Book of Johnny I

Had trouble finding the beginning of this thing. This is probably not the beginning, or maybe it is. It’ll be a little non-linear, maybe getting better as I go along. Doing is better than not doing, in most things. We’ll sort it out as we go.

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The palm trees were bad. Johnny judged them as he walked. LA was hot and the palm trees were going bad. The canopies were thin and sickly and gave little shade. Johnny paused in the coolness of a shop awning. It was a tiled cafe. Johnny checked the time on his phone, then, with an insulting look at the barren palm tree across the boulevard, which Johnny had rated a lowly two out of ten, Johnny stepped inside.

The bell chimed. The air was hotter than outside but the ceiling fan was cranking and there was a breeze coming through from the kitchen that carried the scent of fried oil and peppers. Behind the counter, the cafe’s only waitress talked on the phone. The waitress was thin, in her twenties, with curly hair and thick frame glasses. Johnny liked the look of her.

“Good afternoon,” she said, and hung up the phone, “How are you?” “I wasn’t going to get anything but I like the look of you so I’ll be truthful. I’m hungry. I’ll eat but I wasn’t going to.” “Until you saw me?” “How’s the cubano?” “Good. Jorge makes it dripping and burnt a little.” “I’ll eat it.” “Is that all?” “What else can I eat?” “What can you?” “Everything. But it’s a busy day.”

+++

Johnny found the end of the cue. The line stretched through three turns of red tape. Johnny staggered forward a place when the woman ahead of did. She wore a cloth around her head and had a toddler in one arm. In the other she held a rolling suitcase.

An air vent blew on Johnny. He looked up. A long line of white string a fluttered from one of the grates in the airport ceiling. “Like a flag,” thought Johnny.

Johnny tried standing on one foot, then the other. When the line move forward, he hopped. Behind Johnny, a woman in a wide brim hat coughed on his neck. Johnny counted the spittle. He felt two drops.

Johnny went into a dream.

In the dream, Johnny was standing atop a giant earthworm in a desert that stretched as far as he could see in all directions. The sun hung low in the orange sky.

The worm was moving, sliding across the sand.

An attendant in a navy blue suit walked along the worm and as she passed Johnny, Johnny reached out a hand to stop her. “Excuse me, but am I allowed to change segments?”

“The worm will decide,” said the attendant. She raised her chin. Bags of pale flesh hung from below her eyes down past her chin. The skin was morbid and plastic.

“Thank you,” said Johnny. He wanted the face to leave. The face remained though, as if on a second thought. “No more thoughts,” thought Johnny, pleadingly.

“Well, if it were up to me…” said the attendant. She laughed. The bags under her eyes rocked like pendulums. “Let’s just say if it were up to me, well, if it were…” She shook her head. “You know. If it were up to me…” She trailed off and laughed again then started walking away. “Up to me,” Johnny could hear her repeating as she climbed over the hump to the next segment of earthworm.

Johnny stood alone watching the sun darken. He decided he’d better walk.

The next worm segment was much the same. The attendant was nowhere to be seen. Nothing extraordinary happened, so Johnny continued on to the one after.

This segment was thick and something deep within beat like a heart beat. Standing higher now, Johnny looked in both directions but could not determine any difference between either direction of the worm. The segments seemed to stretch out towards both horizons.

“What is this life on a worm?” said Johnny aloud.

The security attendant took Johnny’s ticket with a look.

+ + +

Outside the LA airport terminal Johnny spotted the man in the peach suit. The man saw Johnny, nodded, and walked outside and lit a cigarette. Johnny picked up his bag from the conveyer and stepped outside to where the man was just finishing his cigarette and lighting a second.

“Can’t stop smoking these. Come on, let’s go.”

The two men walked to the parking garage and got into a silver Lexus. “It’s my wife’s. How was the flight?” “Everybody sat on the same side of the plane. It corkscrewed the whole way.” “Sounds about right.”

They drove in silence across through the LA streets, then a ways out into the desert. Johnny watched an imaginary man leap alongside the car while the driver smoked and tapped his hand on the outside of the car to a tune in his head.

The castle was new and built in an Art Brut style. “Why a castle?” asked Johnny. “Castles are for the rich. Do you want to be rich?” “Sure,” said Johnny. He didn’t know if he wanted to be rich or not, but didn’t think it hurt to say yes.

“Inside this castle is liquid gold.” “Oil?” “Capsules of molten gold heated by geothermal under the earth. A Frenchman wanted to buy this castle, then a German, and now it’s owned by a Filipino billionaire. It’s a dark history.” “Are we renting a room?” “The movie studio’s renting the whole castle.” “Oh I forgot.” “I’m going to drop you off at makeup, Johnny.

They pulled up alongside a white tent labeled, “Hair and Makeup,” which was shadowed beneath the eastern tower. Beside the tent flap was an iron torch thrust into the dirt with a rubber cable leading away. There was a live gas flame. Johnny gazed into the flame as he walked into the tent. The desert shimmered through the heat.

+ + +

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The Book of Johnny

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Over the next few weeks I’ll be putting together a novel from excerpts I’ve been scribbling in my notebook. The scribbles follow the story of a man named Johnny. The book ends with the death of a man, Johnny’s uncle, and begins with the romantic promise of a woman named Eleanor. The story is short and written in good humor.

The excerpts will be edited and posted on this blog not necessarily in their final order, but close to it. I will likely write new sections to fill in narrative gaps and edit out sections that don’t fit snugly in between the covers. The front book cover looks vaguely like this ^ one up here.

I hope you find The Book of Johnny some small amusement. I know I did when I wrote it. The editing isn’t much fun like the writing. Without too much more about nothing, I present the first part… tomorrow.

Coming soon,

The Book of Johnny I.

The Painter and the Ugly Man

In the garden block of Mall Street, Fyodor Ptrov hummed painting, so engaged with his noontime work that the pidgins would crowd around without fear and watch. In fact, so intense was Fyodor’s concentration that the pidgins made games where they would compete to distract the painter, the result of which left Fyodor’s baseball cap and brown woolen jacket covered in bird shit, as many as thirty splotches by the end of the day. These, Fyodor would scrub off each night in his kitchen sink, smiling, considering it the occupational hazard of working beneath so many healthy trees in such nice weather.

It took the painter some time to notice that beside his easel stood an exceptionally ugly man breathing noisily through rhombus shaped nostrils. Fyodor, startled, took in the thin unhealthy hair, skin of a particularly repulsive shade of brown, the lazy eye, the uneven protruding cheek bones, and rose from his work to shake the man’s hand, uncharacteristically. He was so taken back by the man’s appearance that he became nervous, like meeting with an old lover. ‘How can I help you,’ he shot, biting the words off with his teeth. ‘how-can-I-help-you?’ as one evenly spat ejaculation. ‘I would like to commission a portrait,’ said the ugly man. ‘Of course! Take a seat.’

The painter unfolded a second director’s chair and excitedly pulled out a blank canvas. ‘Portrait? Angled?’ Fyodor fussed. ‘Actually it’s not for me, it’s for my daughter.’ “Ah. Ok. Where’s your daughter?’ ‘She stays at home. She doesn’t care for public places. If at all possible I would like you to come to my house and do the portrait there in the anteroom.’ ‘I see. That would be acceptable,’ nodded Fyodor. ‘Tomorrow?’ ‘Not tomorrow. Come in three days. This is my card. You’ll find the address printed on it as well as my cell phone number if you wish to reach me. Do not call unless you absolutely must.’ Fyodor couldn’t help but be disappointed at the delay. That such an ugly man had a daughter who was a shut in meant she must be near as ugly as he was. Fyodor read the card. – AMOBBI – STYLIST – XXXX ORCHID Row, ______ TOWN –

‘Stylist,’ Fyodor wondered. He didn’t remember anything particular about the man’s dress. ‘He was so ugly one could hardly notice up close what he was wearing.’ Putting the card in his jacket pocket, the painter looked at the blank canvas and pondered. He didn’t move, even when a fat pidgin shat on his shoulder.

The house at which Fyodor showed was on Orchid row, far back in the trees, neighbored only by a boarded up Church and a field of raspberry bushes. It was large and sparsely kept. Fyodor walked along the gravel path which was mowed only a foot out on either side. The rest of the spacious lawn was abandoned to wilderness. With an easel and his box of brushes and paints under one arm and a canvas and stool in the other, Fyodor walked his way to the big white door with it’s steel fish knocker. ‘Why’d I bring a stool? Like they don’t have seating,’ Fyodor muttered. Putting down the stool and leaning the canvas against it, Fyodor knocked three loud knocks.

The man who answered the door was smartly dressed in a tailored grey suit, black neck tie, and gold watch. He was incredibly ugly. “Hello, Mr. Amobbi,” said Fyodor with warmth. There was something endearing to the painter about the ugly man, and Fyodor blushed, something he never did, and bowed, but not too low. “Have you everything?” “Yes.” “Then this way.”

M. Amobbi led Fyodor into the house through a short hallway with closets and shoe cubbies all painted in yellows and blues, past a staircase of marble with black diamond pattering and a greek styled bannister, till at last they came into a sitting room, offering Fyodor a brief glimpse of the kitchen where something was cooking making the house smell of boiled parsley. The sitting room featured three couches of different complimentary fabrics and black geometrics running on the yellow wall paper.

Lounging on one of the couches lay a girl, completely nude but for a goat mask covering her head. Her proportions were all wrong. The painter noticed. The knees and elbows were off place and the ribcage was too high. The body was otherwise not fat, but soft- not fit, but as pale as someone who never went outside. “However you wish,” said Mr. Amobbi, and Fyodor had the girl move to a different couch where the light was better.

Her voice was high and musical and muffled under rubber. “Mr. Painter,” she said, “I always imagined being painted this way,” and she would pose her awkward limbs splayed unusually. “That’s irregular,” Fyodor would mutter, but always with consent to the girl, so that he started sketching several times only to have the girl say, “Now Mr. Painter, why not this way? I think this will be so much better.” So long did this go on that the sun set behind the trees and Fyodor picked up all his paints and toolbox and promised to come back tomorrow to get the best morning light, finally on the position they had last agreed on. All while this posing and sketching was going on, Mr. Amobbi watched from the door frame, going back and forth to the kitchen to work on dinner. Not invited to stay, Fyodor brought his supplies to the busline and retired to his apartment.

Early the next day, before dawn, Fyodor returned to the house, with canvas, toolbox, and easel, taking the north busway. Only today, the door, which was white before, was now painted an inky black. To this, Fyodor had no answer, but as the fish knocker was as it was, he knocked firmly three times and waited. After a minute with no footsteps forthcoming, Fyodor knocked a second time. Though he spent near an hour knocking and looking in windows, the painter could only conclude that nobody was home.

“Curious,” he said.

As it was already late in the morning, Fyodor caught the bus to the park to set up shop and salvage what he could of the day.

At 3oclock, covered in shit, Fyodor had a strange visitor. It began when a hand gently but firmly prodded his shoulder. The woman to whom it belonged was slender, of average height with tanned skin and a spaniards mole above her lip. Her eyes were green but her hair was dark and fell about her shoulders where her white collared shirt came up in contrast. She appeared to be in her mid forties by anyone’s guess.

“Are you the painter?” she asked. Fyodor was indeed the painter. “I want to commission a portrait.” “Yours?” “My husbands. I’m afraid he’s a recluse on account of his condition.” “What condition is that?” “It’s very rude to ask.” “Sorry.” “He’s ugly.” “Ugly?” “Unbearably so.” “I’m sorry.” “But I feel like I could make love to him once again with a portrait of his face over his real face. I would still be making love with his face- only removed.” “Are you Mrs. Amobbi, by chance?” “That is my husband’s name.” “He was here the other day.” “Impossible.” “He commissioned a portrait for his daughter. Only the house was empty when I went today to paint it.” “Impossible. My husband lost both his legs below the knees in a skiing accident, and our daughter is a model in Switzerland.”

“Then it must’ve been a completely different and not dissimilar Mr. Amobbi,” Fyodor thought, unconvinced. But he didn’t say anything. He began to suspect this woman was lying, but he couldn’t explain why, except for the beauty of it. Some people get into the habit of lying and secrecy purely for the sensual beauty of it. To lie is a great relief, for if one can lie, one can control the past, and if one can lie, one can succeed at anything one wishes to have succeeded at without the hardship of doing it, and even if such a thing would’ve been impossible.

Mrs. Amobbi said, “Now if you want the job,” “I do,” though Fyodor, already. “They’ll be some rules. Whatever my husband was paying, I’ll double it and you will not paint the serving girl, but my husband’s face, merely, life sized and it will be at my aunt’s apartment where I live, where my husband lays crippled.” “I’m prepared for that.” “Good,” Mrs. Amobbi said, flushed with the power of changing reality. Such was the kind of woman that was Mr. Amobbi’s wife.

When Fyodor got to her apartment early the next morning, it was Aunt Rosette who answered the intercom. Shouting her words- a woman once of great force, reduced only by age, she politely told Fyodor she had no idea who he was and to screw off. Pondering this for a moment, Fyodor was relieved when the old woman laughed and buzzed him upstairs. Tepidly, with arms full, Fyodor took the elevator to the fourth floor and knocked, firmly, thrice on the door.

Aunt Rosette opened the door with the chain up and squinted at Fyodor. “Who are you?” she spat. “We just spoke.” “Never happened.” She slammed the door. Then laughed and unlocked the chain. Fyodor hoped it was the last time she would pull the same joke.

“But you really must hurry with it,” Fyodor caught Mrs. Amobbi mid conversation. “I worry if we change the story too much.” “It won’t matter long,” he heard Mr. Amobbi murmur. Any further conversation was interrupted by Aunt Rosette who announced ‘The Painter’ had come.

“The Painter!” exclaimed Mr. Amobbi. He was seated in a wheel chair with a brown wool blanket over his knees and smiled at Fyodor. He was captivating and repulsive. Mrs. Amobbi was colder and gave a curt, “Painter.”

“Where will you have me?” said Mr. Amobbi, amiably. His wife wheeled him towards Fyodor as if handing him over. They checked all the rooms but the child’s, and at last settled to do it in the kitchen against the north window, with the rising sun profiling the old man’s hideous face from the east window.

Fyodor began to sketch Mr. Amobbi. So distracted was he by his fascinating subject, he didn’t notice the quantities of liquor he was being handed by Mrs. Amobbi. “More wine, Fyodor?” she asked, demurely, pouring already. “No, if I drink more my sketching will suffer.” “Nonsense. Why the sketching is getting better and better. Besides you’ve only had one glass and now are only on your second. I’m keeping track for you, Fyodor. Don’t worry about anything but the painting.”

Fyodor painted and as he did he noticed something peculiar about his painting. The more work he put into getting the ugly man’s face right, the more the face in the painting looked like his own. “It’s not a painting at all, but a mirror,” he thought. In the depths of the painting there he was: a bachelor at forty two, a painter of some local renown, and a repulsively ugly man. In a stupor, Fyodor noticed the rain. But it wasn’t rain, but merely thick in the air like rain. Fyodor was getting covered in bird shit. He soon found his limbs pinned and heavy. Movement was impossible. His eyes, trapped, but mobile, watched from the depths of the mirror, searched for escape, but could only watch as his own head became slowly buried. At last Fyodor couldn’t breathe.

Fyodor awoke in an unfamiliar room. The walls were pink and gold gilded in vertical stripes. A single upright lamp was alight beside the dark wood dresser. The sheets around him were white and pink. Fyodor scratched his stubble where his lips were throbbing and swollen. After some time, Fyodor noticed that he wasn’t alone. At the foot of the bed was the daughter, her odd length limbs knotted up as she sat like a dog watching him. Her face was uncovered and Fyodor found it plain.

“Are you going to die?” she asked. The painter tried to speak but his tongue was swollen and dry and he found he couldn’t make a sound but suck his lips. The girl looked at him with sad green eyes. Fyodor wondered if the painting was ok. “What happened to the painting,” he wanted to ask, but couldn’t. So he cried. Tears welled up around his eyes and the girl crawled forward on awkward limbs and wiped his face with her thumb. Then Mrs. Amobbi came in, throwing open the door and shouting, “Mr. Fyodor! You should’ve told me you were allergic to wine.” Fyodor tried to speak. “No don’t speak. Something terrible has happened after you passed out. You see my husband took a fall. After you passed out, Mr. Amobbi leapt out of his wheelchair like I’d never seen and began to tap dance along the window sill. I tried to get to him in time but I’m afraid he died.

Thankfully, thankfully you saved his face. The real thing’s all over the pavement, but we saved it, you and I, in the painting. Yes darling, why don’t you fetch the painting for Mr. Amobbi to see?”

The girl rolled off the bed and scurried in her odd gait out of the room. It’s unfortunate,” purred Mrs. Amobbi into Fyodor’s ear. “Just when our lovemaking was about to get back on track, you lost your face.” She placed her lithe tanned hand on Fyodor’s throat. “Everything above just doesn’t turn me on like it used to, but we’ll fix that. I hired a painter, you see. He’s going to make everything better. He’s a fashion designer, you know. I’ve got his card here somewhere.” Triumphantly, she pulled one of Mr. Amobbi’s business cards out of her bra.

The daughter came back with a frame that Fyodor couldn’t see the front of. The mother with firm hands laid the painting over Fyodor’s face and tied the frame with brown leather straps around the back of the painter’s head. The world was dark. Fyodor felt what was happening. He was suffocating in bird shit.

Strutland Station

I took the train to Strutland station
To buy some elation
Say Mr. Who you gonna know?
Say Mr. Who where you gonna go?
Well then it was busway up to Butler
Found some beetles for my fingers
I walked into the shop
And for an hour lingered
I noticed I was late
I caught the morning boat
An old man missed the fair
Ran his fingers through his hair
Hat crumpled in his hands
He struggled all the way
Met a girl began to chat
In the breeze she began to laugh
Her name was Nick
Her brother’s sick
I nodded off
And stared into the waves
She wanted my hat
So I gave her that
On the island got a shave
Passed the bank of old Sinclair
Wonder what goes on in there
Bought a brand new short sleeve shirt
For more than it was worth
All alone in the beachside glow
My song came on the radio

Lizard Nick I

Lizard Nick coughed and spat blood into the snow covered sidewalk. The buildings on either side were set far back in the trees. Nick shivered, pulled tight his coat, and scurried through the morning, dragging behind him a dead peacock, which had long since congealed and ceased leaving stains on the snow. “What a mess. To whom can I turn to? I’m amazed I got out alive. There’s a person, now.” 

Coming up the road from the other direction, a woman stumbled through the snow. She had cradled in her arms a bundle of twigs. “Hey woman. Give me your twigs.” “Sick man,” she said. “What?” “Sick man with a bird in his arm.” “It’s a peacock.” “Keep it away.”

Nick can see the woman clearly now. She wears a brown frock coat that hangs open and tall boots. Underneath, a red shirt is tucked into her belted waist band. The woman eyes Nick suspiciously and positions herself to avoid him. Nick blocks her way. “Listen, woman. Have heart. My peacock and I have stumbled for many minutes through the cruel snow. We are tired and in need of warmth.” “You’re a dirty boy.” “Maybe so, dear widow. It’s a terrible thing to leave a boy to suffer when he needs help.” “What’s that bird?” “This? It’s merely an honorary bird. It’s the kind of thing any respectable youth might carry around for status.” “I don’t like it. Put it down.” “I can’t do that. It’s my property. I cannot abandon my property here in the middle of the road.” “Get out of my way.” “Am I in your way?” “You’re a dirty sick man.” “Your heart is cold as the snow.” “I’ll call the police.” “There are no police around for miles, dear widow. Only yourself and yours truly.”

“Listen,” Nick says, and the camera zooms in on his face. “This bird will be eaten by my bedfellow and I. It will be boiled and mashed, creamed and sliced, and fried in a fine butter wine. The feathers will be made into prayer beads, and the eyes into a rope for my bedfellow to hang himself with. Nothing can entice me to release this bird. This bird is my meal. A man is nothing without a dead bird.” Nick emphasized the word nothing. “Then I’ll go,” the woman says, and she walks straight ahead at Nick. Nick obstructs her way. “Maybe you don’t understand, dear widow. I will not be stopped.” Lizard Nick reaches into his mouth and pulls out a red handkerchief. Tied to the red handkerchief is a blue handkerchief, followed by a green one and an orange one and a teal one. Nick coughs and out of his mouth beetles fly. “I ah no oriary mah,” he says…

Johnny I

Johnny walks down to the store. He eyes the standing barrels along the porch. These are for sitting he thinks. He tries the door but its locked. A fly buzzes around his ear. Johnny swats at the fly and sits on a barrel and looks at the town. He pulls a dead dandelion from his pocket. It’s somewhat crumpled. Johnny tries to straighten it out but the stem has darkened around the bends and the crumple remains. But the store door clicks and a woman opens it from the inside. She flips the closed sign in the window  to open and squints at Johnny. Johnny puts the flower back into his pocket. He gets off the barrel, straightens his shirt, and fixes his hair with his fingers. He’s blonde in the reflection. 

Johnny looks warily around the shop before approaching the counter. Foodstuff in tins and boxes fill the aisles. A slab of pig lay on wax paper on the counter. “Can I help you,” asks the woman. She’s middle aged, with curly grey hair, and a serious face. “Yes I’m wondering if you know why some things are and others are not.” “No. I don’t know,” she says with a scowl. Johnny puts his hand on the pig. “May I buy this pig?” “No. It’s too expensive.” “I have money.” “How much money?” “Not enough, I’m afraid.” Johnny touches the pig some more. “I’m wondering if I may touch this pig for the money that I have. It’s just for a little while.” “How much money do you have?” “Ten minutes of touching, I think would be enough.” “How much money do you have?” “Not enough, I’m afraid.” Johnny frowns and takes his hand off the pig. “I’m very sorry to have bothered you,” he says. “Go away,” says the woman behind the counter. Johnny frowns some more. He looks longingly at the pig. “Maybe there’s a way we can deal with each other without the pig,” he says, hopefully. “No. It’s not possible.” “I have money.” “How much money?” “Not enough for that.” “You’ll have to leave.” “I realize it. Only…” Johnny puts his hand back on the pig. “I wonder if we can talk as people, face to face.” “Please go,” says the woman. Johnny frowns some more. He removes his hand. Back outside Johnny stands on the porch looking at the flower in his pocket. He puts it back and walks down the road. The woman from the shop sticks her head out the door. “Pig Toucher!” she screams. Johnny quickens his steps. He makes a turn at the next corner and finds himself beside a bar.

String

There was a string, pink and long, slung between two barstools. Tuesday the bar emptied early but someone left a string. It was loose when I touched it. I tightened it up nicely. So tight a stool fell over. Stop playing with stools said the bar woman with her eyes. Brows frowned. I left the string alone and never touched it again. But I thought about it. That night I left the window open and cool air flooded over my bare skin. I thought about the string, pink and soft, spread between two stools. My sweat chilled me so I shut the window. I had strange dreams. I was a scissor and the string wrapped around my blades. I wanted to cut the string, snip it in two, but I couldn’t, in the dream, because the string was around me. I woke tense.