Christmas, 2004 / No. 13
Art by Ian Phillips
Ian Phillips

His mother woke him from hazy dreams as she put several neatly folded items of laundry on the crowded dresser top. He lifted his head, then slumped back into the pillow when he realized he would not be able to fall back asleep. His mother sighed.

“Get up, Johnny,” she said.

He rolled over on his side, blinking at the floor. It seemed like he should say something.

“Is Dad at work? ”

“What do you think? It’s eleven thirty.” She finished with the clothes and prepared to leave. “Get up.”

Eventually he did, heading to the den and dropping onto the couch in front of the TV. A talk show buzzed angrily. He rubbed at his eyes, wishing he had taken it easier the night before.

In the kitchen, his mother clanked dishes and cups. It was hard to hear the couples argue on the TV, so he fumbled for the converter. She entered, shoving a mug of coffee and a croissant in front of him. He took them with a blink.

“Thanks.” He put the plate down. “Isn’t there brownies? ”

She took the plate and left with a sigh. There was more clanking and she soon returned with a couple of brownies. It was the same plate, and there were flakes of croissant still evident beneath the brownies. He decided to ignore it.

His mother stood over him as he took a sip of coffee. He kept watching TV.

“What? ”

“Are you going to pick up your prescription today? ”

“Fuck. I told you I’m not taking that shit.” He still didn’t turn.

She continued to stand over him. He sighed.


“Dr. Bynes said you should at least try—”

“For fuck’s sake, Mom. Shit.” He looked at her. “You want me to walk around here like a fucking robot or something? ” John’s mother averted her eyes. He shook his head.

His mother turned away and moved to the shelves behind the couch. He leaned back. On her way to the kitchen, she placed the white prescription paper on the table beside the brownies. He rubbed his eyes. On the talk show the host was wrapping up the program with his words of wisdom and advice. It was always surprising how quickly the segment ended.

It was somewhere around two, and the sun was high and hot, slumped heavily across the black roofs and streets. John was walking the stretch of road that nudged the fenced-off train tracks to his left and the fringes of the subdivision to his right. Friends of his had once lived over there, and he wondered where they were now. At certain points of the road, where imperfections had been recently touched up, his sneakers stuck to the heated gloop, coming off the ground in black gobs.

John held a stiff paper bag containing a brown plastic bottle with a white plastic top. He had swung by the pharmacy and picked up the prescription after all, along with a bottle of A. & W. Root Beer. The root beer was gone now, thrown into the greasy grass at the side of the railroad tracks, but he still had the bag, the bottle of pills.

As he walked he shook the bag, listening to the pills rattle around. It was a tiny though satisfying sound. Soon, he was using it to punctuate his steps with a driving percussive rhythm reminding him a little of “Street Fighting Man,” by the Stones. John smiled at this, continuing to shake the bag.

He was approaching Melody Road P.S., his old elementary school. It was summer, so classes were out, but there were some high-school kids hanging around, shooting hoops in the yard. He could hear the ball strike the old wooden backboard with a dead thud.

John lit a smoke and watched for a bit, crumpling up the bag and putting it in his pocket. The kids played a relaxed game of two-on-two, spending more time and effort trash-talking each other than shooting or passing. The rubber reverb of the ball being dribbled filled the tight air of the afternoon.

Biting down on what was left of his smoke, he walked over to the court and held his hand out. “Pass.” He nodded reassuringly in response to their uniform skepticism.

One of the kids crossed his arms, but the one with the ball chest-passed it over to John. He dribbled a bit, took a puff, and after passing the ball back and forth in his hands to get a feel for the cheap rubber of the knock-off, he bounced it off the rim. The kids nodded absently; the one who had crossed his arms grabbed for the ball when it bounced away.

John tossed his cigarette aside, asking for the ball again. The kid put his chin up but passed anyway. John dribbled from side to side.

“What are you dudes up to this afternoon? ”

“Nothin’, man.”

John dribbled the ball some more.

One of the kids bit at a nail. “Why? ”

John threw a perfect swish. He smiled at the kids as he reached for the bag in his pocket.

The kids had a bag of weed, and one of them, Matt, was rolling a fat five-paper joint filled with a good portion of it. John watched as he toked from one of Matt’s earlier creations. Black Sabbath boomed from the stereo.

“I’m really feeling these things, man,” said a kid named Adam. He turned away from a video game to show John his appreciation.

“Legal shit is always better, man.” They all laughed, never having heard that one before. John could feel the wad of cash in his pocket where the bag of prescription pills once was. The pills lay on the rec-room table, spread out and scattered like stars.

Above their heads was a sudden then steady thumping as someone entered the house. John started to get up, but the others remained seated, and continued what they were doing.

“Who’s that? ” he asked, blinking widely.

Matt lit the joint. “My sister.”

“Is she cool? ”

Matt nodded as he passed the Zeppelin-like joint to the one called Corey. “I think she has some hash.”

John nodded. Corey snickered, not taking his eyes off the screen. “What? She has a nice ass? ”

“Fuck you.” Matt threw an empty plastic bottle at his friend. “Asshole.”

John sat back and waited for the joint. A girl about seventeen or eighteen, just older than the boys, entered the room. She wore a fitted belly-shirt with “Nasty Girl” scrawled in pretty pink writing across the front, and a pair of hip-huggers. Her long blond hair gently brushed her shoulders in a shopping-mall shag. She loped toward the couch. With lazy eyes she smiled at the boys.

“That better not be mine, you little fag,” she said.

“Fuck off.” Matt exhaled, handing the joint to John, who took a long pull, trying not to cough.

Adam and Corey watched Matt’s sister straddle John’s legs then settle easily beside him on the couch. She reached out for the joint. “I think I’ve seen you, haven’t I? ” she asked, drawing the smoke over her slightly parted lips. She smelled like vanilla.

John rubbed his eyes and smiled.

“Uh, maybe.” He did remember her from somewhere. “I buy smokes from the variety store on Gaydon. You and your friends smoke behind there, huh? ”

She took a long haul. “We watch guys.” Her eyes narrowed to smoky blue slits.

“Really? ” He grinned, taking the joint from her. On the floor, Corey shifted but didn’t say anything. John squinted at the girl.

“Watch anyone interesting lately? ”

She looked down as she shifted on the couch. Her eyes met his again. “Maybe.” She smiled. Their thighs brushed. She didn’t move hers.

“What’s this? ” She leaned over to the table and picked up one of the pills her brother had bought off of John. She grinned.

Adam fingered his joystick, his eyes lazy. “They’re nice…,” he slurred.

John nudged the girl. “So…you just hang out behind the variety store and then here all day, huh? ” He passed her the joint. “You sound pretty boring.”

She hit him on the knee and rocked back playfully. “That’s not all I do.” She rolled the pill in her hand. “I need some water for this. Come upstairs.” She grabbed his hand. He stepped over Adam’s and Corey’s legs as they glanced up at him. Matt blinked at the stereo, without expression.

John turned onto his block. It was about five o’clock—the heat was still heavy, but it was becoming lazy, lacking its earlier strength. The pavement didn’t grab at him like it did before. His dad would be home from work soon. The houses on his street loomed above him on their raised lots, all tall fences and beige garages. He remembered climbing into the backyards as a boy, stomping through the gardens, knowing every distinct feature of each lot—the neighbourhood’s secret geography.

Approaching his house, his steep and sloping driveway falling away from the sidewalk, John rubbed sweat from his lip and smelled vanilla. He fingered the wad of cash in his pocket and smiled. As he opened the front door, walking into the silk of cold A.C., he could smell dinner, and hear his mother clanking plates in the kitchen upstairs.