It Was a Picnic

Having been accused of writing depressing short stories, I tried one with a happy ending. What do you think? Or should I stick to the sad stuff?

It was a picnic.

Or at least that’s what my mother called it. In my mind, a picnic means packing a basket and going somewhere, I don’t know, to the park, the woods, the seashore. The basket doesn’t have to hold anything fancy, just fried chicken and potato salad and gooey dessert. A bottle of wine wouldn’t hurt either.

But above all, picnics are supposed to celebrate something.

The last time I’d been home, Mom said we’d have a picnic. Her idea of a picnic is to set a few chairs out on the patio and pull some stuff out of the fridge. That time she had hard boiled eggs, ham sandwiches made with that unnaturally orange cheese that tastes like salty plastic, and sweet pickles.

My dad sat, hunched over his beer belly, not looking at me. He hadn’t looked at me ever since I announced I was going to college. He wanted me to keep my promise and take over his Hallmark store. I wanted more out of life than selling sappy overpriced cards. Dad didn’t want me going into debt. I thought the business was going down and he should sell. He thought sociology was a dumb career move.

So, we argued. And stopped looking at each other.

Five years later, I’m coming home for another picnic. This time, I had no idea what to say to my parents. They’d been right, I didn’t belong in college. After two years I left with a pile of loans and the certainty that studying sociology didn’t prepare me for too many jobs.

But now what? I hated working in a bakery, trapped in the kitchen washing dishes and baking cookies. No answers came to me before I pulled into my parent’s driveway. The house was the same, just a little more paint peeling off the window frames. Slowly I walked to the front door.

Before I got there, it flew open. Mom raced out and met me with a warm hug. Dad was right behind her. My jaw dropped when he hugged me. They pulled me through the house into the kitchen.

On the counter sat hard boiled eggs, ham sandwiches made with that unnaturally orange cheese that tastes like salty plastic, and sweet pickles. I could see four chairs on the patio.

“Who else is coming?”

“Hank,” Mom said. “My cousin’s son, remember him?”

“What’s he doing these days?”

“Well,” said my father. “Hank’s a good boy. He’s helped us a bit, since we sold the store. I helped him get his business up and running, showed him how to set up his books, that kind of thing.” He moved to the refrigerator and pulled out a jug of iced tea. “Want some?”

I nodded. Dad poured three glasses. “Business has been so good for Hank, he wants to expand. The hard part is finding people who like to sell.”

I wasn’t interested in Hank and his problems. I sat down at the kitchen table, trying to figure out the reason for the warm welcome. Dad handed me a glass, and I sipped the sweet tea gratefully.

Mom sat down next to me. “Hank is such a wonderful guy.”

“He’s always been fun,” I said. No, I’m not going marry Hank, I thought.

“All his employees love him. They just think he’s great,” she said.

“That’s nice.” I took another sip of tea, and set the glass on the table.

“I think the world of that boy,” my dad said.

I watched beads of moisture form on the side of my glass. “So what are you up to these days, Dad?”

“I help Hank at his store. Not that I know much about women’s clothing, but I do know retail. He’s a smart businessman, that Hank. He’ll be a big success, you’ll see.”

“His parents are so happy that he settled here. They’re looking forward to enjoying their grandchildren,” Mom said.

“Oh, did he get married?”

“No, but they’re hoping he’ll find someone soon, someone from a good family.”

I watched two drops of water race to the bottom of the glass and self-destruct when they hit the table. You can’t run my life for me, no more than you could five years ago, I thought.

“So you’re working in a bakery?” Dad asked. “Are you happy there?”

“Yeah, it’s alright.”

“Any chance they’ll make you a manager?”

“Never. The owner has three daughters. They all went to culinary school, and they’re all joining the business.”

“That’s the way things should be,” Dad sighed.

“But not everyone knows what they want when they finish high school,” I said. “Some people need a chance to try something different.”

“Hank did that. He went to college, and used that time to figure out what he was good at and what he wanted to do,” Mom said. “Do you want to stay at the bakery?”

I was spared having to answer by the doorbell ringing. “I’ll get it.”

When I opened the door, there was Hank, dishwater blond hair still the texture of a brillo pad. “Hi,Tina!” He grabbed me in a bear hug and sniffed my hair. “Darn. I thought you’d smell like apple pie.”

I pushed him away and laughed. “I’ve been on the road for two days, you goof. I’m more likely to smell like gasoline and hamburgers.”

“Listen, I have something to ask you.”

“Hank, I’m not so sure this is a good time.” I started to turn toward the kitchen.

Hank grabbed my hand. “I’m desperate. You see, I’ve started my own business and it’s growing-“

“But we haven’t seen each other in five years.”

“You have great references.”

I stared at him. “References?” I jerked my hand out of his grasp.

“Your dad said you were the best salesperson he ever had. Every time you worked, sales would be great.”

“But is that a good reason to choose me?”

“Of course. We’re getting so much traffic in the store, I can’t keep up with it. I need someone who can sell, who can train the others. If it works out, we can talk about a manager position.”

“But-“ I shook my head, trying to make sense of what he was saying.

“I know you and your dad didn’t part on good terms. He’s felt terrible about that, but didn’t know how to tell you. At least think about it. How long will you be here?”

“You’re offering me a job?”

“Can you work for a few days? It will make your dad feel like he’s made it up to you a little. If you don’t want to stay, no hard feelings. If you do, we can talk more. OK?”

How could I resist? I turned to lead the way to the kitchen. Peace with my parents, new job. Good reasons to celebrate.

Maybe it was a picnic after all.

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