Johnny America


Refugee in Riverside


Illustration of old fashioned radios, and vacuum tubes.

“Your great-grand­fa­ther was a tram dri­ver. Pro­fes­sion­al­ly, he stayed on the rails, but at home he went off them once a month. This was down to his home­made slivovitz, which, for your in­for­ma­tion, is an in­fer­nal brandy made by fer­ment­ing plums.”

Ten-year-old Stephen rolled his eyes at his broth­er Will, who shook his head. Al­ways the same joke about the rails, al­ways the hell­ish slivovitz. Still in their pa­ja­mas, they were seat­ed on the sag­ging couch in their grandfather’s liv­ing room on the morn­ing of De­cem­ber 27. The lights on the tree were off; the room was chilly and full of shad­ows. At twelve, Will un­der­stood that the old man felt some com­pul­sion to tell them the sto­ry of his life. He was will­ing to sit through it be­cause he knew that his moth­er, for whom he would do any­thing, wor­ried about her fa­ther. It was af­ter their grandmother’s death that she in­sist­ed they spend two days of Christ­mas week in their grandfather’s drafty Vic­to­ri­an house. The boys went, Stephen sto­ical­ly, Will un­der protest. Both would have pre­ferred to be at home with their own beds, bath­room, presents, and friends. 

By now, lis­ten­ing to their Djed’s sto­ry was a sea­son­al rit­u­al, like pro­duc­tions of The Nut­crack­er and A Christ­mas Car­ol. This was their third year. The old man was set­tled in his re­clin­er with a mug of tea with hon­ey. The boys sat still on the couch, do­ing their du­ty while their par­ents were up­stairs sleep­ing— or pre­tend­ing to.

“The al­co­hol made Otac crazy an­gry. Ma­j­ka in­sist­ed that he was on­ly blow­ing off steam, let­ting out all his dis­sat­is­fac­tions and dis­ap­point­ments, the bad mem­o­ries from the war. He was usu­al­ly a gen­tle man, my Otac. It was on­ly when things went bad­ly that he got in­to the slivovitz. Some­thing went bad­ly every month. But it wasn’t so bad be­cause by the time he came af­ter us, the brandy spoiled his aim and his bal­ance and, any­way, he soon passed out. All the same, I promised my­self nev­er to dri­ve a tram or drink fer­ment­ed plums. You un­der­stand? I was am­bi­tious for an­oth­er life, boys, a bet­ter one. I stud­ied hard, as I ex­pect you two do. I won a schol­ar­ship to the uni­ver­si­ty. Za­greb Uni­ver­si­ty was found­ed in 1699, long be­fore the Unit­ed States, a fine old school, the top one in the coun­try. As I’d al­ways been in­ter­est­ed in how things worked, es­pe­cial­ly ra­dios, I de­cid­ed to study elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer­ing. It was a new field back then and for that very rea­son a smart choice.”

The old man cleared his throat and sipped the tea that had gone cold, like the house.

“When the war start­ed, I was in my last year, on­ly months from my de­gree. But my par­ents said I should get out of Croa­t­ia or I’d be draft­ed. ‘War is ter­ri­ble. Come back when it’s over,’ said Otac. ‘Yes. Go to Amer­i­ca,” Ma­j­ka said brave­ly, try­ing to hide her sad­ness. ‘I have a cousin there,’ she said. ‘First name Petar, last name Hor­vat. He lives in a town called River­ton in some place called Ten­nessee. You find him, he’ll help,’ she said, then burst in­to tears. I pray you nev­er see your moth­er weep as mine did.

“I had lit­tle mon­ey when I land­ed in New York and my Eng­lish wasn’t good, though my pass­port was. A man in a uni­form looked at it then hard at me, and said “Wel­come.” I was so ner­vous and such a green­horn, I thought be­cause he wore that uni­form he could tell me how to get to River­ton. So, I asked. He made me re­peat my ques­tion three times. My pro­nun­ci­a­tion wasn’t per­fect, the way it is now. He laughed and said, ‘Oh, Riv­erside.’ Then he point­ed down the con­course to­ward a long desk with a crowd of peo­ple around it. It was the airport’s tourist bu­reau. I picked up my card­board old-world suit­case and took my place at the end of a line of mid­dle-aged trav­el­ers with lug­gage that had wheels, ex­as­per­at­ed par­ents wran­gling whin­ing chil­dren, and ex­cit­ed peo­ple my own age in blue jeans with enor­mous backpacks. 

“The longer I wait­ed in that line the more con­fused I be­came and the more anx­ious. My head filled up with doubts and ques­tions. Was it Riv­erton or Riv­erside I was to go to? Amer­i­ca is so much big­ger than Croa­t­ia. The air­port it­self stretched out in every di­rec­tion and seemed to me as vast as all of Za­greb. Would I be able to find the cousin who knew noth­ing of me? And even if I found my way to Petar Hor­vat, would he wel­come me? He could have changed his name or moved else­where. In my ner­vous­ness I com­plete­ly for­got about Ten­nessee. Your grand­fa­ther was a re­al mess that day, boys.”

Stephen turned to­ward his broth­er and gig­gled. Will smiled at his broth­er and held a fin­ger to his lips.

“When it was fi­nal­ly my turn, I asked the woman be­hind the counter how I could get to River­ton, then I said, no, to Riv­erside. She was im­pa­tient. ‘Which is it?’ she de­mand­ed. Re­mem­ber­ing the man who checked my pass­port, I said it was River­side. She made me say it again, slow­ly. ‘Which River­side?’ she asked. I was shak­en. ‘There’s more than one?’ Boys, do you know that forty-six states have a River­side in them? It’s the most com­mon name for a town in the whole of Amer­i­ca. As I’d for­got­ten all about Ten­nessee and had to say some­thing, I asked what the biggest River­side was. The woman tapped her busy col­league on the shoul­der, whis­pered in his ear, got a re­ply, turned back to me and said, ‘The one in Cal­i­for­nia.’ And so, I spent al­most the last of my mon­ey on a bus tick­et to River­side, Cal­i­for­nia. It took days and days. Amer­i­ca, I thought, it’s al­most all high­way. Every­body wants to be some­where else.”

By now, Stephen was squirm­ing and Will couldn’t re­sist the urge to move things along.

“When did you hear about the tor­na­do, Grandpa?”

The old man frowned. “That was the year af­ter I got my job.”

“And it re­al­ly de­stroyed all of River­ton, the one in Tennessee?”

“If I’d had bet­ter pro­nun­ci­a­tion and a clear­er mem­o­ry, I might have been there, among the dead.”

“So River­side was the wrong place but turned out to be the right one?”

“Yes. Bourns had set up its head­quar­ters here. They hired me be­cause busi­ness was tak­ing off and they were des­per­ate for elec­tri­cal en­gi­neers, even one with poor Eng­lish and no degree.” 

“And your boss’s sec­re­tary was Grand­ma?” Stephen chimed in.

“And you in­vent­ed two new trans­form­ers. Big sell­ers. And they pro­mot­ed you.”

“Then you and Grand­ma got mar­ried and had Mommy.”

“And Mom met Dad and they had us.”

“And here we all are!” shout­ed Stephen, jump­ing off the couch.

Hun­gry for break­fast, Will al­so got to his feet. “Just think. What if you’d re­mem­bered River­ton and Tennessee!”

Peev­ed that the boys pre-empt­ed his sto­ry, the old refugee raised a fin­ger spoke sternly.

“There’s a les­son for you. In this world things hap­pen in three ways.”

“What are they?” asked Will, try­ing to sound in­ter­est­ed as he yanked his ex­as­per­at­ed broth­er back to­ward the couch.

“Some things hap­pen by choice — like your moth­er. Some hap­pen by ne­ces­si­ty — like leav­ing Croa­t­ia. But most things hap­pen by chance.”


“Yes. In fact, you could say that my ca­reer, my mar­ry­ing Grand­ma, your moth­er get­ting born, her mar­ry­ing your fa­ther, and the both of you all come from a mix-up. But no­body likes hear­ing that. They want their lives to be mean­ing­ful, the re­sult of their choic­es. So they call chance fate.” Here the old man point­ed at the light­less tree. “Or, if they’re re­li­gious, they call it God’s plan. So, be humble.”

“Yes, Grand­pa.”

“Be hum­ble and hope to be lucky like me.” 

“Can we have break­fast now?” Stephen begged.

“Just one more thing — don’t in­ter­rupt your elders.”

Filed under Fiction on December 22nd, 2023

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