Mostly rambles, few brambles
Always the third Sunday in June. Always two to five.
Ten minutes from now I’ll be there, my twelfth consecutive year. I’ll materialize at the exit-less park in the same spot by Pavilion 8.
Always clear skies. Always sixty-eight with a slight breeze.
I’m the original. I’m certain because the first two picnics were lonely. More terrifying than lonely, but, still, I think I’m entitled to complain. Stranded in an unfamiliar and completely vacated park in a seemingly lucid dream I couldn’t end, I’d run for the exit, sprinting until my lungs burned, only to find myself doubled over and gasping for air in front of Pavilion 8.
No explanations, no breadcrumbs, no evident foreshadowing, just Pavilion 8 with a veggie platter and some tepid cheeseburgers on a checkered tablecloth. And then there was me, the sobbing seventeen-year-old wondering if she died and went to purgatory. Hours passed as the scene remained static and I remained tense.
Eventually this metallic chord sounded. Like a giant electric harmonica emanating from everywhere and everything. The chord intensified and the picnic table and pavilion began to rattle. I shut my eyes and I was back, splayed on our den loveseat, the TV blaring and the clock on the DVD player reading five after five.
Dad had been pacing in our main hallway. I remember shouting out and him racing in, squeezing me tight with tears welling. He called for Mom who dashed in right after.
I told them what’d happened, but both interrupted, attempting to debunk and apply logic. Visiting a therapist was considered, but that idea soon suffocated beneath summer reading, college applications, and figuring out homecoming plans with John and the group. The episode was almost forgotten by the time senior year started in September.
Next June I was vacationing with my family on Lake Michigan and I’d gone for a run. One second I was on the pier; the next I was back at Pavilion 8. Before me, again, were the same veggies, cheeseburgers, and isolation. Against Odyssey-based judgment, I bit into a burger. Like the Odyssey, it was a little dry.
I’d returned to the cottage after five. My parents had panicked again. They’d called hospitals and police stations, convinced I’d been abducted. An organ trafficking theory gained more credence than warranted and the discussion devolved into debating a business model and feasibility of organ dealing, which was typical vacation banter for two CPAs. Give me a concrete figure on the overhead, could you make the margins work? I was fine, though my now-annual explanation about being transported alone to an exit-less park wasn’t believed.
At my parents’ request, I’d gone to a few therapy sessions that summer. Nothing monumental transpired and the routine fizzled after two months. In August I left Grand Rapids for Cornell. I changed my major three times freshman year. English to Psychology to Statistics to Engineering—personifying a slow revelation that I hated talking to, or being around, people.
The following summer I was back home and cashiering at a landscape center on the third Sunday in June. Work was tedious and I’d have been watching the clock even if I hadn’t been anticipating punctual supernatural intervention.
Pavilion 8 greeted me. The staples were all present, but, also—finally—other people! Two other people, specifically: both women, and both roughly my age. One was over-tanned with fake bleach blonde hair. The other was taller, paunchy, and in basketball shorts.
The blonde was tiny, probably just north of a hundred pounds. Her hair and nails were flawless. I’d, only momentarily, felt self-conscious over my filthy fingers and dirty work smock.
The other had the frame of an Olympic weightlifter but the doughy physique of Poppin’ Fresh. Her figure was completely devoid of sharp angles. Trembling and afraid, she introduced herself as Mandy and I’d explained how this had happened to me twice before and had ended after about three hours. Her sullen eyes peered through me as she power gorged through a cheeseburger.
When the thin girl joined us she was near tears, too, and asked to use one of our phones to call her dad. We retrieved them, but didn’t have reception as usual. I reiterated my story. Her first question was if we could move the cheeseburgers to a different table. She recalled an article in Glamour on how calories can occasionally be absorbed through smell. Mandy, galvanized and citing her newly obtained biology degree, stated that thought was “absolutely stupid.”
The skinny girl protested. Citing her size two she asserted she would know more about avoiding calories. She prodded, “What backwater, garbage-town college would give you a degree.” Mandy shot back. The skinny girl mellowed and apologized, admitting she’d actually just finished her freshman year there. She introduced herself as Caroline and added a non-integral bit about her sorority. Attending a massive public university in Michigan, it was understandable they hadn’t met.
We compared notes. Mandy had been moving into her new apartment and Caroline had been at the pool before emerging here. We all had parents working in finance, some ties to the state of Michigan, and extensive collections of Friends DVDs, but those distinctions were hardly rare.
Our deduction devolved to small talk. Mandy had just landed work at a research firm in Akron—though, all three of us had affirmed that Ohio was less than ideal. Caroline said she was re-taking a class this summer, but that didn’t start until July. Mostly she’d been “tanning, partying, and re-watching Laguna.”
A biologist, an engineering major, and a sorority girl: a setup that would yield a punch line like “and they sat silent because no one could comfortably initiate normal conversation.” By Hour Three we’d reverted to form.
“Hey,” I said. “Sorry, but,” I preemptively apologized for what I knew would be an awful segue and probably a poor excuse for dialogue. “I know your campus is giant, but do either of you know a John Fitzsimmons?” Both perked up. “From Grand Rapids. Blue eyes and thin. I don’t know.” I looked off. “I knew him in high school.”
“Yeah, I do,” Caroline said. “We met Fall Semester. After this other guy cancelled,” she smirked, “he actually went with me on my sorority’s Hay Ride.”
“I know him too.” Mandy said, cautiously chiming in. “I was a TA for a 200-level science requirement this past spring. Funny guy.” She shrugged. “It was a small class…” It was agony watching her try to hold back some piece of information. The weight of our gaze was too much, even for her ample frame. “We bumped into each other one night, in line for pizza.” She conceded and coughed. “Hooked up.” Her head nodded. “He said he was a junior, but I figured he was a freshman, like the rest of the class. We never dated or made anything official—he’d just come over sometimes and we’d have sex.” She paused. “Usually afterwards he’d have money and want me to buy him and his friends vodka.”
Caroline interjected. “I—” her hands gripped each other, “I slept with him too. He was so thin. Like all elbows!” She bit her bottom lip, uncomfortable with publically confessing a sexual-history blemish. “After Hay Ride…we were both drunk.” Our lips tightened as she floundered, elaborating on what and how much they’d drank, attempting to distance herself from questionable judgment. “We’d gone back to his dorm.” She reflexively checked her service-less phone. “He got clingy. Drunk or sober—I’d get texts from him every weekend.” She paused. “Almost always he’d follow up, whenever he was back to being sober or back to being drunk, apologizing and saying we should get lunch.”
I myself had dated John Fitzsimmons for most of high school. We’d lost our virginities on my basement couch watching One Hour Photo with Robin Williams. Aside from being annually summoned to this mystic realm, I’d say that’s the weirdest thing about me.
Our connections to John had to be it. None of us knew of anything else fitting the bill. We suddenly had something to talk about, but the electric harmonica was starting up.
All my boss at the landscape center could do was yell, which was fine. I still got paid for that afternoon. The following day Caroline added us on Facebook. Predictable.
The three of us exchanged messages that summer. John had been clueless. He’d assumed it was a prank and I couldn’t remember what I ever saw in him. He had asked me out Sophomore Year when we were fifteen. The only thing that had kept us together through graduation had been inertia.
I was camping in Upstate New York the fourth year. I’d debated telling the group I was with about my situation. I hadn’t known them for too long, and a claim about a trans-dimensional pilgrimage wasn’t ideal for cementing new friendships. Slipping away under the pretense of self-reflection, my absence raised no questions.
Pavilion 8 was there as always. Caroline and Mandy each greeted me with a hug. Mandy and I grabbed cheeseburgers and the three of us appraised the three new girls. Two looked terrified and the other seemed to take it all in stride. They all tried their phones. One tried to run. Exhausted, said runner eventually approached us in tears. Brown hair, average build, plain and unremarkable, she opened by saying she was from Ottawa Hills, Ohio. “Gross,” Caroline interrupted. The three of us laughed.
The simpleton bawled and we felt a little bad. “Do you know John Fitzsimmons?”
She settled. “Yeah, ” she said, and we nodded back to her. “He’s my boyfriend. He’s been in France on Study Abroad.”
I hadn’t thought much of it earlier, but the other two women were definitely not speaking English, and I knew this was going to get worse before it got better.
The unfazed piece of Eurotrash put her cigarette out in a cheeseburger. She was at least thirty-five. Her face was weathered and warped like an old basketball. Her makeup was caked on and over applied in smeared layers. Heroin-skinny with corroborating track marks; I hadn’t touched her, but I still wanted hand sanitizer.
I couldn’t understand anything she said. Broken English would have been an overstatement—this was more like shattered. I tried explaining, but we got bogged down on the John verses john distinction.
The other foreign girl looked significantly younger than me. Which was somewhat disturbing considering our hypothesis.
Silent, Mandy and Caroline had deferred to me. Ottawa Hills was about to have her heart broken and I tried to cast any doubt I could. “Unconfirmed,” “definitely-maybe,” and “working theory” were liberally peppered. It didn’t help as Ottawa Hills had put our presumption and the timetables together.
Ottawa Hills wrenched her remaining cheeseburger half in her Johnsonville-ian fingers. Her jaw clenched and her burley forearms—likely ripened from husking corn, raising barns, or working at Fashion Bug—sheared the patty and bun apart. Unapologetically tantruming, she seemed like she had a good bead on the first draft of John’s Dear John.
It wasn’t a bad afternoon. The weather had been predictably perfect. Chain-smoking, the older, more reptilian-looking European weathered a tremor spell from her end of the picnic table. The younger European looked on, oddly content with an escapeless situation. Mandy, Caroline, and myself caught up and talked shop on what excuses we’d use to justify our disappearance. Mandy had it easy; she’d been alone in her apartment in Pittsburgh. She’d only lasted in Akron three months before deeming it “an abhorrent gutter” and moving. Caroline had evaded her new boyfriend under the guise of a shopping trip. Legitimately ingenious.
The chord sounded. I returned to the Adirondacks and rejoined my friends.
The following summer I was in Minneapolis. It was an engineering internship and they’d sprung for everything. They paid exceptionally well, but the environment was toxic, debilitating even. Smug and competitive, you always felt behind with no help available. In my third week I’d come home after an eleven-hour day. Jeopardy! had been preempted by coverage of a workplace shooting. The pundits squeezed some serious mileage out of the terms “tragedy” and “unthinkable” to the point where after watching for twenty minutes neither word meant anything to me anyone. Missing Jeopardy! and less than empathetic about my coworkers, I considered—just maybe—this “tragedy” had been a lateral, or even a noble, deed.
I tried pushing the thought out of my head. I wasn’t totally comfortable endorsing murder, despite knowing humanity’s potential for awfulness. That truth was further emphasized by an email, completely out of the blue, from John Fitzsimmons. We hadn’t spoken or seen each other in more than two years. His subject line was terse. All it said was: “Herpes?”
I knew two things: I did not have herpes and I could not be more excited for this year’s picnic.
Pavilion 8 was abuzz, yet no one had touched any of the food. Caroline, Ottawa Hills, and I had all received some communiqué from John, all very curt and downplaying the seriousness. Mandy hadn’t received anything, which was thoughtless. The younger French girl sat alone, language-barricaded. Ottawa Hills corroborated that John only knew a little French, which further ratcheted his creepiness. It went unspoken, but every year we all hated John a little more.
The other, older French girl was absent, and was presumed dead. Three new girls had arrived, too. They’d been “settling in”—panicking, checking their service-less phones, sprinting in any direction. We’d meet them when they were ready.
Twenty minutes in, the first one stumbled over and said her name was Brooke. We did our best to try to describe him, but the name John Fitzsimmons meant nothing to her. She eventually relayed a hazy memory—maybe Cinco de Mayo—in a bar bathroom where she’d encountered a gangly, blue-eyed college student in a poncho, sombrero, and drawn-on mustache identifying himself only as “Señor Queso.”
The shoe fit, specifically the parts about height, college, and elementary foreign language skills.
The sample size Brooke provided had painted her unfavorably, as did her dollar-store eye makeup. She coughed, leaving her mouth uncovered, and we recoiled.
I called one of the other two girls over. She said her name was Elizabeth. I gave the abridged version of our presumption. She knew John. They’d been assigned on a group project together and started hooking up. “Whenever he’d finish,” she winced, “he had this weird look—I never got used to it—but like a rabbit that’d bit into a sour ball.”
We concurred; she knew the right John. And John was disgusting.
Katie was the last one to join us. Out of the new recruits, she was the best looking. The least objectionable. I ran through my spiel and each of our histories. Imbibing it all, she nodded slowly, surprisingly calm.
“John had mentioned something like this,” she said. “He didn’t know how or why you were doing it, but he’s saying it’s all a prank.”
Katie continued. Her and John had been hooking up as friends with benefits, consumer-savvy and both wishing to sample goods before committing. She, however, felt a relationship was imminent.
“You know he has herpes?” Ottawa Hills interjected.
“No,” Katie rebuked. “Misdiagnosis from WebMD. Turned out to be some discolored skin tags.” The truth had proved to be more revolting.
Ottawa Hills jumped in, “John and I used to date, until he cheated on me with that fourteen-year-old French girl down there.”
“Is she really fourteen?”
I shook my head then shrugged. “Probably not now. Maybe not then.” I thought about it. “You know we’ve never actually spoken to her.”
“Oh, okay.” Katie paused. “I suppose you’d all have some reason to hate John and I don’t really want to get into it. History stays in the past for a reason.”
“You got some gross stories, too, then?”
“Some, you know; no more than the average twenty-one-year-old.” She checked her watch. “How long does this go?”
“Until five. Always five. Shouldn’t be that much longer.”
We weren’t actively trying to badmouth John, but, aside from Katie, no one here particularly liked him anymore, or liked being inconvenienced every June. Silence lingered. Briefly, Caroline asked the new class if she could add them on Facebook and they obliged. The chord soon sounded and we were gone.
Katie, Caroline, Ottawa Hills, Elizabeth, and I had all just graduated from college the next summer. Brooke had concurrently failed out of cosmetology and astrology school. Katie had started dating John and both had moved to Chicago together after school. I’d landed a job in Syracuse. It was fine. I tolerated it and didn’t want to talk about it. Caroline had moved to Chicago as well, but was taking the summer off to “figure out her.” Elizabeth was still in Michigan and working on grad school applications; Ottawa Hills was doing the same thing from her parents’ house. Mandy had lost some weight and had bought a house outside Pittsburg. The French girl was very pregnant.
To Katie’s relief, this year there hadn’t been any new faces. For me the afternoon had been a pleasant break from hating Syracuse.
The next three years were similar. Elizabeth finished her MBA and was raking in money as a consultant. She freely admitted that she didn’t have time for romance. Mandy married a middle school vice principal and was expecting her first child. Caroline had been together with a guy, Darren, for a little bit. She said his interests were haircuts and designer t-shirts. He sounded awful. Ottawa Hills started working in the office at her dad’s grout company and had survived a few relationship disasters. Her boyfriends had mostly been described as “not that bad.” She had voluntarily moved back to Ohio, though, so I don’t know what she had been expecting.
Brooke had been married and divorced. She lived off child support and was optimistic about her pending lawsuit against the post office. The French girl had been pregnant twice now, though apparently still found time to enjoy cigarettes. We knew little else about her.
We only complained about John a little now. We’d matured out of juvenile pettiness and jealously. It seemed John and Katie were content in Chicago. Never saving anything and spending half of their waking lives commuting, but happy. I’d lasted in Syracuse for three years before returning to a packaging solutions firm in Grand Rapids. I found balance again, and I lived in a place I wanted to be. Business trips were short and infrequent: a day in Findlay, two days in Decatur, a half day in Angola—all the glamour of the Rust Belt.
Being single was fine and maintaining self-awareness was crucial. Walking away from a bad deal can be more valuable than taking a good one.
Two years ago Katie showed up at Pavilion 8 with a ring. It was a little gaudy, but nice if you’re into that kind of thing. John had popped the question on Valentine’s Day. The wedding was going to be in a year. He’d been transferred to Madison, and she was looking for a job there now.
Katie was sweet, and I had been genuinely happy for her, even though John did sound considerably fatter. Mandy and Katie dove into the deep end of wedding planning. Caroline had broken up with Darren after he’d developed a drug problem. Elizabeth had invested in real estate. Brooke had joined a class action suit against the Michigan Lottery. Ottawa Hills had started an unsuccessful blog. The French girl continued to not know English.
Last year had been the bombshell: Katie showed up with no ring and three nineteen-year olds materialized. I was done learning names, though Katie didn’t need to say anything. No one pressed her for details, but, eventually, she spilled the whole story. John had slipped back into repulsiveness—the underage bar by campus, the lie about being Jason Segal’s half-brother, and his “talent” agency.
We didn’t speak to the new girls. Those naïve bitches could sit at the other table by themselves crying and presuming they were dead. Katie also couldn’t stop sobbing. She had already sublet her apartment in Chicago and quit her job. She was self-respecting, though now rudderless.
“I could just kill him.” The group hung on every word of hers. “I know people say that as an expression, but I actually mean it.” Katie paused. “You see stuff on TV and you wonder how anyone could be that cruel. Then it happens to you and a switch in your head flips. Just like that.”
Brooke perked up. “I got a guy.”
We all stopped.
“Guy, ex-husband. Twenty-thousand.” She hesitated. “No, make that twenty-five.”
“Has he done it before?”
“Sure,” she said with a noncommittal shrug.
“Like an assassin, secret-agent type?”
“Ha! No. That’s just, like, in the movies. He just bought a handgun and some burglar’s tools at a trade show a few years back.”
“He’s the best, though?”
“He’s not great, but he’s pretty good.”
Katie looked around gauging reactions. We all wanted to know more.
“Look,” Brooke said, “I don’t have a brochure or nothing. If we do this, it’s just us. No foreigners or homewreckers.”
As the original member, I felt compelled to say something. “You guys,” I had their undivided attention. “Are we really considering this?” They looked away, ashamed. “I think,” I held for a second, “that this is big fat yes.” Unsure smiles crept across their faces; I didn’t need a show of hands. “In life, how often are you able to do something bigger than yourself? Opportunity knocks. A somewhat selfless murder saving humanity from more John Fitzsimmons.” They nodded. “Plus, if he’s dead, maybe we’ll get our June Sundays back.”
We had passed the fulcrum. Brooke explained that this realm would be the handoff. The six of us would each bring her four grand in cash the following year. Not checks made out to cash, cash that we’d take out of ATMs at a rate of no more than $100 per week. She’d knocked off the last thousand as a “friends-and-family discount”.
We’d be objectively leaving the world better than we found it.
Brooke said the less we knew the better. The last twenty minutes we contemplated in silence.
I was now about to be at my twelfth picnic. Four grand in-hand and ready to clean up a bit of humanity. I wondered if Brooke could arrange the murder for the Ides of March. That’d actually be kind of awesome.
Pavilion 8 greeted me once more. A gaggle of nineteen and twenty-year-olds scuttled around in a blind panic, though we didn’t need any further motivation. Money was quickly passed to Brooke.
“What if you just take our money and run?” Ottawa Hills asked.
“I can’t run. I show up at Pavilion 8 with you guys once a year.”
We sighed. Fucking Ottawa Hills.
Brooke explained the timeline in as few details as possible. Looking directly at Ottawa Hills, she said she wouldn’t be taking questions. It’d happen in the next two months. If anyone questioned us we were just to explain how we hadn’t seen John in however long it had been. Her guy would take any cash or small valuables from John’s apartment. It’d look like a breaking-and-entering gone wrong.
When she’d finished we sat content and eating our cheeseburgers. Brooke had been clear that we were through discussing.
Every bit of small talk felt like we were deliberately trying to tiptoe around it. Any of the nineteen-twenty-year-old Wisconsin girls were a liability. We did notice the three who had been here last year were doing their best to explain to the new girls. The second generation was nowhere close to figuring out anything. Morons.
It felt bittersweet. This could be our last picnic. I was relieved that when, with twenty minutes left, Caroline said she would miss us. Just us, though, she said, not the French woman, the younger girls, or the presumed-dead one.
We concurred. Of course we didn’t want anything to jeopardize us getting away with this philanthropic killing, but we could at least still follow each other on social media.
“Look,” I said, “We go back, we discretely watch this play out. Only public computers, no telling husbands or boyfriends, everything on the up and up.” They nodded. “It’s not over yet.” The group concurred. “And I’m not saying definitely, but if this gets squared up and we’re still wanting to hang out, we might start checking AirBnB for deals at the beginning of next year. Maybe start an online book club. Did you guys ever read Big Little Lies?”
Everyone smiled. “You guys like Nashville?” Elizabeth asked. “I could do a weekend. Or maybe a beach house thing.”
“Would absolutely love that,” Mandy said.
“Cincinnati’s pretty fun.” Ottawa Hills floated.
“Nope. We said fun, not Ohio.” Mandy shot back. “Brooke, you like Nashville?”
“Who doesn’t love Nashville?”
“When are you guys thinking, maybe the third weekend in June?”
We all laughed.