Johnny America




Illustration of a sheet pan with a sliver of chocolate cake left balanced on the blade of a knife.

Jen­nifer and John Jef­fer­son had two sons, Jared, ten, and James, eight. James, who pre­ferred Jim, was skilled at pro­vok­ing his broth­er who nev­er called him Jim. He called him “Jar-Head” and “Jor­rid,” and did things like putting wet wash­cloths in his bed and hid­ing vi­tal Lego pieces. To re­tal­i­ate, Jared would leave post-it notes for his broth­er with ques­tions like “How long did the Hun­dred Years War last?” and “In what state would you find In­di­ana Uni­ver­si­ty?” so he could cor­rect him. “Ac­tu­al­ly, it was a hun­dred and six­teen years.” “It’s in Penn­syl­va­nia. Look it up.” He called his lit­tle broth­er “Jim­be­cile” and “Ce­ment-Head.” Jared al­ways got per­fect grades; James didn’t. James was good at every kind of sport; Jared wasn’t. 

Jennifer’s method of deal­ing with her boys was sim­ple. The more worked-up they got, the calmer she be­came; the loud­er their voic­es, the soft­er she made hers. This worked well be­cause both boys adored her; and, though this was it­self at the root of their abra­sive ri­val­ry, nei­ther want­ed Jen­nifer to be mad at him, just at his brother.

One day, Jen­nifer baked a choco­late sheet cake. It was on the kitchen counter when the boys got home from school. They burst through the door ar­gu­ing about Ms. Pitt who had been Jared’s teacher two years be­fore and was now James’. Jared thought she was won­der­ful; James hat­ed her be­cause of how of­ten she com­pared him to his brainy broth­er. “Teacher’s pet!” he shout­ed with con­tempt. “Jim­be­cile!” Jared re­tort­ed smugly.

“Qui­et down, you two,” said Jen­nifer then gave each a long and sooth­ing hug.

The boys spot­ted the cake.

“Can I have some?” both said. Nei­ther said, “Can we have a piece?”

“It’s for dessert.”

“Aw, Mom,” whined James.

“Please?” begged James. “I’m famished.”

The boys looked at her plead­ing­ly with ex­trav­a­gant­ly wa­ter­ing mouths. “I have to run to the dry clean­ers,” said Jen­nifer, re­al­iz­ing that this wasn’t an an­swer. “Well, all right. You can each take a small piece off the side.” She laid a knife on the counter. “Be very care­ful with this.”

“I will,” said Jared. 

“Me, too,” Jim echoed. 

Bön voy­age, Ma­man,” said Jared, who was teach­ing him­self French.

Jared in­sist­ed on tak­ing the knife first on grounds of se­nior­i­ty. He cut a small slice off the left side of the cake and laid the knife down on the counter.

“Just a small piece, and be very care­ful with the knife,” he warned his brother.

Be care­ful with the knife,” James said in the falset­to he used to mock his bossy brother.

The cake was de­li­cious, moist, choco­laty in­side and on top.

James looked hard at the cake, the knife, and his brother.

“She didn’t ac­tu­al­ly say one piece.”

Jared, sur­prised by his brother’s as­tute­ness, con­sid­ered his point. “Or one time.”


So, each cut an­oth­er slice, one from the left, the oth­er from the right, big­ger ones this time.

Jared got the milk from the re­frig­er­a­tor. James went to the cup­board and took out two glasses.

They cut more slices, from each side. The mid­dle got nar­row­er, thin­ner, tinier, un­til scarce­ly even a sliv­er was left.

Filed under Fiction on March 29th, 2024

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