Day Picnic, 1952
Rainie sat deep in the back seat of the deep green 1949 Hudson Hornet between her two older sisters and her older brother. The family was finally ready to go on an outing to Indian Hot Springs in American Falls. A lunch of fried chicken, potato salad, hot dogs, potato chips, and sweet lemonade in quart jars was packed in newspapers in a cardboard box in the trunk, covered over with most of the towels the family owned.
A brown paper grocery sack held everyone's swimming suit and the children's' pajamas. The entire family was going to spend the night at Dolores and Fred's, Mama and Daddy's friends who had moved to American Falls the year before. Rainie liked to think they were going to celebrate her birthday that had come and gone the week before amid promises of this weekend's outing, though Burt had pointed out to her several times that this was "a man's holiday." Deena, Dolores and Fred's second daughter, was also nine, having had her birthday three days after Rainie's. They had celebrated their birthdays together before, but never with a party. This picnic would be like a party, though both mothers had agreed years before that birthday parties were bad for a child.
sitting at the edge of the seat, her hands on the back of the
front seat, ready to see the scenery between Burley and American
Falls. Her older brother Burt was trying to frighten her with
stories about Indians at "Massacre Rocks," a historic
stretch of the Idaho road on the way to American Falls. The car
was running, Daddy behind the wheel, the four older kids in the
back seat sitting very still so as not to annoy Daddy.
Clifford, the two-year-old they all called "Tink," was
in the front seat on Mama's lap in the passenger side, when Daddy
turned and said to Mama, "I'll be right back." He
turned the key off, slid from under the seat, loped up to the
door and disappeared into the basement house. Mama turned
uneasily to watch him into the house. Her neck remained twisted
at an uncomfortable angle as she stared at the house as if to see
through the cinderblock and down the stairs.
"Where's he going, Mama?" from Billy Jo, the oldest, a girl about thirteen. The other children sat quietly, waiting for an answer.
"Probably just to the bathroom," Mama answered grimly, speaking softly without taking her eyes off the door. When he hadn't returned in a long and still five minutes, Mama helped two year old Clifford climb over the seat to Billy Jo. "You kids just sit a minute," she said, and she walked slowly into the house. The children sat still. Even Clifford was quiet, as they held the same pose their mother had earlier, all watching the door of the house as if they could see through it if they watched long enough.
Once Mama entered the house it was only a matter of seconds until they heard the familiar curse, "You son of a . . .!" and the silence was broken. From the next sound of breaking glass they knew she had come upon him trying to sneak a drink and fill his boot flask from a stashed bottle to take along on the trip. Like sound effects from a movie they heard Daddy slamming into both sides of the stairs as he backed up and fell out the door backwards and into the yard. "Damn it all to hell! Settle down!" he yelled at her, his hands in front of his face protectively as she stormed at him, flailing her leather purse at him by its strap. "One little drink before I get on the road with those kids. Judas Priest! One damned drink! Settle down!" The children watched helplessly from the back seat of the car.
But she wasn't settling. Her voice hysterically high, she said over and over, "You promised. You promised. You Son of a BITCH! You promised."
"I'm only human," he yelled at her, but when he got back on his feet, she kept at him, pushing him so he would stagger back two or three steps, then she'd swing her purse at him again.
"Human? What kind of HUMAN spends Grocery Money on beer?" she shrieked. The children sat rigidly in the car, hoping against hope Daddy would find the magic phrase that would calm their mother down, that would restore peace, so they could drive off as if none of this had happened, but the storm seemed to be whipping up rather than calming down. "You don't care if your children are hungry or naked or DEAD," she screamed as the tirade escalated, "just so long as you can have your booze!"
In the back seat of the Hudson, Burt, a thin dark-haired boy of eleven in faded jeans and a stained striped T-shirt, muttered "Cripes," and began to bang his back and head into the back of the seat.
Billy Jo reached across Rainie's lap to pat Burt on the shoulder, and murmured, "Don't worry, Burt. Just wait. They might quit yet. Be still, Buddy," but he began humming, loudly, his hands over his ears, and continued slamming his body into the seat. Rainie slid closer to Billy Jo, trying to keep from getting hit by Burt's rigid body as he mindlessly slammed into the seat. She knew better than to complain. Burt's bony fists felt like hammers on her arms when he punched her at the least annoyance. Billy Jo hugged Rainie, but no one's eyes left the battle scene in the yard.
On the far side of the back seat, next to the driver's side window, Elaine, twelve years old and dressed in clean white pedal pushers and a freshly ironed red plaid blouse, pulled herself as far away from the others as she could and looked out the windows of the Hudson at the clouds above Mt. Harrison a few miles to the southwest. Elaine thought to herself, "I am not here. I am in the clouds. I am in the mountains. I am in the pool at Indian Hot Springs. Please, God, don't let anyone drive by and see them fighting." But the fight continued.
As if it were a movie, the children watched their parents move the battle around to the side of the yard, Daddy backing up as Mama leaned into a wind of her own making which blew Daddy backwards in front of her like a tumbleweed. At the edge of the property he stopped, prevented by the canal from going any further. "Son of a gun," he said, his voice rising on the last word, and the entire phrase in a louder voice than the one he'd been trying to keep calm in the face of the storm. "That's about enough," he said. "That's about enough."
stopped and looked up at him on the ditch bank, as if thinking
whether to shove him into the water, but at his words, she began
to yell again. "You're nobody to tell anybody what's
ENOUGH!," she shrieked. "If you could drink like a man,
I wouldn't care, but you can't! You have to drink 'til you're
knee-walkin' drunk, crawlin' through my door and the money all
"The money?" he yelled. "The MONEY?" He pulled his wallet out of his hip pocket and threw it past her into the grass. Pieces of paper fluttered out of its fold as it flopped in the grass. "Take the money, if that's all you're worried about. There must be two whole dollars in there. I give you every cent I make."
She whipped around, her dress wrapping around her thin legs, glanced at the wallet and whipped back around.
about the car?" she screamed. "What about the car? It
isn't even paid for. When are you going to wreck it again? When
will you kill somebody? When are you going to kill yourself? When
are you going to go to prison from your drunk driving? Then what
will I do? Then what about your kids?" As she spoke
the last words, she wound up with her purse -- like David's
sling, thought Rainie -- and she flung it at him with all her
strength. It sailed over his head, on over the canal, and into
the grass at the edge of the road. The children marked the spot,
knowing that soon Mama would expect one of them to go fetch it.
Daddy turned in amazement to see the purse dump itself in the grass and weeds, and looked back at his wife. "I can't believe you!" he roared, throwing his head back as if he were going to howl like a wolf. The little clutch of car and house keys he had tightly held in his fist through the upheaval came up into the air as he flung them furiously straight at Mama. "Take the damned car!"
The keys hit her on the shoulder and slid to the ground. Rubbing her shoulder, but without a second's hesitation she swooped down and around, picked the jangly mass up and smoothly tossed them back to him. "Keep it," she said quietly, and turned back to walk to the car and the children, her anger nearly spent.
Her husband reached up into the air as if to field the keys, but they sailed in a high arc over his head and down into the muddy irrigation canal at his back. He heard the small splash before he saw the quick ripple the keys made. "NO!" he screamed, and he fell down on the canal, hitting the ground with his fists and kicking his boots into the dirt and grass.
She glanced back, thinking he wanted to tell her off with a final word, but when she saw him writhing on the ground, her sense of reality twisted. What was this? She ran back toward him, fearing that he was having a stroke or an epileptic fit.
She grabbed his shoulder, "What? What? What?" He was choking, laughing too hard to answer. "The car keys are in the ditch," he gasped.
"You missed?" she said, incredulously. "You Never miss! I can't believe you missed."
"Oh, it's all MY fault, now," he gargled, and she sat hard on the ground, her head in her hand and in spite of herself, began to laugh with him. Back at the car the children slowly moved out of their frozen poses, released by their parents' laughter. Rainie realized she had been holding her breath. She breathed deeply and slumped back in the seat. Elaine turned coolly toward the scene, but she didn't move.
Daddy shouted. "Get outta your shoes and get into this ditch
and find those keys." Burt could swim like a porpoise and
could find anything anywhere in water.
Burt leapt out of the car and ran toward the canal, throwing off his shirt and shoes as he ran and shucking off his jeans to reveal his swimming trunks, which were rarely off him during the summer. He stood next to Daddy, not quite touching his leg, and quietly asked, "Where did they go in?"
"About two feet out from that big joint weed there," said Daddy, "but I imagine they've drifted down a few feet. Start there and work down and you'll have `em quicker'n scat." Burt sat down and slid down the mud bank and waded into the canal. The water came up to his waist. "Start feeling for them with your feet," suggested his father, and Burt nodded as he walked slowly to the spot where the keys had entered the water. "We oughta have your mama in there, she's such a lousy pitcher," Daddy laughed.
For the next half hour, as Mama sat on the lawn with Clifford and the girls, Daddy called out advice to Burt who made a pattern crossing and recrossing the canal, reaching out with his feet, bending over and feeling through the silty mud with his fingers, moving from the point of entry down the canal a hundred feet, back and forth, back and forth, at first patiently and then with a growing agitation.
As Daddy's friendly advice became sharp and irritated, Mama's restored good nature became nervous and edgy. No longer made fearless by anger, nor energized by relief of having headed off one of her husband's drinking sprees, she sunk into the realization that the long planned outing was canceled, the children would be despondent, and their father would soon leave the house in a rage, to walk to town and return after the bars closed, if at all, in a sullen stupor, with thickened speech and paranoid ravings alternating with amorous advances, rage, remorse, and self-pity.
As Mama gathered the picnic out of the car and called the girls to help her put things away, Rainie was assigned to take Clifford for a walk across the acreage to Grandma and Grandpa Wilson's. She had Dolores and Fred's phone number with her and she was to call them on Grandma and Grandpa's phone and tell them they had had car trouble and wouldn't be able to make it this weekend. Maybe weekend after next they'd be able to come, she was to tell them.
Daddy stayed on the ditch bank shouting at Burt, telling him to "just find the sons t' bitches" as the hour drew on. When Burt began to shiver and wrap his arms around himself, Daddy walked off in disgust. Burt stayed for another five minutes, hoping against hope to find the keys, then crawled out of the canal, head down, and wandered across the yard, picking up his jeans and shirt, shoes and socks, and pulling them onto his damp arms and legs. The wet suit darkened the top of his jeans, but he didn't seem to notice or care as he walked back to the ditch bank and trotted off down its path, moving away from the house and car, his parents and the other children.
Burt as she came back out of the house to get the last stack of
towels from the car, and called after him, "Don't be gone
too long." He ignored her and continued to walk down the
path. She knew he'd go to the school yard where he'd climb the
old elm tree and sit for as long as several hours; then he'd come
home again, hungry, and ready for a fight with Rainie, his
Mama stood at the edge of the yard, towels in her arms, and watched his small shape diminish as he walked away. As she turned to go back to the house she heard the familiar noise of her husband slamming through cupboards and closets, looking for a drink or a fight. Maybe she'd go with him, she thought. Billy Jo can take care of the kids. The kids could sit out in the yard and have that picnic. Never mind that they'd have to take the ignition out of the car to get a new key made, since they had lost the second key weeks before. At least her mother had an extra key to the house and shed and she could get copies made at the lumber yard. She could take care of that tomorrow. He didn't always get as bad if she went with him, and she could use a drink herself about now. She walked into the house and down the stairs.
heywood Williams -- 1990