Johnny America


What It’s Like to Be Poisoned


Clara had re­signed her­self, for much of the af­ter­noon, at the kitchen ta­ble in the seat clos­est to the larg­er win­dows that over­looked her aun­t’s lav­ish gar­den that she’d been tend­ing fas­tid­i­ous­ly since ear­ly Spring, and de­spite the rains she per­se­vered. The gar­den rest­ed at the base of the stone pa­tio where many of the oth­er guests were found sip­ping their drinks and con­sol­ing the gar­den­er, sit­ting by the dry bird­bath in the form of Eros, griev­ing over her son. Clara sipped from a glass of gin­ger ale as the bar­tender in the liv­ing room was not con­vinced that she was twen­ty-three and she just hap­pened to not have any ID on her, the fact that her cousin was shot in his own back­yard did lit­tle to sway the ethics of the cal­lous serv­er. An ar­ray of thoughts burst in her brain like a fire­works fi­nale, but it was the lit­tle ones she tried to oc­cu­py her­self with. Such as, what if her skirt was, in fact too short, as her fa­ther put it, and if so, how could she hide it? She could­n’t help but think of the big­ger, ex­is­ten­tial things every now and then as the guests be­hind her, lo­cals no doubt, were deal­ing with them in their own way, Clara just wished it would­n’t be so loud.

The two guests were stand­ing at the sink. Both looked rel­a­tive­ly sim­i­lar. Both were black-lad­den, both were at least of mid­dle-age, both were dis­taste­ful­ly be­jew­eled, but the on­ly dif­fer­ence was that one’s body was ex­pand­ing while the oth­er’s was contracting.

“That is such a beau­ti­ful urn don’t you think?” said the ex­pand­ing woman.

“Well you must ad­mit,” the con­tract­ing woman in­ter­ject­ed, “the fam­i­ly al­ways had ex­cep­tion­al taste when it came to death.”

“I sup­pose that’s commendable.”

“Well it comes in handy. Had Ron’s fa­ther had his way, he’d have been buried in a teal cas­ket.”

The ex­pand­ing woman gasped.

“I mean I know it’s a virtue to be mod­est and every­thing. It’s nice, it re­al­ly is, but there’s no need to drag any­one through the mud any fur­ther with it.”

“You know,” added the rather tip­sy hus­band of the con­tract­ing woman, “I read some­where that cre­ma­tion is a haz­ard to the environment.”

“Oh stop it Arnie, not here,” his skin and bones spouse said, “that’s so inappropriate.”

“Where did you read that Arnie?” in­quired the ex­pand­ing lady.

“Oh, a Green is­sue of some­thing. Pos­si­bly Men’s Vogue.”

“Oh, Men’s Vogue, in­ter­est­ing.”

“Please don’t en­cour­age him.”

“Well I just don’t un­der­stand is all.”

“It’s kind of com­pli­cat­ed,” Arnie said, “I think part of it is due to the length that it takes for the corpse to burn.”

“Oh, I see.”

“And if the corpse was be­ing burned with cloth­ing on.”

“This is dis­gust­ing,” the con­tract­ing la­dy said, putting her head in her well-man­i­cured hand. In ad­di­tion she mut­tered, “Why the fuck do I think about sleep­ing with you?”

“Did Der­rick have clothes on when he was cremated?”

“Yes,” the con­tract­ing woman said, “the ones he died in to be exact.”


“That’s what Glo­ria told me.”

“How did they get them back from the police?”

“Well Ron was a promi­nent fig­ure on the Board of Ed. for some time now.”

Just then, Clara had made the con­scious de­ci­sion to leave the kitchen and see what she could do to ac­quire a rum and coke.

“He’ll prob­a­bly re­sign his post,” com­ment­ed Arnie as Clara passed them.

“Just as well,” his wife said, “it’s not in the best in­ter­est of the dis­trict if a Board mem­ber with a dead child is mak­ing de­ci­sions for liv­ing ones.”

The liv­ing room was bub­bling with the perky con­ver­sa­tions, seem­ing­ly hav­ing noth­ing to do with the event at hand, of the oth­er strangers who claimed any sort of light con­nec­tion to her aunt and un­cle. Pe­cu­liar to her pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ences be­ing in their house, she could not re­mem­ber a time when they let any­one smoke, even out­side. How­ev­er, in this case it seems that ex­cep­tions were made. Clara could not weave from one cliquish cir­cle to the next with­out at least one ver­bose mem­ber get­ting his words man­gled by a thick Do­mini­can-made cig­ar. There was at least one woman un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly — for this par­tic­u­lar area any­way —smok­ing one among a gag­gle of oth­er young wives and moth­ers who had changed in­to white spring dress­es in be­tween the memo­r­i­al and the par­ty. At­tached to the wom­en’s form-fit­ting black skirt was pre­sum­ably her child look­ing away from the cir­cle, his blood ves­sels swelling from un­der his face from re­peat­ed hack­ing un­der her moth­er’s to­bac­co cloud.

Clara’s fa­ther came out from with­in the crowd along with the Rev­erend who had over­seen the cer­e­mo­ny ear­li­er in the morn­ing for which her fa­ther was lav­ish­ing praise up­on him. The Rev­erend was fresh-faced and hand­some in his plain­clothes, a brown blaz­er and blue sweater over a white shrit. There was talk that he was new and it was ap­par­ent that he was shak­en by in­ex­pe­ri­ence over deal­ing with such a flood of vi­o­lent grief. Clara ap­proached them dain­ti­ly but was hard­ly no­ticed amidst the conversation.

“It was a beau­ti­ful cer­e­mo­ny, Rev­erend, very, uh, sanc­ti­mo­nious I guess.”

“Well, it’s nev­er easy when these things hap­pen to a fam­i­ly in such a small com­mu­ni­ty. Your sis­ter is a good woman and her chil­dren de­serve every bit a pris­tine memo­r­i­al as any oth­er per­son in a po­si­tion like hers.”

“Of course.”

“If on­ly the re­cep­tion was held in the church, these home pro­ceed­ings are so,” the Rev­erend paused to find the ex­act, most in­of­fen­sive crit­i­cal lan­guage, “course.”

“Well, it is a love­ly home, you make a good point though, but on­ly be­cause I don’t think Rob­bie ever spent much time here.”

“If he were a dif­fer­ent per­son I could have seen him as a for­mi­da­ble youth leader.”

Clara in­ter­ject­ed quick­ly, “Dad­dy?”

“Oh, hel­lo,” her fa­ther said, “Rev­erend have you met Rob­bie’s big cousin, Clara?”

“No I cer­tain­ly haven’t,” re­lied the Rev­erend warmly.

“Hel­lo,” Clara said, gen­tly nodding.

“I’m tru­ly sor­ry for your loss, as I was telling your fa­ther I did­n’t see much of him but when I did I saw po­ten­tial for some great things. Now how old was he again?”

“He was go­ing to be sev­en­teen in August.”

“Oh, dear,” the Rev­erend shook his head, “not yet able to dri­ve, was that his car I saw out by the curb?” he added re­fer­ring to the black Mercedes.

“Uhm, no ac­tu­al­ly that’s Caitlin’s. She was orig­i­nal­ly sup­posed to get the car but she did­n’t like it for sev­er­al rea­sons, some ob­vi­ous and some not, and trad­ed it in for a more re­cent model.”

“Oh I see, and he was­n’t look­ing at schools?”

“Well he and Mi­ran­da stayed over at my place on their way to Penn State Wilkes-Barre, but that’s all I can think of as far as that goes.”

“Oh,” the Rev­erend briefly added.

“But Clara here just trans­ferred over to Vas­sar, she just fin­ished her first se­mes­ter there, is­n’t that right?” he said putting his arm around her thin shoulders.

Clara nod­ded.

“Where did you go originally?”


“I don’t be­lieve I’ve heard of that one, but Vas­sar must be a fresh change of pace, eh?”

“It’s not what I thought it’d be,” she said. “But it’s nice enough.”

“Oh she loves it,” he gave her a pat on the back.

The Rev­erend gen­teel­ly ex­cused him­self to be with her aunt but not be­fore ex­tend­ing his sym­pa­thies once more to both of them and again com­ment­ing on Clara’s mod­ern, but clas­sic fem­i­nine com­po­sure, to which her cousin could take note in and out of the scope of try­ing obstacles.

“Dad, maybe you should lay off the Vas­sar talk, at least for today.”

“Why should I?”

“Or maybe tell peo­ple the truth?”

“Let’s not talk about these things now, per­haps on the ride home. I will be in the den with some people.”

“What peo­ple?”

“Nev­er mind that, your un­cle is over there,” he point­ed to the leather arm­chair in the cor­ner by the fire­place where he was sit­ting. “You should talk to him, he’s been a bit of a pill for most of the weekend.”

“I could on­ly imag­ine why,” she said with a bit­ter smirk.

“Don’t be fresh, maybe you can cheer him up,”

Clara’s un­cle sat up­right and cross-legged in the arm­chair. He was not thick, but un­der his white shirt his chest and stom­ach formed smooth, promi­nent slopes. He nev­er lost any of the more sculpt­ed fea­tures of his face which was made up of a well-shaped jaw, hol­low cheeks, a full head of black hair, well-kept off-white teeth with no ap­par­ent ev­i­dence of ever hav­ing them filled, drilled or root­ed and gums that nev­er bled. His low-key hazel eyes and thin smile were most pleas­ant of all for Clara who’d seen him as a lev­el-head­ed, fair un­cle and not an ex­ces­sive ir­re­spon­si­ble one. She was sur­prised to see that same warm­ing smile and con­tent­ed gaze as she ap­proached him. She’d called his name twice be­fore he’d come out of his tran­quil meditation.

“Oh, Clara, what’s up?” His eyes dart­ed in all di­rec­tions around the room as if he had trou­ble set­ting his eyes on Clara.

“Would you like to get me a drink at the bar?” she said. “I for­got my ID and they think I’m fif­teen or some­thing like that.”

“I thought this would be an open bar.”

“Ap­par­ent­ly not.”

“I need a drink as well, join me?”

“Cer­tain­ly.” She smiled gleefully.

Clara gauged that the bar­tender was no old­er than she was and might have been more open to serv­ing with­out card­ing per­haps if times were a lit­tle more fes­tive. He was wear­ing a white shirt, black bow tie and a red vest, on his right arm was a black armband.

“Hey Greg,”

“Mr. Salzar,” replied stiffly.

“Can you get me a Gibson?”

“Of course.”

“And how about a Dr. Pep­per for my niece.”

“Oh, this is Clara?”

“Ron, I — ”

“Don’t wor­ry Clara I got it,” he as­sured, “yes this is her.”

“I would­n’t have guessed.”

“Well she has her dad’s looks.”

“Ap­par­ent­ly,” Greg said. “I’ll see what I can do about those drinks, Mr. Salzar, just gimme a minute, will you?”

“Take your time,” he smiled more gal­lant­ly and gave him an in­for­mal two-fin­gered salute. He looked over at Clara who had tran­si­tioned fur­ther in­to her youth­ful glumness.

“Some­thing wrong?”

“Oh, no, I’m … try­ing to take it all in I suppose.”

“I un­der­stand, it’s been hard on all of us. There has­n’t been a death in a long time in this fam­i­ly, at least in my side.”

“No it’s pret­ty much the same over on mine.”

“Was­n’t there a grand­moth­er some­where in there a while or so ago?”

“Great ac­tu­al­ly,” she cor­rect­ed, “but we hard­ly liked her so she was swept aside very soon.”

“So it goes I guess.”

“So, you told the bar­tender about me?” she said in a ca­su­al whisper.

“Oh, yeah, it was on­ly ca­su­al in men­tion­ing. You see Greg here used to date Caitlin for a lit­tle bit,” he turned to Greg and snick­ered, “ain’t that right, buddy?”

Greg, with gin in hand nod­ded back.

“She’s a nice girl is­n’t she? I mean for one you don’t see too often.”

“She’s a dear, as my mom would put it,” she chuckled.

Ron chuck­led in re­turn. “You two seemed, I don’t know, dif­fer­ent in some respects.”

“Well sure, that’s how some cous­in’s go I guess.”

“I am sor­ry though.”

“Sor­ry for what?” she said. I don’t understand.”

The con­ver­sa­tion stalled briefly when Greg in­formed Ron that he had run out of pearl onions.

“Bet­ter just make it gin than, Greg.” Greg nod­ded and went back to prepar­ing the drink.

“Any­way, I’m sor­ry for Caitlin.”

“What about her?”

“Her eu­lo­gy.”

“I thought it was fine, beau­ti­ful in fact.”

“Let’s not kid our­selves,” he said sourly, “it was a piece of shit. She’s a ter­ri­ble writer.”

“Well, not every­one is gift­ed, Ron. Sure Caitlin has her weak­ness­es, but grief does­n’t have a set language.”

“Grief?” Ron’s tone be­came steadi­ly more bit­ter. “Who’s talk­ing about grief? She griev­ed for about five sec­onds af­ter she found his body. I tell you that car blazed clear through her head when she saw he was­n’t breathing.”

Clara inched away from Ron on­ly slight­ly. Any­time dur­ing his aside that she would vis­i­bly wince she would keep out of sight and felt, in the best pos­si­ble cour­tesy, to let the rant about his on­ly liv­ing child go on, which was be­gin­ning to show signs of fiz­zling out in mere seconds.

“Any­way, it just could have been done bet­ter. I’m not say­ing I would have writ­ten that kind of ded­i­ca­tion be­cause I can’t.”

“Maybe you can help her.”

“I don’t see how I can.”

“Well, she’s ap­plied to NYU, noth­ing spe­cif­ic mind you, but if you can con­vince her to go with a more prac­ti­cal ma­jor, one suit­ing her abil­i­ties, that would be great,” he said. “What are the big ma­jors over there?”

“I don’t know.”

“I thought you trans­ferred there.”

“No, Vas­sar.”

“Oh, right, Vassar.”

“It does­n’t mat­ter though, I left.”


“Very re­cent­ly.”

“If you must.”

“I felt I should, be­fore I made any­more mistakes.”

“What do you plan on doing?”

“I’m tak­ing a com­mu­ni­ty class un­til I fig­ure those things out.”

“What class?”

“Non­fic­tion writ­ing ac­tu­al­ly,” she chuckled.

“Good,” Ron said with that thin smile mak­ing a wel­come re­turn, “good.”

Greg ap­peared again with the drinks.

“No tip,” said Greg.

“I would­n’t think of it,” Ron replied, seem­ing­ly half-se­ri­ous, if not more and gave an­oth­er salute.

“To Der­rick?” said Clara hold­ing up her drink.

“Cer­tain­ly, to Der­rick.” They clinked their small glass­es, Clara moved the thin, black straw out over her way and drank straight from the glass. Ron downed a good por­tion of his gin and gagged instantly.

“Some­thing wrong?” Clara said try­ing not to laugh.

“Now I know why I drink this mixed.” She re­leased her chuck­le. “How’s yours.”

“It’s fine, but I was more in­to a rum and coke.”

“What did he get you?”

“What you said, a Dr. Pepper.”

“He gave you a so­da? What an id­iot.” He called Greg over. “Hey bud­dy, you won’t win any fa­vors with me if you don’t listen.”

“I’m sor­ry, is there a problem?”

“I asked you to get the la­dy a Dr. Pep­per, not a Dr. Pepper.”

Filed under Fiction on June 10th, 2007

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