They call me Johnny Knickers.
Other guys wear long pants,
I run faster in knickers,
I need to run fast.
My name is not Jaunito
It is Johnny
My papa says I am Spanish
I say I am American
No, he says
Your feet are in America
But your heart is in Spain
No, I say.
Papa, your feet left Spain
But not your heart
Leave mine alone.
Where he is going, off the coast of Africa, he can only run to the vastness of the great Atlantic.
Johnny can’t swim.
His papa, a Spanish immigrant, had become overwhelmed by the unexpected: The start of America’s great depression; the necessity of his oldest daughter’s marriage; the birth of his grandson; and the death of his wife. Of great concern was the budding alcoholism of a young, live in, son-in-law that was destroying his home. It is why he sends his youngest children, Cora and Johnny, to live in southern Spain. It was a time when Spain, like that of Europe, was also in a deep depression. In addition, a social discontent would soon result in Spain’s unforgiving and bloody civil war.
Johnny could care less.
Soon to be fifteen, he is older both in looks and experience with a love of city streets. A blonde hair blue eyed thief, and gang leader, who is about to be taken, along with his sister, Cora, soon to be sixteen, from all that he loves to a land off the coast of Africa. He imagines a dungeon, and vows to escape, just as he had to from the cops, other gangs, school, and his papa. He is known for quick exits: trucks, cars, trolleys, and trains that saved him more times than he deserved.
Plus his grande pocket knife.
Not sure of their own identity, they must first learn to understand a culture and its passions for life. A strange and intoxicating land with its Moorish past and Catholic presence. A land of Gothic buildings, bullfights, carnivals, fiestas and ancient white villages. A people with a love affair of its Blessed Virgin, its tapas, and fine Sherries. And then there are the gypsies.
Johnny likes Sherry and the gypsies.
In a region called Andalucia, off the coast of Africa there is a small village called Puerto de Santa Maria whose waters helped launch Christopher Columbus on his journey to discover the new world. It is where the brother and sister would discover the old world of the Phoenicians, the Iberians, the Celts, the Visigoths, the Romans, the Jews, the Muslims, the Christians and more important, themselves. While Cora would become infected with a love of Spain and its people …
Johnny would become immune.
But, the Andalusians would not let this story be told without a sense of humor. For they above all, with its history of conquests and reconquests, realize how absurd life can be on this boulder called earth, and how we chip away at it with our brutal conflicts.
Johnny uses his pocket knife.
(The story of Johnny Knickers is undergoing a complete rewrite. I will post excerpts when possible.)
El Viage (The Voyage)
It was early morning when Johnny awoke. For a moment, he had forgotten where he was with the confinement of a cell like cabin. But the unsteady roll of its space reminded him. He looked down at his sister in the lower bunk bed, dark hair covered her cheeks, just as sleep covered her eyes. He thought of her tears, so silent, as she kissed her father goodbye on the pier. She was his favorite. She had brought him such joy. Yesterday, as the boat bellowed and moved away from the pier, she let her tears gush. She had held them until her papa could not see her agony. Her voice, drowned by all around her, cried out to her papa knowing she would never see him again. But not Johnny. It was as if birth had spared him of such emotions of life. I is why he now thought of his big sister as his little sister, so emotional, dependent, so good, so unwise about the streets. Yes, she needed to be protected. And yes, his anger was greater than his love for his papa. it is why only his fingers waved to his papa.
When he was first told about Puerto, he revolted in protest; he said he would never go, and he ran away to live on the streets. The streets were his true home. It’s where he ruled. What would the guys do without him––his gang––all five of them. He was their leader, the one who set up the steals: department stores, grocery stores, any store worth the take. The challenge had always been how not to get caught, avoid school, and hop trucks. He was born with wings, and they, his papa, his teachers, the police put him in a cage. They didn’t understand that freedom taught him the wisdom of the streets; to out think those that had things, and take what they had. How could they know the thrill of the chase, the strength of defiance, the bonding of a of gang; the art of surviving beyond the inner walls of his world. For two days his good side had fought his bad side. When he returned home, he said to his papa, “I will take my sister to Spain, then I will return, if I have to swim back.”
His father half smiled, and nodded as if to say, bueno, and when you come back. I will be with your mama.
On the second day, Johnny climbed to the top deck of the boat. He looked out at the horizon, smelled the salt of the Atlantc, and spit on its endless rolls. So Vast and useless to him: no surface to run on, no trucks to hop, no fruit to steal, no pockets to picks. Just something for big boats to float on, and take people to places they didn’t want to go to. He looked around, and decided the boat would be his neighborhood. There was so much to discover. Those with money. Other guys … maybe, like him. A small gang. And, for the first time, he felt the excitement of the streets ––– in the middle of the Great Atlantic.
Deep in the ships hull, its fogoneros, bare chested with sweat, took turns shoveling coal in the mouth a large furnace that fed the steam engines that turned its propellors. Johnny watched the fogoneros––big men, muscled, red skinned from the heat, and soot layered, and he thought of his papa––so small, so thin, so clean and neat. And, he wondered how such a man could have bent, lifted, and thrown heavy chunks coal all across the Atlantic–– and back? Forget it. Not him. Not Johnny Gonzalez, even though he was six inches taller, and forty pounds heavier than his papa.
He checked the twenty dollar bill in his pocket, and heard his papa’s voice, “Save for food, for bad days, no gamble with sailors, you hear?” Then, he heard his own voice, “Si, papa.” But of course he meant, no. Si always meant no with his papa.
He climbed to the next level, where a group of sailors in soiled undershirts had gathered in a circle. In its hub, a mixture of Spanish and American coins, along with a few dollar bills made up the jackpot. A gray unshaven sailor threw the dice and called out for a seven. There were moans and curses as he picked up his winnings. Johnny figured there had to be close to fifty bucks in the pot. He waved his twenty dollar bill, and with a cocky smile, said, “Make room for me and Lady Luck, mi amigos.”
They were quick to accomadate him, not knowing he was a Colwyn, a South Philly, a CenterCity crap shooter. A stree kid with the skills of a river boat gambler. In less than a half hour, he was penniless. Still, he loved the action, and vowed to come back. As he walked away, someone called out to him, “Hey, kid, guess Lady Luck can’t swim.” They all laughed. Johnny laughed, and looked down in the hole where the other fogoneros labored to keep the boat moving away from his beloved streets, and he wondered how many shovels it took his papa to make twenty bucks.
His sister scolded him and refused to give him any of her twenty dollars. He was unaware of the gold coins she hid in her bra. In every way, he knew she was opposite of him. Her love of reading, of people, and family. He too had a love of people, but for a different reason. He admired her obvious contentment. Her easy smile, her soft words, and her eagerness to please others. But, as calm as he was under pressure, she would go into a frenzy, and he would call her a water bug that couldn’t swim––just flail. He enjoyed teasing her–– even more so, when he knew she did not understand it. She woulld worry and he was grateful since he could not.
While he wandered, she stayed in their small berth. Together they would go to breakfast and dinner, talk to people, and return to sleep. Twice he took her to the top deck, where she would sit and read, or marvel at the power and the beauty of the great Atlantic with its unseen life, and endless stretch of water. Curiosities that would never enter his mind. So he would listen like a child to its momma.
By day he would wander, but at night he would return to her. They would have dinner, mix with the other passengers, and later that evening return to their berth. He would wait outside as she changed into her night gown, and they would sleep in the comfort of their respective bunk beds.
But on the fourth night, he had not returned for dinner or to sleep in their cabin. With a sense of panic, Cora notified the steward. “My brother is missing,” she said, “I have not seen him for dinner. She pointed below to the boiler room. “He could be hurt … down there.” She pointed to the ocean, “He could have fallen overboard. Please find him. Oh God, please.”
Earlier that evening, Johnny had showered, and dressed in the new clothes that his papa had bought for him. White pants and shoes, and a blue long sleeve shirt that aged him. A cigarette added a touch of sophistication. He made his way to the first class section of the boat, leaned on its railing, and gave casual draw on his cigarette. He pretended, like the others on deck, to take pleasure in the sounds of the three musicians who strolled up and down playing Spanish music in honor of the setting sun. With the cunning of a hungry predator, he observed the prey with their full pockets and purses.
Without realizing it, he was being sized up by another predator –– the kind any man would long to be caught by. She stood not more than a hundred feet away toward the back end of the boat, where it was empty of any passengers. She walked unhurried, along the railing, towards him. Now less than ten feet from him, she said, “Hola.” Her voice was deep, smoky, and assured.
He turned, looked, and stared.
He had seen similar grins before –– invitations. Older women mostly. Never the young ones –– they smiled. Even at fifteen, he knew the difference. His mother called him a boy man. Some called him a man boy. He was confused between the two. All he knew was that he was tall and strong with wide shoulders. That he had unkempt blonde hair, blue eyes, and a face chiseled like a Latin statue. The mirror did not lie––he was handsome.
And women were not blind, no matter how young or old. He figured this one was sort of old. Certainly older, not yet over the hill. She had to be all of twenty seven, he thought. Black shoeshine hair that laid soft on her shoulders, and moved with the sea breeze. Eyes that would not let go. A body… what a body, moving, yet still, and that grin. He smiled back, and waited.
She moved towards him –– slow. Her grin –– fixed. She stops –– close to him, and asks, “español?”
“American,” he says.
“Ah,” she says, “Español blood, si?”
“Si. Sangre Español.”
“Bueno.” Her grin widens.
He stands there looking at her –– thinking. A real Sheba, sexy is not enough of a word. Holy hell, if only the guys could see this.
“Alone?” she asked.
“Y mi hermano,” he says and looks below the deck as if he can see Cora.
“Oh? she says and moves closer.
He thinks, husband, boy friend, and steps back and looks around.
As if she had read his mind, she says, “My husband, he old. He back there.” She points beyond the stern of the boat, beyond the water, and says, “I am alone.”
Johnny nods as if he understands, and he does. It is not the first time. He waits for her to make the next move. Not to seem egear as to give away his youth.
“Cigarette?” she asks.
He takes one from his pack, and holds it out to her.
“You light for me?” Her eyes never move from his, her grin frozen.
He lights the cigarette, inhales, and again holds it out to her.
She opens her mouth, just enough and points to it.
He places the cigarette between her lips and feels the growth begin.
She looks down, as if she notices, and her grin widens.
Johnny notices, and feels both exposed, and embarrassed.
“I fix,” she says.
He feels at a total loss. Gone are such thing as sophistication. Instead, he’s horny, unable to speak, to think, afraid to move, worried it would rub. He feels stupid and trapped in his boyhood.
She seems to sense his despair. “Mi cabin,” she says, is muy grande. I show you?”
She is so beautiful. The other women were not so beautiful, just hungry. She is both. He thinks of his twenty dollars, and the jackpots he lost. He remembers the sailors making fun of him. Telling him Lady Luck can’t swim. They should see her now.
She held out her hand.
He took it.