A soft wind blew the peach-colored organdy curtains aside, letting the sun shine through the open window onto Frank Johnson's face. He awoke with a smile. The smell of Canadian bacon tantalized his nosetoday was Thursday. Matilda always made Canadian bacon and French toast on Thursdays, perhaps a bit exotic for this neighborhood, but he liked having a cosmopolitan wife, and who cared what they thought.
He luxuriated in the soft bed for a few moments, listened to the kids' friendly squabble about which of them would get the bathroom first. They were lovely children, nearly-sixteen Billy-Bob and eight-year-old Maxine; his wife was beautiful and a marvelous cook; and his job was as good as a man could get. And if he couldn't afford Billy-Bob his heart's desire for this birthday, the boy would understand. If only the darned traffic could be kept under control, his life would be perfect. His smile twisted slightly. Well, traffic was just one of those urban problems that never seemed to go away in spite of the best efforts of the police and the MRA. But he could handle it all, and more. Now, time to get up.
"Children, Matilda," Mr. Johnson said to them around the breakfast table, "it's time for grace." Their heads bowed deeply; they were a devout family. When Maxine was very young, her nose tended to pop into the oatmeal. Such zeal was commendable but had to be gently moderated before she started kindergarten lest the other children tease her at school-prayer and forever ruin her pleasure in learning. Billy-Bob was tough. He could give as good as he got, but Maxine was a sweet, tender little bud who pasted happy faces on her .
"Children," Matilda said, "no dawdling or you'll miss the school bus. Off you go."
Maxine leaped into Mr. Johnson's lap and kissed him good-bye while Billy-Bob smiled indulgently. He was manly and gave his father firm handshakes on serious occasions. Mr. Johnson thought about the catalogs that had begun appearing throughout the house, with the pages casually opened at just the right spot, and sighed. Billy-Bob was a good kid. Too bad expenses were so tight. On the other hand, if the deal with Mrs. Francesca went through and the tune-ups were not too expensive, maybe . But the costs of traffic were escalating. Drat!
"Take good care of your sister, Billy-Bob."
"I sure will, Dad. Anyone messes with her, messes with me."
After they left, Matilda said, "The radio said traffic will be light today, with some possible random heavy spots. Darn, I wish they'd get more police out and keep things under better control."
Mr. Johnson did not contradict her in spite of knowing that the media tended to underplay the problem. There were always floating hot spots that might spill over into his route. It was all politics. It was the media's job to keep the mayor in office, and who cared about the little man.
"Did you get everything I asked for?" he said, diverting her from any further discussion of traffic.
"Oh, hon, I'm sorry, but they were out of fifties and I didn't have time to go looking around for a place that had some. But I got lots of thirties, they should do. I mean, after all, the traffic will be light today and we should have plenty to get by."
He struggled to keep the smile on his face. She was a wonderful wife and woman, but sometimes she seemed a bit . . . flighty. Yes, everything would be fine if the blankety traffic remained under control, and if the police were out in force, and the MRA wasn't overwhelmed with calls.
Matilda busied herself cleaning up the breakfast dishes. "What have you decided about Billy-Bob's birthday? You know, at sixteen, boys feel like men." She industriously scraped the frying pan. "But they're so unsure of themselves that they need something that proves it to them every day. And the truth is that most of his friends . . . well, I think he really needs a larger one."
A slight irritation trickled through Mr. Johnson. He knew she was right, but could not see how he could afford anything extra. He wished Matilda wouldnt be so wise about their son, especially when there was nothing he could do. He reached out and tugged her to his lap and slipped his hand under her robe. She squealed with delight, but then said, "Honey, my hands are all wet, you've got to go to work and I have a million things to do. We better wait until tonight."
So Mr. Johnson left for work; he was thirty minutes late. Darn, he thought, that was fun, but the later it gets the worse the traffic becomes. The shiftless unemployed who have nothing better to do then drive around causing problems for us decent working folk sleep late, but when they come out, it's Katy-bar-the-door. I better keep an extra eye open.
He drove down his street, turned right on Main, joined a few other cars going in his direction, then turned off on Pine. This was a new route, a bit chancy because he wasn't with any support, but he thought he could zip through. Everything seemed OK. He thought about his upcoming meeting with Mrs. Francesca. What a dish, and he knew she had eyes for him.
Fantasies were flickering through his brain when something splatted on his windshield, again and again. Light handgun stuff. Some darned kids must have ditched school and were having fun plinking at passing cars. Drat! He activated the target locator. The holographic screen snapped on in shades of flat gray. The kids kept badgering him to get a color targeter, but color was too expensive and this one worked just fine.
There was a target, and there, and therejust three of them. He was right, just light stuff. He wanted to burn them, dratted punk kids, but remembered fire discipline. There was no need to blast everyone who was just an annoyance.
As he drove by, they laughed and jeered him. Almost without thinking, he jammed his finger against the firing button, but at the last second he shouted, "Warn." The twin thirties on the roof of his car blasted out hot, copper-jacketed lead that streamed just over the heads of the young idiots. Dratted fool kids, they almost got what they deserved. Well, the ammo wasn't wasted. He'd marked this area with his hot leadthey'd remember him with respect.
He continued driving down Pine. As long as the fathers and mothers were off at work, or collecting welfare, or ingesting drugs, or doing whatever they did, traffic would continue to be light, but later, when they returned home, it would be very tough.
In the distance he heard a series of crumps, saw smoke pile into the air. His traffic locator, reliably gray, said: "The 500 block of McPherson is moderately hot. Recommend swinging south at 43.75 MPH, then west on Elegante at 33 MPH." It repeated itself several times. The inboard map shifted screens and displayed the recommended routes in flashing white light.
"Oh for Pete's sake," Mr. Johnson muttered. Following those directions would take him far out of the best way to work. He'd be late to his appointment with Mrs. Francesca, and she hated lateness. He thought that if ever the description "buxom blond" had any meaning, she was it. And sometimes he thought he knew how a bowl of cream felt about a hungry cat. Well, he was a happily married man, and he'd have to give her the word . . . but not until she closed the deal, and then he'd just back off. Still, a man could have some private thoughts.
The hell with the recommended route. He had payments to make. Look out, creeps, here I come.
He jammed the accelerator down and drove straight at the melee that rapidly approached being a major battle. Careening round a corner, he saw two APCs charging across the road into fierce machine-gun fire. Gauging their speed and estimating the possible damage to his vehicle, he dropped a few RPGs on their adversaries while swerving behind them so that return fire would be blocked by their armored bodies. As he pulled away, twenty millimeter cannon fire smashed into his rear. No help for you there, you punks, that's new armor plating I had installed. He sent a derisive burst of thirty caliber stuff at them and zoomed away. One of the APCs exploded. Was that me? Oh well, a lucky hit. Too bad.
At work, Mrs. Francesca, fully a D cup, smiled hopefully at him and licked her red lips. He smiled in return and said, "I think the combination of chartreuse and mauve will wonderfully enhance your living room, especially adjoining the deep blue floral paper in the foyer. May I recommend red plush for the chaise longue?"
"Your reputation as an interior decorator is well deserved, Mr. Johnson." She smiled, he thought, with burning expectation "You know, I want it extra wide. You see, I hate the idea of being cramped in any of my relaxations, but isn't red plush a bit... bold?"
He bowed. "Mrs. Francesca, it is time to be with the times. May I say without fear of offending, the whole idea is to set off your incredible complexion and ."
She tittered. "Oh, Mr. Johnson, I insist that you be present when it is delivered. We must discuss the correct position . . . ing."
This, he knew, was the delicate point of their negotiationshow to say no without offending her. Before he could think of anything, providentially his table telephone beeped at him, then said, "Honey ." His wife's picture popped up on the video screen. She looked a bit frazzled. Mrs. Francesca didn't quite scowl, but Mr. Johnson thought one must be hidden behind her weak smile. Well, so much for that.
"Sorry to bother you at work," continued Matilda, "but were in sort of a spot. I picked the kids up at schoolyou know this is Maxine's ballet lesson day, and I want to get Billy-Bob some new pants for his birthday party." Mr. Johnson heard the persistent yammering of weapons in the background. "Say, do you think he looks better in blue or gray?"
Mr. Johnson counted to ten. "Sweetheart, I'm in the middle of an important deal." He looked apologetically at Mrs. Francesca, then back at the screen. "Can't it wait?"
"Oh, honey, I know I shouldn't call you like this, but darn, we're stuck and the auto-targeter isn't working. Didn't you have it checked out last week? Those guys at the shop really need a talking to."
Mr. Johnson gritted his teeth. "Honey," he said when he could get his mouth working, "what's the problem?"
"Well, Billy's manning the twin fifties and Maxine, bless her heart, is laying down base fire with the thirties." Here Matildas voice fell to a whisper. "She's not too good at it, but she's making enough of a racket so they won't rush us. Anyway, is there a chance you can get off early and come to the rescue?" She laughed. "The Motorists Rescue Association is on its way, but you know how they are. I bet we'll have to sit here for a couple of hours waiting for them. It'll be OK if you can't pick us up, but supper'll be late."
She's a great wife, Mr. Johnson thought, but it would be nice if she could handle these things herself. "Sweetest, are you ready with the missiles and the flame thrower? If anything big comes at you, you'll know what to do?" He heard heavy firing in the background. "Is that Billy-Bob blasting away with the fifties? Tell him that if he burns the barrels out, replacing them will come out of his allowance."
"Don't you dare criticize Billy-Bob," Matilda snapped. "He's handling them like a pro, just like you taught him, short bursts, traverse, then short bursts. Already he's knocked out two small cars and is keeping the rest of them too far away to do any real damage. Oh . . . excuse me for a minute."
In the background, Mr. Johnson heard the whoosh of a missile, then another, then Matilda saying, "Good work, Maxine, keep it up, dearest." Two explosions, bang, bang, and then a whoop of triumph told him the missiles had done their work. Then he heard, "Oh darn." Battle sounds reached a crescendo, then slowly tapered off into desultory firing.
After a few moments, Matilda said, "Whew, that was fun, but I think the insurance company will have to pay for the damage to the MRA They got here late, and when I fired the missiles, one of their armored vehicles just sort of got in the way. Gee, it was quite an explosion. Remember our honeymoon, when you were a wild man, blasting punks left and right? It was like that. Anyway, the police finally showed up, and everything is OK."
Mr. Johnson's tone was icy. "What happened with the fifties?
Billy-Bob responded. "No problemo, dad. I zap, zap, zapped them. We're a bit short of fifties now, but the MRA is giving us enough to get to the ammo store and we should be under way in a few minutes. See you at home."
Grudgingly, Mr. Johnson said, "OK, family, nicely done." He switched off the phone.
Mrs. Francesca had a half smile on her face. "You should be very proud of them. And I must say, your wife surely has a head on her shoulders." With a shrug, she said, "I guess you won't be coming over to position the chaise longue. Oh well." Then her face lit up and she ostentatiously took a deep breath. "You know, I think I'll redo my upstate summer house and you're just the man for me." With that she saucily turned away and, with gyrating hips, walked to the office to consummate the deal.
Admiringly, Mr. Johnson watched her go. He smiled at the promise of extra work, and if it meant going out of town for a while, that would be OK. Dealing with Mrs. Francesca was the only fly in the ointment.
The first thing he did when he got home was to examine the family armored car, with Billy-Bob standing by silently. The car hadn't been hit by anything big, but its scarred surface testified that they had run into some noisy traffic.
Mr. Johnson scowled at Billy-Bob. "I'm going to check the fifties. Lord help you if you burned them out." He pulled them out and fit them onto the workbench. The deal with Mrs. Francesca had worked out beyond his expectations, and the extra money would easily cover the cost of rebarreling the weapons, but Mr. Johnson was responsible for raising his son properly.
"Hold the flashlight so it shines through the barrel." He looked down it, carefully examining the rifling for damage. "Now the next one." He held his eye tight against it. "Back to the first one." He looked long and hard, then straightened up. Billy-Bob was anxiously waiting for his announcement.
"Let's go into dinner," Mr. Johnson said emotionlessly. "There's something I want to say in front of the whole family."
Crestfallen, Billy-Bob went in ahead of him.
The dining room table was laden with a succulent roast, luscious green peas, steaming orange carrots, and a huge mound of mashed potatoes. Mr. Johnson, salivating, said, "Thank thee Lord, for your wonderful bounty."
"Amen," chorused Matilda, Maxine, and Billy-Bob too, though he was subdued. There was a general stirring as they reached for food, but Mr. Johnson frowned and said, "Wait, there's something important I want to say."
"Can't it wait, darling?" Matilda said. He could tell she anticipated unpleasantness.
"Dad," Billy-Bob started, but Mr. Johnson cut him off.
"Family, listen up. A man wants to be proud of his oldest son, and Billy-Bob, I am wonderfully proud of you."
He savored for a moment the gasp that followed his statement, then continued. "Traffic was heavy and the targeter was out. It was up to Billy-Bob to man the fifties like an adult with careful, under-control bursts. You know that lots of kids his age would have blasted away, wasting ammo and burning the barrels until they melted. Well, not Billy-Bob, nosiree."
Maxine shouted, "Yay, Billy-Bob!"
"Hold on, Maxine, because you did well too." With a big smile, he turned to his son. "So, Billy-Bob, you're getting the nine millimeter with a red laser sight for your birthday, and Maxine, because you handled the thirties so well, you get his thirty-two."
Maxine squealed with delight. Mr. Johnson smiled and added, "But honey, you have to promise me one thing."
"What's that, daddy?" she asked.
He frowned in mock anger. "Don't paste any of those happy faces on it. Your twenty-two looks silly with all those yellow dots."
The whole family roared with delight and fell to eating with gusto. The explosions of the night traffic seemed far away.
Bertram Benmeyer is a retired clinical psychologist who has taken up writing in the last few years. He has published more than 20 short stories and articles and is currently working on a science fiction novel. He enjoys listening to jazz, blues, classical, and other music.