“Friday Afternoon” by T.D. Johnston

Hello, Story366 enthusiasts! As promised last Friday, I’m going to be doing these posts again and more often, though I really didn’t think it would take me a whole week to post another. I can insert of story about grading and finals and Christmas shopping and Christmas baking, but I’m sure you now that story, so go ahead and add the specific details for yourself. Today specifically I did get out to the mall—we needed a picture of the boys with Santa, as we have one for each year since the oldest was born—and that was of course a nightmare. Because I’m stupid, I have to go back out one more time, and … well, I’m stupid and I have go back to the mall one more time.

It doesn’t seem like it’s been a week since I wrote about Kim Chinquee, but it has. In that time, Kim has announced another new story collection coming out next year, which is the first a two-book contract, so plenty more Kim Chinquee on its way. I won’t claim that Story366 had anything to do with that, but if I wanted to make a case for a Story366 bump, I have my case study.

I still made it back from the mall in time to hide the gifts I bought—I’ll wrap them later, when everyone else is asleep, while I watch Bright, which has gotten such terrible reviews today that I’m morbidly excited to experience it for myself. I also finally got to T.D. Johnston‘s collection, Friday Afternoon and Other Stories (Battersea Books, 2016), which I’ve had for forever and was happy to finally crack. I’d never read anything by Johnston before, so this is one of those times I went into a collection with zero preconceptions, which I kind of like, as I like surprises.

What’s not a surprise is that I’m choosing the title story to focus on for this post, which I tend to do. “Friday Afternoon” is the story of Bryce, a guy in a BMW who’s trying to get to his father-in-law’s birthday party in Charlotte. The story starts with Bryce riding along a two-lane highway, stuck behind a pickup truck that has the audacity to be going five MPH less than the speed limit (it also sports a “Jesus Saves” bumper sticker, an important detail). We soon find out that to Bryce, this is a serious offense, as we hear through narration and his thoughts (by the way, thoughts are given to us in italics, in separate paragraphs, and occur quite often) that being late to this party will make him look bad; Bryce’s father-in-law the type of father-in-law who has never accepted Bryce, which sucks for Bryce, because Bryce works for his father-in-law, selling decorative floor coverings. Not that Bryce is a victim here: He’s pretty much an asshole, speeding along in his Beamer, waving his arms, and insulting the other drivers on the road—especially the driver of the pickup—calling them rednecks and goobers. The guy in the pickup with the Jesus Saves sticker eventually becomes Goober, which is one of those weird life coincidences, as I ate a box of Goobers tonight as I worked on this post:


In any case, Bryce seems like a throwback from the eighties, hair slicked back, his car’s ridiculousness on par with his disdain for “regular” people. Johnston even incites Gordon Gecko, so yeah, that’s the kind of guy Bryce is, stuck behind a Jesus-loving, pickup-driving good ‘ol boy in North Carolina.

The story takes a turn when Bryce attempts to pass Goober in the left lane (probably my personal least-favorite thing to do in the world), which is what we’re supposed to do when behind slower traffic instead of bitching about it. The catch is there’s a chicken truck coming straight at him in the other lane (adding to the idiom “playing chicken”), Goober right next to him, leaving nowhere for him to go. In a flash of white light, Bryce closes his eyes, waits for the inevitable pain that will proceed his death, still angry at everyone but himself.

Instead of death, Bryce somehow makes it through, though Goober and his pickup are wrecked on the side of the road, the truck on its side in a ditch. Bryce’s conscience tries telling him to turn around, to see if Goober needs help, but Bryce—still running late for that party—convinces himself that everyone is fine, everything is fine, and drives on. Bryce, faced with a choice, chooses the self-serving.

Things really go south for Bryce immediately after when his tire pops and he’s forced to the side of the road. His phone—which seems to be the old car phone type of phone, not anything cellular—can’t get ahold of AAA. Because he’s a fucking knob, he won’t get out of the car and change the tire himself, so he’s kind of stuck there. To make things even worse, Goober, in his pickup, pulls up behind him and wants to help, insists on changing the tire. This would be a windfall of good luck, except, you know, Bryce had just run him off the road and left him to die. So, things are tense

“Friday Afternoon” is a rather long story, weighing in at thirty-five pages or so, meaning Johnston gives himself the space to let things develop. The tire-changing scene takes its time, as there’s all kinds of tension between Bryce and Wilson Emblen (Goober’s real name), Bryce torn between wanting Wilson to leave and wanting Wilson to change his tire. Bryce’s answer to all this? Give Wilson twenty bucks to hurry the hell up. If Johnston hadn’t established Bryce as a class-A piece of shit, this pretty much puts him over the top.

At this point, we’re only about a third of the way through the story, so there’s a whole lot left that I won’t go into. I will say that Wilson does realize that Bryce is the one who forced him off the road, and I reveal that Wilson takes the tire iron to Bryce’s head and dumps him in his trunk. From there, you’ll have to read “Friday Afternoon” to find out what happens next.

I enjoyed this selection because of all the plot that Johnston is able to cram into one story, thirty-five pages or not, the pacing always swift and the surprises always aplenty: I never knew what was going to happen and kept reading to find out where things were going next. For such a long piece, “Friday Afternoon” is really well paced, steady and always paying off with a new character, a change of scene, something really messed up that I couldn’t have predicted. Johnston uses those italicized thoughts to his advantage, as Bryce never says what he’s thinking, making the inner conflict as serious as the outer (though Johnston employs this exact same technique in another story I read, “The Guest”). As a way to depict unreliability, this is as effective a method as any, if not a bit intrusive at times.

There’s also some serious religious overtones in this story, starting with the “Jesus Saves” sticker and running at a sprint from there. Wilson comes off as an emissary of God in a lot of ways, and after a while, every element of the story plays the part of a possible metaphor. There’s a Last Supper, lots of talk of nameless merchants, and the title, “Friday Afternoon,” almost definitely referring to the time Christ spent on Calvary. I’d bet my First Communion rosary that “Wilson Emblen” is an anagram for something like “John the Baptist” or maybe “Sleen Ionblow,” and if I had the energy, I’d spread the letters out on a piece of paper and try to figure it out (I don’t).

There’s a real urgency to all the stories I read from Friday Afternoon, as Johnston seems to have a plan in each story, plans that more or less involve redeeming undesirable protagonists. Johnston also seems to have fun with his stories and fun with fiction-writing techniques, as he’s not afraid to employ things like thought-separating italics or questionable realities when he needs them to tell his tales. I can tell from his book, from interacting with him a bit online, and from what his teachers and friends say about him in his blurbs that Tim Johnston really loves to write stories. That enthusiasm certainly rears its head in Friday Afternoon.