Outside the Perimeter


flash fic·tion noun

  1. fiction that is extremely brief, typically only a few hundred words or fewer in its entirety.

Outside the Perimeter –By John Thursday

  1. a flash fiction prequel to In the Road – by John Thursday.

Part I

Johnny could barely make out the staticky voice coming down the hall from his mother’s bedroom as he opened his eyes one January morning and remembered the talk of snow he’d heard the night before. Looking out of the window he saw a fresh cover of white reflecting the morning sun and a steady flurry of flakes still falling. In long-johns and socks, he raced down the hall toward the Pied-Piper sounds of his mother’s green-plastic radio and listened as the DJ read down the list of school closings. A thermometer, placed there the year before by his great grandfather, hung just outside the second story window of the master bedroom overlooking their large front yard. His mother was sitting in front of a vanity mirror applying makeup as he sat down on her king-sized bed and listened to the radio.

“Atlanta City, Fulton, Gwinnett…” The radio announcer was going down the list. Johnny couldn’t make out any order to the announcement. His older brother Lane walked into the room wearing only the gym shorts he slept in and a smile that betrayed the generally cool demeanor he typically tried to comport.

Have they said us yet? Lane asked, looking over his mother’s shoulder and into the mirror, striking a bodybuilder pose he had seen in one of his magazines. Johnny stared at his brother. Lane had begun shaving his forearms to accentuate the progress he was making in the weight room.

Not yet, their mother replied, finishing her face with a light dusting of powder before standing up and putting on her coat.

Cobb County, Paulding County, Cherokee, Forsyth, the DJ continued. Johnny and his brother looked at each other in anticipation of the great announcement and silently planned a day of unsupervised shenanigans. For Johnny, this meant taking the trucks off of his skateboard to use the deck as a snowboard. For Lane it was walking the few streets over to Shelly Smith’s house in the hopes that her mother would be at work, leaving her to fend for herself against the motley crew of neighborhood boys who had taken interest in her over the past year. 

The boy’s mother, Susan, walked toward the bedroom door when the DJ finally came clean with the news that Dekalb County schools would be closed. The boys shouted at the top of their lungs in Saturnalian celebration as their mother exited the room and made for the stairs. 

Don’t forget to feed the cat! she yelled as they listened to her distinctive footsteps against the carpeted stairs heading down and out to work. 

As the radio began playing the pop-rock hits of 1986 Johnny walked over to the window where the thermometer hung covered in sickles.

It’s only seven degrees outside! He shouted to an empty room. Lane was already in the shower getting ready for his big day.

Shuttering from the cold, Susan jumped into the car and closed the door. Without letting it run, she shifted the ten-year-old Beetle into gear and made a sharp turn in reverse out of the garage and down the steep driveway, deftly navigating the slight curve without turning around to look. Her mind focused easily on the voices of the zany morning talk show hosts coming from her FM radio. Before long, Dionne and friends were singing That’s What Friends Are For as the newly forty, but longtime single, mother of two pulled to a stop at the top of the cul-de-sac in the eleven year old subdivision of Dunwoody, Georgia. Now, with a only a flurry here and there, the sky was a pregnant grey blanket laid over the city as she made the same left turn out of her street that she had been making five days a week for the last twelve years. Through divorce, illness, and car trouble, Susan had never once been late to work, much less missed a day. As much as she loved the boys, she loved her reputation as a dependable employee of the Southern Bell System. The car had still not warmed up by the time she made it to the first traffic light, just down the road from the street she lived on, but warmth, or lack of it, was not the kind of thing of which Susan took note. 

Lane was in the shower thinking about wrestling. His team – led by an unhinged former drill sergeant and veteran of the Vietnam war – was headed for the State Championship again this year and he had dreams of winning his weight-class. Johnny knocked on the door.

  Hurry up! he shouted before picking the lock and busting in. 

  Get out of here, Johnny! Lane yelled angrily. I’ll be done in a second!

Part II

Papa

Johnny peeled the pickle slice from his Sunday shirt and tossed it into his mouth with a snarl. Grabbing a tiny napkin from the silver table dispenser he dabbed at the stain left behind and glared at his older brother. 

What the Hell, Lane!?

You said you wanted it, Lane responded. 

Johnny! Susan snapped.

Look at my shirt! Johnny attempted a retort. It was no use. Shirts get dirty, under no circumstances do children cuss in public. Johnny’s great-grandfather, Papa, chewed his food serenely and smiled at the young boy before turning to Lane.

So you’re a wrastler now? he asked, using an Arcadian pronunciation that made Lane squirm.  

Papa’s idea of wrestling was formed in the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium in the 1950’s when he used to take the boy’s mother to ABC Booking matches on Friday nights. 

It’s not like that, Papa! Lane and his mother spoke in unison. Johnny was enjoying the moment. For once, he wasn’t the one explaining himself. He noticed his mother’s pickles lying uneaten on the wax paper wrapper in front of her.

Can I have th…?

I don’t jump off of a rope or hit people with chairs, Papa, Lane interrupted with a vain attempt to explain the difference between high-school wrestling and the kind shown on television. Papa shook his head. 

He has a cape, Papa! Johnny saw an opportunity. He’d worry about the beating later. Lane reached across the table. And red boots! the younger boy continued. Lane took a swing and missed.

No I don’t! Shut up, Johnny! 

Susan was putting the trash from their meal on her tray. Standing up to leave, she deftly manipulated Lane back into his seat.

Let’s go ya’ll, she directed. The family stood up and headed for the trash can with their trays. Johnny waited on Papa while Susan and Lane exited for the car. 

I got something for you back at the apartment, the eighty-six-year-old spoke to the boy. Walk up with me when we get there. 

Johnny’s great-grandfather rented an apartment in a retirement community near Atlanta’s downtown. There was a restaurant on a nearby corner that had a full-sized Ferris Wheel in the parking lot and for years, every time they drove by Johnny would ask to stop. The name of the place changed often and eventually the Ferris Wheel was boxed in and closed. Johnny looked out the window of the back seat as they turned the corner. 

Can we ride the Ferris Wheel today? he asked. 

No, Johnny, his mother and brother answered. Papa sat in the backseat next to the boy. Turning to Susan, he spoke.

I want Johnny to walk me up, okay? 

Okay, Papa, Susan answered. 

Papa lived on the ninth floor. For several years, from the middle of fifth grade until the end of seventh, Johnny didn’t ride elevators. 

I’ll meet you up there, Papa, he announced, half-way through the heavy metal door that opened in to the stairwell. Without waiting for an answer he began the assent to the ninth floor, counting each step of the way.  By the time he reached the top, he was winded. Making his way to the front door of his great-grandfather’s apartment he thought about Lane and wrestling and wondered if Papa really thought he was like those guys on TV. He felt bad if he did. 

The door was open and Johnny walked in. Papa’s apartment was a small room with a television, a bed, and a kitchen table. There was a cork board with postcards tacked to it in the entry hall. One of the postcards showed a cowboy riding a giant, horse-sized jack-rabbit that Johnny always stopped to look at. When he was younger he wondered if it was real, though he never asked. The image always seemed a little grotesque to him. A small television sat in the corner by the window in front of a single chair. The Braves game was on. Johnny didn’t watch sports like everyone else he knew but Papa would take him to the games and he loved going to the big stadium and having nachos and sitting with his great-grandfather. 

I bought ya’ll some groceries, Papa spoke. There’s grapes and oranges and M&M’s in there. And a jar of dill pickles. Johnny looked up. Papa smiled. The boy’s eyes glassed over. He didn’t know why, but he got this way in the face of kindness. Papa patted him on the shoulder. 

Watch the rest of this at-bat. It’s Murph. I bet he hits it outta the park. As if on cue, the unmistakeable sound of a wooden bat connecting with a baseball cracked through the television speaker and Johnny and Papa hollered as Murph circled the bases. Picking up the groceries and heading for the door, Johnny looked back to say goodbye.

Thanks for the pickles, Papa, he smiled. 

Tell your brother I don’t like him wrastling, Papa returned. Johnny thought he noticed a smile. 

I will, he replied. 

The sack of groceries made for a difficult descent, but Johnny wasn’t ready to risk getting stuck between floors in a rickety box. By the time he made it back to the car his arms were aching.

What’s in the bag? Lane asked flatly. 

Pickles, Johnny responded.

Gross. Lane and Susan replied.

I can’t believe Papa thinks I wrestle like they do on TV, Lane complained.

Oh, I talked to him about that upstairs, Johnny began.

Really? Lane looked hopeful. What did you say?

I told him you wore a mask and called yourself the Pink Flamingo, Johnny responded, simultaneously filling the car with the noxious fumes that only a Varsity hotdog could supply.  Before Lane could jump back into the backseat to pummel Johnny, the odor announced itself. Susan knew immediately which one was responsible.

Johnny!!! she hollared, furiously rolling down her window. Managing to stifle his smile only a moment, Johnny finally burst with laughter. Lane was next, laughing despite himself. Finally Susan joined in. Half an hour later, as they pulled into their neighborhood, Johnny decided to confess. 

I didn’t tell him you wore a mask, Lane, he said.  

I appreciate that, Lane responded, and turned to face his younger brother. I’m still kicking your ass. 

Johnny smiled. 

Bring it on Pink Flamingo, he replied as they pulled up the steep driveway.