Johnny America


Sav­ing the Music


Illustration of a pink Big Wheel trike

“Pause the tape just right, just a sec­ond be­fore the plane hits,” Jeff says, star­ing at the screen, “and think of all those peo­ple you save.” Tak­ing a shot of bour­bon, it drib­bling down his chin, the front of his shirt, he says, “Freeze it just right, you still got the towers.”

He pours an­oth­er shot and his hand shakes the bot­tle in­to a blur, slosh­ing liquor on the floor. Every­thing he says echoes through the emp­ty house. Bounces off bare walls. His wife, Pam, took every­thing. The couch­es and ta­bles, beds and dressers. Their daughter’s toys and clothes. All that’s left are ruts in the hard­wood floors and im­prints in the car­pet. Sheetrock with nail holes like bul­let wounds. A cou­ple lawn chairs, his mi­ni TV. The Mick­ey Mouse VCR. 

And the tape.

I fin­ger-nail the la­bel off a sweat­ing beer. I turn it in my hand and look at the ceil­ing, at the win­dow, the stairs and door. Any­thing to keep from look­ing at what’s hap­pen­ing on the screen. What’s about to hap­pen, about to start every­thing that ends with us sit­ting in this gut­ted house, I’ve al­ready seen. Live and unedit­ed. And I don’t want to see it again.

“Stop the Za­prud­er tape at frame 207,” he says, “history’s rewritten.” 

“Why you do­ing this to your­self?” I say. 

Not break­ing his trance on the screen, he says, “Take his broth­er. Freeze him at the podi­um, and he’s not gunned down in that kitchen.” Down­ing the shot, he says, “He’d al­ways be ‘On to Chicago.’”

My eyes cut to the tele­vi­sion, then away. Back to the television.

On it, framed in the 14” x 21” screen, is a shak­ing mi­ni birth­day par­ty. There’s a mi­ni clown in the back­ground twist­ing red bal­loons in­to a tiny poo­dle. There’s kids zip­ping by in front of the cam­era with par­ty hats cocked to the side. Adults in lawn chairs, the same we’re sit­ting in now, re­lax­ing in the shade of a cy­press, legs hooked over their knees, wav­ing. A pic­nic ta­ble lined with pa­per plates and plas­tic forks and presents lean­ing-tow­ered at the end.

Every­thing for­mat­ted to fit your screen. 

The cameraman’s voice says: Al­right, guys. The cam­era shim­mies and the voice says: We ready for cake and ice cream?

Jeff’s voice.

The screen says: 01:41:13.

And these scaled-down kids swarm to­geth­er like feed­ing fish, wild and high-pitched. Par­ents step be­hind their sons and daugh­ters, their knees or el­bows or half-faces the on­ly thing vis­i­ble. My hands reach from out of frame and rub my son, Kaden’s, head.

Pam comes on screen hold­ing a large Hel­lo Kit­ty cake, sev­en can­dles flick­er­ing. She sets it in front of their daugh­ter, Dawn, and everyone’s sings “Hap­py Birth­day.” Jeff’s voice loud­est next to the cam­era mic.

The song ends and she clos­es her eyes. Leans over, hook­ing the dark curls be­hind her ears. Her cheeks in­flate and she blows the can­dles out, smoke mouse-tail­ing in the air.

Every­one cheers.

The screen says: 01:47:05.

Tak­ing a drink, his voice grit­ty, Jeff says, “There’s that tightrope walk­er.” He shakes his head, smiles at the screen. “Hit the but­ton while he’s still on the wire, he doesn’t drop hun­dreds of feet sec­onds lat­er.” He says, “He stays up there forever.”

I lean for­ward, drape my wrists over my knees, and say, “He still drops, just not again.”

On the TV, Jeff’s voice says: Sor­ry ba­by. Says: We didn’t get you any­thing this year.

And Dawn cocks her hips to the side, hand on her waist. Hair blow­ing across her fore­head, she smiles and wags her finger.

Dad­dy Dad­dy Dad­dy, she says. You’re so sil­ly.

Jeff rewinds the tape, her fin­ger wag­ging in quick-re­verse. Her hips straight­en, hand com­ing off her waist. He hits play and she does it all again.

Dad­dy Dad­dy Dad­dy, she says, and blink­ing at the screen, Jeff says with her, “You’re so sil­ly.”

The screen says: 01:54:26.

I stand, throw my head back, and let the beer bub­ble against my lips. Step­ping be­hind him, my foot­steps hol­low on the floor, I put my hand on his shoul­der. “I’m just say­ing,” I say, “video doesn’t stop some­thing from hap­pen­ing.” I squat be­side him, stare at the side of his face, and say, “It’s just proof that it did hap­pen.”

On screen, Dawn’s peel­ing back pink wrap­ping pa­per. Rip­ping it high above her head and let­ting it drop be­hind her. Then, her eyes go wide, her mouth wider. Pam claps and says: Looky there!

And Jeff’s voice says: What is it?

Tick­le Me El­mo, Dawn says, tug­ging at the box flaps.

She tears open a Do­ra doll. She digs in­to an E‑Z Bake oven.

A Justin Bieber Sing-Along Mic.

A Mick­ey Mouse VCR.

And she keeps dig­ging un­til the tow­er of gifts is gone.

Then, Jeff’s voice says: One more!

Dawn looks around, a fin­ger to her lips.

Hon, Jeff’s voice says. What’s it Mom’s got there? His fin­ger stretch­es out in front of the cam­era, point­ing to­ward the house. And Pam steps from around the cor­ner, push­ing a Hel­lo Kit­ty Big Wheel. A large red bow tied across the handlebars. 

All the kids’ mouths are dark pits in their faces. My son looks up at me and I squat down and smile. Mas­sage his shoul­ders be­fore we dis­ap­pear out of frame, the cam­era jump­ing to fol­low Dawn run­ning to­ward the toy, scream­ing. Arms V’d out.

The screen says: 02:00:05.

Jeff’s knee pis­tons in bursts. He sits straight, then leans for­ward again, el­bows on quads. Pours an­oth­er drink, shoots it, and pours another. 

I grab a beer from the box. Wa­ter drips in­to puck­er marks on the floor. “What’s say we get out of here,” I tell him. “Get some­thing to eat.”

His knee mov­ing faster, it vi­brates up his tor­so, bounces his shoul­der and head. He says, “That trea­sur­er in Penn­syl­va­nia? The one that blew the back of his head out on live TV?” He thumb-rubs the Mick­ey Mouse-eared re­mote in his hand and says, “One click of a but­ton, he lives for­ev­er.” He smiles at his daugh­ter laugh­ing on screen and says, “Course the gun’ll al­ways be in his mouth, but nothing’s with­out sacrifice.”

I shake my head, stare at the screen, and take a sip. What was my wife is not in the video. She’s not at the par­ty. Not at our house. Where she’s at is in some oth­er family’s videos. Smil­ing and wav­ing in­to the cam­era at some oth­er kid’s birth­day par­ty. “Jeff,” I say. “This act­ing this way, look what all it’s cost.” I look around at the noth­ing in the house and say, “Look!” and my voice slaps off all the bare spaces and re­peats: Look!

He doesn’t break his trance.

On the screen, Dawn walks to­ward the cam­era with the gi­ant bow in both hands. She brings it clos­er to the lens, clos­er to the lens, un­til the screen shakes and goes dark. Un­til on­ly bits of the par­ty are seen through the loops of ribbon.

Over the dark, the screen says: 02:03:50.

“Video,” Jeff says, “is the mod­ern crys­tal ball.” He says, “It’s our prophets, our for­tune tellers. It lets us see what’s gonna hap­pen.” He chokes the bot­tle of liquor and takes a drink. It spills over the cor­ners of his mouth in a frown. 

“It doesn’t let us see what’s gonna hap­pen,” I tell him. “It shows us what al­ready did.” Tak­ing a sip of beer, I say, “You see the fu­ture, but it’s in the past.”

Jeff smiles, takes a drink, and shakes his head. “The camera’s our foun­tain of youth,” he says. “You can make the old young again.”

I walk over and yank the re­mote from his hand. Hit the pause but­ton and he stands. On the screen, Dawn is leaned back, her hands on the han­dle­bars of the Big Wheel. Hair blown flat be­hind her.

He holds his hand out, his face vi­brat­ing. Eyes pink and slicked over. 

“See what I’m say­ing,” I say, and point. He looks at the screen. It twitch­es, try­ing to move for­ward. White lines jerk across the mid­dle of his daugh­ter. “The video wants to keep go­ing,” I tell him. “It has to. That’s what it does.” I take his hand and lay the re­mote in his palm. He looks at me, a tear bead­ed at the bot­tom of one eye, be­fore it zips down.“Nature,” I say, “takes its course.”

He clos­es his fin­gers over the re­mote, sits down, and takes a drink. Hits play and his daugh­ter leans for­ward, her hair drop­ping back flat.

In the video, next door is my mi­ni back­yard. My son’s bi­cy­cle propped against the chain-link fence. The dog­house where no dog’s lived since my wife left. Her with­ered For­get-me-nots are lift­ed and flipped by a breeze. For more years than I’ve got fin­gers, she groomed that flower gar­den. She sun­bathed on the pa­tio and we host­ed bar­be­cues for friends. The cam­era shak­ing, kids yelling, I try to rewind our life in my head — we’re ig­nor­ing each oth­er, just walk­ing around back­wards like er­rat­ic mov­ing zombies.


We’re scream­ing and fight­ing, her walk­ing away to­ward me in the hall. Her up­held hands lowering.


We’re mak­ing up be­fore hav­ing small dis­agree­ments. Every­thing end­ing be­fore it begins.

Jeff and Pam, my wife and I, we’re tak­ing food out of our mouths. Around the grill, the smoke vents down. The food un-cooks. Dawn and Kaden skip around in reverse.

Then, we’re watch­ing our son ride his new bike back­wards. The dog run­ning be­side him, wag­ging tail first.

Then, we’re star­ing at our back­yard for the first time, be­fore we back in­side in quick jerks, wide smiles stretch­ing narrow.

I blink and take an­oth­er drink. On the video, the sky above the party’s the col­or of soaked news­pa­per. Clouds claw­ing over each oth­er. Wind blowing.

The cam­era looks down at Dawn, who’s pulled in front of Jeff’s feet. She smiles up, a front tooth miss­ing. Her head cocked to the side.

The cam­era zooms in and Jeff’s voice says: Can I ride?

Her head still cocked, Dawn clos­es her eyes, rolls her bot­tom lip over her top, and says: You wish, blowfish.

She ped­dles back from the cam­era, wav­ing, then starts rid­ing in cir­cles. Jeff rewinds the tape and in quick time, she cir­cles coun­ter­clock­wise and stops, fac­ing the cam­era. Rides to­ward the lens, smil­ing and wav­ing, and stops at Jeff’s feet. Her head cocks. Mouth mov­ing, bot­tom lip rolled over top unrolling.

Her closed eyes open.

Jeff hits play and his voice says: Can I ride?

A tear rips over his smil­ing cheek­bone and he says with his daugh­ter, “You wish, blowfish.”

The screen says: 02:08:49.

I sit be­side him. Swal­low­ing in quick bursts, my eyes sting. My face hurts. Tight­ens like a clinched fist. “Turn it off,” I tell him. “Please?” 

“With video,” he says, his voice skip­ping, “you got the pow­er to bring peo­ple back to life.” He says, “Just by press­ing a but­ton — they’re dead, then they’re alive.” He slides a hand through his hair, rubs it hard back and forth, and slips it out. He says, “Like an elec­tron­ic God.”

He starts to speak, stops, then tells me with the right tim­ing, you can stop the Chal­lenger from ex­plod­ing. He says, “That teacher’ll nev­er make it to space, but she won’t not make it, either.”

The screen says: 02:09:21.

His voice shak­ing, he says, “You can stop bombs from hitting.”

Re­move cancer.

Re­verse AIDS.

Bare­ly au­di­ble, he says, “You can sin­gle fin­ger­ly con­trol fate.”

On the video, Dawn is still rid­ing in cir­cles. Her voice get­ting loud­er with each loop. 

The screen says: 2:10:10.



The wind picks up and Dawn throws her head back, laugh­ing. Kaden chas­ing her around, hands Franken­steined out.



“Pause Bud­dy Holly’s plane lift­ing away,” he says, just breath and shak­ing voice, “and the mu­sic don’t die.”



And I put my arm around his neck, pull him to­ward me. He drops his head to my chest and his shoul­ders start to tremor. I slip the re­mote from his hand. I look at our yard, shak­ing in the back­ground. Every­thing dark and dead or dy­ing. I know video doesn’t show the fu­ture. It can’t make di­vorced cou­ples mar­ried. Make sick peo­ple well. Make dead peo­ple alive.

You wish, blowfish. 

I squint and the TV goes blurry.

On the video, a sin­gle rain­drop pops the cam­era lens and slides down. Dawn fin­ish­es her loops and takes off down the dri­ve­way, to­ward the street. Ped­dling hard, the grind of plas­tic wheels over pavement. 

And I hit the pause but­ton, catch­ing a voice in mid-scream. Cam­era in mid-shake. Freez­ing Pam in the mid­dle of stand­ing. Stop­ping Dawn from ped­dling in­to the street and away forever.

The screen twitch­es, try­ing to move for­ward. To do what’s next.

“It don’t die,” he says, in­to my chest.

“It don’t die,” I say, wish­ing it were true.

Filed under Fiction on August 6th, 2021

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Cora wrote:

So ex­treme­ly sad — but very well done.

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