The Troubles of Johnny Cannon
There ain’t much difference between a deer and a dog when you’re shooting, but there’s a world between them when one lands on your plate. If you’re hungry enough, though, you won’t pay no attention.
I wasn’t paying no attention the day I was out hunting turkey. Took me two hours and I never could get a real good shot at one. After a while, a bobcat set himself up for me to snag. I was hungry, so I figured I might as well get a bobcat. After all, the skunks wasn’t ripe yet.
Hunting was probably the greatest thing I did. I wasn’t so good at school, but it doesn’t matter what they tell you, sixth grade is hard, so I didn’t worry too much about them bad grades. My teacher said if I didn’t do better in seventh I’d be good for nothing but working at a gas station. I started practicing changing tires, but I wasn’t any good at that, either.
But I was a darn good hunter. Reason was, I didn’t miss.
You might say I’m gifted like that.
You might also think I’m being cocky, but it’s like my big brother, Tommy, always said, “You ain’t bragging, you’re reporting the news, like Cronkite.”
Anyway, I was out in my favorite holler, about five miles between my house and the edge of Cullman. I was staked out underneath a walnut tree, fixing my target on that spotted bob that was just itching to be in a casserole. Had it in my sights, about eighty yards away. It was drinking from a brook, not even suspecting that my finger was starting to squeeze the trigger, and everything felt natural, from the steel in my hand to the mud on my knees.
Then a stranger stepped right out of the woods and got between me and my target, and a shot rang out.
But I hadn’t fired.
No, that cat got hit by a bullet that came from the stranger’s gun, a sidearm he had whipped out. Then he went running up and fired another shot. I reckoned he wasn’t sure he’d aimed as good on his first one. He got it that time, right in the head.
Folks didn’t cotton to strangers around Cullman, especially ones without the sense to go hunting with a rifle and stay out of the way of somebody else’s. Add to that the fact that this stranger was about to go home with my dinner, and I was primed for fighting. I took off from my blind and ran down the hill, jumping over logs, dodging low-hanging branches, pounding my way so I could pound him into the ground. I wasn’t trying to be quiet one bit, but he didn’t turn around until I was just about on top of him.
“Howdy,” he said with a wave, barely glancing back at me while he was trying to tie up the cat’s legs.
Oh, great, a Texan. We’d rather have strangers in Cullman than Texans. They was about as welcome as colored folk, and the townsfolk made a sign against them at the edge of town. It wasn’t the most polite thing in the world, but it sure was effective. Cullman was as white a town as anybody could ever hope for.
Still, Pa always taught me to return a greeting, even if you planned on walloping the giver. You didn’t want folks talking about how rude the fella that hit them in the face was.
I stopped in my sprint. “Evening, mister.”
He tapped his black fedora like a half-baked salute. “You’re Johnny, right? Johnny Cannon?”
It dawned on me that this fellow must be a reporter or something, come to talk to me about my brother, the town hero. Cullman should have made a sign for them.
“Pardon the question, mister, but who wants to know?” I tried to put on every ounce of Emily Post’s etiquette that Pa had beaten into my thick skull.
The fella stood up, dusted his hands off on his slacks, adjusted his tie, and ran his fingers through his mustache. “Richard Morris. Captain. Six-five-seven-eight-two-seven.” He winked at me. “Old friend of your family.”
I felt the hairs on my neck bristle up. “From Guantánamo?”
“Farther back than that, from the war. I came looking for your brother, and the people in town told me you boys might be here.”
I eyed him up and down. White shirt, black slacks, he didn’t look like the type that would be telling Tommy to report for duty earlier than scheduled, so I reckoned he wasn’t. Course, I’d read that things was changing under President Kennedy. For all I knew, they’d call Tommy in with a singing telegram. I took this fella for a baritone.
“This is the best place for hunting, that’s for sure, but I come here alone these days. Tommy’s got a lot on his hands, getting things ready before he ships off to Korea. In fact, I came out here to fetch his dinner.” I looked over at my bob he’d tied up.
He glanced back at it himself. “Oh, right. I thought I’d save you some trouble, make a little donation to the Cannon family meat supply.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out some tobacco, and crammed a glob into his cheek. “You’ve grown tall enough, haven’t you?”
I was taller than the rest of my class, including my teacher. Just a few inches shy of Tommy, and he was six foot. I didn’t reckon that was tall enough, but he didn’t need to know about my dreams of looking down on Wilt Chamberlain. I decided to ignore his question.
“So, you’re going to give us that bob?”
“Let’s just say I owe your family quite a bit.” That wasn’t no shocker. I growed up with everybody owing us for something. Pa always said the more you did for others the more likely you was to get things back to you. Not that we’d had much repayment yet, but when it started coming we was going to be millionaires.
“How much you owe us? ’Cause I can think of a few other things we need around the house, and if you’re buying . . .”
He chuckled. “Boy, they wasn’t lying when they said you were the talker. What say we get this pussycat back up to your house? You look so hungry you’d slap your mom for a slice of bread.”
He got a real sad look on his face after he said that, and I reckoned he’d remembered that I didn’t have no ma.
That ain’t really true, ’cause everybody’s got a ma. Except maybe for sea horses. I heard they was born from their pas. But I wasn’t no sea horse.
I used to have a ma, but I hadn’t since I was six. I was fine with strangers not knowing about the accident and such, but this Captain fella claimed to be a friend. Not that I knew what the rules of friendship was. My closest friend was a rock I’d had in fourth grade. But I’m pretty sure he knew Ma was dead.
The Captain carried that bob up the hill to a black Chevy truck, and I followed him to make sure he was telling the truth about giving it to us. There wasn’t no laws against stealing bobcats, so he could have run off without fearing no police or nothing. Once we got up there, he threw it into the bed and wiped his forehead.
“You want to drive?” he asked me while he was breathing hard.
I smiled for the first time since I’d met him and hopped in the driver’s seat. Most strangers don’t understand how it is in Cullman County. They don’t think almost-thirteen-year-olds ought to be driving, but how else are we going to get to our fishing holes when our folks ain’t up to going?
As we was driving along the dirt road, we wasn’t talking about nothing. I had plenty of questions about what he was doing there and why he was hunting for Tommy, but I wasn’t sure how to ask them so I kept quiet. He was acting like he had something to say stuck in his throat too, but didn’t know how to hack it up, so he would cough a little and we both got more uncomfortable.
I turned on the radio to drown out the quiet and catch the baseball scores of the Reds game. Instead, the news popped on.
“As more and more Americans grow anxious regarding Fidel Castro, the enemy in our own backyard, President Kennedy fielded many questions with few answers about Cuba and the rumors of an impending invasion—”
The Captain switched the radio off with a cuss.
“Trash. You can’t listen to trash, kid. It’ll mess with your head.”
I guess he preferred the quiet, so that’s how we went as I drove us up the mountain to our house. It was gray, smaller than you’d think considering the size of our land, and it had a great big fence in front of it. It was the sort of place that a woman’s touch could have done a lot with, but three men living in it made it look as inviting as a free ticket on the Titanic.
I pulled into the driveway right behind our blue pickup. It had the hood up and Tommy was in there working on the engine. Our Chevy was almost as old as me, and trying to keep it running was his daily chore. He had to do it without buying no spare parts, too. After all, if we had money for spare parts we’d have had money to get something other than bobcat for dinner. But we didn’t.
Tommy looked up when he heard the gravel crunch from the tires. He saw the Captain and he didn’t smile. The Captain got out of the truck and stuck his hand out like a railroad sign. Tommy wiped his hands off on a rag and shook the Captain’s like he didn’t want to.
“What are you doing here?” he said to the Captain.
“And hello to you, too,” the Captain said. “I remembered you learning better manners than that, Tommy.”
“Hello. What are you doing here?”
The Captain grinned. “Just came by for dinner.”
Tommy started to say something, but the screen door slammed open and Pa yelled out.
“Captain Morris? What in the name of all that is holy are you doing here?” Pa coughed as he talked. He’d been a Navy radio operator in the South Pacific during the war, caught tuberculosis, and they was so worried about his lungs that they missed his appendicitis. It ruptured, he got gangrene, and they ripped out most of his lungs and intestines. He’d been stuck in the military hospitals for a few years recovering, and now he walked with a cane, spoke with a cough, and couldn’t get a job in town for nothing. He did get a disability check, but he called it his funny papers, cause it wasn’t nothing more than a joke.
“Pete Cannon, it’s good to see you,” the Captain said. “You’ve recovered nicely.”
“It’s been fifteen years since you last checked me up, so I’ve had time to. What brings you around out of the blue?”
“I brought your family dinner,” he said. “Bobcat.”
Tommy looked at me and I shrugged. I’d gone out for a turkey and I brought back a turkey and a bobcat.
“Reckon we could set another plate for dinner?” I said.
He slammed the hood down.
“I lost my appetite,” he said, and then he went inside.
Pa watched him go in with hurt eyes, but we’d both learned to let Tommy be when he got in his moods. The last time we didn’t, Tommy ran off for two months and joined the Guard.
“Johnny, why don’t you go see if Mrs. Parkins has her bobcat recipe handy? Me and the Captain here will get that cat ready for cooking.”
“Can’t I just call her?” I said. “I hate walking all the way over the mountain.”
“Phone’s acting up again,” he said. Of course it was. Anytime he got anxious or bored, he felt like he needed to take something apart. He related better to things that was made of wires. Made me wish I was a robot. “Anyway, you can’t expect her to walk all the way up here if you can’t walk all the way down. Show a little respect, boy.”
They took and hung the bobcat up and skinned it and cleaned the meat off. I went on over to Mrs. Parkins’s house. She was the wife of the colored preacher from the main church in Colony. She’d been taking care of cooking for us for the last couple of years, ever since we lost Grandma. But we reckon Grandma will turn up eventually.
That was a joke. My grandma’s dead too. I just didn’t want this story to get too sad.
Anyway, Mrs. Parkins came up about three times a week and cooked whatever I’d bring in from the woods. Meat, usually. We wasn’t able to give her what we should, but Tommy’d take care of their car and I’d mow their lawn to help pay for her services.
I knocked on their door and it was opened by one of the boys in the house. I always felt awkward around colored folk cause I didn’t know where to put my eyes, so I stared down at the porch. It was built real good. Maybe the Amish did it.
“My pa sent me to fetch your ma to come up and cook some bobcat for us.”
“She’s cooking dinner for us right now,” he said. “Y’all are going to have to wait.”
I glanced up at him. He didn’t look too happy about me being on his porch. I wasn’t too happy about being there either. I was beginning to think it was built by Mexicans.
“But we got company. We need her to come real fast. I’ll mow y’all’s lawn extra special this week for it.”
“What makes y’all’s company more important than my dinner?” he asked. That was a stupid question. Our guest was a grown-up, plus he was a captain. I wasn’t going to say nothing about how our guest was white and he wasn’t. I’d read To Kill a Mockingbird a few months before, and I didn’t want to be racist like how them folks was. Shooting a colored man before he even got a fair trial. They should have waited till after.
I was about to tell Willie what for, but then his ma came and stopped our conversation.
“Willie, it’s okay,” she said to him. “I’ll come up right away, Johnny.”
“Yes’m,” I said, then I shot her boy my best evil eye before I headed back up to our house. I got there just as Pa and the Captain was getting the last bit of the meat off that cat. They was both covered in blood and guts and such, and they looked like they’d been having a good old time getting so messy. I was sad that I’d missed all the fun.
Our truck was gone and I reckoned Tommy’d left for a while. I didn’t know what his beef was with the Captain, but I didn’t much try to figure it out. Tommy had a beef with so many folks, he was practically raising cattle.
Them two men got the meat laid out and changed into some cleaner clothes. Pa loaned the Captain a fresh shirt to wear and as soon as Mrs. Parkins got up there to start cooking, they went out onto the porch so the Captain could start smoking.
Pa moved upwind so the smoke wouldn’t kill him and he pulled out a loaf of stale bread to throw some crumbs to the birds. I went out and grabbed a seat, figuring I could hear some good war stories from those two vets. I always enjoyed hearing old soldiers chew the fat. That was part of why I swept the barbershop floor for a nickel every day. I could probably charge a dime and a half, but them stories was worth selling myself short. I usually skipped the corners anyway.
The Captain spied me watching him and offered me a puff on his cigarette. Pa shot me a look that said I’d be halfway to Heaven before I could even breathe out the smoke, so I turned him down. Pa didn’t probably know that I did my own smoking behind the church on Sundays, cause me and the fellas kept that a secret. I traded rabbits’ feet and coon tails for two smokes a week. The fellas in town couldn’t catch a rabbit to save their lives, and I didn’t never have the money to get my own packs. It was a good deal all the way around except for the one kid I gave a pussy willow to and said it was a foot. But he gave me dried ragweed wrapped in paper, so I reckon that was fair.
It didn’t take them too long to get to spouting out stories, and I put together a bit of what past they’d had together. Captain Morris had apparently been Pa’s doctor after he’d gotten sick in the Pacific, and he’d stuck by him through the whole thing. Even transferred to New Orleans to see him through to the end. Once Pa was let out to go off with Ma and Tommy again, the Captain retired. Said he didn’t see no reason to keep at it with the Navy after that, since his favorite person to work on was walking out the door.
Course, all that had happened before I was ever in the picture, which was part of why it was so interesting to me. I was always trying to piece together the story that happened before my first memory, which was stepping off a plane in Birmingham a year after the accident. I blame my grandma for that nagging need to hear about history. She gave me a box of old books, like Robinson Crusoe and The Count of Monte Cristo, when she found out I didn’t have no friends. She told me them stories in there was good for me, so she had me read them all. Then she told me the scars on my face was to remind me of my own story, because it was as important as any of them. But all them scars did was remind me of what I couldn’t remember. It made looking in the mirror each morning like reading a German Bible.
Mrs. Parkins came and told us that she’d gotten the table ready for us, and the bobcat casserole was hot out of the oven. We went inside to eat, and Pa asked her to stick around just in case we needed something else. Her face showed that she was antsy to get back to her family, but she stuck it out anyway. The fact that Willie was probably getting inconvenienced by us made me smile to myself, just a little bit. That was what he got for being so rude.
We tore into the bobcat casserole, and it was real good. A little like possum pie, only with more onions. I just knew that Tommy would have thought it was the best, but he never did show up to eat with us. When he said he’d lost his appetite, he must have meant it was gone for the night. I reckoned he’d made his way to the bar in town, cause losing your appetite inevitably makes you thirsty. I wouldn’t know, I had appetites to spare.
“Excuse me, Captain,” I said with my mouth half full of a biscuit, “but what are you hunting for Tommy for?”
He stopped mid-chew. “What makes you think I’m hunting for him?”
“Well, you said out in the woods that you was looking for him.”
He swallowed his bite. “I was hoping to see him first because I needed to clear the air between me and him. A grudge that needs to be done with, though I don’t recall how it started.”
Pa apologized to the Captain for Tommy running off.
“No worries,” the Captain said. “That’s what they train you for in the National Guard. To be an independent thinker. They think it makes their men more effective.”
“Effective,” Pa grunted as he chewed on some more casserole. “That’s a word we couldn’t use too often back in the war.”
“They still can’t, trust me,” the Captain said. He wiped his mouth and glanced at me. “That’s actually the main reason why I came here. There’s a group of vets doing something I think you’d be perfect for. With radios.”
Pa leaned in like a cat watching a goldfish.
“You mean there’s work?” I said. “You’ve got a job lined up?” I was getting a bit excited.
“Well, not exactly,” the Captain said. He cleared his throat and wiped his mouth. “I think we ought to speak more in private, Pete.”
Mrs. Parkins shot out of there like she’d been waiting for the chance to leave, and Pa told me to head on up to bed. It was a good ways before my bedtime, and I wasn’t too keen on getting treated like a little kid, but Pa had his strap handy so I went on up. I could have asked to go out and see my friends, but he would have known I was lying. That was another side effect of them scars on my face. People couldn’t stop looking at them long enough to make friends. And Cullman wasn’t big enough to have blind kids, so I was sunk.
While I was going up the stairs to my room, I heard the Captain say something about Pa communicating with folks all over the world. I wanted to stop and listen some more, but Pa said he was going to come check on me in a few minutes, so I had to hurry and get in my sleeping clothes.
When I got to my room, I spied Tommy sitting out in the truck with a bottle of beer and five more on the dash, watching the Captain’s truck like it was a sleeping snake. I got ready for bed and kept checking to see if he was still there. He stayed out there, best as I could tell, until the Captain left. I wasn’t so sure when that was, ’cause I fell asleep looking at my homework and thinking about how much work it would be to actually do it.
I knew Tommy didn’t stay out there all night, cause early the next morning he was shaking me to wake up.
“Come on, lazybones,” he said as he was rattling my teeth inside my head. “We got work to do. Time’s a-wasting.”
I rubbed my eyes and looked at my alarm clock. It said it was six in the morning. On a Saturday. Dadgummit, he was still drunk. Either that or there was a missile coming at Cullman.
“We ain’t got no work to do today. At least, none that’s got to be done this early.”
He yanked my pillow from under my head and ripped the blanket off of me.
“We got to run the delivery. Unless you don’t want to go with me,” he said.
I shot up. If he was lying, I was going to punch him in the mouth.
“That’s today? I thought we was doing it next Saturday. I was going to get a few more turkeys before we went.”
He threw my shoes at me and I slipped them on over my bare feet. I picked a shirt that didn’t smell too bad off my floor and put it on. He curled up his nose at me, which was a good sign. When folks puked at my odor, then I knew it was laundry day.
“It was going to be next Saturday,” he said, “but Bob told me yesterday he’d only let us have the bird for three hours next weekend. He can give it to us for five today. Now, come on.”
We went downstairs and out to the wooden shed in the backyard, where we had our deep freezer filled with all the game I’d killed over the last month. He started pulling out the brown-paper-wrapped portions and handing them to me. I filled up some cardboard boxes with them and carried them to the truck. We had to be real discreet about it, cause I had gotten a lot more than what was proper according to the hunting laws. But, when your family needs money, sometimes you got to close your eyes to the rules.
I found a marker and wrote on all them boxes NOT MEAT. That’d fool them.
We got the truck all loaded up with the frozen turkeys, rabbits, quails, deers, and squirrels and we left the house. We drove down the mountain and into Cullman, the only hometown I’d ever known. It wasn’t a small town, really, cause there was about ten thousand folk that lived there. And we had a good group of different types of people. People that had their roots in Germany, Ireland, England, and a lot of other countries.
Driving through town that early was one of the few good things about prying my eyes open, cause it was quiet and you could really appreciate the town for what it was. Right at the edge of town we passed the sign that they’d put up to ward off colored folk, which told them: COLOREDS—DON’T LET THE SUN GO DOWN ON YOU IN THIS TOWN.
Pa said that was the rudest sign he’d ever seen, and he was glad we didn’t live in the city for it. Tommy said Pa didn’t know how things was, and he thought it was a good idea. It kept the colored folk off in their own little place, a village on the other side of our mountain called Colony. Folks in Cullman called it the Colony, which I thought made it sound more official.
As we drove into Cullman, we passed the grocery store, where the owner was out sweeping the sidewalk and setting up his signs for the Saturday business. We passed the college, Saint Bernard, with all its trees and pretty sidewalks, where Tommy’d gotten his degree off the GI Bill and where I planned on going if I ever graduated from high school. Didn’t know what I’d study. Maybe they had a degree in hunting.
We drove real quick past the Methodist church me and Pa went to on Sundays, probably cause Tommy never could stomach going in there. Not since the pastor’d told him drinking was a sin and Tommy told him being fat was too. Even the pretty white walls and tall steeple couldn’t take his mind off that, so he stopped going. The only person who asked about him was Mr. Thomassen, the piano player. But they started catching up at the bar on Fridays, so they was fine.
Finally we went out the other side to where the airstrip was and we met Bob Gorman, the fella who owned the little airplane we was going to take to fly down to Birmingham.
“You’re going to pay me when you get back, right?” Bob said.
“Don’t I always?” Tommy said as I got to loading all that frozen meat into the plane.
“Usually,” he said. “This was a lot easier back when I just took it out of your paycheck.”
Bob Gorman owned the air show that Tommy’d flown for ever since he graduated from his basic training for the Alabama Air National Guard. That’d been almost three years of flying and showing off all over the South, and Tommy’d loved the fame, attention, and women he got from it. But, for the past three months, he hadn’t done none of it. Just stayed at home with us to help get things in order before Korea.
“It was easier for you,” Tommy said. “But you know I’m good for it. Give me the keys.”
Bob fished them out of his pocket and handed them to Tommy. We got into the airplane and I took my spot next to him at the copilot’s steering wheel. Tommy started flipping the switches and pulling the knobs.
“You don’t let that kid fly, do you?” Bob yelled.
“Do I look crazy to you?” Tommy said, and then he started the engines on the plane. Bob yelled something back, but there wasn’t no hearing it over the noise. Tommy drove the plane out onto the strip, we picked up speed, and then he eased us up into the air. I felt my stomach getting sucked up into my throat as we left the ground behind, and almost wanted to close my eyes so I didn’t get nervous. But I didn’t, cause I would have hated myself if I didn’t watch Tommy taking off an airplane. He was an artist, like da Vinci. And when Hank da Vinci painted your house brown, it was the prettiest brown in the South.
The trip from Cullman to Birmingham wasn’t a long one to fly, but it was just long enough for him to let me grab ahold of the steering wheel and fly for a bit. He gave me some tips while we was up there, but I didn’t ever need them. I’d been practicing flying in my head since the first time I saw a hawk fly in the woods. I strapped a kite on our dog one time to test my ideas. Sometimes I missed Fluffy.
Tommy watched me fly in silence for a few minutes.
“So, what’s your beef with Captain Morris?” I said, keeping my eyes straight ahead at the clouds in front of us like he always told me to. Fluffy hadn’t done that. Pretty sure that’s what went wrong with her inaugural flight.
He pulled out a bag of sunflower seeds from his pocket and chewed on a couple.
“It don’t really concern you,” he said. “We got a history that’s been bumpy, but there ain’t no reason for you to get tore up over it.”
“He don’t seem so horrible to me,” I said.
“No, he never does.” He threw another few seeds in his mouth and took hold of the wheel again. “It’s time to start landing.”
“Will you let me do it?”
He laughed. “Little brother, I was taught by the legendary—”
“Major Harrison. I know,” I said. I had dreams of someday taking a lesson or two from that fella.
“Trust me, landing is the hardest part of it all. Someday you’ll learn it, but until then I’m the man for the job.”
He brought us down to the ground just as smooth as he took us up. There was a whole group of people waiting for us with their ice chests. As soon as the plane was stopped and parked real good, they came and lined up to give us their money and take some of the meat we’d brought. I went to the head of the line and started collecting money, cause that was what I was really good at. Not so much doing the adding or giving out change, but I was real good at convincing them to give us more than what they’d planned.
“You was wanting a turkey and two rabbits? That’s three dollars,” I said.
“I thought it was two dollars,” the old lady I was talking to said.
“It was. But we had to raise the price on account of us having to pay the colored woman to come cook for us.”
“Why should I pay more cause your ma can’t find time to do her job?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I said. “It really is a shame she died when I was six.”
She got a shocked look on her face.
“Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t nobody’s fault, really. That’s what I had to come to grips with while I was in the hospital.” I reached up and scratched at the scar next to my nose that circled around under my eye to my ear. “I was in the car when she had the accident, after all.”
“You poor boy,” she said, then she put a five-dollar bill and a shiny silver dollar in my hand. “You keep the change, son.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” I said. I always wondered if folks thought I had a piggy bank with all that change they let me keep, and when it was full I could bust it open and buy my ma back from the store. Or maybe a bicycle. But I already had a bicycle.
That was pretty much how it went with the whole delivery. We came out with thirty dollars more than we’d planned. It was real funny how something that I barely remembered happening to somebody I never really knew could wind up so beneficial that many years later. We saved money on Mother’s Day too.
Once we got all the meat sold, me and Tommy got ready to fly back out of there. He kept hesitating on getting in the plane, though, and I wasn’t too sure why. But then a black car with tinted windows drove out to the airstrip we was on. I looked at the license plate; it was from Florida. They pulled up close to us and a woman got out of the passenger seat. She looked like she was from someplace in South America. She came over to Tommy and he told me to get into the plane.
I hurried into my seat and watched as they talked. She gave him an envelope and he looked inside of it, and then he nodded to her. They got closer to each other and she was whispering something to him. He had a reputation with the ladies, but she was too old for him to brag about. It was the darnedest thing.
After a while, the other door on the car opened and a short white fella with sunglasses and a suit got out and walked to where they was talking. He interrupted them talking and pointed at his watch. She shooed him away, but he only took a couple of steps off and he stood there listening to what they was saying.
I could tell Tommy was getting frustrated with him listening, cause he kept glancing at him and showing off his fighting stance. He finally went to push the short guy away. Then the short guy opened up his jacket and showed a gun.
Tommy took a step back with his hands up.
The lady said something to the short guy, and then she kissed Tommy on the cheek and headed to the car.
After they drove off, he got into the airplane. He was so interested in whatever was in the envelope that he let me go through the routines of getting the engines started. He even let me get us going down the runway, though he didn’t let me do the actual takeoff. I reckoned he was still spooked over Fluffy.
“Is that some woman you’ve been seeing?” I said.
“Her? No. She’s a friend of a friend,” he said, and he stuffed the envelope into his pocket. He didn’t talk about her or the envelope again.
After we was up in the air real good, I looked at his watch to see what time it was.
“It didn’t even take us three hours to get this all done. Why couldn’t we have done it next Saturday? Was it cause you had to meet that lady?”
He glanced down at the trees and such that was passing underneath us.
“I wanted to make sure everything was taken care of and that the money from the meat was ready to go to the bank on Monday. You know how to make a deposit at the bank? Fill out the slip and all that?”
I hadn’t never been inside the bank before except to get the candy that the tellers kept out on their counters. Even then, it was only when I was really hard up. You’d think, with all that money, they could afford something besides peppermints.
“Why?” I said. “You can drop it off, or Pa can if you’re too busy. Ain’t no reason to let me screw up the deposit.”
“No, you need to learn how to do it.” He pulled out the wad of money we’d just made and stuck it in my shirt pocket. “And how to pay bills, too, writing out the checks and all that. Pa ain’t no good with figures.”
“What you talking about? He’s an egghead.”
“Sure, when it comes to wiring stuff or making the TV work. But his head ain’t been good for handling money since the war. He gets his numbers mixed up. You’re going to have to handle things while I’m gone, or else you two will be in a mess of trouble.”
We was most always in a mess of trouble when it came to money. And with me at the steering wheel, we’d crash and burn faster than Fluffy had nose-dived into that tractor. May she rest in peace.
He saw my face getting worried, so he let me take over with the flying.
“You got money saved, right? From all them jobs you do and stuff?”
“Good. You keep it hidden, don’t let yourself give in to using your money for the bills.”
“But what if Pa needs it?” I said. “What if he gets hard up?”
“He’s going to get hard up, and you’re going to have to help him. Just not with your own money. Help him fight off the lions.”
I right off got a picture of me and my hunting rifle staked out on our porch, shooting lions that was escaped from the zoo. That made me feel a bit better, cause I could hold my own better with wild animals than with wild bankers. Still, I was pretty sure I didn’t have the right ammo.
“What you mean?”
He thought for a bit, staring out the window.
“Pa’s in a lion’s den in Cullman. Surrounded by folks, by creatures, that are aiming to eat him up. That’s why we’re always poor, cause it makes sense to him to feed all his money to the mouths of the lions. It’s the only way he can think of to keep them from tearing him apart. And they’ll tear you apart too, if you let them. So don’t let them.”
“There ain’t no lions in Cullman. Maybe at the zoo in Gadsden, but I ain’t heard of no escapes.”
“It’s a metaphor, Johnny.”
“What’s a ‘meta’? And why’s it for me?”
He shook his head.
“Just listen. You got to keep yourself and Pa surviving until you can get out of there, out of Cullman. That’s the only way you’ll be safe, when you can leave. Like I did.”
“But you came back.”
“Yeah,” he said. “For you. But when you get the chance, you got to leave and never look back. It’s the only hope you got.”
Now he was scaring me.
“Why you talking like this?”
“Cause I’m leaving again soon,” he said.
“Yeah, but you’re coming back again.”
He didn’t say nothing.
“You’re coming back, Tommy. Right? Ain’t you?”
He took a deep breath.
“You never know, little brother. Nobody can tell the future, not even them gypsies that come in the fair. But I can tell you this, you can only come and go from the lion’s den so many times before you get bit. And I’ve ridden my luck about as far as it’ll go.”
I had a lump the size of a baseball in my throat.
“Is this cause the Captain came in to town? I reckon he’s either gone or going soon.”
“It ain’t,” he said, then he paused. “And it is, I reckon. He did help me remember that we got a history in our family of bad luck. And bad luck ain’t exactly something you shake, not the kind we got.”
“Is he one of the lions you’re talking about?” I was starting to get the meaning of what he was saying. “What in tarnation happened between you and that Captain? If it’s so horrible that it’s making you talk like this, I need to know.”
“No, you don’t. It’s in the past, it’s history.”
“Mrs. Buttke at school always says if you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to repeat it,” I said. It was one of the few lessons I really remembered, and it was why I only paid attention to history class. Math, English, and all them others just claimed to be beneficial for you. History was the only one that came with a warning label.
“Sometimes it don’t matter if you know it or not. You’re still doomed.” He stretched his arms out, then plucked the silver dollar out of my pocket.
“Hey, that’s mine,” I said.
“Then you might ought to learn how to protect your things.” He grinned his usual possum grin at me. “But, that’s enough of all that talk. Have you picked up your comic books this month from the grocery store? What’s happening in the world of Superman?”
Normally, talking about superheroes and monster stories was top of my list of favorite conversations we had. We was both the biggest Superman fans in Alabama. We was convinced that Krypton was blown up by the Commies. It would explain why red Kryptonite was so powerful.
But I didn’t feel like talking about superheroes. And it wasn’t cause I was sore about the silver dollar. But he didn’t want to talk about nothing else. So we went the rest of our trip not talking about nothing. He landed us, gave what he owed to Bob Gorman, and we drove back to the house. I hoped the Captain was gone, for no other reason than that Tommy’d cheer up and spend his last couple of weeks having fun.
We got to the house and the Captain’s truck was parked in the driveway. Tommy didn’t even get out, he let me out and said he was going back into town. I said I’d go with him, but he said he was going drinking and I couldn’t come. I almost wondered if the Captain owned stock in the beer business, for how much drinking he inspired in my brother. Tommy drove away and I felt that lump in my throat getting heavier and heavier. I went inside the front door.
Pa and the Captain was sitting at the dinner table with a whole mess of RadioShack catalogs and ham-radio books laid out in front of them. They was looking at radio equipment and checking the specs off of stuff in the catalogs against numbers that was in the books. I got myself a glass of water and went to sit down next to them.
When I did, I caught a whiff of the Captain’s aftershave and it made me have a memory. I remembered being wrapped up in a blanket, sleeping in the back of a car while my folks drove around late at night. I tried to focus on the memory, tried to key in and see my ma’s face, but I couldn’t. My brain was too broken. It was funny, it was a different aftershave than what Pa used, which was why I hadn’t never remembered it before. He must have changed brands after the accident.
I peeked over Pa’s shoulder at the page he was looking at.
“What’s that?” I said about the big box-looking thing that had the dials and knobs on top.
“It’s a Collins 30S-1 linear amplifier,” Pa said. “It can cover the whole frequency spectrum, which is good if you’re going to be operating at different times of the day.”
I took a look at the price tag.
“Dadgum, Pa! It’s fifteen hundred dollars.”
His cheeks got red.
“Why don’t you head upstairs and work on your homework?” he said.
“Or he could stay,” the Captain said. Pa shot him a look. “Sorry, didn’t mean to overstep.”
“I ain’t got no homework,” I said. Which wasn’t exactly a lie. I did have homework, I just didn’t have none I was going to do that day. Homework was like cheese, it had to sit for a while. Then you could throw it away.
“Well then go read your comic books or something. We can’t have you down here.”
I didn’t see no good that could come from arguing with him about it, even though I had a bad feeling he was fixing to start shoveling our money into the lion’s mouth, just like Tommy’d said. I took my water upstairs and listened to my radio for a while to catch the baseball scores. I wondered if there was any equipment in them magazines they had that could make my radio pick up better stations. Like ones that had the Reds actually winning.
After I was served a good dose of lousy news, I reread a few of my Justice League comics. I wouldn’t read none of Tommy’s if my life depended on it. Pa’d gone through and drawn long pants on all the pictures of Wonder Woman. He said he was protecting our minds, but Tommy said all it was doing was feeding his imagination. None of that made no sense to me, but I learned to hide my comic books in a box after that. Tommy kept his girlie magazines in there too. But they didn’t have no good stories, so I never read one.
I went downstairs a couple of times to make myself a sandwich or to refill my cup of water. I offered to fetch the both of them some of Tommy’s booze from the fridge, but they said they didn’t drink. Which I knew was true of Pa, for the most part, but the Captain struck me as a guzzler for some reason. I reckoned I was wrong.
After a while they left together. I headed back down so I could look at their catalogs, but they’d taken the whole lot with them. So I got myself a bowl of cereal and sat on the couch to watch some TV. Of course there wasn’t nothing good on except for an afternoon movie about a fella that was frozen in an iceberg for fifty years, so I watched that. I watched shows and movies for the rest of the day all by myself in the house. I must have fallen asleep on the couch, and Pa must have left me there, cause when I got woken up the house was quiet and it was pitch-dark outside. Tommy was leaving a piece of paper on the table.
“What you doing?” I said. He jumped.
“I thought you was in bed,” he said. His breath stank of beer and whiskey, I could smell it from the couch. That didn’t trigger no memories for me, at least none but dragging Tommy out of the bathroom after he passed out on the toilet. And I sure didn’t want to dwell on that one.
“I ain’t in bed, am I? What are you doing?”
He looked at the paper he had put on the table and crumpled it up and put it in his pocket.
“I’m leaving,” he said.
I realized that he was in his uniform, and I saw his duffel bag by the door.
“Where you going?” I said, even though I already knew the answer.
“Montgomery. I’m reporting for duty on Monday, and then I’m shipping out.”
Dadgum, that lump in my throat wasn’t going nowhere.
“But, I thought we had a few more weeks before you went to Korea. You sure you ain’t been drinking too much?”
He turned and looked away from me. His voice wasn’t as level as it usually was.
“I ain’t going to Korea. I’m going somewhere else, but it’s top secret.” Yeah, he was drunk as a skunk. I’d seen his papers myself.
“Where you going, then?” I reckoned his answer would be something like Mars or Wonderland or something.
“I told you,” he said, “it’s secret.”
Narnia. That had to be it. When he’d had a pint of whiskey, he was always going to Narnia. He started toward the door. He was walking pretty straight, considering how drunk I reckoned he was. Still, if he was headed to Narnia, he probably thought our door was a wardrobe. Poor cuss.
I jumped up and grabbed his arm. He almost fell over. Yup, he was pretty drunk.
“You can trust me, Tommy. I swear I won’t tell nobody.”
He stared at the door. He swallowed and I wondered if he had a lump in his throat too.
“I can’t. I got orders. It ain’t just my secret, it’s the government’s.” The government of Aslan, I reckoned. He looked in my eyes. “If you ever told anybody, I don’t know rightly what would happen to me. Or you and Pa, for that matter.”
“I swear. On Ma’s grave, I swear.”
He searched my eyes like he did when he thought I was lying about something.
“That ain’t enough. You got to swear on mine.”
I took a tiny step back. That was new. Maybe he wasn’t talking about Narnia.
“You ain’t got no grave,” I said.
“But I will if you tell.”
I spit in my hand and held it out. “Swear on your grave, then.”
He spit in his hand and shook mine. “I’m going to Nicaragua.”
I racked my brain to figure that one out.
“Is that in Oz?” I said.
“That’s in South America.”
Dadgum. Nicaragua. That almost sounded like a real country.
“Was that where that lady was from?”
“No, she was Cuban.”
“Oh, well South America’s still closer than Korea.” I started to feel better. “So it ain’t so bad.”
“No, it’s worse. I got a mission to do that ain’t the safest doing. A whole mess of people are counting on me to help them out. But it’s worth it, I promise you it is.” His face was sweaty, like it was when he was lying. Also when he was drunk. Which he usually was when he was lying. “I just hope my luck holds up.”
As soon as he said that, I got an idea. Just in case he was telling the truth. I hurried up to my room and dug under my bed until I found what I was looking for. I went back downstairs and put my Superman action figure in his hand.
“He’ll keep you safe,” I said. “That’s what he does.”
“But he’s yours,” he said. “I gave him to you. You can’t give him back.”
“Nope. I ain’t giving him to you. Just loaning him.” I almost got choked on something, must have been allergies. “You make sure you bring him home, okay?”
He nodded and I could tell them allergies was getting to him, too. He didn’t say nothing else, just grabbed his duffel bag and started out the door. He stopped.
“You take good care of Pa, you hear me?” he said, his voice crackling a bit. He went out and closed the door behind him.
I ran out after him and he was walking out of our driveway, I reckoned down to the bus stop at the bottom of the mountain. Which meant he was really going. Or else he was in for one heck of a hangover.
“Who’s going to take care of me?” I yelled after him.
He turned around and showed me a big grin on his face. He threw something at me and I caught it.
“You’re Johnny Cannon,” he said. “You’ll take care of yourself. That’s what you do best.”
I looked at what he’d thrown. It was that dadgum silver dollar the lady had given me. I looked up to watch him disappear into the darkness. The lump in my throat was threatening to jump up into my mouth and blow my head apart. I had to blink a few times to keep myself from blubbering, and I finally remembered where my feet was and how to use them to go back inside.
In spite of all his flaws, Tommy was more than just my brother. He was my best friend. For the first time I could remember, I was alone. Even though Pa was there, the house was empty. Like a den just waiting for the lions to arrive.