You have no inkling of how something as bizarre as this could’ve happened, but obviously it did.
Somehow—without warning, without explanation—you’ve been catapulted back into the 1950s. What’s more, you’re in Kansas. What’s even more, it’s not the Kansas of the real world, but rather the Kansas of the movie Picnic.
Gradually you’ve come to accept that the laws of physics and metaphysics have been shredded, and that to your astonishment you’re now a supporting character in Joshua Logan’s film adaptation of William Inge’s award-winning play.
Well, you must’ve gone bonkers, is what it comes down to. In your actual, sublunary life, you were in the process of being crushed under an avalanche of stress.
Your boss, who hated your guts, was threatening to ax you. Your wife, who was running around with your boss, was likewise threatening to come after you with an ax. World events seemed crafted specifically for the purpose of unmanning you; turn on the news and you’d burst into a heavy, automatic sweat. And just yesterday your next-door neighbors, the Tussles, called the cops on you for blasting their eardrums with your country music. Problem was, you weren’t playing music, country or otherwise; no music was being played. The Tussles have issues of their own.
So maybe the pressure, both outside and in, had risen to such a level—this is just a theory—it had escalated to such a terrifying intensity that, in combination with your naïve vision of Kansas as a peaceful and faraway place where one could live unburdened by worries or angst—
But you don’t have time for theories now since at this moment, in Picnic, difficulties are adding up on you in a way that makes you feel more harried and brittle than ever.
And it’s all because of young Hal Carter, who, with his absurd tall tales and his boyish grin and his tanned, wide-shouldered masculinity, blew into this drowsy little town like a sweaty tornado, stirring things up, twisting, turning, uprooting. . . . It’s liberating, you guess, but it’s also scary as hell, and it makes you want to reach for your bottle of whiskey, which of course you do, not that it seems to be bringing you much relief. Have you ever labored through a Labor Day half as unsettling as this one?
Your name is Howard, and you run some rinky-dink store across the river in Cherryvale, and you like to rub up against your steady date Rosemary, and you’re a pretty decent guy, but now people are looking at you in an odd way—some of them are genuinely pissed at you—and you find yourself questioning your own values and behavior.
You’ve been making eyes at the Owens girl, Madge, who looks a lot like Kim Novak—but she’s only nineteen, for Godsake. And her kid sister Millie—just sixteen!—has gotten herself soused on your booze. It wasn’t your fault; people understand that, or at least you hope they do, but even so. Still more disturbing is Rosemary, who now insists that you marry her, and not just any old time but first thing in the morning, if you can believe that.
And she doesn’t look like Kim Novak, no, not even close. Frankly, you don’t want to marry anybody, certainly not Rosemary, yet you’ve got this fluttery, tremulous feeling that it’s going to happen anyway, and it’s all Hal Carter’s fault.
So you’re sitting there in your pinched little bachelor’s apartment, and you’re eying up the whiskey bottle with the same thirsty stare you’ve directed at sultry Madge, and you’re mumbling unhappily to yourself when suddenly the quiet is obliterated by a violent buzzing noise—like the unwelcome sound of bees at a picnic.
It’s late at night, but someone’s leaning on your door buzzer, and you can guess who the hell it is long before you lay your weary, bloodshot eyes on his handsome but desperate kisser.
Your visitor is Hal Carter, played by Big Bill Holden—who’s a handful in his own right. Like Holden, Hal is a lot brawnier and sexier and tougher and ornerier than you are or could ever hope to be.
It’s against your better judgment (like most things these days), but you let him come in, and he’s soaking wet from plunging into the river, and bloody—oh God, he’s on the lam from the cops, something about a stolen car!—and all torn up emotionally from his intimate but much-too-brief encounter with Madge, who until today had been going steady with Alan Benson, the rich kid.
In this regard, Hal has easily accomplished what you’ve only dreamed of, he’s plundered the princess, but he isn’t pleased with himself or even content, far from it. If anything, he’s more miserable than you are.
Naturally, you’re tempted to give him a piece of whatever’s left of your mind, but instead, being a softhearted putz, you take pity on him. He is what he is, you suppose. He meant no harm, any more than you did.
“What we need is a drink,” you tell him, and you pour out a couple of stiff ones, neat. “You got your troubles, and I got mine.”
And as you sit there gripping your glass, communing with Hal—or trying to; he’s not listening—it comes to you that it doesn’t matter who you are, or where you are, or even when you are; life is a test.
It’s got a series of questions for you; it means to find out some things about you, by God, and not always in the warmest, gentlest manner.
So you lift your glass, tilt it to your mustached mouth and tell yourself with real conviction: It’s a test, is what it is.
It sure ain't no picnic. DSS
Greg Jenkins, 61, of Luke, Maryland, is an English professor who has had three books published, and fiction in journals such as Weird Tales and Prairie Schooner. He is the author of Stanley Kubrick and the Art of Adaptation.
This story is different, with the interplay between film and reality, as represented in fiction. Help keep Downstate Story publishing stories like this one by donating here.