Keep Your Head Up, Kidhttps://i0.wp.com/barrenmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/8-Downtown.jpg?fit=1280%2C851&ssl=11280851Matthew BanashMatthew Banashhttps://i0.wp.com/barrenmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/mattbanash.jpg?fit=96%2C96&ssl=1
The kid had forgotten what day it was. His old man, sitting at the kitchen table in his VFW uniform, drinking breakfast and smoking lunch, said, “Happy Birthday, kid,” gestured with the butt and continued. “Sorry, you’re not a kid, you’re what, 13, a teenager?” he ball-busted. “Think you know everything?” He pushed out the Pall Mall in the amber glass ashtray. “Well, let me tell you something . . . ,” and the kid thought, “Oh, shit, here we go . . . ,” and the old man slid a present his way. Then Mrs. Quinn, our next door neighbor, came knocking on the kitchen’s screen door, the door being open to the already-warm Memorial Day since you never knew what weather you’d get this time of year in Levittown, her face beginning to waver and roil on the verge of disappearing behind the dark filter of the mesh, saying Johnny was having a fit, a seizure, “Face down in the carport gurgling real bad about to choke on his tongue.”
His old man was in control, telling her to call the rescue squad, grabbing a tablespoon out of a kitchen drawer then hobbling out the door with deft steps despite his bad leg. The kid was suddenly alone, alone with memories of the night before along the crick behind St. Joe’s. He couldn’t remember kissing Angela Goodhead, but thought he felt down there, brushed the scrubby, coarse wet hair and felt her warm laugh in his ear saying, “No.”
It all fell into place: the what, why, when and how of the night before and today, his birthday. He resurrected the butt, rolling it back into shape, sparked it up and chugged the Schmidt’s his dad had just opened, figuring no one would notice it gone in all the confusion. He knocked back a shot of Royal Crown and unwrapped the present. His family was not bound by formalities. No thank you cards, no yes sir no sir, being quiet was respectable enough. A dog collar?
Then he heard the ice cream truck. The clanging called, drawing him and his kind out of their houses, backyards, trees, and cricks; footballs were dropped, bikes were leapt off to roll rider-less to wherever rider-less bikes roll to. It was the start of the ice cream truck season and two or three a day might roll slowly down the lane but who knew what the future held? His older brother had explained “carpe diem” to him once. He ran back into his room to see if his Mr. Peanut bank had any money.
One time his dad collected enough Planters bags from up the road to get two Mr. Peanuts, a green one for his brother and a blue one for the kid. Their favorite colors. It was the first piece of mail ever addressed to him. The kid kept a running tally of the bags his father brought home every day.
The banks sat on the window sill; they were plastic with a slit in the anthropomorphic legume’s top hat, with spindly arms and legs so only the peanut-shaped torso held money. Mr. Peanut Blue rarely had enough in his belly to withstand a breeze blowing through the screen window, but his brother would weigh his bank down patiently, saving for the latest MAD magazines. Now with him gone Mr. Peanut Green sat empty. When the kid realized his brother wasn’t coming back, he tried unscrewing the top hoping to find a forgotten bill making that soft sliding paper sound he heard upon shaking the bank, but the chapeau had been Krazy-Glued on and broke off in the kid’s hand. Inside was a piece of paper; it read “IOU A MILLION $ HAHAHA.” Now Mr. Peanut Green surveyed the bedroom, his hat at a rakish angle over his monocled eye. Big brothers.
Mr. Blue surrendered his silver as an acrid, aqueous burp rose in the kid’s gullet, but he tamped down the Royal Crown with fortitude and visions of popsicles, then headed out the door. He was so buzzed he tried for ten minutes to buy a Bomb Pop from the ambulance thinking it was an O’Boyle’s ice cream truck while his father was one hundred feet away cradling Johnny’s head in his lap, holding onto the spoon handle sticking out of his mouth, rattling like some metallic tongue spitting curses at God.
First, he had stood at the curb for five minutes looking hopelessly at the caduceus on the Ford’s side panel for the menu, inhaling exhaust, basking in its warm fog mixed of rubber, creosote and premium gasoline as the lights spun silently, flashing intermittent washes of pink across his field of vision. He tapped on the window, tried the door handle, then heard the wheels of the stretcher rolling down the driveway with an ashen Johnny strapped in, blankets up to his neck, a white patch in the middle of his forehead blooming a bloodred third eye. He liked Johnny, remembered the rides in his burgundy Mustang convertible. One ride really, before he fishtailed it into a light pole at the bottom of the hill. Then the kid realized he had missed the ice cream truck, its siren calls softer yet more alluring as it faded from sight. If this was being grownup, he’d just as soon stay twelve the rest of his life.