Johnny America


Two Sto­ries Across from the Cemetery


Illustration of two geishas

My room­mate mis­car­ried and de­cid­ed to leave the city. I’d al­ways had room­mates, even though I wasn’t a young man any­more, so at first it was nice. 

I couldn’t re­al­ly af­ford the rent on my own, so I cut a lot of ex­pens­es. It was easy to give up al­most every­thing. I didn’t eat that much, and I didn’t re­al­ly like go­ing to restau­rants any­way. I was nev­er in­to shop­ping. Plus, I love to dance, and danc­ing is al­most al­ways free. 

I’d met Lester a few weeks be­fore, but he didn’t re­mem­ber. He had paced in­to the deli, fran­tic; the deli men looked an­noyed as soon as they saw him. Lester took an in­ter­est in me right away. “Did you hear what hap­pened?” His voice was gnarled, abrad­ed. It was clear he was gay and that he had em­phy­se­ma or an­oth­er dis­ease of the lungs. 

“I don’t know. What happened?” 

“Miss Amer­i­ca,” he said grave­ly. He nod­ded and point­ed at the news­pa­per he was hold­ing. I wasn’t sure if I want­ed to talk to him. But I didn’t want to be rude, either. 

“What about her?” 

He widened his eyes and swat­ted his hand, picked up the lighter at­tached to the cash reg­is­ter by a rope, lit his cig­a­rette. “You haven’t heard?” He paused, tak­ing a drag. He held out an ex­ag­ger­at­ed limp wrist and leaned clos­er. “Miss Amer­i­ca killed her­self.” He in­haled again, nod­ded, then shrugged, as if to say there is noth­ing you or I or any­one can do about it. “Threw her­self off a bal­cony. She was a beau­ti­ful girl. Re­al­ly. Just a re­al­ly, tru­ly beau­ti­ful girl.” He paused. “And gor­geous black skin,” he added, stroking his fore­arms with his fingertips. 

I nod­ded in a way that I thought seemed re­spect­ful. “That’s so sad,” I said. I moved past him and to­wards the door. 

He shout­ed in­to the street af­ter me. “It was in Manhattan!” 

Weeks lat­er he came in­to the thrift store I some­times walk around in. He was on the phone, shout­ing. The voice on the oth­er end was al­so shout­ing but you couldn’t make out what was be­ing said, just that they were an­gry. “Do you work here?” he asked, talk­ing over the voice on the phone. 

“No, I don’t.” I smiled. It was nice to see him again. 

He looked me up and down and put his hands on his hips, “Well, you should.” 

I laughed, un­sure of what he meant. The voice on the phone sound­ed more and more agitated. 

“What’s your name, doll?” 

“Judge.” I told him. 

“What do you think of this, Judd?” Lester held up a tiny white po­lo shirt with yel­lowed armpits. 

I shrugged. 

“Ooh, Judd doesn’t like it!” he shout­ed in­to the phone. “What about this?” He showed me a paint­ing. It was of a Geisha’s face, but her face was a mo­sa­ic of dif­fer­ent col­ors and types of flowers. 

It was an aw­ful paint­ing. “It’s nice, pret­ty nice” I told him. 

He yelled in­to the phone again, in a taunt­ing, rhyth­mic way, “Ooh, Judd-is-buy­ing-me-a-paint­ing!” He hung up the phone and fol­lowed me in­to the oth­er aisle. “You ever been to the gay club?” 

“Which one?” 

“Xs­ta­sy Lounge.”

“I don’t think so.” 

“Re­al­ly? I can’t be­lieve you’ve nev­er been there. It’s two sto­ries, across from the cemetery?”

“No. I’ve nev­er even heard of it.”

Lester couldn’t be­lieve I’d nev­er been there. “You should come some­time.” He seemed em­bar­rassed then. He looked down at his shoes and ran his hands through his hair, which was a pol­lut­ed sort of brown. 

“I’d love to,” I told him.

He got to my build­ing around nine o’clock. 

“Ju­u­u­u­u­udd, it’s me. Lester.” His em­phy­semic voice sound­ed even cra­zier through the intercom. 

I came down­stairs and we walked to­wards the bar. Look­ing at him, I could tell that Lester had been beau­ti­ful when he was younger. I wished I could have seen him then. He was prob­a­bly wish­ing that I was a lit­tle younger, too. “You know, I fig­ure I should tell you this now. My name is Judge. Not Judd.”

“It is?” He laughed. “Well, I’m sor­ry sweetie.” 

We stopped at a bak­ery. It smelled like Fab­u­loso and was dec­o­rat­ed with Ti­betan prayer flags. Lester bought an espres­so and a piece of cake. 

He sat across from me. “There’s some stuff I should tell you.” I nod­ded. “I have a lot of health prob­lems.” He leaned clos­er, con­fi­den­tial­ly, “I’ve been poi­soned twice. The first time was at a wine bar. Ar­senic. That time I just had a lot of prob­lems with my mouth. The sec­ond time it hap­pened, my face swelled up like a pink bal­loon and I de­vel­oped a rash all over my body. I dealt with that for three or four years.”


“And, I’ve had two ma­jor con­cus­sions. In 2018, I fell off of a high chair at a Jack in the Box. I don’t know how it hap­pened. I was eat­ing and read­ing and the next thing I know,” he smacked his hands to­geth­er loud­ly, “with­out warn­ing I’m pum­mel­ing in­to the ce­ment tile floor.” 

“What hap­pened the sec­ond time?”


“You said two ma­jor concussions.”

“Oh, right, right. The sec­ond time, some­one ran up be­hind me and bashed me in the head with a bat. He thought I was some­one else.” He shrugged. “Mis­tak­en identity.” 

Xs­ta­sy is a great club. Red and green lights dance around as you en­ter. The bar­tenders are re­al, tough women. Big girls with mus­cled arms and large, bold faces. Lester im­me­di­ate­ly took me to the dance floor. He was much taller than me, so my head fell in the cen­ter of his chest as he pulled me in­to him. He smelled like cedar and cig­a­rettes and dirt. My head was cra­dled in be­tween his pecs and we stayed like that, sway­ing for a while. It was awk­ward be­cause it wasn’t re­al­ly a slow song. 

As we wait­ed for our drinks Lester kept look­ing over his shoul­der, scan­ning the room, like he was look­ing for someone.

“Look­ing for some­one?” I asked. 

“Just tak­ing in­ven­to­ry.” He winked. 

“What? Aren’t I good enough?” I asked, a lit­tle wounded. 

He turned to­wards me and pursed his lips. He raised his arms in a ges­ture that asked, you’re be­ing se­ri­ous? Then he rolled his eyes and leaned in­to me, like he was let­ting me in on a se­cret. “Look, when I first saw you, I knew you didn’t have no one or any­thing. I saw you and I knew it.” 

I looked away.

“And I was right, wasn’t I?” 

I nod­ded, uh huh. 

“Wasn’t I?”

I looked away again.

“We should nev­er feel of­fend­ed when some­one makes do with our com­pa­ny for lack of a bet­ter com­pan­ion.” He was stern but gen­tle as he said this.

Filed under Fiction on August 26th, 2022

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