On a Lazy Summer Afternoon

David Wesley Hill and Felix Wesley Hill

Author's Note My father always wanted to be a fiction writer but never made a professional sale. When he died, I discovered a file drawer of manuscripts that he had written, mostly short stories in the spare realistic style of the '40s and '50s. I thought several of them were quite good, and submitted them to literary magazine after literary magazine for more than a year, but received only rejections. Then I decided to see if I could rework a story into SF or horror. The result was "On a Lazy Summer Afternoon". Ninety percent of the words are my father's; the rest are mine.

Irv Greber sat on the cement steps leading onto the gravel driveway and scratched with a stick in the pile of bright yellow sand that his father had hauled in for the new barn floor. His dog, Flip, shook himself awake and ambled over, standing silently with rigid legs while Irv ran his fingers through the shaggy Irish Water Spaniel’s thick, dusty coat. "Here's a big one," Irv said. Parting the fur, he uncovered a great wood tick as large as his thumb feeding at an angry spot of skin. He took a pliers from the back pocket of his jeans and placed the jaws carefully around the tick, worked the insect free, and held it out to Flip. The dog sniffed the tick and then ate it.

It was a hot June afternoon. A week remained before the start of summer vacation. There was little sound beside the shrill buzz of blue flies. Irv couldn't hear the cows. He knew that they must be far back in the low country, lying in the shade and damp.

The white clapboard house behind Irv stood on the crest of a small hill. Woods were all about, mostly birch and poplar. Nearer the house grew some pine trees, which his father had planted. Irv pushed Flip away.

"That's all, no more tick," he said, opening his hands to demonstrate that they were empty. The dog appeared relieved.

"Come on," Irv said, "let's go to the barn."

As they turned the corner of the house, he saw chipmunks feeding beside the sunken washtub that served as a small duck pond. The chipmunks were very fat and very tame. Irv watched them for a while, absently stroking Flip. It seemed unfair to him that the stupid animals should be so carefree. It wasn’t right that they should be so unconcerned while he had to live every day with hearbreak. The silence and heat of the afternoon swelled harshly about him. Finally he went into the house. He passed his mother, who was kneeling in front of a picture of Jesus. He took the pump repeater from the closet and filled the chamber with .22 shorts.

Sitting in the shade of a birch tree, Irv killed two of them before the rest scattered into the underbrush.

Even seeing how cruelly the bullets had torn them he didn’t feel sorry about what he’d done. Now they had learned a lesson—the lesson he knew too well himself. But he knew, too, that his father would be angry when he came home from the iron mines and discovered the dead animals. So Irv returned inside and went to the medicine cabinet and took out the tiny bottle of Dr. Forest’s Universal Elixir & Restorative that was kept there, averting his eyes as usual from the bright red warning printed on the label: Not to be used as an exceptional measure. He brought the bottle outside to the chipmunks and picked them up carefully by their tails and squeezed a single drop of the thick syrup down each of their throats. After a couple minutes they began moving. Chattering with fear and pain, the chipmunks scrabbled across the grass, dragging their mangled flesh into the woods and out of sight.

Then Irv heard Flip barking in the way that signaled that people were approaching. He hurried around the house. Two boys were pushing their bikes up the hill. Jim was in Irv’s class at school; his brother, Tom, was two grades behind. Irv ran to meet them before they could reach the house. "Hi," he said.

"Hi," Jim replied. Tom, shyer and smaller, said nothing. "We came over to look at that motorcycle you got."

Irv began pitching stones down the hill. "That so," he said. He wanted to kick himself. He didn’t know what had made him brag at such length about the stupid thing at school yesterday. He should have known someone might want to take a look at it.

Jim propped his bike against a tree. "It was awful hot pumping here."

Irv threw another stone. It arched above the pin cherry trees, into the sun, over the brush piles, and hit a cedar post. "You know that motorcycle?" Irv asked. "Well, it ain’t nothing like I said it was. It's just a pile of junk. There ain't no tires on it. And the motor won't run."

"Yeah, I figured as much. But my old man's good at fixing things."

"Not as good as my old man," Irv argued.

Tom spoke up for the first time. "I'm thirsty," he said.

"Me, too."

Irv looked down the road and pretended that he hadn't heard.

"Ain't you got an old pump around someplace?" Jim finally asked.

"We got running water," Irv said. "I'll fetch you a drink."

"That's OK," Jim said. "We'll go along with you to the kitchen."

"My maw's asleep, and we might wake her if everybody tramps around," Irv said. "I'll just get a pitcher."

Irv started up the hill. When he got part way to the house, he heard the two boys coming at his heels. He turned around angrily. "Hey," he said, "I told you, didn't I? My maw's asleep. She'll get mad if we wake her. I'll bring the water down to you, see?"

"We'll be quiet," Jim said. "We want a look at that motorcycle, anyway."

"I told you it's just a pile of junk."

"That's all right."

"Tell you what," Irv said. "Let's all go for a swim. We can catch some bullfrogs. I know a guy in Pengilly who'll pay a buck each."

"I bet he ain't got a motorcycle," Tom suddenly blurted out.

"I have, too."

"Listen," Jim said. He thumped his finger on Irv's chest. "If you don't show us that motorcycle, I'll bust your ass."

"That's what you think."

"You got that motorcycle or ain't you?"

"It’s back of the house," Irv said wearily. "Keep quiet or you'll wake my maw."

Irv led the boys back toward the barn, where the motorcycle was sitting in a growth of high weeds. Tom hauled himself up onto the seat and stretched his arms way forward to grasp the handles. "This is nice, ain't it?" he cried.

"I'll say," Jim said. "I'll bet paw could fix this easy. Come on now, get off. It's my turn." He pulled Tom away, jumped onto the seat, and began bouncing up and down.

Irv felt like crying. An ache had come to his eyes and nose. "Can't you be a little quiet!" he whispered furiously. "Come on now. My maw'll whip me if we make too much noise."

"How much you want for this motorcycle?" Jim asked.

"I don't know," Irv said. "Maybe ten dollars."

"Hey, is that your maw?" Tom asked.

Irv glanced toward the house. His mother was standing in the doorway and staring out at them. Her print dress, now three or four sizes too large for her, hung forlornly over her body. Irv's stomach knotted.

"I'll bet your maw has some nice soda in the icebox," Jim said.

Irv watched his mother out of the corner of his eye, afraid that she would come over to them. "You know," he said hoarsely, "this old motorcycle ain't so bad."

"It ain't so good, neither," Jim said, suddenly wary.

With relief Irv at last saw his mother return inside the house. "It is so," he said. "And I won't take less than ... sixty dollars for it."

"Sixty? You crazy?"

Irv argued stubbornly. Eventually he found the opportunity to say: "Well, if you're going to be that way, I ain't selling. And you'd better leave our property, too!"

That got rid of them. As his uninvited visitors peddled down the hill and around the turn in the road, Irv called Flip to him and together they walked over to the vegetable garden at the edge of the woods. Irv jumped from row to row, tasting the radishes and carrots and peas. He ate a few raspberries that had ripened since the morning picking, and began to feel just a little better. He found a nice log and lay his head on it and looked up into the hot, milky sky.

Flip dashed off into the undergrowth. Soon Irv heard him bark, first this side of the road, then down in the swamp, then closer, more urgently. He knew that the dog had holed a woodchuck and was waiting for him to join in the hunt. But Irv didn't move. He wept softly into his arm. Flip's barks grew hoarse, and thirsty, and lonely.

Finally Irv looked up and saw his mother coming down the trail. She was collecting weeds. Her ashen face was furtive. Irv jumped up and ran over to her. "God damn it," he said, tearing the weeds out of her hands. "God damn it, Maw."

"Irving," she said, "Jesus told me to find Him some flowers. He misses me. I’m supposed to be with Him." She clutched a thistle to her shrunken, misshapen breasts, cradling it against the monstrous lumps of cancer there. The frightened little gesture caused Irv to remember the nights as a child that he had rocked against her warmth and softness. But she had been alive then. Now her touch was chill.

"Come on, Maw," he said tiredly, taking her pallid hand in his own, hating himself and his father for their greedy, selfish love of her. "Come on up to the house and I'll pick you some flowers."