By: Suzanne Zipperer
Church picnics used to be a big thing when churches were. When we were teens we went every weekend, probably because there wasn’t much else to do and also because they didn’t ask for IDs so we could get beer. These weren’t the church community get togethers where everyone brought a dish to pass. They were fund raisers and could raise equal to four month’s Sunday collection on a weekend through beer and food sales alone. They started on Friday night and ended late Sunday afternoon. Even busy farmers, like my folks, would go all three days to the one at St. Hedwog’s, which was our parish, hanging out and visiting with people they hadn’t seen all year. My big sister Linda and I would get to stay after morning chores when Mom and Dad went home to do evening chores. Then they’d join us again to stay until it closed at 10 o’clock.
Although more than half the county still claims to be Catholic, most are like me. Catholic by tribe, not practice. They get baptized, married, and buried in the church and don’t do much in between.
Anyway, a good church picnic was not to be found anymore, but the Newtown volunteer firefighters still did a good summer. Linda had recently moved back from Chicago so we grabbed our pre-teen kids and went about 3 o’clock on Saturday planning to get burgers for supper.
A small carnival with a banged-up Tilt-a-Whirl that looked like the one I got sick all over when I was a kid, some ponies, and flying swings was set up on one end and an antique car show in the other in a field just behind the stage where the band would come on later. The beer and food tents were between with picnic tables decorated with helium balloons that the kids were already pulling off and letting fly into the air. A red one was tangled on an electrical wire, bobbing in the breeze that cooled the otherwise hot day to just perfect. As Linda and I strolled from the cars, the three kids took off with their allowance to fill up on junk food and get sick on rides. They’d be fine without us until they came looking for more money.
I saw someone I knew tending bar, so steered Linda in that direction. “You want beer, right?” I asked.
“I suppose. It’s kind of early in the day for me.”
“No, it’s not,” I teased. “This is a picnic that’ll be over by nine. Let me get Larry here. You remember Larry? He was in 4-H with us.”
“4-H!” Linda grinned. “Do they still have it?”
“Not so much, but they let farm girls stay with their cows when they show them at County Fair now.”
I caught Larry’s eye and signaled for two MGDs. He nodded.
I paid Larry for the beers and turned back around to look at the crowd. As I was lifting the plastic cup to my mouth, some young babe in short white shorts and one of those teeny spaghetti strap tops pushed her way in alongside me, knocking my elbow so I spilled beer on myself.
“Oh, sorry,” she said, watching me brush the drops of beer from my just-bought-yesterday blouse before they soaked in. Then she turned around and signaled her boyfriend/husband/whatever to come elbow in, too. He slid his tree trunk legs between her and me and then leaned in until he could lean forward on the bar. I looked at Linda who was standing in front of me at the edge of the tent. She glared at them, but they didn’t notice.
“I suppose they don’t have any wine coolers.” Spaghetti Straps said, then looked at me. “God it’s hot in here. They could set the tent under some trees.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It gets kind of close.” But they didn’t get the hint. I rolled my eyes at Linda and stepped away from the bar, giving up my space.
“Some people.” Linda said. “Tell Larry not to serve them.”
“Doesn’t matter, he won’t get over this side for awhile yet,” I answered. But Tree Legs couldn’t wait. He started whistling and waving his hands. Even though it was busy, we could see Larry was choosing to ignore him without any coaching from us. Tree Legs just kept making a lot of noise. I wondered who he was. I thought that he probably lived in one of those new subdivisions along the lake that were popping up like zits on a teenager’s face. People like him built trophy houses then complained about property taxes. They built in swamps and whined about mosquitoes. The bought a farm field, then complained the farmer was cutting hay too early on Saturday morning.
“You try,” I heard Tree Legs say to Spaghetti Straps. “Pull your blouse up or something.” I measured them up side-by-side. She must have been mid-thirties and he was well into his fifties. Some women would say he was good looking. He still had all his hair, which was trimmed up short and neat. He was a bit short and stocky, but not out of shape. She was a size four with country western styled blonde hair all proofed up in front and long n back. Her face looked greasy from makeup or sunscreen and her lips were outlined with pencil. I guess someone his age would think she was hot, especially with the D-cup squeezed into to the lycra-blend.
Tree Legs turned around as I was staring, rested his back against the bar and grinned at us. “Guess you got to know somebody to get served, hey?” He hung the jacket he had been carrying on a little hook that stuck out of the tent’s support pole. “Don’t need this.” He looked Linda up and down and smiled like she was supposed to say something cute. She didn’t. Spaghetti Straps had finally gotten the attention of another bartender and ordered. Tree Legs pulled out a wad of bills from the front pocket of his khaki shorts and threw a fifty on the counter.
“Stand in front of me,” Linda whispered in my ear. I didn’t know what she meant. “Stand in front of me,” she insisted. I stood between her and the couple facing outward and acted as if I were trying to see someone. She leaned over, as if to tie her shoes, then came up with something in her hand that she quickly shoved in the pocket of her shorts. I gave her a questioning look.
“It is hot in here. Let’s sit outside,” Linda motioned toward a picnic table. When we got there, she pulled the thing from her pocket, and with her palm closed reached out her hand to me. “Look.” I put my hand under hers. She dropped a set of car keys.
“Linda, are those his keys? what are you going to do with them? Steal his car?” I set the keys on the table then shoved them back at her.
“I hadn’t thought about that, Connie. Want to go for a ride?” She got that evil look in her eyes. The one she used to get when she was plotting to mess with someone she hated, like Chrissy Schultz or Debbie Moore, by sneaking their homework papers and changing the answers before they handed them in. “We’ll just cause them some inconvenience. For getting your shirt dirty,” she said. I looked around to make sure nobody had seen us. I really wanted Linda to put them back, or at least drop them on the ground, but I knew she wouldn’t make it that easy.
“Let’s get some hamburgers and think a bit,” Linda said. We headed over to the food tent. The smell of charbroiled hamburgers and good ol’ Wisconsin bratwurst made my mouth water. The fat sizzled on the grill, every few seconds shooting the flames up to lick the outside of the meat patty, sealing in all the juices. A pan of greasy fried onions was kept warm on an electric burner. Another grill was covered with corn on the cob, just right for dipping in a bucket of melted butter. The diet I had started the day before was put off for another week.
“How about in the toilet?” Linda said, pointing to the blue porta-potties standing in a row along one side of the lot. “No. They might clog up the cleaning pumps.” She answered herself.
“Don’t talk so loud,” I said as we moved toward the counter. We dropped the subject until we got our food and settled back at a picnic table.
“An Audi? Could it be? Geez, no wonder the guy acts like he owns the world,” Linda said after pulling the keys out and having a good look at them.
“Oh, look. It’s got one of those automatic unlockers,” I said.
“Connie, almost all new cars have one these days.” Linda nudged me under the table. How was I to know? We were driving an eight-year-old Dodge caravan and a ’83 pick-up truck.
Just then Larry, the bar tender, came along, and we invited him to sit. Linda stuck the keys back in her pocket.
“So, you off duty, Larry?” I unwrapped my bratwurst. The smell wafted in the humid air, making my mouth water. The onions stuck out of the side of the hard roll. I picked it up and slurped one in just like a spaghetti noodle. I was really hungry after the beer.
“For awhile. That wasn’t really my shift. It just got too busy all at once, and they needed a hand. I’m chairing the whole shitin’ kabootle this year.” Larry laid out three bratwurst and a bag of chips in front of him. I noticed how tanned his arms were. Larry was one of the few farm kids still farming. He was always a nice guy and still good looking. Too bad he married somebody he could never make happy.
“Yeah? How’d you get roped into that one?” I bit off a piece of the bun, catching the catsup with a napkin before it dripped on my chin.
“Ahh, the old man chaired it for the past fifteen years. When he passed away, everyone at the funeral kept asking were I gonna take over. I figured it was something I could do for him.” Larry ripped off a huge piece of the brat and bun and kept talking. “But I sure as hell ain’t doing it for ten years.”
“Yeah, sure,” I teased. “That’s how it gets started.” I motioned to Linda, “You remember my sister Linda? We were just talking before about being in 4-H together.”
“Sure do. You look just the same. I was vice president when you were president. I heard you moved home. What the hell for, I couldn’t guess.”
“Missed the bratwurst,” Linda answered, taking a big bite of the sausage.
“Good old Sheboygan brats,” Larry munched for a while. “Can’t get anybody to work this thing anymore. Look how old everybody working is. Man, they do a couple hours, and that’s it. I’m here open to close all weekend, then still got the farm chores. There’s guys around retired and don’t help out. Surprised we got volunteers for the fire trucks. That’ll go next, young guys aren’t joining. Course lot of them workin’ two jobs, so that’s that.” He picked up a bag of chips and ripped them open with his teeth.
“Hey,” I interrupted. “Who was that asshole at the bar you were ignoring? The one with the hot date. Must have done something for you to be so cold as to not give the guy a beer.”
“Don’t you know him? Jerry Mitchell. He’s the jerk-off who sued Tony Cooper. Made him just about lose his farm.”
“That’s him?” I turned to Linda to explain. “The guy’s from Chicago. He built a house down next to Cooper’s farm. You remember the place” Linda shook her head no, “Anyway, the first year he was there, Cooper was on the road with his chopper wagon and the asshole tried speeding past him. The wagon swung out, and Mitchell swerved to miss it. Ended up flipping over in the ditch. The guy wasn’t hurt that bad, but he sued Cooper anyway. Got some hotshot lawyer up from Milwaukee. Not a farmer on the jury. Cooper was underinsured.” I looked at Larry. “What they settle for?”
“Christ, I don’t know. That’s why Cooper lotted out that 160 acres. He had lawyer’s fees and shit. And the asshole knew it would come out of Cooper’s pocket. Bastard. Claimed a back injury.” Larry shoved a handful of chips in his mouth. One fell and stuck to the chest hair just at the top button of this polo shirt. “Guess he finalized a divorce quick before it settled, so his ex-wife didn’t get anything either. I don’t know who that babe with him is. Can’t be jumping her with a bad back, and she looks like the type needs jumping pretty regular.” Larry smiled showing his teeth white against a tan face.
“He drive an Audi?” I asked.
“Yeah, I don’t know. Some fancy car like that. I saw him gettin’ out of it when I was checking the road cones.”
“With keys like this?” Linda pulled the keys out of her pocket.
Larry looked at the keys, then looked at Linda and me puzzled. “Where the hell?”
“I found them on the ground by his jacket.” Linda chirped in quickly.
“I don’t want to know.” Larry said. “Just tell me what you’re going to do with them.”
“We thought of throwing them down the porta-potty, but maybe that’s too mean.”
“Hell, it is.” Larry went quite for a while as he downed his brats and chips. It looked to me like he was plotting something. Then he looked around, “Where’s Rick?”
“You leave my husband outta this. Guy’s got a fast-talking lawyer, and I don’t want to get sued.” I knew Rick wasn’t going to resist getting back at somebody like Jerry Mitchell.
“No, no. I won’t do nothing with Mitchell’s car. That’s Linda’s game. She found the keys. But my wife’s got the car, and I need to run to the mini-mart to get some garbage bags.”
“Rick didn’t come along. We’ll take you.” I looked around for the kids and motioned Eric over to tell him to keep an eye on Ashley and that if he saw Jason to tell him that we’d be right back. He hit me up for another five bucks.
The mini-mart didn’t have any garbage bags, so we ended up driving to Larry’s place, which was about five miles down this side road. Linda noticed a dead animal squished in the middle of the asphalt and slowed down to make sure it wasn’t a cat, although it was so dead it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Larry IDed it as a racoon.
On the way back, Linda did something crazy. When we got to the road-kill, she pulled over on the shoulder, got out of the car, and asked Larry to hand her a garbage bag. “Geez, Linda,” I squealed. “You’re not going to pick up the danged thing, are you? Leave the stinking thing there. Or put it on the side of the road. What’s wrong with you?” She acted like she didn’t hear me, checked both ways for cars, and moved to the middle of the road. First pulling apart the garbage bag, she shook it in the wind to open it all the way. It billowed up from her hand like a witch’s cape. Then she leaned down and grabbed that mangled animal by the tail, covering her hand with the bag. As she held it up, I could see it had been hit more than once. Its head and front legs weren’t there anymore, but the backside and tail were. Linda shook a couple of flies off her head as she turned the bag inside-out to cover the carcass.
“What in the hell is she doing?” I said to Larry, who groaned in disgust. Linda opened up the back of the van and threw the thing in. I could small it from the driver’s seat.
I turned around to look at Larry, who was shaking his head. “What the hell is wrong with you?” I yelled as Linda got back in the car. “It stinks. This is the country, Linda. Shit happens. Animals die. They get squished by cars. Nobody cares. They lie in the middle of the road and get squished some more, and then maybe some creatures come and eat the squished parts at night. You don’t pick them up and put them in garbage bags. You just took some poor scavenger’s meal away! You just upset the cycle of nature. You just kept the critters body from returning to its rightful place as the soil of the earth. You just . . . “
“Oh, shut up!” Linda laughed. “You think I picked it up to cook it for supper? I have a plan.” She looked at me and in the rearview mirror at Larry. “We have to find the Audi.”
I turned around to check Larry’s reaction. He grinned like a teenage boy who just scored a breast squeeze at an outdoor movie. I looked at Linda. “Chicken?” She taunted me just like she did when we were kids, and I refused to jump off that bridge. I knew not to even bother with the “What if he sees us? What if we get caught? What if someone tells?” questions that I asked that time in eighth grade when Linda snuck a fifth of brandy to the 4-H overnight at camp. It wouldn’t do any good. She was going to do it.
My heart was thumping when we got back to the village. I was hoping the car would be parked someplace where everyone would see it so Linda couldn’t go through with her plan. But it wasn’t. Larry showed us the side street where it was safely parked away from any cars that might bump it.
“Bingo!” Linda grinned as she got out.
“I ain’t getting out,” I said. Larry was right there with Linda, though. Just like that night at camp when they were passing the bottle around.
“Chicken,” Linda taunted again as she pulled the key out of her pocket and popped up the trunk on the Audi. Larry grabbed the bag, rolling it around the carcass.
“Don’t just toss it in,” I heard Linda say. “Let’s put it in the wheel well.”
I got out of the car. “Will you hurry up before someone sees you.” I hissed, then looked up and down the street and into the windows of the houses to make sure nobody was watching. They looked deserted. Everyone must be at the picnic, I thought. I wondered what they could charge us with. Was it a crime to break into somebody’s car if you had the key? Was it considered trespassing? Criminal damage to property. That would be it. But we weren’t damaging anything. We’re just putting a dead animal in the trunk. There must be some kind of charge. Tree Legs would get us with his lawyer. It would be in the paper. The kid’s teachers would see it.
Larry handed the bag to Linda and lifted up the trunk lining. He pulled off the cover for the wheel well, and Linda somehow managed to get the flattened carcass out of the bag without touching it. The remains were already so flattened that they didn’t need to push it down anymore to fit everything back in place.
“At least you could hurry,” I scolded as they came back toward Linda’s car.
“Hey, keep cool,” Linda swaggered a bit, got in the car and high-fived Larry over the back seat. “Should do the trick.”
“You haven’t changed, Linda.” Larry sat back, grinned wide, and spreading his long arms across the back of the seat. “Do you remember that time you brought the fifth of brandy to the 4-H camp?”
“Larry, I was thinking about the same thing.” I shouted. “You’re right. She hasn’t changed at bit. But don’t forget that we all got caught. Me included, even though I didn’t have even a sip. And the two of you didn’t get to go to the officer’s training sessions in Madison. Remember?”
“Yeah. That was fun that night.” Larry laughed long and hard, a giddy kind of kid laugh like the weight of his farm debt had been lifted off his shoulders and a brand-new John Deere dropped from heaven.