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Cousin Johnny


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So what do you think happened to Johnny? my cousin Loretta asked me. Oh, who knows, I said, sighing. Kidnaped by aliens? Or maybe he's in a bar some place, with his arms around some working girl.

Bleeding Heart

"Bleeding Heart"
by Ragen Mendenhal

She snorted. I still think his wife did it. Craziest eyes I've ever seen.

It was not the first time we had held this conversation; it was brought out and rehashed whenever two or more members of our scattered tribe gathered.

It was, after all, the most amazing thing that had ever happened in our family. Cousin Johnny, smart, successful lawyer; Cousin Johnny, devoted father and faithful husband; Cousin Johnny, dutiful son, church deacon and Rotarian, had gone to work one fine Texas Monday morning and simply disappeared. Cousin Johnny had been a golden child, somehow set apart from the pack of wild and rowdy cousins that met at summer reunions at the old family farm. Through some quirk of genetics, or effective discipline, the sanctioned values of loyalty to family, courtesy, selflessness, fortitude and perseverance settled most firmly on Cousin Johnny. No matter how many times the rest of us locked him in the outhouse, blamed him for the cigarette butts found behind the barn, or made him cry, he kept our secrets. He followed us everywhere and silently watched our hare-brained adventures from a respectful distance.

As a young man, Cousin Johnny lost none of his shine. He was handsome in the blond sort of way of the family males--tall, well-made, with fine sandy hair, a strong, round chin and bright blue eyes. He was a scholar. He was athletic. He was the first of his working-class parents' children to go to college.

The police had no problem locating his car; it was parked in its assigned space behind his office. His keys and wallet were locked inside.

His partners were baffled. No one had seen him since the past Friday. There was some talk about a sensitive matter he was handling, concerning mineral rights and oil leases, but surely nothing that would result in this!

His parents, Aunt Cora and Uncle Port, immediately fearing the worst, were in anguish.

He would never do this to us, his mother said through her tears, sure of the truth of her words. He wouldn't go off and leave his little girl like that!

Others of the family were mystified.

Maybe he was into drugs, or had his hand in the till. Maybe he found out he was gay, ventured one of the more worldly and outspoken cousins. He was immediately riveted into silence by the glares of his mother and aunts, and thereafter kept his suppositions to himself.

On the other hand, Johnny's wife would not stop talking.

She and their daughter had spent the weekend in Dallas, shopping, with her parents, she said. On the way back to Longhorn, Sunday night, they were nearly forced off the road, twice, by a big pickup using only its parking lights.

She got home at midnight, put the child to bed, and took herself off to the guest room to avoid waking Johnny. When she got up the next morning, she assumed he had already gone to work, she said, although his watch and eyeglasses were on the lamp table next to his chair in the family room.

She didn't know anything was wrong, she said, until the police, alerted by Johnny's law firm, called the school where she taught second grade.

She battered Johnny's parents with ceaseless stories of late night prowlers and silent phone calls. She contacted the police continually with reports of having been followed or otherwise harassed. Several weeks after Johnny's disappearance, she called the police at three in the morning to report a gunshot through the bathroom window. The police came, duly searched the house and the yard, but found nothing except that the bullet had been fired, some time ago, from inside the house.

Finally, she had nothing more to say.

Johnny's wife disposed of his office furnishings six weeks after he vanished. She sold their home six months after that. Within the year, she divorced Johnny, wherever he might have been, and remarried.

Even the most casual reader of mystery novels, the most reluctant viewer of television crime series would surely have noted something rotten in the Denmark of Johnny's wife's tale.

I know that we, his cousins, certainly did.

Yet we took no extraordinary action. Unlike Johnny's parents and sisters, we had no abiding faith in the motivation or efficiency of small town police agencies. Nor was it a lack of money or energy that led to our collective inertia.

Had we been so battered by the debris of violence on the nightly news that we trivialized this personal tragedy? Had time and distance eroded the feelings we once held in our hearts for our playmate and whipping boy? Or did we still resent his childhood goodness, strong against our own shabby behavior? I could not then, and cannot now, find any comfortable answers.

And what did happen to Cousin Johnny?

Are his bones laying in a shallow grave somewhere in the vast moonscape of the Texas Panhandle, his body hurriedly dumped there by his wife and her then-lover/now-husband? If this is so, I can only think that such a trap might be justice enough. What passion could survive the suffering on your child's face as she grieved for her absent father? How could you dare to close your eyes at night, lying beside your partner in murder?

But I prefer another possibility.

Who has not thought of leaving the interminable meetings, the house payments, the whining children, and nagging spouse of our life behind? Could we not change our name, our work, our hobbies, and become someone else?

I like to imagine that one day, Johnny, exhausted with his constancy, his obligations and his secrets, cast these burdens into a trash can like a pair of worn out shoes; and decided to become another man--not so upright, not such a paragon.

In my mind's eye, I see him lazing on the beach of a coastal Margaritaville, with a straw hat over his now-thinning hair. There is a barefooted, plumply-beautiful woman in an off-the-shoulder blouse bringing him something cold to drink. Two very young, dark-haired children play in the sand beside his chair. When they laugh, their bright, blue eyes crinkle into merry little slits.

And in my minds ear, I hear his soft southern voice calling to his children as they run toward the sea.

Y'all be good now!

Then he murmurs, with the faintest trace of irony, But not quite as good as I was.

Eve Orndoff recently returned to fiction writing after a hiatus of 30 years. She is currently revising her first novel a murder mystery set in a small California town, not unlike the one in which she now lives.

Also in Song and Story:
Headed for the Shore    The Statue

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