This is not a story anyone wants to hear, so I’ll give it to you slow. You let me know when you’ve heard enough.
My cousin Johnny wasn’t really my cousin. He was the stepson of my aunt, my mother’s older sister who had had a bad first marriage and rather than marry again, decided she’d be unfashionable for the 1950’s and live without license in a Sunbeam singlewide with a widower she met at the VFW hall in town. John Senior was a gruff, beefy man and father to a sweet beefy teenage boy when he and my aunt moved in together. My mother was miffed at her sister’s living arrangement and for about a year our trips to her home town were carefully arranged to avoid John Senior and Junior but then my mother thawed and Johnny became part of the circle of cousins that flowed in and out of my grandparents house during our visits.
Before they moved in with my aunt John Senior and Junior lived by a bare-bones routine. Eggs for breakfast, Dinty Moore Stew for lunch, burgers for dinner. They both dressed the same way, white T-shirt, blue jeans, black boots. When Johnny wanted to get dressed up he’d put a white button down shirt over the t-shirt and comb his blond hair out of his eyes. He was ten years older than any of us but he’d play with my sisters and brothers and me with delight, a delight that made my mother anxious. She’d fuss at why a young man wanted to spend time with eight-year old girls but no; this is not something you need to worry about. That is not where this story is headed. Johnny simply enjoyed the play of children, perhaps because he knew he was on the brink of leaving that all behind.
The town where my aunt, her off the books beau and Johnny lived was, and still is, the kind of rural often stamped dead end. When he graduated high school Johnny got a job as a short-order cook in the same Greyhound bus terminal restaurant my aunt waitressed. That means they saw each other every day and night as Johnny continued lived with my aunt and his father in the Sunbeam singlewide. Johnny and my aunt would bicker sometimes, be all charming and friendly the next, and no, don’t read anything into that either, except that my aunt could be cutting, then coy, all in the space of two breaths.
At some point Johnny must have decided that seeing the back ends of buses wasn’t the only view he wanted of the world and enlisted in the Marines. It was 1968. Now you know something of where this story is headed.
I got to see him once in his uniform. He was home for a few days and we made a special trip because my father said we might not see him again for a very long time. Boot camp had carved away his baby fat; his gaze was more focused than I’d ever seen before. He sat and smoked and drank with the other men, patted us on the head and told us to be good, then he was gone, shipped off to Vietnam, or Laos, I was never sure where.
This next bit you could probably write yourself. Johnny comes back, full of shrapnel and lassoed to a wheelchair. He’s got a look on his face like something else is going on other than what’s right in front of him. His smile twists his face. His hands jitter. He cries a lot.
He has several operations to remove the most dangerous shrapnel, builds birdhouses for a local gift shop, collects disability and tries, as they say, to get on with his life. He meets Coco at the same VFW hall my aunt met his dad and Coco takes him, and all his damage, in. They get married, start having babies and a buddy from the Marines moves to town. Life is ok. Johnny may be addicted to his pain meds and can’t stand up for very long but he’s got a wife and two boys and a little girl and someone else around who knows what he went through.
Then, boom. Johnny dies.
The story really should end here. Let him rest in peace.
Sadly, there’s more, and let’s agree now, we’re not going to use any trite phrases like the horrible legacy of Vietnam.
My family starts to whisper. Coco won’t let John Senior or my aunt see the grandkids. My aunt never liked her anyway, would have written her off but the grandkids meant everything to John Senior. A cousin hears that Coco and the buddy have joined some sort of cult. My mother, during a regular Sunday morning call to me, says perhaps Johnny didn’t OD on his pain meds as his death certificate claims. When pressed, her thoughts dissolve into a murkiness no logic can follow. “But something isn’t right” she says, “We all know that”. I tuck the murkiness away at the back of my mind and decided on my next visit I’d ask my aunt what was going on.
Soon, too soon after my mother calls, my sister calls. “You’re not going to believe this. Johnny’s wife and that guy locked themselves and the kids in the house. They hosed it down with gasoline, then set it on fire. Everyone is dead”.
The truth, if you read the local newspapers at the time, was even more gruesome. The wife and the buddy gave the kids sleeping pills then shot them through the heart. Then he kills her, starts the fire, and kills himself. Apparently he wasn’t a great shot because the oldest kid died slowly, as much from smoke inhalation as from the gunshot wound.
My first thought was to wonder what happened in Vietnam to invoke this radical correction to the cosmic balance sheet. It is an uncharitable thought I know. An unspeakable thought to go along with an unthinkable act.
The wife and the marine buddy left letters behind, railing at a government indifferent to the plight of Vietnam Vets. Coco’s letter was printed in a couple of big city newspapers but neither the event nor the letters altered anything except the number of gravesites in the local cemetery. John Sr. went into a funk and died a couple of years later. My aunt lived through the next few bitter winters in the Sunbeam, my mother moving in with her for a few months each year.
One January, a funeral for an uncle pulled me back north. I was able to get there in time for the service but to no surprise a storm snowed me in for a couple of days with my aunt. Casting about for relief from daytime soap operas I unearthed one of her photo albums. There was picture of her first love, a guy who died at Normandy in World War Two, then pictures of my cousin Ray, her son from her first marriage, then her and John Senior with the quarter horses they raised and raced over the years. She told me a story connected to each picture with the same Yankee reticence that she now discussed everything. I turned the page to a family portrait of Johnny and his kids. My aunt sat there chewing on her pipe, gazing at the photo. After a while she looked up at me. “It’s the kind of story that happens to other people, but there it was happening to me and John.” She reached out and turned the page.
I don’t think about Johnny very often but every now and then he pops up in my mind, an unhappy ghost, and I find myself telling this story. I have written this a dozen times. I want to get it right, but as you can tell, I’ll be at it for quite some time. There’s no good way to end this story. I can only pause, then start again. This is not a story anyone wants to hear, so I’ll give it to you slow. You let me know when you’ve heard enough.
About the Author: Loretta Williams is a public radio editor and producer. When she is not up to her eyeballs in work she’s spends her time trying to understand Los Angeles, writing short stories and working in her native plant garden.