The Graduation Picnic

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the...”

“Tom, will you stop? This is supposed to be a graduation party, not a beaten generation complain-fest.”

Tom looked at George. “That’s ‘Beat Generation,’ Mr. Rain-On-My-Picnic. I’m simply trying to prepare my nephew for the corporate world. I think Ginsberg is appropriate.”

“Why don’t you just cut straight to that foulmouthed poet you like so much?”

“Bukowski? That shows what you know. Howl is anti-establishment. Bukowski is anti-people.”

“Just say something that isn’t horrible.”

Tom took a defeated breath. “Josh, Congratulations. I wish you luck in your future endeavors, yatta yatta yatta, and all the happiness you can tolerate. May you get a job that pays a bus load of money, marry a beautiful trophy wife, bear two-point-three children, buy a four bedroom house with two and a half baths at prime with twenty percent down, grow a perfect lawn, and have neighbors who envy your every move as you sit by your pool smoking cigars and drinking boxed wine.”

The partygoers gave a half-hearted, confused bit of applause.

“Thanks, Tom,” George said, as he twisted a displeased look.

Tom raised his glass of stout. “Here’s hoping you bring whatever company you work for down from the inside.” He grinned as he returned to his seat at the table and his plate of partially eaten picnic fare.

Josh sat wearing the smile he pasted on as soon as his father made the announcement that each party attendee would be making a speech, giving him a few words of encouragement. It was the same phony grin he gave his parents when they announced to him this graduation picnic, the faux smile which appeared when he realized it would be a “mom’s and dad’s friends and relatives” party when they told him he was allowed to invite one friend. It was the same fake expression he used during his recent job interviews.

Tom recognized the grin. His return smile was sincere. He punctuated it with a wink.

“OK, Bess?” George asked, priming the next speaker.

Bess finished her active bite of hot dog, then took the visual spotlight. “Wow, Josh, you’ve graduated from college. What an achievement. You’re what, twenty-one now?”

“Twenty-five, ma’am.”

“Attaboy,” Tom interjected. “Seven years of college. Milking the old man as long as you can.”

“Please, Tom,” George said.

“I’m just saying,” Tom replied. “Good training for sucking cash out of Moneybags Inc.”

A slight silence hung over the table. Josh’s formal courtesy smile didn’t break.

“Twenty-five years old,” Bess continued. “I remember when you were this tall.” She held her hand even with the surface of the picnic table.

Tom pulled the half-eaten hot dog out of his bun and held it up. “And, Bess, I remember when you were this thin.”

“Tom!” George leaned forward, visibly aggravated.

“What?” Tom cocked a devilish grin. “Just trying to liven up the funeral.”

“Oh, ignore him, George,” Bess said, cocking a half-smile. “I’ll deal with him when we get home.”

Tom raised his eyebrows sheepishly as he slunk down an inch. George leaned back. Josh’s expression of fraudulent glee didn’t change.

“Anyway, best of luck to you Josh. I hope you find happiness in all you do.” Bess returned to her seat to a few claps.

“That’s what I said,” Tom muttered. George looked no less irritated. Josh looked no less paralyzed in the face.

“Sarah?” George encouraged, pointing his hand to her.

Sarah set her drink on the table and stood. “Josh, honey.” Her eyes turned wistful.

“OK, dear, don’t get all teary-eyed,” George said.

Sarah sniffed. “You made your father and I very proud. We know you will continue to do so.”

“As long as he has to live under your roof, sure,” Tom murmured.

George’s face turned red. A vein in his temple throbbed. He leaned forward as if to grab Tom by the shirt collar. “Thomas–”

Sarah flashed George a stern look as she reached over the table and touched his shoulder. “Let it go, hon.”

George relaxed back and rubbed his temple to massage out the pulsation. Josh sat like a statue with the same chiseled on grin. Tom smirked, knowing he was pushing George’s carriage into thrombosis territory. He figured, in some odd way, George liked it. If not, he figured George expected it.

“We know you’re going to be successful at whatever you do,” Sarah continued. Mist returned to her eyes.

“OK, OK, dear. Thanks for those words.” George applauded, then cleared his throat. He rose from his seat and stood staid, his shoulders slightly back and his chest slightly puffed. He pulled up the front of his trousers. “Josh, my boy, you have completed a necessary chapter of your life.”

Tom leaned and whispered to Sarah, but loud enough for the whole table to hear. “What, are you kidding?” He pointed his thumb at George. “He’s not going to start singing ‘Cat’s in the Cradle,’ is he?”

Sarah waved her hand for Tom to tone it down, trying to hold in a giggle that others at the table let escape. Josh sat like a block of ice with his frozen grimace.

George cleared his throat to regain his audience’s eyes. “You are about to venture out into the adult world, and see what kind of man it can make of you.”

Tom shook his head in mock disgust. George cleared his throat again, indirectly calling attention to Tom’s actions, the opposite of what he intended. He took a breath and his head vein bulged.

“Some things will come easy, some things will come as a challenge,” he glanced at Tom, then turned his eyes back, “some will be downright tough. Your mother and I have every confidence you will rise up and conquer those challenges, no matter how difficult they are, and always do the right thing. Remember, it is the challenging times that build character. It is the tough times that define who you are.”

“Grey skies are going to clear up, put on a happy face,” Tom sang in a hushed tone, gathering several amused looks. Sarah slapped his arm with the back of her hand, letting out a mirthful snort. Bess snickered. The throb returned to George’s forehead vein. He rubbed it twice, pretending to straighten his hair. A few applauded, assuming George’s speech was over.

“That brings us to Josh. Anything you’d like to say, son?” George said as he returned to his seat on the bench.

“Speech!” Tom quietly shouted, his hand over his mouth. He garnered a few more laughs, and one annoyed glare from George.

Josh stood with the same pasted smile on his face. A small glint appeared in his eye that didn’t exist before. The corners of his mouth millimetered up as he turned a pleased gaze to Tom. He paused for dramatic effect.

“Friends, relatives, Mom, Dad…I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the...”