Arlene Greene ~ Johnnie 1954

Johnnie thought going into the Marines would help. Thought that it would help him and help out at home as well. He knew now that you could never completely run away from home, no matter how far you ran. Aggie wrote to him weekly, and beneath all the supportive words he felt her loneliness for him and her struggle to keep her head above water and to keep afloat with her as much as she could of the drowning family. And that’s how Johnnie saw them, even down to baby Looie, slowly but surely being sucked down into some barely discernible whirlpool. Ever since he could remember he had the feeling he was not one of the family but was with them for some reason. There was some reason his twin Jake died and he didn’t. His Mama told him that Jake was buried on top of her brother James, who’d died when he was twelve. Jake’s coffin was placed just an inch of earth above James so they wouldn’t have to take up a whole plot with such a tiny coffin. It didn’t seem right Aggie always said, people were supposed to be buried ‘six feet under’ she said, and she vowed to have him moved just as soon as she could save up the money to buy a plot.

Johnnie felt he was supposed to have died along with Jake, but he didn’t, and he felt that he was left behind because there was something he could/would/should do that would take the family up and out of the day to day bullshit and into a better life, but the way to do it was never clear. He didn’t even know how he even knew there was a better life. But he’d always known it; before he ever left the house for kindergarten he knew it. And now he could see that Looie knew it too. Maybe seeing that in her made it possible for him to leave. He saw his leaving as helping out, or he told himself that it would help. One less mouth to feed and all that. New opportunities, a chance for College, a way to make something of himself. Besides, the recruiter said all the right things. His mother seemed relieved. It would be better than having him on the streets doing who knew what, and it was the what that scared him. The stealing was wrong, he knew that, but somehow it never seemed wrong at the time, only afterwards. There was more than enough out there for everybody, so who was he hurting by taking his share? Whenever he stole he gave most of the money to his mother anyway. But the fires worried him. Setting the fires had been reckless and dangerous and stupid and he had no idea why he set them. And it was something that he didn’t seem to be in control of at all. Even though he had to have bought (siphoned?) the gasoline and set the fires, it wasn’t until he found himself staring at the blazing flames and listening to the piercing sirens that he realized what he’d done. And he never knew why. At least no one was ever hurt; they were all abandoned buildings.

And then there was Edward. He thought about Edward and wondered if he was the real reason he’d joined the Marines. He couldn’t possibly be a Marine and be attracted to Edward at the same time. Not in that way, not in the way he was afraid he might be feeling as he’d lie on his cot in the kitchen and stare at the ceiling after being at Edward’s house all evening. All they ever did was sit and talk (just talk,) and listen to classical records on the stereo, and drink wine out of thin fluted glasses. And then Edward would drive him home in his new turquoise and black Plymouth with the shiny tailfins, and they’d sit out in front for a while and talk (just talk,) and then after he drove away Johnnie’d think “What a nice guy.” But by the time he got up to the apartment a feeling of disquiet began settling in. He sometimes wanted to wake Aggie up and tell her where he’d been and what he’d done and explain to her how Edward was “really just a nice guy, you know?”

Johnnie was seventeen and Edward was thirty-six. They met in Bughouse Square, were part of the small crowd gathered to listen to the orators of the night, and they’d gone off to a coffee shop after the speech, excited to find they had similar ideas on the topic of the evening: “Personal vs. Societal Morality.” They sat together and talked and drank coffee until two in the morning that first time, and made plans to meet the following week to listen to the speech on “Socialism in a Democratic Society”

The following week Edward suggested they go his place to talk and listen to music. Edward’s place was a large studio on the Near North Side, just off Lake Shore Drive. Decorated in muted tones of green and brown, and neatly littered with plants, glossy magazines, hard cover books, and record albums, the studio seemed to Johnnie like something cut out of one of the magazines he’d seen in Doctor’s offices. Edward laughed when Johnnie asked him if he was rich and said he’d always heard everyone who lived on the North side was rich. “Comfortable maybe,” he said, “but rich, no, nowhere near rich.” And Johnnie instantly understood “comfortable,” for being with Edward, and being in Edward’s place was the most comfortable he’d ever been in his life. There was none of the usual self-consciousness or awkwardness of being in someone else’s house. He felt as if Edward and his ‘place’ had always been there and always been waiting for him. He’d always felt there were people who could talk about ideas instead of merely what was right before their eyes, people who thought through the now and into the future instead of digging their heels into the present and refusing to budge forward an inch. And he’d always felt that home could be a place where you felt warm and relaxed instead of cold and apprehensive, and thank God Edward and his ‘place’ confirmed this for him at last. And these differences excited Johnnie in a way that he’d never been excited before. It wasn’t until their sixth meeting that Johnnie realized Edward was different in yet another way. It was when he suggested Edward call a girl and ask if she had a friend so they could double date. Take in a show or something. Edward, who up to then had always known what to say, faltered and stumbled on his words, made excuses and turned red in the face, tried to change the subject and seemed sad and troubled when Johnnie wouldn’t let him do so. He didn’t like to date, he said, he didn’t really know many girls, he said, he didn’t especially like the movies, he said. But that night, after Edward dropped him off at home, Johnnie sat, and thought, and he knew Edward was a homosexual, or as everyone he knew might say: a fag, a queer.

He didn’t see Edward for a month after that. Stopped going to Bughouse Square and didn’t answer any of the notes Edward sent. And then, without having planned it at all, one night he found himself ringing the bell at Edward’s apartment.

There was never any discussion of his discovery. They picked up where they’d left off, and when sex slipped into their lives, it happened so naturally and without fanfare it went relatively unnoticed. Edward had fallen so deeply in love with Johnnie, that if Johnnie had insisted they never have sex, he’d have gone along with it simply to be near him.

Johnnie told himself he didn’t feel the same way toward Edward that Edward did toward him. He liked him well enough, and even came to feel he needed him, but it had nothing to do with anything so messy as love or sex. He needed Edward for the sanity he brought to his life. For the peace of mind and feeling of security he felt when he was with him, for sanctuary of his studio, for the music and wine and conversation and books, for the trips to the art galleries and the museums. For the access he provided to the life Johnnie always knew was there waiting for him. But telling himself this and believing it was sometimes nearly impossible. And this is what would happen as he lay on his cot at night, staring up at the peeling plaster on the kitchen ceiling. He kept his eyes open, for when he closed them he would smell Edward and taste Edward and feel Edward on him and in him until the ache became unbearable, and then he’d jerk his head back and forth as though he were being slapped and his eyes would snap open and he’d flush red and hot all over and begin the mental process of erasing the frightening feelings from his body and the thoughts from his mind. It became more and more difficult to snap out of it.

But he was finding out that being a Marine was not the answer. Being a Marine was a form of access too, he’d found that out the first night he went out on a pass, in a small town in North Carolina. He met girls, lots of girls. Girls who had as much or more to offer him than Edward had. But somehow they all ended up reminding him of Aggie. He remembered the first time it happened. He was with Julia, in the middle of a passionate petting session, in the backseat of her car, when she pulled back from him for a moment, and gazed moonily at him as she stroked the hair back away from his forehead. His passion took an immediate wilting nose dive, and he straightened himself up and mumbled something about curfew and having to get back to the base. He didn’t identify the feeling until the third or fourth time it happened. All of them, each and every one of them had some motherly something or other that turned him off like a switch and made him pull back and away immediately. With some it was merely something they’d say, such as “You look cold, are you sure that jacket is warm enough?” or “Here, let me sew that button on tighter for you.”, or even something as innocuous as “How’s your salad?” And suddenly they’d turn into Aggie, and at that moment any chance for romance flew right out the window.

He was quite happy with one discovery. He was not in the least attracted to any of the guys. They were to him what males had always been to him before Edward. Friends, buddies, cohorts. He wrote to Aggie and he wrote to Edward. He lied to Aggie and he told Edward the truth. And the truth was that he was miserable. He wanted out. He couldn’t bear it. He knew the military was not for him from the first moment at boot camp.

He’d been in the Marines less than a year when he went AWOL. Aggie’s letters scared him, but he was more scared for Louise than anybody.

The old man had never come back and she was living with Maw back in Englewood. His father had left again and now she was moving into some housing project down on South State Street and he couldn’t believe there was nothing he could do about it. He felt responsible. If he’d been there he could’ve talked her out of it. Could’ve gotten a job and helped out until Sam came home again. She’d told him how Maw and Gus wouldn’t even talk to her since she’d made the decision, and he knew how much she needed them.

There was nothing else to do.

 

Arlene Greene is Professor of English at Columbia College Chicago. The above excerpt is taken from Quicksand, a novel from Hammer & Anvil Books available exclusively on Amazon.com.

Quicksand2

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