Ashton Russell

Only As Far as the Picnic Tables


She has the baby as planned, but then she changes it up. No more breastfeeding; he can take the bottle, that’s why they made formula in the first place. No more night nursing, detachable bra straps, bleeding nipples, sore back, aching shoulders. Her husband doesn’t agree at first, but she tells him, my body my choice, remember?

He brings up the four hundred dollar breast pump she had to have—what about that? She sees it on the counter, where he is pointing, and she picks it up and tosses it in the trash.

“What about it?”

She walks past him out to the back porch knowing his eyes are watching her, his mouth hanging open. The baby is napping upstairs, the last one of the day. The sun is getting lower in the sky, and she knows she should wake him up soon, can’t let him sleep too late. But the sky is so beautiful, the trees gently blowing in the late summer breeze. One leaf floats noiselessly to the deck beside her chair. The neighbor behind them is outside in her garden with her husband. They are always outside, always in the garden, always together. He is much more handsome than her, and she can’t tell what could have possibly brought them together in the first place. Was it the love of plants? She smokes, he doesn’t. She looks old and used, he looks young and put together. They pick weeds together and laugh at something one of them says. They have no kids; that could have been her life. Just the other day she drove by an old man outside washing his mailbox and it pissed her off. She thought, if you have that much damn free time then come to my house and clean up some shit. And her husband, well, he seems to see none of it. Like magic.

He pokes his head out the door and looks at her.

“What are you doing?”

Never a moment alone, never peace.

“Nothing,” she says back.

“Should we wake up Jack? It’s almost 5:00.”

“I’m not the hall monitor. If you want to wake him then do it.” She turns back to the neighbors, and she hears the door close beside her.

They picked grays and whites for the nursery, keeping it gender-neutral. Everything was in its proper place. The diaper pail with its stack of liners neatly in a basket. The rocker with the embroidered blanket on the back. The rainbow artwork above the crib that spells out the name that took four months to decide on. Now nothing has its place—the toys all over the floor, the blankets unfolded and thrown into piles. There have been times she’s slept on the floor beside the crib so the baby could feel her next to him. It seemed to be the only way he would sleep. Why didn’t they just put a bed in their room? Why couldn’t the baby just sleep with them? Why couldn’t he be on his tummy? What was the point in the sleep sacks and the Magic Merlin suit when nothing helped him sleep? Not the sound machine, not the blackout curtains, not the crib, not the humidifier.

Her mother had said, it takes time, babies all sleep through the night at different ages. But does she even remember how hard it can be? How desperate for sleep you can get? Out on the porch she thinks about going inside and getting a glass of wine. Maybe letting the husband deal with bath time tonight. And then, she sees the car sitting in the yard in front of her. If she tilts her head the right way it looks like the front of the car is smiling at her, telling her to come on in.

The night Jack was born the nurses said they had never seen such a beautiful blonde-haired newborn. And he was beautiful. The one they had waited for, the baby they thought they could never make.

She goes inside to grab a drink—to watch this nice sunset with a beer or maybe a glass of wine. But there isn’t anything left in the fridge. Her husband is on the couch watching TikTok videos. She checks the monitor on the counter; Jack is still sleeping, snuggled up in his sleep sack. She grabs her purse and keys and heads back to the door. Before she closes it, she looks over to see her husband still on his phone, giggling at some looped video that keeps playing the same five seconds of a pop song. She’s wearing sweatpants and a dirty T-shirt, but she has on a bra, so it’s fine to run to the corner store.

As she backs out of the driveway, the neighbors—wave at her with smiles on their faces. She lifts a finger back in acknowledgment. Out on the road, it feels different to her; suddenly she is aware that she hasn’t showered today. Maybe not even yesterday, she can’t remember. The store is up the road a little way, but she might be too sleep-deprived to even be driving. Could she claim that as an excuse in a wreck? The baby still doesn’t sleep more than three hours at a time. She should be napping now, not driving. But look at that sunset, the trees, and the clouds’ perfect white puffs.

When she gets to the store, she grabs a six-pack of local beer and a bottle of white wine. She doesn’t know what she’s feeling yet. As she pays, she stops and says,

“Can I get a pack of Camel Lights too? And this lighter?”

Takes the bag back to her car. As soon as she closes the door, she opens the cigarettes. It’s been years, but she hasn’t forgotten any steps. She pauses before lighting one up, seeing the car seat in her rearview mirror.

“I’ll let the windows down, won’t matter,” she mutters, the cigarette already between her lips. “Now I’m talking to myself, great.”

She lights it up and pulls hard. Immediately she feels lightheaded, but as she blows the smoke out, she feels the tension leaving her shoulders. All the crying, all the times she has rocked back and forth with the baby, moving so much she feels dizzy. Sometimes standing alone she finds herself swaying. How many hours has she sat nursing in that damn recliner? Long enough to watch the trees go from orange to falling to nothing then back to green. She told her husband she felt like someone had cut off her legs. He thought it was a joke.

He doesn’t seem changed at all by the baby. He sleeps when she’s up at night, never hearing a cry or waking at dawn when the baby is hungry. When he asks if she wants to watch some TV when the baby is sleeping, she thinks he must be crazy. She can’t concentrate on a show, not when at any moment there could be a cry coming from his room. When her body can’t even sit back in a chair. She is always sitting at the edge. Who can watch TV that way? He changes diapers sometimes, he holds him while she cleans up, all the never-ending bottles clogging her counter space. The grass-and-tree stand someone gave her to dry the bottles and nipples. She hates where it sits, hates its bright green color in her perfectly white and gray kitchen.

Instead of pulling out towards home, she heads toward downtown, her old neighborhood. The beautiful one hundred-year-old home she didn’t want to leave. She grabs a beer from the bag and pops it open. It’s a little warm but still tastes good. She turns the radio up and puts the window down. Driving through the familiar streets feels a bit like a dream she had once, but in the dream, there were train cars for clouds, and they were falling from the sky. But the clouds are gone this evening, just the setting sun and the rising moon.

Her phone is beside her in the cup holder next to her beer, and she sees it light up a few times. He’s texting her, Where are you? Where did you go? The baby is up. Hello? But she doesn’t turn back around. The beer is still half full and besides, she wants to see her old home.

The year before they moved out, a baby drowned in the community pool. Her husband said, this place is cursed; no family should stay here. She pulls onto 6th Ave. South, past her favorite tree that stays green all year. Past the fence the previous neighbor painted with rainbows and butterflies. It’s still there, even though the couple moved to Germany last summer; guess the new owners liked it. She takes a drink from her beer and turns on to her street, 6th Court. Her house is the third on the left. Not much has changed, a few more dead plants on the porch. She pulls the car in front. The stairs leading up to the door are still cracked halfway on the third step. The porch, the windows, the curtains that hang upstairs in her old bedroom. Her phone starts to ring. She silences it.

Her husband lived with her here for a year. They met and moved in quickly, after two months. And her roommate left shortly after because she felt she no longer had her own space. That’s what she said. And now they don’t speak. But having kids does that, too. Her husband wanted to buy a house closer to his parents, closer to safe schools. And she went along with his request for five bedrooms; what if they had more kids? So now she has four toilets to clean and three beds to make. And it was goodbye to her house close to the local coffee shop, the porch with the best view of the skyline. His idea of it being a haunted place was stupid to her. How could a whole neighborhood be haunted? And she was hardly three months pregnant when he started in on moving. That baby died and that was it for him. The story was, it happened at a birthday party, and even though it was full of people, adults all around, somehow the toddler fell in, and no one noticed for two minutes. It doesn’t take long.

It looks like no one is home. When she gets to the porch steps she sits and opens another can, staring out at the yards around her. She lights another cigarette and starts to feel a bit dizzy. She used to come out here at all hours just to be alone, away from her roommate, her husband; to smoke, to drink, to watch the wind blow through the trees. The house across the street has a swing set in the yard now, a stroller on the front porch. Her husband said no one would reasonably raise kids here.

“He’s such a dumbass,” she says to herself.

A neighbor walks by with a dog on a leash and does a small nod. She nods back. No one looks familiar anymore, none of these faces or the way the shrubs are cut or how the yards look. It’s like when she left, everyone grew up, homes included. Now it looks like the suburbs are right in the middle of the city.


She almost spills her beer from the shock of hearing someone else’s voice, turning quickly around to see someone standing in the doorway. The woman is younger, maybe twenty-five. She is wearing scrubs and her hair is neatly pulled into a bun on top of her head. She must be a resident at the hospital. Lots of people stay downtown because it’s so close to the university. She looks behind the woman to see that the mirror is gone. The one she left hanging in the entryway because she felt it wouldn’t look better anywhere else.

“Hello, excuse me. Can I help you?”


“Who are you? Do I know you? Or are you like lost?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Is that a beer?”


“In your hand, are you drinking a beer on my porch? And smoking? Look, I don’t know you. You got to go.”

“Oh. I, um, I used to live here.”

“Okay. Well. This is weird. You need to leave.”

“I moved a few years ago. I just wanted to see my old place, memory lane. You know.” She laughs but the woman at the door doesn’t.

“You need to leave. Or I’ll call the police.”

“Fine. Yeah. I’m leaving. Sorry for bothering you. I’m harmless, you know,” she says as she gets up, but stumbles a bit on the step. She pulls her T-shirt down and tries to adjust her sweatpants with one free hand. “I’m a mother. Just need a damn break sometimes, I mean—ya know.” The woman doesn’t respond. “Alright, well nice talking to you . . .”



“What did you say?”

“I said, bitch. And the mirror was perfect.”

“The mirror?”

“Yeah, the one I left on the wall right beside the front door. Right there.”

“You’re crazy, lady. There wasn’t a mirror here. Please just leave.”

“I’m going, damn.” She downs the rest of her beer and when she hears the front door close behind the woman, she chucks the can into the yard. “Fucking bitch.”

In the car, she isn’t ready to go home. Her phone has thirteen missed calls. She reaches over and opens another beer, making sure the woman isn’t watching her from inside the house. Back onto the street, she drives through the neighborhood. Needing somewhere to go, something to do. She can’t take another bath time. Another rocking for hours just to lay him down and watch his eyes pop back open. Another night seeing her husband sitting on their bed watching TV while she cries and begs the baby to just go to sleep. Just close your eyes, please.

The sun is set now, it’s getting dark, and she can feel the beer kicking in. She lights up another cigarette and feels dizzy after the first drag. At the park nearby she pulls into a space. Some people walk their dogs, others are out with strollers. There is a picnic table no one is sitting at, so she gets out and goes to it. The park slowly empties out as she watches the stars come out in the clear night sky. Her phone is still in the car. Maybe her husband thinks she won’t ever come back. Maybe now he will see just how much work she is doing.

The lights in nearby houses start to shine and a few people have TV’s on, their blinds still open from the day. And over the top of the kids’ playground is the pool. The community pool. It’s covered and drained now. The sign rusted, CLOSED TO PUBLIC. She never swam there or laid out in the sun. Always said she would take a book, spend a Saturday alone. Guess she made it partway, just to the picnic tables. Whatever happened to that family? Did they move away too? Had to. Who could stay after that?

She met her husband at a bar. They shared a mutual friend, and it was a setup that she didn’t know about. And he was cute, his teeth perfectly white and straight. He had a beard that she never realized she could be into. And his eyes were so blue they sparkled even in the dive bar with its dim lighting and sticky floors. He took her home that night and they stayed every night together after that. But they didn’t have much in common besides good sex and sometimes conversation. And now, what did they have besides a baby?

A police car pulls into the parking lot near her car. Did that lady call the cops on her? How would they have found her? She hides the beer beside her leg where the cop can’t see. She lights up another cigarette and looks straight ahead. But the cop doesn’t get out, it’s like he’s just watching her—but how could she know, she can’t see inside his dark car from that far away. She turns her back to the parking lot, straddling the picnic bench with the beer between her legs. She burps loudly and then laughs at herself. Glancing back, she sees the cop walking towards her.

“Ma’am. Park is closed now.”


“Park is closed. You need to go on home.”

He doesn’t step too close to her, and must not have noticed the can she had been holding.

“Alright, sure. Didn’t know city parks close.”

“This is a neighborhood park. And it closes at dark. Keeps everyone safe.”

“Don’t I look safe?”

“Never know these days.”

He waits to watch her. She leaves the can sitting on the bench and walks off to her car carefully. She turns around to see he hasn’t moved.

“It is because of that baby?”


“They close now because that baby died?”

“I don’t know what you mean. The park has always closed at dark.”

She stumbles again as she turns around back to the parking lot, now glowing yellow from the streetlights—and somehow she knows that years from now, after the inevitable divorce and custody battle, when the baby no longer has chunky legs and doesn’t stay up all night, and has grown into a wild young boy who loves to be outside and stare at the trees, like her—she will remember the time she drove and drank. When she thought of leaving her family but only made it across town. When the woman yelled at her about sitting on a porch. She will remember, and she will wonder where that mirror ended up, wonder who has it now, and do they have it displayed in an open area, the way it should be?




Ashton Russell’s work has appeared in Pithead Chapel, Sundog Lit, X-R-A-Y Lit Mag, and Southeast Review among others. She is a current MFA candidate at the Bennington Writing Seminars and lives in Birmingham, Alabama.