Johnny America


The Sur­vivors Cat­a­log Their Col­lec­tive Knowledge


Since it was his idea, the cow­boy po­et vol­un­teered. He was the on­ly one who’d tak­en pa­per and pens in­to the fall­out shel­ter, along with three black shirts, three pairs of black pants, a black cow­boy hat, and black cow­boy boots.

Be­ing a large an­i­mal vet­eri­nar­i­an in ad­di­tion to be­ing a cow­boy po­et, he was sure that he’d be need­ed. But, when they opened the shel­ter door, and dis­cov­ered they could breathe the air, and no­body vom­it­ed blood or went blind, they did some ex­plor­ing. All the hors­es and cows and oth­er large an­i­mals in a five-mile ra­dius were dead. His skills were use­less, aside from his cow­boy poetry.

He knew that the oth­ers were in de­spair, and so he told them that record­ing the in­for­ma­tion would be use­ful as they re­built their lives. The task start­ed as a di­ver­sion but, as of­ten hap­pens with di­ver­sions, some­thing sig­nif­i­cant sur­faced. A re­al­iza­tion was dawn­ing up­on the cow­boy poet.

He twist­ed an end of his han­dle­bar mus­tache pen­sive­ly as he fin­ished with an­oth­er mem­ber of the group. A pro­fes­sor of Ur­ban Stud­ies. Fol­low­ing the cow­boy poet’s ex­cit­ed ques­tions, the pro­fes­sor ad­mit­ted that he didn’t know any­thing about plan­ning a city. He said he couldn’t even plan a one-horse town. This, the cow­boy po­et as­sumed, was yet an­oth­er un­der­hand­ed jibe at all the brag­ging he’d done in the fall­out shel­ter about his large an­i­mal vet­eri­nary skills.

“You see,” the pro­fes­sor of­fered, “my spe­cial­ty was ur­ban sprawl.” He de­scribed every­thing he knew about sprawl, and the cow­boy po­et wrote it down as best he could. It took two hours and forty-sev­en min­utes. The pro­fes­sor as­sured him that what he had was an abridged version.

Pri­or to the Ur­ban Stud­ies pro­fes­sor, there’d been a di­vorce at­tor­ney, a pro­fes­sion­al golfer, a video game de­sign­er, and a se­nior da­ta proces­sor. Like the pro­fes­sor, they spoke at length about what they knew. They were hap­py to talk and talk, even when the cow­boy po­et would in­ter­ject a “Dang, this ain’t good at all,” from time to time.

The next man took a seat across from the cow­boy poet.

“What did ya do be­fore every­thing was a blown to tarnation?”

“I was a gardener.”

The cow­boy po­et imag­ined the first green tops of veg­eta­bles break­ing the nu­clear-win­ter­ized soil. “Well, thank Gawd,” he said, smiling.

The gar­den­er blushed.

The cow­boy po­et stood up and swung his arm out to­ward the stretch of suf­fer­ing land all around them. “So tell me, Green Thumbs, what veg­eta­bles do ya reck­on we’ll put in the ground around here?”

The gar­den­er looked about and then shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. Veg­eta­bles were not my specialty.”

The cow­boy po­et reached up un­der his hat and scratched his head. He smiled again. “Okay. Noth­ing to get ornery about. We’ll just have ya cov­er this place in flow­ers. Pret­ti­fy things. Turn this place in­to a sec­ond gawd damn Eden.” He looked at the oth­ers still slumped about the en­trance of the shel­ter. Some flow­ers might just lift their spirits.

“I don’t re­al­ly have a green thumb for flow­ers, ei­ther. You might say I have more of a black thumb.” The gar­den­er smiled. “You see, I was a weed man.”

“Wacky Tabacky!” the cow­boy po­et boomed in his deep voice.

“No. No. Weed elimination.”

“Ya just killed weeds?”

“Just?” The gar­den­er looked of­fend­ed. “I worked for some of the wealth­i­est peo­ple in the Hamp­tons. Do you have any idea how many types of weeds can in­vade a lawn?”

The cow­boy po­et ad­mit­ted that he didn’t.

The gar­den­er be­gan recit­ing weeds, hold­ing up a fin­ger dra­mat­i­cal­ly with each name. “Well, there are bur clover, wild onion, ox­alis, spurges, creep­ing char­lie, toad­flax, heartleaf dry­mary, curly dock, false dan­de­lion, pen­ny­wort, hen­bit, purs —”

The cow­boy po­et punched the gar­den­er in the jaw. “Damn Flan­nel­mouth … Don’t any of you son­s­abitch­es know noth­ing?” he yelled. “Ain’t any of you some­thing, like a car­pen­ter, or a hunter, or a farmer?”

Stu­pe­fied, they looked to­ward him with mush­room-cloud­ed eyes.

Fi­nal­ly, a gray-haired man stood up. “I’m a farmer.”

The cow­boy po­et stepped over the gar­den­er. “Well, thank Gawd. Put us to work, Farmer Brown. Y’alls the new sher­iff in this here town, and we’re your deputies.”

Arms akim­bo, the farmer sur­veyed the land. “Well, we’re go­ing to need a cou­ple hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars, at least.”

“What in tar­na­tion for?”

“Equip­ment. I can’t do any­thing with­out the right ma­chin­ery. I’ll need a de­huller and —”

“But —”

“Wait,” the farmer said, rais­ing a fin­ger. “I’ll need to make sure this soil has the right drainage to plant sun­flow­ers be­fore we start anything.”

“Sun­flow­ers! What in the Sam Hill —”

“You see, I worked on a cor­po­rate farm in Ohio. We sup­plied sun­flower seeds for bird­feed com­pa­nies all over Illi­nois, In­di­ana, and Michigan.”

The cow­boy po­et looked off to­ward the re­al sun set­ting in the west. “Dang, this ain’t good,” he whis­pered to himself.

Lines of melan­choly verse start­ed to take shape in his mind and he wrote them down. Lat­er, he read the po­em aloud to any­one who would lis­ten. He re­cit­ed and re­cit­ed un­til he saw the tears in their eyes. He had noth­ing else. That’s what cow­boy po­ets do.

Filed under Fiction on April 12th, 2007

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