JOHNNY AMERICA

Is a little ’zine of fiction, humor, and other miscellany, published sporadically by the Moon Rabbit Books & Ephemera Society since 2003.

N.B.: Until recently our web server was an IBM Selectric typewriter duct-taped to a rotary telephone, and in 2019 we’re working on re-freshing and re-coding the site. Please forgive any mess or temporary incompleteness and rest assured that our full fifteen-ish years of archives and oddities will be returning throughout the new year, alongside new posts.

Also: We have minor presences on Twitter and Facebook, if that's your bag.

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Cat Contract

by

Because y’know… I was just standing there when this cat offered to sell itself to me. I felt a little weird about it. Yeah. But that didn’t mean that I wasn’t going to consider it. It’s not like it was a stray or anything like that. It certainly didn’t look like it was. It was in a carrier and everything. It sat in there peering out casually, offering to sell itself to me. Seemed like a perfectly rational decision. Seemed like a perfectly rational thing to do if it were, in fact, rational. I knew full well that cats didn’t talk or anything like that. But I was OK with it. And it offered itself for $20. I figured it wasn’t really that big a deal; if anything, it would be an interesting story. So I reached into my wallet and pulled out the $20. And I handed it to the cat. The cat pawed the $20 and put it in the far corner of the carrier. I figured, you know, if I came to a position where I really needed the money, I could just reach in and take it. Empty out the cat and just take the $20 back. Simple as that. So I was off. With this cat in the carrier. This cat which was now mine.

It was a big surprise for the kids. Suddenly we’ve got a cat. My wife seemed OK with it. She’d been meaning to get a new cat for a while. I would’ve expected my story about how I picked it up to be a little bit more interesting to them. I guess they probably just had a thought I was joking about it. Which is totally understandable. I mean… I can completely identify with the idea that they would think that I was just joking about that. Because one simply isn’t serious about that sort of thing, are they?

When the kids were off doing their schoolwork and my wife was reading in bed, the cat got my attention. I went in to meet with it. I didn’t expect the scam I got; though honestly, it wasn’t a scam exactly. But the cat wasn’t really playing fair. Not that I would ever expect a feline to play fair. They are inherently selfish creatures. Not that that’s a judgment call or anything like that. It’s just that cats don’t happen to be… traditionally social. And so they can be very selfish. I kind of respect that about them.

Anyway, the cat had explained to me that he kind of liked the placement and everything. He was perfectly willing to stay. I had bought him, but I only had bought him “on spec.” I hadn’t contractually specified that I would buy him forever anything like that. Or even until he died. All nine times or whatever. The agreement was that I would buy him. And own him. Nothing ever specified for how long. So it was at the cat’s discretion as to when it was that I would no longer own him. I guess that made a lot of sense. There was no agreement beyond the basic transaction.

And so there were negotiations. The cat had a contract drawn up. I felt as though I was very shrewd in my dealings with the cat. The negotiation went extremely well. I had gotten quite a bit out of it. However, it seemed kind of strange to be paying it on a regular basis and agreeing to all of those other things that I’d agreed to. Again, I sort of figured that went with it being a cat and everything that none of the contract with the hold up in a court of law. But I didn’t want to push it.

With the contract signed everything was quite cool. I felt very good about the deal. The kids liked playing with the cat. The cat seemed to like playing with the kids. However, it didn’t talk to them the way it talked to me. It didn’t talk to my wife the way you talk to me. I had this fifty page contract with this pet that only considered itself to be on speaking terms with me. And it’s not like it’s and of the contract was completely unreasonable or anything like that. The cat did what it needed to do and in exchange I gave it what it wanted. Kind of weird watching a cat curl up into someone’s lap due to a contractual obligation, but it seemed as sincere as any pet when it was purring or whatever.

Honestly everything seemed very clear and rational. Everything seemed very solid. Very down to earth. Every now and again the cat and I would have a very businesslike exchange. Maybe we talked politics for a little bit. And then it would go back to doing what cats do with my kids and my wife and so on.

There was nothing in the contract that specifically said that I had to live with my family. Or that they had to live with me. I suspect that the cat felt as though it was unable to keep up with his usual business due to the constant time constraints of playing with the kids and having the kids play with him. So it set-up a few fake profiles and accounts on social media. Before long it managed to convince my wife that I was cheating on her with younger woman. It had paid close attention to the idiosyncrasies of my writing style and was able to deftly fabricate fictional affairs that I was purportedly having with a few other women. Actually, I kind of respect the way the cat wrote very intricate details into things that felt totally believable. E-mails and those instant messages and things like that; all very believable. A part of me half-wished the women in question really existed. There were moments where I kind of wondered if I might have been losing it on some level. Cats don’t really talk, do they?

Filed under Fiction on March 8th, 2019

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Honky Tonk Sue

by

Peter and Lydia were a happy couple. But now and then they felt that they’d been left behind by their circle, who’d moved from Long Island to nearby Brooklyn and hipster havens along the Hudson River. The feeling was especially palpable on Sunday mornings, the two laying in bed, scrolling through their social media feeds, and reviewing the Saturday nights their friends had spent at chic eateries and underground dance parties. Sometimes, they’d even joke about it – their “same old, same old” compared to the adventures they saw on Instagram; and that went double when it came to @HonkyTonkSue. 

@HonkyTonkSue’s profile had been recommended to both Lydia and Peter, “based on likes.” It was due, no doubt, to all of the double-tapping they did on their friends’ photos. A salvaged oak credenza? Tap tap. Cool terrarium! Tap tap. Neither was in the habit of keeping up with strangers – even celebrities – but something about this Bushwick-living, urban cowgirl compelled Peter and Lydia to break their own rules. They had never spoken a word to her, and yet Lydia and Peter knew everything about @HonkyTonkSue’s life. 

They knew about her obsession with cortados, Spanish coffees which were invariably adorned with heart-shaped foam art. They knew about her penchant for yoga, which she practiced in her bedroom, framed by a mosaic of Willy Nelson album covers. And they knew about her recent rager at a chalet-themed bar, where she’d struck a regal pose in a novelty-sized rocking chair. 

“@HonkyTonkSue,” she’d written, “has found her throne.” 

Later, Peter would say he’d discovered the place by chance. That he’d gone to Bed-Stuy to hang with an old high school pal, who’d cancelled at the last minute. He couldn’t have known that an aimless stroll would lead him to the same sceney watering hole @HonkyTonkSue had visited, only days earlier. However, standing below the thatched wood eaves of a bar that looked remarkably like a ski lodge, happenstance never crossed his mind. In truth, Peter sensed the universe had, in some inexplicable way, drawn him here – and that this was all part of a cosmic plan which was only slowly, mysteriously, revealing itself. 

Stepping inside, Peter clocked the time-worn animal heads mounted on the wall, the mixologist sporting a lush sleeve of tattoos, the three Swedish women in matching, chambray onesies. It was, he couldn’t help but think, like the set design of a dream. Or someone else’s life. But remembering exactly which cocktail @HonkyTonkSue had ordered when she came last, Peter sidled up to the bar and put in for a Vermont Weekend. He drank it slowly, then very quickly, then ate the leafy sprig, placed as decoration, in his burnished copper mug. 

Sometime after midnight, Peter arrived home and slipped into bed. Rolling over, Lydia asked him how his night had been. But Peter said nothing. He only slid his hands under Lydia’s heather gray thermal and gently cupped her breasts. 

Peter,” she giggled, a bit surprised. 

“I love you. I love you, Lydia,” he whispered, and pressed his mouth to hers, Peter’s breath rich with bourbon and pine needles. 

The following weekend, Peter drove back to Brooklyn, this time with his wife. They started their day at a sunlit cafe, where a crop-topped barista served them their first cortados. Peter watched Lydia, sipping her coffee as if it were a witch’s brew and she a storybook princess unsure if the intended spell would take. There was a pregnant pause – Lydia finally returning the ceramic mug to her saucer. 

“So?” Peter inquired.

Lydia’s eyes tracked up to his.

“Wow. This is like… wow, “she said, her top lip dusted with flecks of cinnamon. Their next stop was a Michelin-starred tasting room famous for charcuterie boards. On the ride over, Peter showed Lydia where he’d found it – among the many tabletop pics in @HonkeyTonkSue’s Instagram gallery. An open tin of pork terrine, a mason jar of pickled veggies, a flour-splashed baguette were in sharp focus. Peeking into frame, a glass of lager caught @HonkyTonkSue’s reflection – her hair wrapped in a garland of reddish plaits. Peter noticed Lydia’s hand drift up to her own ponytail and examine it in the rearview. “Huh,” he could’ve sworn he heard her say, before they parked and ventured into the modern-industrial lunch spot.

Sticker shock set in at once. The prices on the menu promised to obliterate Peter and Lydia’s household budget. On any other day, it might’ve inspired a retreat. But after their first round of drinks, those thoughts grew dim. After their second, Peter and Lydia ordered freely. With every cheese plate, every artisanal beer pairing, the two became looser, relaxing into themselves. By round three, Peter felt Lydia’s foot slide up his leg. Affectionately, he rubbed her ankle, assuming it was accidental. 

“Fuck me,” Lydia mouthed across the table.

“What?” Peter asked, leaning forward.

“Take me to the bathroom. And fuck me, Peter.”

Lydia leveled her gaze at him. 

Peter cleared this throat. 

Briefly, he thought of their bags, sitting unattended at the table. He wondered whether they might be stolen by a drifter whose unruly beard and threadbare clothes helped him camouflage amid the fashionably-unkempt clientele. There would be credit cards to cancel, insurance ID cards to replace. But, again, Peter pushed doubts and practicalities from his mind. 

In minutes, he stood in a candle-lit stall, arched over Lydia as she guided him inside of her. He closed his eyes – enveloped by the scent of smoke and beach wood. With a sudden rush of adrenaline, Peter felt himself disappear. 

In the months that passed, Lydia and Peter turned @HonkyTonkSue’s Instagram account into their personal To-Do List. They caught live shows at The Jalopy Theatre, where her favorite bluegrass bands were regulars. They bought sea monkeys, @HonkyTonkSue’s pets of choice, naming each microscopic brine shrimp. And they shopped religiously at @HonkyTonkSue’s go-to thrift shops. 

Peter opted to shave less, cultivating a beard like the men @HonkyTonkSue leaned against in snapshots. Lydia dyed her auburn hair red, stacking her braids on top of her head. And they read each other’s tarot as @HonkyTonkSue and her on- again, off-again bestie, Zazoe, did when their relationship was copacetic. 

Peter and Lydia decorated their text messages with her signature smileys and peach emojis. They followed her family recipes. And they went on road trips to @HonkyTonkSue’s most beloved bed and breakfast, where they explored each other’s bodies more openly than ever before. 

In this 20-something’s social media profile, Lydia and Peter had stumbled on something extraordinary, a manual for living a different kind of life. So what happened next landed an especially staggering blow to them both. 

It was a Sunday, and Peter and Lydia were at home, nursing hangovers behind their recently installed blackout curtains. While Lydia groped for the coconut water on her nightstand – a morning-after remedy courtesy of @HonkyTonkSue – Peter opened his Instagram app to find out what their country-loving muse had done, last night. Only instead of a photo, Peter noticed @HonkyTonkSue had shared an Instagram Story, a short video which would remain live for less than 24 hours. 

This, @HonkyTonkSue explained, would be her last post for the foreseeable future. She’d been hurt by someone close to her – he knew who he was– and she was taking time off to heal. Lydia dropped her drink and flipped over to look at Peter’s screen. @HonkyTonkSue wrapped up her monologue with a soulful farewell, a thank you to all of her loyal followers for their patience during this upcoming hiatus. 

Peter switched off his phone. The thought had never occurred to him, her leaving them. Had he known, had he and Lydia pondered the possibility, they would surely have rationed out her recommendations. But they had burned through @HonkeyTonkSue’s account, eaten all she’d eaten, partied everywhere she’d partied. Now, the pair was living post to post. 

“Maybe she’ll be back tomorrow,” Peter said. 

“For sure,” said Lydia. 

“She’ll get over it.” 

“Totally,” Peter agreed.

“Totally,” Lydia echoed. 

For the rest of the day, they remained in bed, holding each other and re- watching @HonkyTonkSue’s video. They analyzed and discussed it. They consoled themselves, never bothering to part the curtains, until the Instagram Story was gone, vanished forever into the ether of the Internet. 

Filed under Fiction on February 22nd, 2019

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Trumble’s Brother

by

Henry Trumble carried around a little void. He kept it in his pocket with his keys and spare change. He almost never took it out until his mother’s death day. When she died he spent all day in his shed. Henry didn’t know his mother well. He didn’t spend time with her or feel that he should have. But when she died he told himself, something has changed. He went out to his shed and sorted the buckets of screws, bolts, washers, metal scraps he had inherited from an old man down the street when he had died. Henry hadn’t known what to do with all the rusting pieces but when his mother died he resigned to sort them, rid them of their rust, and sell them to the hardware shop in town.

Then he dropped a bucket of screws which sounded like heavy rain on an aluminum roof. He teared up. He tried to keep his weeping to sobs. After a few minutes he sat down and looked at the scattered screws, each above their own tiny shadow created by a dim bulb hanging from the ceiling. He took everything out of his pockets and set it down with all the screws. The void lay flat and a couple of screws accidentally fell in. He had never seen anything fall into the void but now that something had he thought he might keep his keys and spare change in a different pocket. He rolled a few more screws around and they fell in too. He rolled some more in. He dumped in the rest of the screws from the bucket. He dumped in the bucket. The void grew. It wouldn’t fit in his pocket anymore but it didn’t feel any heavier than when it was small and empty. When he lifted it up above his head to look at it in the light, it shrunk down. He placed it flat on the floor and dumped in more rusting pieces. He tried to dump in his hacksaw but it didn’t fit. A small gas can fit. Then the saw fit. Then a twenty-gallon drum of sand. Then his push-mower fit. Then his workbench fit, but he almost fell in when it caught his ankle. There was very little room left in the shed and things began falling in. A ladder. A shelving unit with tools on it. The shed started to shake a little so Henry opened the door and stepped out. He closed the door behind him and things quieted down.

The next morning he looked out the window and saw that the shed was still there. He told himself he would figure out what to do about it after the funeral. At one-thirty he walked down to the cemetery where his mother was to be buried. A few people were already there and he wondered if it looked bad that he wasn’t the first one at his own mother’s funeral. He stood near the other people to make room for those who might still arrive but nobody else came. In all there were six. Four were old and didn’t seem to notice anything or they noticed everything and ignored it all. Another was a younger man, tall with brown hair. Why would a young man be at my mother’s funeral? Henry thought. This man must be my brother. My mother must have understood her mistakes with us, her first family. She must have tried her hand at another using the knowledge of her mistakes with the first as guidelines for what not to do with the second. That’s very logical. This man is my brother. Many people must have brothers they don’t know about. The sixth person was the Reverend who looked down the entire time. Even when he shook Henry’s hand he nodded and looked toward the ground.

The coffin was closed and Henry was glad it was closed. Nobody wants to see a dead person he thought. He looked into the hole in the ground. It was black but Henry knew it would be brown with dirt if a light were shined down there. It takes a lot of energy to dig a hole like that he thought. People could do a lot with voids. They could put other things society didn’t want in voids. Like broken appliances, buildings, enemies. Old things. Dead things. People could be buried in voids.

“Stop,” Henry said quietly. “Stop everything,” he said. The Reverend looked up, finally. Henry realized he didn’t know what to say next. “Never mind,” he said.

Henry tried to think of a way to get his mother’s coffin and his dead mother to the shed. He knew once he got them there the shed would fall into the void but he thought this was a worthy sacrifice. He would have to trick the Reverend. “I need some time alone with her,” he thought to say. “How much?” the Reverend would ask. “Very likely three to five hours.” Henry factored in an hour or two to secure a truck and another couple to find one or two helpers. Coffins look heavy he thought. Another hour to get back to his house, unload it, and dump it into the void. Maybe my brother would help. He hasn’t taken his eyes off the coffin. He must have come to the same conclusion I have.

After the Reverend finished Henry asked him for some time with his mother. “Of course,” the Reverend said. “Take a moment. The men won’t start until you are ready.”

“The men?” Henry said. The Reverend looked down and nodded in the direction of three men with shovels who must have walked up during the ceremony. “Okay,” Henry said defeated. He bent down and touched the coffin and wondered if there was even anything inside.

He turned to his brother and said, “we’ll have to come back tonight.” His brother nodded and wiped a tear from his eye. Henry put a hand on his brother’s shoulder. The man leaned a little away. Everything gets lost to emotion, he thought, then walked back home.

Henry went to the shed and saw that some of the floorboards had fallen into the void. The shed was arumble and stayed that way until the night. He regretted not remembering to tell his brother to bring shovels since his had fallen into the void. He went to the hardware store in town and purchased two more. He took a last look into the void, the shed really rattling and creaking now, before making his way back to the cemetery.

Henry’s arraignment lasted only a few moments. It seemed everyone was on the same side. Even his lawyer. A united fight for justice when it came to grave robbing. The judge asked Henry to explain himself. Explain why a man would do such a thing. A man with no record. With nothing. Henry turned to his lawyer who was hard at work on a hangnail. “I expected my brother to show up,” Henry said.

“Good thing he has more sense than you, sir,” the judge said. Henry was found guilty and was sentenced, through a miracle of a precedent set over a hundred years ago, to ten years in jail. Henry’s lawyer made a kind of humming sound.

Henry went to jail.

Over the course of ten years Henry kept track of many things. He ate 10,943 meals, read 758 books, wrote 2,603 letters to his brother. He addressed the letters to a “Mr. Trumble – tall with brown hair.” Since Henry had blond hair and was rarely described as tall, he hoped the post office in town would make the connection. In the letters Henry wrote mostly of mundane things mostly as so much of life in jail is mundane. There are some ghastly moments too, but the ratio of mundane to ghastly leans heavily to the former. He wrote of the few friends he had made. His closest was Angus. Angus had accidentally poured poison into the drinking water of his enemy. He had been in jail for two years when Henry was sentenced. Angus talked a lot and Henry found most things Angus said to be calming. Henry had two other friends, one named James and the other called Wilson. Wilson was also named James though nobody called him that. James wasn’t very smart but he cared a great deal for his family and Henry liked that. Wilson was a large man full of muscle who protected Henry, Angus, and James from the ghastly times.

Henry would have gotten out early on good behavior if it wasn’t for the time when Wilson was sick and couldn’t protect them. A man stole Henry’s food and attempted to make a habit of it. Angus accidentally poisoned the man but Henry was blamed. Henry wouldn’t allow Angus to admit his mistake and though he wasn’t charged with the crime, when it came time to evaluate Henry’s behavior, the poisoned man was a blotch on his record.

On his last day, Henry ate a breakfast of cold oatmeal and an overripe peach. He was given the belongings which had been taken away from him his first day. He took a bus back to town and walked four of the twelve blocks to his home. A strange glow floated above the town like a city in the distance. The boulevard inclined just as he remembered. From the Polish church Henry toward what should have been the older half of town. Only it wasn’t. Instead the older half of town had fallen into the void. A crumbling of property. A crumbling of roads. Electricity sparked for miles around. Broken power lines tugged wires back down the boulevard. A newspaper fluttered down and Henry stepped on it. The headline read “Interstate Re-Routed.” His house, his street, his neighborhood, the cemetery, his mother, all pulled in. My brother is all I have left, he thought.

An army truck pulled up behind him and a woman got out.

“How did you get past the checkpoint?” She wore army boots. Henry stood there quiet. “Please come with me. We have to get you to a safe location.” Inside the truck she ordered the driver to pull around. “Your home is probably gone if it was down there.”

“What’s happening?” Henry said.

“We’re trying to figure that out. The Army Corps of Engineers, NASA, the Pentagon, even SETI all have teams investigating. Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out.”

“Why are people in town still here?”

“It’s best not to panic people. The thing is growing reliably but slowly. We move people only when it becomes necessary.”

“I need to find my brother,” Henry said.

Henry felt less sure about certain things after being in jail so long. He spoke less. His voice was quieter. He acted less confident though he wasn’t less confident. He was hungry, which felt strange because in jail he was never hungry. Now that his void was so large and seemed to be causing so much damage he felt responsible. More responsible than he had ever felt before.

“I’ve got to see the mayor,” he said.

“Why? Friend of yours?” she said. Henry thought about it.

“He’s my best friend. When can I see him?”

“City Hall is right there. It’s a free country.” Henry hopped out of the truck. He went in and asked to see the mayor. The man at the desk said the mayor was in a meeting and that her schedule was full.

“If I were you,” the man said, “I’d get out of Dodge like others are doing. The government is coming through here and clearing out the whole town.”

“When?” Henry said.

“Anytime now. Tomorrow. Today. Now.”

“Do you know how I could find my brother?”

“Try the phone book.” The man sat back down like the conversation was over.

“That’s my void out there,” Henry said.

“Pardon me?”

“The thing out there. Swallowing everything. It’s mine.”

“Of course it is. Go right along and claim it then. Thank you for stopping by City Hall today.”

Of course, Henry was made a hero. Even nationally people knew his name for a week or two. A popular musician wrote a song inspired by Henry’s heroism, though for the sake of the song “Henry” was changed to “Harry” to rhyme with “carry,” “tally,” and to complete the slant rhyme with “sorry.” Since by the time Henry saved the town most journalists had evacuated, the reportage of what exactly happened was inconsistent. The kernel was that Henry, coming off his years of rehabilitation, having returned home to a town under threat, a town he loved, felt it his civic duty to intervene while so many others fled. This wasn’t quite right, though it was right enough. He did feel a responsibility to stop the void, but not out of a sense of duty to his fellow man. He did it because one of his few pet peeves was when someone didn’t clean up after themselves. This only grew in jail, a place where everyone is responsible for his own little plot. His modest space and belongings. Aside from the ghastly times, Henry did not altogether dislike jail. It was a mostly neat and tidy place. Everything orderly and satisfying.

So when he was able to get to “the front,” as he heard the army calling it, he did his bidding out of principle and pride. Nobody had thought to make physical contact with the void. The staggering damage it caused was reason enough to stay away. The army had even fired a missile into it, which of course only made it bigger. Henry dug both hands beneath the void. He made sure to stand on a sturdy slab of concrete, something to withstand the pressure until he could get a handle on it. He pulled up and the void lifted high. “A Physical Miracle” one headline would read. He lifted the sturdy one-piece thing and it shrunk down, its sides rushing towards his hands like marbles down a slope. In a moment the void was solely his again. The army had him quarantined just in case the but tests showed nothing and for a little while Henry felt the comfort of confinement again. He was released without the army discovering the quarter-sized void on his person.

The ordeal left much of the town a fine gravel, flat, barren. Henry was homeless and wandered the remaining streets. He ate and bathed at a soup kitchen and shelter. He slept outside as it never dipped below freezing at this latitude. He welcomed the hours of solitude though he often missed Angus, James, and Wilson. When nobody was around he took the void out of his pocket and fed it some scraps, dust, bolts, batteries, anything lying around. When it grew palm-sized he tilted it up and it shrunk back down. After a few years on the street Henry took to placing the void above his head, on a shelf or a ledge, and as in prayer spoke to it to grant him things. What he asked for was modest, that the shelter remain open, the weather keep warm, the streets clean and policed. He had few run-ins with the police. All these things the void granted him. When he took it back down and stuffed it in his pocket he did so with a slight deception. There was one wish he had yet to ask for: that his brother be well and to see him again and that they might become friends. He was keeping this wish to himself. In this way he was lying to the void through omission, something a god is often displeased with. But Henry had a sneaking suspicion that the void was no god, though it did deserve a certain level of respect and honor. Just the same he kept this one important wish for a time when there was nothing to do. When everything had aligned. Maybe a sunny day. Maybe the last day ever.

Illustration by John LEE.

Filed under Fiction on January 25th, 2019

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