in the flashlight’s beam, book drop still open.)
Listen! I… I have a gun!
(Julia has no gun, but the Figure doesn’t know this and slowly closes the book drop.)
Thanks for… for not slamming that!
(The Figure begins to step away from the book drop...)
Hey! Hey, wait a sec!
(The Figure freezes in place again.)
Could you, um, put that jar down on the ground, at your feet? (As the Figure puts the jar down, Julia says…) Now… uh… Move back a few steps! Toward my voice!
Figure: How many steps?
(The Figure’s voice, male, is muffled beneath the mask.)
Julia: I said, a few!
Figure: People have different interpretations of “few.” Others might think it means “five or six,” while you might think it means “three or four.”
Julia: “Three or four” is “some,” not “few.”
Figure: Don’t want to be shot in the back because I took more steps than you were expecting me to take.
Julia: A “few” is like “five or six”… isn’t it?
Figure: That’s what I’ve always thought. Now, what is it exactly you want me to do? Five or six steps?
Julia: Five steps back, toward my voice.
(The Figure is about to take his first step back toward Julia’s voice, but then he stops himself.)
Figure: And how large should my steps be? I don’t want you to think I’m rushing toward you and end up with a hole in the back of my head.
Julia: I… I don’t know how large each of your steps should be.
Figure: You don’t know…?
Julia: Why’re you annoyed with me? You are the one shoving garbage in the book drop every freaking night!
Figure: I’ll explain. Just don’t shoot.
Julia: Okay. Take some steps back first.
Figure: “Some” steps? I thought you said “a few”…?
Julia: I… uh… I changed my mind. Take… take… three steps back, toward my voice, please. Three steps, at your normal stride. You’re not long-jumping here.
Figure: Okay, here I go. Ready?
(The Figure takes three relatively-normal steps backward.)
Good. Now, remove your mask.
Figure: I’d really prefer not to.
Julia: It’s getting harder to understand you under that thing. Now, do it. Or… I’ll place you under arrest.
Figure: You’re not a police officer. If you were, you would’ve already announced yourself as one. And you really shouldn’t impersonate one, either. That’s quite illegal.
Julia: I… I’m a security guard.
Figure: I don’t think the city prioritizes overnight security at a library. Are you a concerned citizen?
(Julia doesn’t answer.)
Ma’am, I don’t want to alarm you, but there are security cameras out here recording us at this very moment. Cameras showing you performing an illegal act. Those same cameras are the reason I don’t want to show my face.
Julia: The cameras don’t work. They haven’t worked for two weeks.
Figure: How would you know that?
Julia: I’m Julia Jones, head librarian. And… And… if the city’s not willing to do it… I will do whatever it takes to keep my library safe and clean! You hear me? WHATEVER IT TAKES! As you can see, you’ve driven me a little bit off the deep end here! Now, turn around and take off that mask! The only one who’ll see your face is me!
The rest of this play is available in Volume 5, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.