Fiction – “The Consequences of Deliberation” by Clifford Royal Johns
Snorky and I were shooting baskets in his driveway. Neither of us were athletic; his parents couldn’t afford any jakes, and mine bought only the default calm and rational ones, just like they had, that were supported by government subsidy. Body jakes cost a lot. Even so, basketball gave us something to do. Most days that summer between sixth and seventh grades we shot baskets and talked about what color the flame would be if you burned a memstick, or if there was gravity in a vacuum, or if you were in the space station and you tied a slice of peanut butter bread to a cat’s back, which side would drift earthward, the cat’s feet or the peanut butter side of the bread. On this particular day, Snorky was a bit distracted, and I admit I was too. Snorky’s older brother, Dave, hadn’t left the house yet, and it was a lot like waiting for an alarm clock to go off.
We argued some more. I took another shot and missed the backboard, but the ball landed in the recycle bin, and we laughed about me getting extra points for that. I pulled the ball out from among the squashed beer cans and the lone Slimbody bottle. Snorky didn’t actually give me the extra points. He liked to win. Me, I didn’t really care if I won or not.
I thought the cat, being the more animated of the two, would always win out, so its feet would always point down – as though he were falling. But Snorky believed in the fate of peanut butter bread, especially if the experiment were executed in his kitchen and if his mother were watching. But I said space was different than a kitchen.
I argued with him mostly because he was so adamant about the peanut butter. He was always the most adamant when he was the least confident, punctuating his points with bits of spit and a jabbing finger. After he faked left, dribbled around me and did a lay-up, he paused. “The bread would wrap around the cat’s back if you tied it on, so, if the cat was on its side, the bread would still face down, so the odds are 3 out of 4 that the bread would win.” He held the basketball under his left arm and poked me with his right index finger as he talked, setting his point like a nail.
I finally convinced him that the cat would actually win, but after a few more baskets, I decided to change my mind. “The cat might like peanut butter and try to twist in the air to lick at the peanut butter bread and end up back down anyway, so the cat might lose.”
Snorky glowered, then sputtered a little. “Why do you do that? Why do you always disagree even after I agree with you?” He heaved the ball at me. Conversation always flows from disagreement, I figured.
I ducked under his final argument, and the ball rolled under the neighbor’s hedge and into her yard. Laughing, I looked at the old woman’s picture window to see if she was watching, then squeezed through the shrubs. The woman who lived next door thought a lot of her shrubs and had yelled out the window the day before when she saw us approach them. She rushed out and wanted to know why, if we spent all that energy playing basketball, we couldn’t walk to the sidewalk, around the hedge, and back up into her yard to get the ball. We couldn’t answer that question. At the time, I’m not sure if it even made sense.
As I shoved my way back through the hedge, pushing the ball through before me as a shield against the poking branches, Dave walked out of the house. Dave was feral like Snorky, no jakes at all, but he wore it like a badge. Dave always posed, trying to look dangerous. This time he stood slack and easy on the porch, his eyes half open like the world wasn’t worth his full attention. He gazed down the hill toward Ash Street, slowly scanned across his yard and driveway, then looked up toward the strip mall. He caught sight of me. I stood still. I thought I saw just the edges of his lips curl, like a smile, but not really, then he turned his gaze back to his little brother who stood unmoving in the driveway.
Snorky seemed tiny then. His whole body sagged like an old man’s in the steaming afternoon heat; his left shoe untied, his pipe cleaner arms sticking out of his thin green tee which hung almost to his knees, and his hair stuck to his forehead with sweat.
Dave ambled down the porch stairs, took a quick glance over his shoulder at the house, then turned languidly back toward the driveway and focused on his little brother. He walked up to Snorky, stared at him for just a moment, then said, “Punch me, or I’ll punch you.”
I wanted to scream, “Punch him, quick,” but I just couldn’t spit it out. While my mind played with the possibilities, I couldn’t even move, I just stared, unable to help. Dave paused, then laid Snorky out on the driveway with a direct popshot on the nose.
“Them’s the consequences of deliberation,” Dave said, slowly and carefully, enunciating as though he were trying to sound out new words from a book. “You got to react faster than that, Snorky-Dorky, or the Manor House kids’ll eat you up.” Dave’s shadow completely covered Snorky while Snorky struggled to catch his breath, making little honking, whining noises, like a puppy makes when it’s too young to open its eyes. Dave watched for a moment, hands open and hanging loose by his side, then he strolled off toward the JiffyStop on the corner, snapping his fingers to some unheard song.
Dave was fifteen, a Manor House School For Boys veteran, having started at the school when he was eleven after throwing a rock at a police car. Of course that was also after he beat up a friend with a trash can lid and hung a cat. Manor House was supposed to teach manners, obedience, and social responsibility, or so it said on the side of their busses, but really it was a place to hide kids whose parents couldn’t afford a proper jake when the kid was little. Manor House was only an incident away from the Army New Start school, an incident away from adult military jakes that made you a perfect soldier, acceptable only in military society.
A few weeks before, Snorky’s mother had caught Snorky in the basement watching matches burn. He had bought some “barn burners,” big wooden matches, and was lighting them four at a time to watch the flame and smell the smoke. He’d watched the fire a little too long and dropped the matches on a 1944 Look magazine, burning off half of a pretty woman’s face before he could put out the fire. The magazine had been an investment made years ago and his parents had it out because they were going to sell it and buy a new car. After the fire, they choose not to wait for Snorky to do anything more delinquent; they decided right then to send him to Manor House just as they had sent his brother.
Snorky had a nose that gave him a great nickname, but also made him easy to make fun of. He was skinny, maybe even frail, and he breathed funny when the dust blew up from the fields behind his house. The kids at school called him Snorky-Dorky and made honking noises, but he didn’t seem to mind much. I wouldn’t have taken it that well.
When I bent down to help him up from the ground, he flailed out at me as though I’d been the one who punched him. No calm jake, no rational jake, no acceptance jake. Just a feral kid.
“I don’t need your help. I can handle myself.” He scrambled up and ran awkwardly into his house with one hand pressed to his nose to keep from getting blood on his shirt, and so I wouldn’t see him cry.
I wouldn’t have punched Dave either. Just like I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t punch. I was a deliberator and there were consequences to that, but then, come fall I only had the short walk over to Clover Middle school. Snorky would have to ride the dark green bus to Manor House with his brother. He would have to learn.
I walked home thinking about Dave and what a jerk he was. I didn’t have a brother, which I usually regretted, but at that moment I felt grateful that my parents hadn’t decided to have another kid. They talked about it a lot, but hadn’t come to any conclusions.
When I came in, my parents were sitting in the living room, newspapers spread out on the floor by their chairs.
“I don’t have the help wanted section. You have it,” my father said.
“It’s in the same section as the auctions, and you were just reading the auctions.”
They didn’t like reading the news on the computer because they wanted to read it together. Every weekend they studied the help wanted ads saying things like, “Maybe I should go into designing face jakes,” or “Maybe I should go to law school.” Dad was a flap-car salesman and Mom worked as a cashier at the same dealership. They had been talking about trying something else for as long as I could remember.
I went upstairs hoping they wouldn’t stop me and ask who I’d been playing with. They didn’t like Snorky. Even though he’d always been polite to them, they claimed he would turn out just like his older brother. “You shouldn’t play with feral kids. There are plenty of civilized ones your age and in this neighborhood too.” But the civilized ones were boring.
The next day it was drizzling, but the water wasn’t running in the gutters yet. I dribbled my ball over to Snorky’s house and shot a few baskets in the driveway before he came out. His nose and the inside of his left eye were purple, like an eggplant. I didn’t mention it. We played H.O.R.S.E. and that went OK. He beat me, taking a wild shot and making it. He could barely throw the ball that far, but it swished through. Then we played a little one-on-one. He was winning six to two, so I tried my new move. I dribbled right up to him, and, when he reached for the ball to steal it, I bounced it back between my legs, switched hands and swept around him to take the easy shot. I’d been practicing that trick for a few days and cheered for myself, making the crowd noise with cupped hands.
Snorky stomped up to me wild-eyed and said, “Punch me or I’ll punch you.”
I stopped cheering and stared at him. “Snorky?” I saw his bony little fist coming toward me. I wouldn’t have been able to punch him, but I might have run away if I could have thought faster; his fist moved so slowly. Then it hit me. Right in the forehead. He’d put enough force behind it to sit me down. And it did hurt. An hour later, I would have a blue-green lump, but at the time it struck me as funny, him hitting me in the forehead like that.
After I got in my first fight at school my father told me to look the guy directly in the nose and punch it. “It doesn’t have to be hard,” he’d said. “Just accurate.” My mother had told me I should tell the feral bullies I was sick, and I could die if they punched me.
Snorky stood glaring down at me, fists up ready for my retaliation. I thought about that. He didn’t look mad though, more startled or surprised, as though he hadn’t really meant to hit me. He didn’t appear to be going savage or anything. “You’re lucky you didn’t hit my nose, or you might have killed me,” I said. “I have a condition.”
Snorky stepped back and dropped his hands to his side. A little bubble of giggle snuck up through his throat and puffed his cheeks out. I’d told him about my mother’s advice back when Dave popped Snorky’s nose the first time. I grinned, pleased with my controlled response. Snorky let out a snicker and sat down on the wet pavement beside me.
He suddenly looked serious, somber. He stared up at the basketball backboard for a moment, then said in a low, quiet voice, “Them’s the consequences of deliberation.”
It was an OK imitation. Good enough for us to roll around on the wet driveway, laughing hard enough to hurt. The heavily jaked kids would never have come up with that.
When we settled a little, Snorky, still breathing hard, heaved himself up and retrieved the basketball. He bounced it a few times then held it, examining the place where the rubber had peeled up. He tugged at the tab. “I wish I had a rational jake. You know, like you. Then I wouldn’t be going to Manor House. You’re so easygoing about everything. I hit you, and you didn’t even mind.”
“I minded,” I said. “I just didn’t do anything about it. It seemed like things would get worse if I hit you back and better if I didn’t.”
“Shit,” he said, “I would have started swinging.”
There were times when I wanted nothing more than to start swinging. Even at that moment, I had the urge to jump up and throw the ball through the old woman’s big window. I could see the glass bursting inward. I could imagine her yelling and blaming me. But I was civilized, so Snorky would get the blame. It couldn’t be me. No, not me. “Did you ask your parents for another chance? You know, tell them you’re sorry about the matches, and that you’ll be good and all that?”
“No. I’ve thought about it, but Dave talked them out of sending him to Manor House the first time, then a few days later he took a swing at Mom. They wouldn’t listen now. Besides, I don’t know what to say. They’re pretty mad about the fire.”
I stared at the ground. I felt sorry for him and didn’t want him to know. “Maybe you shouldn’t think about it,” I said. “Maybe you should just go in and start talking.”
“About what? I said I was sorry before, but they don’t listen. Dad said the stupid magazine was worth more than me and that I’d just burned up any chance of them paying for college. Mom got all crazy and started crying and stuff.” Snorky’s parents were feral too.
“If you think too hard, it won’t come out right. Just go in and start talking. Maybe they’ve cooled down by now.” I gave him a shove. He hesitated a moment, looking at me as though he might hit me again. Then suddenly, he turned and ran inside.
I shot some more baskets and listened for yelling. It started raining harder. I took some shots from nearer the house, but I didn’t hear anything. I glanced in the window and saw Snorky’s mother hugging him. Feral parents are different. I was soaked through, and the water dripped off my nose. My wet jeans made it hard to move, but I wanted to know what happened, so I sat on the basketball and waited.
After a while Dave stomped out wearing just a tee shirt and jeans, carefully disregarded me in passing, and splashed off toward the JiffyShop. Snorky peeked out a minute later and looked around. “It’s OK, Dave’s gone,” I said, standing up.
“I’m on probation,” he said. “If I’m good for the rest of the summer, I can stay at Clover.” He looked at the ground, shuffled his feet, then added, “Thanks.”
“Seemed like the logical thing to do, that’s all.”
Snorky seemed irritated. “Yeah,” he said. “Easy for you,” but then in a calm deep voice he said, “Shoot a basket or I will!” and he grabbed the ball from my hands and took the easy shot.
About the Author
Clifford Royal Johns lives in Northern Illinois with his wife. His stories have appeared in many publications including Shimmer, Story Station, Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine, and Mysterical-E. He will write the story of his own coming of age when he achieves that long-delayed benchmark. Until then he will continue to write fiction.