The Struggles of Johnny Cannon CHAPTER ONE THE BOY WONDER
My grandma always said there ain’t much learning in the second kick of a mule. Reason being, if you didn’t shoot him after he kicked you the first time, then he might be a mule, but you’re a jackass.
Same thing goes when a dog bites you, she’d always say, or if a horse bucks you off, or if any other bad thing happens to you ’cause of an animal that ain’t listening. That’s why the Good Lord made bullets.
Of course, that was an old-fashioned way of thinking, back from the turn of the century when folks hadn’t never seen Bambi and didn’t know nothing about happy endings.
In other words, it was back when folks was smarter.
See, there ain’t never been a lie in the history of man as big or as terrible as the lie about happy endings. Everybody these days believes in them, everybody waits for them, and when you get to the end of a story, as long as everybody’s smiling, folks think all is right with the world.
But it ain’t true. There ain’t no such things as happy endings. Some things get to be happy. Other things get to end. But trying to mix them things together is like trying to shake up oil and water to make a new kind of medicine. Once you’ve swallowed it, it does a number on your stomach and you realize you’re the biggest fool in the whole wide world.
Which is why, if you look up the word “fool” in the encyclopedia that came out in ’61, you’ll see my picture staring back at you. ’Cause in spite of everything inside of me that knew better, I was still hunting my hardest for my happy ending.
It was the middle of August, the weekend right before school was set to start and seventh grade was primed to hit me like a ton of bricks. It was hotter than a two-dollar pistol, even out there on the water of Smith Lake. We was in my brother Tommy’s rusted old paddleboat, and by “we,” I mean me and the girl I was hunting that happy ending with, Martha Macker. And if there’s a better way to get tangled up with the girl of your dreams than hunting catfish in the heart of Alabama, I’d like to know what it is. No, really, ’cause this wasn’t turning out the way I’d hoped.
I was wearing my coveralls, which had been passed down from my grandpa after he’d had a heart attack reeling in a sixty-pound catfish. Hadn’t been washed since then either, ’cause it don’t matter that he died in them, if they was lucky enough to land a sixty-pounder, that’s the sort of luck you don’t wash off. My Cincinnati Reds baseball cap was perching on top of my head. It didn’t fit so good ’cause it had been a birthday present from Tommy back in ’58 and was about five sizes too small, but it was a fishing tradition. And them are sacred.
Meanwhile, Martha was wearing a wide-brimmed hat and Foster Grant sunglasses, which hid her blue eyes but made her red hair look even more pretty, and she was also wearing an Auburn University sweatshirt her pa had sent her up from Montgomery, where he was off doing business. I didn’t have the heart to tell her she wasn’t dressed sensible for fishing. I reckoned she’d figure it out on her own after we got some catfish blood on her white leather oxfords.
I’d put the worm on her hook for her ’cause I reckoned she felt a bit squeamish, even though she claimed she didn’t, but I knew better ’cause she was a girl and all. Then I helped her cast her line ’cause she didn’t want to hook her skirt. I reckoned she’d start enjoying herself directly, even though her face looked like she was as miserable as could be.
“When do they start biting?” she asked.
“They’ll start biting here eventually,” I said. “Or they won’t. It don’t much matter. Fishing ain’t really about getting bites—”
She smacked a mosquito that was trying to sting her arm. It was squished to her palm and she looked around her seat on the boat to find something to wipe it on. She finally wiped it on my sleeve. I didn’t mind, it meant she was touching my arm.
“I knew I should have used some bug spray,” she said.
“It scares off the fish,” I said. “Besides, you can make a game of it.” I smacked one that was chewing on my ankle. “See, that’s twelve for me.”
She sighed and didn’t say nothing else for a little bit. We bobbed up and down as the water moved us farther along and we listened to the sounds of birds singing love songs to each other. Bugs hummed along with them off on the shore. Martha kept time by swatting more mosquitoes.
“Am I doing something wrong?” she asked. “I feel like I’m doing something wrong. The fish aren’t biting.”
“They ain’t bit mine yet either,” I said. “You’re doing all right.”
Just then the tip of my fishing pole started jerking down to the water. I sat up and got to reeling in whatever was gobbling on my worm. I fought with it for a bit, ’cause it wanted to have a little fun with me. Finally, I got the big ol’ catfish up out of the water. It was twenty pounds, easy.
“Grab the net and get him,” I said.
“Eww,” she said, “it’s still alive.”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “They don’t bite nearly as good when they’re dead. Get the net, he’s about to fall off my hook.”
She dug around the boat for a bit to find the net. Once she got it, she tried to hand it to me.
“No, stick it out there and get him.”
“But it’s flinging water everywhere.”
It sure was, twitching and fighting against the hook and sending a shower of water in our direction. It felt real good, but she didn’t seem to appreciate it. I tried to hold the pole with one hand and grab the net with the other. I put the net out there, but just before I got it under the fat catfish, he gave a big shake and went sailing off my hook. He landed right back into the river and took off to warn all his catfish buddies that there was a couple of walleyed yahoos out there fishing.
I couldn’t hold back my groan.
“Maybe I should reel in the next one,” Martha said. “I don’t think the net job is for me.”
I was just fixing to tell her that it was okay, after all, she was a girl and it wasn’t important that she be able to net a fish as long as she could cook it. But then the air got split wide open with what sounded like a buzz saw cutting through a plague of locusts, and then there was a fuzzy voice.
“Superman. Superman, come in. This is Batman.”
Birds flew off like they was escaping an alien attack and I’m pretty sure the fish even ducked for cover. I dug through the tuna salad sandwiches we’d brought with us and pulled out a fancy walkie-talkie. I stretched out the metal antenna and clicked the big button on the side.
“Dadgummit, Willie, you pick the worst times.”
“I thought we agreed on code names. I’m Batman and you’re Superman. Remember?”
Him and his code names. He’d been in supersecret-government-agent mode for the past couple of months, ever since he met Short-Guy, a fella from the CIA that almost took my pa to prison ’cause he thought he’d sabotaged the Bay of Pigs invasion. But that got all cleared up and we was sort of friends with him now. Except I couldn’t never remember his name, which is why I always just called him Short-Guy.
Anyway, he’d given Willie the darn fool idea of working for the CIA someday. I tolerated it at first, even bought him those walkie-talkies since we was blood brothers and all, but he was starting to get annoying about it. Still, since he was a crippled black kid and there wasn’t much else he could look forward to in life, I reckoned I’d let him hold on to his dream.
“Sorry, Batman, go ahead.”
Martha giggled. She always thought me and Willie was a hoot when we was together.
“How goes Operation Happy Ending?”
My face turned as red as my hat.
“It ain’t going,” I said, and hoped Martha hadn’t been listening.
“What’s Operation Happy Ending?” she asked.
“It ain’t nothing,” I said. “I mean, it’s just us boys doing stupid things. Like farting and scratching ourselves. Like how we always—”
She grabbed the walkie-talkie from my hand.
“Batman, this is Wonder Woman, do you copy?”
There wasn’t no answer for a bit and I could imagine Willie was sweating from his forehead.
“Copy that, Wonder Woman, go ahead.”
“What is Operation Happy Ending?” She had a possum grin on her face when she said that, and then she bit her lip while she waited for him to respond.
And she had to wait for a spell, too. Dang, Willie must have been sweating enough to fill up a bathtub. Which would really defeat the purpose of taking a bath. Unless you used the right soap, I reckon. Maybe Dove or something.
“It’s . . . uh . . . it’s . . .”
I started praying that the Good Lord would make something happen to get me out of that mess. Or kill me right there on the spot. But then I wouldn’t never get to see the Reds win a World Series. So he had to come up with another plan.
Right then, Martha’s fishing pole got yanked out of her lap. I dove across the boat to grab it.
“Holy cow!” I hollered. “You caught something.”
She jumped up and just about lost her mind.
“No! I’m reeling them in, remember?” she said. She tried to grab her pole, but when she did, she knocked the walkie-talkie into the water.
I didn’t even give no second thoughts about it, I dove in after it.
The walkie-talkie sank pretty fast and I had to fight with a dead tree branch for it, but I finally got it and swam back up to the boat. Martha wasn’t going to be no help getting me back in ’cause she was too busy fighting a losing battle with whatever creature was yanking on the end of her fishing line.
I pulled myself into the boat and went to help her. We fought and fought with that fish, and my arms was getting sort of sore. It surprised me that she hadn’t given up yet, but maybe I was doing more of the work than I thought. Didn’t look like it, but looks can be deceiving.
Finally she got it up to the surface.
“Oh, look at that,” I said. “You caught a gar.”
She peeked at what I was looking at, the long fish with the even longer nose and teeth peeking out from its jawline.
“An alligator? You didn’t say anything about alligators!” She let go of the fishing pole. The gar took off swimming and took her pole with it.
I had to laugh. It was the only natural reaction besides cussing.
“Not an alligator, a gar,” I said. “It’s all right. Girls is skittish, I understand.”
She glanced behind me.
“Hey, Mountain Man, isn’t that your pole?”
I spun around just in time to see my pole go flying off in the other direction, another victim of a hungry gar.
Martha was laughing something fierce at my face, and it brought back memories of when me and Tommy used to go fishing together. So I reckoned I’d do what he always did when I thought I’d gotten him good.
I pushed her into the water.
In retrospect, that probably wasn’t the best plan. Definitely didn’t help Operation Happy Ending any.
She was splashing and flopping in the water like a chicken getting a bath and she was hollering about as bad too. Her hat was soaked and hanging all down on her face, her sunglasses had dropped into the river so them lake mermaids could wear them, and she had gotten some lake weed stuck on her ear. It was real funny and I finally understood why Tommy did it so much.
I reached out my hand to help her into the boat. She grabbed it and pulled me back into the river instead. She held my head under the water and I was pretty sure she was aiming to drown me, but then she let me up so I could gasp at the air. She climbed back into the boat and didn’t offer me any help getting in myself.
After I got in and looked her once over, I couldn’t contain myself. I started laughing again. She just looked so darn funny, like a waterlogged redheaded bunny rabbit.
She hauled off and slapped me across the face.
“You’re a jerk!” she said. “You’re lucky you’re my brother, or else I’d never speak to you again.”
Yeah, real lucky. See, that’s one of the biggest reasons my happy ending was getting further away every single day. ’Cause, the night that Short-Guy almost arrested my pa, she and I got to hug each other for the first time ever. I reckon it had something to do with the fact that my real dad, a fella named Captain Morris that was the biggest polecat there’s ever been, almost shot her and me both in the head. And it was nice, hugging her like that. But then I slipped and told her I loved her. And, of course, she freaked out, so I scrambled and said I meant like a sister. Which fixed that situation, but killed any chance I had of kissing her. ’Cause, I don’t care what you’ve heard about Alabama, we don’t kiss our sisters down here.
She pointed back up the lake.
“Home, Jeeves,” she said. “And you’ll be rowing all by yourself this time. That will be your punishment.” She dug into her purse and pulled out a little mirror, and then she got to work fixing her face back to normal while I paddled. Once she finally had everything situated, she grinned at me right before she unwrapped a sandwich and ate it. Didn’t offer me a bite. Girls was as evil as rattlesnakes. But cuter. A lot cuter. Which is why I reckon folks don’t generally marry rattlesnakes. Except maybe in Arkansas.
We finally got to the spot on the shore where I’d parked me and Pa’s new truck and I steered us up close to the dry ground. Yeah, I was just barely thirteen, but in Cullman County it was absolutely normal for a kid to drive himself to go fishing. Hunting, too. About the only place you wasn’t allowed to drive yourself was to your own funeral. Unless you timed it right.
As soon as I got the boat up onto the shore, she hopped out and went to get into the truck. Left me to tie it up onto the truck bed and everything. Dadgum lazy girls.
After I got it all tied up, I went and got into the driver’s seat. I started the engine and opened my mouth to say something. She reached up and shoved a big mud ball right under my nose.
“There,” she said while I spit out the window, “now we’re even.”
She turned on the radio to listen to some music and we drove down the road for a bit. Dee Clark was singing “Raindrops,” and it made me think of the wet butt prints we was leaving on the shiny new seats. I’d wrecked our old truck in a tornado. We bought the new one with money Pa was earning from working for Mr. Thomassen, the local barber who used to own a casino in Cuba. I’d helped Mr. Thomassen get his money back, so he helped us make some of our own. I wasn’t real sure what exactly Pa did for him, but he claimed it was for God and country, so I left it alone.
After a few more songs, Martha turned off the radio.
“So, Mr. History-Man, what’s today’s thing?” she asked.
I had a book of daily history facts that I was prone to spout off. I was under the belief that history had lessons we could learn every day that would keep us from screwing up the way they did back in them olden days. ’Cause there ain’t many stories that end well in history. Studying it had worked out pretty good for me so far. Except when I tried to adopt the once-a-week bath system. And even that wasn’t so much bad for me as it was for everybody else.
“Well, today’s August 26, so it’s the day the Nineteenth Amendment was passed for the Constitution back in 1920, which gave women the right to vote. See, back in them days, the womenfolk was thinking that the menfolk wasn’t doing the best job at deciding—”
She stopped me.
“Not that I don’t enjoy hearing about what the ‘menfolk’ decided,” Martha said, “but today’s actually the twenty-seventh.”
“I sure hope not, ’cause we’d be missing church if it was Sunday the twenty-seventh. And I don’t reckon Willie would be missing church, what with him being the pastor’s son and all.”
“Well, I go to mass on Saturdays, and Willie faked a stomachache to stay home,” she said. “Seriously, it’s the twenty-seventh.”
I slammed on the brakes and pulled off to the side of the road. The boat yanked against the ropes I’d tied it up with. I didn’t care.
“Dadgummit, in the summer it’s hard to keep track.” I opened the door and hopped out. I had to find some flowers.
“What are you doing?” Martha said.
“It’s the twenty-seventh,” I said. I kept looking, but the best I could find was a mess of dandelions and some purple wildflowers that was probably weeds.
“And I need to go by the cemetery real fast.”
I bundled them flowers up and got back in, then I did a U-turn and headed over to Mount Vernon Cemetery.
Martha watched me as I drove and didn’t say nothing for a bit. Finally she put her hand on my shoulder.
“Is it a birthday?”
I shook my head.
“August 27, 1954. That’s the day the doctors in Havana unplugged all my ma’s machines that was breathing for her and feeding her. The last day she ever had breath in her lungs.” I rubbed the scar on my cheek, without really thinking about it. “Today’s the day she officially died.”
She didn’t say nothing else, but she left her hand on my shoulder, which I was fine with.
We parked outside the cemetery and I got out.
“You going to come?” I asked.
She smiled. “Maybe another time. This seems . . . private.”
“She’d probably like to meet you.”
I nodded and headed through the gate. Mount Vernon Cemetery was one of the oldest cemeteries in Cullman County, and it wasn’t all that popular with living folks ’cause they said it was awful run-down, but it was just the sort of graveyard you’d hope to be in if you was dead. It was surrounded by real tall trees that cast good ghost-hiding shadows no matter what time of day it was. There was also plenty of spiders and beetles in every nook and cranny to keep lonely spirits company, along with a few small animals like rabbits and squirrels and such that they’d enjoy haunting and scaring half to death. And there was a few rocks and downed tree trunks that was perfectly situated to make even the smallest breeze sound like a howl from the depths of hell. So, you know, it was nice.
I made my way through the gravestones, trying my best not to think of all them ghosts that was just itching to haunt my soul for eternity, and I got to the corner that was set up for the Cannon family. Grandma was out there, along with most all of the Cannons that had ever been in Cullman. Tommy’s stone was there too, though his body was still in Castro’s basement in Cuba, thanks to him crash-landing during the Bay of Pigs invasion. Something about that made his stone seem even lonelier.
Ma’s grave was over in the corner of our section that I’d visited the least, which is just another illustration of how messed up the whole idea of happy endings is. ’Cause for most of my life, thanks to me being in the accident that killed Ma, my brain couldn’t remember a darn thing from when she was alive. People’d tell me stories, but they was just that. Stories. Like when we studied Hannibal crossing the Alps with his pet elephants. And visiting her grave didn’t hurt one bit. It didn’t mean anything at all, really. So I never did it.
But then I got my memories back and folks claimed it was a happy ending to the story. These was the same folks who had already grieved for my ma and done mourned her death. But now I was just getting started. And I was having to do it all on my own.
Anyway, I got over to Ma’s grave and I put them weeds on her gravestone. I sure hoped she thought they was flowers. I didn’t know how good you could see from six feet under, so I tried to position them to where she might not tell. Then I knelt down in front of her stone and tried to think of what to say. Actually, that ain’t exactly true. I had plenty to say. Plenty more to cry about, if I wanted to. But I didn’t want to. So I had to find something to talk about that wouldn’t get me to blubbering. And that was hard to do.
“How’s it going, Ma?” I asked, then I cussed. You ain’t supposed to ask a dead person how it’s going, ’cause if they haven’t noticed that they’re dead and decomposing under the dirt, it ain’t polite to draw their attention to it. They might just think all them worms and such is pets. Or that they’re aiming to go fishing. But once they realize they’re dead, then they’ll figure out what them worms is really there for. And that just ain’t right.
“What I mean is, how’s the weather been?” Nope, that was stupid too. She didn’t have no idea of rain or wind or nothing from where she was lying. Dang, this was a hard conversation. It always was.
“I reckon you know what today is. Well, I actually hope you don’t. I sort of hope you don’t remember none just like how I didn’t.” I thought about that for a second. “Except that might mean you don’t remember me none. And that wouldn’t be no good.”
I got a lump in my throat, which meant if things didn’t change, I’d be sobbing like the time I broke my model car back when I was eight. I said a quick prayer that something would distract me.
I heard what sounded like another car pull up down at the gate to the cemetery. It shook the lump out of my throat for a bit.
“Anyway, if you do or don’t remember, it don’t much matter. This here’s the day you and me got taken from each other. That’s why I wanted to make sure I dropped by. So you wouldn’t be alone.” That darn lump came back.
Martha started talking to somebody a ways off. Finally, a decent distraction.
“Do you hear that? Maybe you can’t from down there, but that’s Martha, the girl I told you about. She sort of reminds me of you. I think.”
I heard footsteps coming through the cemetery and I reckoned maybe Martha’d changed her mind about meeting Ma.
“I think she’s coming, actually. She’s a mite bit soaked and muddy, but I swear it’s my fault. Don’t go judging her none.”
I stood up and turned to call Martha over, but it wasn’t her. Well, it was her, but she wasn’t alone.
There was a Chinese girl with her. And, by the looks of it, she had a baby Chinaman in her belly.
Martha pointed her over to where Tommy’s gravestone was and then came by me.
“Hi,” she said.
“What’s she doing here?” I asked.
The girl was looking at them gravestones one by one, all around where Tommy’s was.
“She said she was looking for your brother,” she said.
“Did she say why?” I asked. Martha shook her head.
The Chinese girl found Tommy’s gravestone, and she fell down onto the grass in front of it and started crying.
“What in tarnation—” I said. Martha shrugged.
I wouldn’t normally get involved with foreigners, but since she was at Tommy’s stone, I figured the only polite thing to do was to at least check on her. Plus I wouldn’t want her going into labor or something. That’d make for a real bad place to birth a baby. I went over and knelt down next to her.
“Hey, listen, I don’t speak no Chinese or nothing,” I started.
“I’m Korean,” she said with snot coming out her nose. She was covering her face and sobbing like there wasn’t no tomorrow, so I didn’t reckon I’d point out to her that it didn’t much matter which one she was, since she apparently spoke English. Martha came over and joined us.
“Is everything okay?” Martha asked.
“Not sure,” I said. “Is it?”
“It’s just . . . ,” the Korean girl said. “I was hoping it wasn’t true. Hoping . . .” She started sobbing again. “Hoping he was still alive.”
“Tommy?” I asked. “You’re this ate up over Tommy?”
She nodded, then she wiped her nose and I finally got a good look at her face. She was pretty, for a Korean. Her hair was as black as a crow’s back, her eyes sparkled even though they didn’t have no color, and her face was shaped the way them models in magazines’ faces are shaped, only she wasn’t white, so it didn’t look quite the same. If I’d had to guess, I’d have said she was the same age as Tommy. Maybe.
“I’m sorry, I’m being so rude.” She held her hand out to shake mine. “My name is Sora Sa.”
I went ahead and shook her hand and tried to not puke at how slick and snotty it was. I wouldn’t want to be rude.
“Well, my name’s Johnny,” I said. “And this here’s—”
“You’re his brother? You’re Johnny?” she asked, then she grabbed me and hugged on my neck. “He said you’d be here! Oh, it’s so good to finally meet my baby’s uncle.”
I was at an awkward angle in the hug, ’cause she’d pulled me over her belly like a chicken on the chopping block. Then her belly punched me in the throat. I jerked away.
“Wait, what do you mean by that?”
“Are you saying . . . ,” Martha said, and her eyes got real big. “Are you saying that your baby is Tommy’s?”
Sora nodded and Martha gasped like she’d done seen a Martian come waltzing across the yard or something. And it was a surprise for me, too. But I reckon it wasn’t too big of one. Half my life had been spent watching Tommy come home sauced with some girl he’d met at a bar. As soon as I found out storks didn’t bring babies, I was waiting for one of his girls to announce that she was.
Still, she wasn’t exactly like one of them girls he used to mess around with. Besides the fact that she wasn’t white, she also seemed higher class than them. Probably couldn’t dance on a table or cuss me out over her cigarettes and waffles if she tried.
I liked her already.
It had been five seconds since anybody had said anything, and Martha’s eyes was practically floating in midair as she stared at Sora, so Sora cleared her throat.
“And you are?” she asked. Martha blinked a few times and stuck out her hand.
“Oh, I’ve heard about you!” Sora said, and she smiled at me. “So you two finally—”
“Finally became friends, yup,” I said. “Tommy told you about that?”
Sora glanced at Martha and then nodded.
“He told me all about you, and about Cullman, and everything else.”
“Wish I could say the same,” I said. Martha kicked me. “I mean, Tommy didn’t say a darn thing about you.” Another kick. “I mean, it’s nice to meet you, too.”
“Tommy always said you were funny.”
He always told me I was a moron. Maybe that’s along the same lines as funny.
“Um, where are you staying?” Martha asked.
Sora brushed her finger down Tommy’s gravestone and traced along the dates that was under his name. She sighed.
“Nowhere,” she said. “Not yet. I just got here from Mobile. My luggage is still in the car.”
I looked over at the gate, expecting to see a yellow taxicab or something. Instead it was a gold Buick LeSabre. And a fella was leaning on the hood, wearing a slick blue suit and a white fedora, smoking a cigarette.
“I’m sure Mr. Cannon would want you to stay with him and Johnny,” Martha said. I almost kicked her back, but I reckoned that would be detrimental to Operation Happy Ending. It wasn’t that I was being inhospitable or anything. It was just that me and Pa was private folk. Partially ’cause we was both a little shy. And also partially ’cause of the work Pa did for Mr. Thomassen. But I couldn’t go and tell about all that, so I just nodded instead.
Sora grabbed me and hugged on me again. Just about threw my back out contorting like that. Then that baby in her belly socked me in the gut. Dang, it was definitely Tommy’s baby. It punched just like him.
Martha went to help Sora up.
“So, the car, is that a friend, or—”
“No,” Sora said, real quick. “No, he’s just someone that offered me a ride.”
“Well, you can send him away now,” Martha said. “We’ll drive you up to the house. Let’s go get your luggage.”
They both headed back to the entrance. Martha looked at me over her shoulder and moved her head like she wanted me to come with them. I looked over at Ma’s gravestone. I wasn’t done with the conversation yet.
Oh well, I reckoned I could come back later. Say what you want about the dead, but they’re the most patient folks you’ll ever meet. Actually, don’t say what you want about the dead. They’re patient, but they hold a grudge like nobody else. Just ask my great-uncle Tom. He’s been haunting the newspaper ever since they canceled his subscription back in ’22.
Them girls got to the car before me and Martha told the driver that we was taking Sora’s luggage. He got a funny expression on his face and looked at Sora, but then she nodded and so he went around and started pulling her bags out of his trunk. It was like a magic trick, I didn’t reckon it was possible for all them bags to come out of one car. I half expected to see him pull out a dove or something like that. And maybe a clown or two. There was so many bags, I went ahead and untied the boat off the truck. I’d have to come back for it.
After we got the luggage all loaded up, the fella called me over.
“So, you’re the kid she’s looking for?” he asked. He had a real strong wintergreen-smelling aftershave.
“Yeah,” I said.
“You take good care of her,” he said. “And that baby of hers.”
“Sure,” I said. “I reckon it’s my nephew or something like that.”
He nodded, looked like he wanted to say something else, but then went and got into his car instead.
He drove off and then we all got into the truck to head to my house. Sora slid in right next to me and I was actually sort of surprised at how skinny her legs and butt was, considering her belly was as big as a well-fed pig. Still, that belly was blocking the gearshift. I hoped Tommy’s kid knew how to shift into reverse.
Martha got in and closed the door and we headed on up the hill.
“So, when are you due?” Martha asked.
“Sometime in October,” Sora said.
“Due where?” I asked. “You got someplace else to be? Is it really safe to be going somewhere when you’re about to have a baby?”
“Johnny,” Martha said, and her voice sounded like it had when she slapped me earlier, “shut up and drive.”
We drove along the road and I did my best to ignore all the times my niece or nephew was hitting me in the ribs like I was a piñata. I hated to disappoint them, but I didn’t reckon no candy was going to come out. I’d been trying to cut back.
We finally made it to our house, the two-story gray home that the Cannon family first built right after the Civil War. There was an American flag waving off the antenna poking out from the backyard where Pa had rebuilt his radio shack. That was where he did his work for Mr. Thomassen.
“As you can see,” Martha said, “there are no women living in this house.” Sora nodded in agreement.
I looked at the place again and couldn’t see what they was talking about. I mean, sure, we didn’t have no flowers or nothing, or curtains on our windows, or a porch that looked pretty. And sure, there was tools in the driveway that had been there for a week and the grass had gotten to growing longer than it should have. And, sure, we had some squirrels and rabbits hanging on the front porch ’cause I still had to skin them. But really, what about all that made it unfit for a woman?
There was several cars parked in our yard, which didn’t cause me no stir ’cause they was just Mr. Thomassen’s white Cadillac and Carlos Martí’s blue Chevy pickup. Carlos had been Mr. Thomassen’s bandleader back in Havana, and he and I had escaped from Castro’s clutches together. That’s another long story. Now Carlos worked for Mr. Thomassen same as Pa, only Carlos did a lot of running around while Pa stayed put.
I parked next to the Cadillac and hurried to get inside before the girls. I was kind of hoping to prepare Pa for meeting his grandchild. He wasn’t the healthiest fella in the world, mainly ’cause he only had half a lung and a quarter of his intestines thanks to the war. He also told me quite often that he had half a mind, but that was usually in context of him yelling at me, so I didn’t think he was serious about that.
When I stepped in the door, I forgot what I was aiming to do, ’cause there was somebody there that I wasn’t expecting. Sitting there with Pa, Mr. Thomassen, and Carlos in our living room was a fella that still scared the bejeezus out of me.
It was Short-Guy, the CIA agent.
They was all deep in a conversation, but Carlos elbowed Pa when he saw that I’d come in. Pa looked over at me.
“Oh, hey, son. How’d the fishing go? Did you catch anything?”
Right then the screen door behind me slammed open and Martha and Sora came in.
“Yeah, I reckon I caught a big one,” I said. “This here’s—”
“Sora Sa,” Sora said.
All four of them men stood to their feet, ’cause that’s what you do in Alabama when a lady has done entered the room. Pa cleared his throat and wiped his hands off on his shirt.
“Pete Cannon, Johnny’s pa. It’s nice to meet you, miss,” Pa said. “What brings you—”
That’s when Sora stepped out from behind me to show off that beach ball of a belly she had.
“Well,” Pa said. “Congratulations on the baby.”
Sora smiled and bowed her head.
“Thank you,” she said, then she glanced at me. “It’s your son’s.”
All of them fellas’ eyes practically popped out of their sockets and looked at me, though I couldn’t figure out what for. Pa’s face turned as red as a fire engine and he started breathing the way he did when he forgot he couldn’t breathe so good. Then they all started hollering at once.
“What in the name of all that is good and holy—?”
“You aren’t even old enough yet!”
“¡No tienes dos dedos de frente! What were you thinking?”
“Hold the dadgum telephone!” I yelled. “It ain’t mine, for crying out loud, it’s Tommy’s.”
Talk about throwing a bucket of water on a bonfire. Pa went from being as mad as the devil to as giddy as a naked angel baby. He hurried and got up next to Sora and walked her over to the couch, the whole time grinning like a possum with an ice cream cone and babbling sounds that didn’t none of them make sense strung together.
He fluffed up a pillow for her to sit on, then sat down right next to her.
“Ain’t that just like Tommy,” he said. “Going off and getting married without telling nobody.”
Come to think of it, no, it wasn’t like him at all.
“Well, we didn’t ever actually—” she started, a little embarrassed. “What I mean is, we planned to take care of that when he came back.”
Yeah, that sounded more like him.
Pa’s face showed his shock again, but I reckon the happiness from finding out he was a grandpa took over and he just started smiling again.
“Oh well, water under the bridge,” he said, then he patted her on the leg. “And this just proves that the Good Book is true. ‘Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.’ Here I am, doing the work I’m doing, and in return the Lord brings a happy addition to my own family.”
Sora smiled and nodded.
“When are you due?” Mr. Thomassen said.
Martha plopped down next to Sora and put her arm around her.
“In October,” she said, “and she doesn’t have a place to stay.”
“Not true,” Pa said. “She can stay here.”
“Pa!” I said. “What about the hotel or something?”
“What?” he said. “No, nonsense. This place could use a woman’s touch. Sora can stay in Tommy’s room. It’s only right.”
She hugged his neck and I reckon the baby took a jab at him too. He didn’t seem to mind it. He put his hand on her belly to feel it contort and he laughed when it did.
I announced that I was going to get her luggage and Carlos offered to help me, but then Short-Guy said he’d do it ’cause he needed to talk to me about something. Which made my stomach get back into the bag of knots it had been when I first saw him. I hurried outside and he hurried to follow me.
I started grabbing bags real quick and he stopped me.
“How much do you know about what your father is doing with Mr. Thomassen?” he asked.
“Why?” I asked, and I felt all them knots tighten up in my stomach. “Is he getting into trouble again?”
“No,” he said. “Not—just tell me, how much do you know?”
“Only that they call themselves the Three Caballeros, like that old Disney cartoon. And that Carlos goes away for two or three days to do jobs that Pa finds for him. And that not a one of them talks about it none.”
He listened real intent to that.
“And that’s all?”
“Yup.” I pulled out another of Sora’s bags from the truck. “Why? What’s up?”
“Have you mentioned their name to anyone? The Three Caballeros, have you told anyone about that?”
“No,” I said. “Well, Willie, but he’s my blood brother, so I tell him everything.”
“Now, listen to me. I need you to answer this question completely, and don’t even think of lying to me.” He grabbed me by the shoulders, which was a little weird since he was an inch smaller than me. “Who have you told about Captain Morris? That he is your real father?”
“Only the folks that was in the room when I recorded my testimony,” I said. “So, the Parkinses, the Mackers—well, Martha and her ma, at least—and Mr. Thomassen and Carlos. Oh, and Pa, of course.”
“That’s more than I’d like, but it’ll have to do. It can’t go further than that circle. Do you understand me?”
“Sure, I guess,” I said. “Why, what’s going on?”
“Nothing you need to worry about. As long as you do as I say, nothing at all.”
Oh good. ’Cause there wasn’t nothing about what he said that made me worried or nothing. I was as cool as a cucumber now. A cucumber that was worried he might get shot in the head while he slept. That’d be a real pickle.
See, I wasn’t nervous. I was almost peeing my pants, but still, I had jokes to spare.
We headed back inside and went to carry Sora’s things up to Tommy’s room. She stopped me and told me to leave the duffel bag down there. When we came back down, she had a gift-wrapped box and a manila envelope sitting on the coffee table.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Tommy made me promise I would come here to give you your birthday present. He wanted to make sure it was hand delivered.”
The whole room got quiet, the kind of quiet that makes the air start itching at you. Adding the itchy air to the nervous stomach I had from Short-Guy’s conversation, and I almost puked.
“What?” she asked. I looked over at Short-Guy, and he threatened my life with his eyes, so I had to come up with something else that was wrong.
“My birthday is in July,” I said. “You’re late.”
“Johnny!” Pa yelled.
“Really?” she said, real confused. “Then why did he say it was—” She shook her head. “Oh well. Tommy wasn’t exactly in the clearest state of mind when he and I were together in Mobile. He was so nervous about shipping off.”
“To Nicaragua,” Pa said.
That was a sputter in the conversation, and Sora seemed to get a little nervous over it. Or morning sick, there ain’t no real way to be sure with pregnant women. She shot Pa a glance, one of them “do you know what you’re talking about?” glances (or maybe one of them “I’m about to puke on your face” glances. Like I said, pregnant women).
“Did he tell you he was going to Nicar—”
“No, no, not Nicaragua,” Pa said, real nervous like, I reckoned ’cause he was worried she didn’t know what we knew. “My brain plays tricks.”
“Where did he tell you he was going?” she asked.
Pa shot me a look.
“Korea,” I said.
“Right, Korea,” Pa said.
“Korea,” she said, and she looked a little more sure of herself. “He told you Korea?”
“Sure did,” I said. “?’Cause that’s where he went. Not to Nicaragua, or Narnia, or any of them other places.”
“Exactly. Korea,” she said.
“Yup, Korea,” I said.
She peered into my eyes, then over at Pa’s, and then she let out a satisfied sigh.
“Anyway.” She handed me the manila envelope. “Here, I don’t know what’s inside of this and I’ve been dying to see.”
Short-Guy cleared his throat and I knew why. He was naturally suspicious anyway, and that whole talk between me and her and Pa was enough to get him calling for backup. ’Cause Tommy hadn’t gone to Korea. That was just his cover story. He went to Nicaragua to train the Cuban exiles for the Bay of Pigs invasion. So it probably didn’t sound right to Short-Guy that Tommy’d have told the woman he was going to marry a lie like that. But that was ’cause Short-Guy didn’t know Tommy. Tommy was inclined to lie to women.
I opened the envelope and slid out three comic books. All of them Superman comics, of course. ’Cause nobody knew me better than Tommy.
“Read the letter,” she said. “Out loud, please.” She seemed real excited about it. Everybody else, too. So I cleared my throat and did a quick scan so I wouldn’t stumble over no words.
April 7, 1861 1961
Wow, my FIRST LETTER! Can’t believe I haven’t ever written a first letter to you before. But I figured, if there was ever a time to write a first letter, it would be on your birthday. Wish I could remember when it is. It’s in the summer, but I don’t think it’s a J month, so August? Yup, that’s when you’ll get this first letter.
But what I really need to say is
Knowing every elected politician yesterday only undoes right belief. Looking over our deeds satisfies as failure elevates failure, rusting our men. Hear Antonia + Rose’s message.
Anyway, I love you, little brother. I also love the lady that brought you this first letter. Treat her right.
I tried to read it out loud, but I couldn’t even get past the date. It was so dadgum weird, it made my brain hurt to think about speaking it. I folded it up and mumbled a thank-you to her.
“Too emotional,” Carlos said. “I understand, compadre.”
Everybody else seemed to think that was a good explanation, so I let it be.
Sora slid the gift across the table.
“Open it,” she said. “I think you’ll like it. Tommy was always saying how much you like superheroes.”
I unwrapped the present and opened the box, and for the first time I felt a tinge of that same disbelief that Short-Guy had been showing on his face. ’Cause either Tommy had been running on a few bottles of Jim Beam, or that present hadn’t come to me from Tommy. Not a chance.
It was a statue of Robin, the Boy Wonder’s head. And Tommy knew, more than anybody else, how much I hated Robin. When I was ten, I’d even gone through all his Batman comics and cut out all the Robins just so I could burn them on our grill. Robin was a dadgum nincompoop who ran around in women’s underpants. Worst superhero ever.
I looked around the room, a tad bit worried that they was all going to start accusing her at once. It might not be good for the baby to have so many fingers pointed, and especially if they threw her out on her backside, well, it might give the kid a flat head or something. I got ready to start making excuses, just like I usually did for one of Tommy’s girls.
Pa stood up and picked up the Robin statue. Good Lord, was he about to smash it over her head? I jumped up to stop him.
“This—” he started, and I poised myself to jump in between them. “This is wonderful. Let’s put it over here on the mantel so we can all think of Tommy every day.”
I looked at Mr. Thomassen. He didn’t never let nothing get past him. He’d probably cut right to the heart with whatever he said. I needed to figure out a good joke or something.
He was patting his eyes with his hanky. Okay, no joke needed. Which was good, ’cause the only one I thought of on such a short notice was the one about the car crank and the fella’s butt.
“Makes me think of my own brother,” Mr. Thomassen said. “I haven’t thought of him in a while.”
Whew. She was probably safe. I mean, sure, it was a little weird about the statue and all, but still. She was going to have a baby. That covers just about everything, doesn’t it?
I looked over at Short-Guy. Nope, apparently not. He was scowling like a judge at a hanging, and I don’t reckon he cared much about the baby or nothing else. There wasn’t going to be no making him happy about Sora.
And that made me as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Add that to what he’d done told me, and all of a sudden I needed to get some fresh air.
“I’ll be back in a bit,” I said. I grabbed the letter and headed out the door, and then I hurried to go find the only fella I could tell everything to.
I hurried over to Willie’s house.
Willie’s porch was a little cluttered when I got there. They had one of them porches that was designed to have family reunions on, and it looked like they’d had a church get-together just before I came over. His pa was the pastor of the church in Colony, which was the place in Cullman County where the black folk lived.
I knocked on the door and Mrs. Parkins answered it.
“Willie’s sick,” she said. “But you’re welcome to come in. We have lots of leftovers from lunch.”
“I heard he was sick,” I said. “That’s why I brung him something.” I looked around real quick and saw a tuna can that somebody’d put potato salad in. I picked it up. “It’s an old family remedy for a tummy ache.”
She gave me her usual suspicious look, which I’d grown to learn was what a mother does to a boy when she cares something about him, so I felt good. She took me down the hall to Willie’s room. As usual, I could hear him talking.
“Traversing the snowy mountains of the ice planet, Mercury is starving. He hasn’t eaten in days. His only rations he split between Smokey, his faithful canine companion, and the green, two-trunked elephant, the only creature that can safely navigate the treacherous terrain. Now, sitting in his camp, he watches both creatures sleep. Our hero must make the impossible decision. Which warm-blooded friend will be his dinner?”
Mrs. Parkins knocked on the door. Willie said an almost cussword that wasn’t and then we heard a ruckus that sounded like somebody with only one good leg diving across the room into his bed.
“Johnny’s here,” she said, and opened his door.
He was wrapped up in his blanket and blinking his eyes like he just woke up.
“I sure hope he don’t catch my chicken pox,” he said, then he coughed a few times. His ma shot him that same suspicious look.
“I thought you said you had the measles.”
“That too,” he said. “Dadgum, I might have to stay home from church for the next month, huh?”
She covered her mouth and I reckoned maybe she was protecting herself from his germs. Course, it almost looked like she was smiling, but there wasn’t no way that was true, so it had to be the germs thing. She left me and Willie alone, and as soon as she was out of earshot, he hopped out of bed.
“So,” he said, “did it work? Did you finally get your Happy Ending?”
I shook my head.
“Not even close. Pretty sure I’m further from kissing Martha now than I was yesterday.”
He sighed and went over to his bookshelf, where he had a whole row of red notebooks lined up. He pulled one off, which had a white label on the cover with the words “Operation Happy Ending” written in permanent marker. He opened to a page that had “Fishing Trip” written on top and he wrote, in big letters, FAILED straight across all the other writing. He turned to the next page.
“We won’t give up yet,” he said. “We got plenty more good ideas, and I got the equipment to make them all work.” He pointed at the top of the new page. “Next up is ‘Drowning.’ See, you’re going to fake like you drown and she’s going to give you mouth-to-mouth.”
“Does that count as kissing?”
“Maybe not when she first starts,” he said, “but when you’re done, it will.”
I shrugged. “Whatever, you’re the junior agent, not me.”
He nodded. “By the way, did you bring me back that walkie-talkie?”
“Dadgummit, no,” I said. “I left it at the cemetery.”
“The cemetery?” He flipped back to the fishing page in his notebook. “That wasn’t part of the plan.”
“A whole mess of stuff happened that wasn’t part of the plan,” I said, and then I told him all about visiting Ma and Sora showing up, and the baby that was Tommy’s. He was real interested in that and even fished a notebook off his shelf that said Tommy Cannon Case File and wrote some stuff in it.
“Why do you got a case file on Tommy?” I asked. “Dead folk don’t usually do much that needs investigating. Their ghosts might cause some mischief, but you ain’t supposed to look into that.”
“I have a case file on everyone,” he said. “It’s what Short-Guy said agents do.”
Now, he knew Short-Guy’s name, but since I couldn’t never remember, we both just called him Short-Guy behind his back.
“He was up there too,” I said. “Him and the Three Caballeros was having a meeting.”
“He’s up at your house?” he asked. “Dang it, and here I’m claiming to be sick. I wonder if I could fake a miracle or something so I could go see him.”
I went over and started fiddling with his notebooks.
“I wouldn’t. He scared the heck out of me. Practically said I’d be in danger of hellfire if I told anybody that I’m Captain Morris’s son.”
He pushed me away from his books.
“He wouldn’t tell me. And then it got worse when he saw the weird letter and the stupid present.”
“A letter? What did it say?”
I got the letter out of my pocket and handed it to him. He read over it and his face showed that he thought it was funny business too.
“This is the weirdest dadgum letter I’ve ever read,” he said. “Who’s Antonia and Rose?”
I had to look at the letter again to see what he was talking about. Right there in the middle, it said to hear Antonia and Rose’s message.
“Don’t look at me,” I said. “I ain’t never heard of nobody around here by those names. I mean, if it really was 1861, like is scratched out, instead of good old 1961, I’d think he was maybe talking about Antonia Ford and Rose O’Neal Greenhow, the Confederate spies during the Civil War. They leaked information to the south about the Battle of Bull Run and a whole mess of other things. But it ain’t back then, so it could be anybody.”
He got a funny look on his face.
“When was he in Florida?” He pointed at that part at the top that said T. Cannon, Springfield, Fla.
“He wasn’t,” I said. “He probably wrote it at a bar in Springfield, Alabama, and was so shaky he didn’t finish out the first letter. I’m telling you, he was as drunk as a skunk on its twenty-first birthday.”
He nodded, but he kept right on staring at it.
“Mind if I hold on to the letter for a bit?” he asked.
“I don’t care,” I said. “I was going to put it in my keepsake drawer. Just make sure I get it back, okay?”
He put the letter up on his wall with a thumbtack.
“Sure,” he said. “Though, what if it ain’t really from Tommy? You want to keep it, then?”
“What you mean? Of course it’s from Tommy. That’s his handwriting. It’s his drunk handwriting, but still, it’s close enough.”
“Okay, but what if it ain’t?” he asked.
I hadn’t honestly thought of that. Maybe somebody was copying his way with a pen.
“If it ain’t from Tommy,” I said, “who’s it from?”
“That’s what we’d have to find out.”
Dadgum, he’d been in secret agent mode for too long. Suspicious of a poor pregnant lady. That just wasn’t right.
But, now he had me thinking.