The Troubles of Johnny Cannon

BOOK: The Troubles of Johnny Cannon
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To my wife, the reason this story was written.

So if you hate it,

blame her.

Acknowledgments

My best friend, Russ Conner, geeked out with me about Stan Lee, Dealey Plaza, and history in general, and the foundation of this story was laid through our late-night talks. Ladonna Friesen, my creative writing teacher at CBC, informed me of my potential and helped me commit to finishing a book, and then another. Nicole Flood was the first fan of my writing not related to me, and in many ways, I wrote this book so she wouldn't sound weird when she bragged about knowing a writer. My dad, Lattis Campbell, subjected himself to my inane interviews so I could know what life was like as a Southern boy in '61.

The fantastic people behind WriteOnCon changed my life forever when they hooked me up with my agent, Marietta Zacker. She fought for this book as we marched uphill to find the perfect editors, and I can't say enough how grateful I am that I signed with a Jedi-Amazon-Warrior-Agent. My editors, David Gale and Navah Wolfe, helped turn this book into something better than I ever imagined it could be.

Roger Thomassen, who passed away while I was writing this book, inspired me in so many ways to infuse this story with its humanity. My grandfather, Johnnie V. Campbell, gave Johnny his name and soul. My wife, above all others, believed in me when I could not believe in myself and gave me the strength to keep typing, keep pretending, and keep dreaming.

Which brings me to you, the reader. You have just made my dreams come true. Thank you.

CHAPTER ONE

BOBCAT CASSEROLE

T
here ain't much difference between a deer and a dog when you're shooting, but there's a world between them when one lands on your plate. If you're hungry enough, though, you won't pay no attention.

I wasn't paying no attention the day I was out hunting turkey. Took me two hours and I never could get a real good shot at one. After a while, a bobcat set himself up for me to snag. I was hungry, so I figured I might as well get a bobcat. After all, the skunks wasn't ripe yet.

Hunting was probably the greatest thing I did. I wasn't so good at school, but it doesn't matter what they tell you, sixth grade is hard, so I didn't worry too much about them bad grades. My teacher said if I didn't do better in seventh I'd be good for nothing but working at a gas station. I started practicing changing tires, but I wasn't any good at that, either.

But I was a darn good hunter. Reason was, I didn't miss.

Ever.

You might say I'm gifted like that.

You might also think I'm being cocky, but it's like my big brother, Tommy, always said, “You ain't bragging, you're reporting the news, like Cronkite.”

Anyway, I was out in my favorite holler, about five miles between my house and the edge of Cullman. I was staked out underneath a walnut tree, fixing my target on that spotted bob that was just itching to be in a casserole. Had it in my sights, about eighty yards away. It was drinking from a brook, not even suspecting that my finger was starting to squeeze the trigger, and everything felt natural, from the steel in my hand to the mud on my knees.

Then a stranger stepped right out of the woods and got between me and my target, and a shot rang out.

But I hadn't fired.

No, that cat got hit by a bullet that came from the stranger's gun, a sidearm he had whipped out. Then he went running up and fired another shot. I reckoned he wasn't sure he'd aimed as good on his first one. He got it that time, right in the head.

Folks didn't cotton to strangers around Cullman, especially ones without the sense to go hunting with a rifle and stay out of the way of somebody else's. Add to that the fact that this stranger was about to go home with my dinner, and I was primed for fighting. I took off from my blind and ran down the hill, jumping over logs, dodging low-hanging branches, pounding my way so I could pound him into the ground. I wasn't trying to be quiet one bit, but he didn't turn around until I was just about on top of him.

“Howdy,” he said with a wave, barely glancing back at me while he was trying to tie up the cat's legs.

Oh, great, a Texan.
We'd rather have strangers in Cullman than Texans. They was about as welcome as colored folk, and the townsfolk made a sign against
them
at the edge of town. It wasn't the most polite thing in the world, but it sure was effective. Cullman was as white a town as anybody could ever hope for.

Still, Pa always taught me to return a greeting, even if you planned on walloping the giver. You didn't want folks talking about how rude the fella that hit them in the face was.

I stopped in my sprint. “Evening, mister.”

He tapped his black fedora like a half-baked salute. “You're Johnny, right? Johnny Cannon?”

It dawned on me that this fellow must be a reporter or something, come to talk to me about my brother, the town hero. Cullman should have made a sign for
them
.

“Pardon the question, mister, but who wants to know?” I tried to put on every ounce of Emily Post's etiquette that Pa had beaten into my thick skull.

The fella stood up, dusted his hands off on his slacks, adjusted his tie, and ran his fingers through his mustache. “Richard Morris. Captain. Six-five-seven-eight-two-seven.” He winked at me. “Old friend of your family.”

I felt the hairs on my neck bristle up. “From Guantánamo?”

“Farther back than that, from the war. I came looking for your brother, and the people in town told me you boys might be here.”

I eyed him up and down. White shirt, black slacks, he didn't look like the type that would be telling Tommy to report for duty earlier than scheduled, so I reckoned he wasn't. Course, I'd read that things was changing under President Kennedy. For all I knew, they'd call Tommy in with a singing telegram. I took this fella for a baritone.

“This is the best place for hunting, that's for sure, but I come here alone these days. Tommy's got a lot on his hands, getting things ready before he ships off to Korea. In fact, I came out here to fetch his dinner.” I looked over at my bob he'd tied up.

He glanced back at it himself. “Oh, right. I thought I'd save you some trouble, make a little donation to the Cannon family meat supply.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out some tobacco, and crammed a glob into his cheek. “You've grown tall enough, haven't you?”

I was taller than the rest of my class, including my teacher. Just a few inches shy of Tommy, and he was six foot. I didn't reckon that was tall enough, but he didn't need to know about my dreams of looking down on Wilt Chamberlain. I decided to ignore his question.

“So, you're going to give us that bob?”

“Let's just say I owe your family quite a bit.” That wasn't no shocker. I growed up with everybody owing us for something. Pa always said the more you did for others the more likely you was to get things back to you. Not that we'd had much repayment yet, but when it started coming we was going to be millionaires.

“How much you owe us? 'Cause I can think of a few other things we need around the house, and if you're buying . . .”

He chuckled. “Boy, they wasn't lying when they said you were the talker. What say we get this pussycat back up to your house? You look so hungry you'd slap your mom for a slice of bread.”

He got a real sad look on his face after he said that, and I reckoned he'd remembered that I didn't have no ma.

That ain't really true, 'cause everybody's got a ma. Except maybe for sea horses. I heard they was born from their pas. But I wasn't no sea horse.

I used to have a ma, but I hadn't since I was six. I was fine with strangers not knowing about the accident and such, but this Captain fella claimed to be a friend. Not that I knew what the rules of friendship was. My closest friend was a rock I'd had in fourth grade. But I'm pretty sure he knew Ma was dead.

The Captain carried that bob up the hill to a black Chevy truck, and I followed him to make sure he was telling the truth about giving it to us. There wasn't no laws against stealing bobcats, so he could have run off without fearing no police or nothing. Once we got up there, he threw it into the bed and wiped his forehead.

“You want to drive?” he asked me while he was breathing hard.

I smiled for the first time since I'd met him and hopped in the driver's seat. Most strangers don't understand how it is in Cullman County. They don't think almost-thirteen-year-olds ought to be driving, but how else are we going to get to our fishing holes when our folks ain't up to going?

As we was driving along the dirt road, we wasn't talking about nothing. I had plenty of questions about what he was doing there and why he was hunting for Tommy, but I wasn't sure how to ask them so I kept quiet. He was acting like he had something to say stuck in his throat too, but didn't know how to hack it up, so he would cough a little and we both got more uncomfortable.

I turned on the radio to drown out the quiet and catch the baseball scores of the Reds game. Instead, the news popped on.

“As more and more Americans grow anxious regarding Fidel Castro, the enemy in our own backyard, President Kennedy fielded many questions with few answers about Cuba and the rumors of an impending invasion—”

The Captain switched the radio off with a cuss.

“Trash. You can't listen to trash, kid. It'll mess with your head.”

I guess he preferred the quiet, so that's how we went as I drove us up the mountain to our house. It was gray, smaller than you'd think considering the size of our land, and it had a great big fence in front of it. It was the sort of place that a woman's touch could have done a lot with, but three men living in it made it look as inviting as a free ticket on the
Titanic
.

I pulled into the driveway right behind our blue pickup. It had the hood up and Tommy was in there working on the engine. Our Chevy was almost as old as me, and trying to keep it running was his daily chore. He had to do it without buying no spare parts, too. After all, if we had money for spare parts we'd have had money to get something other than bobcat for dinner. But we didn't.

Tommy looked up when he heard the gravel crunch from the tires. He saw the Captain and he didn't smile. The Captain got out of the truck and stuck his hand out like a railroad sign. Tommy wiped his hands off on a rag and shook the Captain's like he didn't want to.

“What are you doing here?” he said to the Captain.

“And hello to you, too,” the Captain said. “I remembered you learning better manners than that, Tommy.”

“Hello. What are you doing here?”

The Captain grinned. “Just came by for dinner.”

Tommy started to say something, but the screen door slammed open and Pa yelled out.

“Captain Morris? What in the name of all that is holy are you doing here?” Pa coughed as he talked. He'd been a Navy radio operator in the South Pacific during the war, caught tuberculosis, and they was so worried about his lungs that they missed his appendicitis. It ruptured, he got gangrene, and they ripped out most of his lungs and intestines. He'd been stuck in the military hospitals for a few years recovering, and now he walked with a cane, spoke with a cough, and couldn't get a job in town for nothing. He did get a disability check, but he called it his funny papers, cause it wasn't nothing more than a joke.

“Pete Cannon, it's good to see you,” the Captain said. “You've recovered nicely.”

“It's been fifteen years since you last checked me up, so I've had time to. What brings you around out of the blue?”

“I brought your family dinner,” he said. “Bobcat.”

Tommy looked at me and I shrugged. I'd gone out for a turkey and I brought back a turkey
and
a bobcat.

“Reckon we could set another plate for dinner?” I said.

He slammed the hood down.

“I lost my appetite,” he said, and then he went inside.

Pa watched him go in with hurt eyes, but we'd both learned to let Tommy be when he got in his moods. The last time we didn't, Tommy ran off for two months and joined the Guard.

“Johnny, why don't you go see if Mrs. Parkins has her bobcat recipe handy? Me and the Captain here will get that cat ready for cooking.”

“Can't I just call her?” I said. “I hate walking all the way over the mountain.”

“Phone's acting up again,” he said. Of course it was. Anytime he got anxious or bored, he felt like he needed to take something apart. He related better to things that was made of wires. Made me wish I was a robot. “Anyway, you can't expect her to walk all the way up here if you can't walk all the way down. Show a little respect, boy.”

They took and hung the bobcat up and skinned it and cleaned the meat off. I went on over to Mrs. Parkins's house. She was the wife of the colored preacher from the main church in Colony. She'd been taking care of cooking for us for the last couple of years, ever since we lost Grandma. But we reckon Grandma will turn up eventually.

That was a joke. My grandma's dead too. I just didn't want this story to get too sad.

Anyway, Mrs. Parkins came up about three times a week and cooked whatever I'd bring in from the woods. Meat, usually. We wasn't able to give her what we should, but Tommy'd take care of their car and I'd mow their lawn to help pay for her services.

I knocked on their door and it was opened by one of the boys in the house. I always felt awkward around colored folk cause I didn't know where to put my eyes, so I stared down at the porch. It was built real good. Maybe the Amish did it.

“My pa sent me to fetch your ma to come up and cook some bobcat for us.”

“She's cooking dinner for us right now,” he said. “Y'all are going to have to wait.”

I glanced up at him. He didn't look too happy about me being on his porch. I wasn't too happy about being there either. I was beginning to think it was built by Mexicans.

“But we got company. We need her to come real fast. I'll mow y'all's lawn extra special this week for it.”

“What makes y'all's company more important than my dinner?” he asked. That was a stupid question. Our guest was a grown-up, plus he was a captain. I wasn't going to say nothing about how our guest was white and he wasn't. I'd read
To Kill a Mockingbird
a few months before, and I didn't want to be racist like how them folks was. Shooting a colored man before he even got a fair trial. They should have waited till after.

I was about to tell Willie what for, but then his ma came and stopped our conversation.

“Willie, it's okay,” she said to him. “I'll come up right away, Johnny.”

“Yes'm,” I said, then I shot her boy my best evil eye before I headed back up to our house. I got there just as Pa and the Captain was getting the last bit of the meat off that cat. They was both covered in blood and guts and such, and they looked like they'd been having a good old time getting so messy. I was sad that I'd missed all the fun.

Our truck was gone and I reckoned Tommy'd left for a while. I didn't know what his beef was with the Captain, but I didn't much try to figure it out. Tommy had a beef with so many folks, he was practically raising cattle.

Them two men got the meat laid out and changed into some cleaner clothes. Pa loaned the Captain a fresh shirt to wear and as soon as Mrs. Parkins got up there to start cooking, they went out onto the porch so the Captain could start smoking.

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