Picnic was first published in Tin House Online, Flash Fridays in the Winter of 2018.
“I think we should go on a picnic this Sunday.”
The breakfast/dinner table fell silent. For Paul, his little brother Mike, his older sister Julie, and their mother, it was dinner. For the man at the head, the man who worked the night shift down at the potato plant, it was breakfast. Three sets of matching eyes swung from their mother to their father. Paul’s father, wearing just boxers and a t-shirt in a failed attempt to escape the heat of the evening, let out a sigh. Paul’s mother pressed her attack.
“The weather’s supposed to turn. It would be nice to do before the kids go back to school.”
Paul’s father took another bite of hamburger pattie between two slices of bread. The buzz of the fan by the open door filled the silence.
“What are you thinking, go up to Hat Rock or something?”
“I was thinking maybe some place else.”
“Ritter Hot Springs.”
Paul’s father coughed, choking a bit on a bite of food.
“Christ Renee, it’s a two hour drive on a windy ass road.”
“We used to go all the time when I was a kid.”
“I don’t see what’s wrong with Hat Rock.”
“The kids could go swimming.”
Three sets of matching eyes filled with excitement.
“They could swim in the Columbia too.”
“At least tell me you’ll think about it.”
Paul’s father grunted again. The flow of words stopped, replaced by the rhythmic sound of mastication. After breakfast/dinner the kids brushed their teeth and got ready for bed. Lying in the hot bedroom he shared with his brother, Paul could hear his father help with the dishes, shave, and get dressed. Heavy boots moved down the hallway and out onto the porch. The old ‘75 Chevy Luv cranked to life, and Paul’s father headed out to work. The digital clock on the nightstand glowed 10:30.
It was a half hour drive from the house in Echo to the potato plant just outside Boardman. Paul’s father worked as a line supervisor on the night shift from 11:00 PM to 7:00 AM. Paul’s father had been working the night shift for as long as Paul could remember. You got a bonus if you volunteered. They always ate dinner late so they could eat it as a family. Other than that, and breakfasts on Sunday, Paul’s father was a ghost. Pale compared to the summer tans of his family. Pudgy from having to personally sample product every hour. While the children played in the sunlight, he slept wearing earplugs in a bedroom with blackout curtains.
For Paul and his siblings, it was never a question of if they were going to Ritter. Even Julie, the oldest at eleven, had never seen their mother fail to get her way. Nothing was said the next morning when the children awoke to find their father having a couple of beers with their Uncle Rob, actually their father’s cousin, who worked the same shift. Paul’s mother leaned against the kitchen counter in her bathrobe, sipping coffee and watching. She said nothing the next day either, or the next day after that.
On Saturday morning the Chevy Luv rattled into the driveway and Paul’s father came in with bags under his eyes to greet the weekend. Paul’s mother was waiting for him. The children were watching Saturday morning cartoons.
“You going to be up to going to Ritter tomorrow?”
“It’s been a long week Renee.”
“The kids have been looking forward to it.”
Paul’s father grunted and drug himself back to the bedroom. Paul’s mother turned up the volume of the television, and followed her husband to convince him to change his mind, closing the bedroom door behind her.
Sunday morning they loaded the family sedan, a well driven ‘85 Toyota Camry, with a picnic basket and swim trunks wrapped in old bath towels. Paul’s father looked groggy despite a full pot of coffee in his belly. He pulled his ball cap low over his eyes, to shield them from the bright sun, and looked down at Paul.
“You’re not going to get carsick are you?”
The trip was mostly silent. The radio was tuned to Paul’s mother’s favorite country station and his father only grumbled occasionally about the stupid premise of a few of the songs and about a couple of dark clouds on the southern horizon. Paul’s mother laughed off both. The radio broke up into static as the curving road climbed into the timber. Paul’s mother tried to lead her brood in singing a song about a bear in tennis shoes, but only Mike joined her. Julie read a book, and Paul tried to until he got carsick, forcing the Camry to pull over. When he started feeling better, Paul entertained himself by picking on his brother and sister, resulting in a serious commotion until his mother turned and with a few loud words put a stop to it. Paul’s father stayed quiet, his knuckles white on the wheel, letting loose with the occasional yawn.
The farther south they drove the thicker the dark clouds became. When they reached the turnoff to Ritter the clouds broke loose, unleashing a heavy downpour that gave no signs of letting up. Everybody stayed quiet, the only sound the swishing of the wiper blades. Ritter was a pool behind a fence, a couple of dilapidated buildings, and a few scattered picnic tables. Nobody else was there. Paul’s mother looked out at the falling rain.
“No use crying over spilled milk.”
She got out of the car, retrieved the picnic basket from the trunk, got back in, and started handing out cheese sandwiches. Paul’s father took his sandwich, got out of the car, and sat down at one of the picnic tables. He chewed slowly, the rain soaking his clothes, and his family watching him from the car. Half an hour later he got back in, and they went home.