Nathan Alling Long’s “The Picnic” is written as one long sentence, clauses cascading over clauses as Alling Long’s characters embrace during an evening picnic, memories and feelings washing over. Alling Long’s omniscient narrator illuminates the lives of both of these characters, their picnic accessories functioning as windows into their shared histories. “The Picnic” will stay with you long after the sun sets on their evening.
They were there in the field after the picnic (of cheeses and a loaf of fresh sour dough that he had baked that morning, which filled the car with the scent of roasted wheat, and of cold grilled asparagus and tomatoes she had picked from the garden she had been cultivating all summer, of peaches they’d bought from a roadside stand and cookies sent from his mother,
who mailed him care packages once a week, as though he were still in college, as though she had no one else in the world to love, and of course there was wine, lots of it, or at least enough—a liter bottle from Argentina, his favorite pinot gris,
which in the end they slipped peach slices into and polished off), and then they lay down on the old quilt they kept in the car, the quilt they’d bought together at a yard sale, a crazy quilt, her mother would have called it—she herself a quilter and not a quitter,
as he had written on the card to her mother while she went through chemo a few years back, and though the word play had made her smile—she told them so, a week later—it hadn’t proved to be true and later there was that awkward moment when they were cleaning out her mother’s house and she came across his card and showed it to him and cried and beat against his chest, as though he had not only been wrong but had caused all the wrong that had happened,
and she went on beating out all of her sorrow and frustrations with their relationship and her own life, and beat out the ways he could not understand any of this, no matter how long she beat things into him, because his mother was still alive and well and bird-watched on weekends and visited each season and in between sent them cookies and packages of fruits from her garden, or in winter, from expensive companies that wrapped each pear in gold foil
—all that they lay on now, that crazy quilt of the years they’d spent together, and even that patch when they had pulled apart and lived separately, certain they would not reunite, except that they both had fumbling encounters with others—one woman who tried to seduce her too quickly, another woman who was too shy to be seduce by him—and so they ended up on the phone one night—calling at the exact same moment, so that at first both their phones signaled busy—
which of course seemed already a sign, and then they talked for hours, comparing notes on their failed dates, and before saying goodnight, deciding to meet up for coffee the next day, which ended with him visiting her new, small apartment and them making love, and soon moving all her things back into the house, which he had bought but they had considered theirs—
they lay down on all the patches, their bodies filled with good food and wine, fingers entwined, feeling a euphoria that pulsed through their bodies, every cell at once, in waves that rushed from their feet—naked and free—to their heads, pounding with alcohol and thoughts, thoughts of the past and future, but settling eventually on the present:
simply the texture of each other’s hand, the immense, firm weight of the Earth beneath them, the scent of the wildflowers and pungent dry grasses, the sound of crickets and insects and the grasses unfurling at the edge of the quilt—
but mostly the sight of the soft white clouds and the blue illumination of the sky beyond, so bright they could not look at it directly, not without blinking or turning away, a light that caused a quiver in the heart when each of them sensed the endless expanse of it, and as the minutes passed, they settled into these sensations, their bodies humming like the air near a waterfall, every molecule pulsating, lost in the feeling until a single bird—
a sparrow, or perhaps a swallow—cut across the clouds and the blue, straight up between them, like scissors cutting through the fabric of the sky, and suddenly, the day fell open like a body and revealed the night beyond it, the vast darkness above, below, in all directions, infinitely larger than the illuminated sky of dusk,
with only tiny flecks of light to grasp on to, quivering lights that seemed to blink away for moments, untenable, as though the sun that had so certainly guided them through the long day, that had warmed them and shone on them as they ate, had been shattered into a million specks and scattered across the endless black hall of the universe,
which they now were forced to see had always engulfed them, and yet was oblivious of them, their empty bottle and breadcrumbs, their half-eaten box of cookies and yard sale quilt—their entire histories in fact—
and yet, even as they felt that deep hollowness in their chests, knowing that they were nothing, a part of an enormous nothing, and so, also, a part of all things, the feeling was slipping away from them, for soon they were rising up against the vast gravity of the earth, stiff from being pressed to the ground, and, in the new darkness, began gathering up the remains of their meal, packing up the leftovers and dirty silverware—and all their euphoric and solitary feelings—
into a basket, then lifting the quilt itself and shaking it of crumbs and wrinkles, together folding it toward each other until the two of them were close enough to touch, before he threw the quilt over his shoulder and she grasped the basket in her hand, and they walked toward their car, carefully through the dark.
Nathan Alling Long’s work appears on NPR, in Best Microfictions 2020, and in various journals, including Tin House, StoryQuarterly, Witness, and The Sun. The Origin of Doubt, a collection of fifty stories, was a 2019 Lambda finalist; Nathan’s second manuscript was an Iowa Fiction Award semi-finalist. Other awards include a Truman Capote Literary Fellowship, a Mellon Foundation grant, and scholarships to Bread Loaf and Sewanee writers’ conferences.