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Johnny Bill

ISSUE:  Winter 2016

Illustration by Anna Schuleit Haber Paul eased out of bed to avoid disturbing his wife. On the front porch he lit a cigarette, thinking he’d quit when the baby was born. His neighborhood of Newport appeared peaceful at night, the yards neatly aligned, illuminated by dim streetlights. A slight hum filled the air, its source indistinct, as if all the houses emanated the sussuration of comfortable life. 

The inhabitants were mostly young, and at age forty-two Paul was among the oldest. His wife, Ellen, was thirty-four and worried that her eggs were too old. Due to undiagnosed dyslexia, Ellen had remained in the special-needs class until third grade and worried about having such a child. An upcoming amniocentesis would tell them if their fetus was developmentally disabled, in which case they had the option of abortion. The doctor put it just that way—an option—like paying off a mortgage five years early. 

Impending paternity made Paul think of his own childhood in Eastern Kentucky attending a limestone grade school between two steep hills. Children followed game paths along the wooded ridge and down the hill, then crossed the creek to school. One of the students was a retarded boy named Johnny Bill who seldom went to school. On hot days Paul and a few boys from his home hill swam in Peterson’s Pond, a scum-topped watering hole for cattle. They stripped to their underwear and piled their clothes on their shoes. Johnny Bill often watched in the dense woods. The boys yelled at him and he climbed to higher ground. Paul understood Johnny Bill’s isolation because Paul never fully fit in with the other boys. His ability at schoolwork set him apart. 

Johnny Bill took two or three years to pass each grade and by the time Paul’s class caught up, Johnny Bill was fourteen in the fourth grade, man-big and clumsy as a colt. He held the school record for the most paddlings, which he accepted with the same equanimity as he did his classmates’ rejection. He played with his own spit, navel lint, and earwax. Due to Johnny Bill’s habit of disrupting class, his desk was located in the corner at the front of the classroom.  

Every week their spelling chore was to write each word in a sentence, then read the assignment aloud from a podium that usually held the Bible. In September the list included the word “minute,” which Paul knew meant “small.” He read his sentence and the teacher interrupted.

“You don’t need to play dumb,” she said. “We all know you’re here.” She turned to the class. “Paul has mispronounced ‘minute’ and used it as nonsense, hasn’t he.”

Everyone nodded and laughed.

“Go to the board and write a proper sentence, Paul.” 

He stayed at the podium. The class hushed, not understanding that Paul’s defiance was an effort to offset his grades. He wanted to be liked, a trait that helped him sell computer systems many years later. 

“Fetch the word book,” the teacher said. “Read to us the definition of ‘minute.’ I’m sure we’d all like to know.”

Paul read the second definition aloud and the class began laughing. The teacher clapped her hands for order.

“He’s not telling the truth,” she said. “Bring it here.”

She stared at the dictionary, then leaned wearily on her desk. 

“Paul didn’t go to the board when I asked him to.”

“Does he get a paddling?” asked a boy.

“No,” the teacher said. “He has to sit in Johnny Bill’s seat until Christmas break.”

Isolated in the corner by the trash can, Paul began to enjoy school rather than merely using it as an arena to excel. He read books, drew pictures, and daydreamed of being a hero in a bank robbery. The class left him alone. At the first cold spell, Johnny Bill came to school because it was warmer than his house. Paul took his accustomed desk. Johnny Bill stood bewildered in the center of the room, shifting his weight from one foot to another. The teacher looked at Paul. 

“Go on back to your seat,” she said.

Paul locked his ankles around the legs of the desk, and gripped the top tightly with both hands. “No,” he yelled. “I won’t do it.”

“Johnny Bill,” the teacher said. “Find a home at Paul’s desk.” She stared at Paul. “Some people aren’t ready to join the rest of us. Some people need to grow up.”  

Paul happily faced the corner. An hour later, someone dared Johnny Bill to urinate on the floor. He grinned and did it. The teacher sent him to the office for a paddling. Instead, Johnny Bill knocked a tooth out of the principal’s mouth and left school for good.

Sitting on the porch, Paul could see the glow of Cincinnati across the river to the north. His cigarette butts were lined up on the porch rail. The stridulation of crickets and katydids had ceased and he heard Ellen rise to use the bathroom. Since becoming pregnant, she had lost interest in sexuality. He tried to accept it but worried her desire would never return. 

He met her in the hall. 

“I was thinking about the name,” he said. “How about Johnny Bill, or if it’s a girl, Jenny Beth?” 

“Not until after the amnio.”


“Because,” she said, “if it’s not normal, I’m thinking abortion.”

“I don’t like that idea, Ellen. I really don’t.”

“Oh, you’re some kind of Catholic now? Is it because of all your clients around here? I knew we should have moved.”

“No, I have Catholic clients, Jewish clients, and plenty of Methodists. But I don’t like the idea of treating our baby like a catch-and-release fish. It’s not right to throw it back.”

“You don’t fish.”

“That’s not the point.”

“The point is this,” she said, “I know how slow kids get treated. I was in those classes and don’t want that for my baby.”

“What if there was a test to see if a kid was a genius? Would you abort that one, too?”

“There’s no such test.”

“But what if there was?” he said. 

“You’re just shifting the argument. I need to rest. You should, too. Smoking keeps people awake, you know.”

“Now who’s moving the argument?”

“I’m allowed to,” she said. “I’m pregnant.”

“So this is about hormones?”

“No, it’s about us. Do you really want a kid who can’t play ball with you? Who’s lucky if he can live alone? The worst of it is they’re smart enough to know they’re not smart. It’s awful for everybody in the family!”

She went to the bathroom and slammed the door. Paul followed and apologized, gathering her in a hug, careful not to mash her stomach. She kissed him lightly and went to bed. He returned to the front porch and smoked. An odd sound began, an intermittent rasping that grew louder. He squinted into the predawn air and saw a woman walking slowly up the street, pulling a metal wagon. A kid followed at an erratic pace. As they neared Paul’s house, a wheel came off the wagon, dumping its cargo of newspapers, folded into tubes and bound with rubber bands. The kid began laughing. The woman fastened the wheel in place and reloaded the wagon. The wheel fell off again and Paul stepped from the porch into the street. The boy ran to her.

She placed a long, strong arm around his shoulders. Everything about her was long—her limbs, her hair, her nose, her neck. She had sharp cheekbones and a heavy lower lip. She had an unnamed quality that attracted him and he supposed it was simply being vulnerable and in a jam. He liked to be needed.

“You look like you could use some help,” he said. 

“That gosh-darn wheel,” she said. “It won’t stay on.”

“Let me take a look.”

She shrugged and he knelt beside the wagon. The boy was about nine. He stood beside Paul and placed his hand on Paul’s shoulder. 

“Frankie,” the woman said, and the boy removed his hand and stepped away. 

“I can fix it,” Paul said.

“If it’s not too much trouble.”

Paul hurried through the side door into the garage and returned with a cotter pin and a pair of needle-nose pliers. He slid the wheel onto the axle, inserted the pin through the small hole and used the pliers to bend its tiny blades in place. He stood, feeling proud of helping a stranger.

“There you go,” he said.

“Thank you. I’m Jan. New to the neighborhood. Guess my landlord was right, people are nice here.”

“We try to be.” He felt foolish saying that, as if speaking for everyone.

“I don’t mean to be rude,” she said, “but I have to go or I’ll be late for work. Come on, Frankie.”

Paul watched her move quickly along the street, stopping twice to throw newspapers onto yards, the boy following like a pup. She was right, it was a good neighborhood—ideal for a child to ride a bicycle, have a paper route, play catch—a fine place for his family. 

The next day Ellen was already gone when he awoke. She worked as an accountant at a health-club franchise with locations in Fort Mitchell and Erlanger. Her hours varied and she swam every day. Ellen often suggested he join her but he refused, never telling her that he’d avoided water for thirty years.

He stayed late at work, preparing for important meetings, and they were both tired that night. He brought home Greek takeout and they ate lamb gyros on the couch. He sensed a lingering tension and tried to dispel it. 

“Look,” he said, “I didn’t know you felt so strongly about this amnio.” 

“It’s hard to explain. The kids weren’t all that bad. It was the mothers when they came to school. Some got mad because they didn’t get enough sympathy. Others because they didn’t want pity. It’s the same with Jan Nelson and her Down syndrome son. You can see the strain in her face. Have you met her?”

“I don’t think so.”

“She moved in a couple of months ago down the street.”

“Okay,” Paul said. “Let’s wait for the results before the name. One thing at a time. I don’t want to fight.”

“Me neither.”

Paul rubbed her feet until she fell asleep, then gently covered her with a blanket. He wasn’t sure why he’d lied about meeting the neighbor, other than being surprised that her son had Down syndrome. Frankie had seemed normal. 

That night it rained, a hard summer storm that Paul remembered the old folks calling a “frog-strangler.” In the morning the colors were intensified as if each surface was a prism that reflected the sunlight streaming through the crisp sky. Water glittered on a sheath of plastic protecting a newspaper beneath a shrub. Paul had never subscribed and figured the woman had made a mistake.  

He forgot about it until the end of what turned out to be a record-setting day for sales. He arrived home giddy and energetic, full of confidence. A note from Ellen said she’d gone swimming, then to gentle yoga, and was meeting a friend for a vegetarian meal. 

He carried the newspaper to his neighbor’s house. A van was parked in the driveway and Paul decided not to visit when she had company. The front door opened and Jan escorted her son outside. He wore an overlarge backpack, a sweatshirt with a hood, and new sneakers of a popular make. He resembled every other schoolboy in the neighborhood except for the facial features that indicated Down syndrome. His mother saw Paul and waved.

“Look, Frankie,” she said. “It’s the nice neighbor who fixed your wagon. You should thank him.”

The boy gave Paul a smile of astonishing glee. He ran to Paul and hugged him hard around the waist, his head cocked and grinning. Paul had never seen a happier child. His mother helped him into the van and waved as it backed out of the driveway. 

“Frankie likes everybody,” she said. 

“I brought your paper,” he said. “You must have left it at my house by accident.”

“No, it was a gift. To thank you for helping us the other day. There’s always extras so it’s not stealing.”

“I appreciate it. Sorry for disturbing you.”

“Nope, not at all. Once a week Frankie has a special field trip in the evening. It’s a program to give parents a break, thank goodness.”

“The only person I ever heard say ‘thank goodness’ was my great aunt.”

“I have to talk that way,” she said. “I used to have a gutter mouth but Frankie copies everything. Would you like to come in for a minute?”

“Well, I don’t know.”

“I could use the company,” she said. “I work alone all day, then I’m with Frankie. I don’t remember the last time I talked to an adult.”

Paul shrugged and followed her into the house. The living room was cluttered with toys, the furnishings soft and sturdy. Paul sat in a chair kitty-corner to a couch. Jan was easy to be around mainly because she didn’t stop talking, as if every action was worth narrating. She gave him a beer, saying that her favorite thing in the world was to drink a cold one in the shower after work. She was an archival librarian of science at NKU in Highland Heights, but it was cheaper to live in Newport. 

Paul asked about Frankie’s father. 

“Split after a couple of years,” she said. “Just couldn’t take the boy, you know? He sends money, but it’s hard. Being a single mom is tough but one with a special-needs kid? Forget it. And marriage? No way. Men get afraid another baby might be the same as Frankie.”

“How do you know?”

“I’ve been told. Four times. Four different men.”

Paul nodded, finished his beer, and asked for the bathroom. When he emerged, she was waiting in the narrow hall. She kissed him, steering him backward to the bedroom. An army-surplus parachute was stapled to the ceiling, a hole in the middle surrounding the light fixture. Tacked to the top of the walls, it draped the entire room. The effect was one of safe enclosure.  

As she guided him to the mattress, she loosened his pants and lifted her shirt. Her hands were on him, constantly moving as if seeking something lost. Paul’s sexual experience was limited to three long-term relationships, and all his girlfriends were similar—short, full-figured, and passive. Briefly he wondered how things would work with a tall woman. Jan was supple and lithe and in constant motion, exuding a fierce passion that overwhelmed him. Her limbs clasped him in an embrace tighter than he’d ever been held. He lost sense of himself and his surroundings as if nothing mattered but desire.

Exhausted, he napped and awoke to her angular face. 

“I’d say we broke through the space-time continuum,” she said. 

He nodded in vague comprehension. 

“You can’t be here when Frankie gets home.”

He rose and dressed awkwardly, his legs loose and weak. He stood at the door. She lay like a starfish, spread out, looking at him.

“I, uh,” he said. “I…”

“I know,” she said. “I know.”

He walked home and showered, grateful that Ellen was still gone, trying to understand what he’d done, what it meant, how it had happened. He couldn’t quite believe it. Already its reality was fading as if another man had undergone the event, not him. He changed clothes and showered and ate a sandwich. Nothing was different. His life was the same—same house, same job, same wife. He still felt good about the day’s success in sales, and now his body was relaxed, his skin euphoric. But he felt guilty. 

He stepped outside to smoke, remembering his first cigarette at Peterson’s Pond, shared with his buddies. They had found Johnny Bill wading at the edge. His shirt was off and he’d forgotten to remove his pants before his shoes. Blue jeans wadded at his ankles. The boys threw sticks and rocks. Johnny Bill kept on smiling until a large rock struck him in the shoulder. He tried to run but his pants snagged and he fell in the mud. The boys closed in, each trying for one direct hit. Johnny Bill rolled on his side in the shallow water and covered his face. The boys stopped throwing rocks when his yelps turned into whimpers.

One by one the boys slowly withdrew to the shadowed safety of the woods and walked silently home, refusing to look at each other. Paul circled back. Johnny Bill had dragged himself out of the water. Gray mud dappled his body. A few red blotches showed where he’d been hit, and a long ribbon of mucus hung from his nose. He pushed an arm in the wrong sleeve and became confused. His pants were at his knees. Paul approached him slowly. Johnny Bill cringed and scooted backward to the water’s edge. Paul talked to him softly the way he’d seen adults calm a skittish horse before the bridle. After a few minutes, Johnny Bill began breathing normally.  

“Your shirt’s on backwards,” Paul said, reaching for the sleeve. 

Johnny Bill jerked away. 

“Take clothes off!” he said. “Swim clothes off!”

The afternoon sun had dried the pale mud on his body and little pieces flaked away when he moved. Paul stepped behind him to help with the shirt. Johnny Bill elbowed him hard in the stomach, and pivoted in the mud with both fists raised, his lips snarling above his teeth. Paul ran into the woods, scared of the bigger boy. At school Paul asked the teacher if he could return to his own desk. His daydreams shifted from feats of heroism to leaving the hills and making money. He saw Johnny Bill once, hiding in the woods beside the school, staring through the windows, a sad expression on his face. 

Ellen came home in a good mood, tired from yoga and swimming, buoyed by the girl-talk time with her supper friend. He felt tender toward her, closer than before, more appreciative. Settled on the couch, he told her they needed to have a serious talk.

“Talking is good,” she said.

“Two things. First, I had a great day at work. My best. I’ll get a fat bonus.”

“We’ll need it,” she said, patting her stomach. “What’s the other thing?”

He didn’t answer for so long that she repeated her question.

“Well,” he said. “I, uh, don’t know how to start.”

“Just jump in.”

“Okay, all right. I was thinking about the amnio. If the baby is, you know, special needs, I think you’re right. We should…” 

He trailed off, unable to finish. 

“Abortion?” she said.

He nodded.

“What brought this on?” she said.

“If something happened to me, something bad, I mean. I wouldn’t want you to be alone with a kid like that.”

“That’s sweet. You’re not thinking about yourself.”

For the first time in weeks Paul slept well. After work the next day he surprised Ellen by suggesting they swim together at her club. He sat tentatively at the edge with his legs kicking in the strange warm water. Slowly he moved in up to his chest. He’d never been in a pool before and the clear water seemed thin, perhaps less buoyant. He ducked his head and frog-kicked, opening his eyes instinctively to check for snakes. The chlorine burned and he surfaced quickly. Through blurred eyes, he thought he saw Johnny Bill high on the hill until realizing it was a lifeguard in a tall chair.

He never visited Jan again and dreaded the necessity of errands in case he ran into her. He occasionally saw her at a neighborhood store. Jan was polite and distant, chatting about a recent school-board election and a pothole in the street. She used Frankie as a means to get away from their awkward conversations. When she moved to Oregon, Paul was glad. Their involvement had been a mistake. He hadn’t told Ellen, and privately swore never to stray again. It had been an anomaly, the same as having a child with a disability, and he believed he’d escaped unscathed.

Their baby was born without incident, healthy and hungry and strong. Paul quit smoking. Over the years he attended school plays, soccer games, and swim meets. He voted straight ticket and carefully maintained his lawn. He put his kid through college. He slept well with no regrets. But he couldn’t forget Jan’s fierce embrace, the intensity of her desire that seemed to shatter time and space. It was a passion he’d never known before or since. 

Ellen died young of an aneurysm. Six months later Paul nailed a parachute to the ceiling of their bedroom. It was his single act of eccentricity, surprising his friends and neighbors. He arranged lights and extension cords to illuminate it from within, casting a glow over the bed. He wondered if it was a fire hazard, then considered setting it ablaze himself. One day, he did. 


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Tim's picture
Tim · 8 years ago

I liked it overall....I think carrying the thread of minute and weaving it further along might have tighten up the story some, and details of the characters appearance might help.....overall good job.Thanks


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