Issue 35, Final Fringe

The Oldest Guilt I Know

by Jon Chopan Issue 19 07.19.2009

1.

John Mully and I were sitting in the ER, Johnny holding my undershirt to his bleeding eye, me tapping my foot to the rhythm of the heart monitor attached to a bum lying in the hall. We were waiting for our mothers to come find us.

2.

All I could picture was Eddie standing over Johnny screaming, “Stay on the floor motherfucker, stay on the floor.” I remember that sounding funny to me because as a matter of fact, Johnny was on the ground, rolling around in the dirt and grass, and not on the floor. Part of me wanted to let Eddie in on this but then seeing the blood oozing between Johnny’s fingers and making little dirt pancakes made me think it was smarter to just let Eddie keep on like that.

3.

Eddie threw a rock at Johnny when they were running at one another during a kickoff. When Eddie finally stopped yelling about the floor we got out of him that he’d done it because Johnny had winked at him. “I ain’t down with that faggot shit,” Eddie said.  I got that mixed feeling I always got about Johnny. What I mean is, Johnny didn’t need to wink for someone to go hitting him with a rock. He was just that kind of kid. The kind of kid people hated and tortured even though most of the time they couldn’t give you a good reason why. Still, when he did shit like that—winking at a crazy asshole like Eddie—it made me buy into what the other guys were selling: “The fucker was asking for what he got.”

4.

In the ER I tried to play it cool with Johnny. I didn’t want him to think I was mad at him, because by then I wasn’t. He called me his friend and I was pretty sure he meant it. I could tell by the way his dopey eyes glazed up every time he said it. I wasn’t sure where Johnny stood with me. I was the closest thing he had to a friend and sometimes that did as much to make me dislike him as it did to make me like him.

5.

During the six hours we sat there mostly waiting, Johnny must have asked me, without malice or hint of desired response, these same questions fifty times:

“What do you think of Eddie?’

“Wouldn’t it be cool if I got to wear an eye patch?”

“Do you think he really did it just because I winked at him?”

6.

Because I was conflicted I struggled with the two tough questions—the ones about Eddie. So I focused on the eye patch.

“I bet you’d get a lot of ass with an eye patch,” I said.

“My dad had to wear an eye patch once. Man, he looked real cool.”

“You could miss a ton of school and still get As just off the sympathy for having to wear an eye patch.”

7.

Johnny was more perceptive than any other guys I hung around with. Maybe that’s why they all hated him. “Eddie kept saying ‘floor’ ‘cause his dad beats on him,” Johnny said. “I’m sure he’s been told to stay on the floor so many times he just had to say it to someone else.” Johnny’s dad hit him too. He’d told me about it once when we were hanging out alone. That’s how he knew about Eddie. The strange thing is I think Eddie knew about Johnny too.

8.

My friendship with Johnny was the kind of friendship had when no one was looking. He lived two streets over from me, and I’d go to his house when his father was at work and we’d hit ground balls to one another in his backyard. I was ashamed and relieved to be Johnny Mully’s friend. We shared something though. Both of our fathers were janitors and although it didn’t seem like much, in the world of boys your father’s station in life could do a lot to determine yours.

9.

The thing is my mother made money; she was a nurse and we were paying to own our house. Johnny’s was one of the few families in our neighborhood renting and everyone knew it. His father insisted, “No wife of mine is going to work,” Johnny told me. But his father being a janitor and them renting their house, Johnny paid the price for that.

10.

And so the other guys mocked him and beat on him any chance they’d get.

11.

Our friendship got complex when it came to community events: football, baseball, street hockey. Johnny insisted on being a part of anything he caught wind of despite the guys beating up on him. “I love football,” he’d say. “I can handle some stupid jokes.” I tried to hide these events from Johnny, in part to protect him, but also to protect myself. What would the guys say about the janitors’ sons if they knew about our secret hangouts? That we’d formed a union?

12.

As I remember it, that day Johnny got hit in the eye, he and his mother were riding by on their bikes, heading back from getting groceries. Johnny’s family didn’t have a car or rather, they had one but it didn’t work. A rusted Pontiac sat in the driveway, two wheels missing and its frame resting on bricks.

“Look at that fairy, back from shopping with mommy,” someone yelled.

And we all laughed. Even I made fun of Johnny for that. “Jesus. It’s like your dad’s got two wives, the way you act,” I’d said, weeks before, while we were alone hitting baseballs in his yard.

Of course Johnny rushed back as soon as he was done helping his mother put the groceries away. Nobody wanted him on their team, on account of there being even numbers they said, so I told him to sub in for me and headed to the sidelines for a break.

“Thanks man,” he said and winked at me as we jogged passed one another. Winking was one of those things he always did.

“Whatever,” I said.  “No worries.”

13.

It wasn’t but three or four plays when Johnny threw an interception and Eddie ran it back for a touchdown. Johnny said, “Nice play Eddie,” and winked, and then on the kickoff, there was the rock.

14.

Johnny was real cool on the car ride to the hospital. We’d woken my father who was sleeping because he worked the night shift.

“Jesus,” my father said. “What happened?”

“Just football,” Johnny said and I imagined had his winking eye not been bloodied he’d have winked, and that made me laugh.

“Just football?” My father said. “Were you playing for the Super Bowl?”

They went on like that for the whole ride, my father imagining out loud the kinds of heroics that could have led to Johnny’s injury.

15.

My father dropped us off outside the ER.

“I’ve got to get some sleep boys,” he said. “Jonathan, go find your mother as soon as you get in there.” My father had taken us to the hospital my mother worked at.

He spun around to look at Johnny who was smiling in the backseat. “Go on ahead now,” he said. “Jon will be right behind you.”

Johnny thanked my father and headed toward the building. My father waited until Johnny disappeared behind the automatic doors. He liked Johnny and he sensed how ashamed I was of my friendship with him.

He looked at me. It seemed like he was feeling me out. I didn’t say anything because I had an idea I was about to be lectured.

“Don’t leave him here,” my father said. “He’s a good kid and he needs some good friends.”

16.

When I got inside Johnny was talking to a nurse, telling her one of the glory stories my father had come up with while we were in the car, something about a game saving tackle and a fumble recovery, and cleats flailing. If he wasn’t holding a bloody t-shirt to his face I’d have thought he was just a normal guy hitting on an older woman who was way out of his league.

17.

“Everything alright back there?” Johnny asked when he sat down next to me.

“Yeah, no worries,” I said. “He just wanted to make sure I knew to call him if we needed a ride or something.”

“You know my dad and your dad are nothing alike,” Johnny said. “I mean I used to think, what with their jobs and all, that they might be more alike. But I like your dad. He’s a real good guy.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. I liked my father just fine, but I didn’t want to tell Johnny his dad was a bad guy. I really didn’t know him. Johnny went out of his way to avoid our meeting, which given what Johnny had told me, I could live with.

Instead I said the only thing I knew to say, “Let’s go find my mom, dickhead, before your eyeball falls out.”

18.

While my mom drove to Johnny’s to pick up his mother, Johnny and I wandered the halls of the hospital. He still hadn’t gotten his stitches yet. My mom had taken a quick look and saw that the injury wasn’t on the eye. Instead the rock had cut Johnny down to the bone. He wasn’t going to need an eye patch after all. “But you’ll need stitches and that eye is going to be black for a good week or two,” my mom said.

“Cool,” Johnny said.

And I was secretly thinking it was pretty cool too.

19.

We were taping a T-shirt around Johnny’s head, playing around the nurse’s station while my mother was gone, and I asked him why he was always letting the other guys beat on him.

“Do I look like a war hero?” he asked.

“You look like a moron,” I said.

He smiled. “Sweet.”

We were quiet for a bit, Johnny looking at himself in the compact mirror one of the younger nurses kept behind the counter. At first I didn’t think he heard me. He just kept looking at himself. But then I figured he didn’t want to talk about it. The phone started ringing but none of the nurses were around to answer it. Johnny reached over and picked it up.

“Hello, Johnny Mully here,” he said. “What can I do you for?”

“Chopan you say, Dr. Chopan,” he said, handing the phone to me.

20.

When his mother finally arrived she couldn’t stop touching him.

“Are you alright? Are you okay?” she kept saying, gently touching the T-shirt we’d taped to his head and then pulling her hand away and then touching it again.

“Those boys,” she said. “They are always hitting him. He is all bruised up all the time.”

My mother had pulled me to her, sort of hugging me and searching me to make sure I was all right.

“His father and I worry so much,” Johnny’s mom said, and Johnny looked at me sheepishly, as if some secret had entered the room. It was one of those looks that let you know you need to keep quiet, though I hadn’t yet figured out what I was supposed to be quiet about.

“Mom,” Johnny said. “I’m fine.  No worries.” He kept his good eye fixed on me. “I’ve got my buddy here and my mom and like always I’m going to be just fine.”

21.

I sat with Johnny until my mother’s shift ended and then she drove me home. Johnny’s father would come later with my dad, who would drop off Johnny’s father on the way to work.

Before I left, Johnny and I went to the cafeteria and took turns holding our heads under the ice cream machine. We would eat until we got a brain freeze and then switch, pulling the lever and seeing who could eat the most in one shot. Johnny had gotten his stitches but the doctors wanted to take x-rays.

“Thanks man,” Johnny said with a mouth full of chocolate ice cream.

“For what?”

“For not mentioning anything about my dad to my mom,” he said. “She thinks I’m always bruised up because of the guys. And the guys all think that too.”

I could only guess at what he meant. My father didn’t hit me. Our fathers were not the same, despite the one thing that we believed, as boys, might make them similar. Right then all I wanted to say to Johnny was that I was his friend, that I liked going to his house to hit ground balls, and even though I thought it was sort of pussy, his grocery shopping with his mom, I respected that. But I was a kid, and I didn’t have access to the kind of language saying all that would have required.

“God, that hurts,” Johnny said, getting me off the hook, holding his hand to his forehead. “Fifty seconds,” he said. “Beat that.”

Jon Chopan

Jon Chopan

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Jon Chopan is the author of the novel Pulled From the River, which was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2012. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such places as Glimmer Train, Post Road, Hobart, Hotel Amerika, and Redivider. He teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, FL.