Johnny Never Said Goodbye
(fictional snapshots about growing up absurd in 1950s America)
Gus’ old man always wore a blue oxford cloth shirt and khaki pants to work. Before leaving for the laboratory at the university, he'd hand-craft a bow in a striped or polka-dotted tie and don a sport jacket—or a series of sport jackets. The colder it got, the more sport jackets he put on, each one bigger than the last, until finally -- when it was really nippy -- he'd wrap a scarf around his neck and top it off with a beret. By midwinter he looked like the Michelin tire man turned beatnik.
The last time he saw his father alive, Gus had just finished his second year at college. His old man had driven him to the bus station in Ayer, Massachusetts in the family car, an ancient, 1953 Plymouth. Gus looked over at him as he drove the Plymouth along the leafy green curves of Old Mill Road. His blue oxford-cloth shirt was rolled up at the sleeves. To Gus, his father had never been “Dad.” He called his father “Pop,” and referred to him in absentia as “my old man.”
His father liked it that way. “ ‘Dad’ sounds like some guy who plays golf on Saturdays and works at an insurance company,” he would joke. “And that just isn’t me now, is it, Gus m’boy?”
That day, Gus’ old man was anxious...very anxious. "Think you'll go back to school?"
"I don't know.”
"You'll have the whole summer down there. You didn't tell them you weren't coming back in the fall did you?"
"No. I don't have to.”
"What about your room at the dorm? Will they save your room?"
"How should I know?” he snapped. “I'm moving off-campus anyway."
"Why? How will you study if you live off campus?"
"Goddamit I don't even know if I'm going back, never mind where the hell I'm gonna study!"
Silence. Gus’ face felt hot, flushed; he felt cruel. Of course he would go back to school, maybe not right away, but eventually. That June, however, he had nothing to give to his father; he wanted out. Out of his life, out of his family, away from the disappointment and rage he had accumulated as his father’s priorities continually trumped Gus’ needs.
Gus stared out the window at the greenery while the old flathead six chugged steadily along, powering the Plymouth down the highway. A monotonous metallic thump reverberated through the floor boards.
"You know, that connecting rod is still knocking,” Gus barked. “It's been like that ever since you bought this wreck."
"No need to fix it 'til it breaks."
"You learn that on the tuna boats?"
Johnny laughed. "Naw. None of 'em spoke enough English to teach me that.”
As a teenager, Gus’ old man had been awarded a Merit Scholarship to MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But, as a young man, he had been given horrible advice from his foster parents, a family of self-made newspaper publishers who had convinced the orphaned teenager that only sissies went to college. The real way to make it big in life, they claimed, was from the ground up, starting on the bottom rung of the ladder, attending the school of hard knocks.
Gus’ old man had turned down the scholarship at MIT to go to work as a copy boy at the family newspaper in Seattle until – enraged by some humiliating directive – he threw an inkwell at the city editor. So much for the bottom rung of the ladder.
Then, electrical genius that he was, he took a job as the radio officer on a Japanese tuna boat from Osaka. He had turned down an amazing education to…
Gus caught himself. The old Plymouth rattled along. Here he was, throwing over his own education. For what? Perhaps that was why his old man was so anxious. He had always regretted not attending MIT and his family had paid dearly for his decision.
Gus didn’t care; contempt for his father dulled any concern he might have had about his feelings.
Listening to the tuna boat tale once again, he felt claustrophobic. He fought an urge to open the door and tumble out, rolling across the gravel into oblivion. He dragged myself back with a line designed to keep the old man talking, anything but have him fret about Gus’ future. "Must have driven you nuts, floating around out there with nobody to talk to..."
"It had its moments. I remember once, there was this terrible storm off Ensenada. In rough seas, those little boats, they'd throw you around pretty damned hard."
"I know, I know. Even the captain got sick."
"We all were. It was bad. I was trying to keep the radio shack dry, and the first mate comes in jabbering and screaming.”
“In Japanese of course.” Gus stared out the window at the greenery gliding by.
“He grabs me..."
"I've heard this story before.” Gus braced his hand against the top of the window, his elbow tight against the lower window sill.
Oblivious, his father droned on. "I thought we were going down. He's hysterical, shouting in Japanese. I try to get him to talk in English, we're getting thrown around the radio shack like chickens in a Mexican market truck."
Gus spun around to face his father, his shoulder angled against the door, ready to bail. "I told you, goddammit! I've heard this story before!" He entertained visions of the lacerations and abrasions he would incur if he tumbled out the Plymouth door. “About a million fucking times,” he muttered.
"By this time I'm panicked. I haven't got my life jacket and I grab for it, but the first mate, he waves me on. We pile up on deck, and off to the east, over the coast, the storm clouds have broken off, and the sun is breaking through. The whole crew is hanging onto the lanyards for dear life just watching the sunrise, and that little tuna boat is pitching and screwing around, standing on its nose in every swell."
His voice grew distant. "And they're just standing there, jabbering in Japanese, watching the sunrise. A sunrise! A beautiful, beautiful sunrise." The old Plymouth chugged over a rusty green arch spanning the Boston & Maine railroad tracks.
Ayer, Massachusetts: a tired little Army town, existed only to serve Fort Devens. The sad strip of main street revealed its desperate dependence on the military: officers' uniforms for sale in the store fronts, too many bars; the used car lot listed deals for dogfaces. Tattoo parlors, lawyers' shingles, and photo shops offering quick pics for mom and the girl friend stared down from the second floor of the old brick buildings.
Gus and his father burbled down the Main Street and floated into the parking lot on spongy shock absorbers. Johnny pulled the old Plymouth up to the big, dirty window of the Trailways Bus Depot.
Gus broke out of the passenger door like a prisoner released. "Give me the keys," he demanded coldly.
"What for?" His old man sat there, curious, motionless, letting the engine idle with it’s annoying connecting rod—rap rap rap rap rap.
"The trunk!!! I gotta get my bag out."
"All right. Okay." He turned off the engine and climbed out of the Plymouth, trudged to the back and fiddled with the trunk while Gus stood by, ready to jump out of his shoes, his hands in his chinos, holding back his rage.
His father pulled the suitcase out of the trunk and handed it to Gus. "There ya go," he offered.
Gus grabbed the suitcase out of his father’s hands.
His old man followed him into the bus station. Without looking back, Gus crossed to the ticket window. Through the bars, a scarecrow of an old Yankee peered at him through watery eyes.
"One for Philadelphia,” Gus snapped. “One way."
While he was pulling out a wad of cash, his old man wandered over to the news stand and began pushing around a revolving wire book rack. The rack squeaked unevenly in the empty terminal. The ticket master looked past Gus, annoyed. The squeaking droned on.
The old Yankee turned his attention back to Gus. "Philadelphia. Cahn't get there from here." He drawled.
"What are you talking about?"
"New York. You gotta purchase a ticket to New York. That’ll be where you connect to Philadelphia."
" Okay. Whatever it takes." Gus pulled out a carefully folded sheaf of bills and peeled off a brand-new, withdrawn-from-savings $20.
His father called out above the squeaking book rack. "Got your ticket?"
"I'm buying my ticket now. I haven't "got" my ticket yet. Just a sec."
Gus glanced through the bars at the ticket agent. Did this guy think his old man was a lunatic like Gus did? Instead, he selected a select a ticket blank from the tray on the wall and stamped it. “That’ll be eleven dollahs and forty-five cents.”
Gus shoved a $20 under the grill. His old man didn’t offer to pay. It never would have occurred to him. Money meant nothing. Not because he had it; he didn’t. He would bounce check after check on the family account until Gus’ mother would wail in despair.
Now, he held up a paperback from the book rack, but Gus couldn't see the title. His old man called out, his voice thin and personal in the empty terminal. "You ever read this? McTeague? He started to cross toward Gus holding up the book like a question mark. The newsstand guy leaned out over his stack of Daily Records and Globes, and hollered past the stub of a cigar that punctuated his round face. "Hey hey hey! You gonna buy that book or borrow it for a while?"
“Oh yeah.” Gus’ father jerked around like a puppet on a string. "Sure. How much is it?"
The newsie looked at him as if he wasn’t sure how this man had reached middle age. "How the hell do I know?" Contempt edged his voice.
Gus rolled his eyes in humiliation but apparently the old Yankee ticket agent didn't give a shit about Gus’ old man—or his absent-mindedness. "One way to Philadelphia," the agent chuckled. "If I was you, I'd make damned sure I had a way to get back." He chuckled again. “You know what W.C. Fields said…”
“I’d rather be in Philadelphia,” Gus snapped. “On his gravestone.” Gus’ old man loved corny jokes and Vaudeville punch lines.
Annoyed, the ticket master slid the ticket under the grill.
Gus took the ticket and turned around. "Don't buy the book, Pop. I don't need it."
"No, you ought to read it,” he called out. “It's about a dentist in San Francisco.” He handed the newsstand guy a dollar bill. "Well, it’s about more than that. Lot’s more. It’s an American groundbreaker. For its time. You’ll see. You'll like it. You can read it on the bus." He handed me the book. The back of his hands looked like parchment.
Behind the anger and impatience, Gus’ eyes began to ache. "Thanks, Pop. I..."
"Have a good time this summer." He studied a gum-speckled square of the bus station floor. "This Students for a Democratic Society...Why don't you join a labor union, you wanna organize people? That's the way to do it. Get 'em where they work."
"Never mind. You'll probably learn something." The roar of a diesel pushes into the terminal. Beyond the dirty glare of the sun on the window, the Silver and Red of the Trailways Bus glided into view.
"Pop, I gotta go now."
"Enjoy the book."
Gus jammed the book into his jacket pocket, and clutched his belongings. His old man followed him to the door and stood there while Gus handed the suitcase to the driver. The driver's blue uniform shirt bulged over a beer belly as he bent to stow his bag.
Gus couldn't wait any longer. He climbed halfway up the bus steps, then stopped, turned...
The driver navigated his girth past him into the driver's seat.
Gus looked back down the steps at his father, standing below him in his khaki pants and blue oxford cloth shirt, clenching and unclenching his hands. "Thanks for the ride, Pop."
The newsstand guy came to the door and called out to his old man. "Hey, mister. You want your change? "
"Oh, yeah. Sure." My old man turned and walked back inside the bus station.
Gus climbed the last step onto the bus. The doors closed, the diesel revved. Through the double-plated glare of glass, he could see his old man talking to the newsstand guy. The bus roared out of the parking lot and his old man faded from view. Johnny never did say goodbye; and neither did Gus.
* * *
Six weeks later, Gus’ old man found out that, once again, he had been denied a security clearance because of his Communist Party past. The clearance was the last obstacle standing between him and a job in the private sector that would have guaranteed him and his family full health and retirement benefits. Gus’ old man kissed his wife and youngest soon goodbye, drove to work, and committed suicide.
Two hours later, in Philadelphia, Gus pulled the receiver away from his ear and announced to his SDS compatriots, “My father just killed himself.”
A woman in the group pulled Gus to her. He felt the incongruity of sexual arousal stir in him as she held him and began to weep; he felt nothing except her breasts against his chest.
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© 2009 Charles Degelman