I haven’t seen Johnny on a regular basis since the days of Cornwall Street, a lifetime ago. We endured very different existences. He battled his demons and I mine. I have never doubted his love for me, or his loyalty. It’s been a long established truth. I was sure to see him once a year, always at a wake. We’d bid farewell to a fallen comrade and reminisce about our time together. I had recognized his conspicuous decline, first into drugs, then, crippling illness. Huntington’s disease. It had taken his mother at a despicably laborious rate, ultimately rendering her unable to swallow. She eventually starved to death.
Johnny watched as she whittled to nothing. Helpless.
I don’t know how John first learned his fate. I assume he discovered it as a result of a hospitalization for drug abuse or from one of his multiple incarcerations. He told me a dozen or so years ago, at a wake.
His closest living friend, Sonny, had died from an overdose. Sonny had been in jail for six months and was reacquainted with his long incarcerated cousin, Milton. Milt was at the end of a twelve-year jaunt for aggravated assault and rape. No one had missed Milt. Fatefully, Sonny and Milt were released on the same day. Milton took Sonny out to celebrate their newfound freedom. Sonny was dead within three hours. He didn’t see his kids, his family, his friends, just Milt and the dope dealer.
Johnny was inconsolable.
I arrived at Sonny’s wake just as the police were leaving. A fight had erupted when a strung out Milton tried to make his way into the funeral home. Unwelcome and met by a mass of mourners, armed, literally, they attempted to tear him limb from limb. I had gratefully missed the fiasco. Still, several hundred people milled around the parking lot, smoking cigarettes, drinking, smoking pot, laughing, crying, arguing; a middle-aged keg party.
I scanned the faces looking for John.
The last time we were together was when his stepfather died, a serendipitous meeting. There was a rumor that a man was to arrive, shackled, with a police escort. I saw John from my office window. He hopped out of a van in an orange jumpsuit. It was a spectacle. We made eye contact instantly. I was as stunned to see him, as he was to see me. He flushed with shame. He was put in a wheelchair and brought to his father’s room. He was standing outside looking into the room when I stepped off the elevator.
“I knew you would come. You’re a good girl.”
“I work here,” I smiled.
“I’m currently unemployed,” he winked.
He shuffled to his dad’s bedside. I knew he was humiliated. He looked haggard. He had been in jail for nearly two years. It had obviously eroded him.
He cried at the sight of his dying stepfather, his ravaged, tremor-ridden, mother, and, the girl who saw more in him than he was ever able to see in himself. I stayed with him as he said goodbye to the only father he knew, the only father he loved. He buried his face in my neck and sobbed, restrained from holding me in return.
His familiar whistle drew me from my recollection. There he was, smiling. I could have been sixteen again, a time when his smile sustained me.
“I knew you would come. You’re a good girl. I waited. I didn’t want you to go in alone.”
A knot came to my throat in an instant. My eyes filled to their brim. He looked terrible. Drawn. Addicted. Lost.
“Don’t cry, Heather. I’m ok. I look worse than I am.”
“John, what are you doing?”
“Doing?” he laughed. “Dying. I’m dying. Same as mom.”
I was speechless. I could tell he was terrified. We waited in the long receiving line. I cried the whole time. Johnny held my hand. We never spoke of it again. There wasn’t anything to say. We both knew what awaited him. It was the saddest I had ever been for another human being to date.
Over the next ten years his decline was rapid and vicious. When the tremors took over his body more ferociously, he refused to see me. We spoke on the phone the day his mother died. After that he stopped taking my calls. I finally forced myself on him bearing a box of old pictures. He was a sucker for nostalgia and I knew it. The only ties he had to his former self existed on film. He missed who he once was. Seeing pictures reminded him of when he was whole. Free.
It was the worst I had seen him. He had no control of the convulsive, abrupt movements that plagued him. He had hurt himself on several occasions from the uncontrolled thrashing, including putting his arm through a plate glass window. He tried to hide how ill he had become. He attempted to jump out of his bed to kiss me. He tried to be the sixteen-year-old boy I was once in love with. He tried to feel good in a body that had turned on him so maliciously. But, there was no denying what was to become of him.
We sifted through the images of our shared youth, our lost friends. We told each other stories we both already knew. We laughed. It took everything I had to keep myself together. I cried the whole way home.
He didn’t allow me to visit often. He was difficult to understand and would get frustrated with his inability to communicate everything his mind raced to articulate. It was painful for him, for us both. He still consumed alcohol at a staggering rate and was prone to violent outbursts. Timing was everything with John. A lesson I had learned a million years prior.
When I heard he was in the care of a state run nursing facility, the same he would visit to feed his mom ice cream when she could no longer swallow solid food, my heart broke. Penny Manor has a lackluster reputation, housed in a shitty neighborhood. The first week I went to see John I sat in my car for nearly an hour. Dejected. It was dilapidated, filthy, with broken windows and overgrown landscaping. I couldn’t bring myself to go in.
I went back a week later, more courageous, less venal. The interior was not nearly as cheerless as my imagination had suspected but far from ideal conditions for anyone, let alone the terminally ill.
I walked into the television lounge and found John.
He is emaciated, only capable of tolerating liquids, no longer able to swallow solids. He is strapped to a wheelchair for his own safety. He spotted me the instant I turned the corner. A broad smile peeled across his face.
“I knew you would come. You’re a good girl,” he smirked in his arrogant way. “You could never resist my charm.”
He laughed at his own absurdity. I pushed him around Penny Manor. I teased him about his hair. Completely gray and buzzed short revealing a tattoo of a swastika on the crown of his head. I had never seen it before, nor had he ever once uttered a racist remark in my company. I slapped it.
“Nice tattoo, jackass.”
“Don’t pass out in prison,” he laughed.
“Will you come see me again?”
“You can write about me.”
“Gee, thanks. Not exactly Tuesdays With Morrie, John. What story should I tell first? The shootings? The multiple stab wounds? How about the stints in jail? Or the time you got arrested in your underwear? What about when you cracked that kid across the nose with the tire iron? Or when you stole your mother’s car on Christmas Eve to come to my house for ‘midnight mass’? Like anyone believed we were going to midnight mass. I guess if we were going to church it would be in a stolen car.”
“I almost forgot you were funny.”
I stuck my tongue out at him.
“You can write whatever you want. I can’t read it. You wrote me letters. Remember? I was afraid if you knew you you’d stop. I loved them. I looked at them for years. You could have written ‘go fuck yourself’ over and over and I wouldn’t have known.”
“Some of them did say that.”
“I figured,” he laughed.
He is still in there. A glimmer of the boy he was. Mischievous. Sarcastic. Quick-witted. Loving. Sentimental. Crazy.
“By the way, I heard the prom story, wise ass. Would it kill you to not make me look as bad in the next one?”
“You asked for it.”
“Beside the point. What about that time with Tippy?”
“You got drunk and threw Tippy off a roof!”