The Latest Incarnation of Secondhand Johnny
By Mark Rigney
Illustration by Fotografía 1606
The county-wide no-smoking ordinance had not been expected to pass, but in the end the vote was six to three in favor. No surprise, then, that the evening atmosphere at Susan Kesper’s Red Lion Tavern was dismal even by local standards. Shoulders slumped, chins tucked down, and the collective train of thought added up to “There goes the neighborhood, tavern included.”
With her elbows propped on the bar and the newspaper spread before her, Susan’s first worry was for Johnny. Secondhand Johnny, everybody called him, although no one had any idea if this was his real name — or if he even had an official given name. Secondhand Johnny was name enough, and he answered to it as needed.
“It’ll kill him,” said Susan, voicing what was on everyone’s mind. “It’ll flat dead kill ‘im.”
The saying of it nearly (but not quite) convinced her that Johnny really was in mortal danger, but since mortal he most certainly was not, well. The idea of something actually killing Johnny sounded, at best, off-kilter.
Johnny had formed on a crowded Friday night, and had done so with such subtle craft and diaphanous grace that at first no one had taken any notice. One minute, the haze of cigarette smoke had been airborne, curling toward the ceiling fan and the pressed tin above, and the next…well, the next anyone knew, Johnny had sprawled across the top of a chair-backed stool halfway between Ben Frasier and Skunk Schwegmann, for all the world as if he’d occupied that chair from time out of mind.
He smoked, of course, and he looked like hell. He wore a frayed and rumpled smoke-gray suit over a pale, gray-skinned body, and he went so far in his affectation as to leave a battered pork-pie hat perched at all times atop his head. Imagine an early image of Frank Sinatra, not so young as to be fresh, and not so old as to have put on weight, then pile on several centuries of hard times and awful experience. To fashion the image further, let the devil take the hindmost — and then the foremost, too. Let ten worlds of cares droop the shoulders and sink the cheeks, let murky thoughts linger where happiness might otherwise have grown, then push on the entire frame from above with a force of gravity far beyond standard for the earth, such that every move, even blinking, becomes a titanic effort, a sigh. Take all these traits together and there will be Secondhand Johnny, the Red Lion’s ultimate denizen: Amusing, yes, but wry and morose. Experienced, sure, and possibly even wise, but a phantom nonetheless, or so theorized the regulars: a phantom born from a fog-bound world of hurt and melancholy.
That this world might be their own — and of their own devising — was not a proposition with which the regulars bothered themselves. It was both too awful and too obvious to require mention.
Everybody liked Johnny. He could talk, he could order a drink — although where the liquid went once he’d consumed it, no one could say — and he knew more stories than anyone alive, with fresh yarns delivered every night. He always had a smile for Susan and a tip of his hat for the rest. Dependable as clockwork, it took only a few lit cigarettes on any given night to coax him out of the ether and into a seat, and once there, he could regale the assemblage for hours with tales of hobos and wine, broken hearts and crossed lovers, coal mine disasters and endless voyages on bottle-green seas. When he spoke of Pharaoh’s army, glorious in their finery, marching at a quick martial trot in pursuit of the Israelites, he sounded as if he’d been there himself, embodied perhaps in the pitchy smoke of ceremonial torches. When he explained the grisly details of bubonic plague, how the boils could swell a child to twice its normal size, every listener in earshot felt that he’d been transported directly to the tallow-lit shacks of Europe’s Middle Ages. He could speak and speak well on all subjects, all periods, and all manner of people. He could hold forth for as long as anyone cared to hear, which was, on most nights, right up ’til “Last call!” and beyond.
Or, on nights when silence ruled his companions, he could dive deep into the monastic devotions of alcohol and reflection. He knew for a certainty, as only a pure barfly can, that the deepest of thoughts do sometimes reside in the bottom of an emptied glass.
All the Red Lion regulars smoked. It was very nearly a requirement, like a secret password without which entrance would be denied. Ben Frasier smoked, and had since the age of twelve; he’d been a welder with Alcoa, a union man through and through. Skunk Schwegmann, the crew chief, smoked, including on the job, where he stood surrounded by Number Two pine studs, tinder-dry, their eight-foot lengths standing straight to the sky and ready for either a layer of rigid insulation or incineration by way of a stray spark. Lloyd Fentress smoked, typically in spurts; he’d been in the process of quitting for fifteen years. Even Josh Fuller, the youngest of the daily barflies, smoked: generics, menthols, half-finished stubs found carpeting the floor or abandoned in the ashtray. Josh was easily the most addicted of them all.
Susan smoked, of course. It was an occupational hazard, part and parcel of long-term tavern ownership.
Ben craned his beefy neck up and around to better see the newspaper article. “When’s it take effect?” he asked. “How long we got?”
“Three weeks,” said Susan. “Takes effect first of July.”
As she spoke, the narrow metal hands of the bar’s ancient Falstaff wall clock slid toward five thirty in the afternoon. Unpretentious and dark, awash in the pungent smells of barely tapped sorrow, spilled American beers, and the ever-present fog of enveloping smoke, the Red Lion had been open since one, and so far the only warm bodies present were Susan herself, her four regulars, and two unknown women sipping gin fizzes at a distant booth. The ice machine clanked and hummed in an agony of despair, the neon Old Style and Budweiser signs glowed with witchcraft colors in the curtained front window, and outside, the dripping June rain fell like bad, unending news.
Three weeks. This notion presented itself as vague to Susan — indeed, to all those gathered around the newspaper that evening — for the simple reason that her particular stock in trade involved negating, as much as possible, any sense of time. The perpetual twilight of a good bar swallows time and serves as a plausible denial of the passage of the sun, the orbit of the moon, or the need to do anything more ambitious than order up another drink. The announcement of any event that might thwart that effort amounts to a declaration of war.
Those encountering Susan for the first time, especially, but not exclusively, men, considered her to be tough, in part because of her height and broad build — the sweep of her high, flat forehead — but also because of her stoic, silent demeanor. She had never fit the bill of the traditional affable barkeep. Indeed, entire days sidled past without Susan uttering any more syllables than were absolutely required to fill an order or make change.
Ultimately, neither her quietude nor her imposing size told much about the guarded Susan kept within, the one who still mused, in a vague manner, on the time when she would be swept away by some dashing Prince Charming, if not on a steed then at least in a pickup, to be abruptly carried off to a new life not entirely of her choosing, but one which would nonetheless allow her to adopt new styles, new routines and new friends. Whether she wound up in the tumbleweed desert, a fairy-tale castle or the stink of a Greenland fishery, it was all the same to her; what mattered was the impending rescue. A Romantic agent of change would one day come and, on seeing her, recognize her as his sole object and purpose in life. It would be a simple matter to follow such a one to the ends of the earth.
That notions of rescue (and by a man) were old fashioned and backward bothered Susan not at all. She knew considerably less of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem than they did of her, perhaps because she belonged body and soul to a different, now all but inadmissible age. While her external days were matter-of-fact and bottom-line, both her pulse rate and her heart carried the stamp of Gothic Romance: pure, heightened, and always deferred.
“We need a plan,” mused Skunk Schwegmann, whose job it was to always have plans. “We need a plan, and we got three weeks to come up with it.”
Ben, retired for five years but only just pushing sixty, shook his head. “Let’s not rush off too quick. Let’s ask Johnny what he thinks.”
All the men drew deeply on their cigarettes, and when they exhaled, the plumes of bluish smoke rose above their heads and twined there, vines of mist rolling one atop the next until soon, there was a presence, a sense of shape. The men, and Susan, lit fresh cigarettes and took fresh breaths. They rarely called Johnny with any intentionality, but they knew he would come if the need was great, if the air became sufficiently heavy, and so they kept at their poisonous work until Secondhand Johnny alit in the corner seat at the bar, in good view of everyone, and said, as he usually did on first arriving, “Compadres, what’s the good word?”
Ben Frasier, lips pursed, his heavy, jowly skull rocking back and forth as if on a pivot, simply said, “Not a good word anyplace. Tonight, Johnny, it’s bad. All bad.”
They explained, and Johnny nodded with his usual pensiveness, no more, no less. “That could do for me,” he said after a time. “Yes, sir. That could just about do me in.”
“No,” Susan said, surprised at her own insistence, at the sharp antagonism with which she launched her rebuttal. “We’re going to think of something. I promise. I swear.”
Secondhand Johnny smiled like a drunk suddenly in possession of a vast and wonderful secret. “Howzabout the usual, darling? I think this definitely calls for a drink.”
Three weeks. Three short weeks shot through with awkward, half-made plans, outlandish solutions kicking like newborns and far less gainly, and more than a few raised tempers. The barfly regulars became more regular still, so intent on the saving of their insubstantial friend that they hardly graced their homes except to sleep and rise once more for work. Ben, well versed in the flexibilities of retirement, began spending nights in the stockroom in back, a dingy space already outfitted with a cot, since Susan had learned long ago that a certain class of alcoholic does better sleeping it off in the company of friends (or friendly strangers) than in the cold-comfort confines of the local jail.
Planning, however, turned out not to be the group’s strong suit. True, ideas sprouted like weeds — despite Johnny’s endless tale-spinning interruptions, which ranged from the pyres of Aztec sacrifices to the wildfires of Yellowstone — but what the combined forces of the barflies could not muster in effective originality, they most certainly managed in the realm of the critique. No sooner had a potential solution been proposed than it was shot down by the nearest available neighbor.
The heart of the trouble, said Skunk, was no one knew precisely what Johnny was; without that essential information, there wasn’t anything else to consider.
“So what about it?” Skunk demanded of Secondhand Johnny. “I mean, what the hell are you anyway?”
Johnny cocked one eye at the ceiling and considered the matter. “One supposes,” he said eventually, “that I’m a sort of haunt. But I don’t feel real tied down — not to this place, anyway. I’m pretty sure I could up and walk out that door there anytime…I just don’t have the hankering to do so. And besides, if I were a normal ghost or whatnot, I’d have a history, yeah? Some wrong to right, a mission or quest. And frankly, in that department, I haven’t got a pot to piss in. My first memory, gents, is of being right here with you, elbows on this fine oak bar, and Ms. Susan asking what I might like to have.”
This was more or less true. On first sighting Johnny, Susan had in fact sat down hard on the floor, her legs too wobbly to support her. Her initial query about a drink had been spoken entirely out of habit, and had been uttered from a seated position on the rubber floor mat, out of sight behind the bar.
Johnny’s reply had become the stuff of local legend: “I’ll have what she’s having.”
No one minded that he’d cribbed the line from a movie — a movie he claimed not to have ever seen — for what mattered was that he’d made them laugh out loud before they’d even had a chance to ask where on earth he’d come from. Before, even, they’d had a chance to be frightened.
Since then, most newcomers had mistaken Secondhand Johnny’s semi-solid appearance as a trick of too much drink and the Red Lion’s erratic, poorly designed lighting. He’d regaled perfect strangers with international escapades, political opinions, and even dubious theology, sometimes for hours, and they always left none the wiser, convinced that Johnny, like themselves, had a life outside the bar and would, like everyone else, return to it soon enough.
Now Josh Fuller spoke up, puzzled. “You say you don’t have no memories. But you do, you got to, ‘cos you tell all these stories. You got more stories than anyone I ever knew.”
“Sure,” said Secondhand Johnny, lighting up a smoke, “but as you might’ve noticed, not one of ’em’s mine. You don’t hear me saying ‘I’ in a single one.”
“Well, how the hell—”
“Don’t ask me. I just know things. It don’t mean they ever happened to me. Sure, I think that once upon a time, I had a mother, a father. I got born, grew up, died. But maybe then something went wrong. Being dead didn’t work out for me like it did for others, so now? Now, all I got is what you see. Smoke.”
Two weeks ticked by, and most of another. Out in the world beyond, the fireflies rose in clouds from the fields, the June-bugs batted against the mesh of reluctant screen doors, and the fireworks vendors did gangbuster business in preparation for the nation’s latest birthday. Inside, the atmosphere went from gloomy to bleak. Everything had been suggested and then refuted: Storing or otherwise containing Johnny in a large glass beaker and only taking him out for special occasions; Releasing him high atop the smoke stack at Ben’s old Alcoa haunts; Risking jail in direct defiance of the upcoming law; Somehow solidifying Johnny’s endless tiny particulates and preserving him as a statue; Calling the ACLU; And taking up arms in a blaze of First Amendment glory and gunning down anyone who refused to enter and light up on Johnny’s behalf.
“Last call,” said Susan on the Red Lion’s final night of legal smoking.
“Hell,” murmured Lloyd. “This time, I am quitting for sure. Swear to God on high.”
“You do that,” smiled Secondhand Johnny. “These things’ll earn ya’ a one-way ticket to the morgue, that’s a fact.”
One by one, they shook hands, embraced, and exited with the shuffling embarrassment of mourners at a poorly attended funeral. To try and ease their passage, Secondhand Johnny gave them a cheery, perfunctory wave.
“Don’t worry about me,” he said. “Don’t you worry ’bout a thing.”
The heavy black door whispered shut. Susan turned the deadbolt and latched the chain. She jabbed at the switch that controlled the neons in the window and meandered back to the bar where Johnny sat, the fingers of his ashen right hand absently stroking the rim of a whiskey sour.
“It’s funny,” said Johnny, after they’d lingered in silence for a time, with Susan pulling on a Winston and Johnny continuing to ignore his drink. “Funny to think there’s a law been passed against me. Like it’s personal or something, y’know? I tell you what, the government starts doin’ that kinda thing with normal folks, it’d be quite a precedent.”
“I love you,” said Susan.
After a thoughtful moment, Johnny asked, “Why?”
Susan stubbed out the last of her cigarette in an ashtray stolen years ago from a competing bar over on Sixth Street. “Too big a question.”
“Sorry,” said Johnny.
She took his hand, felt it give beneath her fingers. His skin radiated no heat, he was the exact temperature of the surrounding air, neither more nor less. It was the first time they’d ever touched.
“I don’t fall in love too easy,” she said.
“And I never know why.”
Secondhand Johnny nodded as if nothing could be plainer or more natural. “A fella couldn’t do any better,” he said at last.
“I’m too tall,” Susan said. “Too big.”
“Wouldn’t want to get into a shoving match with you, that’s for sure,” Johnny agreed.
“Got a mind of my own.”
“I like your mind just fine,” said Johnny. “What I want to know is, how about your lungs?”
The question hung in the air exactly like the soft breath of smoke that had produced it. After a moment, Secondhand Johnny reached across the bar and caressed Susan’s cheek with the back of one languid hand. Cat-like, Susan leaned into the touch, eyes half-closed. Johnny traced the bone of her cheek with his knuckles, angling down until his fingers brushed her lips.
“Now,” said Johnny, “breathe.”
Susan inhaled, her lips just parted as if to hold a precious, freshly lit cigarette. With the soft intake of air, the edges of Johnny’s fingertips turned to vapor, losing both form and solidity, and rushed inside the silent portal of Susan’s waiting mouth.
“Again,” said Johnny, and his eyes met hers, gray gazing at blue, death peering at life. “Again.”
She took hold of his arm, one hand clamping onto either side of his unresisting elbow, and she planted her mouth on what remained of the back of Johnny’s monochromatic hand. This time, the inrush of breath was hungry, deliberately fierce, and Johnny sighed in turn; his eyes slipped shut in an ecstasy of quiet delight.
“Again,” he murmured. “Again…”
With Johnny’s hand and lower arm already gone, Susan leaned down and kissed the folds of his sleeve, suckling the fabric and pulling it inside with greedy, insistent force. Johnny rose to meet her, he stood up on his chair and clambered onto the top of the bar, their mouths met in a frenzied, heat-absent kiss — but only for an instant, and after that, Susan’s mouth bored into Johnny’s head, into the formless dim tangle of skull, hair, and gray matter. Teardrops splashed the wood, but even as her hands trembled in rebellious panic, Susan continued, eyes squeezed shut now so that she would not have to see the ruin of her lover, the headless, armless torso, the legs beneath still kicking to stand higher on the stool top, guided by who knew what. Lower, lower, lower still, she worked her way down and down, absorbing him breath by breath, right to the soles of his weary, smoke-shod shoes.
She paused, she gasped for air. She let out a delicate, involuntary cough.
The ice machine clanked to life. The Falstaff clock advanced in stolid silence: another timeless minute gone. Outside, a repair truck trundled by, its reluctant gears shifting in tandem with the Doppler effect, and then the roar receded quickly into an unseen, night-black distance.
Susan pushed herself up and away from the bar.
“Johnny?” she called. Her voice cracked, rasping like bark; it sounded suddenly as if she’d been a triple-pack-a-day-smoker for life. “Johnny?”
She had not expected an answer. She did not receive one. Even when she breathed out as hard as she could, pushing with every ounce of strength her diaphragm afforded, nothing came. Secondhand Johnny was gone.
V. A Hobo’s Lullaby
The next evening, with Ben, Skunk, Lloyd and Josh all at the bar, all drinking, all fingering their packs of unlit brand-name cigarettes, Susan told them a lie.
“Walked out the door,” she said. “Walked out, tipped his hat, and that was the last I saw him.”
She coughed sharply, and shook her head to clear it. “He said to wish all y’all the best.”
Ben drained his glass with a slurp, and Skunk stared at his cuticles. Josh flicked on his lighter and set a coaster on fire; as it charred toward his hand, he dropped the remains into his pint glass of beer. An angry cloud of steam rose up, a puff of visible air disappearing even as it fled the confines of the glass.
Lloyd looked around at his companions. “A law oughtn’t chase a man away,” he said. “A law oughtn’t not do that, not to anyone.”
“They start takin’ any more of my freedoms,” Ben said, “and I’m gonna start carryin’ my gun, you know what I’m sayin’?”
Skunk laughed. “Yeah, sure.”
“What’s that s’posed to mean?”
“Threatening to carry a gun. You’re a real big man.”
“Hey, now,” Ben began, half-rising from his seat. “We got a problem here?”
“No, we don’t,” Susan said, and she shoved a broom handle between the two men. “We don’t have a problem and we’re not going to. Got it?”
“Skunk, I got a question,” said Lloyd, as if being chipper could calm any storm. “All these years and I don’t really know — is Skunk your real name?”
Skunk swiveled away from Ben to scowl at Lloyd. “No,” he said, and he picked up his drink and slouched his way to a deserted, distant booth.
After that, the four men rarely sat together, and Josh, who could hardly sit still for five minutes without a lit cigarette even in peaceful circumstances, ceased coming to the Red Lion altogether. Susan worried briefly that the smoking ban really would kill off business, but over the next month, an entirely new set of regulars appeared, trickling in here, settling in there, learning the contours of their newly adopted favorite seats one gentle hour at a time. They were younger, more fastidious, apt to order mixed drinks over a beer, and vocally willing to trade the succor of nicotine for the seeping charm of alcohol. They smiled when they ordered; they left generous tips. When Susan tallied her receipts at the end of the second full month following the no-smoking edict, she was pleased and surprised to discover that the county government had inadvertently given her a seven-percent raise.
She also worried — for a time — that Secondhand Johnny’s parting gift would be lung cancer: a fatal tumor, or at the very least the endless rattling cough of permanent congestion and lifelong emphysema. Instead, the cough she’d suffered in the days and weeks after imbibing the smoke-man dissipated, eased and finally vanished altogether. She found it startlingly easy to quit smoking, cold turkey. In a rare visit to her doctor, she was given a clean bill of health, and when she tested her lung capacity at a county fair health kiosk the following summer, she placed in the eighty-fifth percentile for adult women of similar age, athletes included.
What replaced the cough was a sudden volubility, an impetuous tendency to launch into esoteric stories, stories that often left her gasping; the twists and turns of the narratives had the capacity to surprise everyone, including herself. More than one of her “new” regulars told her she was the funniest, most entertaining bartender they’d ever encountered, and that she was at least half the reason the Red Lion had become their watering hole of choice.
Try as she might, she could not stay still. The seemingly congenital lack of ambition that had led her to bartending in the first place eroded steadily, replaced by a feeling of lightness, light-footedness, a burning, urgent wanderlust that grew more intense with every passing day. She dreamed by nights not of places, but of people, of stories yet to be encountered, of tales of her own that willing ears the world over might want to hear. Eighteen months to the day from the passage of the no-smoking ordinance, Susan sold the Red Lion to a neighbor, donated her furniture to Goodwill, vacated her apartment, and lugged a newly purchased backpack, stuffed full with clothes and travel supplies, to the local Greyhound station.
“Where to?” said the man behind the ticket counter.
“Pharaoh’s army,” said Susan. “That, or just about anyplace not here.”
The ticket seller pursed his lips and frowned; he preferred exact destinations, ones he’d heard of. Still, he liked this customer’s grey, storm-cloud eyes, and the smoky timbre of her voice gave him unexpected chills. He had an odd idea that he wanted to sit down with her, tell her all his life’s history, every last scrap, not in hopes that she’d understand or offer some sort of ministerial forgiveness, but with the sole desire that she’d carry his story with her, that she might somehow swallow it up and absorb it, like fast-flowing water licking silt off a muddy bank.
He almost gave in — almost — but he was on the clock, anchored to duty and work. He checked himself, and then he checked his schedule.
“Right-o,” he said. “That’ll be forty-three dollars. Departing in, let’s see…twenty-five minutes. One way to Pharaoh’s army, and may the road rise up to meet you.”