Johnny America




Tr­ish worked in my of­fice, do­ing the same job as me. We start­ed at eight a.m. and an­swered phone calls from end­less, an­gry cred­it card cus­tomers for ten hours. Four days a week we sat in those cubes with head­sets on, lis­ten­ing to mid­dle Amer­i­ca com­plain about their in­ter­est rate, blame the post of­fice for late pay­ments, or beg for an emer­gency cred­it line in­crease. There was a dig­i­tal tote board at the front of the room. It told how many calls were on hold, and the av­er­age wait time. We were all giv­en three breaks, thir­ty min­utes for lunch, and two ten minute “smoke breaks.” We could take them at any­time, con­sec­u­tive­ly if we want­ed, and every day was a per­son­al bat­tle to not take our breaks too ear­ly. If you didn’t sched­ule them right, or gave in too ear­ly, you were stuck with hours and hours on the phones.

Tr­ish al­ways took her breaks when I did. She said she trust­ed my break sched­ule, and that left to her own de­vices she would be stuck on the phone six hours straight. She was thir­ty six, plain and quite heavy. You could tell she had giv­en up; no make-up, bag­gy blue jeans and big sweat­shirts. We bare­ly spoke dur­ing our breaks, so I was very sur­prised when, dur­ing lunch, she asked if I would talk to her son.

“Your son? About what?” I asked.

“Well, he’s twelve, and he is a sort of snob. I mean, he is very smart, in the gift­ed pro­gram at school and all of that, but he is re­al­ly very mean. He knows he is smarter than most peo­ple and rubs their nose in it. He gets beat up all the time, and frankly, I’m sur­prised it doesn’t hap­pen more of­ten. He’s re­al­ly a lit­tle jerk.”

“But I don’t even know him, hell, I hard­ly know you, Trish.”

“Yeah, but I think he might lis­ten bet­ter to a stranger.”

“I don’t know what I could say to him” I replied.

“Just try to con­vince him to chill out. You seem like a smart guy, I mean you’re al­ways read­ing those old books and stuff. But you’re re­al cool to every­body here, I mean you’re re­al smart but you don’t act like it.”

I told her that was one of the nicest things any one had ever said to me, and that I’d give it a shot. We made a date for me to come to her house on Sat­ur­day. I wrote down the address.

The ad­dress was for an apart­ment on the west side of town, in the neigh­bor­hood where I grew up. I felt bad for the kid im­me­di­ate­ly, this was a ter­ri­ble part of town to walk home with an arm­load of books. Add a snot­ty, gift­ed-pro­gram at­ti­tude on top of that and, well it was no won­der the kid kept get­ting his ass kicked.

I found the apart­ment and knocked on the door. Tr­ish an­swered and let me in.

She jerked her thumb to­ward the back of the apartment.

“He’s back there read­ing” she said. “Have a seat.”

I sat on a couch that was cov­ered by a dirty blan­ket. The dirty blan­ket was cov­ered in cat hair. I start­ed to won­der if I had made a mis­take com­ing to talk to this kid. Hell, I was on­ly 23 and didn’t even have a kid of my own. But the strong smell of cat piss in the air made me stay, I re­al­ly was feel­ing bad for him now.

Tr­ish walked out and the kid followed.

“Bri­an, this is Bill. Bill, this is my son Brian.”

I stood up and walked over to shake his hand. He looked at my out­stretched arm and said “heh.” He gave me a limp lit­tle hand shake.

“What’s the mat­ter” I said, “you don’t like shak­ing hands?”

“Heh” he sneered, “It’s a pedes­tri­an, mid­dle-class tra­di­tion that is not on­ly un­hy­gien­ic, but full of dumb, false masculinity.”

“Well” I replied, “You have a point there.”

Tr­ish told Bri­an to sit down and asked if we want­ed drinks. I took a beer but Bri­an declined.

“I’m more than hy­drat­ed, thank you” he said.

I was im­pressed. He was on­ly twelve, and though he was very ef­fem­i­nate, and ob­vi­ous­ly very gay, he did have a cer­tain cock­sure spir­it about him. I made up my mind to at least let the kid know life would be eas­i­er if he tried to hold back the snot­ty rou­tine a lit­tle. I asked Tr­ish to talk outside.

“Well,” she said, “what do you think?”

“He’s a smart lit­tle dude. That’s for sure. I think it would be eas­i­er to talk to him if we were alone. Is it all right with you if I take him for a drive?”

“Oh, yes. I think that’s a good idea.”

She opened the door and called in­side. “Bri­an, come here. You’re go­ing for a dri­ve with Bill.”

“Great” was the sar­cas­tic reply.

We walked across the park­ing lot to­ward my car.

“Where are we go­ing? To have a talk?” he asked.

“We are go­ing for a dri­ve. I don’t much like talk­ing” I answered.

I un­locked the pas­sen­ger door of my CRX, and walked around to the oth­er side.

“Hop in and buck­le up” I said.

We were silent un­til I pulled out of the park­ing lot.

“Wow” he said, “this is such a nice car.”

I looked at him. He had a sat­is­fied smirk.

”A sneer is the weapon of the weak”

“James Rus­sell Low­ell, wow, I am so im­pressed. Where the hell are we going?”

“We’re not go­ing any­where” I said. “Just dri­ving so we can be alone when I teach you something.”

“And what, pray tell, can a per­son like you, teach me?”

“Do you have a cell phone?” I asked.

“Of course.”

“Can you re­ceive text messages?”

He sighed, bored and su­pe­ri­or. “Of course.”

“Give me your phone number.”

He sat mo­tion­less. I drove on, wait­ing him out, for I had a sud­den inspiration.

Be­fore long, he gave in. “Why?”

“I want to send you a text message.”

He sighed again. He rat­tled of his phone number.

I pulled out my phone and typed in the mes­sage: ILFYM. I hit send.

His phone vi­brat­ed in his pock­et. He feigned an­noy­ance as he fished it out. I could tell he was intrigued.

“What is that sup­posed to mean?” he asked.

“You’re pret­ty smart, Bri­an, fig­ure it out.”

He puz­zled over it for a few min­utes and gave up “It’s just non­sense” he said.

I was silent. I had been dri­ving around the block and we were get­ting close to his apartment.

Sud­den­ly, and with fi­nal­i­ty, I spoke. “I‑Love-Fuck­ing-Your-Mom. That’s what it means. And it’s true, I re­al­ly do.”

He turned his head to­ward me quick­ly, I sneered at him, and he turned back to star­ing out of the window.

“I‑Love-Fuck­ing-Your-Mom” I re­peat­ed. “What do you think of that?”

“Shut up” he replied.

I drove past the dri­ve­way to his apart­ment complex.

“I do, I re­al­ly do. I‑Love-Fuck­ing-Your-Mom.”

“Stop! Take me home” he said. He went back to his win­dow. He was try­ing not to cry.

I had pulled out my phone and re­sent the mes­sage with­out him see­ing me. His pock­et vi­brat­ed. He glared at me through his tears.

“It’s not from me” I said.

He pulled out his phone and looked at the screen. He let out a whim­per like a pup­py, and start­ed to sob openly.

“We do it at my house be­cause your house smells like cat piss. She’s al­ways telling me she doesn’t even want to go home be­cause you’re there and you are mean to her and every­body else be­cause you’re so smart. Do you feel smart right now, Bri­an? Cry­ing like a ba­by in a stranger’s crap­py lit­tle car?”

Bri­an didn’t an­swer, he couldn’t. He was prac­ti­cal­ly choking.

“Can you hear me, kid?” I asked. He nod­ded assent.

“How you feel right now; that’s how oth­er peo­ple feel when you pre­tend to be bet­ter than them be­cause you’re smarter. Be­lieve me, be­ing smart doesn’t mean shit. It’s what you do with your in­tel­li­gence that counts. Understand?”

He nod­ded again.

“Now stop cry­ing, I’m gonna’ take you home, and you’re not gonna’ tell your mom any of this, you’re just gonna’ start be­ing nicer to peo­ple. Start­ing with her. Understand?”

He nod­ded again. I made one more cir­cle around the block to give him time to pull him­self to­geth­er. When we pulled up to the apart­ment, Tr­ish came outside.

“Get out of my car” I whispered.

He got out of the car and walked quick­ly in­to the apart­ment, look­ing at his feet.

Tr­ish came around to my window.

“Well, how’d it go?”

“I think I got through to him. I see what you mean, he is a bit of a snob, but we’ll see if my lit­tle talk helped.”

She reached in­to the car and put her hand on my shoulder.

“I can’t thank you enough for this” she said.

“Any­time, Tr­ish. See you Mon­day, okay?”

I drove away with a strong feel­ing of sat­is­fac­tion. I de­cid­ed I just might make a pret­ty good dad some day.

Filed under Fiction on September 2nd, 2008

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