By Dawn Major
On the third Sunday in July, the parishioners of St. Lawrence Church in Lawrenceton, Missouri host their annual picnic. It’s not a hokey picnic run by ancients with a sampling of baked goods, but a real throw down. Visitors come from all over the Midwest to stuff themselves on kettle beef, liver dumplings, and fried chicken. Dinners are $10 for adults and carry-outs, and $5 for children. Picnic proceeds pay upkeep on the church and for the parish kids’ tuition at St. Agnes and Ste. Genevieve, most of their parents being farmers. After the visitors eat, they carry their beer-buzzed bodies up the hill to a covered shelter where they play bingo. At 6:00, the raffle starts. The bingo caller’s microphone echoes over a live band playing Little Pink Houses.
The old ladies start preparing the liver dumplings several days before. Mothers make pies and cakes. Fathers set up tents, tables, and beer booths, and the kids, over the age of 12, serve the visitors sweet tea, coffee, and dessert in the basement under the church.
This summer is Shannon’s first time serving. She got a break the summer before, because she moved to Lawrenceton from Los Angeles two weeks before the picnic. She is nervous at first, interacting as a waitress, but picks it up quickly and some of the visitors start tipping her. It nips at her conscience, but it’s only a dollar here and there, so she keeps it.
A young man seats himself at one of her tables. He doesn’t belong here, but neither does she.
He wears his hair in a Mohawk, dyed black and loose, not glued and spiky. Pierced ears. Tall, thin, and hot. A dangerous type with a serial killer smile.
She tops off his tea and he slips a $20 in the pocket of her apron. He doesn’t touch any skin, but she feels heat between his fingers and the material. She should give it back, but wants the new Duran Duran CD, so she ignores it, and walks to the serving station.
When she thinks it’s safe to look in his direction, he is staring at her. The air between them is connective. Usually, she is the one that sticks out, but today he takes her place, and she is granted refugee status. The locals eye her with pitiful faces for having to serve the foreigner.
He motions for her to come back. There are letters tattooed on his fingers. Deep down Shannon knows she should turn away, leave, her shift is nearly over, but she walks to him anyway. She feels faint. It’s stifling in the basement, and the circulation is bad.
He asks her when she gets off. She asks why. He says you know why. Do I? He says I like you. I think you like me.
He lingers past dessert, and then when she is busy wiping down her last table, she notices he is gone. She feels something between disappointment and relief, but after counting her tips she finds that she has made $32.
Shannon promised Eddy, whose been in love with her since she moved to town, that she’d come by his tent. He’s made over a dozen birdhouses.
She spots his tent near the parking lot, hitting up people leaving empty handed.
“Hey, looks like you sold a lot.”
She’s being kind. There are only three empty spaces.
“A few. They keep trying to haggle me.”
Shannon rolls her eyes and says, “Don’t let them. People are so cheap. At a church picnic, too.”
“Right. How was the basement?”
“Freaking hot as hell. I made some tips, though.”
“Really? That’s allowed?”
“Not sure, but I can buy Rio.”
“Cool. How much?”
She lies and says, “Fifteen.”
“Oh, well. You deserve it for sweating your ass off. Don’t tell anyone.”
Eddy’s voice starts to fade out. He’s saying something about judgy people, but most of what he says is lost, because she sees that Mohawk hasn’t left. He’s leaning against the door of a black Camaro, drinking a can of Busch. She wonders how long he’s been standing there watching her talk to Eddy, and is now self-conscious, because Eddy looks so young and goofy. The same primal feeling in the church basement comes back.
“You’re not even listening to me. Hey, come back to planet earth.” Eddy snaps his fingers in front of her face.
“What? Huh? I’m so listening.”
“What did I just say then?”
“People and tips. Wait, don’t look now, but there’s some weird dude in the parking lot next to a Camaro.”
Eddy turns his head to see, and she says, “Eddy, what’d I just say? He totally saw you. Oh my God, now he’s walking over.”
He struts, literally struts across the gravel, taking his time but on point. Shannon picks up a birdhouse pretending to be interested, and then he’s there, standing next to her.
“Yo, sup, man?” He fist bumps Eddy.
“Whoa. When did you get here? What’d you do with your hair, man?”
Mohawk rubs the top of his head, laughs, and says, “Last night.”
“No one told us.”
“Yeah, it was late. Mom didn’t know either. Scared the shit out of her when I unlocked the door and walked in.”
Shannon doesn’t know if she should introduce herself, or walk away, but decides to go and says to Eddy, “Catch you later, alligator.”
Alligator? So stupid, so stupid, so stupid.
“Wait, Shannon. Stay. Hey, this is my cousin, Victor.”
It doesn’t fit—them belonging in the same family. Victor holds out his hand for Shannon to shake. The formality seems funny.
“When you done here, cuz?”
“I guess when I sell everything.”
“Shit, that’s too long. I’ll help you out. How much is that one?”
“You don’t have to.”
“I want to. I’ll give it to mom,” Victor looks at Shannon and says, “You pick.”
For some reason this decision seems heavy to her, like one of those mind games, the kind of game that you tell yourself that if you make it back to the TV before the commercial is over your crush likes you.
She hands him a small white chapel with miniature copper bell in the steeple and yellow bird on the roof that is far too large for it. Eddy starts to put it in a bag, but Victor shakes his head no. He can just walk it over to the car, and then he asks if they want to go for a ride, except he is only speaking to Shannon.
She can’t help herself and asks, “How old are you?”
“What’s that got to do with the price of tea in China, baby girl.”
Eddy answers for him, “He’s 22.”
Victor says he needs to get away from all the old people. They’ll come back for Eddy. Twenty minutes. Tops. He will even wait for Shannon to tell her mom.
Shannon doesn’t tell her mom she’s leaving. They both know they won’t be come back in 20 minutes.
While Victor unlatches the T-tops and puts them in the back of the car, Shannon braids her hair into one long braid. He spins his tires tearing out of the gravel parking lot, but only a few people notice and they don’t care. It’s late afternoon, the beer is still pouring, and some have started sipping under the table.
She turns the station to KWIX, all new wave. He doesn’t seem to mind, and then because she feels bold and his stuff is just as much hers, she opens the glove box and begins pulling out its contents.
Black Sabbath cassette. Yeah, he has that Satan worshipping thing about him. He keeps it simple, though. No pentagrams or skull rings. Black tee, dark blue Levi’s, and black and white converse.
Marlboro Reds. She snuck menthols from her mom. She tells him, and he says he can stop at the gas station. He’ll get her some. He’ll do anything for her. She belongs to him now.
A letter from the Navy. She opens it. Discharged from service. That’s where he’d been.
A pint of Jim Bean.
“I see you carry the essentials.”
He laughs. “Yep, you got that right, baby girl.”
“Why’d you give me $20? It’s more than the cost of dinner.”
“Needed to get your attention. It worked.”
“You kept staring at me? Don’t you think that’s a little creepy?”
“Are we playing now? Is that how you want to go at this?”
“You were staring. Just saying.”
“Just saying,” He mocks her.
“I mean it.”
He stops then and asks, “What else should I stare at? You’re beautiful. I wasn’t sure I was at the right picnic. Where’re you from, ’cause I know it sure as shit ain’t from here.”
“Yes, you are. Did you forget your wings there?”
“That’s not going to work on me, you know?”
Shannon takes a sip of Jim Bean. Victor takes the bottle away from her. Their rules are getting set.
“Like I could get drunk off one sip. Besides, I drink.”
“Why? You got sorrows?”
“Whatever. I have a stepfather.” The bottle is in between his legs. He lets her take it back.
“Is he that bad? I can take him out.”
“Oh, right. You’re so special forces.”
“What if I was?”
“Hell no. I hated that gig. Someone always telling you what to do, what to eat, what to wear, when to sleep. I hate people telling me what to do, but that’s all done now and I’m free.” He momentarily takes his hands off the steering wheel and flaps them.
“Why’d you join then?” She hands him back the bottle, he takes a nip, leans over her, and puts the bottle back in the glovebox.
“Why else? Get out of here.”
“If I stayed here. I’d probably be in prison. You know that idle hands stuff.”
“So you’re bad news? Should I be afraid?”
“Nope, not anymore,” and then he pauses and asks, “Do I scare you, babe?”
Yes. In a good way. In the way I want to be scared. She shakes her head no.
They make it a good distance down Highway Y. She wants him to slow down, but won’t admit it. They are coming up on the intersection where the school bus makes its last stop before dropping off her and Eddy of at St. Agnes School.
“Where are we going? I don’t want to meet your mom.”
“She’d love you, but no, she’s at the picnic.”
He pulls into the parking lot of the Dew Drop Inn. This is her stepdad, Dale’s, hangout.
“We can’t go in there.”
“Come on. One beer and we’ll go back.”
“They’re not going to serve me.”
“What are you, 16, 17?”
“I’ll be 16 in eight months.”
“So, in other words you just turned 15.”
“Shut up. My stepdad hangs out here.”
“Is he here now?”
“Nooo, He’s at the picnic with your mom, mine, and everyone else.” Where I should be, she thinks.
“Well, I think you should be with me, and I’m here. Come on. I know these folks. There won’t be a problem. Promise.”
Victor gets out, runs over to the passenger’s door, opens it, and reaches for her hand. Then he drapes his arm over her shoulder, cradling her neck, and directs her towards the entrance.
The Dew Drop Inn was converted from a mill into a bar and inn, and still has the original wooden siding with multiple layers of white cracked paint. A neon red and white Budweiser sign hangs from the second story, near the window of a room. In the countryside where people have long driveways and acres and acres of land, it is the last light you see on Highway Y for 15 miles either way.
Shannon never thought she’d ever set foot in this place. Mostly bikers and semi-trucks stop in from St. Louis, on their way to Cape Girardeau and beyond.
It is dark and musty and reeks of old smoke, the kind of place that stays on your clothes and hair even if you had only walked in and walked back out. It doesn’t have central air, but there is a large window air conditioner that has been cut into the side of the bar and propped up with two by fours, as well as a couple of fans on high on either side of the bar. One blows out towards its clients, and the other keeps Tina, the bartender, cool.
Victor aims them in the direction of a booth with a window, although the shade is down and completely closed. Aside from Tina, there is a man sitting at a high top. He glanced up when the door opened, allowing a stream of light in, and then resumed drinking his rum and coke. Shannon has the feeling that everyone is hiding out here.
Tina is wiping down liquor bottles with a white rag. She recognizes Victor and calls out, “Hey there, want a Bud, Vicky?”
“Yeah, make it a bucket, would you Tina?”
Tina comes back with the bucket, sets in between them, and asks, “You two hungry?”
“I’m not. Been at the picnic, but get whatever she wants.”
“Can I have some fries?”
“Cheers.” Victor taps his bottle on Shannon’s and says, “So, Shannon. What you doing here?”
“Someone invited me on a ride.”
“You enjoying it?”
“More or less,” and then adds, “Vicky.”
He beams at her. His teeth even and very white.
“A girlfriend?” Shannon has been around the antics of her mom and her stepdad to pick up on these types of things.
Victor leans back into the back of the booth, stretches his legs underneath, and wraps them around her ankles. Shannon leans back, too.
“Baby girl, I’m never going to lie to you, and nah, she’s not a girlfriend. She may have been friendly, but I swear it was all her. You don’t have to worry about anything.”
He is very serious, she thinks, but believes him. When you are beautiful, you learn pretty quickly what drives men and women. You know what they’re saying behind their teeth.
He pulls out a cigarette, lights it, hands it to her, and then lights one for himself.
“When I saw you, I thought, well, here we go. This is what everyone talks about. Never felt it, not once. I thought, I want to know every bit of this girl. Not just physical. I can see you think it’s all I want, but it’s not. It’s right to be suspicious, though.” He stops to take a puff. “You’re a good girl. I can tell. Wouldn’t want it any other way.”
“Don’t call me a good girl. I hate that. I mean it.”
Shannon feels her neck start to burn, the heat creeping up her face and ears. She knocks his feet out of the way, scoots out of the booth, and asks where the bathroom is. Victor uses his cigarette to point to a hallway between the bar and kitchen.
The ladies’ bathroom is surprisingly clean, probably for never being used, and smells very strongly of perfume. She throws the cigarette in the toilet and sits down to pee. There is a curtain around the sink. Underneath—a curling iron, Aqua Fresh, tampons, a makeup bag, baby powder. Obviously, Tina’s bathroom.
She washes her hands, takes several paper towels out of the dispenser, wets them, and wipes her face, arms, and legs down. She is sticky from picnic sweat. She lifts up her shirt to smell her underarms, rummages under the sink, and finds deodorant and the perfume Tina must spray in here every shift. She looks closely in the mirror at herself, decides to undo the braid that makes her appear even younger, and sprays some perfume in her hair. Then she wets some more towels, adding some soap, and wipes between her legs.
LA Woman is playing, and Victor is adding more money to the juke box. Tina places a platter of fries on the table right after she sits back down, tells her she smells good, and walks away.
Shannon would have normally felt ashamed, but for the beer and liquor. She keeps it cool. Shannon considers herself a master at keeping it together. Life, or maybe survival, requires pretense, and all the bad has to be tucked away in the secret closet in your head. In the moment if it is too heavy, you can fold it, hang it, store it away, deal with it when you run out of space, but she is young and has a lot of space left.
She isn’t drunk, but more than tipsy. Victor ensures they won’t run out of tunes. No 80’s, but she recognizes the Eagles and Young, the stuff her mom and Dale still listen to.
They talk about nothing and everything as if they haven’t seen each other in years, and have so much to get caught up on. Music, places they’ve been, who and what has wronged them, where they are going now, and Eddy. When Eddy comes up, they both understand it is time to go. Plus, some hardened picnic goers have trailed in.
Victor leads her to his car, puts her in the passenger seat. Seconds later, he is in the driver’s seat. He grabs her face with both hands and kisses her. Somehow he manages to pull her over the console and onto his lap without stopping. They both are breathing hard, and then he is undoing her bra, and it is too much, so she pulls back and crawls back into the passenger’s seat.
He starts the car. It is getting dark now. They are heading away from the sunset. About a mile before entering Lawrenceton, Victor pulls off into a driveway that at one time went somewhere, but nowhere tonight, and turns off the engine.
He rests his head on the steering wheel. He wants to cry. They both do. They wanted this more than anything, and he knew he could convince her. She keeps asking him why? They belong together. He yells at her, to make her stop telling him the truth they both know, and tells her to get out.
She thinks he is leaving her here, but he comes around and forces her back on the hood. He pushes and pulls on everything she has. He has one small breast in his hand. He jabs his tongue into her mouth, yanks her zipper to her shorts down, pushes his fingers into her, and she is naked like never before. It hurts. Not their agreement, but Shannon stops asking why. This is it. Against the metal hardness of a Camaro with a stranger.
In part, Shannon wants this more than Victor. It solidifies what everyone already suspects. She can quit pretend fighting.
The incessant drumming of July cicadas suddenly stops, as if someone realized they hadn’t turned them off before leaving for the picnic in the morning. There are only the cars going home, and Victor asking if she is ready.
She feels Victor’s hand on the top of her arm. He opens the passenger door and nudges her in. The car is speeding before Shannon realizes everything has changed. He parks off the side of the road in front of the church. The picnic is over. People are cleaning up. He kisses her one more time, and deeper and harder than before, as if to say he can do that to her. He doesn’t open the door. She understands and gets out. He says he’ll get her number from his cousin, but she knows she’ll never see Vicky again.
Dawn Major lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband and son and has a BA in English from Kennesaw State University. She left the corporate world to pursue a certification in creative writing from Emory University, and wrote “The Annual Picnic” while participating in 2016 National Novel Writing Month. The piece is part of a larger, multi-narrative collection of short stories, based in the real town of Lawrenceton, Missouri, that follows Shannon from ages thirteen to seventeen. Dawn, originally from Los Angeles before moving to Lawrenceton, was inspired by small-town Missouri, where the realities of life in Middle America are often obscured by idyllic appearances and perceptions.