Johnny America




On pay­day Gup­ta planned to tat­too his neck. “Get­ting my street name here,” he said, touch­ing just be­low his left earlobe.

“What’s your street name?”

“White Boy.”

“White Boy?” I’d on­ly ever spo­ken with Gup­ta on the street and I’d nev­er heard his street name. Or maybe I had, and just as­sumed I was be­ing taunted.

“How about Unit­ed Na­tions?” I asked, be­cause Gup­ta was plen­ty more than white. Gup­ta con­sid­ered. He drew the char­ac­ters with a fin­ger­tip and shook his head.

“Wouldn’t fit, yo.”

“Just ink ‘Unit­ed’ on the left and ‘Na­tions’ on the right.”

“The right is re­served for my set name, fool! LPS.”


“Lo­cal Pot Smokers.”

“Lo­cal to where?” Gup­ta, White Boy of the Lo­cal Pot Smok­ers cased the block, sus­pi­cious of eaves­drop­pers. Of snitches.

“Yo,” he said. “We’re everywhere.”

We’re loaf­ing out­side the Sal­va­tion Army Mi­nors’ Dor­mi­to­ry. Gup­ta strad­dled his pride, a bi­cy­cle of lit­tle girl pro­por­tions. Al­though he kept his phone fixed on “walkie talkie” mode and spent hours chat­ting with not-so-lo­cal pot smok­ers, Gup­ta of­ten re­ferred to his bike as his “best friend”. When I asked Gup­ta why he had cho­sen such an ill-fit­ting best friend he claimed that they had se­lect­ed each oth­er. “You al­ways rec­og­nize a friend” said Gup­ta. I didn’t ques­tion his log­ic. I feared his ire. Gup­ta slept in the Sal­va­tion Army be­cause he’d decked his step­dad in the Bronx and been ban­ished from home.

“Ban­ished,” said Gupta.

“Like Cain,” I said.

“Nah, that fool still lives up on 174th.”

I lived in a room in the build­ing next door to the Sal­va­tion Army be­cause I was post pre-med. Four years past col­lege grad­u­a­tion, MCAT books served as my yel­low­ing night­stand. I had mur­dered the test. I sin­cere­ly want­ed to be a doc­tor. I just wasn’t ready to ap­ply. I just. Couldn’t.

“Could you do Gup­ta a fa­vor,” said Gup­ta. “Could you tell Gup­ta how fly he looks?” Gup­ta wore a thrift­ed suit that a col­or­blind pimp might have donned for a night on the town when New York City was still a town. Loafers of the lam­i­nat­ed card­board variety.

“Gup­ta looks like he’s se­ri­ous about get­ting the po­si­tion,” I said. The new Shoe Ma­nia was NOW HIRING! and Gup­ta had an interview.

“Coach me, yo,” said Gup­ta, so I af­fect­ed the low­er oc­taves of a gen­er­al manger.

“Son,” I said. “Why do you want to join the Shoe Ma­nia team?”

“To af­ford neck tats, sir.”

“I’m afraid we en­force a strict ‘No Neck Tat’ pol­i­cy here.”

“How about at your Broad­way location?”

“Look,” I said, snap­ping back in­to my nat­ur­al reg­is­ter. “Want ad­vice? Now don’t get mad but that bike is not your friend. You’ll do fine as long as the man­ag­er doesn’t see you rid­ing it. Peo­ple as­sume you ripped off a toddler.”

“No­body shittalks my homey,” said Gup­ta. I cringed as he raised his deck­ing arm. He smoothed his brows, then cy­cled up­town on the rusty Schwinn.

I lost track of Gup­ta af­ter his ar­rest. One of my cur­rent peers, how­ev­er, clears his hip-high bong be­fore com­mut­ing to the lab­o­ra­to­ry where he tasers cells with an elec­tric probe. He seeks the pre­cise volt­age at which the mem­brane be­comes op­ti­mal­ly permeable.

“It’s like,” he says. “An ex­treme­ly in­tri­cate video game.” An­oth­er col­league hears in­to the fu­ture. We’ll be con­vers­ing with a pa­tient and when the pa­tient de­parts my friend might com­ment: “He’ll stroke out. You can tell by his voice.” I’d been pre-med among sa­vants like these, but I’d nev­er con­fused my­self with them. That Sal­va­tion Army sum­mer I bussed ta­bles in an or­ange vinyl but­ton-down shirt. Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion had availed my neigh­bor­hood of restau­rants fan­cy enough to take reser­va­tions, and then fanci­er restau­rants chic enough not to. Af­ter Gup­ta cruised off to his in­ter­view, I changed in­to my or­ange bus­boy uni­form and walked to work.

That night I min­is­tered to the woman to whom I had lost my right hand thir­teen years be­fore. I had a left hand and a Heather Mar­tin. Or rather, a left hand and a grip that mor­phed from one of Heather Martin’s ori­fices to an­oth­er at the speed of fan­ta­sy. I’d heard she was kept by a no­to­ri­ous­ly ec­cen­tric me­dia mogul. I kept her wa­ter glass brim­ming and her table­cloth crumb-free de­spite my full-body pal­sy and bal­lis­tic heart. Clear­ing her apri­cot and wal­nut sal­ad, I brushed Heather Martin’s naked shoul­der. Set­ting down a third ap­ple­ti­ni, I grazed Heather Martin’s naked neck.

“I loved her be­fore those tits!” I screamed at Heather’s es­cort, sort of. More pre­cise­ly, I said “Right away, sir!” and fetched ex­tra kale chips and de­cid­ed to fi­nal­ly avenge my­self on Heather Mar­tin. I would hu­mil­i­ate her in front of her friends and date by ask­ing whether Ed­uar­do Pepe of Camp Wonken­tauk re­al­ly slung an un­cut cock.

A lake di­vid­ed the Boys’ Side from the Girls’ Side of Camp Wonken­tauk, but by the time campers ma­tured in­to F Group, co­ed ac­tiv­i­ties booked four evenings each week. Adam Fleis­chman con­sid­ered four so­cials in­suf­fi­cient. He smug­gled a pair of walkie talkies on­to grounds and palmed one of the trans­mit­ters off to Sarah Green at the Wel­come Back! Ice Cream Cotil­lion. We’d be able to talk dirty af­ter lights out be­cause a coun­selor no longer slept in our bunk be­cause we F Group men were bar-mitz­va­hed. Ex­cept for the green­horn camper, Ed­uar­do Pepe. Ed­uar­do wore a cru­ci­fix and, ru­mor had it, fore­skin. He bleached his teeth and tweezed his brows. While most of us al­ready iden­ti­fied as pre pre-med, Ed­uar­do stepped to home plate wield­ing a Slug­ger he’d com­mis­sioned cus­tom from Louisville. It was ob­vi­ous he was go­ing to the ma­jors. At the end of the ice cream cotil­lion, he went to first base with Heather Mar­tin. An hour lat­er Adam Fleischman’s walkie-talkie cackled.

“Me gus­ta habla Ed­uar­do,” said Heather. It may have been the sta­t­ic, but I think she tried to roll her ‘r’. Ed­uar­do swung out of his bunk, snatched the walkie talkie and strut­ted in­to bath­room. He dead bolt­ed him­self in­to the ply­wood toi­let stall for pri­va­cy. Some­thing like sev­en min­utes lat­er Ed­uar­do posed in the thresh­old of the bunk spank­ing the in­vis­i­ble ass in­to which he pumped his crotch, tongue out, eyes whites. “Be gen­tle with her!” I would have said, but I just couldn’t. And by the time I was ready to, the walkie talkie had been passed.

The cir­cu­la­tion of the walkie talkie crys­tal­lized F Group’s hi­er­ar­chy of pop­u­lar­i­ty. One by one my bunk­mates mi­grat­ed to the bath­room for their short­wave dates while three of us pre­tend­ed to sleep. Pim­ply Lev­en­thal. Fat Schwartzy. I’d been nick­named for a high school where two sad teens had snapped. I was strange for all the nor­mal rea­sons: pre­ferred the Art Shack to the hock­ey rink, Sharpied runes across my knuck­les and neck. Us un­touch­ables lay tensed be­neath our blan­kets fac­ing bunkhouse walls. Some­times Fat Schwartzy fake snored. In the glow of a flash­light I once caught Pim­ply Lenven­thal flut­ter­ing his eye­lids, coun­ter­feit­ing REM. Each night I willed Heather Mar­tin to re­quest me. Each night when Ed­uar­do pa­rad­ed to the bath­room I sheathed my snipped mem­ber in­to a cal­ci­fied sock, erect with cer­tain­ty that down The Knoll, past the beached kayaks and the float­ing dock and the div­ing plat­form on a toi­let in Girl’s Bunk F right now Heather Mar­tin was fid­dling with her­self how­ev­er girls did.

“You’re lucky, Columbine,” said Ed­uar­do, af­ter a par­tic­u­lar­ly lengthy tryst. “When we fin­ish? Girl likes to be talked to. Yap yap pil­low talk like we’re in bed in­stead of the shit­ter.” Eduardo’s brutish­ness mit­i­gat­ed my jeal­ous­ly. He might make the ma­jors, but nev­er med school. “It’s like bitch,” said Ed­uar­do. “Do I give a freak­ing fuck if you go tub­ing or ride the zi­pline for flex pe­ri­od to­mor­row? I’ve got ball to play. Let a hus­tler sleep!” While Ed­uar­do slept, I prayed. Al­though I’d been called to the Torah, that F group sum­mer was the first time I’d sin­cere­ly pe­ti­tioned God. He grant­ed my prayers on the Tues­day night be­fore Saturday’s Home-Go­ing Gala.

On the Tues­day night be­fore Saturday’s Home-Go­ing Gala, Heather buzzed across the frequencies.

“Evan there?”

“You mean Ed­uar­do?” said Fleischman.

“Evan Fis­ch­er.”


“Columbine.” I strode across the stunned bunk with the fear­less­ness of some­one cer­tain he’s dead. Re­signed to be brained by Eduardo’s one-of-a-kind bat. Cradling the walkie talkie in quak­ing hands I turned for the bath­room but Ed­uar­do seized my shoul­der and shook his head. He said he want­ed to hear this. Stand­ing in the cen­ter of the bunk I de­pressed the ‘talk’ but­ton and spoke as cool as Gupta.



“What up?”

“Well um. You know there’s that dance on Sat­ur­day and. See I. Well. I just want­ed to know –.” I am the most en­vied camper at Wonken­tauk. I am cheek-to-cheek danc­ing with Heather Mar­tin in a blush of laven­der strobe. I am recit­ing vows to Heather Fis­ch­er un­der the chup­pah in syn­a­gogue, stomp­ing a nap­kin-wrapped glass.

“I love you Heather Mar­tin. In sick times and in wealth. I. Love. You.” Brief pause. Ex­plo­sive laugh­ter. Every girl in F Bunk laughed through the walkie talkie. Doubt­less they heard every boy in F Bunk laugh­ing back. Wedged be­tween two son­ic walls of de­ri­sion, I stood still and bliss­ful, elat­ed that Heather Mar­tin knew my ac­tu­al name.

“It’s good,” gasped Heather, choked with glee. “It’s great to know that Columbine loves! I hope that means I’m –.” An­oth­er parox­ysm. “I hope that means I’m low on your hit list! But se­ri­ous­ly, Columbine, stop oogling me at dances.”



At Saturday’s so­cial I haz­ard­ed a peek, a def­i­nite non-ogle, at Heather. She blocked my gaze with the palm of her hand. Smug in her cru­el­ty. And al­though I’d seen her that way, I didn’t see her that way. I con­tin­ued to mis­take her love­li­ness for kind­ness. I saw her as my bride not to be.

I saw her lean over and whis­per some­thing to her ec­cen­tric mogul boyfriend, who stood and came at me fast.

“Look, clown­shit,” he snarled. “Stop ogling my la­dy, ok? Or I’ll ass­fuck you bloody.”


“Or I’ll spoon­feed your eye­balls to my snake.”

“Ah.” Just then Heather half-stood in her seat.

“Oh God,” said Heather. “Oh God I — Flush? Flax? Everett Flax?” She had my ini­tials just right.

“Hi Heather,” I said, but she was al­ready ad­dress­ing her six friends, brief­ing them on my history.

“So what’s up Columbine?” she asked. “I fig­ured you’d be a doc­tor. You own this place or something?”

“Sort of.”

“How, sort of?”

“So did Ed­uar­do Pepe re­al­ly –. You know Ed­uar­do nev­er went to the ma­jors right?”

“He went to Mount Sinai.”

“In Egypt?”

“In or­tho­pe­dics.”

Four hours lat­er, at two a.m., I stormed home and un­locked the gate to my build­ing. Gup­ta had chained his pygmy bike to the fence and I knew, sud­den­ly, that he had scored the job. Shoe Ma­nia was with­in walk­ing dis­tance and any­way, with his new in­come, Gup­ta would be able to pur­chase a prop­er bike. Right then I de­cid­ed to do Gup­ta a ser­vice. From my room I re­trieved my stetho­scope, a col­lege grad­u­a­tion gift. I ap­plied the in­stru­ment to the back of Gupta’s com­bi­na­tion lock and cracked it easy. Rid­ing east, the city streamed by beau­ti­ful silent; an ex­hib­it be­hind thick glass. I propped Gupta’s bike in a court­yard of the Ja­cob Ri­is hous­ing projects and walked home to my show­er where I ass­fucked Heather Mar­tin. Ass­fucked her sudsy. Stroked my­self out. And I didn’t with­draw right away, ei­ther. Even when my palm skin pruned I lin­gered in­side of Heather, kiss­ing where her neck would have sloped, mur­mur­ing to her un­til the hot wa­ter went arc­tic. I knew girl liked to be talked to.

Next morn­ing Gup­ta paced the side­walk in a tie made of what, tin­foil? It looked like he’d hitched the blade of a broadsword to his collar.

“You got the job!”

“You seen my bike?” I walked over to the heaped bike chain and knelt in a pose of examination.

“But you can buy a bet­ter one right? In­stead of tat­toos? You got the job?” He hadn’t. He was dressed up be­cause he planned to re­turn to Shoe Ma­nia to demon­strate his per­se­ver­ance. Prod­ding the mem­brane. Await­ing admission.

“Nothing’s been clipped,” I said, stand­ing. “Maybe you left the lock open by accident?”

“No, yo. I’ll find my bike.”

“It’s prob­a­bly been chopped up for parts. Paint­ed at least.”

“Doesn’t mat­ter,” he said, star­ing at me with un­mis­tak­able sus­pi­cion. “You al­ways rec­og­nize a friend. And I’ll find and crip­ple the fuck­ing moth­er­fuck­er who ripped off my friend!”

The fuck­ing moth­er­fuck­er found us. Af­ter two weeks of vig­i­lant search­ing, Gup­ta was fi­nal­ly beg­ging to ac­cept that his friend was gone. We were hang­ing out­side of the Sal­va­tion Army smok­ing Bu­gler roll-your-owns when a small girl ped­dled past on Gupta’s bike. We gawked, dumb­found­ed. Gup­ta bucked his stu­por first.

“Yo!” He sprint­ed to­wards Bow­ery and braced him­self in front of the bike. Brakes squealed. “Get off my bike!”

“It’s mine!”

“Off!” roared Gupta.

“It’s mine!” screamed the child. She was cry­ing now. “I found it!”

“Be­cause some­one stole it from me! Count of three. One.” I knew of Gupta’s volatil­i­ty, the tem­per that had ex­iled him from his home in the Bronx. “Twoooo.” I had to con­fess, to ad­mit that I had pinched the Schwinn. But I wasn’t ready. I was afraid. “Three!” Gup­ta threw the child from the bike. Her head gave against the curb. All I could think was that were I a doc­tor, even though I’d been too cow­ard­ly to pro­tect the girl, I could still help her now. As po­lice shoved Gup­ta in­to a cruis­er, I made oth­er vows.

Be­fore be­gin­ning med­ical school, ac­cept­ed stu­dents re­ceive a short white coat. This short coat an­tic­i­pates the long coat of prac­tic­ing physi­cians and sur­geons. Hos­pi­tal code ob­lig­at­ed us to wear our white coats in the pres­ence of live pa­tients. To­day, we wore them in def­er­ence to the cov­ered ca­dav­ers splayed across our dis­sec­tion ta­bles. Dr. Tay­lor broke our class of thir­ty-two in­to small groups, four stu­dents per body.

“Most of our spec­i­mens,” he warned us, “are uniden­ti­fied per­sons. They’ve been do­nat­ed by the NYPD coro­ner.” He di­rect­ed us to pull the plas­tic tarps away from our ca­dav­ers. “De­pend­ing on the sex,” he said, “you will re­spect­ful­ly re­fer to your ca­dav­er as ei­ther John or Jane.”

“Gup­ta!” Thir­ty-two heads spun on me as I ogled my gur­ney. He had got­ten those neck tats af­ter all. Dr. Tay­lor in­struct­ed every­one to be­gin by shav­ing their ca­dav­ers hair­less. He asked to see me up front, where he asked me to ex­plain myself.

“I can iden­ti­fy my uniden­ti­fied,” I said.

“Are you sure?”

“You al­ways rec­og­nize a friend.”

“What’s the name?”


“Last name?” I shrugged. “Do you know where he lived?”

“The Bronx.”

“We can’t do with that in­for­ma­tion,” said Dr. Tay­lor. “Maybe you’d be more com­fort­able switch­ing groups?” I thought about this, and de­cid­ed no.

Back in my group, Chase Rovit had poised the point of his scalpel at the base of Gupta’s trachea.

“Open wide White Boy,” said Chase.

“Don’t call him that.”

“It’s tat­tooed right on his neck.”

“White Boy was his street name. Gup­ta is his hos­pi­tal name.” Chase scoffed and sliced. The epi­der­mis, the mem­brane, part­ed flu­id­ly for his blade. And al­though per­haps not as im­pres­sive as hear­ing in­to the fu­ture, over the next weeks of dis­sec­tion I saw in­to Gupta’s past. I ex­am­ined the res­pi­ra­to­ry sys­tem of a Lo­cal Pot Smok­er. I could have dried out Gupta’s lungs. I could have diced them up and sold the bits in nick­el and dime bags. I gripped the bone saw in my Heather Mar­tin and split Gupta’s skull to re­veal a con­tused cra­ni­um. Maybe he’d been pitched hel­met­less from a new best friend. Maybe he’d lost his tem­per with some­one big­ger than a lit­tle girl.

Gup­ta was gray pick­ings by the close of the anato­my unit. Af­ter the fi­nal class I filed out of the lab with my peers. On the pre­tense of hav­ing for­got­ten my white coat, how­ev­er, I cir­cled back. Alone among the bod­ies, I stood con­sid­er­ing my old nick­name when the in­ter­com cut on, walkie talkie style. Dr. Messi­neo to Op­er­at­ing Room C. Dr. Knox to ra­di­ol­o­gy. When I closed my eyes, I was squat­ting out­side the Sal­va­tion Army. I lay fe­tal in a bunkhouse af­ter lights out, not hear­ing my name.

“Yo.” My eyes snapped open. Be­fore me stood an or­der­ly swathed in an or­ange haz­mat suit. A mir­rored vi­sor masked his eyes and he breathed through two fil­tered noz­zles. “You ok?” he said. Com­pared to Gupta?

“Could I just help you with this?” I asked. The or­der­ly didn’t mind. Over the next five min­utes I slid Gupta’s re­mains in­to a thick, opaque plas­tic pouch. No cer­e­mo­ny could have en­no­bled the procedure.

“You al­right?” re­peat­ed the or­der­ly, as I hand­ed him the heavy bag.

“No” I said. But I’m ready to be.

Filed under Fiction on December 10th, 2010

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