June the Tenth ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Mother was sitting at the kitchen table making her deviled eggs, nails red against the white of the eggs. Lex walked past her on his way to the sink to get a drink of water but she didn’t look up. He drank half a glass full and turned to face her.
“I don’t want to go on the picnic,” he said.
She laid down her knife and took a drag on her menthol cigarette. “Why not?”
“I’ve got a stomach ache.”
“What you need is a good bowel movement.”
“No, I don’t,” he said. “What I need is to stay home from the picnic.”
“I don’t mind.”
“I do mind,” she said.
“But why?” he whined, hating whining but not being able to help himself.
“Don’t you want to see your great-grandma turn ninety?”
“She can turn ninety without me.”
“No, you can’t stay home. I want you at the picnic with the rest of us like a normal person.”
“What difference does it make if I’m there or not?”
“Because it’s a family gathering and you’re a part of the family. If you’re not with us, everybody will wonder where you are.”
“Can’t you just tell them I’m sick?”
“Now, Lex,” she said, pointing the knife at him, “this discussion is at an end. You are thirteen years old and that’s old enough to understand the importance of attending family gatherings, especially since some in the family are getting older and won’t be around forever.”
“Oh, I hate family gatherings.”
“Now, I don’t want to hear any more complaining. Go get your swim trunks and wrap them in that big towel with the fish on it and brush your teeth and get ready to go in about fifteen minutes. As soon as I can finish these stupid eggs.”
“I don’t need to take my swim trunks,” he said. “I’m not going in swimming.”
“I said I have a stomach ache. You’re not supposed to go in swimming with a stomach ache. You can drown.”
“That’s silly,” she said. Nobody’s going to drown. And, anyway, your cousins will be disappointed if you don’t go in swimming with them.”
“No, they won’t. They don’t care about me.”
“Why are you being so negative today?”
“Because I’m sick and I don’t want to go on any stupid picnic.”
“It’ll be fun. You’ll enjoy it.”
“No, I won’t.”
“When you get with your cousins, you’ll feel much better and you’ll want to race them to see who gets to the pool first.”
“Nobody does that, mother.”
Mother sat on the front seat next to father, the Tupperware container of deviled eggs on her lap. While driving, father smoked one Chesterfield after another, searching for the ballgame on the radio and not being able to find it.
“What in the hell did they do with it?” he said, turning red in the face.
“I wanted you to wear the blue plaid shirt today,” mother said. “I laid it out on the bed for you.”
“What difference does it make what I wear?”
“I just want you to look nice, is all.”
“For your family? Why would I want to look nice for them? I’d rather have Chinese water torture than to spend any time at all with your family!”
“It won’t kill you to be nice.”
“It might. And why does everything have to be ‘nice’ all the time? I think it might be ‘nice’ for you to try to expand your vocabulary a little.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” she said. “You don’t need to worry yourself about my vocabulary.”
Lex sat in the back seat with Birdie and tried not to look at her. She was already wearing her swimsuit. It was yellow with big pads in front to hold up her nonexistent breasts. She looked like a stick-thin child in a lady’s swimsuit.
“You look so silly,” Lex said.
“Not any sillier than you do, you big baby!” Birdie said.
“Mother, did you know she’s wearing lipstick?”
“Hey!” father said, turning around to look at Birdie. “You’re fifteen years old! Who do you think you are? Jane Russell?”
“I thought a little bit of lipstick wouldn’t hurt,” mother said. “She’s so pale.”
“Well, she can stay pale! She’s not wearing any makeup until she’s considerably older.”
“It’ll come right off in the pool, anyway,” Birdie said.
“When people see you in that hideous bathing suit and with lipstick,” Lex said, “they’ll laugh themselves silly. Who do you think you are? Jane Russell?”
“Oh, shut up!” Birdie said. “You make me sick!”
There was one traffic jam that slowed them down for about ten minutes, but when they got to the park they found the place easily enough where mother’s family was gathered. Father parked the car and turned off the engine.
“Let’s see if we can all get along today without any complaining or negative emotions,” mother said.
“That would be nice!” father said.
Father, mother, Lex and Birdie all got out of the car and greeted the family with kisses, handshakes, and clichéd greetings. Mother handed the deviled eggs to aunt Vivian, who always took charge of the food. Somebody gave father a beer and he sat on a camp stool ten feet away from everybody else and lit a cigarette.
“Did you have trouble getting here?” mother’s sister, Peggy, asked her.
“No,” mother said. “Why would we?”
“Everybody was here before you were.”
“How’s my favorite grandma?” mother screamed, brushing past Peggy.
Grandma Pearl was the guest of honor. It was her ninetieth birthday and she was the center of attention. She had her hair done the day before and had slept sitting up all night to keep from mashing down her cotton-candy curls. She was dressed in a new lavender pantsuit and slippers to match.
“I’d never believe she’s ninety years old,” uncle Mervyn said. “She don’t look a day over eighty-nine!”
Everybody laughed except grandma. She didn’t understand the joke at all and wasn’t sure she hadn’t been insulted.
“Pooh to you!” she said.
“He was just kidding you, grandma,” aunt Vivian said.
“We need to get this nonsense wrapped up and get back indoors,” grandma said. “It’s going to rain.”
“But there’s not a cloud in the sky, honey!”
“Well, the rain is coming, just over there, and I don’t want to get caught in it. It’s going to be a bad one.”
“Just relax and try to enjoy yourself and don’t worry about a thing.”
“I want some hot coffee!”
“We didn’t bring any coffee, honey. It’s too hot for coffee. How about some iced tea or some lemonade?”
“No, I want coffee!”
“One of us is going to have to go find some coffee and bring it to her,” aunt Vivian said.
“No!” aunt Linda said. “She’ll be as tyrannical as you allow her to be. Just give her some iced tea and tell her it’s coffee.”
“You all are going to try to kill me afterwards,” grandma said. “I know you are.”
“Sounds like grandma’s havin’ a good time,” uncle Lyle said.
The uncles focused their attention on Lex. He knew it was coming and dreaded it.
“How has the world been a-treatin’ you?” uncle Herm asked.
“All right,” Lex said.
“What are you a-gonna be when you grow up?”
“I don’t know. A circus clown, I guess.”
“Have you got a girlfriend?” uncle Mervyn asked.
“Why not? You’re comin’ up to that age.”
“I stay away from them and they stay away from me.”
“Aw, you’ll change your mind, boy, after a couple years of puba-tery!” Haw-haw-haw!”
“What grade are you in now?” uncle Lyle asked.
“What sports are you going out for?”
“None? Why the hell not?”
“I don’t feel like it.”
“All the boys in our family are good at sports. Just look at your cousin Virgil there! He’s on the track team and the basketball team. I think he’s even going to try out for the swim team.”
Lex looked over at Virgil to be polite. Virgil smirked back at him in a superior way. Virgil’s younger brother Vernon whispered something in Virgil’s ear and they both laughed.
“I think you should seriously consider going out for some sport,” uncle Lyle said. “It just don’t seem normal otherwise.”
“Other things are more important to him,” mother said.
“Raising his grade-point average so he can get into a good college.”
“Oh, one of those! A college man who can look down on all the rest of us!”
Everybody laughed and Lex wished he had been able to vomit before he left home.
After the uncles were finished with Lex, they turned their attention to Birdie.
“How’s little Birdie girl?” uncle Herm asked.
“When you gettin’ married?”
“After she finishes high school and college,” mother said.
“You got a boyfriend?” uncle Mervyn asked.
“Oh, no!” Birdie said. She giggled and blushed and her breast cups moved in the wind, showing there was nothing in them.
“Now that’s no way to be!” uncle Lyle said. “I’ll bet you’re a real heartbreaker!”
“There is one boy I kind of like, but he goes to Catholic school and he doesn’t even know I exist.”
“Uh-oh! A Catholic! You have to watch out for them Catholics!”
“I don’t see anything wrong with being a Catholic,” Birdie said, and the uncles laughed uproariously.
Grim-faced, Birdie stood up and went to join the girl cousins—Carline, Sharonda, Bertine and Maude—who were giggling and passing around a cigarette in a circle.
When it was time to eat, aunt Vivian and aunt Peggy sat on either side of grandma and after they filled up her plate with food, they began feeding her little bird bites. When they fed her too fast, she choked and turned red in the face.
“I can feed myself, damnit!” grandma said. “I’m not a helpless baby!”
“We don’t want you to spill anything on your beautiful new outfit,” aunt Peggy said.
“Oh, screw you!”
Father ate in silence, wincing when any of the uncles clapped him on the back or spoke to him.
“How’s work going, Theodore?” uncle Lyle asked him.
“Fine,” father said.
“How’s the fishin’ been for you this spring?”
“I never fish.”
“Read any good books lately?”
“Not that I care to discuss.”
He finished eating and pushed his plate away, lit a Chesterfield and stared off into the distance.
The girl cousins didn’t eat much because they were excited about going into the pool and believed they might die in the water if they overate. After a few bites, they each got up from the table, one at a time, and got into the back of uncle Herm’s roomy van and changed into their swimsuits, giggling all the time. When they were all changed, they stood around awkwardly, feeling exposed, not knowing what to do with themselves, their bone-white arms and legs on view for all to see. The boy cousins—Virgil, Vernon, Monte and Dickie—gaped at them and snickered. Vernon made howling sounds like a wolf baying at the moon, while pimply faced Dickie made pig snorts. Lex took one glance at them and looked away, finding the sight of them more than he could bear.
All the cousins were ready to go to the pool, but aunt Vivian wouldn’t let anybody go until after grandma’s cake had been cut. She brought the cake forward from the trunk of her car where she had been keeping it to keep the bugs off and set it on the table in front of grandma. There were nine candles, one for every decade of grandma’s life, but aunt Vivian was afraid to light them because the wind had suddenly become gusty and she was afraid that grandma might catch her hair on fire.
Uncle Herm went and got his camera. The four granddaughters stood beside grandma’s chair, two on each side, with grandma looking down at the blue-and-white cake with a look on her face that could only be described as one of horror.
After the picture was taken, aunt Vivian sliced the cake, putting the pieces on paper plates with a plastic fork on each plate. Vernon picked up a piece in his hand and stuffed it all into his mouth at once, causing the other boy cousins to do the same.
The girl cousins declined any cake. They had eaten too much already and were afraid of looking fat in their swimsuits. Aunt Vivian gave them all the go-ahead and they were all off to the pool.
Lex sat at the table, eating his cake methodically, watching the trees blowing, wishing he was at home by himself.
“Aren’t you going swimming with the other kids?” aunt Linda asked, giving him her fish-eyed stare.
“I didn’t bring my swim trunks,” he said.
“Oh, yes, you did!” mother said. “They’re in the car. Don’t you remember?”
“You’d better hurry up and catch up with the other kids,” aunt Linda said. “Kids love the pool.”
“Not all do,” Lex said, but aunt Linda didn’t hear him because a car was passing by and she was looking to see if the people in it were noticing her.
The wind picked up and the paper plates and napkins left on the table began to scatter. Mother and the aunts had to scramble to keep everything from blowing away. The uncles sat and laughed at them and drank their beer and smoked their cigarettes.
“It started out such a beautiful day and now it’s going to rain and spoil grandma’s birthday party,” mother said.
“I don’t mind!” grandma said. “You can take me back home any time!”
Dark clouds rolled in, blotting out the sun, with faraway flashes of lightning. The rain started light like fairy kisses but gradually grew in intensity.
“Not a good time for the kids to be in the pool,” aunt Vivian said.
Watching the sky, Lex smiled. He loved a good thunderstorm, the present one especially, because it reinforced his belief that the picnic was a bad idea in the first place. He was glad the day was spoiled. Even grandma was glad and the whole thing had been for her.
When the rain became a drenching downpour and the lightning became closer with every strike, aunt Vivian, with the help of uncle Herm, got grandma into the back of the van. She screamed with every lightning strike and pretended to be so scared, but Lex knew her and he knew she was enjoying every minute of it. She’d have something to tell her friends—her dramatic escape from a terrifying storm.
With grandma safely in the van, everybody else got into their cars to wait it out. With any luck, they said, it would only be five minutes or so.
“Do you think they’re safe in the pool?” mother asked.
“They’ll be all right,” father said.
“Lex, go get your sister and tell her we want to leave,” mother said.
“No! Do you think I want to get struck by lightning?”
Three lightning strikes in quick succession caused mother to yelp and duck.
“I’m going to get Birdie at the pool!” she said. “Lex, you come with me!”
She took Lex by the hand and they ran toward the pool. In a matter of seconds, they were drenched through to their skin. The rain now was an opaque curtain.
When they were close enough to the pool to see it, they saw people running toward them. Out of the crowd emerged Birdie. When she saw mother, she ran to her, sobbing and gasping.
“What’s the matter?” mother asked. “Are you all right?”
“Oh, mother, it’s awful!” Birdie said.
“What is it? Are you hurt?”
“Sharonda was struck by the lightning. I think she’s dead.”
Mother and Lex got Birdie back to the car. When father saw them coming, he jumped out and opened the door. Mother pushed Birdie into the back seat and got in behind her.
“Tell me what happened,” mother said, trying to wipe the water out of Birdie’s face.
“When the storm started,” Birdie said, “the lifeguards told everybody to get out of the pool, but a few stayed. They thought it was a lot of fun. Sharonda was one that stayed. There were about six others. She had just come up out of the water and was standing at the edge. I didn’t see the lightning that hit her but I saw the flash. After she was hit, she fell into the water. The lifeguard blew his whistle really loud to get everybody’s attention. A couple of boys got Sharonda out of the water and they started working over her, trying to resuscitate her, but I knew she wasn’t breathing. Somebody called an ambulance, but it hadn’t come yet. That’s when I left.
“Do Lyle and Linda know?”
“I don’t think so. Nobody has told them yet.”
“I have to go tell them what’s happened.”
The ambulance came and loaded Sharonda into the back with hundreds of people standing in the rain watching. Uncle Lyle and aunt Linda followed behind in their own car to the hospital, where Sharonda, their only child, was pronounced dead.
On the way home, the rain continued unabated. Father drove with the headlights on, leaning forward, his face only a few inches from the windshield.
“This has been some storm!” he said.
“On today of all days,” mother said. “Wouldn’t you just know it? On grandma’s birthday!”
“I knew somebody was going to die today,” Lex said. “Grandma knew it too.”
“Now we’ll have a funeral to go to,” mother said. “I hope you can still wear your blue suit.”
“No more family picnics for me,” father said.
Birdie sat on the seat beside Lex, sobbing quietly. It was going to take her a while to get over seeing Sharonda die. Lex would have felt sorry for her if she hadn’t looked so silly in her yellow lady’s swimsuit.
He turned away and put his fingertips on the window, the water only a scant fraction of an inch away—he could almost feel it. As the car moved slowly and cautiously through the deluge, it gave one the impression of traveling underwater in a tiny submarine. When the rain finally stopped, it was going to be a terrible disappointment.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp