Short Story - Fleas
"Fleas. That fucker called us fleas!" My friend John had walked through the doors of the Lake Bottom Brewery in a hurry. He made an archetype of a bee line, no, it was even better than that; he was like a bee with an advanced degree in engineering. It was pretty amazing because there was all kinds of people, chairs and tables and shit in his way. I knew he was in a tizzy about something. I would have said his panties were in a bunch but as long as I've known his crazy ass, he has gone commando.
"Whoa! Just slow down there, Seabiscuit. What's got you riled up?"
"It's that stupid fucking Danny. We were talking about people leaving California in hordes because of all the taxes and regulations and shit. He called them fleas."
"Like in leaving a sinking ship. I get it. Why does that upset you so much."
He calmed down a bit, "My mom and dad are moving back to Oklahoma next month. I didn't like the cocksucker calling them fleas."
"We have been friends with Danny ever since we were knee high to a cotton stalk; I don't know about calling him a cocksucker."
The words took a minute to sink in. John was never in Honors classes in school and there was a valid reason for that, but he wasn't intrinsically stupid or anything like that. He was just operating with a needle on vinyl in an age of streaming services.
Hell, five years of high school, one in welding school, a year spent trying to get his GED and he hadn't even made it to the eight-track stage yet. But, like I said, he wasn't intrinsically stupid. It just took him longer to get the point and sometimes you had to break it down for him like they used to do on Sesame Street back in the day.
He hung his head, "Yeah, I know that. He just made me mad. He's been making me mad a lot lately. Him and that goddamn Newsome."
Johnny had the look of a nerd. He was tall, stoop shouldered, and slightly heavy, not fat, just a little heavy, and his gray streaked hairline receded to the point to where he looked like a less witty version of Red Foreman on That Seventies Show. Sometimes he embarrassed me when he opened his mouth during conversations I was having with my teacher friends on subjects that he knew nothing about.
I tried to give him a heads-up on shit like that, but he just got all butt hurt. I tried to tell him, that those teacher friends would look pretty stupid talking about welding too, but it didn't help. I can't blame him I guess. He just didn't want to get boxed in and thought of as just a welder. He wanted to talk about the deep shit like the rest of us.
Problem was he wasn't real deep. I was just looking out for him. When he felt that I was saying he was stupid, he'd always get real sad too, and on those nights I would go home feeling bad myself.
The reason I still hung out with him was because he had a good heart. You could see and hear it everything he did and in every word that he spoke even though he was saying something that might be considered kind of hurtful by some. He could come off as a heartless conservative at times, but he'd always be the very first one to help others.
He loved people and people loved him. They'd seen enough pictures in The Journal of Johnny handing out food at homeless shelters, or holding up a check for a thousand dollars for some charity or the other. He sold fundraiser tickets and he bought tickets too which, in a small town, is the true mark of empathy.
I just liked him. Sometimes, you can just tell who a real person is and who is struggling with the concept. I try not judge because I know that there's a lot fucked-up stuff going on in small towns, like incestuous relationships that produce people whose wires are just a little bit twisted, or even darker stuff going on behind the doors of the freshly painted houses and the manicured lawns at the north end of town where those who push the Idiot's Guide to Economics version of things think that there's nothing but mounds of chocolate bon-bons and privilege.
Johnny never knew who his real dad was, that bit of history kind of got lost back in the mist of times that rolled over this town like a thick Tule fog. Things were awful chaotic back during the Great Depression and the subsequent mass killing that followed. His mom just said it was a soldier she met while working at a USO canteen.
It didn't really matter. Susie Mason was a fireplace of a woman, as solid as a brick, not the cheap modern bricks either, but the real ones made back in the day when everyone was still proud of this country's ability to stop the spread of fascism and reduce one of the most evil men in history into a charcoal briquette. And she loved her son more than she loved life itself. She married a older man named Harvey Adams who adopted John and learned to love him even more than she did.
And John didn't like them being called fleas.
" Sit down, Dude and I'll get you a beer." He sat and I held up a finger and ordered him one of the 4.2s and then continued, "John, it's like this. you remember when Danny's folks lived in that labor camp south of town?"
"Sure do. My mom and dad lived there too when they first came out. We never treated Danny bad though, Bill. We always treated him the same."
That remark made me remember when Danny's family moved in on our block. A more pitiful looking lot, I'd never seen. Danny had four sisters and three brothers and all crammed into the old Cramer house with its three small bedrooms and one bath. Danny's dad had to build an outdoor shower to get everyone clean without starting a civil war.
I also remembered how my mom and John's mom took them food every night for a week to help them get settled in and how my dad and Harvey Adams helped Frank and his boys build a fence replacing the rickety old one.
" Danny's been a good friend, wouldn't you say?"
He thought about it and I saw a light flicker in his eyes, "Hell, yeah! Remember the time that Karl Marks and his buddies jumped me in the alley behind Briscoe's Grocery? Danny and Martin ran in out of nowhere and tried to help me. We didn't stand one chance in hell, but them dudes took a bad ass whipping with me."
"That's all I am saying. He's getting bad advice from somewhere, but he thinks its right and he's standing up for his belief. You gotta admit, he's always been like that." John shook his head and took drink of his beer, " You know that if your mom or dad needed help, him and his brothers and sisters would be the first ones there to help."
" Yeah, I know that," He took another swig, "and I'm ashamed for calling him a cocksucker. But he ain't no right calling people who don't like what's happening here fleas either."
"No, he don't."