the GENDER issue / FICTON

Johnnie Johnson

by Reid Gómez

Johnnie Johnson” comes from the novel, A Woman’s Body Was Found There.  Set in 1980s San Francisco it tells the story of five women whose bodies are found there—at Land’s End, at the Bayside piers, and on the thin line between love and hate.

Photo Credit: Reid Gómez.

           It was well known among the neighborhood bitches that Johnnie Johnson was a sucker for feet. It was a joke they told behind her back, thinking she didn't know they spent their time clowning her. Johnnie thought it was all right with her; in the scheme of things she had one up.  She saw them; that gave her power. She liked them thinking this was her one weakness, the soft spot in the dragon's belly. She’d flash them that card, distracting them, knowing they’d attack her there. Meanwhile, she read those women, even the straight girls who hated her with everything inside them. She read them all, open toed or oxford, 21 or 67. The old women were the best, one look down and she knew them.

            She was thin but gave the appearance of being thick, wide shouldered and solid.  Like a vehicle that could transport anything, solid metal, oiled and smooth, perfect, exquisite mechanical genius, a fine low rumble along the pavement. Everyone could tell which God had made her.  

 

            She wears white, even in the winter time. White underwear, white jeans and a white t-shirt, what goes on top depended on the planned activities. She stands out anyway, the way every aspect of her appearance announces itself so clearly outside of everyone's experience. Her head a perfectly shaped sphere of bone and black. Her lips a touch darker, a fine edge of skin lined their balanced dip and swell.

          She wore long arms, punctuated with small knotted muscles, elongated teases. Hair in small spirals underneath the teasing. She worked for a while at a liquor store lifting load after load of milk crate and beer box.  Watching with the fine eye students in such schools develop. Two years of careful observation and physical exertion, readied her for what she wanted. That day arrived with a new moon. She answered to no one.

           She'd been grateful to Ramsey for giving her the opportunity of employment. Most folks in the nabe figured she was a little too freaky to be trusted. They'd grown, over the months, weary of the way she watched their daughters, wives and mothers. Given the proprietary relations they had with women, they figured this bitch was trouble. Johnnie cultivated some of their perceptions, figuring it gave her some upper hand she'd need later on, at some unknown point or location. Rumor had it she'd been raised by dogs in Dogpatch before she relocated to the valley. They were the only creatures that didn't approach her with nasty intentions.  Pits and police dogs seemed to have a special way around her, a secret way of relating and connecting, and because of this she could walk the world at night in silence.

           Ramsey was a man who let his ugliness empower him. His rotten front teeth created space where he could do pretty damn what he pleased. He was tall and thin, like a piece of local lumber. The kids, for years, had called him that: the Lumber Man. Johnnie was attracted to this. He was a local legend. A lanky, ugly brother who turned ridicule around and shaped it into resource. His momma died before he grew into his six feet and seven inches. After that he spent most of his time running something wrong from here to there. He never spent one minute hungry, in jail, or down at General. He was an unscathed and unconfined miracle. Perfectly homely and perfectly alone, but he had the one thing no one would ever take away. Ramsey owned a store.

           The Lumber Man was old. Johnnie was young, and she had the one qualification he was looking for. She could lift, load and stack seven days a week at $3.75 an hour.  Nothing else mattered. He didn't go for looking people over. He went on feeling. His gut told him he'd get a good run out of her, and that’s exactly what he did.

             Folks took their business to the isles of the store. With Johnnie inside the giant walk in, stacking milk and sour cream, the people let their business drop like coins out of unsuspecting pockets. Within a month Johnnie was just like the Lumber Man, another freak in the overlooked woodwork. No one paid them attention, believing their codes and half told secrets couldn't be put together like an easy wood puzzle left out at recess. She stored it all inside, minute detail after detail. She watched the comings and goings like so many elements of a complicated system. She took a year to finally get a handle on it.

            Meanwhile her arms took shape and her bones grew cold. The Lumber Man stood there and took it all in. Except he had a special account of the entire situation. Johnnie, like the rest of them, never took the precise character of his existence into full consideration. It was the first thing she overlooked, Alecia being the second. But the old man just witnessed it all with a certain amusement. Over time he began to appreciate the way she took each and every opportunity and exploited it to its fullest potential. He developed a fondness for her just short of true affection. There was something significant about the two of them, so separate from everyone.

            He could tell by the way she threw herself into the lifting and the stacking that she didn't come from nowhere and wasn't going nowhere neither. Not even the dogs folks gossiped about kept this woman company. She tolerated them and they seemed somehow drawn into close proximity. Late one evening in January, during their second year together, he noticed a certain difference in her back. As she bent down to lift the plastic milk crates, he noticed she wasn't so small anymore. Beneath the satin warm up, there stood someone of a different size altogether. She'd grown, these months, deeper inward, dense and more deceptive.

 

            She never lied, she just played hard and to a collection of ever-changing rules. Things worked out smoother that way; money flowed at a constant, but not too abundant rate and the women remained at an appropriate distance, but in sufficient quantity. She threw herself at the sexing like she threw herself at the work at Ramsey's, tightening and perfecting a means of coming to a greater understanding of herself, and what she thought she'd soon discover living.

           From the outside it seemed as if all she cared about was the money and that the women were a natural perversion due to her homosexuality and masculinity. But that perception was just a twisted shape, gleaned behind a fogged window. She wasn't enigmatic; she just wasn't what she appeared to be. To understand her, you had to somehow get underneath the weight of her.

           She stood ankle deep in the earth's surface. She walked hard, like a white person, and drew degrees of heat from someplace cypress lined and far away. Distance preempted all attempts to find her. The police and the men the women left at home during dinner time never once successfully caught her. She could stand directly in front of them, and they could somehow never reach her. A lot of women found this sexy, her business associates found it comforting, but for Johnnie it was just something she discovered when she was four and sat before the TV while the entire household searched for her. 

 

           The cars begin to pile up on the central freeway. The sky blue, the edge of the world pink.  It nears five o'clock. The earth rotates and Johnnie steps down the block oblivious to everything except her own body. She is always running some kind of hustle.  She don't let her secrets out. Best way to make a good run is not to let your knowledge out. Let it stay there, shape you, but don't let it reveal itself. Knowledge got to be your best defense. Got to be solid, and got to be yours. It's a stick you don't let no one get their hands on.

           She walks down the street, breathing in deep.  Her soul fresh, but there is something out tonight that weighs her down. A block and a half and she'll make the left turn home.  She has food to eat and money to count out. It seems like no one is around. The usual cluster of screaming kids runs about soundless. The car's motors are silent. Even the men with their usual conversation seem to silently mouth shapes into a pocket of air surrounding. The world was not particularly loud or melodious to her, but she liked the way things made vibration. Things got in and out that way, through the bones. She wasn't into music. She only owned one record.  

             The soundless was finally broken. A paint chipped dumpster restoring everything to its usual volume. Thank you, Sunset Scavenger. The children's feet slapped pavement, the old women's voices rattled loud above the feet, the men discussing the best place to get a job that paid good and steady. Her inner ears returned to their usual tapping.

            Thinking on a woman she had seen for four years who was older and pretty and had a child. The child was pretty too, but couldn't hear. That woman tired Johnnie out with all her books about that child's possibility in the world. But there was one that made a forever impression on her. A diagram of the inner ear, she would've memorized it if she had to, but it stayed with her from the very first moment.

            It reminded her of the clicking metal she would dream of. Black metal, fired red and made to move. She loved that dream, both its sound and its temperature. She liked to stand up in it, like it was outside, underneath the shade of a hand built shelter. In the center, an oven for the making of motion. She thought that when she was five, she remembered that clearly. She always thought of fire that way, from that moment till forever. "Look, look" she used to say, "it makes motion."  The picture of the ear was like that, the dreaming.  She was glad that all ears were the same, with the metal shapes moving inside. To be touched like that, resonating inward. Air moved inside her and she felt good. Walking and listening, the thinking somehow subsided, growing small in the presence of memory. She loved that woman and her girl more because they gave her this. Love was a large piece of information.  They shared their power with her.  She thanked them right then, out loud, to the wind, and she knew some bit of it carried over.

 

            In that distant time the bus arrived some place she had never been before. It took her a little over 20 minutes to walk from Silver and San Bruno to Hamilton. Just up the hill was the old reservoir and the memories of greenhouses. It seemed to her not many black folks lived here. She moved her eyes behind her with the subtle grace of suspicion. She arrived at the rectangle that shared the number written on the little slip of paper. It was a "while you were out" massage slip this woman brought from her office. There was something insane about the ordinary nature of this connection. The woman worked at One South Van Ness and mostly spent her lunch times walking.

           They met on Market Street one afternoon in February. She wore slacks the way only a woman can, a long overcoat and a shiny shirt the color of over creamed coffee. Johnnie noticed immediately the way the woman took note. They spoke briefly, and made arrangements to meet the next day at the small shop just under the freeway that sold old movie paraphernalia. They looked through the stills, then at a couple of poster reproductions. Time passed quick, like it always does the first time you discover something between two people. They began walking back to the giant bank. The woman pointed things out as they passed them, like Jimi's electric church still standing on the corner. At Market and Van Ness she handed over a pink slip of paper that said Sunday, 6:00, 475 Hamilton Street.

            Johnnie stood at those steps looking at that very paper. Two small eyes looked out the window, belonging to a head that had been told repeatedly, "do not be looking out the window." They stared at the configuration before her. The front door opened, breaking their simultaneous moment of contemplation.  Johnnie stepped into the living room. A large TV leaned against the wall, immediately to her right. Before her a small love seat, at the window facing the street, a long matching couch. The carpet was brown shag confetti.  Immediately to her left was the kitchen, which was sizzling and smelling good.  It all mixed in with the night air, entering. The woman's eyes looked up and down like a butterfly's wings flapping. She ran back into the kitchen and yelled out for Johnnie to sit down, "or something." When the sizzling stopped she came out with two bottles of Dr. Pepper, and so began this, their very first official date.

             She hadn't told Johnnie about the child, or the deafness. They hadn't even exchanged names in their two previous encounters. Johnnie knew a set of small but significant pieces of information:  her favorite movie, Sunset Blvd., she liked the way the lights blinked shut, like eyes through the peephole; she wore Odyssey perfume from Avon; she liked Helvetica letters and was looking to learn the art of illustration.

           She sat down next to Johnnie. Their thighs three inches apart, but it seemed close enough to touching.  Johnnie sat flat footed and glanced across the room at the girl coloring in the pile of coloring books.

          "She yours?"

           "Yeah."

           "How old?"

           "Five, last November."

            This was, without question, their most awkward moment:  the wax scratching paper, the three of them breathing out of rhythm, the kitchen silent, the TV with the volume off. No traffic to break the tension, and just then Johnnie giggled. Her legs fell open and they finally sat there touching.

           The woman with the eyes like butterfly wings looked right at Johnnie. Something few people were brave enough to do and said, "My name is Georgia and her name is Nicole. She can't hear us, so if you want to talk to her, we're going to have to work in some way that's more creative." 

           Johnnie got up. She walked between the couch and the small wooden table, and stood beside Nicole for a moment. Nicole looked up. Johnnie sat down, right next to her. Ran her left hand right over her head and pointed to her chest. Nicole fell out laughing. Johnnie smiled and this grew to become the story of their introduction. Nicole offered Johnnie a book and a seat beside her. The pile of crayons in between.

          They watched 60 Minutes with the sound up, ate Georgia's fried chicken, corn, buttermilk biscuits and greens. Nicole returned to coloring and at 8:00 rose, collected her books and crayons, signed something to her momma, along with the sign they now used to stand in for Johnnie. She smiled her full toothed smile and went off to her bedroom.  Georgia leaned over, laid her head down on Johnnie's shoulder and they rested like this for the next hour.

           At 9:00, Johnnie got up and went inside to clean the kitchen. Everything seemed to fit so neatly into place. They had so smoothly transitioned from the corner downtown to this house so concerned with family. Johnnie put away the leftovers, looking through the cupboard to find some Tupperware or something. Georgia had a full set of everything.  With the food stacked neatly in the refrigerator, the dishes washed, dried and placed carefully into position, Johnnie went back out and walked over to her jacket. In the pocket she had a small box of chocolates and they sat there eating dessert from each other's fingers.

           Johnnie left at 10:30 and walked back to the bus stop. They didn't kiss. They didn't even hug when they said good-bye.  Georgia just said, "see you tomorrow, 1:30." and that began four years of the most tranquil piece of passion the three of them would ever experience.

 

          They began meeting often, Johnnie always available to meet Georgia's times and locations.  Georgia never asking questions, just accepting the secret world she knew Johnnie lived in when she wasn't with them. They went to Flax and Georgia showed her colors and print types on the little transfer scratch off sheets. They looked at graphite sticks and charcoal, Bristol board and vellum. Johnnie bought her transfer sheets with different type and picked up a threefold brochure from the art academy. With Georgia it was still and black like perfect peace and understanding. They talked endlessly in their afternoon walks. Johnnie not really making it over to the house, except from Friday to early Monday morning, every Sunday 60 Minutes.

           She didn't sleep there for over a year. They would make love, then she'd leave and be back home for breakfast. On Sundays she'd bring donuts for Georgia and fresh fruit for her and Nicole.  Monday mornings they'd shower, wash each other, like only lovers do who know it will always be like this between them. Georgia would pack Nicole's school bag, her lunch of liverwurst and Ruffles brand potato chips, while Johnnie sat in the living room combing Nicole’s hair into a series of squares with little braids and plastic colored barrettes.

           Nicole was a mistress of color:  red tights with a black dress, red, pink and white clips and Mary Jane's with silver buckles; blue, green with a touch of white or chartreuse; bubble gum pink and orange. From Johnnie she learned the magic of understatement. It was a magic she used infrequently, but to great effect and her mother's deep appreciation.  In the mornings they'd often try to guess what that child chose to dress in.  They never got her visual expression, but guessing made them feel like they were becoming what that house of Georgia ached for.

          She took a class at City College and Johnnie came over to stay with Nicole those evenings.  They did coloring, read school books and Johnnie taught her basic addition and subtraction.  They'd watch TV, with the sound down, hold hands, and every few minutes Nicole would have to take her fingers out 'cause they'd go numb from Johnnie's grip.  By nine, she'd be asleep, there beside her and Johnnie would turn the volume up.  At 9:45 Georgia would be home, put the girl to bed, and they'd have an hour together.

          The next semester she took another class, a different set of days and a new subject on her list of prerequisites.  Johnnie accommodated her schedule, bought Nicole a blank tablet, because she never colored in the lines anyway, and they began their secret project.  Johnnie wrote out the lettering, but Nicole decided on the word choice.  In fifteen weeks they presented Georgia with their homemade book, the edge sewn together with red embroidery yarn, the pages cut into equal size squares.  On the left side, Johnnie's finely copied letters, in the style of Helvetica, on the right, Nicole's abstractions in felt tip marker, Bic pen and Crayola crayon.  The book was called—Georgia, the Sea that way— and contained a story she had told Nicole as soon as she could sign it.  Her family had passed it down since they could all remember. 

 

           There were so many things they'd done together, but the book was Georgia's favorite.  It revealed, to her, the best in each of them:  Nicole's vision, Johnnie's unfailing dependability, and her own commitment to letting things grow into the shapes they wanted.  Two more classes and she had enough to try to enter school for graphic design.  Before Johnnie, she thought she'd always be at the bank, answering calls and booking appointments.  The world seemed so much more forgiving now.  Johnnie slept there, twice a week, and it seemed like all the folds in things were opening.

            A phone call came at work, three more followed in quick succession.  Her brother shot himself and his three children needed someone to come back home and raise them.  She'd learned the skill of not asking why from her momma.  How, though, were they going to do this?

           Johnnie knew she had a family back down where all the people traveled from, and she understood that family knew nothing about her.  They'd never taken a picture together, she'd never answered the phone, and she'd often overheard Georgia on Saturday evenings carefully describing her world without mentioning their bodies and the reality they were creating.

          They made love early, the evening of the phone call.  Johnnie felt something sad inside Georgia, there among the ridges and her opening with the skin like violet petals dangling over.  They were quiet, it was all softer than it had ever been.  The words came out and the world dropped from beneath them.  Georgia and Nicole were leaving in one week, exactly.  She quit the bank, called the landlady, arranged a flight and already investigated schools for the deaf in Atlanta.  Everything was flowing smooth, except their disintegrating beauty, which fell to the floor in pieces.  

 

           Georgia had everything inconceivably well orchestrated.  The movers dropped off boxes on Monday and would return to load them Thursday.  Nicole stopped school immediately.  Johnnie stayed and showed no signs of leaving.  They began packing late Monday evening after eating sandwiches bought at Ammiano's deli on San Bruno, liverwurst on sourdough slices, Italian Salami on a sweet roll, and cheese on Dutch crunch.

          The boxes came with everything, brown wrapping paper, two-inch metal rods for hanging clothes, and rolls and rolls of clear tape for sealing.  They packed the dining room first. Tuesday it was Nicole's room and most of the front room, except the TV which was too heavy. Besides, Nicole intended to camp that night by the light of the local station's color bars and emergency signal sign.  

            The three of them worked well.  It almost seemed like they were all going somewhere, together.  Wednesday Georgia packed the kitchen, alone.  Johnnie and Nicole did what they could in the bathroom, leaving a small bag of essentials they'd need till Sunday when the plane departed and the sky fell, just like Chicken Little said it would for centuries.

           They went for a walk together at lunch time, avoiding the inevitable.  Nicole ran back and forth, to the end of the block, around Johnnie and Georgia, to the end of the block and back again.  That child had endless energy and they walked hand in hand supported by it.  On Old Bayshore they ate seafood and got back home just as the sun was going down.  The house faced a hill and the light disappeared behind it.  Nicole set up camp, this time back in her bedroom and Johnnie and Georgia faced the final room confronting them.

          They'd saved it for last because they couldn't face it empty.  It served as someplace bigger than the moving, in these last few days.  They entered it without speaking, and each began completing tasks, as if they'd been assigned to them by a power they had no influence over.  Johnnie sat at the edge of the bed barefoot and folded clothes and packed them.  Georgia filled one box with her "personals" as she called them:  one pair of Nicole's baby shoes, her jewelry, some letters wrapped in an old blue handkerchief and a wooden box with a small clasp that looked old and broken.

           She pulled out a thin silver chain her grandmother had given her when she graduated from high school.  She'd been the first to make it through all twelve grades and her grandmother knew that it was no easy task, but a great accomplishment.  Georgia walked over to Johnnie and placed herself between her legs and squatted.  They looked each other in the eyes as they always did.  They'd never exchanged tokens.  Johnnie likes her body naked, and Georgia felt a little old for all that nonsense.

         "Would you have this?"

          Bending her head down, she exposed that place in the back where the spinal column enters the cranial cavity.  There was nothing as beautiful as Johnnie's head, the bones joined in perfect unison.  The skin a smooth protective covering.  She worried about the three of them, and didn't really know how they'd make it.

         They kept packing, in the quiet evening sky.  A little after midnight everything was boxed and labeled:  G-BEDROOM.  They slept on the bare mattress, underneath the white electric blanket Johnnie bought for Georgia's birthday.  She complained endlessly about freezing on the nights she slept alone.  Johnnie understood the implication, but bought her a blanket anyway.  That very first night they plugged it in and watched TV on the floor beneath it.

          Everything was moving so swiftly.  Johnnie woke up, reached her hand over to the spot that should've held a body, or at least its warmth beside her.  She braced herself, on her elbows and watched her lady stand at the window crying.  She got up, walked over and stood behind her.  It was hours before the sun came up.

           The movers were two men, one old and short, the other young and tall.  They placed stickers on the boxes, made a written inventory of their contents, and had the entire premises emptied in a little under two and half hours.  Georgia signed a stack of papers, was told to expect her stuff on Friday two weeks from now, and given a number to call if there were any questions.  By 11:45 the moving truck drove toward highway 101.  

          Something about the removal of all the furniture made everything a little more final.  Four blue suitcases in the corner:  one with clothes, one with toiletries, and the other two with blankets and pillows.  They would live like this till Sunday.  Nicole suggested they walk to Bell Market and buy as much junk as possible, shut the door and not emerge until the cab driver came in three mornings.  They appreciated her ability to articulate what they each secretly wanted.  Georgia picked out Ho Ho's, Ding Dongs, a six pack of Dr. Pepper, four kinds of cheese, Ritz crackers and a box of Old Fashioned glazed donuts.  Nicole picked out Orange Crush soda, Mother's Taffy cookies, and a giant box of golden raisins 'cause they tasted like caramel.  Johnnie thought she'd get sick just watching them, so she got a bag of oranges, a stick of Gallo salami and two bottles of soda water.  They carried the bags upstairs, made Nicole in charge of provisions, and only opened the door for pizza late Saturday night.

           The house was a perpetual nightfall.  Georgia told stories and Nicole sketched 8 x 11 pictures of the entire unfolding.  They made camp in the front room, some doors closed behind forever.  Johnnie took it all in.  Her body changing shape to accommodate its weight and substance.  Georgia kept a clock radio out and she and Johnnie danced close at night, while Nicole slept on the floor beside them.

          Saturday arrived before they were ready.  Nicole cried and held Johnnie's neck from 3:30 till she fell asleep ten minutes before midnight.  Georgia set the alarm for 6:30.  They slept together in a clumsy pile.  The alarm woke them.  Nicole still out from exhaustion.  The two women showered, spoke words under the water, and were dressed and ready by 8:00.  Nicole dragged.  Deep inside she hoped she could somehow stop this all from happening.  She refused to dress herself or let her hair be combed and braided.  Johnnie took her face between her hands and kissed her on the forehead.

          Nicole picked up speed, just enough to keep things in the order Georgia planned for.  They packed the bedding, her drawings and they stood there waiting.  Johnnie tied their garbage up, put it down in the basement and together they opened the garage door to the blinding light of morning.  The cab pulled up, Johnnie brought the luggage down while Nicole and Georgia went back inside to say good-bye and make sure they'd remembered everything.  Nicole came down first, and Johnnie went up to retrieve Georgia.  She closed the garage door behind them, and dropped the keys in the mail slot.  They kissed good-bye at the curbside.  The cab door shut.  He backed out and turned around the corner.  Johnnie turned, paused and headed down the street toward Silver.

         The 9 San Bruno pulled up.  She stepped on and the door closed behind her.  She rode till Market and 11th, pulled the string and emptied herself onto the pavement.  She took a long time getting here, 'cause she missed the bus before this one.  The sky was cold and cloudless.  Metal objects ripped through the air around her.  Her ears hurt, and her cheeks were cold.

         She walked the streets for hours.  Thinking.  Remembering.  Not knowing where to go or how she was going to get there.  The night arrived at the western seashore, after crossing the Mississippi, the Colorado and the Rio Grande.  The day stretched over three time zones.  The world's edges suddenly multiplied.  Each surface refracting a new danger.  She thought of something refreshing, air, moisture, rainfall in Georgia.

         She was never afraid there:  the cypress lined swamps, the stomp dance music, the voices in the night from a land she’d never been too.  She remembered rising wet from loving.  Their world changed shape, a low mound, just near the sea and the secret folks that lived there.  Across the land, they walked the night together.  

Reid Gómez is a San Franciscan, from Potrero Hill. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Her work is published in Still Here: San Francisco, Bay Poetics, Eleven Eleven, and Reckonings: Contemporary Short Fiction by Native American Writers. Her ancestors come from the Congo, Diné Bikeyah (Navajo), and Jérez, Zacatecas.

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