Death in the afternoon

A short story by Tobin Dalrymple

Jonny was never richer than that summer Coca Cola had the contest under the caps — it was the first or second year they did it and those early years were always good, because it seemed every second coke you’d win a prize and usually it was just another bottle, which was perfect. And so Jonny, being nine, was the richest he’d ever be, having all what he needed, on a hot, scorching hot day, up in Thunder Bay.

Thunder Bay was a cold northern town in the winter, but the winters would never be remembered. Jonny faintly knew of seasons changing, of one or two cold afternoons, having to wait outside the after-school babysitter’s house in the bitter cold, because she was a mean old lady and never let the kids indoors where it was warm and the Lego could be scattered over the carpet. But what stuck with him most were the summer days. His childhood was assembled in his mind like those hanging monkeys from a barrel, a connection of good, sunny, dirty-handed days, one after the other and nothing else, and they connected with each other only in the strangest but most natural ways, and remembering it all was precarious. There was the marbles pit they dug up in the dirt patch, the 5 gallon glass jugs full of ants, battling them with the wounded crickets and bumblebees, the Indian club, a smudge under the eyes and a sharpened spear with the Swiss Army knife, the fortress in the gap between the two houses. The water-gun fights spread across an unfathomable and gigantic arena of backyards, gravel alleyways, and slow, sun baked side walks.

Today it was good because they had been biking and his luck had been good. Colin was winning too and they sat drinking with their bikes lazily tumbled on top of each other on a worn dirt path up a hill behind the school. King Jonny with two cokes in him already had just emptied the flat, sticky bottoms of the most recent one, and then he could check, because it was bad luck to check before you finished.

“Yahoo! Another one.”

“Aww, lucky,” Colin said. Colin had just chucked his no good cap away a few yards. “What’d you get?”

“1 Free.”

Jonny held the silver plastic coin up to his face looking at it through the sun and then he placed it in his eye socket and held it up there with the muscles in his cheek.

“Righty oh,” he said. “Cheery, oh.” He wiggled his head around making the joke and Colin giggled. The plastic circle fell from his face. Colin dragged a finger in the dirt. Jonny threw the empty coke bottle into the long grass and stood up, wiping the sweat and dirt from his hands against his shorts.

“Let’s go.”

Colin stood up and walked over to the pile of their two bikes. He looked down over the trail, squinted his eyes in the sun and he rubbed off the sweat on his brow with the back of his hand. He picked up his bike, hopped on, and rode off without waiting.

The trees on either side of the path had low branches so you had to duck your head, or reach up and grab a leaf, and it would take you around to the back of the school, and up a street with a good, empty sidewalk and that would bring you after a few more blocks to the parking lot of the Moo Cow. There were some small jumps in the dirt path, and some curbs you could tumble, that each boy had took on with pictures of the daredevils they’d seen on TV in the mind. They let fall their bikes outside the Moo Cow and walked inside the air conditioned, morgue-lit store. The floor was old linoleum and the dirt and years came out worse in the cold light. It smelled like the fluid that came from the AC and the heat from the fan. Jonny wouldn’t remember the man at the cash or any of that. But the light and the smell and the way the cold plastic bottle sweated when you brought it out into the tar parking lot and opened it up, and the way the lungs puckered when inhaling the fizz of the new coke, and the sitting on the white curb enjoying it, and after some time they would decide time to go to Colin’s. It was summer and it was OK to go where they wanted until the sun came down and usually you would just stay for dinner wherever you ended up. Usually it was Colin’s though; Jonny’s place wasn’t as good.

Back at Colin’s they set up on the kitchen table and drew pictures. This week they had been drawing gigantic stick man wars. You would draw little men with a half circle and a line in their hands and that was their bow and arrow and in the sky it was arrows as numerous as rain drops. There could be a castle and poor schmucks down where all the arrows where flowing and fires in the castle and fields of blood. The complexity of the drawing was the important part, because you had to draw thousands of archers, and so many more arrows to fill the sky, and it didn’t matter how real it looked, what mattered was creating something as enormous and awesome as their minds could feel and so it was like a magic trick they could perform on themselves, and it never stopped being amazing, just how big these wars could be.

What you did first was draw the little head as a circle. Then down you drew a vertical line and the four digits of arms and legs. From there you gave him his bow and arrow or maybe the arrow was already mid flight. What was fun were the castles and men and tanks and houses that you would draw first, clean and naked and fine, and then riddle them with arrows. And that was like watching the destruction unfold and after when you looked at it, it played out like a movie in your head, and you could even imagine hearing the screams and war shouts and agony on the fields.

Colin’s mom was fat and red faced and the father was never around much. He drank beer from cans when he was and Colin’s mom was always yelling at him. The boys felt a pang in their stomachs when they had to put down the pens and stack the paper off the table so Colin’s mom could serve the dinner. Colin’s brother was there now too and he wasn’t very kind to Colin, two years older he was, but Jonny liked how he had collected electronics and had assembled them all down in the basement. You’d go down into the damp, concrete dungeon and he’d have a collection of black and white TVs, radios, old computer bits, lamps, and gizmos Jonny didn’t know what, and you could truly believe he was building a robot. He was always building something magical and he had the best marbles.

In the kitchen after dinner, either Colin or Jonny brought up the fact that one day it would be the year 2000. Even more strange, the feeling they had when they did the counting and realized they’d be 16 years old, and they’d be living in the future. They’d be so old. Sixteen seemed as far as pluto, as far as the cold bundle of ice that you felt in your stomach when you looked up in the nighttime and someone told you about the constellations for the first time. The world felt unending and splendid and they could rule it.

Then Jonny went home.

He took his bike on the sidewalks. It was getting late but the summers it stayed a hazy brightness until much later. Summer days maybe never ended but only wrapped into each other until it was time again after a thousand years for the school year, and almost just as soon the school year would be gone, the eight months a blink, and you’d be on your bike again. He came into the house and the lights were not all on. It was dark inside.

His older sisters were in the living room sitting on the couch. His parents were there too.

“Kid,” said Cheryl. “Where you been?”

Mom and dad were sitting on the wood chairs from the living room table, but they had set them up to face the couch. “Jonny,” his mom said. “Come in here a second.” Jonny stood at the entrance to the room, hardly breathing. “We’re having a family meeting. Come sit with your sisters.” The light in there was like a candle shot up from the centre of the carpet, and made a small half-circle halo, only big enough to hold the family, all of them tightly packed inside a pocket of light, and outside the bubble it was all hazy black, as if the air was scribbled with charcoal pencils. Cheryl put her arm around him as he slouched into the middle of the couch. Sandra was a mile away on the other edge of the couch. There were tears in her eyes already and she had her lips locked shut, her eyes fixed down on the carpet in front of her. If she looked up maybe she’d fall apart.

His mother clenched both her hands into the fabric of her dress. She exhaled deeply.

“Your dad is sick.” She started to explain but Jonny didn’t really know what to think and he started to cry.

“But he’s going to be alright, and we’re going to fight it, like a team, all of us together, and we’re going to beat it.”

Well, then. Everything was going to be OK.

He was feeling funny in the stomach but he was relieved and he believed her. He got up from the couch and put his arms around his father’s waist and the father returned the hug with only one arm, without looking down at him. Jonny said he loved his dad and that he was sure he would be OK, too.

His dad didn’t say anything for a while and the room was mostly quiet except for the cars passing on the street and the wind.

“Sure I will, son.”

His dad kept his eyes fixed out the window as he spoke.