Dear Johnny… by Margaret Thacker

I read your obituary in the paper today. It said you were 49 years old when you died. You left to mourn a wife, three children, one grandchild, a sister, and foster parents who steered you in the right direction. You worked for a construction company and were a volunteer fireman. It had been so long since I’d seen you. I was nine and you were ten.

You came to school mid-year, after everyone had been assigned a desk and knew their place on the bus. I was in third grade and you were in fourth. I first saw you coming down the school bus aisle; I noticed you were thin, too thin, with big kneecaps, pulled out from the middle of your legs like they might pop off. Your hands were far flung from your shoulders and your fingers were daddy long leg, spindly. Your clothes were a size too small and stuck to you like they might be wet. Your hair was blond and curly. It hung in ringlets on your shoulders. You kept pushing it back from your face and running your fingers through it front to back.

I wanted your hair; it would have made a girl proud. Sometimes, when my mother was brushing my hair, I wished out loud for curls. “Your hair is beautiful,” she’d say, squeezing me tightly, “just like the rest of you. I wouldn’t change a thing about any part of my girl. You’re perfect.”

Kids boarding school bus
Photo by Mark Goebel. CC license.

The school bus was full the day you stepped aboard. I sat next to the window in the back seat. You sat beside me and smiled. I wondered who you were and where you came from, why you didn’t have a backpack or a lunchbox. You did have a pencil behind your ear, peeking out from your curls. You didn’t say anything to me that day. You just sat there, leaning back, your hands clasped behind your head, your feet stretched out under the seat in front of us. I would have felt nervous in your shoes.

I remember that soon after seeing you on the bus, my friends and I were surprised when you emerged from the woods at the edge of our neighborhood. It seemed like you’d materialized by magic. We wondered where you’d come from, how you got there. Your bus stop was too far away for you to walk. We heard rumors that you got to stay up late at night, didn’t have to do homework and smoked cigarettes. We watched you with our mouths open. My friends and I wanted to look alike. We wanted to wear the same brand of clothing, style of shoes and haircuts. You carried “different” like your own label. We were impressed. You were cool. You appeared from the woods and said, “Hey, you guys want to hang out?” Your voice was deeper than it should have been. It was the first time I heard your tenor. It didn’t sound like it belonged to a boy. You sounded older and wiser like you knew stuff you weren’t supposed to. You kept my friends and me guessing about who you were.

“See these cigarettes?” you pulled the crumpled Marlboro pack from you pocket. “I can smoke them all, and never get sick. If any of you tried just one, you’d puke.” None of us was brave enough to prove you wrong. You were exciting and my heart fluttered every time you looked at me.

Because of you, fourth grade seemed worlds away from third. You were so different from any other boy I knew. You carried yourself with the confidence of boys in middle school, and you were only a grade ahead of me. You could stay out later than me and my other friends and you had walked alone on Mason Road to get sodas at the Mini Mart with your own dollar bills. I had quarters and had to wait for my mother to take me to the store. At 6:00, no one called you to come home for dinner; no one insisted that you wash your hands and face. I thought you were so lucky.

I remember once you had your baby sister with you. She was three. That was the first time I met her, but after that, you brought her along more often. You always held her hand when the two of you crossed the street and picked her up when she fell, dusting her off and soothing her tears like a Daddy. Most of my friends had little brothers or sisters, but ignored them in favor of being cool. I was an only child, but you made me want a younger brother or sister? to take care of. When your little sister looked up at you with those same bright blue eyes, I could see the love.

Your after-school visits became a habit I couldn’t resist. In the afternoons after I finished my homework, I’d go down the street and watch the edge of the woods where you appeared. You didn’t miss many days and when you did, I wondered why and was sad.

“Want to play sardines?” you asked one day. My friends and I didn’t know that game. “It’s like hide and seek, except the person who’s ‘it’ hides and everyone else has to find him and stay where he is, packing together like sardines.” You hid in the woods and I found you first. You were in a bramble cave. The shelter was hollowed out, like a tent surrounded by briars, and had a blanket of pine needles. I saw a little piece of your red shirt peeking through the prickles. An opening to one side, a round hole, was just big enough for me to fit through.

“The deer sleep safely here at night,” you said as I crawled in beside you. We lay there silently, waiting for the others to find us. That was the first time you held my hand. Mine felt small in yours, protected. That was the first time I really remember feeling like a girl. Julie, a teenager on our street had a boyfriend. My friends and I would sneak up on the couple and make kissy noises, giggle and run. I didn’t think I’d do that anymore, after feeling my hand in yours.

One evening, about a month after you showed up in the neighborhood, my mother saw you with me and my friends when she came out to get the mail. She opened the mailbox and then stopped. She looked at you for a long time. I watched her eyes travel from your too tight shirt to the holes in the knees of your jeans, and on to your ugly tennis shoes. Her eyes traced a path back up your body, stopping to look at your dirty fingernails and finally ending at your too-long curly hair. Then she looked at me.

“This is Johnny, Mama.” I said, my heart beating fast. I smiled at you but when I turned back to my mother, my smile faded. Her face was stern like when I’d forgotten to take out the garbage. My friends all liked my mother. She baked us cookies, piled us all in the car and took us to the movies on Saturdays. When it snowed, she bundled up in her coat, scarf and mittens and helped us build snowmen. She was fun. That night her voice didn’t sound like the mama my friends knew. She sounded hard and cool.

“Hello,” she said. “I haven’t seen you in the neighbor-hood. Have you and your parents moved in recently?”

“I don’t live on this street,” you said. “I live in Crenshaw Mobile Home Park. Over there, through the woods.”

“Oh, I see.” My mother smiled. It wasn’t a real smile, but one that dismissed you as “trailer park trash.” I heard the insult every time we drove by a trailer park, or the part of town where lawns weren’t neat and tidy, where cars sat without wheels and dogs were chained to trees, she’d say something about the “trailer park trash.” She cut her eyes at me and without speaking, said, “leave this boy alone.”

That night my mother told me to come right in the house and help with dinner. She nodded at you and my friends and motioned for me to follow her. I knew she only said that to get me away from you. I looked at her and back at you. You shrugged your shoulders and gave me a little wave. I smiled, waved and followed her into the house. She didn’t say much when we got inside. I didn’t say much either, I was confused and had mixed thoughts of my own.

Later that night in the kitchen, with my Grandma’s recipe book between us, mixing the ingredients for her homemade chocolate chip cookies, Mama spooned up some batter and gave me a taste along with what was on her mind.

“I don’t like the looks of that boy. Johnny,” she said. “You need to stay away from him. He’ll never amount to anything. I can look at him and tell. He’s dirty, has no manners, has no direction, no parenting. Trash, that’s what he is, trash. You stay away from him.

“Your grandmother, always said, ‘Lie down with dogs, wake up with fleas.’ She said her first mistake was allowing me to play with riff raff. Don’t try me young lady, you won’t like the consequences.”

“Mama, he’s a nice boy, he takes good care of his little sister.”

“He shouldn’t be dragging that child around with him. His mother should be taking care of that baby, not him. It’s not his responsibility.”

“He loves her. He watches out for her. He’s a good big brother.” How, I wondered, could having dirty hands make you less of a friend? How could your clothes be more important than the way you protected your friends from bullies? How could watching out for your little sister make you bad? If you were a dog, you were a protective sheep dog, maybe a little shaggy, but I never saw any fleas.

“I want something better for you than I had,” mama said. “I married young and dumb to a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Your Grandmother warned me, but I didn’t listen. I love you. I want you to go places, college, have a career, a man from a good family. Don’t make my mistakes. You’re smarter than that.”

I hadn’t known my father at all. I never heard anything good about him. I’d only heard stories about his fast cars, bad habits and traveling feet. I thought he must have been dangerous. You seemed dangerous, but kind. If half of me came from the wrong side of the tracks, maybe my father’s half led me in your direction, Johnny. I wondered if my father had been the same kind of magnet to my mother.

I wished that my father still lived with us. I wished that he and my mother still loved each other. If they did, you could be my friend, Johnny. My mother would understand.

If my mother thought I was “smart,” there was something about you, that just kept pulling me towards you.

“I don’t want to hear another word about Johnny,” she scolded. “You are not to see him. Do you understand me?”

I nodded; I had never disobeyed my mother. We were best friends. We sat on the bed at night and painted each other’s fingernails and told each other our secrets and birthday candle wishes. I didn’t want to disappoint her, but I also liked you.

The next day, I told mama that I was going to Jenny’s house. I headed in that direction, but veered off the path toward the edge of the woods, searching for you, waiting for you. I lied to my mother, a lie that could get me in big trouble, one that could ground me to my room, one that could show disappointment in my mother’s eyes. Still, the fear didn’t stop me.

And I kept sneaking off to meet you after school. My heart always beat faster, my palms went sweaty and my feet ran faster. I swore my friends to secrecy, swore myself to secrecy too, but I kept seeing you, even through the summer.

Your trailer park was on the other side of our neighborhood, a few miles’ drive, but walking through the woods, it was only ten minutes away. We planned times to see each other and met half way on the path through the trees. You were fearless. I pretended fearlessness, but watched over my shoulder every minute of my trip, expecting my mother to come crashing through the leaves and sticks to drag me back home and banish me to my room forever.

We spent that whole summer together building forts in the woods, catching salamanders in the creek, having picnics with peanut butter sandwiches, bananas and Girl Scout cookies I bagged secretly in the kitchen before bed when my mother took her bath.

We met in the bramble cave in the middle of the woods, the one you found when we played sardines. We called it our “dream spot.” We’d hole up in there and talk about finding buried treasures on beaches, building tree houses to live in and riding on exotic animals in far away lands. You held my hand and even kissed me once on the lips. It wasn’t wet and sloppy like I thought kisses would be. Your kiss was warm and soft. I decided I was going to marry you.

Once we met when it was dark outside. I can’t remember why we were alone together in the dark, but I remember lying next to you in the grass under the stars and wanting some of them to fall to make wishes on. “I think I’m going to be moving away soon,” you said.

“Why?” I asked, surprised. I never thought about you not being there. I already felt lonely.

“We never stay anywhere very long,” you said. “We always move on when my mother breaks up with her latest boyfriend. They’ve been fighting a lot, lately.”

My mother never had boyfriends. I’d never had a boyfriend, either, until you, Johnny. We were on the cool, damp grass, staring into the constellations, floating along the Milky Way, riding the tails of comets, when you took my hand and put something in it. I opened a small plastic box with a snap top. Inside on a piece of cotton, was the most beautiful sparkle I had ever seen. It was a star set with clear, cut stones. “This is something for you to remember me by,” you said.

Suddenly, my throat tightened and I couldn’t swallow. Tears swelled. I grabbed your shoulders and hugged you tight.

We planned to meet the next day at 2:00 in the woods. Part of me was scared to go look for you, thinking of my mother, but another part kept me walking to the edge of the woods. I’d never been to the trailer park before, so I didn’t know which one of the long metal boxes was yours. I waited for you for a long time and kept looking at my watch.

Then I saw you. You were walking towards a white car with an official seal on the door. You held your baby sister by her hand and carried a paper grocery bag. You helped your sister into the car and fastened her seatbelt, then walked around the car. You glanced toward the woods, like you were wishing you were there. I’m not sure whether you saw me or not. You didn’t wave. Neither did I.

A woman in a blue dress and high heels held the other car door open for you to get in and closed the door. You ran your fingers through your hair. The woman slid into the driver’s seat and drove away. I just stood at the edge of the woods, watching the car disappear, watching you leave. Then I cried.

It has been 39 years since I last saw you. In that time, I followed some of my mother’s dreams for me. I completed college and found a career I love. I married a man from a good family. He also has a wild streak. He likes fast cars, motorcycles and wears a leather jacket. My mother shakes her head and frowns when she sees him ride off in a roar of horsepower. Our two boys take dares on their bicycles and sometimes fall for girls who don’t live in our neighborhood.

sterling rhinestone jewelryTonight, after reading your obituary, I pulled down the attic door, unfolded the steps and climbed into the heat. I crouched under the eaves and opened the trunk that holds my childhood memories. There was the small plastic box you put in my hand that night. I opened it and touched the clip-on earring with rhinestones in the shape of a star. It is still the most beautiful sparkle I have ever seen. My mother wouldn’t understand. She would think it’s gaudy.

Margaret Thacker
Margaret Thacker is a Recreation Director at Golden Living Center-Charlottesville. She also blogs at Train’s Whistle.

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