Be Good Johnny

Beside the tall red fence.
    A breeze blowing warmly.  
    Late afternoon.
    With my homemade periscope I could see Mrs. Robbins through the French windows, coming into her kitchen with a big bag of groceries, back from the store. Mr. Robbins was in his usual place, watching TV on the patio, and didn’t offer to help.
    Mr. Robbins was huge now. HUGE. Way he looked, he must have weighed a ton or more. And he just sat there in the lounge chair out back while his wife did all the shopping, went to work, and did the dishes. Used to be he was the State cycling champ, but gradually the kids took over, and he was one of those who had to be first or nothing. Or so it’s said. Now he never rode his bike anywhere. He had a stand beside him where he’d put his crackers, beer and things, and he’d just sit there eating and watching, eating and watching in the warm mornings, the hot afternoons, the cool evenings while his gut hung out of his belt like great folds of dough. Since the redwood fence was erected, it didn’t bother him to move out of the house onto the patio with the wide screen HD TV Mrs. Robbins made the mistake of buying. Mom said something about him being lazy, and being out of a job. Dad said a few things Mom would have washed my mouth out with soap for saying. He was tired of hearing about those old trophies at their lodge meeting.
    “So what’s going on?” repeated Peter Fibbs, my sometimes friend and classmate.
    “Shhhhh. . .she’s inside,” I said, waiting for the argument I’d heard every night for weeks and weeks. “She’s taking the groceries out of the bag.”
    “What’s this, uh. . . Cyclist doin’?”
    “Watching TV again.”
    “Watching TV,” Peter Fibbs mimicked in a dead monotone, then let the silence soak it in. “And I’ve got to go home. We start school tomorrow, ya know. High school.”
    I turned and whispered hotly. “Will ya wait a minute? She’s coming out on the patio now. She’s got a can in her hand. This is it. This is where she lets him have it!”
    The TV droned, babbling like a happy baby off under a cloud-crowded sky.
    Peter Fibbs stood beside my kid brother Ernie, shaking his head impatiently as we listened.
    “Here,” Mrs. Robbins words drifted to us through the late August air, “is your beer, darling. Want a roast pork sandwich?”
    “Yeah,” answered the fat man. “Thanks.”
    “After that,” said Mrs. Robbins pleasantly, “I’ll fix you those short ribs with potatoes and gravy. Won’t that be nice?”
    “You’re. . .feeling all right, are you, Alice?”
    “Sure, sure. Never better. Let’s stop our arguing.”
    My heart sank, weighted down by her words. Why had she smiled at him? It didn’t make sense.
    Ernie started whining then, and reached for my periscope. “Shhhhhh,” I hissed, and slapped his hand.
    The Cyclist lolled his head in our direction. His face was—I don’t know how to put it—pasty-looking. Like spaghetti that’s been overcooked. I held my periscope rock-steady thinking he’d spot it. But he didn’t.
     “So what’s the tub a’ lard doin now?” Peter whispered after a minute, very bored.
     “Just drinking beer. Wait. Here she comes again!”
     While Ernie kept tugging at my sleeve, I stared at what pretty Mrs. Robbins was now carrying to her husband, the Cyclist: A six pack on a bowl of ice.
    I let Peter have a peek. “Well, that’s just. . . stupid,” Peter said, mildly intrigued.
    “Isn’t it, though,” I said, then added, “unless. . .” I paused a moment, trying to think up something so Peter would stay. I remembered what Dad said about the Cyclist going to the hospital after he tried to ride his bike at the park one Saturday. A couple of maintenance men found him sprawled out on the ball field, clutching his chest. So trying to sound important, I said, “Listen, I heard this psychologist on 20/20 say some men marry just to be mothered. You know, to have someone clean up after them, baby them, an’ pamper them like they were used to growing up? He said exercise is what you watch other people doing on the tube, along with fast food commercials. Well, just suppose that Mrs. Robbins somehow decided she doesn’t want to watch her life go down the crapper too. What does she do? Well, maybe just what she’s always done. Only somewhere along the way, she’s crossed that thin line.”
    “What thin line?”
    “Like the man said, the one between love and hate. Suppose she’s decided subconsciously to pamper him to death. Like some cholesterol sludge in his veins breaks off, jams something up, an’ he just. . .”
    “Dies?”
    We stared at my periscope for the longest time as I turned it round and round nervously in the half light under faint stars. It was getting dark in a hurry.
    A cricket chirped.
    The weeping willow wept.
    Over the fence, a very fat man sat in a circle of television light, a swallowing machine, a human disposal. Behind him, against the garage, was what was once a beautiful Italian-framed racing bike, its Campagnolo pantographed components now crusted, its spokes rusted from neglect and rain.
    But Peter Fibbs was not impressed.
    “You’re crazy,” he said. “You need school.”
    “But Mrs. Robbins isn’t screaming anymore,” I said, defensively. “And here she is, pumping him big as a blimp, bringing him God only knows what for dessert. What would you think?”
    “I’d say they made up,” Peter Fibbs said. “And so would anyone else.”
    “But that’s exactly my point!”
    “Give it up, Johnny,” he said. “You been watching too many episodes of The Family Guy.” He laughed.
    “Oh sure,” I said, dully. “That’s it, sure.”
    Just then, the screen door opened on our house. Mom leaned out. “Time for supper!” she called.
    “See you tomorrow,” said Peter Fibbs, his back to me already.
    I watched Peter mount his Schwinn and glide out and down the street without pedaling, with all the time in the world. Peter Fibbs. Sometimes I wonder why I bothered. Where was his sense of adventure, anyway? How did I rate such a dullard for a friend in the first place? Whenever we’d talked about the future, was it ever him who thought of NASA first? No, Peter wanted to be like his dad. An accountant. What kind of future was that?
    After Peter was gone I tugged Ernie’s hand and, reluctantly, we went in to eat.
    In the dining room Dad sat, drinking coffee. Meanwhile Mom was serving dinner: veal cutlets and mash potatoes.
    “Dad?” I said.
    “Yes, son?”
    “Dad, I don’t suppose you’d believe me if I told you I have a theory about Mrs. Robbins trying to murder the Cy. . . I mean, Mister Robbins. With a heart attack.”
    Dad let out something like a war hoop, and slapped his own widening paunch. “It wouldn’t surprise me, son,” he laughed.
    “Careful now, dear,” said Mom, holding the table steady, and then, seeing me toy with my fork, “Now what made you say something like that, Johnny?”
    I told her. She stared at me with a face like a jury member filing in for a verdict.
    “Maybe you should check it out, Paul,” said Mom, still expressionless.
    Dad shook his head, no dice. “The playoff’s on in a minute. I can’t miss that.”
    “But this is actually important,” I pleaded one last time.
    Dad looked at me funny-like. So’s this, the look said. And then that same sense of sadness came over me, just like it had with Peter Fibbs. But this time it was multiplied by the feeling of farewells. Farewell to summer, hello to long gray autumn days of drizzle and homework. Farewell to Junior High, hello to acne and SAT scores. Farewell to imagination, and hello to. . . what?  CPA school? Job interviews? Retirement programs?
    “No dessert tonight, Johnny?” asked Mom as I pushed back my plate.
             
After dinner, Mom went into the kitchen, and started on the dishes. Lips sealed. Of course I never really expected her to take my side, because she was neutral. Like Switzerland. Maybe it was safer that way since she had to live with Dad while I was away at school, growing up way before my time.
    I watched Dad go into the living room and cut on the TV, having already forgotten about me. He just settled back into his leather armchair, and gave out this little self-satisfied sigh, almost like he’d mastered the secret of how to make us kids invisible. “Bring me a beer, will ya?” he called to Mom.
    Mom opened the refrigerator.  
    Mom passed us with Dad’s beer.  
    “Time for bed,” she said finally, turning Ernie toward the hall with her hand. “School tomorrow, bright and early.”
    I saw on TV there was a promo about a show featuring cyclists racing across America. They all looked exhausted, but thin and healthy. Watching this, Dad was expressionless, just sitting there, staring like one of those department store mannequins, and I was reminded of people in science fiction movie once that had transmitters planted in back of their heads. But when Mom came in, he suddenly seemed to see her pulling at Ernie, who was whining.
    “Do I have to–“
    “MOVE!” said Mom.
    Mom was acting oddly too, somehow. And there was something in the way she looked at me over dinner. I figured she’d wanted to go out that night, only Dad got his way again because he could talk louder. Mom would never try and shout back at him, of course. Usually she just went into her room and closed the door for a while.
    Usually, but not that night.
    We went to our room. Ernie started to slam the door, but I stopped him, and left it open a crack. For some reason I wanted to hear what Mom said, and if she was all right out there with Dad, the robot. But when Ernie started hitting me, I had to defend myself.
    “Well, I thought it was a good theory,” I said, trying hard now to imagine the sirens going, the fat man sitting there limp and pasty-faced next to his rusted racing bike, the TV blaring, and that one woman, smiling. “I thought so, anyway.”
    As I unbuttoned my shirt and threw it down, Ernie went over to where Mom had laid out our school clothes across the bureau. “You need school,” he mimicked Peter Fibbs exact words. Then we slid into bed and cut the light.  
    It was in the pitch darkness a moment later that Ernie said, like it had just hit him, “Summer’s over.”
    “Imagine that,” I said sadly, and pulled the covers snug.
    We listened to the muffled TV noises coming from the living room, and once or twice more heard Dad call, “Another beer in there!” and Mom answer, “Coming right up, dear.  . . .You want another roast pork sandwich?”  -0- 

—© Jonathan Lowe, originally published in The State magazine

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