Johnny America on the Black Market
“They got a piece of me,” Johnny said. He was lying in a tub with a gash around his gut that looked badly sewn up and possibly infected. The stitching was so poor that it mirrored the seams on a homemade football done left-handed. Ugly zigzags. The tub was floating full of Pabst and Budweiser cans. No ice, just cans and lukewarm water the color of weak coffee doing the cooling. He was naked except for a soggy cardboard crown on his head, his limp dick floating in the water like a rogue hotdog thrown into a cooler. He was trying to light a wet cigarette. It was the most American thing I’d seen that week and I’d been to two carnivals.
I let my fingertips dip into the water, was at a loss for words. Diego called to me from the living room. I met him there. His hands were folded like we were in a house of prayer. He did a ventriloquist act through his thick mustache: “Johnny forgot he had to have an emergency appendectomy last night,” said Diego. “But he’s got no health insurance and rather than risk it and get served with a big bill, I called Adrienne, a veterinary student. She got us into the place where she runs clinicals: a big kahuna where they work on horse hearts, and did her best. He kept saying no, no, but we got him goofy on gas before he almost bit through his own tongue.”
“No ice?” I asked.
“I didn’t have time to make a run. Not a plastic tray around. The beers were in the garage. Two racks in the fridge. I started covering his body with them, but he came to and started pouring them down. Snuff the pain. I finally got the chance to get ice and tried to make the switch, but Johnny refused, got wily, pelted me with full cans if I came in.” Diego showed me a bruise on his hip, one on his left arm right above the elbow. Circles of purple. “That’s when I called.”
Johnny screamed my name. I went back to the bathroom. He tore the wet part off the tip of the cig, lit what was left. A little brown bouquet behind a red rose. “Tell me the meaning of family, JR,” said Johnny. He settled back, the crown slid over his eyes, soggy points flipped over limp. I sat on the lid-down toilet seat red-streaked with water rust and waste runoff.
I obliged. This was ritual. How we did family. I pulled out my pocket-sized Bible, well worn and thumbed through. Words ran and pages were plumed out. Thick since the spill, but hard to finger riff after it got wet. I was no man of God, but from time-to-time, I sought out his counsel to supply me with inspiration: Keno numbers, a greeting card saw, boardroom icebreakers for the Bible Belt set.
I dredged one up for old times’ sake, a hit from yesteryear, Catholic school and oversized suit jackets: “So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also to you, if you from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.”
“No, not that one. The one about family and distance. The one she left us with, like christening a new ship.” He did a little wave. “Bye bye. Fare thee well, boys.”
“Do not forsake your friend and your father’s friend, and do not go to your brother’s house in the day of—the day of your calamity. Better is a neighbor who is near than a brother who is far away,” I said.
He rested his head back. Scratched at the stitching, one seemed to burp a bubble into the brown water. His voice went up slightly in pitch, part of his sincerity act. “How much would I fetch on the black market, JR? Crunch those numbers like you do. What would I go for? More than a bag of buffalo nickels? A signed Dock Ellis baseball?”
It was then I noticed he had little nicks of red across his face and neck. Between the pow-wow Diego and I had had, pieces of Johnny’s beard had fallen off. Chunks floated on the surface of the water, face fuzz making nice with the scum.
“What the hell happened to you?” I asked.
“I’m surprised you recognize me.” Johnny turned his head at different angles. Stroked his chin with his hand as if to say, check me out. I’m so pretty.
“The hell is that supposed to mean.”
“The face you know by heart doesn’t always resemble the one in front of you.”
“You’re drunk,” I said.
“I shaved. Needed to look presentable.” He held up a rusty lady Bic razor, pink-handled, blood on the blades. “It’s not every day your younger brother graces your threshold with his presence.”
He fell asleep three minutes later. I left a hundred dollars in the form of two Ulysses with Diego and told him only to call me in case of an emergency. “Isn’t this an emergency?” Diego asked.
“This isn’t even in the neighborhood,” I said.
One day I’ll meet Saint Peter at those bright white gates, and he’ll be robed out and greeting me with the kindest, bluest eyes. A blue so blue a thousand computers couldn’t come close to approximating it. He’ll look through an ancient book, his hands so vernal and unblemished compared to his ancient face. And he’ll ask me with interest: Did you do your best? Were you good? Could you have done better? I’ll answer openly and honestly: Yes, yes. Yes. He’ll ask: Do you have any questions for me, son? And I’ll respond: Where’s Johnny? Peter will point down, maybe meaning Earth, still, or even worse. Bottom dweller. Fire. Pitchforks. Only I’ll look at the finger he’s using to point and it’ll be his middle finger, which he’ll rightly adjust so that he’s flipping me the bird. And it’ll be Johnny, ripping off a Saint Peter’s mask, motherfucking Johnny. Winged, horned, or cardboard-crowned the whole time Johnny, Johnny the whole time.
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