When Johnny was ten he stole his father’s screwdrivers and hammered them into trees so he could climb them. He took the powder out of his dad’s bullets for the bombs he made to strap onto chickens. He got his sister to push him down the roof on a snow tube to prove how fast he knew how to fall. On his twelfth birthday he bought a barrel full of plastic soldiers to shoot and melt all afternoon, and his dad bought him McDonalds and ate it with him in a graveyard, saying “They need company too.”
When Johnny was sixteen he walked like he was a real hot rod. He tried to kiss the judge’s daughter because her lips looked like a fun time and no one else had done it. Her name was Bethany and her hands were apricot-bright. But she gave him a shove and a crooked smile, saying “I need a man with a name who can get me out of this nowhere town.” He kissed her anyway and she payed him for it with a slap.
When Johnny was eighteen he decided his town wasn’t big enough for his name. So he joined the army because he might as well be a hero with stories to tell and weapons to play with. They told him to come to boot camp two days early, so he put in his two-weeks at the hardware store and packed his carpenter pants. When he arrived, they told him he shouldn’t have come early, so they put him in a platoon who’d been there for two weeks and shouted in his face for all the things he never learned to do. They didn’t let him shower for three days. So he got used to marching on blisters and ironing shirt-collars. He got used to getting woke up before the sun, feeling the spit of “you’d better move at the speed of Mach Jesus!,” making his feet stand watch, panting through push-ups, sighing through sit-ups, heaving through we-want-some-mo, hoo-rah! He kept his chin up and his mouth shut.
When Johnny was twenty-one, he went to Iraq and was shot in the back. It happened in an orchard among apricots. He crept like a kitten into the middle of an ambush. It was his birthday; his friends said the day he found his cradle, he found his grave. They told stories about him: how he stuck his knife into trees so he could climb them; how he disarmed bombs that ISIS strapped onto chickens; how he slid down ditches to prove how fast he could teach his knuckles to bleed. They left out the times he wanted to wrap his arms around someone only to be answered by mud and dry reeds. Before long his name got spread big around town. When it got around to Bethany, she laughed to tell her husband how a hero taught her to kiss.
When Johnny was dead, his mom made him carnations out of coffee filters so his grave could be holy-white, even when it didn’t snow. And, on his birthday his dad ate McDonalds at his grave, saying “Heroes need company too.”
Jonathan Wanner is a Ph.D. student in English Literature at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. He hails from Mandan, ND.
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