Tuesday Night Picnic – Karen Uffelman
“Make her sit down in that seat, Joni! Joni!”
“Wave to Grandma, okay?”
I waved to Grandma, giggling as we hit the bump at the bottom of Grandma’s driveway, my mom swinging her arm in front of me in case I should pitch forward.
The radio was playing one of my favorite songs.
“The moment I wake up
Before I put on my makeup
I say a little prayer for you…”
I liked the word makeup. My mom would say, “Three year-olds don’t wear makeup, monkey,” but sometimes she would put rouge on my cheeks if I was very good and held still while she brushed my hair. But not today. Today I stayed at Grandma’s and Grandma never offered her rouge.
It had been a sweltering day, and although the sun was starting to drop in the sky the heat held on. My mom had her aviator sunglasses on and looked like she should be on TV. I was almost as tall as she was, standing on the passenger seat next to her. “Too snug in our bug!” she laughed, rolling down the windows so the wind could blow in our faces. It felt good. I was a little sunburned, despite my grandmother’s best efforts to keep a hat on me, and my sundress was still damp from running through the sprinkler. The fabric stuck to my legs.
I asked if we could have French fries.
My mom smiled.
“And a white milkshake?”
“Sure,” she said, “Why not?”
My mom took the corner fast to Stan’s Drive-in, me squealing and practically flying into her lap. She nudged me with her shoulder and elbow back in my seat as she shifted into reverse to back into a parking spot.
“Hold on to the handle above the door, okay?”
I held up my hand, demonstrating my inability to reach.
“Hmm. Well, don’t hold onto the door handle. I don’t want you opening the door and falling out.”
I didn’t want to fall out either, and became so paranoid about the possibility that, despite the fact that we were now parked at the drive-in, she had to pull me out of the car on her side.
“Tuesday night special, huh?”
“Yep, you got it.”
“Beautiful out, isn’t it? Looks like the kiddo’s been in a pool or something.”
“Yeah, Mom let her run through the sprinkler with her clothes on. She’s still sopping wet.”
“White milkshake, please!”
“Coming right up, monkey.”
Roger barked our order to one of the kids in the kitchen and then asked my mom about work.
“How’s the student teaching gig?”
He asked her about our new yellow house.
“It’s small, but big enough, I guess. It’s pretty nice. The kitchen could use some work. I mean, if we stay there. I planted some dahlias in the front flower bed.”
I traced the grout around the tiles on the front wall of the counter with my finger. Down, side, up, side. Up, side, down, side.
“Here you go, Joni. Give your folks my regards, okay?”
“Yeah, Roger, I will.”
She made a show of opening her purse, but Roger rolled his eyes and turned away from the cash register.
My mom handed me the milkshake and she carried the other white bag as we walked back to our car. Inside, she let me press the button on the glove box to open our secret tray. I fit the milkshake cup exactly in the middle of the round indent.
She unwrapped our hamburger and used a plastic knife to cut it down the middle, setting it carefully on a napkin next to the milkshake. She placed the red-checked paper basket of French fries on the other side. It all looked so delicious. We had this picnic every Tuesday, in our car in the parking lot of Stan’s drive-in. But every Tuesday it seemed more magical than the last.
My mom spread one of the napkins on my legs after she convinced me to sit down. “I promise, monkey, if something exciting is happening outside I’ll tell you.”
Even though it was still warm, and not yet dusk, from my new vantage point I could see a newly-risen moon.
“There’s the moon, Momma.”
“Uh-huh. How’s the milkshake?”
My mom ate her half of the hamburger slowly, absent-mindedly wiping the ketchup off of my cheek or picking a stay French fry off of the seat.
“I love you, Momma.”
My mom leaned her head back against the seat and closed her eyes.
“I love you, too, monkey.”
I stood back up on the seat and looked around. There were other cars in the parking lot, but nothing too exciting. There weren’t any other kids that I could see. My mom’s eyes were still closed.
I reached out to the radio knob. I knew I wasn’t supposed to turn the radio on, especially when the car wasn’t running (I got in big trouble with my grandfather for breaking his car this way), but my mom didn’t move or say anything so I turned the knob to the right.
“You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend…”
My mom reached out with her right arm, like she did when breaking fast, but instead of using her arm like a turnstyle bar, she wrapped her hand around my waist. Several minutes passed. I didn’t dare move.
Then she opened her eyes.
“It must be bedtime.”
She started the car. I stood on my tiptoes and found I could reach the handle above the door if I twisted my body to the left. I made a show of doing so and my mom smiled.
“Good job, monkey. It’s always safer if you have something to hold on to.”