Here In Johnston

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
"Here In Johnston" is a collection of flash fiction meant to be read together. The town of Johnston has the highest death rate of any town in the county, a fact that doesn't necessarily bother the "natives" of the town, who are the descendents of the original founders of the town, run the town politically and also own the town funeral home. "Here in Johnston" is a pithy collection of vignettes that investigate the effect violence has on society.

Submitted: March 24, 2008

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Submitted: March 24, 2008

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Here in Johnston
 
Here in Johnston, we’ve always had the highest death rate of any town in the county, at least as far back as records show. But that’s never been a problem for the Moores, the oldest family in town and owners of the funeral home. The business, which doubles as a residence, sits sure and lofty on Munroe hill and when the sun is high in the East, it casts a crooked shadow over the neighboring town hall. 
Legend has it that John Moore the first was a runaway from the Confederate Army, that he and a group of soldiers founded Johnston, just came upon this patch of land one day and decided to call it home. Legend also has it, however, that there were already people living there, but Moore’s men had muskets, and in the middle of the night, the town folk hadn’t any chance for defense. They killed the men and children and kept the women for themselves. Anyway, that’s just what legend says. But you can be sure that no one tells that tale too loudly around here. What is certain, is that John Moore the first had been a doctor in the army and when men started coming through carrying the Confederate dead, looking for a place to settle, he figured he could do just as well on a corpse as he could a live body. 
Natives of the town have a hard look about them, their skin is a shade darker than everybody else’s and their features are straight and clean. It has been suggested, that the town folk they came upon years ago might have been made up of Native Americans, people who had been displaced from their land and tribe. Most likely they were dressed just like the white men, lived in the same houses, did all they could to try and assimilate to their new reality. 
You can’t deny it by looking at any of the them: John Moore the fourth, mayor of the town, Jeb Moore the second, Chief of Police, Steven Munroe the third, his deputy, all have a look like they are mad at you from both sides; the Native American side for all the killing you have done to their people, and the white man side, for you living in a town they founded. Either way, anybody who is anybody in this town was born of some real bad blood.
*** *** ****
The census is an event, every year the enumerator comes back to measure the long, inevitable descent of a town hanging itself in slow motion. How many deaths must he have calculated at his fingertips? We all take bets as to how far down the population numbers will drop, then run out and watch as the workers paint the new figure on the sign. We almost expect the man to say, “a few more feet,” and then to feel that terrible rope around our necks, and feet dangling just inches above the ground. But we know it won’t come as quickly as that, it’s not something you can even calculate in units of time or distance, more like the slow creep of a shadow, a child of the Eastern sun¾a black shawl of reduction, loving everything that increases it. 

Slaughterhouse

 
If you’re lucky, when you’re old enough to walk out of here alone, you’ll leave Johnston, but if by the time you turn eighteen it’s already bled your insides out raw, you’ll probably stay and work in the slaughterhouse. I lost my hand there last year but stayed on, because I can still stick more pigs quicker than anybody else in town.
It’s really something, to know each morning you wake up you’re going to be killing all day long. After a while you come to learn that it means many things, more than just having to scrub down before clocking out for the day, so as you won’t stain red. It means forgetting about your ability to produce anger, it means making a routine out of meanness, and when, as part of a reflex, part of a learned motion, that anger hits something hard and real, it means not acting surprised to see blood tear up on your knuckles. 
My son is nothing like an animal waiting for slaughter and his blood does not wash off easy as pig’s blood. He does not run away from me, confused but unafraid, knowing nothing of life and death; instead, he runs deeper into himself, knowing plenty of life, knowing that a father is supposed to teach his child right from wrong and that death is a mother who is never coming home.
It occurs to me from time to time that working in the slaughterhouse made me forget the wrath of my father’s fists, and that for my son, it may someday be the same type of therapy.
 
*** *** *** **
 
I move quickly but keep safe. I make sure to keep an eye on the other workers and their blades, as they bury into the flesh of the stock. I move according to them, keeping my good hand clear of the hungry metal, assuring that something as wanton and ugly as a man’s anger, never deprives me of something so indispensable and precious as my livelihood.
 
 
Pandemic
 
In 1920 a pandemic devoured the town, the way something as desperately hungry to survive as maggots might do to a piece of mangy meat. The school-house and most of the businesses were closed down and doctors from other parts of the county had to be called in; during those months, everyone had two blocks of ice delivered to their doors, one to keep their food chilled and the other to lean the bodies up against, an attempt to keep them fresh until David Moore was able to make the rounds with the body-bags.
Town folk would tack strips of red cloth to their doors, letting David Moore know how many bags to leave, then later, after they had all been laid out neatly by the roadside, he would come back with the big wagon to collect. Disregarding the family units that had gathered, he would toss them one on top of the other, as if a pile of kindling, until finally they stacked just high enough to peak over wagon sides that reached at least four feet in height. They never seemed like separate bodies, but rather a vast blanket of death, a shadow that like a rain cloud, was thick and ready to burst, but with a terrible saturation. Make no mistake, you didn’t want to find yourself at the center of that great, crushing night, but it was better than dying alone. 
Once infected, you didn’t stand much of a chance, but at least if you had family they would tend to you and probably fetch a doctor. But if the disease had taken your kin and left you ailing, there would be nobody to see you through the last of your days, for fear they might take ill too. Instead, the town would just wait out your death, then when they were sure you were good and gone, a group of men would come and set fire to your house. The sad thing was, that after a family had lost two or three, the last members were almost competing to die next, not wanting to be the last one, not wanting to feel the fire but instead the heat and rot of someone else’s body in the back of that wagon.
After several months of feeding, the disease seemed to choke on its own gorging because, like anything else, it met its end. There were no more pieces of red cloth tacked to doorways, or the sure stench of that wagon plodding towards your house, but even so, the town was never the same again. 
During those months we learned to keep our heads down while walking, to step over bodies like they were a stray mutt in the way; we learned how to ignore a cart of corpses, its wheels almost bending under the weight; we learned how to set fire to the remains of a house and forget about the life locked up inside. Sometimes I wonder if the disease ever really left, or if after a while, we just became immune to it.
We never once felt sorry for ourselves though, or cursed God for bringing that plague upon us. After all, how can you feel wrong about something so natural, how can you hate something for doing just like you¾how can you ever look at life and call it ugly?
 

Family Plots

 
The Tuckers had a family plot in their backyard, “no coffins” my father had told me, “just the bodies right there in the dirt.” 
Bobby Tucker used to call on me to come over and play, and I would, but I’d be sure to steer clear of that corner of the yard, for fear I might hear one of them whisper my name or worse yet, grab my ankle, hoping to switch places with me for a while. Strange thing was, Bobby had a makeshift headstone already made out, with just his name and date of birth, followed by a long dash etched into the stone, as if everything that lay in between were just a formality, the only question being the end. 
I think the pressure of having his life set in stone must have gotten to him, because he moved up North to Massachusetts for a while. But he came back when his mother fell ill; came back, I think, to help with the shoveling and fulfill those other obligations a son might have to the woman who gave him life. After they put her in the ground, he didn’t move back North the way he could have; I think part of him knew there wasn’t any point to his leaving, that he was going to have to come back to die anyway.
And when he did, it was on his own terms. 
That week it snowed in Johnston for the first time in over fifty years, the ground frozen stiff, so instead of burying Bobby right away, they had to wait for the earth to thaw. When I came to visit I saw his body just sprawled out on the sofa, his left arm hanging down, almost feeling for something, trying to work out why it was he was still there with us and not melting away into the dirt. I felt for him, lying out there like that in a long pause between two worlds, still uncertain, still not all together sure he had ever really existed. 
 
 
Jesus Rocks
 
It’s not everyday that a miracle happens, so when word got around town about what those boys saw at “Suicide” creek, everyone got real excited and headed down there with cameras, desperately trying to capture just how important their lives had become.
The creek is called “Suicide” because the majority of people in town who have decided to do themselves in over the years, have done so by jumping off of the overhanging bridge and into the shallow waters. Somehow, it didn’t seem like the right kind of place for a miracle, but I had to see it for myself.
When I got there, I knew that it sure hadn’t been a hoax and those boys weren’t telling any lies. Seems that over the course of the draught, the creek had finally dried up and when you looked down over the bridge you could see a cluster of rocks about fifteen feet in diameter, gathered just right in size and color, to make out a hauntingly close image of The Savior’s face. The sight of it made me uneasy, almost sick to my stomach, to know that God really was thatclose and had been there in Johnston the whole time, watching everything we did.
News of the miracle brought out all sorts of people, some walked around holding signs that read “Jesus Rocks,” with the word “rocks” being a play on words. Underneath the slogan, they would draw pictures of Christ holding a guitar, as if he had played in an eighties hair band, like he’d been the lead guitarist for White Snake or something. The story seemed to spread across the county and before long a national news team was coming to do a special on the “Jesus Rocks.” 
“This will really put us on the map,” was the general consensus of the people, and everyone in the community was dead-set on making a good impression in front of the cameras.
We all gathered in front of Moore’s Funeral Home just after first light and marched down to the creek, the ladies in their church clothes and the men with ties they had bought the night before. But when we arrived on the bridge, we were reminded as to why it was called “Suicide.” They didn’t look like “Jesus Rocks” anymore, more like the splatter of watermelon and rotten pumpkin, but with the smell and rawness that only meat can have.
“What a shame,” said one of the women, blocking her child’s eyes. 
Everyone went back to their regular lives for the rest of the day and Mayor Moore informed the news team that the “Jesus Rocks” had been exposed as a hoax.
After that morning, no matter how many times I turned it over in my head, I just couldn’t feel good about it. Maybe that boy had the uneasy feeling I had, felt like he had to give himself over to God right then and there. But it made me think that maybe there was no God, nobody watching after all, and that if there was, he was probably a lot like us—still struggling with the power that comes with being able to take a life.
 
 

Ghost Town

 
“The Mayor was just up there giving a speech, when¾ poof.” 
The way he enunciated it, the word seemed to drag from his lips, then just hung in the air like a plume of smoke.
“Poof what?,” I asked, my eyes still fixed on the imaginary mushroom cloud above our heads.
Poof¾he just burst into flames.”
He seemed to sense that I needed a moment to fully take in what he had just said, because he took the opportunity to light one up. “It was like the Devil got tired of waiting, just reached up and grabbed ‘em.”
“Anyone put him out?”
“Not in time,” he leaned back and took another sip of his cigarette, “I think I even saw his soul try to escape,” tiny ringlets of smoke ushered from his mouth, loosened and then dissolved like a specter into a sheet of mist, “but the heat claimed that too.”
 
Part 2
 
“How many living here, sir?,” the man asked, intent on his clipboard. He knew I had heard him, because I was staring down at his numbers from behind the screen of the door, “How many living, sir?,” he asked again, pupils beginning to shrink behind the rims of his glasses as he squinted at the dull whiteness of the sun.
“How about ghosts?”
“Excuse me sir?”
“How many ghosts have you counted so far?”
The man laughed nervously, but soon realized I wasn’t joking.
“You tell me, how many ghosts?” It wasn’t right for him to patronize me like that.
“Too many,” I said, stepping out next to him, “but you can count them easy enough at night.”
“How’s that?”
“Just light a fire,” I placed one hand on his shoulder and with the other I pointed, wanting for him to follow my finger, “a big blaze, right there in that field.”
“Yes?,” he said, almost genuinely interested.
“Then they’ll come in a swarm, like mosquitoes dazzled by the light,” I said whispering.
“They like the light?”
“They think it’s their way home.”
“Is it?”
I thought for a moment, then gave a simple, “Nope,” he seemed almost disappointed at my response. “Just count the plumes.”
“The plumes?
“If they get too close, they sizzle and¾poof, its one more soul in hell.”
 That must have scared him pretty bad, because he didn’t ask me anymore of his questions.
“No living here, son,” I shouted as he drove off towards the next house, “only ghosts.”
 
Part 3
After Mayor Moore went up in smoke, the natives of the town clamored for his brother Jeb to take the position, but Jeb was always the weaker of the two and a couple of days later they fished his body out of “Suicide.” The only male member of the Moore family still alive was ninety-six, all the rest were women and had been married off, two hitched up with outsiders and the other must have found her conscience one day, because she fled to Montana with her sweetheart. 
The natives ran behind their candidate Steven Munroe, trying to keep their place in the hierarchy of the town, but they were overwhelmed by the non-natives, they having become the majority. For the first time in the history of Johnston, a member of the Moore family would not be Mayor¾nor would a native¾ and for the first time we could feel the noose beginning to loosen, at least enough for us to step out from under that rope, walk to the edge of the gallows, and decide that we never wanted to reach the bottom, never even come close.
 
Part 4
 
Nothing much ever changes in Johnston, another year is gone and the death rate climbs even higher. The enumerator tells us that, “in ten years Johnston will be a ghost town, all ghosts,” he says, “no living.” And I think, as I stand watching the fire at night, that he has his job for a reason, knows how to find meaning in numbers, and is probably right.
 I stoke the fire and look to see if any souls get drawn into the trap; when a gray plume billows, I try and capture its life force in my jar, the way you might do with fire-flies. It never works. All I ever catch is shadow.
The air is so thick with shadow that the spirits can no longer fly to seek out the light, instead they become bogged, and fill almost to the point of rupture. They ultimately resist, the same way my capped jar fights the urge to shatter in my hands or my lungs withstand the denseness and the want to burst. Is this night?, I ask myself, forgetting, or have the ghosts, drenched in shadow, clawed their way towards the light of the sun and eclipsed the great star with their heavy wings?


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