Today, the “Johnnies” are much tougher. There’s less of the innocence that characterized O. Henry’s fiction. But precocious youngsters still draw me into stories…probably because I’m a dad.
I find observations about society so much more disturbing (or entertaining depending on what the writer is trying to accomplish) when delivered through kids rather than adults.
In The Wire, one of the greatest television series ever, David Simon uses F-bombing six-year-olds with chilling effect. One minute they’re sassing guys three times their size on the drug corners of inner city Baltimore. The next minute they’re dead.
Haunting images I can’t forget.
James Lee Burke sprinkles tough talking kids through many of his Dave Robicheaux novels. In one (I can’t remember which book) a young boy trades insults with Clete Purcell (a regular in the series). The back-and-forth banter is priceless. I especially like how the author uses dialogue to offer insights into Clete.
With the power of cheeky kids in mind, I recently wrote this chapter for my novel in progress. Background: Peroxide is a bad guy. He tortured and killed a man the previous night. He desperately needs to recover a letter that will expose his role in a ransom scheme. But he’s not very smart.
Banks of snow lined Norwest Avenue in Cranston. Peroxide rumbled past Savannah’s condo, one-half of a two-family house, tan with white trim and red-brick stairs. There were twin doorways on the sitting porch, a black mail box on either side. To the left of the house was a long driveway with an old blue Ford parked close to the street.
He turned left onto Gansett Boulevard, banged a u-ey, and pulled around to study Norwest from the corner where hedges bordered the sidewalk. No suspicious cars. No sign of police.
Peroxide killed the engine and lifted his helmet visor. He sat tall on the padded seat of his Harley, stretching his arms, twisting his body, taking his time to reconnoiter the street. After the late night and hard ride from New York City, he needed a break.
Not more than five minutes later, a young boy swaggered around the corner of Gansett. Nine, maybe ten years old. His skin was smooth, his face innocent. He was wearing a woolen cap, bright yellow parka, and huge snow boots. In his right hand, he carried a wooden baseball bat with white tape around the handle.
Opportunity, thought Peroxide, taking off his helmut. “What’s with the bat? Baseball season’s over.”
Bat considered his question for a moment, seemingly perplexed. “Where are you from?”
“West Virginia. Why?”
“You talk like something died up your nose.”
The biker snorted, amused by the insolence. “You want to earn a dollar, tough guy?”
“But you haven’t heard what I need.”
“Doesn’t matter. My starting rate is five.”
Peroxide pointed toward Savannah’s condo. “Okay…five. I need you to fetch me the mail from apartment one.”
“You want something fetched, go buy a dog. I get twenty dollars up front for stealing the mail. Another twenty on delivery
“That’s crazy,” scoffed Peroxide, his patience wearing thin.
“Suit yourself.” The kid continued down Norwest. “Be a shame if Old Lady Romano calls the cops and reports some goofy-looking guy with albino hair. She never forgets a face. Know what I’m saying?”
Peroxide reconsidered, motored over, and handed him a twenty. “I hope you can read, smart-ass.”
“Meet me around the corner. One street down. One street to the right.”
“For forty bucks, you can bring it back to me.”
“Are you stupid?”
“You got a mouth on you, kid.”
“Because I know my neighborhood. You want to make the old lady suspicious?”
The biker blinked. “No.”
“Then shut up and meet me around the corner.” Bat stuffed the bill in his pocket and doddered toward Savannah’s condo, talking on his cell phone with one hand, dragging his club with the other. His baggy jeans slid lower and lower as he walked, exposing a half moon of tighty-whities below the yellow parka.
For a moment Peroxide wondered whether the daily mail had arrived, whether it would include Woody’s letter. To his relief, the kid pulled a stack of envelopes from Savannah’s mailbox.
But to his complete irritation, a thirty-something Asian woman walked out of unit two. She headed down the stairs and drove off in the blue Ford without so much as blinking at Bat.
That little sh–.
Peroxide gunned after him. “What happened to Old Lady Romano?”
“Same thing that happened to you meeting us around the corner.” Bat had folded into a pack of three smaller boys and was passing out envelopes as all four ambled down Norwest.
“Hand over the mail.”
“After I get my twenty dollars.”
“How about I shove that bat up your ass?”
“Think you can catch all four of us, old man?”
Bat hitched up his jeans and raised his club like a starter’s flag. The other boys lined up in different directions, jittery, scared, young wisps ready to spring from their make-believe blocks with envelopes in their hands. “On your mark. Get set.”
The biker revved his engine, the noise deafening. The Harley lurched half an inch. Two boys jumped the gun and sprinted down the street in opposite directions.
The biker reached into his wallet and pulled out a twenty.
“I want a tip for each of my boys,” said Bat.
Peroxide paid him just to get away. He collected Savannah’s mail, cruised through Cranston, and pulled into the parking lot of a CVS several blocks away. With exacting care, he rooted through envelopes and fanned catalog pages for Marion DeWoody’s letter.
“Nothing,” Peroxide texted his boss, discouraged and $55 lighter.