Johnny America




Talk around the lake of a half-naked, hunch­backed mon­ster led Barb right to the bas­tard. He didn’t see her as she drew near the float­ing mass of de­cay­ing rush­es, moss and drift­wood. He squat­ted in a man-made nest of rub­bish, his at­ten­tion fo­cused on sort­ing bot­tles in­to piles of am­ber, emer­ald, and clear glass. Bony el­bows jut­ted from pale, hair­less arms that moved in spasms as if con­trolled by an am­a­teur puppeteer.

She dipped her pad­dle once more in­to the murky wa­ter, pro­pelling the ca­noe through a thick­et of cat­tails. Dry reeds rasped against the fiber­glass hull and slowed her to a gen­tle stop. Barb tossed an an­chor on­to the bog and towed her­self up the bank.

“You’re afraid you’ll for­give him.”

Claire’s in­ten­tions were good, in­sist­ing as she had on ac­com­pa­ny­ing Barb on the dri­ve up. Claire’s in­ten­tions were al­ways good. But with every new mile of old black top, Barb wished she’d come alone.

Forty years gone was a long time. The trees were taller than she re­mem­bered. And there was some­thing else. A sin­is­ter lack of wel­come. Pines, straight and nee­dle-sharp, crowd­ed the soft shoul­ders, re­sist­ing the pas­sage of their rent­ed Tau­rus with an al­most phys­i­cal pres­ence. Scenery fad­ed in from mem­o­ry, and Barb knew they were close. Af­ter cross­ing a nar­row bridge, they round­ed a curve and Ray & Nora’s Road­house came in­to view.

Barb slowed down.

Along the trunk road that cir­cled the lake, sum­mer cot­tages were al­ready board­ed up for the sea­son, dri­ve­ways chained off with ‘No Tres­pass­ing’ signs. From old habit, she found her­self watch­ing for the weath­ered, hand-paint­ed mail­box an­nounc­ing “The Boyds.” Yet know­ing K.C. and her fam­i­ly were long gone.

“What’re you thinking?”


The wa­ter was down some twen­ty feet from when she was a teenag­er. Marsh­land choked the shore as far as she could see. Quak­ing bogs, like the one she now stum­bled across, used to be rare oc­cur­rences. Mag­i­cal, al­most. Places in be­tween, nei­ther quite land nor wa­ter. But now, dozens of float­ing is­lands scabbed over the oxy­gen-starved lake. It was dying.

Be­hind the half-man, half-mon­ster, dozens of glass may­on­naise jars stood close­mouthed, arranged in a way that sug­gest­ed more method than mad­ness. Met­al lids, rust­ed on tight, trapped junk in­side like a tinker’s bug zoo. Barb stepped care­ful­ly through the col­lec­tion of odds and ends and stared down at its curator.

If not for the inky Corps ea­gle poised in mid-flight on the man’s left shoul­der, Barb wouldn’t have rec­og­nized him. She stared down at the dirty, shrunk­en crea­ture and won­dered what for­give­ness felt like.

He’d be eighty-three that win­ter. The last time she’d seen him, he’d been ten years younger than she was now. Tan­gles of blue veins showed through the crêpe pa­per skin of his cheeks. Patchy stub­ble sug­ared his chin. She looked in­to his eyes, check­ing if any­one was home.

“Hi, Harley.”

The men Harley drank with smelled like road tar and cig­a­rettes. Work on coun­ty high­way crews had tanned their hands and faces in­to leather, re­mind­ing ten-year-old Barb of pic­tures she’d seen in so­cial stud­ies class. Dead men, per­fect­ly pre­served, be­cause some­where in Eng­land, a bog swal­lowed them up.

“Bar­bie Doll!” Harley’s bud­dies would call, smil­ing tooth­some or tooth­less grins, lur­ing her to them with ice-cold bot­tles of pop.

“Who’s that, Dad­dy?” Barb point­ed across the tav­ern to a stranger, a rough-look­ing woman in an or­ange vest and steel-toed boots. Ob­vi­ous­ly part of the group, but not wel­come at the bar.

“Eh?” Harley swiveled to see where she point­ed. His nar­row eyes be­came slits and he grabbed her out­stretched fin­ger. “No one, Bar­bie Doll.”

“Cunt suck­er, is what,” mut­tered the crew­man on the next stool, and the men broke out in laughter.

Harley choked on a swal­low of beer. “Son of a bitch. I got my girl here. Watch your God­damn language.”

“What’s a ‘cunts’ —”

“Ain’t noth­ing.” Harley dug a quar­ter from his jeans. “Why don’t you play some pinball?”

Her voice sound­ed in­tru­sive and big and old, slap­ping against the still sur­face of the lake, skit­ter­ing in­to far cor­ners, slink­ing in­to hidey-holes like a dirty curse.

“You can’t have them,” Harley said. He hunched over the piles of bot­tles, his spine pro­trud­ing in sharp ridges down his back, re­mind­ing Barb of an al­bi­no al­li­ga­tor she saw once in cap­tiv­i­ty. It, too, had seemed sick­ly and confused.

But it still had an im­pres­sive set of teeth.

Two days ago, Claire had rushed home with what looked like half the “cop­ing” sec­tion of their lo­cal book­store. Barb had lis­tened as she ram­bled on about the pro­gres­sion of the dis­ease, about “sun down­ing.” Now, Barb stole a glance at the west­ern hori­zon, where harsh light split through a stand of ever­greens, cast­ing long shad­ows over the wa­ter. The left side of Harley’s face glowed a de­mon-red, the oth­er, a dusky blue.

She squat­ted, ig­nor­ing the way her knees popped, and reached for an old Coke bot­tle. Decades of wear had left the glass pit­ted and opaque. “We used to col­lect these to­geth­er, re­mem­ber? We’d take them to the Pig­gly-Wig­gly out on Old Turn­er Road and turn them in for the de­posit money.”

Barb watched, de­light­ed, as Harley stacked rail­road ties on the far side of the dri­ve­way. This lat­est ad­di­tion to the jum­ble of old trac­tor tires, wood­en spools of wire, and sal­vaged cin­der blocks, would serve as a per­fect ram­part to the fort she’d con­struct­ed amidst the heap. An en­vi­able place to play, if there had been any chil­dren her age to en­vy it.

But her school friends all lived in town, miles from the lake. Not that she cared much. Her dad need­ed her, and that was enough.

“Bar­bie?” He fin­gered a steel spike, stuck half out of the treat­ed wood. “Get me my sledge, would you?”

Not a sim­ple task, con­sid­er­ing in­side the house the chaos was no bet­ter. But Barb had ex­plored all the nooks and cran­nies. Un­der the base­ment stairs, be­low a shelf bow­ing from the weight of jars full of nuts and bolts, she knew she’d find what she was look­ing for.

“Hands off my stuff. Get your own damn…” He paused, search­ing for a word, the stub­born set of his shoul­ders so much like her own. “Damn old…valuable…collectibles.” Harley’s rep­til­ian tongue flicked over his bot­tom lip. “An­tics.”

“An­tiques.” Trash, more like. Emp­ty bot­tles tossed from the decks of pon­toon boats and par­ty barges. “You mean antiques.”

“That’s what I said.” He raised his head and looked at her with an an­i­mal-like in­ten­si­ty. “Thief! Thief!”

His sud­den cry fright­ened roost­ing crows in­to the air. They scram­bled above the tree­tops, a cloud of con­fu­sion be­fore re­form­ing as an or­der­ly flock. As they flew over­head, their shad­ows grazed his bare skin.

“Damn it, Harley, it’s me, Barb.”

“I don’t know no Barb.”

This wasn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly the dis­ease talk­ing. He’d said as much before.

She still hat­ed him. And she hat­ed her­self for hat­ing him. But re­gard­less, she’d come be­cause he need­ed her — whether he knew it or not. Up at the house, Claire wait­ed for them. The thought gave her strength, and she cleared her throat.

“Barb. Your daugh­ter.” The word forced its way out, rusty from lack of use.

His thin arms curled over his chest and he scoot­ed back on his haunch­es. “The dyke,” he said and spat. A web of ropy mu­cus hit her cheek.

All these years and noth­ing had changed. Ap­par­ent­ly, you could go home again. Harley was still Harley. He had been the Jekyll and Hyde of the North­ern Woods long be­fore tourists in their sum­mer cab­ins start­ed whis­per­ing about a bog monster.

“I thought you walked on wa­ter, you pis­sy old man.”

“I could make some cof­fee,” Claire said, pok­ing her head out the screen door. “If there is any.”

The house had been open when they ar­rived. Claire had ex­claimed at the mess, mut­ter­ing some­thing about rac­coons or bears, but Barb rec­og­nized the life’s work of a pack­rat. Fer­al, per­haps, but hu­man. She low­ered her binoc­u­lars. “He’s out there, all right. I should go.”


“Huh? No, thanks.” Boards squeaked as Barb crossed the porch to the rail­ing. “See that lit­tle lily pond, just north of the boat launch? That used to con­nect to the lake. That’s where he taught me to fish for bluegill.”

Claire came to stand be­side her. “Where was the div­ing platform?”

“Down there.” Barb nod­ded at the peb­bly shore­line. “Those stumps stick­ing out of the wa­ter? That’s where our pier was. Go about ten yards out and that’s where he an­chored the pon­toon raft. He made it for me for my four­teenth birth­day. Out of sal­vaged fifty-gal­lon drums and two-by-fours. I won­der what hap­pened to it?”

“Barb, he made a hor­ri­ble mis­take. Just that once. You said your­self he’d on­ly meant to give you the belt. He lost con­trol and vi­o­lence led to —”

“Why are you de­fend­ing him?”

“I’m not, hon­ey. I nev­er would.”

“Then —”

“It’s time for you to let your­self heal.”

Twi­light on the lake was just as she re­mem­bered. Each night, as light slipped away, she’d al­ways felt a change in the woods. It took on a somber an­tic­i­pa­tion. A wait-and-see sus­pi­cion. Trees camped atop moss-cov­ered banks, tight­en­ing their perime­ter around the wa­ter. Song­birds wrapped up the co­da of the day as night clapped the lake in silence.

“We’ve got to go, Harley.”

“Typ­i­cal. No time any­more for dear old Dad. Time was I couldn’t get any time to my­self. You were my lit­tle tag-along. Then, you and that girl, what’s her name, Boyd —”

“K.C.” Barb had felt the name lin­ger­ing on her lips, need­ing to be said aloud.

“You girls did every­thing to­geth­er —” He point­ed in­to the in­di­go night. Rough skin stretched over swollen joints. “Bats.”

Barb watched with him as hun­dreds of tiny crea­tures stole in­to the sky. “I’m al­ways amazed how qui­et they are. Guard­ing se­crets, I suppose.”

“Filthy whore.”


Care­ful­ly avoid­ing her braces, K.C. pulled a lock of hair from her mouth. She held it in front of her face, in­spect­ing the ta­pered point. “I got you some­thing.” Her free arm snatched a pair of fray­ing cut­offs from the floor by the bed.

“It’s not fair,” Barb said as she watched K.C.’s slen­der fin­gers grope blind­ly in the pock­ets of the shorts. “Why do you have to go back to Mil­wau­kee?” She took the wet strand of hair and tucked it be­hind K.C.’s ear.

“Don’t you want to know what it is?” K.C.’s hand closed around the sur­prise. “Close your eyes.”

A cool, slip­pery thread draped her bare col­lar­bones. She looked down. “Half a heart?”

“I have the oth­er half. See? Best friends for­ev­er.” She wag­gled the gold pen­dant on its chain.

“Right. Best friends. I thought we were more than that.”

K.C. cov­ered the bro­ken heart with her palm. “I won’t for­get you.”

Down­stairs, the screen door slammed shut. “Bar­bara Ann? You home?”

“Shit. Got­ta go.” K.C. un­twist­ed her­self from the sheet. She rushed to dress, not both­er­ing to but­ton her cutoffs.

Barb fol­lowed her across the room with her Keds. The pen­dant stuck to her chest. “Don’t –

“Bar­bara Ann!” Heavy foot­steps sound­ed on the stairs.

K.C. strad­dled the win­dow ledge and took her shoes. Out­side Barb’s bed­room, the roof of the cov­ered porch sloped gen­tly to­ward a climb­ing tree. A faint track worn in­to the tarpa­per showed the way down. She kissed Barb’s cheek, and was gone.

“Let’s get you home, Harley. It’s get­ting late.”

“Can’t leave.”

“Sure you can. I brought the ca­noe.” Barb looked for an­oth­er boat and found none. With­out her, he was marooned.

“Got to stay. The minute I leave, those neigh­bor­hood brats will steal the an­tics.” Long fin­gers poked in­to open jars and dragged them closer.

Barb in­spect­ed the jum­bled con­tents — tar­nished forks, sin­gle­ton cuff links, a chipped shot glass, the ash­tray Barb had made in sec­ond grade, some melt­ed hard can­dies. Junk. “Maybe we can take some of it with us.” A bit of gild­ing caught her eye and she reached for an aquarium’s minia­ture trea­sure chest. The irony ap­pealed to her. “How about this?”

“Thief!” His voice pitched high in fren­zy. “I’m be­ing robbed!”

“Calm down! No one’s steal­ing anything.”

“Bar­bie Doll, is that you?” Harley blinked, his gaze tak­ing on a sharp­er fo­cus. “Holy crap, you got old. Where’ve you been all these years? Why…?” He stood, slow­ly un­fold­ing his skele­tal frame. His gaze met hers. “Oh.”

Barb watched the mem­o­ry roll across his face. Grief such as she’d nev­er al­lowed herself.

His gnarled fin­gers reached for her, but then he pulled back as if burned. “Oh God. So sorry.”

Barb looked away, in­to the set­ting sun. Their time, and light, was run­ning out. “Harley, I’ve come to take you home — to a home. A care fa­cil­i­ty. Do you understand?”

“I have some­thing for you.” Harley shuf­fled from his nest, his steps squelch­ing in the muck. Af­ter a dozen paces, he crouched and clawed through the peat with his hands.

“There’s glass every­where,” Barb said, rush­ing to stop him.

“Look at that.” Harley pulled a jar from the bog. The con­tain­er was sealed tight and cov­ered with slick ooze. His at­ro­phied limbs found strength to loosen the lid. “Open your hand,” he said, and poured the con­tents in­to her palm.

Cor­ro­sion blurred the out­line of the met­al, but even so, Barb rec­og­nized it. “Dad.” The word tres­passed her lips. She tried it again. “Dad.”

“Hussy!” His words rip­pled across the lake, the cry of a crazy loon. “Hump­ing the neigh­bor girl. Flaunt­ing that slut’s gold be­tween tiny tit­ties. You need­ed to know what a man felt like.”


He gasped, chok­ing on air. “I nev­er mean to touch you.”

Barb let the pen­dant drop back in­to the jar and twist­ed on the lid. Af­ter forty years, some things weren’t worth dig­ging up. She pushed it back in­to the bog.

“I loved you once. I loved you and you broke my heart.”

Filed under Fiction on August 6th, 2009

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