Johnny America


The Mak­ings of Our Story


Peo­ple re­mem­ber the day we met as the day frogs and oth­er small am­phib­ians, al­so squir­rels, rats, and at least one mutt — a mon­grel pup called Spitz — fell from the sky. When I saw the racoon hit you in the head I pulled over and rolled down the win­dow. I don’t nor­mal­ly stop for hitch-hik­ers, you can nev­er be sure.

“You okay?” I called, and held up a ques­tion­ing thumb. In hind­sight, okay, this was dumb. You were clutch­ing a tree in a storm and a racoon had just hit you in the head. The fore­cast had promised rain, in­creas­ing in the af­ter­noon, maybe a lit­tle snow on high ground, but noth­ing like this. The twister had sucked up the small­er life-forms of the re­gion, spat them out all over, and moved on. And how. It moved across the hori­zon like a coked-up Co­hi­ba on a mis­sion. But here, the worst was over. A toad splayed across the wind­screen, dead. The worst was most­ly over. The racoon slipped in­to a corn field.

“Do I look the fuck okay?” you said — I thought you said — it could have been any­thing, the acoustics were lousy out there. I opened the pas­sen­ger door and you ar­rived on the next gust, the tips of your toes bare­ly touch­ing the ground. An­gry wind slammed the door be­hind you.

“Made it,” I said, and of­fered a high-five, which you didn’t seem to notice.

“I’ve just been hit in the head by a racoon,” you said, be­tween gulped breaths.

“Yeah,” I said, and if I laughed I re­al­ly didn’t mean to, and apol­o­gise, again.

“You think that’s fun­ny?” you said.

“No, hell no,” I said. But it was fun­ny, ac­tu­al­ly. It was fun­ny then and I can’t imag­ine it be­com­ing un­fun­ny any­time soon.

“I’m sure we’ll look back and laugh about this in — ”

“Don’t!” you said. “Don’t pre­sume to think we will stay in con­tact af­ter this or­fuck­ingdeal. Be­cause we won’t. I ap­pre­ci­ate the ride, re­al­ly I do, but all I’m in­ter­est­ed in is get­ting to the next town.”

Though vis­i­bly, the racoon had left you un­scathed, I won­dered if you might be in shock. You looked ahead, pok­er-faced, and we sat there as the weath­er stormed. I told you my name and tried to take your mind of things with some small talk.

“Weath­er, huh?” I said.

“We should get out of here,” you said.

“We should,” I said, and moved in­to first.

“Now would be a good time to fas­ten your seat­belt,” I said. You rolled your eyes and poked at the ra­dio. Sta­t­ic. I was about to of­fer you my Tom Waits cas­sette when the clock lodged in the wind­screen. 11:55. Nei­ther of us said any­thing but I couldn’t help think­ing that 11:55 was an omi­nous kind of time. I checked my watch, I was of­fi­cial­ly late.

Dri­ving, dri­ving my ’76 Capri at least, was like do­ing the dog­gy pad­dle in a vat of baked beans. With the wind be­hind us and my foot on the brake, we were pushed along at a steady 15mph. You didn’t say a word the whole time; just sat there, low in the seat with fold­ed arms and a sais­pasquoi pout. A re­frig­er­a­tor zipped by and spilled its con­tents in our path.

“Hun­gry?” I said. Nothing.

“Who keeps ba­nanas in the fridge?” I said. More noth­ing. Maybe you weren’t used to oth­er peo­ple, or were un­fa­mil­iar with the fin­er points of hitch-hik­ing, like telling the dri­ver your name and say­ing, “Thanks for stop­ping.” Maybe you —  “Would you take your feet off the dash, if you don’t mind?” I said. Yeah, maybe not too used to oth­er humans.

We ar­rived in The Ham­let of Greendale.

The Ham­let of Green­dale was on­ly a ham­let in name, it had grown some. But, still, it had a Wal­nut­ty Grove feel to it — had had — last time I’d been there, not any­more. I’d had cel­e­bra­to­ry break­fast in a din­er — the worst omelette ever — af­ter the tri­al had been ad­journed. It looked like an omelette but in re­al­i­ty it was an aber­ra­tion, an in­sult to omelettes every­where, de­spite the cheese, the ba­con, the onions, the mush­rooms. I looked at you about then, I want­ed to check if you were still breath­ing; you yawned.

Every struc­ture in THOG — that’s how the wait­ress who served the omelette had re­ferred to it, “First time in THOG?” she’d said — every house, church, shop and school had been lev­elled. In the street, the man­gled re­mains of the burg­er joint’s arch­es brought the first stage of our jour­ney to an end.

“Time to aban­don ve­hi­cle,” I said. “There, un­der the cour­t­house, the bunker.”

“Cour­t­house? What courthouse?”

“Well, there used to be a cour­t­house above that sign down the steps to “The Bunker?” Think you can make it?”

You stepped in­to the street and moved to the front of the truck, where the gust got you. I’d ex­it­ed down­wind, luck­i­ly, and caught you in my arms. You’d still be trav­el­ling, prob­a­bly, if I hadn’t. The wind knocked us ass over tit, across the street and in­to the en­trance of the bunker. Eight ball, cor­ner pock­et. That’s how it felt, like the el­e­ments were play­ing pool with us. Your hair smelt of bergamot.

The cit­i­zens of THOG were less than im­pressed at our ar­rival. Three of them bat­tled to shut the heavy iron door be­hind us. One of them wore a Gate­keep­ers tee-shirt, a lo­cal trash met­al band. In­side, around the en­trance, peo­ple looked up, then away. I learned lat­er that they’d lost Leroy Ful­da in the last at­tempt to close the door. He’d be found lat­er, dead and bloat­ed, four miles offshore.

“Move along now, folks,” some­one said. “No loitering.”

It was dif­fi­cult to tell how far back the bunker’s pas­sage­way went. It was thick with peo­ple. They shuf­fled for­ward, hold­ing can­dles and torch­es, gas lights. They were neigh­bours, fam­i­ly, col­leagues, friends, and now, as one, victims.

“Plen­ty of room out back,” some­one called from behind.

A small round man with a shin­ing pâté and wire-rimmed glass­es held out a meaty hand. I guessed he was the mayor.

“Howdy-doo­dy,” he said. The weath­er wasn’t go­ing to spoil his good cheer. “Wel­come to THOG. This here bunker is the for­mer wine cel­lar of Rein­mund Beck­er, a Ger­man wine­mak­er and one of our town’s founders. He ar­rived here in 1878 with stalks and stems and the shirt on his back. The stalks and stems loved the dry acidic earth, a love af­fair that con­tin­ues to the present day. For the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry our wine cel­lar was al­so the town jail. The walls are three feet thick. But be­cause there’s no nat­ur­al light, use as a jail was dis­con­tin­ued in 1952. Of late, The Bunker’s been a bar.” It sound­ed like an in­ter­est­ing sto­ry but the tim­ing was all wrong. You were still be­side me, but mov­ing. I thanked the may­or and ex­cused us. He turned to the door and wel­comed more new­com­ers — an el­der­ly cou­ple and a shiv­er­ing pup, the cutest thing I’d ever seen. You were ahead of me now. Afraid I would lose you, I reached out for your hand. You took it with­out think­ing — or not — then shook it away. I curled my arm around your shoul­der, but you lift­ed it over your head and were gone, in­to the labyrinth of caves and tun­nels and God on­ly knows. I watched as you weaved your way through the throng, then let go a “hey,” wish­ing I’d pushed you on your name, and followed.

For you, the crowd part­ed smooth­ly, con­duct­ed you fur­ther, then closed seam­less­ly, as if it were a life-form. No soon­er had I breached the crowd, was I eject­ed. Breach, eject, breach. Ex­pelled, ex­punged like a for­eign body: un­wel­come. “Could I just… if you don’t mind, ex­cuse me, ex­cuse me, ex­cuse me…” The wall of cit­i­zens of THOG was in­sur­mount­able, un-pen­e­trate-able. I dal­lied at the edges, then no­ticed my lawyer in deep con­ver­sa­tion with the judge. I backed away but I’d al­ready caught their attention.

“There won’t be no tri­al to­day, son,” he called to me. “I’ll ring as soon as the phone lines are fixed.”

“Tri­al?” said a smug cit­i­zen, and pushed his in­fant daugh­ter be­hind his legs.

“A stalk­ing thing,” I said. “Noth­ing se­ri­ous, a misunderstanding.”

“You want a seat?” said a woman from be­hind me. She picked up the pup from the bench and placed it on her lap. I hes­i­tat­ed for a sec­ond, the seat she’d made free was be­tween her­self and the old dude she’d come in with. The heck, you were gone; I thanked her and sat. The old man held a cig­a­rette to his lips.

“Don’t even think about it,” said the woman. “We don’t want to in­hale your poison.”

He lit up any­way, blew smoke to the ceil­ing and eyed her with con­tempt. “That’s a twister out there, Eleanor Da­ley, and you’re wor­ried about sec­ond hand smoke?”

“Ex­cuse my hus­band,” said Eleanor. “He was born sans decorum.”

Eleanor and Nathaniel were life­long cit­i­zens of THOG. Nat was a lo­cal artist who’d ex­hib­it­ed in places as far away as places I still knew. Eleanor was a psy­chi­atric nurse and bread­win­ner. They’d fished the pup­py out of a bar­rel of rain­wa­ter in their yard.

“We thought about call­ing him Spitz,” said Eleanor, stroking the dog in her lap.

“Af­ter the swim­mer,” said Nat.

“That’s a lot of name for a lit­tle fel­la,” I said. Spitz looked at me and stretched.

“You should in­tro­duce him to your girl­friend,” said Eleanor. “Where’d she go?”

“Chicks cream them­selves with­in five paces of a pup­py dog,” said Nat.

“Nathaniel Arnold,” said his wife. “I will not tol­er­ate that kind of language.”

Nat spat. Eleanor looked at the gob of spu­tum on the dark ground; Spitz, too, seemed interested.

“She’s not my girl­friend,” I said. “She’s a hitch-hiker.”

“Is she now?” said Eleanor. “Isn’t that something?”

“Huh?” said Nat.

“What?” said I.

“I mean it’s ro­man­tic, is all,” said Eleanor. “Come on now, I can see the shine in your eyes.”

“You got the hots for her, boy?” said Nat. “Which one is she?”

“She went off to scout the joint,” I said. “She’ll be back in a while.”

Eleanor and Nat looked at me.

“Show her the dog, son,” said Nat. “Can’t hurt to try.”

“Nah, don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“It would be a pret­ty kitsch thing to do.”

“So you’re not that in­ter­est­ed, huh?”

“I guess not,” I said, and smiled, and shook my head in a kind of af­fir­ma­tion. Old Nat had nailed it. I just wasn’t that in­ter­est­ed. We had the mak­ings of a good sto­ry, per­haps, at least a be­gin­ning. And we had ar­rival, then of course sep­a­ra­tion, all el­e­ments of good yarns. And I had Nat and Eleanor, benev­o­lent strangers with their gift of Spitz. But that was all. I wasn’t that in­ter­est­ed. And any­way, I’d learned my lesson.

“Here,” said Nat, and held out Spitz.

Spitz yapped — he hadn’t got his bark down yet — and wagged his tail like a pro.

“What the fuck,” I said, and tucked him un­der my arm, “it can’t hurt to try.”

Filed under Fiction on September 16th, 2011

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