The Picnic

Soft, the wind blows soft. Thereís no sound of it outside the ear. Where does all the wind go, I wonder? Itís only there in the swaying of the sun-parched grasses and the rustling of the trees. The trees must be wiser I think, fighting, holding, stopping, not giving in to the wind, while beneath them the grasses are caught in streams without banks.

The sun is hot, too hot to lay the picnic quilt out in it. The quilt is placed in the sheltering shade of an ancient oak tree where the ground is still cool and the sparse lime-colored grass much softer than the burnt stubble stretching off beyond the shade. The unfurled quilt is brocaded with colorful patterns and once flung out lies heavy and smooth over the earth. On top of the quilt is a wicker basket holding a bottle of wine and parcels of food. In the center of the spread is a small plastic vase with a fresh petunia standing in it. The boy removes the flower from the vase and rotates the two stems between his finger and thumb. These are two white blossoms, identical to each other, but coming off on different stems. The boy watches the two stems twine and untwine about each other.

Donít break it.

Not much to do on a picnic, huh?

Oh, I don't know. Sometimes it's nice just to get away and be alone for a while without any distractions.

Sounds like a waste of time to me. I had a lot of things planned today, didnít figure on a picnic. You know I need to go for a ride after doing chores in the morning. I should be cycling now. Dan and the others are climbing up Central Ridge to the bluff this afternoon. I was all primed to drive Diesel Dan on today, the prick, with my new steed. I was going to knock his socks off and knock that smirky little grin off his college boyís face once and for all. It will feel darn good beating him at his own game. Doing nothing right now seems sort of a waste of time. You shouldn't have told Dan we had other plans today. Just makes it look like I'm gone and not up to the challenge. I was really up for racing. We could have gone on a picnic some other time.

Youíre always up for cycling no matter if itís wind or hail or sleet of night. I want you here with me now. You need to rest and take a break. Here, rub some lotion on my shoulders and stop complaining.

I think itís Ďneither snow nor rain nor gloom of nightí will keep me from cycling. Either way, itís a shame I haven't given my new bike a real test yet. Itís a waste putting that much money into something and not using it. Easter weekend was rained out and the following weekend I had to work. This would have been the first weekend to really try it out. Gosh, your skin is soft. You know how much that bike cost me, donít you? And how long it took to get it? I had it specially built just for me. Itís titanium and carbon fiber and designed for sprinting and climbing hills and has a 30-inch low gear thatís just right for me. Itís perfect! It even has an onboard computer so I can keep track of how Iím doing. Iím stoked! How can I relax when am stoked? How can I think about anything else? Especially now when I know I can beat Dan. Heís such a wheel-sucking cheat with his cat and mouse games. Sometimes, I think he actually wants me to biff and fall flat on my face. Well, Iíve learned some new tricks myself and with the new bike, Iíll show him. Grueling paceóIíll show him grueling pace. Not a good day for a picnic anyway. Too much wind stirring up to really relax and enjoy myself. I donít like wind. Gets things all riled up.

Oh, I don't know, I think the wind is just right. Thereís just a slight breeze with a sweet fragrance that's absolutely wonderful. Canít you smell it?

Smells like an overheated radiator. That fragrance you smell is probably your lotion. You know, your skin feels smoother than the lotion, but, then again, the lotion is cooler. But, then againÖ.

What?

Nothing! Here. Don't worry; I put the cap back on.

Why don't you open the wine and I'll prepare the food.

Where's the corkscrew?

Here.

So what do you think of Simmonsí offer? He needs to know soon if I'd be interested. He says business is really booming and there'd be lots of opportunities for me with everything taking off the way it is. Get in on the ground floor, so to speak. My job now totally sucks. I'm just a goddamn sled dog running 50 hours a week for them. At first, it was a great opportunity, but now it's just a treadmill going nowhere. 24/7 is just expected now. No personal worth. I don't think my boss still knows who I am. There's just no appreciation there. Oh, shit! The cork fell apart.

Here, do you want me to do it?

No! I can get it. Do you have a knife?

Just this knife.

Won't do. Don't you have a screwdriver or something?

I didn't bring a screwdriver.

I'll get it out with the opener. Don't worry, I'll get it. We should have bought that cheap wine with the screw cap like I wanted to.

You didn't want that wine. You were just kidding.

Iím getting tired of Reynoldsóthe dweeb. Only reason heís the boss is his wifeís uncleís account. He just keeps dishing the work out as though I had nothing else to do, as he chitchats on the phone, and Iím getting sick and tired of listening to his harebrained ideas and pet projects. He just irks me, thatís it, irks me and I fried. The tightwad! Is there a stick or something around here I can use to get this cork out with?

Don't break the bottle.

I mean I get so ticked off at times. Sometimes I go in to Arnoldís cubicle to blow off some steam. There! Got it! Where are the glasses? One day weíre going to have the expensive picnic ware with fine glasses and utensils that weíd keep just for picnics like this. Here, let me pour you some. Here, let me get that speck of cork out of there.

Mmm. Delicious.

Sort of dry, but okay.

I'll be done with your sandwich in just a moment. You settle back and relax.

Where was I? Oh yeah, Arnold. Well, I go in to see him about this and that and to let off some steam. He gives me the usual condescending smile and the usual sympathetic ear, and then cautions me about how the boss can do no wrong. ďThe infallible cannibal,Ē I called Reynolds once and almost got a chuckle out of Arnold. Arnold told me to keep my opinions to myself and just do my work and everything will work out just fine. But I'm getting fed up with that place. After three years and I still donít get any recognition. Itís turning into a real dead-end. I donít see myself there much longer.

Whatever you decide, Iím sure it will be the right move.

Simmonsí offices are right downtown. Heís got all the best people working for him, doing a lot of new, innovating things, latest software, interesting clients. Iíll probably get a windowed office. Thereís a Starbucks across the street. Itís perfect!

Hereís your sandwich.

I hope there's mayonnaise on this.

I don't think we bought any mayonnaise.

Didn't we buy a little bottle of mayonnaise at the store? Why would I buy all the makings for a cheese and salami sandwich and not buy mayo?

Why don't you relax and eat while I tidy up.

Um, the sun feels good beating down the way it is. I think I'll let Simmons know Iím interested. So I won't be working for the most prestigious accounting firm in town.

I think either way, you'll make it work out for the best. Would you be happy working for Simmons? He is sort of picky and curt at times. You know how you hate criticism.

I can take criticism, why do you keep saying that?

Here, listen. While you eat your sandwich, I want to read you some poetry. Do you want anything else?

No, I'm fine, thanks. Itís sort of nice here and all. I didn't realize how wound up Iíd been lately. It feels good to lie back and relax.

Let's see. Here's one: ďThe Maiden's Song.Ē

ďIt's whispered
In the tempest,
The maiden's song
And resounds
Through the forest
Long after
The thunder's gone.
Itís lyrics
Without words,
A statue
Without stone.
It guides
The young warrior
On his journey home.
ďThe Maiden's Song.Ē
Isn't that lovely?

Yeah, sure, you know I'm certain we had a bottle of mayonnaise in our basket when we checked out at the store.

Here, look, there's even a sketch of a young maiden sitting on a rock waiting for her lover to return.

They probably used computer graphics for that. The mayonnaise was on your list, wasn't it?

No, it was on your list. You're the one who made the lists up, not me. You're the one who makes sport out of everything we do, even grocery shopping, not me.

You know you love it, especially once you get into it. Weren't you the one who said everything on our separate lists had to add up as close as possible to ten dollars? The closest one wins! How much did this flower and vase cost? Hey, where's my mayonnaise?

You have such an overbearing sense of competition. Youíve got to measure everything. Numbers and clog ratios are all you think about. You can't just sit back and take it all in, can you? Youíre letting so many important things just pass you by.

I'm an accountant. That's what I do. I measure things.

No, you're just a silly boy who's madly in love with me.

Where's my mayonnaise?

Silly boy! Doesn't the heat from the sun feel great? I love to just stretch out in it and bake and let my body simply melt away. I should have been a cloud up there, suspended in the blue expanse of the sky.

I should have been a hawk. See that one up there? See how it casts such an ominous presence as it glides overhead? Watch. See. There! Just the slightest tilt of his wings and he maneuvers overhead as he seeks his prey. See there! The glint in his eyes, the hooked beak, and the redness of his feathers all markings of a true hunter. Soon he will swoop down and snatch his prey up and quietly fly off to his aerie. That would suit me just right.

You wouldn't make a very good hawk.

Oh yeah, why?

Cause I know you. You would swoop down and end up playing with your prey. Maybe get it in a little one-on-one, mano y mano, topped off by that stupid Ickey shuffle of yours. Youíll end up taking it out for a beer after. You don't have that killer instinct and you certainly wouldn't be able to fly off silently without getting in a last word or two.

And what would you be, Miss Smarty-pants?

Oh, let's see. I would be a cool pool of water in an oasis somewhere in some exotic desert where worldly travelers would come and stop to quench their thirst and be refreshed.

Come on; get real, that's stupid! ďGee, I'm a wayward traveler, think I'll go over there and suck up some of that Gwendolyn stuff, yuck, yuck, yuck.Ē Get real!

Michael! That's gross. You're such a silly, silly boy sometimes.

And you're just a ticklish little nymph. Come on now, what would you be?

O.K., but stop it! Now, what would I be? I would want to be a famous philanthropist or poet or scientistÖsomeone that makes the world a better place to live. A Florence Nightingale, Claire Booth Luce, Marie Curie, and Mother Teresa all rolled into one.

That's better. For a moment there I thought you were getting weird on me. More wine?

Yes, please. But you haven't heard me out yet. You never hear me out.

Speak and I will listen.

I want a big house with guest rooms and a large wonderful kitchen with a fancy stove and pots and pans dangling from the ceiling and a large butcher block- island in the center where I prepare gourmet food for the family and friends that come to visit us. It will be a place overlooking the ocean and will have gorgeous park-like groundsóa retreat, a retreat that people can enjoy.

I know I better make a lot more money to keep you in the lifestyle you expect.

There are other things besides money and getting ahead, Michael, and I think you know that.

Well, I can see us living in a large mansion too with me being CFO of a large corporation and us entertaining entrepreneurs and moguls of industry. Iíll have that Ferrari Iíve always wanted with the bike rack and a whole bunch of other nifty stuff. Weíll live in a posh community with a golf course and life will be good. Thatís what it is all about.

Youíre such a materialist. Thereís a human spirit, Michael, we need to attend to if we want to be happy.

The only spirit I know is the competitive one and that will get me all I need in life. You know I have to be the best, win at everything I do. Itís what drives me on. And it isnít because of all that nonsense about not having much growing up with Dad being laid off all the time. It was Mom. She encouraged me to be the best at everything I did. She was my biggest fan, always cheering me on. Iím her superstar and she really believed I could achieve everything I set out to do. Just keep my nose to the grind stone and everything will work out just fine.

You got to look up once-in-a-awhile, Michael. And it wasnít competition that made us neighbors back then when we first met, but fate. And you better share some of that moxie with your buddy up there, Mr. Hawk. It seems like heís in trouble. It seems like your big boy up there is being chased off by a couple of tiny finches nipping at his tail. It looks like heís making a hasty retreat to me.

Itís spring; the finches always protect their young this time of year. Thatís what they do.

So they chase the hawk away because of their big size and sharp beaks? No, Michael, they chase it away out of a spirit they have. Canít you see it?

Touchť, my lovely, but you will thank me when weíre living in a big house with lots of important friends and doing all those wonderfully rewarding things weíve read about in magazines. That wine has made me drowsy. I need to just stretch out here a bit and catch some rays. Now scoot over, my little sphinx, and give your number one beau some snuggling. You know who I admire? Walt Spencer. The guy is nearly seventy-five and he is still in excellent shape. Heís amazing! He really takes good care of himself. Iíve never seen him blow-up in cycling and he takes steep hills as though theyíre not there. Thatís how I want to be in fifty or so years. I talked to him this morning when he was out walking his dog. Heís such a nice guy.

Heís so cute when he walks his little Pomeranian. They look so much alike.

Look alike? Where do you get this ďlook alikeĒ from? The dog isnít more than a foot tall and is covered with hair. How is it that you see things that arenít there?

Well, they both have wedge-shaped heads and brown, almond-shaped eyes, and both have that intelligent, childlike look to them. They just look alikeÖ Remember when we used to cuddle on the couch downstairs and your little brother would try to sneak up behind us and scare us.

The Munster!

And how you would always scare him first and he would scamper upstairs yelling to your mom and dad that we were kissing.

The Shrimp!

I bet now that heís sixteen heís changed his tune about kissing! Whatís up with that Marci girl he met?

Nada. I worry about him. Heís been moping around and not doing much. I think he blames himself for our parentsí divorce. Heís angry about it and feels left out.

Heíll outgrow it.

Itís not good, though, bottling it all up inside, shutting yourself off like that. Iíve been so busy lately. Iíve should probably check in on him.

Want some grapes?

Yeah, that sounds nice. So what do you think?

What about?

About changing jobs. About my career. About our future happiness! It would be a great opportunity for me, donít you think? Iíve got to do something soon, make my move so I can get the jump on it. I have two great tickets for next weekendís baseball game. Iím thinking of asking Simmons if he wants to go. He likes baseball and if I can get him alone for awhile Iím sure heíll be impressed and offer me a position. You got to keep in mind thereís lots of competition for this. Janice Newmanís got her little nose in there poking around. I got a little something on her that I might just let leak out if I had a mind to.

Youíre not going to be that sort of person, are you?

Iíve got to be, if I want to get ahead. Itís not my fault she got in trouble with the IRS once.

You can succeed in life without resorting to such shenanigans.

Iíve got to if I want to be a player.

Here, lie back and have a grape.

Mmmm. Delicious. A delightful burst of succulent pleasure.

Are these grapes good?

Like kisses from heaven. It beats a cup of cold coffee at work.

So what are you going to do with this great competitive spirit of yours?

Get rich, what else? Buy a lot of stuff. Impress people.

I know you, Michael, you would never be happy by just being rich. And you certainly wonít be happy getting rich the wrong way. Do you like it when I feed you grapes?

I like everything you do.

Now tell me, do these grapes taste better than the ones you get at expensive restaurants?

Immensely more so!

Now is this grape here - be patient now - now is this one better than the ones you could pick fresh off the vine at some fancy vineyard?

Ummm, heavenly more so.

So whatís so special about these grapes, Michael? We bought them at a Quik Stop and they canít be that good. Why are these grapes better than all the other grapes in the world?

Because you are feeding them to me, my sweet, and you make everything sublime.

So itís not the grapes that are special, but how youíre being fed them?

You bet! Everything is special because of you. Come here my sweet and give your main squeeze a squeeze. I love everything you do and always will no matter if Iím rich or poor. Youíre the most beauteous, gorgeous, smartest, loveliest, sexiest, wonderfulest woman in the world. You are the most beautiful woman alive/Youíre like a butterfly/Flutter and glide/flutter and glide/all orange and blackÖ.

Orange and black? Who or what are you talking about? Oh, I see.

Well, I just wanted to compare you to something that was also beautiful. See, I can come up with nifty poems when I want.

Well, youíre the most handsomest, strongest, bravest, zaniest man in the whole world and Iím happy you found me. Michael, weíre not going to do it here, you silly boy. Now, lay back and relax and enjoy the day.

Yes, dear, Iíll relax. I do feel good. Itís really peaceful here. I feel like taking a nap or something. Iím glad we came on a picnic today. I needed the rest. I needed to get away from that rat race and craziness and just be quiet for a while. I need to just stare up at a clear blue sky and have some peace and quiet. So what do you think of my dream this morning? Did it have any deep hidden meanings?

I forget. What was it, again?

You know, I was in my old bedroom at my folksí house, though it seemed at times like my office. And I had an armadillo as a pet.

An armadillo?

Yeah, an armadillo, or at least it looked like an armadillo. It was just wandering about the place. I was really intent and busy doing things, answering the phone, checking bits of paper, but I kept looking over at this beautiful mural on the wall. It was an etching of your face. All brown with those beautiful eyes and hair. You looked as though youíd just woken up from a very comforting dream and wanted to tell me about it. But I got busy doing something else and there was this one stranger just waiting in a chair in this sort of waiting area and I wanted to go over and ask him what he needed, but I got sidetracked. Then I realized that somebody had been knocking at the door the whole time and I figured Iíd better answer it. But when I answered the door the messenger had already taken off down a path. Funny thing, the dude was on my brotherís old BMX bicycle. My brother had this old, beaten-up bike that he had spray-painted candy-apple red, with a banana seat and those high handlebars, and he would never have had traded it even for a new one. Well, anyhow, I figured I missed something and I started down this long, seemingly endless hallway that didnít have any doors, which was really annoying and very disconcerting, so I woke up. So? What does it all mean? Youíre the dream expert. Does it mean Iíll be coming into a lot of money or get a new job? It must mean something or I wouldnít remember it, right?

I donít know, Michael, it means Iím watching out for you. Somebody has too. You get too worked up over things and seem like you have blinders on sometimes. You donít even take vacation days. You need to relax more and step back a bit and re-evaluate the life around you. As far as the hallway with no doors, well, youíre just fooling yourself thinking youíll be happy if you just make a lot of money. Thatís not how it works. The good thing about your dream is the stranger because that means that you are trying to get in touch with your hidden self so thereís still some hope. You have relax more, enjoy life and do the right things.

No big promotion and career change? Gee, what good are dreams? How about your dream? You know? The one you always have and tell me about. Itís the one where you are floating on the ocean watching pelicans plunging into the water. That one always sounded so wonderful. I always liked that dream. I like your dream better than mine. I think Iíll start dreaming about floating on the ocean. Who knows, maybe weíll meet there somewhere in that dream.

Donít be preposterous. You canít just make up what youíre going to dream about. Youíre kidding, arenít you?

Youíre so precious. Sure I can. I just have to focus in my head and repeat over and over to myself the dream I want while hopping on one foot. I read it on the Internet.

No, youíre just being silly now. Anyway, thatís my special place and you just have to find your own.

Well, I had this real nifty tree house once that Scott and I built from scrap wood and cardboard. We worked on it the whole summer, making it really big. It was my special place. I use to slip away and go there by myself to just sit and hang out. I felt so cool and proud, having my own special place that I had built with my own hands. That was always my special place when I was growing up.

Well, my favorite spot has always been curled up on a couch reading a book with a storm outside and a fire blazing in the fireplace.

One of your fantasy novels?

Yes, one of my fantasy novels. I enjoy reading about the marvelous things that can happen if we just believe. Itís like being plugged into a whole different world where everything seems to fit and make sense.

Are you still reading that one about the gardener? Whatís it called? ďThey Just Fell off the Turnip TruckĒ or something?

No, silly, itís ďMrs. Roseís Garden.Ē

Oh yeah, the old biddy who meddles in everyoneís business.

No, Mrs. Rose is an herbalist with a fabulous herb garden and makes special potions for people who need help. You should read it. Itís a really good book.

Yeah, thatís right; sheís the one curing everything from cancer and depression to the common cold. Get real! It all sounds like late-night TV commercials.

You liked the one about Mr. Jorgenson, didnít you?

You mean the guy who was a big loser and then he has tea with this gal and the next day wins the Lotto? Yeah, that was a good one. Now that could happen. Thatís believable!

Would that make you happy? Winning the big jackpot?

Sure it would!

Youíre incorrigible! Sometimes I donít know what we have in common. I worry youíre going to go off the deep end for all the wrong reasons and regretting it the rest or your lifeÖ Michael! Catch it. Get your cup before it blows away. And get the plate. Here, letís put things away before the wind blows them off. Give me that napkin. Perhaps we should leave? I need to get a gift for Marthaís shower party.

No, letís stay. Iím enjoying it. Itís just a gust of wind. Itís gone now. Why are you upset? Hey, you know I donít want you to get upset. Heck, I would live in a nest made of stick and twigs if thatís what you want. Youíre my buddy, my soul-mate and confidante all rolled up in one. Thatís all I need to know. Letís stay. We both need to relax. It does feel good here. Thatís it. Settle back and read some more. This is such a great spot, high on a ridge overlooking the ocean with the sun beating down. What are you reading?

Another poem.

How can you read with such glare?

Iím use to it.

Iíve been thinking. Maybe Iíll take my little brother to the game next weekend. He likes baseball. Let him know Iím there for him. We can hang out together. Let him know weíre still a family. The other stuff can just wait. What do you think?

That would be nice.

Yeah, that would be nice.

The birds have long since fallen silent and their daily activities have long since been put to rest by the hot midday sun. Even the wind has been forgotten. The only sounds are the crackling of the grasses as they bake in the heat and the drone of dragonflies as they zigzag through the popping husks of the meadow.