Johnny’s Story

Published in:

, 1999

It was the summer before I started college. I was working in the
factory and living with my family, saving up the money to buy my books and
pay my rent, ’cause even if I had gotten a partial scholarship, it wasn’t
going to be near enough by itself, and my poppa didn’t have anything to
spare. Though he was proud, I think. None of the men in our line had
ever even finished high school before. Just my momma’s sister, who
married the doctor, and Cassie, of course. Though it’s not like Cassie’s
really my sister. She’s just the daughter of the woman my poppa married
after my momma took off. She doesn’t look anything like me; she’s little,
y’know? Little like a bird, a little chocolate stick of a thing.

The guys in our family, the women too — they’re all big-boned.
Big-boned with some flesh on ’em, momma and poppa types, ‘generous’ as my
momma used to say before she took off with that rich guy. That’s what my
poppa says she did, anyway. I don’t remember her saying that. I remember
the day she left, though. Jamie and Jase had started up another one of
their hollering fights, which had progressed to whaling on each other with
their fists and making an unholy noise, and I was all ready for momma to
turn around from the sinkful of last night’s dishes and lay into both of

Instead, she just turned and stared, stared at those boys until
they froze stock still. She stood there in the kitchen with her hands on
her broad, heavy hips, with a dishcloth on her shoulder and this look on
her face. This look like if she had to put up with me and Jamie and Jase
for one more moment, she was gonna strangle us all the way she wished
she’d done when we were born. She’d say that sometimes, y’know? “Sweet
Lord Jesus forgive me, I should have strangled you at birth.” In that
flat voice, that said she was gonna crack, just split wide open like a
bean pod, spilling out green bits. She didn’t say anything that time,
though. Just picked up her purse and walked out, with the blue striped
dishcloth on her shoulder, and she didn’t come back.

Cassie’s momma is a lot like my momma. She moved out here from the
big city, moved into the old Manelli house down the road and took a job at
the plant, working right next to my poppa in the assembly line. That woman
was so angry, so bone-deep angry, she told everyone she met that she had
had it up to here with that man, and she wasn’t going to put up with that
kinda crap no more. That man had cheated on her for seven years. That man
hadn’t been able to keep his hands off any woman over eighteen excepting
maybe his own daughter. That man had given her no peace. What Cassie’s
momma wanted more than anything else was some simple peace and quiet. Why
she married my poppa then, I don’t know, considering. Maybe just ’cause
they were both lonely. Them getting together caused a lot of talk in the
town for a while, ’cause some people here don’t like white folks and black
folks mixing together. I about thought my friend Pete’s momma was gonna
have herself a stroke, but that’s mostly quieted down now.

Cassie isn’t like either her momma or mine. Cassie wouldn’t put up
and put up and put up until the day she cracked. You say one word, look at
her wrong, maybe pinch her butt as she walks by and she’ll be on you so
fast. “Fucking bastard!” She’ll whip around and she’ll be sticking one
long brown finger in your face, hissing like a snake, promising to get her
homeboys from the old neighborhood to come kick your face in if you push
her one more time. And it’s scary for a second, that fury exploding out at
you, bright colored sparks flashing and screeching and you maybe take a
step back. Hell, Jase’d take off running. Jamie’d blush bright red and
look like he wanted to run and then he’d stand his ground. What else could
he do — she’s nineteen, older’n any of us, but she’s so tiny, we could
stomp her into the ground. He’s gonna admit he’s scared of that two-bit
little girl? So they’d hiss at each other, and you could practically see
the hair rising on their necks, their tails swishing as they turned and
walked away. And me? Me the eighteen, me the should-know-better? Me who
can’t help grabbing a bit of that skinny butt as it walks by?

I just laugh when she explodes. I always step back for a sec, but
she’s so funny-looking, like an angry baby bird, and besides, I can tell
she’s bluffing. Just making this shit up, about homeboys and the ‘hood,
trying to make herself sound all city and tough. I can’t help but laugh. A
strangled chuckle and she’s still shaking that finger, and then my mouth
opens and a big belly laugh comes up from my big belly, and she’s looking
like all the brown’s gonna wash away to white she’s so mad… Most times,
that’s how it ends. Cassie looks like she’ll explode, and my poppa
hollers, “What’re you doing to Cassie?!” I catch my breath and say I’m
sorry, very calm, like a gentleman. And she can’t do anything but take

Only one time, it didn’t happen that way. I was sitting on the
front room couch, that old cream-colored thing with the wide arms so comfy
to lean against. I was sitting there reading so quiet, reading this book
about kings and elves and rings, liking it a lot more than I’d expected I
would, when Cassie came walking by. Cassie’s mom had gone off to church,
and poppa had said he was taking the boys to baseball, and maybe Cassie
had thought he meant me too, and she’d have the house to herself. But I’d
twisted my ankle coming down the stairs that morning, and so I couldn’t
go, and she’d maybe forgotten. ‘Cause here she was walking down the
hallway past the front room wrapped in nothing but a white towel, with
those skinny long arms and legs sticking out of it so I whistled, ’cause
what else is a brother to do if his sister walks by dressed like that,
even if she isn’t any kind of blood relation and he’s only known her for a
few months now? She’d been so careful around us boys that I’d never seen
above her knees or even above her elbows before this. Nice.

So she whips around the way she always does and storms into the
room, almost tripping over all the kids’ junk on the floor but catching
herself. She starts shaking that finger in my face. And I’m feeling a
little guilty already so I hold back the laugh and let her harass me, let
her holler in my face about her homeboys and how they’d kick my ass from
here to next Sunday, and she’s shaking like crazy with all that
energy…and that towel starts slipping.

I can’t help it, I laugh as she grabs at it and you can tell she’s
gonna explode like a grenade or a firework, and I’m clutching my stomach
and laughing and knowing I’m gonna feel just rotten about this later.
Cassie gets this look on her face, all twisted, screwed up tight and she
reaches back with her fist and then slams it at my face, and if that had
landed it would have hurt like hell. I may be big, but I’m not slow and I
grab that fist and hold it. Her hand just disappears into mine with a
thump and oh, this is the worst thing to do but I swear I can’t help it;
I’m still laughing as I hold her hand inside mine, our hands shaking
together with the force of it — and then she starts laughing. I’m
serious. The laughter just bursts, sunshine across her face and we laugh
and laugh until we’ve got sore stomachs and damp eyes and when we’re done
laughing there’s such a good feeling, such a warm fellow-feeling in that
room, like nothing I’ve known, like this is gonna be a friend for life
smiling at me with her eyes.

Her hand’s dropped down but it’s still in mine, the other one
still holding up that damn towel. Her hand so warm, practically vibrating
with the energy in her, and I want to open it up, open that fist gently
and squeeze her hand tight. Maybe drop a kiss into her palm, and I’m
looking in her eyes and I know that she can see my wanting in them. I
can’t read her though. Her hand twists in mine, uncurling and squeezing
for one brief moment and I think maybe she’s feeling what I’m feeling.
Maybe Cassie’s feeling that warmth uncurling in the belly. But instead of
hanging on, she lets go. Lets go of my hand, which is feeling so cold and
empty in that moment, like something’s missing, like I’ve lost a limb
that’s supposed to be part of me.

It’s then that she takes this one step back, slow and careful.
That might have been it, she might have just walked away right then, but
Jase’d left his backpack on the floor, and she steps right onto it, losing
her balance and sticking a hand out, catching the edge of the doorframe
and almost falling but not quite. And the towel slips. Just a little, and
then she catches it up again, leaning against the door frame, steadying
herself. Then she stands up straight, her eyes locked on mine, on me
sitting there, on the edge of jumping up to catch her. Cassie gets this
look. There’s this big grin on her face as she slowly takes both top edges
of the white towel and pulls it open, open like a wall of white and she’s
posed against it. Small dark breasts with almost black nipples,
surprisingly large. A flat stomach, and a mound shaved bare, a triangle
between her thighs. I want to feed her. I want to put some meat on those
skinny bones and then kiss my way along them. I want to drag her into bed
and screw her ’til we’re both sore and screaming. But she takes another
step back, still smiling, and so I sit there on that cream-colored couch,
thinking of how she’d look lying on it, arms stretched up above her head,
legs bent and waiting. Sitting still has never been so hard.

“It’s their house,” she says, and I know what she means. She’s not
really my sister, not really…but poppa’d never understand. And I am
despairing in that moment, despairing until I realize what she’s

“I start school in October,” I offer. A long silence, waiting to
hear her reply. She slowly wraps the towel back around her, hiding those
slight curves.

“Maybe I’ll come visit.” She tilts her head, considering, and
then nods, once, as if she’s made a decision. Then she turns and walks
down the hall.

I go back to reading, but even hours later, when the kids are back
and the house is shouting again, I can still feel her smile warming the