You move into the neighborhood and now all we hear are clown horns and foot slaps. Go-karts race down Yale Avenue, hit chuckholes and spit you up against concrete curbs. Just when we think we have you all counted, you multiply. Ragamuffins, Dad calls you. We think that’s your last name until our oldest brother, Eddie, yells out—Hey Ragamuffins!—from his GTO, and now you glare at him with cap-gun eyes.
You come over to play with us. We can’t help but stare at the scabs you have for kneecaps, your scarecrow hair. You are our fascination and you know it.
Where’s the creek? you ask, and you lead us there even though this is supposed to be our neighborhood. We are not allowed to go as far as Darby Creek without permission, but you herd us—the seven or nine or more of you—your soiled limbs waving in the August sun.
Darby Creek is a letdown. Can’t even float a stick in it! you scream, and then you are a pack of soldiers—you smear mud on your faces and whoop war cries across the water. Your troop plans its attack on ours. Get the Charlies! You crest the bank and splash through the creek, sticks raised like swords.
We stand frozen on the grass and observe you as if we’re watching the NBC nightly news broadcast from Vietnam. Eddie’s scared of Vietnam. You don’t know about his low lottery number; how Dad looked like a sponge cake when the draft man on TV pulled number 26 from the plastic capsule. You don’t see us sitting around the dinner table every night watching soldiers in the thick jungle, choppers landing on dirt pads. You don’t hear how we can barely breathe as our nightmare unfolds halfway across the world on the tiny screen of our tea cart television. You don’t notice our camouflaged tears. Instead, you point sticks at our heads.
Fight! Coward! You bang your chests as if there are centipedes trapped inside of your ratty tees.
We want to protest, but we know it won’t matter. You crave bloodshed. You skip over lumpy rocks in Darby Creek, bodies of the dead and missing. You approach; we feel the warmth roll down our legs. Your crooked teeth grin wide as you trip us, grind pinkies into our Good-Humor-truck bellies. We watch as our choker beads spill into the clover. We pray for Darby Creek to grow angry, leap the bank, wash you back to where you came from, though we have better things to pray for in 1972, and then the dinner bell rings and you surrender your weapons.
We retreat to the kitchen table. NBC’s cameras fly over mangroves and rice patties; we want to tell Eddie we survived the war of the Ragamuffins, but men are face down in the waterlogged field and somehow that seems more important. Mom spies the creek mud underneath our fingernails, and we are sent to the bathroom sink to scrub and scrub.
Back at the kitchen table, Eddie’s gone and no one’s talking. The newscaster flatly lists Vietnam’s daily count—37 dead, 81 missing—almost as if he’s reporting sports scores. Dad reaches over, switches off the TV. Finish your dinner, Mom commands, and we don’t dare mention the hunk of steak and full mountain of mashed potatoes still on Eddie’s plate. We slide green beans into our mouths, but they are cold, slimy water moccasins.
Outside, wheels rumble and scrape across pavement. We imagine sparks flinging down Yale Avenue, your helmetless heads free and loose, hands and feet stretched outside your go-karts, tongues flapping. We chew cold steak while listening to your wild shouts and laughter, the roar of your escape.
Michele Finn Johnson’s short fiction collection, Development Times Vary, was the winner of the 2021 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award and is forthcoming in 2022. Her work has appeared in A Public Space, Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, DIAGRAM, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her work was selected for the 2019 Best Small Fictions anthology, won an AWP Intro Journals Award in nonfiction, and has been nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best Microfiction. Michele lives in Tucson and serves as contributing editor at Split Lip Magazine.
Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson