Friday, May 14, 2010


I don't recall any getting-to-know-you stage with Johnny. One morning we were strangers; then it was as if we had always spent the hot, lazy summer days together in his living room, the swamp cooler droning away, his mother tactfully out of sight somewhere in the small house. (Theirs had only two bedrooms. Years later I decided that the cramped space and privacy limitations might have had something to do with his older sister's crappy disposition.)

Surely--though I don't remember this--I must have felt some initial shock at his appearance. Rheumatoid arthritis had invaded and captured Johnny's body when he was ten or twelve. (We never talked about that.) When it was finished with him, he was in permanent lockdown, imprisoned by his frozen body. Legs in heavy braves, he could, with great effort, manage half-a-dozen dragging steps on his kid-sized crutches. Otherwise, he spent his days in a large recliner. Hands surrealistically skewed and deformed, he couldn't grasp things well or make a fist, couldn't raise his arms to shoulder level. His neck turned stiffly just a few degrees to left or right, Erich von Stroheim style. His face was huge, swollen by cortisone, smooth-skinned and rosy. He had no need to shave, at fourteen or ever.

Two physical pluses must have impressed me even on that first visit. Though Johnny's teeth were a bit discolored and rather crooked, when he smiled--no, when he laughed--it was always a surprise. I mean to say that laughter took him by surprise, and he was totally given over to it. His head went back, his mouth oepened wide, his eyes squeezed shut, and his chest heaved. He'd get his breath briefly, then be caught up again and rock back a second time. It was gorgeous to watch.

And although his body had stayed that of a twelve-year old boy, his voice, even in mid-teens, was deep, rich, and melodious. How was it that his voice matured while the rest of the physical apparatus did not? (We would never have talked about that.) Unlike his body, Johnny's voice was a faithful, clear mirror of his soul.

I woke up to another surprise after we had been friends nearly a year. (Only his good manners kept me from realizing it earlier.) Johnny was smarter than I was. And more sophisticated intellectually. I hadn't expected that, had never considered the possibility. The truth, when it did come, seeped into my head slowly, so that somehow my arrogance and pride didn't get involved. Or maybe his natural modesty trumped my competitiveness.

Take music. This very morning, along with the usual gang of arthritic senior citizens warming up in the pool at Walden Garden Fitness Center, I became aware of the background music being piped in. Fats Domino sending out "Blueberry Hill." Bill Haley going around the clock one more time. Dutifully doing the drill of "clap in front, clap in back," I let myself be fourteen again, and saw Johnny, eyes closed, toadish body rocking from side to side as he sang, "Ain't That A Shame?" or "Walking to New Orleans." He loved Fats. Loved Satchmo. He indulged my own love for Peter, Paul, and Mary, but gently suggested that Joan Baez was doing something bigger, something hipper, cooler. Without ever saying the words, of course.

Or take poetry. Now, for the record, I was the omnivorous reader, the gifted young writer of school essays, ever since Mrs. Richardson in the first days of 7th grade said that I could skip a grade and go into 8th if I wanted to. (Some savvy angel was guarding the crosswalk that day for sure; dropped the warning paddles and shook her head. I said no thank you to Mrs. Richardson without ever consulting my parents.) Johnny had last been inside a classroom in the fifth grade.
So how was it he knew all about T.S. Elior, Ezra Pound, and wonder of all wonders, then and now, Dylan Thomas. Not only knew about, but understood. He had record albums of all these poets reading their own poetry. Could recite lines from Auden's elegy on the death of Yeat's, for heaven's sake! ("O all the instruments agree/the day of his death was a dark cold day.")

And we won't even talk about chess.

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