It never occurred to Johnson Johnson to hate his name. It was his grandfather’s name. Having survived a horrible ordeal at sea, his grandfather died of thirst on a river delta with river water running over his boots. He wouldn’t drink the water because he thought it was bad. Johnson always kept his grandfather close to his heart but felt no pride in his name. He thought it adequate, and when he heard it, he answered.
“Would you mind filing this month’s batch? Mark called in sick.”
Johnson took the stack and began filing the carbon papers into a cabinet by name. He answered ‘yes’ because it sounded nice at the end of a question. It took everything he had, to say, “No,” when appropriate, and he didn’t often have that much.
He wore his hair the way carrots wear their stalks. It simply came out of his head and hung over his eyes and ears, ready to obscure them at any moment. He had a young face the color of paper, with a nose in the middle like a boat’s rudder. His ears looked like two halves of a danish stuck to his head, two sinks catching sound from everywhere and stuffing it into his head for thinking out. When he thought things out, his big moon eyes rolled up to the ceiling and read what he wanted to think in the stucco. His neck, meanwhile, stretched out to make the reading easier for his eyes and the catching and stuffing easier for his ears. People often said Johnson looked like someone famous, but no one ever remembered who. An actor, apparently.
Johnson wiped his forehead. His hands and arms smelled like carbon paper, a scent he would have scoffed at, once, not believing it to be a real smell at all. Now, having worked in the office for over six years, he understood that carbon paper had a presence like ambient light, sticking to and ebbing from everything it landed on, and it landed on everything. Johnson once detected a sheaf of carbon paper in a stack of magazines in a neighbor’s garage. He smelled carbon on his clothes, and in his car, and, like a blast of heat from an open door, he smelled it at work.
Johnson worked after the office employees went home. He came each day an hour before they left and filed all the papers they’d generated during business hours, and each would extend well-wishes to Johnson Johnson on their way out.
“Have a nice night, Johnson.”
“Say, don’t work too hard, Johnson.”
“Take it easy, man.”
Johnson would agree with them, one-by-one.
“Yes. Yes, I won’t. I will. You, too.”
They would lock him in and turn on the security system. Opening any door or window triggered it. When the workers returned in the morning, they entered a code. It stopped the alarm from sounding. Johnson Johnson did not have the code. He wondered if they would ever give the code to him. It seemed unlikely, somehow.
He found catalogues on the desks of the female employees to masturbate to. It gave him added thrill to jerk off in the ladies’ room.
The employees let him out at three, and he went home to eat and sleep. After sleeping, Johnson showered, ate, and went to work wondering where those hours went. Eight hours of work, plus eight hours of sleep, and eight hours he somehow spent eating, driving and showering comprised a life for him. Johnson did not mind. He did not notice.
Ring! Alarm clock and shower water, toilet, shower and shampoo, check email, eggs, toast, mostly email, go to work and come home, microwaveable pasta cable television. The hour before sleep set in was the one he filled with what he really wanted. Sometimes he ate junk food and played video games, or watched porno and jerked off, or drank soda and read popular books, and sometimes he simply spent that time taking longer to do everything that needed doing; in fact, he did this more often than not, and he spent the rest of his time chastising his self for it.
Johnson had a date with a homely woman on Friday. When Friday came around, he met her at a coffee shop, where they interrogated each other until enough information changed hands for them to consider themselves friends.
“What’s your favorite album?”
“You mean, ever?”
“Yeah, favorite album ever.”
“I listen to music, sometimes. What’s yours?”
“Ten, by Pearl Jam.”
“I’ve heard that, I think.”
“Well, what’s yours?”
“That was a good one.”
He felt like they were friends. They went to dinner, then for drinks, and at one point in the evening, Johnson’s date decided to leave him. Johnson sat in a chair near the door and watched her flirt with the bartender. He decided to go home. He’d had a beer, so he called a cab to take him to his apartment. He requested a driver who’d driven him several times before and had to wait an hour for him. He avoided meeting new people if he could help it. He tipped the driver two dollars.
Johnson used the elevator to reach the second floor. He swayed at his door, unable to tell if he’d had too much to drink or only felt like it. He fumbled his keys, and couldn’t get the one he needed into the lock. He pressed on it and slipped, and his nose slammed into the doorframe. Blood spattered his face, shirt, and hands.
“Aieee!” said Johnson Johnson.
He shrank to the floor of the apartment building like a sack of returned mail and bled. He touched his eyelids as though thankful he hadn’t blinded himself. He wanted to be in bed, to make the day go away, but the thought of trying the key again made his neck and shoulders tighten. He checked his watch. In half an hour he would be sober enough to try again.
Johnson woke up to the feeling of hands shaking him.
“Aieee!” said Johnson Johnson.
It was his neighbor, Sandra. She worked late as a nurse in a home for the severely handicapped. He’d fallen asleep, and the sight of him crumpled and bloody on the floor had horrified her. She had to take him in, had to clean him up.
“Yes! No, thank you – I’ll be fine!” said Johnson.
Sandra plucked him up and thrust him onto her couch. Johnson kicked himself up, but she pressed him back into the cushions, throwing powder blue sheets and a large quilt over him. She brought a warm, moist towel and wiped dried blood from his face.
“Aren’t you lucky I found you, instead of Mr. Rule?”
“Yes,” said Johnson from around the towel, which grew cold.
She folded the bedclothes down, unbuttoned his shirt, and jerked it out from under him with the agility of someone much younger. Before he knew what had happened, Johnson lied there shirtless. She stepped back, holding his blood-splattered shirt to her bosom as if something had bit her.
“I’d, I’d, I’d really rather –” he said.
“You’ll be staying on the couch, tonight, Mr. Johnson,” said Sandra.
She stood behind him, out of sight, blinking. Tears sat on the ridge of her lids and sparkled. Her salt-and-pepper hair shook as a shiver wracked her body.
“On the couch,” she repeated. She gaped at him.
Johnson’s skin darkened at his neckline, became a light brown as if he often went out in the sun masked. His chest, like a plateau, flattened and dropped in two slight ridges, presiding over a valley between his ribs where muscles rolled like rows of twin hills. His physique looked painted on his lean frame, and she noticed the sinews of his arms twining up into angled shoulders, where the muscle crossed in tendons into his neck and became skinny wires, as though someone had traded his head for someone else’s.
Johnson felt her eyes on him and yanked the sheets up under his chin. Sandra moved into the kitchen before he could see the look on her face. She poured tea into cups and set them on a tray. She heard the front door close.
The next afternoon, Johnson put his clothes on and walked out the door. He met the mailman there.
“Hello, Mr. Johnson,” the mailman said.
Johnson’s face flushed, and he retreated to his apartment without saying a word. He did not go to work that evening. He spent the half hour it usually took to drive there peering out of his window at cars driving by, and pedestrians on the sidewalk, and when he saw someone look up at him, he would dart away from the curtains and return when he felt sure the person had passed. He looked at buildings across the street, and at traffic lights. He studied the lines dividing the lanes.
He saw more cars turning onto his street than turned off of it. He counted. The opposite side of the street lurked in shade and broken streetlamps, while his side remained bright. He noticed a cluster of potholes in front of his apartment for the first time. Cars slowed over them like drivers ogling an accident. They slowed beneath his window, and passengers occasionally saw him. Johnson looked away.
He got into bed and used his remote to trigger the television, pulling the sheets up to his chin. He waited for the phone to ring and formulated responses to give his boss.
“Yes, Ma’am. I’ll be fine to work tomorrow. Sorry for the inconvenience.”
“Yes, Ma’am. I might still be sick, but I won’t know until tomorrow.”
“Yes, Ma’am. I can’t work tomorrow.”
His boss never called. No one did. He turned the television off and slept through his shift.
He felt the morning sun on his cheek and got up, dripping sweat. Getting out of bed, he saw a silhouette of himself on the mattress. A misty halo faded around the crown of his head where he had lolled side to side in his sleep. It made a perfect ring. He showered, shaved, and fried eggs. He stood stunned before the stove and stared long at the sunshine that crawled steadily across the bed towards the window. It warmed and brightened the apartment. He ate, made his bed for the first time in years, and dressed in trousers and a white v-neck tee. He’d thought the trousers too small, but, what do you know? They fit.
Johnson Johnson drove to the library to check out something popular. He spoke to the librarian.
“Yes, excuse me — can you recommend something popular?”
As it turned out, all the popular books were already out, but Johnson was welcome to put his name on the list. He decided on something unpopular, instead. He got 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne.
He drove to the beach, where he thought the atmosphere would be nice, and took his socks and shoes off. He felt the sand between his toes. The waves hit his ears with a tide of noise that rose as he walked towards the ocean. When he reached the edge of the soft sand, he looked at the sparkling sun on the peaks of the ceaseless saltwater and sat down. He watched the movements of the people in the surf until they repeated themselves, then lay with his head back on the hot sand and began to read, using the book as a shade.
Yes, thought Johnson after a few chapters. The harpooner was right – there are no such things as monsters.
He read the entire novel, stretched, and went home to shower.
He discovered a thick, impenetrable shell on the back of his skull while shampooing his hair. He had laid his head into a mass of melted bubble gum. He dried off and examined himself in the mirror. The situation looked hopeless. Johnson Johnson stared at his pupils. They twitched and dilated. He watched them as he shaved his head. Having done, he looked to himself like an urn with the lid on, with ears for handles. His scalp gleamed all the whiter for the rosy color his face had got despite using Jules Verne as a shield. Naked and shaven before the foggy mirror, his head shined.
Johnson decided to go out for drinks alone, something he’d heard alcoholics do. It was a special night to do anything other people do, because he felt like anyone but himself. He stopped and stared in shock each time he passed his reflection. Nothing he wore looked the same with his new haircut. He decided to wear black trousers, a tee shirt, and black shoes. He knew he would match that way.
He walked to the bar and saw every stool occupied. He stood, instead. People watched him. He noticed. He folded his hands and set them on the bar.
“Hey, Swizzle Stick!” called a large man at the end, “when you get a second?”
“Yeah, yeah,” said the bartender, chewing one of the plastic drink stirrers.
Johnson’s nostrils flared. He looked at the bartender.
“What can I get you,” the bartender said.
“Anything,” said Johnson.
The bartender gazed through him.
“Wine? Beer? Margarita?”
Johnson said, “Anything.”
The bartender poured dark liquor into a shot glass. Johnson drank it down in three swallows, coughed, and looked at the bartender’s creased face through tears that sat on his eyelids like crows. The bartender raised his eyebrows.
“Yes,” said Johnson Johnson.
The bartender smiled.
Two hours later, Johnson Johnson realized he’d never been drunk. His surroundings moved like a shuffled stack of photographs. He turned his back to the bar, supporting himself on his elbows. The place had gotten busy, and the only berth in the room was around Johnson. A man wearing a loose tie bumped into him, and Johnson, heavy with drink, moved like the pyramids.
“Sorry, I’m sorry,” the man said, and left his stool. The stool sat empty for some time, before a brunette with sleeve tattoos, black pigtails, and bangs sat there, looking at Johnson like he should notice.
“Hi,” she eventually said.
“Yes?” said Johnson, looking straight ahead.
She took his chin and turned his face to her.
“I’m fuckin’ talking to you,” she said.
Johnson’s head wavered in her hand.
“Yes,” he said.
“What’re you doin’?” she said.
Johnson grimaced and pulled his chin away. He searched for words and found none.
“I’m fuckin’ talking to you,” said Johnson Johnson.
The brunette laughed.
“Not like that, you’re not,” she said, turning him by the waist to face her.
“See?” she said. She looked at him. “Do you think I look like Betty Page? People say I look like Betty Page.”
“Yes,” said Johnson Johnson.
“Well, alright,” said the girl, putting an unpainted hand on his stomach. Her face softened.
“Hey. . .” she said.
Her hand went up his shirt. Johnson grabbed the bar behind him and went rigid. His eyes became hard-boiled eggs and his boat-rudder nose twitched like a palpitating heart.
“You’re holding out on me,” she said.
The sinews in Johnson’s arms pulled and he moved to snatch her hand away, but he almost fell trying to let go of the bar. She pulled her hand from under his shirt.
“Do you know Sandra?” she said.
“What?” said Johnson Johnson. “Sandra?”
“Do you know her?”
“Yes. My neighbor’s name is Sandra. You know her?”
“I recognize you. She showed me your picture.”
Johnson dropped his hands. The ridge of his naked head bobbed as he gulped.
“She showed you a picture?”
Had she taken a picture of him? He didn’t remember a camera, and he’d certainly never given her one. Why would she have it? And if she had taken a photo of him lying on her couch, that was only a day ago. She was showing people? People like this?
“I’m Sue,” she said.
“You saw a picture?” said Johnson.
“Forget the picture. I want shots. What do you want to drink?”
He looked at a picture of Raquel Welch that hung on the wall. She seemed to be laughing at him. At two, the bartender handed him his tab. Johnson smelled the second copy and winced.
“Carbon paper,” he said.
“You’re so weird!” she said.
Johnson went home with her. Her apartment smelled like potpourri and had empty beer bottles with candles in them everywhere. An expensive entertainment system sat like an ancient statue in the corner of her living room, framed by black leather couches. A magazine with Demi Moore on it rested on the coffee table. Johnson Johnson looked around the apartment like a tourist.
Sue made love to him. She leaned him against the refrigerator, stood him against the wall, sat him on the couch, laid him on his back. He felt it happen. He watched it happen. His body became his whole world, inhabiting him like a spider’s web inhabits the spider. He knew things about himself nothing but a night with a woman could ever have taught. He felt weight leaving his spine. She rode him, rocking forward and back. He watched sweat bead between her breasts and roll down her stomach. Her hair stuck to her cheeks and neck, and swung in time. His hands, scarred from scores of paper cuts, mesmerized him as they reached up and took her breasts. He stared at her flesh in his hands, white as cream, and looked past them at her face, which contorted in a confused stir of strain, aggression and joy, her eyebrows arched and her teeth bared, red lipstick smeared in a blur at the side of her mouth. She placed his hand on her neck and held it there. He squeezed. His hand seemed to go all the way around her. Her pubic hair scraped his pelvis raw.
She struck him.
He squeezed. Her hair whipped his face.
“Fuck me,” she said.
Johnson lifted her with his hips, felt a sting build from his guts into his dick and clenched his teeth at the thought of ending.
“No,” said Johnson Johnson.
She struck him again, smiling.
“Fuck me,” she said.
“No,” said Johnson.
She seized him by the wrists and bit into his neck, her legs splayed out behind her and convulsing. He thrust into her and cursed into her ear and poured himself into her, everything into her, into her. Into her.
Sue’s breathing changed. Her weight on him, slick and smooth, made his abdomen shudder. The fragrance from her lipstick mixed with their sex smell like rose petals crushed into a locker room floor. Her hair was in his mouth. It tasted salty. Good.
Johnson woke up inside her. The morning came and went.
Johnson’s height surprised him when he next saw himself. He saw a shadow on his head like a beard, a split lip, shadows beneath his eyes. The neck of his tee-shirt hung stretched and distended. Sue’s lipstick marked it like bloodstains on a revolutionary flag.
Johnson Johnson acted natural with Sue, and soon his life became a role. They dated constantly and people said both their names when mentioning either. Nighttime meant life. Johnson quit going to work and went out every night. Sue usually went with him. Weeks went by.
His boss called to say his work had been shared with the daytime employees, and they had no position for him, anymore. His absence had not been noted. He called them up and asked to speak to the woman who hired him. They’d not spoken since his employment.
“Hello, Mr. Johnson?”
“Fuck you,” he said.
“Yes,” said Johnson Johnson.
The next time he went out with Sue, he managed to spill two drinks and break a glass, but the more drunk he became, the straighter he stood, like a boat’s mast in a storm, so the bar allowed him to destroy himself without so much as a warning. The night someone else accosted him, he stood straight up. The short blonde did as Sue had done, running her hand under his shirt, but his arm was around Sue, herself, so he did not clutch the bar as he had before.
“Oh, my,” said the blonde.
“Um, yes,” said Johnson. “I’m with Sue.”
“No, you’re not,” said Sue, kissing his cheek. “This is Nicole.”
Nicole looked up at him.
“You’re tense,” she said.
“Yes,” said Johnson.
She took Johnson home. He spent most of the night on his back. She blacked his eye and split his lip again. He left her sleeping in the middle of the night.
Time passed. Johnson needed to do his laundry. In his apartment complex’s laundry room, he recognized a middle-aged blonde woman. She came on to him.
“You’re Sandra’s neighbor, aren’t you?” she said.
“Yes,” said Johnson Johnson.
“Don’t be shy,” she said. “I won’t hurt you.”
She hurt him. His face, ridged and mottled with cuts and bruises, some fresh, some almost healed, resembled a boxer’s. Johnson began to wonder if he should move away. When a young lady accosted him at the supermarket, he decided to have a talk with Sandra. Rather than knock on her door, he waited in silence in his living room to hear the door to the foyer open, then he waylaid her at the top of the stairs.
“Have, have, did, you, well-” said Johnson. “Do you have a picture of me?”
Sandra laughed and went past him to her door, setting down sacks of groceries.
“Not anymore,” she said, her keys jingling.
“I gave it away,” she laughed.
“You – you took a picture of me?”
She turned and took him by the shoulders. He shrank.
“Johnson,” she said. “Yes.”
She laughed again and left him there. He could hear her laughing in her apartment.
Now what would he do? The photo could be anywhere, passing from hand to hand, under eye and inspection. He could never be himself again. Who had it? Who could he ask? Johnson felt a thrill up his back. Something had changed.
Unless I’m mean to every girl I meet, they’ll never leave me alone.
Sue told him she didn’t like the way he dressed, and bought him jeans and a forty-dollar tee shirt. He wore them out with her that night, and they had a good time. The next day, she left him in bed for work. When he was certain she had gone, he nailed the blue jeans to her front door, and cut the collar and sleeves off the shirt. He ignored her calls and wondered when he’d see her again.
He saw Nicole at the bar, first.
“Hey, you,” she said, pressing close to him, hand under his shirt. “Missed you the other morning.”
“Buy me a drink?” she said.
“Yes,” he said.
When the bartender came around, he ordered a rusty nail.
“Oh,” said Nicole, “you forgot my drink.”
“Yes,” said Johnson Johnson.
He tended to forget her drink all night.
“Why are you being such an asshole?” she said.
“I’m sorry, what?” said Johnson Johnson. “I couldn’t hear you.”
Nicole was looking at him through slits when Sue showed up. When she saw Johnson standing with Nicole, she glared at both of them. Then she smiled, like a loaded gun. She saw his cut-up tee shirt and took him by the belt.
“I need him for a second,” she said, and pulled him out to the parking lot.
They didn’t talk.
She opened the trunk of her car and withdrew the jeans. The tops of the nails still showed in the legs where he’d tacked them up.
“Put them on,” she said.
Johnson looked at the nails, then back at her. She struck him.
“Put them on,” she said.
He took them from her, and stepped toward the public bathroom. She stuck her leg out and he fell. She rolled him over and stepped on his stomach.
“Put them on, Johnson.”
“Yes,” he said.
She didn’t let him up. It was hard to do with her standing on him. People stared in shock, and some hurried away. Nails stabbed his legs from ankle to waist when they walked in together.
“Rad fashion statement,” said Nicole as they approached her.
“F-fuck you,” said Johnson.
She rubbed up to him, grinding nails into his thigh. Then she threw her arms around his neck, kissed him, and kneed him in the groin.
“Hey, Swizz,” said Sue to the bartender, “Could we get three Jack n’ Cokes, please? On Johnny’s tab.”
Johnson Johnson became Johnny Johnson. Just like that.
He lost his apartment before he knew what happened, because he hadn’t paid the rent. It took four months before the landlord noticed. He slept at Sue’s, and sometimes at Nicole’s. He ate their food.
One night, as he laid on Nicole’s couch and gazed at the television, he smelled carbon paper. He followed his nose to her desk drawer and opened it. It brimmed with manila envelopes stuffed with receipts. He gagged.
Images of his old life surfaced in his mind like the coils of a sea serpent. He saw cubicle dividers and cheap, hard carpet, coffee in Styrofoam cups, computer screens and fluorescent lighting, and he heard bad office music permeating every inch of every room, every hallway, every elevator. He saw himself trying to open the door to get some air, finding it locked, trying to guess the code that opened it, night after night. He smelled carbon paper like an old paperback dipped in rubbing alcohol.
Johnson left and came back. He had a canister of kerosene. He poured it into Nicole’s toilet until the clear liquid almost ran over. He left a trail of receipts to the bathroom where he tossed a ball of them in the toilet with a match and stood back. The flames leapt. He turned on the fan. Smoke puffed up and smoked into the vent like a tornado upside-down. The ball of carbon paper vanished, fluttering like fiery origami pigeons all around him, and he flushed the toilet. He watched flames make a single spiral around the bowl and flicker at the mouth of the plumbing. The porcelain was black with streaked soot.
Nicole found him standing before the toilet with the lights off, fire leaping from the toilet bowl. An array of twinkling paper cinders hovered by his head, which reflected firelight in the medicine cabinet’s mirror. If not for the thin smile that split his smudged face and turned up at the corners like an Italian moustache, if not for the whites of his eyes shimmering orange beneath their lids, she would have railed at him. As it was, Nicole backed away. She watched Johnny move into the living room and sweep the trail of receipts into his arms and chuck them into the toilet. She didn’t see him empty the kerosene into it, but she heard the can clatter into the bathtub, saw the light of flame in the mirror, and put her cellphone to her ear.
“Hello, Sue?” she said. “Your boyfriend’s crazy.”
The dynamic changed between Sue, Nicole, and Johnny Johnson. When they walked with him, he no longer trailed behind. They kept at his sides where they could see him. They lit his cigarettes, rather than let him have a lighter. They stopped pressing the nails of his blue jeans into his legs, even though he kept wearing them. After a month, the jeans had bloodstains around the knees and above the pockets. In bed, they abused him less as he struck back more frequently. Sue had to wear sunglasses to work one day. She stopped beating him altogether. Nicole stopped when she pushed him onto the bed and found him suddenly upright and throwing her to the floor. Things changed.
Nicole wrote love poems to him. They were awful, but Johnson Johnson didn’t know. He memorized them. He shouted them in the shower like sermons. He couldn’t sing.
One night, the register tape at the bar spilled over the counter like two tongues, a white paper copy and a yellow carbon copy. Nicole wrote “I ♥ U” in lipstick on the strip. Johnny read it and smiled like dominos. Then, snatching a matchbook from the cocktail station, struck a match and set the strip on fire. It melted the digital screen on the register before a waitress put a wet rag over it. The bar filled with acrid smoke and smelled like a plastic factory.
The girls fled with Johnny Johnson before the cops arrived. Swizz, the bartender, described him as a built skinhead with nails in his clothes, with two girls who had caused trouble at the bar before. The skinhead had thrown a plastic cup of swizzle sticks at him before leaving. The cops charged him with arson, and with assault on account of the swizzle sticks. Johnny Johnson was a wanted man.
They drove to San Francisco.
“We can set him up and ditch him there,” whispered Sue to Nicole.
“We can’t do that to Johnny,” said Nicole.
“What the fuck, why can’t we? You realize he’s completely insane, right? Right?”
“Don’t say that.”
Sue looked at her.
“Fuck. Nicole, you said it first.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did! On the phone. You know, when he was setting your house on fire?”
“He didn’t set my house on fire.”
Sue tapped her foot.
“What. What is it?” said Sue. “What the fuck is it?”
Nicole was pregnant.
Sue and Nicole arrived at the city with Johnson Johnson and got a room in an awful part of town. A derelict slept in the concrete hallway, and lights flickered. Remnants of wallpaper stuck to the walls and curled. They passed three young men at the foot of the stairwell taking belts from a paper bag.
“Can smell it.”
“What’s up, what’s up, ladies?”
“What’s up, no hello or nothing?”
The room’s window was open to the night when they entered. It had bars across it. Half the curtains were missing. An undersized blanket hung half off the bowed and bumped mattress, and a corner of carpet folded back to expose carpet nails and rotted wooden flooring.
Nicole and Sue left to get liquor and ice. Nicole came back. Sue did not. Johnny drank like the sun wouldn’t come up. Nicole did not. Johnny woke up after the sun had gone down the next day, disoriented, and without nails in his jeans.
“You need to get a job today,” said Nicole.
“Yes,” said Johnson Johnson.
A church hired him as a night janitor. He vacuumed and mopped, sponged and swept, and bagged countless garbage cans, big and small. Johnson Johnson grinned as he cleaned. The trash never let up, and though people he did not know constantly complained to his superior that he’d missed a spot, that he always missed that spot, his superior seemed jaded to the complaints and relayed them to Johnson like an anchorman in disbelief of the headlines. Each day he showed up someone remained late to whine and cry and bawl about something he could not fathom, and it was all he could do to say,
“Yes. Yes. Yes, it’s okay, please, I’ll make it better.”
He knew they would leave, though. Afterward he would go about his business like a bicycle chain. He loved his job. Day after day, though, the bitching. His back hurt after the third month, from the added weight of his utility belt, which suspended a hammer, wrench, and spray bottles. He felt the weight in the early morning hours of his shift and groaned.
Johnson ate nightly from the refrigerator in the church kitchen. It had leftovers from charity events and weddings and various other functions, and he enjoyed everything from bundt cake to microwaved filet mignon with capers. One night, the food made him sick.
He sat in the ladies’s room as he had in his days as a filing clerk, trying alternately to start and stop the dilations of his backside. Dull, internal pain throbbed and tore in his bowels, and he breathed in gasps and rhythms as sweat poured off him in spite of the relentless air conditioning. When it had finished and the stuff inside him had come out, what he wiped from himself was like mucus. Then he felt better than he ever remembered feeling in his life. He decided to leave early, fished out his keys to lock up, and realized he’d been given keys.
When he got home, Nicole had gone out. A note on the refrigerator in a strange and official hand said she was at a hospital.
Nicole birthed his child. Johnson married her. Nobody came to the wedding but their baby, because nobody had been invited. When they kissed, the minister clapped, and Friday was a fine thing to Johnson Johnson just then.
They watched the tyke crawl, and then stand, wobbly-legged like a fawn, then stumble and walk. They saw him point and burble and beg and cry. He acted as precocious as a teenage novelist. He communicated with his stumpy little hands like sign language, and his father swallowed hard one afternoon, when, after a vigorous walk around the block, the boy spoke:
“Johnny,” said Robert Johnson.