by R. Passov
Johnny spoke softly in a voice just past the threshold of manhood. His smile, mistaken for charm, was longing. I could see the pentimento of the child still in him.
One day I watched a conversation that confirmed my suspicions. Johnny had returned from somewhere Big Greg had sent him. He danced as he spoke, swinging a long arm up over his head, around and down.
“The dude’s wife’s right there. I grab his guitar and bust it all up. Broke that shit right in front of em. Yeah, I said, this is what I mean.”
He had tried to be violent but in the retelling I could see his heart wasn’t in it. “Davy doesn’t play guitar,” Big Greg said. “Where the hell did you go?”
To the wrong house.
He was tall but thin. Black, but feline. Not black like the men he hosted when he had his apartment. Men who turned the living room into a weight room, sitting on benches all day doing curls, out of prison but still in. Johnny wasn’t like that.
Though I didn’t know of Lou Reed, didn’t have a radio, or a stereo or even a record, Johnny belonged in a Lou Reed song. He wanted to be a colored girl.
I know that now. Then I spied his gentleness, his out of place-ness, his role playing, that he lived between lives. Someone with you and somewhere else at the same time. Something children see but not adults.
He and Big Greg wore their green shirts, sleeves cut off, Alexander and Diles marked in black over their hearts. I decided to believe their experience in war freed them of law.
* * * * *
Only Johnny asked me for details. I said I had a phone number. He told me to use it. It rang a phone booth in Roxbury Park, not even a bad neighborhood. That’s where the guy who pushed me from the van was found.
Johnny got out of a Chrysler Imperial, walked around to the trunk and got the shot gun. The light skinned guy who talked my ear off at the party went straight into confession giving Johnny everything in his pockets; most of the hash he took and a good deal of cash. Johnny saw that all of it got back to me.
* * * * *
My father was in prison. My mother was selling shoes. She had cleaned up, kicked rainbows, stopped drinking. Took up smoking. Practiced while sitting on the couch, holding her cigarette, tip up, trying to puff without coughing, like a high school girl.
Her starting that job had an effect on me. I decided to try work again. But this time something different. On and off I’d been working since I was ten. Delivered papers for Benny, the old man who ran a newsstand in front of the grocery store until he died with $675,000 in cash floating around his one room apartment. Stood around a gas station. Sold roses off a freeway off ramp, stacked bottles, threw newspapers up stairwells before the sun was out.
But my favorite was selling candy. During the two weeks that school closed after the big earthquake, a twenty-something who lived in a garage herded nine of us into his Dodge Charger. He drove us over the hill into downtown LA and let us loose, each with a carton of candy boxes bought from the local grocery store. We had no trouble getting onto a floor of secretaries on their lunch breaks. We’d clean out desks, taking clock radios, jewelry, purses. Dave would scream at us for ruining a route, beat a few of us then split the loot.
* * * * *
The party where the two men sweet-talked me was in the hills above Ventura Boulevard. Nowell Siegal’s house, while his father was away directing Clint Eastwood in Dirty Hairy. A friend of a friend. I was surprised by the inside, the white walls, the white shag running under tightly cushioned white sectionals, backed against long white shelves, enveloped in the sound of Hendrix.
That night I was no longer a cautious boy. I held nothing, no expectations about life, no dreams, no self, just a desire for the therapy of the moment and in those sounds I was finding it.
Then those two guys started up a conversation. Maybe they’d seen me hit off the hash Big Greg had given me, as a sympathy for what happened. I don’t know, never will. They were beguiling, groomed like men, smiling toward me as though their lives were easy. That was the only time I got conned. It was like going down a big slide at a water park.
They liked the hash, said it was fine, soft, fresh Nepalese. Knew to toast it first, making it expand like a flower in bloom. That made me want to impress them. The very next day I was in front of Big Greg talking about the party at the director’s house and how I could move a quarter pound.
* * * * *
Someone had told me the Kentucky Fried Chicken place over on Ventura Boulevard was hiring. I borrowed my brothers sting ray with its white banana seat, gold paint, biker hand bars, swearing the whole ride that next time I’d walk. Easier than trying to make sense of that short sprocket and low seat. Said I had a work permit and lied about my age and that’s all it took to get that job.
A slow guy with white hair and a mustache showed me how to pull the skins back over the chicken parts, how to batter, then how to dump the parts into the pressure cooker, clamp down the lid and wait. Showed me how to do his job so he could go out back and get high.
I liked the job. Mostly it was me and another girl who, between sipping Mountain Dew and eating biscuits and gravy, worked the register. The slow guy with the mustache was pretty easy. He’d cook a little then go out back. If it rained, he sat in his truck. The girl said he surfed, as though that answered why he was over 25 and our manager.
After about a month, the slow wavy manager, Ted I think, began to let me cook. The responsibility was a charge, masking how stupidly dangerous that position was.
Several large vats sat next to each other in a line, melting lard to a boil. I’d turn and roll the chicken parts on a table at my back, giving about 24 inches of room. When the grease could no longer stand the heat, I’d dump the battered parts into the boil and clamp the lid tight for twenty minutes of high pressure greasing. I held the pot with my left arm and clamped the lid with my right and to this today believe you can see that division of labor in my forearms.
One day a stern, elderly man walked in. He looked like an engineer just retired from a Long Beach aerospace plant, not that I knew there were any. What he didn’t look like was a customer. Turned out, he wasn’t. He was the new owner who didn’t like where his investment was headed.
Not long after, Mike showed up. He managed stores for the new owner. Said he was from Iran, liked to wrestle and could hold 50lb sacks of flower, one in each outstretched arm. Which was true as he took us past the kitchen and demonstrated, holding each sack perfectly still while tightening his face as though he were straining excrement.
Right away things with wavy Ted didn’t go well. Mike caught him out back toking. Mike was fair. He gave Ted a chance. Told him no more going out back. Then one night came into the store, found him out back and broke his nose. The next day a college-bound high-school senior with boy-scout length hair became the new cook. I was back to stretching skin, battering parts and mopping the floors.
* * * * *
By the time Johnny took that shot gun from the trunk, I knew my way around firearms. I had watched Walter Cronkite read off body counts next to footage of soldiers holding their M14’s – same as my Johnny Eagle – running past hunkering camera men. The casual way those soldiers held theirs was the way I wanted to hold mine, gripping it from the top, arm swinging at the waist, cigarette in the other hand.
The Johnny Eagle set was an M14, complete with spring loaded clips into which I stuffed the replica .308 Winchester rounds before I aimed at my brother’s forehead peeking over the couch. Hopelessly, he aimed the other part of the set, the Johnny Eagle 45 pistol, also clipped with a spring-loaded magazine full of replica .45 shells.
I liked those guns better than the real ones my father had taught me how to shoot, just after he returned from working for the government. We were living in a much smaller place then. He didn’t want me finding the guns on my own, so he took me to the range.
The Walther PPK looked like a Luger, which my father told me was a fine pistol. More accurate than its opponent, the 45. I favored the Barretta. The same as James Bond’s gun, easy to hold, easy to shoot. But my father noted, it wouldn’t stop a man. The Double-Action Snub-Nosed .38, the Detective Model, had a 2.5” barrel. That was the last pistol we fired. My father knew what he was doing. The noise and recoil killed my curiosity.
* * * * *
I grew tired of stories about how strong Mike was and began to resent having to mop and not being allowed to cook. I’d stay in the meat locker as long as I could bear the cold.
Sometimes, guessing at the last customer, we’d start clean-up before closing time. One night we had a late customer. The stoves were re-lit. A pot of lard was boiled. I watched with my mop and bucket, having just moved the grease under the new cook’s feet. He slipped when the tray of chicken parts got to the lid and grabbed the pot handle.
I stood frozen as he fell and even as he got up and began to run around the kitchen. He ran right in front of me. His shirt and skin were the same. The late customer heard the screams, came into to the kitchen and followed the cook spraying him with the hose that hung over the sink. Someone else called an ambulance. I was still watching when it arrived.
The police came and then Mike came. I answered questions and gave my right age. Mike took me aside. “I have to let you go,” he said. “You’re only thirteen. No insurance.”
On my brother’s stingray, peddling the mile back to our apartment, I realized that what I needed to forget is what I’d always remember. By the time I got home my mom had heard about the accident. She asked if I was ok. I said I was fine, went to bed, slept late into the next day, got up and went to the party.