Johnny America




From her liv­ing room win­dow, Jill had a per­fect view of the guy who was steal­ing the ra­dio from her car. He did­n’t seem hur­ried at all. Just a reg­u­lar guy: av­er­age height, av­er­age build, wear­ing jeans and a t‑shirt, brown hair. He was sit­ting in her pas­sen­ger seat, fid­dling with some­thing on the dash­board. Jill want­ed to yell at him: “Hey! What are you do­ing? Don’t be a jerk! How am I sup­posed to lis­ten to NPR with­out that?” But she re­al­ized that she was a sin­gle woman, alone in her apart­ment, and shout­ing at a thief was prob­a­bly not the smartest thing she could do. Bet­ter that he was in­tent on­ly on her car stereo.

She could see him rum­mag­ing through her things, twist­ing around in the seat to look for any­thing good, bent over to search the floor. “There’s noth­ing in there,” she want­ed to call out to him. “Maybe a dol­lar in change, that’s all. And that ra­dio you’ve spent ten min­utes pry­ing out is a piece of junk too — does­n’t pick up any­thing on AM.” But she did­n’t. She watched him lift the floor mats, like she might have hid­den a spare key, or gold dust, un­der them. Over­see­ing his pa­thet­ic search, she mo­men­tar­i­ly felt sor­ry that her car had so lit­tle to of­fer. She won­dered why he was so des­per­ate as to steal a lousy ra­dio in broad daylight.

The phone rang and Jill, re­luc­tant­ly, moved away from the win­dow to pick it up, then stretched the tan­gled cord back to her view­ing spot. She knew be­fore she picked it up that it would be ei­ther her moth­er or Ann; no one else ever called.

“Hey Jill, what are you up to?” It was Ann, her best friend and fel­low grad­u­ate student.

The man in her car seemed to be search­ing her glove box. Don’t take the New Hamp­shire map, Jill thought, I re­al­ly like that one. To the phone she said, “Oh noth­ing. Watch­ing a guy steal the ra­dio from my car.”

“What? Se­ri­ous­ly?”

“Yeah. He’s on the street right be­low my apart­ment. Been at it for about ten min­utes. He’s got the ra­dio out but now he’s just look­ing around.”

“Have you called the cops?”

“No. I think he’s go­ing to leave soon.”

“Jill. He’s steal­ing your stuff.” Ann spoke with the pa­tient tone you use for chil­dren, dogs, the men­tal­ly ill.

“It’s a piece of junk. I think in­sur­ance will pay for the win­dow. He broke one to get in.”

“You’re crazy. Any­way, I called to see if you want to do din­ner tonight, take a break from the work. Sev­en okay?”

“Sounds good,” Jill said.

She hung up the phone, re­turned it to the book-filled ta­ble on the far side of the room. When she came back to the win­dow, her car was emp­ty, the pas­sen­ger-side door ajar. She could see the in­te­ri­or light was on. “Je­sus. Now the bat­tery will die,” she said to her­self. But she did­n’t want to go down­stairs. Who knew, maybe the guy was wait­ing around, pissed off that he got such a crap­py haul from her car. “The last thing I need is an en­counter with a dis­grun­tled thief,” Jill mur­mured as she looked up and down the length of the street. She was dis­ap­point­ed she had­n’t seen the thief leave. Did he run away or ca­su­al­ly walk off? Or maybe he drove. She won­dered whether his car was nicer than hers.

Every­thing out the win­dow looked sad, for­lorn. The Mc­Don­ald’s wrap­per blow­ing down the mid­dle of the street, the emp­ty win­dows in the oth­er apart­ments, the spray of bro­ken glass on the side­walk. No sun peeked through the clouds to make the shards glint and glim­mer like di­a­monds. They were just as gray as the sky above.

Maybe the thief was on an­oth­er block; maybe he was al­ready in an­oth­er car, Jill thought. By day’s end he might have a bag full of dis­lo­cat­ed ra­dios, wires hang­ing in use­less dis­ar­ray. Her car looked so lone­ly, its door open, the in­side light shin­ing fee­bly, like a moth­er wait­ing up past her bed­time for a teenage son to come home.

Jill took a dust broom and a card­board box, went down­stairs to the street. Even though it was cloudy, the air was warm, damp. Up close, she was cu­ri­ous to see that the glass was just in­nocu­ous lit­tle cubes, not the spiky shards you see in hor­ror movies. She knocked the re­main­ing pieces out of the win­dow frame, sur­prised by her sat­is­fac­tion as the glass splin­tered and fell. Then she swept the side­walk, the seat, the floor. The car did not smell like him. He had on­ly tak­en the ra­dio, the spare change in the ash­tray; he had not left any­thing be­hind, no clues that would tell her who he was. The glove box sagged open like the jaw of a heavy sleep­er, and Jill gen­tly pushed it shut. She looked at the black hole in the mid­dle of the dash­board, ten­ta­tive­ly stuck her fin­gers in it. He had been so neat: no wires hung out, no scrape marks. A sur­gi­cal re­moval. She probed the depths of the hole, her fin­gers like a child’s tongue feel­ing where a tooth has just fall­en out. The metal­lic taste of blood, the un­ex­pect­ed but sat­is­fy­ing gap. There was noth­ing re­mark­able about it, but Jill could­n’t keep her hand away. She felt in­to the cor­ners of the hole, find­ing noth­ing. Then Jill looked around the car; all the glass was gone so she stood up, shut the door be­hind her.

Back up­stairs, Jill taped the box shut, placed it in the trash. That done, she was mo­men­tar­i­ly at a loss. Be­fore she heard the car win­dow break, be­fore she rushed to see what the noise was from, be­fore she had watched, trans­fixed, the theft oc­cur, Jill had been work­ing. She could see the book open on the ta­ble, a le­gal pad full of her notes. But now her thoughts seemed dis­tant, unim­por­tant. The theft had wiped the slate of her day clear.

In the Yel­low Pages there were an abun­dance of busi­ness­es ready to do au­to glass re­pair and Jill was flus­tered by the choice. She skipped over the names start­ing with four or five As, which seemed like cheat­ing to her. Why should they get to go first in line for pick­ing non­sen­si­cal names? Let them get their busi­ness from im­pa­tient peo­ple, she thought. Past these list­ings, she set­tled on Desmond’s, whose ad­dress was on a street she knew. Of course they could fix the win­dow, bring it right in, said the man on the oth­er end of the line. It should­n’t have been sur­pris­ing that the car start­ed right up; Jill knew the ra­dio was not in­te­gral to en­gine func­tion­ing, but she was pleased nonethe­less. The bro­ken win­dow pro­vid­ed a con­stant breeze as she nav­i­gat­ed the streets to Desmond’s. Though Jill nev­er lis­tened to mu­sic in the car, on­ly the news, sud­den­ly to­day she want­ed mu­sic. It seemed, in fact, as though she could hear a beat, a bass line, and she tapped her fin­gers against the steer­ing wheel, won­der­ing if there was a term for this phe­nom­e­non: phan­tom ra­dio syndrome.

At every stop­light or turn in the road, Jill found her eyes drawn to the gap in the dash­board — she could­n’t leave it alone. And every time she saw it, she thought of the thief. Is he home yet? Has he al­ready sold her ra­dio? It made her sad, jeal­ous even, to think that right now he might be pry­ing out the ra­dio from some oth­er car.

Jill parked in front of Desmond’s garage; it was a lit­tle con­crete build­ing, paint­ed white. Non­de­script, she had prob­a­bly dri­ven by dozens of times with­out notic­ing it. In­side the build­ing, there was a mid­dle-aged man at the counter — his uni­form de­clared him to be not Desmond but Bruce. He was watch­ing a small TV, chew­ing away at a piece of gum.

“You’re the la­dy who called about the window?”

Jill won­dered whether she looked so much like her voice or if they did­n’t have many calls, nod­ded to the man.

“Keys?” he asked.

She hand­ed them over.

“This won’t take long,” he said and went outside.

Jill stood by the counter, heard the en­gine start, the whine of her car in re­verse. To the left of the counter was a large plate glass win­dow that let her look in­to the garage. It re­mind­ed her of the win­dow in a ma­ter­ni­ty unit, like you see in soap op­eras, where the moth­ers and fa­thers press their faces to the glass to look at the in­fants in their cribs. Where, in the world of TV dra­ma, the tags are in­evitably switched and the child ends up in the wrong fam­i­ly. Jill thought for a sec­ond of watch­ing Bruce change her car win­dow, want­ed to see how he fit the glass in­to met­al slot of the frame, but then she re­al­ized she had had enough of watch­ing strange men in her car for one day. In­stead, she set­tled in­to a chair next to the counter, picked up a fad­ed is­sue of some mag­a­zine on sports cars. She heard the noise of car doors open­ing and clos­ing, but stayed glued to the un­in­ter­est­ing ar­ti­cles, not want­i­ng Bruce to feel self-con­scious or rushed. Let him take his time, do the job right.

Short­ly, Bruce came back, put the keys on the counter. His eyes were fixed on the com­put­er as he typed up the invoice.

“So, you got bro­ken in­to, huh?” He made it sound as though she her­self had been bro­ken, vi­o­lat­ed, though by his tone he clear­ly did not mean to be rude.

“To­day, this morn­ing,” Jill replied.

“You’re lucky they did­n’t break more win­dows, mess things up. Some­times they do it just to be mean.”

Jill al­most said some­thing, al­most ex­plained that her thief was­n’t mean, but she re­al­ized that would sound odd. Her thief. It was­n’t like she knew him. She shook her head. “No — he just took the ra­dio. I’ll need a new one, I guess. I don’t sup­pose you sell them or know some­one who does?”

Bruce stopped typ­ing, looked at her. “La­dy, let me give you some ad­vice. Don’t put a new one in. Some­times, these guys take your old ra­dio even when it’s a piece of junk, just hop­ing that you’ll go out and get a new one. Then they come and take the new one.”

“I’d nev­er even thought of that,” said Jill, “thanks.” She took her keys from the counter and left the shop.

In­side her car, she was sur­prised by how far back the seat was from the steer­ing wheel. She scoot­ed the seat for­ward, re­al­iz­ing how tall Bruce must be. The pas­sen­ger side win­dow looked the same as be­fore, looked like some­thing you see through, some­thing whose ex­is­tence you are not sup­posed to no­tice. Noth­ing more.

Dri­ving home on the fa­mil­iar streets, Jill thought of her next-door neigh­bor from the home where she grew up in rur­al New Hamp­shire. He was a re­tired fire­fight­er, burly but kind. A man who loved to hunt. All through the sum­mer he would buy day-old donuts, dis­count­ed, too stale to sell, and leave them out in his back­yard. He al­ways of­fered one to Jill, and she of­ten ate it, es­pe­cial­ly if he had any choco­late frost­ed, her fa­vorite. Every day, a black bear would lum­ber out from the woods to eat the donuts, the glaze get­ting stuck in its fur, shiny and mat­ted. Even­tu­al­ly, sum­mer would turn to au­tumn and on the first day of hunt­ing sea­son he would sit on his deck and shoot the bear.

Jill looked at the gap­ing hole in the dash­board, heard the si­lence of her car as she drove home, re­mem­bered the bear, fat on donuts, and thought it was prob­a­bly best if she did­n’t buy a new radio.

She turned on­to the street in front of her apart­ment, scarce­ly con­scious of how she had ar­rived there. The trip was lost, sub­merged in mem­o­ries of au­tumn and bears, the sticky mess of donuts. She care­ful­ly parked her car in the same spot she had pulled out of just an hour or so ago. Turn­ing the en­gine off, Jill stared up at her apart­ment win­dows, cur­tain­less, non­de­script. Jill tried to re­mem­ber what the thief looked like, found that her im­age of him was blurred al­ready. If he’d just looked up he would have seen her watch­ing him. What kind of thief does­n’t look up? Or maybe he had. Maybe he’d known he was be­ing watched, could feel her eyes up­on him. Did that make it thrilling? Did he like the at­ten­tion? She should have yelled, cupped her hands around her mouth and leaned in­to the screen, “I can see you.” Just that. To let him know.

The blank win­dows of her apart­ment looked as hol­low as the hole in her dash­board. Jill got out of the car, looked up and down the block. Maybe she’d take a short walk be­fore she went back up­stairs. It was mid-June and she could hear the whirring of the win­dow unit air con­di­tion­ers, the oc­ca­sion­al fat slap when a drop of con­den­sa­tion hit the side­walk. She knew she should be work­ing on her con­fer­ence pa­per, but she did­n’t want to go in­side. There was some­thing she need­ed to see, though she was­n’t sure what she was look­ing for. Her neigh­bor­hood was most­ly grad­u­ate stu­dents like her, a few young fam­i­lies. The cars were all small, well-used. Why had the thief picked hers? Look­ing at the row of sedans and hatch­backs neat­ly lin­ing the curb, she could­n’t see what made hers the ob­vi­ous choice. As Jill walked along the side­walk, turn­ing the cor­ner to the next street, she tried to peer in­to the ve­hi­cles as she passed. That one had an ash­tray full of change; this one had cds spread over the pas­sen­ger seat. He could have made a bet­ter haul from some­one else. The sun shot out from be­hind a cloud and Jill shield­ed her eyes with her hand as the light set the rearview mir­rors glaring.

It was fun­ny what you could learn from a car, Jill thought. Car seats in back — easy, a fam­i­ly. The rear plas­tered with bumper stick­ers marked a dead­head or an ecol­o­gy nut. But many were non­de­script, tidy enough, emp­ty. She could­n’t tell a thing about their own­ers. Man? Woman? Be­hind the glass, they all looked the same to her. What had the thief learned from her car? Did he no­tice the well-worn New Hamp­shire maps? The cds of the In­di­go Girls crammed un­der the seat? Had he ob­served the three um­brel­las and known from them how much she hat­ed to be wet, how she nev­er want­ed to be caught un­pre­pared in the rain?

The row of cars sat, neat and trim, sparkling in the sun­shine. Walk­ing along them, back to­wards the cor­ner of her own street, Jill saw no bro­ken win­dows, no gap­ing holes in the dash­boards. Maybe, she thought, she would dri­ve with a portable ra­dio, lis­ten with head­phones. She would leave that emp­ty space where her stereo had been, or fill it with pens, tis­sues, lip balm, all the things she want­ed at her fin­ger­tips when she stopped at a red light. Who need­ed a stereo anyway?

She was back at her own street now, the side­walks still and de­sert­ed. The sun­light bounced off the win­dow of her car, blind­ing, brief, be­fore a cloud slid across the sky, turn­ing the glass flat and gray.

Filed under Fiction on August 5th, 2008

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