Johnny America




Ms Posey ar­rived at my high school the fall se­mes­ter of my sopho­more year from Ore­gon, with long pointy shoes like those of a me­dieval jester and au­tumn red curly hair.

She taught draw­ing, which in two days went from the most loathed sub­ject to everyone’s fa­vorite. We walked around with pen­cils and char­coal in our pock­ets and let­ter-size pads in our arms, sketch­ing in play­grounds and au­di­to­ri­ums, ea­ger to pro­duce the piece that would win Ms Posey’s praise. She liked dra­mat­ic pos­tures — as if the char­ac­ter was in fast mo­tion — and shad­ows, elon­gat­ed and dark.

One in-class as­sign­ment was to sketch a house­hold scene. The class filled their pages with elab­o­rate an­tique vas­es and kitchens flood­ed with long beams of morn­ing sun from sky­lights. I drew a spot­ted gold­fish in a bowl, giv­ing the fish a round body and large lips. I cray­oned him an aching, bright yel­low. Then hold­ing my blunt 4B pen­cil like a dag­ger, I pep­pered the fish with spots.

“Oh look, you drew a gold­fish,” said Ms Posey.

I gave a shy smile, spend­ing all my en­er­gy on try­ing not to stare at the freck­les on her cheeks.

“I have a spot­ted gold­fish, but with large brown patch­es,” said Ms Posey. “You should come see it some­time.” She walked away leav­ing be­hind a del­i­cate scent of jasmine.

Nolan sat next to me grit­ting his teeth. “I can’t be­lieve she fell for that,” he said. We had over­heard Ms Posey talk about her fa­vorite spot­ted fish to the Eng­lish teacher the day be­fore. Pulling his work from the draw­ing pad, Nolan tore the wide pa­per in­to two, right down the mid­dle. His pic­ture of a New Eng­land man­tle and fire­place with smol­der­ing coal should have been the winner.

Ms Posey walked me around her house to the white-paint­ed back porch. With­out the tra­di­tion­al hang­ing swing and an­ces­tral junk, it looked enor­mous. The aquar­i­um, set on a ta­ble on the porch, was a pris­tine glass rec­tan­gle, about a foot by two feet, speck­led with ten­ta­cle-like sea plants. A rib­bon-tailed tetra fish and three small gold­fish­es in full or­ange loi­tered by the surface.

“Where is Patch­es?” said Ms Posey squeez­ing her low­er lip be­tween her thumb and fore­fin­ger. As she bent to the lev­el of the aquar­i­um, I bent too, on the oth­er side. Shards of the evening sun curved in the wa­ter form­ing shapes of light, and through this stained glass, for the first time, I al­lowed my eyes to linger on Ms Posey. I fol­lowed the trails of her freck­les from nose-tip to ears as she tapped in front of the plant clus­ters, and then traced the freck­les from her fore­arms to the soft tops of her breasts un­der the beige dress.

“That’s your hide­out, huh, Patch­es,” said Ms Posey. She gave a tap at the large coral dome in the mid­dle of the aquar­i­um, and out popped the mas­ter of the tank, wig­gling his two inch body straight to the top.

“Is­n’t he gor­geous?” she said.

When I left ten min­utes lat­er, Ms Posey said, “come vis­it us next Tues­day. We can dig for food.” And she point­ed to the over­grown back­yard. Turned out, my draw­ing teacher did­n’t be­lieve in pack­aged fish food, choos­ing in­stead to gath­er worms and flies off the ground.

I spent the week dream­ing of bur­row­ing my fin­gers in­to the grime and dirt of Ms Posey’s back­yard. Come Sun­day, I bor­rowed 80 cents from Nolan, trad­ing a life­time of loy­al­ty for it, and rode my bike to every pet shop in town, search­ing for a gold­fish marred in some­way, with spots or patch­es. At the fourth store, I found one with a black cir­cle around his eye.

Hold­ing my present — wrapped in a clear plas­tic bag — in one hand, I bal­anced the han­dle bars with the oth­er and ped­dled to Ms Posey’s, ea­ger to see her greet­ing smile. I could com­pli­ment her ear­rings, I thought. She wore dan­gling metal­lic spheres. And, maybe, I would graze her hair, ever so gently.

Ms Posey did­n’t see me. She was sit­ting on the back porch on a low cane stool star­ing at a dis­tance. Her hair was made up in­to a long elab­o­rate bun, and for a mo­ment I stood lost in her slen­der neck. Then I no­ticed her dress, cher­ry with frills. The last thing you would wear while dig­ging dirt.

“Hey,” she said, stand­ing up on hear­ing the thumps as I hopped up the three steps lead­ing to her porch. Then her lips dropped. “I for­got you were com­ing.” She had made plans. “Oh look, you brought a love­ly fish.”

Don’t call him Pi­rate, I said to my­self as I hand­ed her the bag. As her eyes fo­cused on the fish, I no­ticed a dash of red on her eye­lids and a smear of pink on her lips. Ms Posey slipped my fish in­to the tank and laughed when he rammed straight in­to the glass. I hoped she would­n’t go.

A horn, long and screechy, emerged from the street. I could­n’t see the car but imag­ined its metal­lic paint shim­mer­ing un­der the af­ter­noon sun. “Sor­ry I have to go,” said Ms Posey. “But you can stay as long as you want, the guys will be hap­py.” She nod­ded at the aquar­i­um, and then she tugged up the hem of her dress and ran down the porch. As she dis­ap­peared around the house, she yelled back, “Thanks for Buck!”

I stood star­ing at the spot where she van­ished. The car door slammed, en­gine revved and tires scraped away. When I turned to the aquar­i­um, I saw a beau­ti­ful bird — blue plume with a dash of white and or­ange — sit­ting on the op­po­site cor­ner of the tank. He was a foot tall with a long flat beak. A flick of his head and my fish Buck was gone. I was root­ed with shock and en­chant­ment. Af­ter a quick glance at me, when his eye­lids rolled down and up his wet, black eyes, he pro­ceed­ed to pick off the four oth­er small fish­es — the tetra and goldfishes.

Then he turned to me and we looked at each oth­er. He stayed put as I took small, mea­sured steps to­ward him. When I reached the tank, I want­ed to bow to the bird. In­stead, I leaned for­ward and tapped at the mid­dle of the aquar­i­um, right in front of the coral dome. Like the oth­er day, Patch­es streaked up the tank, and as he neared the sur­face, the king­fish­er snapped him in­to his beak. Then the bird rose up and glid­ed in­to the maple trees, leav­ing me with an aquar­i­um emp­ty of every­thing in­clud­ing the evening light.

Filed under Fiction on November 24th, 2008

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Reader Comments

Ina Claire Gabler wrote:

I think “Patch­es” is an ex­quis­ite­ly writ­ten sto­ry with a bril­liant­ly-ren­dered end­ing. I am fa­mil­iar with the work of Vin­ny Sen­gui­t­tuvan and be­lieve he is an emerg­ing, gift­ed writer. I am glad to see his work on these pages.
In pub­lish­ing “Patch­es, the ed­i­tors of John­ny Amer­i­ca show that they rec­og­nize qual­i­ty writ­ing that goes far be­yond the styl­ized tone of Iowa-in­flu­enced fic­tion that has be­come lit­tle more than for­mu­la­ic fashion.
hope to see more of Vin­ny Sen­gui­t­tuvan’s work here!
Ina Claire Gabler

Mary wrote:

Like the “sur­prise” ending!

Matt Dennison wrote:

Very nice. Got­ta ask: How big *is* a Kingfisher?

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