On Monday, April 20th, Johnny B. Goode, armed with a handful of co-conspirators, crowbars and a small arsenal of rocks and stones, drove to a now quiet arterial road, barricaded it, and waited. They didn’t have to wait long, and when the truck came, they pelted it with stones. The windscreen cracked in several places and one rock penetrated the driver’s door window, injuring and terrifying the driver. They cranked the back doors of the truck open and found exactly what they were expecting: food. 

Jonny’s mother, Sarah, was to be displeased. Johnny had had a naughty streak since he was a young boy, and she’d often said to him, “Johnny, be good!” The name stuck, and as a still-naughty adolescent he’d started signing his name Johnny B. Goode, which was not so far from his real name, Jonathan Branford Gordon, especially as a signature. As an adult he started introducing himself as Johnny B. Goode, also to the displeasure of his mother, who still told him to be good.

But he was not exactly bad. When he got into his first fight and knocked a boy to the ground, he held his arm out to help the boy up. They became friends after that. Also, in the absence of a father, Johnny was a caring son, helping his mother around the house, going with her to church and, later, supporting her financially whenever he could.

She needed supporting. She had fallen pregnant with Johnny when she was 17 and never finished school. The father disappeared almost as soon as he realised Sarah was pregnant; Johnny never met him and Sarah never heard from him again. She stayed with her parents for a few years until her father kicked her out; after that she lived on occasional casual work and charity. 

Johnny also did odd jobs, even as a child. Sarah never discouraged it, so he was never in school consistently and never learned to read or write well. When he was 14 he was recruited into a gang, but with questionable success. Despite his naughty character and some attraction to the lifestyle, being witness to shootings in the streets from early childhood had nurtured some misgivings on his part. He would drift closer to the gravity of the gang world at times, then push away again. He’d do some “dances” – deliver drugs, hold up a store, steal a car or some other misdemeanour or crime of varying severity – then retreat. As his teenage years progressed, some of his friends from the gangs were injured and arrested – something that he managed to avoid. But during those ebbs and flows, he learned a useful thing or two. How to pick locks and victims; how to take desperate measures in desperate times.

And these were desperate times. Johnny had recently found work on a construction site. He was outdoors, enjoying camaraderie, learning a skill and earning a small but steady income. After months of dependable employment, the site closed with three days’ warning and no guarantee. The other workers speculated that it would be a few weeks, but two of those few weeks in, it was clear it would go on longer. Maybe months.

Confined to home, Johnny’s options were limited. He couldn’t go out and look for work. In any case, it wasn’t there. He and his mother had been living week to week as it was, and his last week at work had been a short one. They were down to two meals a day and enough money to buy bread and milk for another week. The neighbours who could help did – some were going to be paid until the end of the month, one or two for longer – but most were in the same situation, and those few in the community who were still earning couldn’t support everyone. 

In more comfortable suburbs, neighbours were also doing nice things for each other. Baking things. Making things. Cupcakes. Candles. These were the suburbs that could afford to be robbed – they had insurance, after all – and which one could therefore justify robbing. There was a kind of Robin Hood mentality in the gangs: at least, their narrative was that people weren’t picked on indiscriminately; the rich were robbed to pay the poor. But now the merry men of the gangs were quiet, under strict lockdown like everyone else and, for the most part, to some people’s surprise, obediently so – more fearful, presumably, of being caught by the virus than the law. Criminals need to earn a living, too; at the end of every year, break-ins increase (thieves want a Christmas bonus just like everyone else); but this was not a time for incentives, it was a time for safety, even in places where life ordinarily seemed to be cheaper and rules more freely disregarded.

For the first few weeks, things were calm. But after that, disquiet began. First within households. Then with neighbours across their rusty fences. A few, ashamed but despairing, called old employers, sometimes from a decade back or more. The kinder ones would deposit enough for the family to get by for a week, and then there was no one left to call on. In one house, down the road from Sarah’s, a three month old baby screamed throughout the night from hunger. In another, an elderly woman had run out of her medication and couldn’t afford to buy more; her neighbours could hear her moaning in pain in the night, too.

So when Johnny first had the idea to hold up a truck, it wasn’t just born out of boredom, and he wasn’t only thinking of himself and his mother. He felt his crime could be godfatherly. He wouldn’t be wantonly looting bottle stores like he’d seen people doing on the news. He’d be providing relief to hundreds who needed it, to people who’d watched him growing up, who’d acted as his uncles and aunts and guardians. He would be doing this for them; a heroic act of generosity and gratitude. 

The idea quickly grew into a resolution. And the few friends he recruited to dance needed little encouragement. They just wanted something to do, something other than being at home. Something illegal would be all the better, and something they could say was benevolent was an added bonus. Johnny and his four accomplices convinced themselves that police were too busy enforcing regulations to respond to something like this, especially if it were carried out efficiently. They agreed on a day. They all had crowbars in their homes. It took fifteen minutes to gather stones near the road and place rocks in it. And before the truck came to a proper stop ahead of their barricade, they’d cracked its windscreen. Two of them pelted the truck while Johnny and two others went to the back and worked on the doors. They were experienced and ruthless and broke the lock in seconds. Navigating their way inside was harder; the truck had been packed efficiently, from years of corporate planning and experience, and no space was unused. 

They began tossing food out. Whatever was there, they threw. Loaves of bread. Potato chips. Crackers. They made headway slowly. Oil. Tea. The driver had been forced out of the front and sat on the ground on the side of the road, nursing his injured head. Meanwhile, none of this had been kept secret. Delinquents enjoyed the attention and notoriety and each of Johnny’s crew members had told a few others of their plans. Within five minutes, a crowd had gathered, swarming together at the back of the truck, receiving whatever was offloaded and passing it to others. By the time the police arrived, there were more than 50 people zealously closing in on the truck, disregarding social distancing, gleefully accepting what came out of it. They dispersed in seconds, all carrying some reward for their troubles. 

But for Johnny and his four fellow fiends, who were halfway into the cavernous container, there was no escape. They accepted their fate. Their crowbars were no match for firearms. And besides, they were in it for fun, not for violence. They were cuffed, put into the back of two vans and taken to the nearest police station, where they made themselves as comfortable as they could in the holding cell, along with two other men who were there for other reasons, while the police tried to figure out what to do with them.

Sarah did not get any food out of the expedition. Nor did she benefit in any way. Her son was released late that evening, only because someone higher up the ladder in the police department had finally determined and instructed that social distancing regulations could not be enforced in a cell, and he came home with a charge sheet that included assault, damage to property and robbery. He would almost certainly be found guilty in court, having been caught in the act and there being a credible witness, the truck driver. 

“Johnny,” Sarah cried. “Why can’t you be good? Why must you be the leader of a big old band of… what? Bandits!”

It would be the first and last time Johnny was caught. He would learn his lesson, and learn it the hard way. He now saw that it wasn’t worth the risk. His intentions were good, he told himself, but his execution was flawed. It may have been different if he’d been able to get his mother some food, and if he’d avoided being arrested. But now he faced a few years in prison. And the only reason he wasn’t behind bars right now was because of the disease. 

Though neither he nor Sarah mentioned it, both naturally wondered if he had come home with more than a charge sheet. About a week after the failed food hijacking, Henry, one of the four accomplices, called Johnny and told him his father was showing symptoms.

“So they got to test us all,” Henry said.

“Who all?” Johnny asked.

“All of us. My family. You, the others, your families.”

Johnny tested positive but was asymptomatic. Sarah also tested positive and was terrified. For days she waited for her headache to get worse. She monitored every move for pain. Every little cough was a sign of worse to come. But worse didn’t come, and within a week she was feeling emboldened. She had survived what felt to her like her closest shave with death, even though she’d lived her entire life in ganglands and seen children being caught in crossfire.

Henry tested positive, too. So did his mother and two brothers. Of the five who held up the truck, only one, Angelo, was negative. Over the next few weeks, dozens of households in the neighbourhood had people with symptoms and positive results. Most of them were living at least two people to a room; isolation was almost impossible in their small houses and, in any case, it was too late.

Speculation began to rise about the truck incident and the crowd that had gathered, and whether that might have been the event that incited the spread. More and more people got sick. Then one died. As the neighbourhood became more spooked, its need for a scapegoat became more acute. Everyone knew who the five were, and the other four desperately deflected ultimate responsibility to Johnny. They were participants, yes, but Johnny was the ringleader, the brains. The dance was his idea. He was the epicentre of the event that was the epicentre of the outbreak.

One night Johnny and Sarah were woken by the sound of broken glass. One pane was shattered, then another. One by one, every window in the house had a rock thrown through it. The perpetrator or perpetrators were methodical, moving around the house in a clockwise direction. One stone hit Sarah, who was too dazed to know that it was better to lie under her blankets than to get up. When the smashing was done, Johnny ran to his hysterical mother, nursed her bleeding ear, and held her until the morning when it got light.

“Sarah! Sarah, you alright?” a woman’s voice shouted from outside. It was their neighbour, standing at the front gate. Sarah gingerly opened the door to a small crowd who’d gathered. They were looking not at Sarah, but at the wall next to the front door. Sarah walked outside and turned around. Written across the wall in messy black spray paint, she saw: “You did this!”

Johnny cleaned inside the house and covered the windows with board and planks of wood from the back yard among a pile of things a father might have insisted on keeping because “we might find a use for it one day”. The only source of light was through thin strips between the planks, and so the house felt like it was in late dusk all day long. Lights had to be kept on and the electricity would cost more, though they had no way of paying for it, so it would quite possibly be cut off sooner or later. Even now, local government departments and their employees were inconsistent, blindly obedient to instructions from other times, thoughtless, and inadvertently heartless. 

Johnny decided his best tactic was to wait things out, and he took a safety first approach, holing up inside the house. Every few days, at different times of the day or night, there’d be a snap or bang as a stone hit one of the boards, and he and Sarah would sit, motionless and anxious, waiting for worse to come. They sustained themselves on small gifts of food from neighbours who appreciated that they had benefitted from the heist, who were sensitive to the risk Johnny took and would certainly pay for. Most of the community felt this way, but their compassion was passive. With small and occasional acts of vandalism, the aggressor or aggressors sustained a climate of fear in which even Johnny and Sarah’s sympathisers might be punished.

After 10 days of rising guilt and increasing hunger, Johnny realised he could not win this cold standoff by waiting it out. A few hours after curfew he put on a black hoody, black trousers and black sneakers, and slipped out of the back door. His plan was to get to Sarah’s parents. No pillar of affection, Ray had shown little interest in his daughter or grandson. He seemed to regard Sarah and Johnny’s one or two visits a year with suspicion. “What do you need now?”, he’d ask. And this time, he’d be right. Violet, Johnny’s grandmother, was not hostile, but did nothing to encourage a relationship.

They lived about 10 kilometres away. The first 15 minutes of Johnny’s expedition were tense. He kept looking around, half expecting to be stabbed. When he knew he was a good distance away from his neighbourhood, his worries turned to the police. Upcountry, a security guard, ill-equipped to deal with a situation he was employed for, had shot a man in the face. Johnny hoped that police were better trained and briefed than private security guards, and that they might show some concern if he were caught. But he preferred not to get caught. He crouched behind walls and fences, looked right and left and right again before emerging into every open space or crossing a road. He walked swiftly but, hungry and weak, didn’t have the energy to run.

It was after midnight when he got to his grandparents’ house. There was no flicker of a TV and only an outside light was on. He knocked on the door, gently at first, then more firmly, and then finally with force.

“What the-” Ray said, opening the door.

“Grampa,” Johnny said, pushing his way past and sitting down in the dark kitchen.

“Why are you here?” Ray demanded. “We’re old! I’m diabetic! Your grandmother has blood pressure! We’re trying to keep to ourselves, and you barge in, probably with the virus!”

“I don’t have it,” Johnny answered. “I mean, I did, but not anymore.”

Ray pointed to the door. “Get out!”

“Granny Violet,” Johnny said to his grandmother, who had just appeared in the doorway.

“The boy’s in a state,” Violet said, apparently not directed to either one of them.

Johnny told them what had happened. “We not safe. And we got nothing to eat. We can’t stay there.”

“Your mother is useless, and she raised a criminal,” Ray said. “Sleep on the couch.”

Johnny didn’t sleep. And in the morning the hostility continued.

“Why don’t you get the police involved instead of us!”

“Grampa, please, just let me use your car, I’ll go fetch her.”

“What? Have you even got a license!”

Violet didn’t say a word. She made Johnny two fried eggs on toast for breakfast, then two more. He could have eaten double that.

That evening, just before the sun was setting, they all got into the car. Ray told Violet to stay home but she simply installed herself in the passenger seat. When they got to the house, Sarah wasn’t there. Johnny went next door, where their neighbour told him Sarah had been worried when he wasn’t home and that she’d been out looking for him since the afternoon. A network of calls ensued and half an hour later Sarah’s whereabouts were established. They got into the car and drove to where she was.

“Daddy,” she said, surprised and anxious to see her father.

“Come, mommy,” Johnny said. “We going to their house. It’s safe there.”

“Safe for who?” Ray asked.

Johnny’s stress had heightened progressively since they got to the neighbourhood. He’d expected it to take five minutes to fetch Sarah and some clothes; it was now three quarters of an hour.

“Mommy, get in the car!” He urged her.

“You okay?” Ray asked Violet, who was quieter than normal, and paler. She breathed slowly and nodded her head unconvincingly.

“Grampa, you got to go! Fast!”

Ray started driving off at an irrationally civilised speed. He had always adhered strictly to conventional ethics and the law, which seemed to be a stronger instinct for him than survival. It was only when they heard a gunshot that flight mode took hold, and he floored the accelerator. Two more gunshots were fired as the car sped away through the narrow street, its occupants terrified to a breathless silence. 

A couple of minutes later they were out of the neighbourhood and on the arterial road that Johnny had held the truck up on. Ray was still speeding and clenching the wheel so hard his knuckles were white. The cabin was still quiet. Johnny looked out of the back window to see if anyone was pursuing them. No one was.

“Everyone alright?” he asked, turning to the front. 

No one said a word. Ray kept driving. Violet let out a deep breath. Johnny turned to his side, where his mother was leaning toward him, slouched low in the seat, Johnny assumed in a self-protective gesture to avoid the bullets. After all those stones through their windows, she was learning, he thought.

“Mommy, you can sit up. I think we okay.”

Sarah’s eyes were open and unresponsive. In shock, or fear, Johnny thought.

“Mommy”, he said again, putting his hand under her shoulder to help her up. He felt something warm over his fingers. Withdrew them, looked at them, saw red on them. Put them back under the side of his mother’s head. More warmth. He pushed her head up, smudging blood over the upholstery. The ear that had been hit by a stone that night of broken glass was hanging from a small piece of flesh just above the lobe.

He looked hard at her for a sign of something; a blink, a swallow, a breath. He saw nothing.

“Grampa,” Johnny said. “We got to go to the hospital.”