Wednesday, December 19, 2012
A Short Story from the Past for the Present
It had been a cold Christmas Eve, and the white, crystalline rooftops glistened in the morning sun like snow-capped peaks above suburban, multi-colored mountains. As I walked across the lawn to get the Christmas morning newspaper, the brisk rubbing of my bare hands and the snail-shell crackle of the brittle grass were the only sounds. I winced at the thought of snail shells, glanced across the street at Ron Logan's lawn, and remembered.
"Look, Jimmy," he'd cried. Then, holding the large, brown garden snail at eye level, he'd crushed it loudly between his forefinger and his thumb. "Here, eat it!" he had sneered and flicked it at my face.
That was over twenty years ago, but he hasn't changed much. It is ironic that of all the kids and all the families that have grown up on this block, Ron Logan and I are the only ones who have remained. As kids we never really got along; he was the bully of the block, and I was "the Big Brain"—at least that was the derisive epithet he delighted in hurling after me. Naturally, I took it as a compliment. As adults, we simply don't have many occasions for contact. Once in a while, he and his two boys will be out front washing their Bronco after some off-road excursion, and we'll exchange a word or two; for the most part, though, we have very little to do with each other.
I smiled as I looked at his place. The house was nearly covered in Christmas lights—red, white, and blue only—which poked up through the swiftly melting frost like a giant, abstract connect-the-dots picture. On one corner of his lawn was a large wooden scene of Santa and his reindeer; on the other, a life-size nativity scene. That’s Ron for you. Nothing halfway about him. Just like his annual Fourth of July extravaganzas: Nobody has a bigger or brighter display than Ron Logan and his boys. Two years ago they nearly burned the roof off the Mejia's patio, but we finally put the fire out with garden hoses.
Suddenly, a bird twittered and then another, and the tree by my chimney came alive with their rustling and chittering. My thoughts snapped back from the recollected scenes, and I paused above the yet un-collected newspaper and listened. Southern California is a mixed metaphor, after all, juxtaposing the frost on its rooftops with the birds in its branches. I had noticed one chirrup pitched higher than the others, and I realized that there must be a fledgling in among the older birds. The image of little John Logan, Ron's six-year old, intruded upon my thoughts.
Johnny is the only one of the Logan lot that I can tolerate, and, in fact, I really like him, even if I do feel a little sorry for him. More than once I've seen the gloating countenance of his older brother, Ron, Jr., suffused with fascination and pleasure at the whimsical torture of some insect or small animal unfortunate enough to have been captured in those merciless, pudgy fingers. It is his father's face as well, the face of the snail crusher. But John is different. His fists clench, and his gentle brow creases in disgust and horror at his brother's callous delights. And the little fellow has paid for such feelings.
"Get over here, you little sissy!" I've heard the father bellow.
"Take it like a man..." or "Boys don't cry!" the pugnacious taunts of his older brother have echoed, emulating the father's sarcastic tone.
Once, about a year ago, as I was carrying the trashcan around the corner of the house, I found little John hunched over on my porch, sobbing. His T-shirt front was nearly saturated, and he caught his breath in lurching hiccoughs as the tears surged down his cheeks and chin. Even the cement porch at his feet showed signs of the torrent.
"What's wrong, Bud," I said, sitting down beside him.
He brushed the butt of his fist back and forth across his eyes and tried to stifle his sobs. As a first grade teacher, I've seen enough unhappy children to know when they're inconsolable. I put my right arm around his heaving shoulders and pushed his wispy, brown hair out of his eyes with my left hand.
"It's alright, little buddy. You just go ahead and cry."
"M-m-y D-d-ad says that only s-siss...” he whimpered, and his shoulders convulsed even harder.
"Well, we both know you're not a sissy, are you?" I said.
"N-n-o!" he answered, as his sobbing began to subside. "But my brother says I am."
"Why don't you tell me what happened," I said.
After successive swipes of his sleeve at his eyes and nose, he began. "R-Ronnie got a p-pellet gun," he said, sniffing hard.
"Well, you're not crying because of that?" I said.
"No...but he...he shot a bird...a little bird..." his voice quivered, and a big tear began to fill the corner of his eye.
I watched it swell and swell like the slow drip of a leaky faucet until it finally spilled out and rolled down his cheek. "He killed it!" he said, and the sobs began again.
I held his shoulder tighter.
"J-Jimmy..." he said, after a long snuffling silence, "I-I'm not a sissy..."
"No," I said quickly, "Of course you're not. Why would you even ask?"
"B-Because Ronnie s-says so.... He says it's just a s-stupid b-bird, and only a sissy would cry...."
"Ronnie is wrong!" I said, and all the old anger and resentment swelled. I looked over at the little boy's house, and I could imagine the moronic glee on the bully's face. "It is a sad thing when someone is cruel. When something small and helpless dies, it's right to cry!" I patted him on the head. He smiled a little and sniffed.
"I think so too, Jimmy," he said.
"Good boy, John," I said, and he began to walk slowly toward home.
As I leaned down to pick up the paper, it occurred to me that since that day on my porch, Johnny and I had not really talked as much as we used to. School had probably gotten more demanding for both of us. It certainly had for me. On the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised if his father had told him not to come around.
Peeling the plastic wrapper off the Christmas edition, I unfolded the paper and wondered whether the news on Christmas morn would be good or bad. The birds abruptly ceased their chirruping at the sound of a door opening across the street. I looked up to see Johnny run gleefully out of the house.
"Look, Jimmy," he cried. "Look what Santa Claus brought me! Look!"
He held his present in his hands, but I couldn't see what it was as he dodged through the maze of Santa and his wooden reindeer.
"What you got, Bud?" I yelled to him as he ran.
"Look!" he cried, then he stopped at the edge of my lawn and raised his present in his arms. There was a soft report, a whoosh of air like the sound someone makes when the wind is knocked out of them. "YAH!" he cried, "Got 'im!"
The boy ran to where the small form had tumbled from my roof, and he stood aiming his Christmas present triumphantly at the bloody ball of fluff. I looked back at the house with its nativity scene and its red, white, and blue bulbs. Then, trying vainly to blink back the burning behind my eyes, I turned to gaze once more at the two pathetic victims on my frost-covered lawn.
©1985 Tim McMullen
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