Hayley Rose Connolly, a dark-eyed girl of seventeen, was a new student at Putnamville High-a seedy little school downwind from a hog farm. Accustomed to fancy private schools, she found Putnamville High to be utterly disagreeable. Still, she would have to make the most of it; her father, a big shot at IBM, had lost his job when the local plant relocated to India. Now he was managing a dreadful little gas station in the boonies and earning Wal-Mart wages. And Hayley, who had once had her own private bedroom and bathroom, was crammed into a three-room trailer with her parents and six noisy sisters. How horrid it was to be suddenly poor. How she missed her tennis club friends.
Hayley despised the pupils at her new school: oafish farm boys, Gothic nerds, and gossipy small-minded girls with way too much eye shadow. But, still, she wanted the students to like her. An accomplished socialite, she was used to being the center of attention at country club dances and debutante balls. And she wanted to stay the center of attention, even if it meant mingling with the great unwashed. But the Putnamville students showed no interest in her. The boys took one look at her underdeveloped breasts and did not initiate conversations. And the girls glanced incuriously at her before resuming their mindless chatter with one another. Whatever is a girl to do? Haley wondered. Will I ever be popular again? As she sat by herself in the school cafeteria, nibbling a bologna and cheese sandwich, Hayley felt cheated and depressed.
One afternoon, while riding home on the school bus, Hayley had an idea. I'll have a picnic, she thought. I'll invite the entire senior class. We'll play lots of games and have wonderful refreshments. And then I'll be popular once again. But where would she find money for a picnic? Her family now qualified for food stamps and her miserly father had cut her allowance to fifty cents a week.
Another idea popped into Hayley's mind. What if I went to the local merchants-the butcher, the grocer, the fruit vendor at the farmers mart-and offered them some of the refreshments in exchange for a little help? If the butcher provides the ground meat, I'll make him some scrumptious burgers. If the grocer gives me some flour, I'll bake him a heavenly cake. If the fruit seller gives me some lemons, I'll make him a mouth watering punch. After the merchants have had their share, there will be plenty left over for the kids.
Hayley went to her mother and told her about her idea. Her mother kissed her daughter and said it was a wonderful plan. And she promised to help host the party, which would take place in the town park behind the trailer.
Her heart thumping wildly, Hayley hopped into her father's Ford and visited the local merchants. At first, they looked at her skeptically and solemnly shook their heads. But when she flashed a hundred watt smile and told them they could sponsor the picnic, they changed their minds. The butcher gave her ten pounds of ground chuck. The grocer gave her a sack of flour, a packet of cocoa, and a box of baking soda. And the fruit vender provided her with a whole crate of freshly picked lemons.
The next day at school, Hayley passed out invitations to everybody in the senior class-invitations she had printed herself on cream colored paper.
When she had delivered the last invitation, Hayley hurried to the local Dairy Queen. There, she toasted her enterprise with a Rocky Road ice cream float.
* * *
A dozen kids showed up on the day of the picnic, almost half of the senior class. Hayley greeted each one of them at the entrance to the park. She shook their hands as though working a pump handle. "How marvelous of you to come," she gushed. Her smile was as bright as a beacon and never left her face.
While the kids pitched horseshoes and played volleyball, Hayley slapped the hamburger patties onto an outdoor grill. And then she squeezed the lemons and made a spicy punch.
After the kids were done with their games, Hayley poured each one of them a teacup full of punch. The rest of the punch she emptied into a cooler full of ice packs. She had promised the fruit vendor plenty of punch for his daughter's birthday party, and she didn't want to disappoint him. He had been so generous with her, after all.
"All you can drink," Hayley said to her guests as she passed the teacups around. When the kids gulped their punch down and asked for more, Hayley chirped, "No, that's all you can drink." The kids looked disappointed and still a little parched, but all of them agreed that it was the finest punch they had ever drunk.
The aroma of burgers now ripened the air- burgers sizzled to perfection. Of course, she would have to give them to the butcher; he was hosting a Fourth of July celebration and expected lots of hungry guests. But the grill was coated with plenty of grease-pungent, meaty grease. Opening a sack of buns, Hayley smeared each one with a generous mopping of grease. She then filled the buns with onions, pickle relish, and a squirt of Poupon Mustard.
"May I Poupon you?" Hayley joked and the kids had a hearty laugh. They did seem perplexed that their buns had no meat, but all of them agreed that the buns were the freshest they had ever tasted.
Once the kids had devoured their buns, Hayley clapped her hands. "Time for a little cake," she trilled. Opening a cardboard box, Hayley removed a huge chocolate cake. It was four layers high, heart-shaped, and made with farm-fresh eggs. On top of the cake was an inspiring message written in pink piping gel. I will always serve my friends, the looping letters announced.
Seizing a knife and spatula, Hayley cut out a sliver of cake. The rest of the cake she put back in the cardboard box. Naturally, it would have to go to the grocer; such a wonderful man. He was hosting his fiftieth high school reunion, and he only deserved the best.
Slowly, meticulously, Hayley dolled out crumbs from the surviving sliver of cake. She piled the crumbs onto paper plates then covered each pile with a dollop of frosting. "Let them eat cake," she tittered as she passed around the plates.
The kids poked tentatively at the crumbs, eager to make them last. How delicious they were, how spongy and moist, how heavenly they smelled. A treat like this could not be rushed, all of them agreed. Only a shameless glutton would hurry such a delight. When the kids had eaten the last of the crumbs and licked the paper plates clean, they declared Hayley's cake to be among the tastiest in the land.
A brilliant sunset lit up the park as the picnic came to an end. The gloaming was captured in Hayley's eyes, which sparkled like cubic zirconia. As she watched the last ray of sun disappear, Hayley chuckled with delight. "At last, at last," she said to herself, "I'm popular once again."
* * *
Now that she was back in demand, Hayley kept her image intact. She wore only the brightest of Dollar Store jewelry; she dyed her hair platinum blonde. She even ran for senior class president and lost by just twenty two votes. The cheerleader who won must have stuffed the ballot box just like she stuffed her bra.
When her senior year was over, Hayley received a proposal of marriage. The dear old gent who owned Mercantile Meats asked her to be his wife. Delighted, Hayley accepted at once. What a joy it would be to move out of that ratty old trailer.
To celebrate the nuptials, Haley planned a potluck reception. She rented the county fairground, she bought a white chiffon dress, and she made sure the whole town of Putnamville would share the glorious day. Cash and gift cards equally welcome, the engraved invitations read. There must have been rain in the forecast because this time nobody came.
James Hanna wandered Australia for seven years before settling on a career in criminal justice. He spent twenty years as a counselor in the Indiana Department of Corrections and has recently retired from the San Francisco Probation Department, where he was assigned to a domestic violence and stalking unit. James' familiarity with criminal types has provided fodder for his writing. James' short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Old Crow Review, Sandhills Review, Edge City Review, Fault Zone, Eclipse, The Literary Review, Red Savina Review, The California Writers Club Literary Review, Zymbol, The Sand Hill Review, Empty Sink Publishing, and Crack the Spine. Three of James' stories were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. James' novels are available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle. His debut novel, The Siege, depicts a hostage standoff in a penal facility. Call Me Pomeroy, James' second novel, chronicles the madcap tales of a street musician on parole who joins Occupy Oakland and its spinoff movements in England and France. He does not join for political reasons but to get on television, attract an agent, and land a million dollar recording contract. Grady Harp, Hall of Fame Reviewer, calls the book an instant classic. A Second, Less Capable Head and Other Rogue Stories, James' third book, includes "Fruits' which was published in Issue 24 of The Fear of Monkeys. BookViral writes: "A Second Less Capable Head delivers one of the most powerful and cutting collection of stories you will ever read."