Johnny of Haunting Song - Part 1
The house Johnny Built
The men arrived at 7 and they didn’t bring the heavy equipment, they just attacked the old place with sledgehammers and crowbars and by 9, it was a pile of debris, and not a very big pile, just some busted clapboard, some corrugated tin, rusted, brick and mortar. When they were finished, the men set aside their hammers and bars and sat by the water and drank their coffee.
1 of the men strolled over to the pile and kicked around. The man was always scrounging, on the lookout for something that might make him rich. He walked back to where the other men were sitting and with a framed picture in his hand.
“What’ve you got?” the foreman said. “A Renoir?”
The other men laughed.
He showed them – it was a very old photograph, 10 by 12 inches and with a wooden frame. The picture was faded and blurry, 3 old soldiers, marching.
“Civil War, it looks to me,” 1 of the men said.
A pickup truck came along and the boss got out, an older man, mid-sixties and with a white moustache.
“Morning, boys,” he said.
“Morning, Boss,” they said.
The boss looked over at the pile.
“Got her down already, huh?”
“Didn’t take long,” the foreman said.
“Good, good,” the boss said. “Have it hauled out of here by lunchtime?”
“And raked over,” the foreman said. “You won’t even know it’d been there.”
The boss noticed the picture.
“Found it in the pile.”
The boss took the picture, looked at it.
“Friends of yours, Boss?” the foreman said, another joke.
“The fellow in the middle,” the boss said, “that’s Augie, and no, I didn’t know him, but I sure did know about him. And I remember the picture. It hung for years on the wall, to the left of the door. Augie’s the man who built the place. I don’t know about the others. Soldiers with Augie, I suppose.”
The boss was looking at the rubble pile now and with the picture still in his hand. “You wouldn’t know it to look at it,” he said, “but this was the place in the summer, back when I was a kid. There was an old couple lived here and the old gal, if I’m remembering correctly, was Augie’s granddaughter. No. She couldn’t have been the granddaughter. Augie never married. Must’ve been his niece. She was already old back when I was a boy and her and her man had a little store there in the front parlor, bread, milk, eggs, beer, smokes and bait, stuff so the summer folks wouldn’t have to be running all the time into town. Had gas for boats too…” He waved the picture in the direction of the lake, at the green lawn rolling down to the shore. “There were docks there and a wooden raft a ways out and we used to put our blankets here on the grass. Place would be crawling with kids on a summer afternoon. Well, it was a long time ago.”
All the men were quiet awhile, kind of catching the boss’s wistfulness.
“Why’d it take them so long to get around to knocking the place down?” 1 of the men finally said. “It’s been empty for years.”
“They moved the old gal downstate after her man died,” the boss said, “and she wouldn’t sell. Had plenty of offers and for big bucks but she wouldn’t do it. I suppose she had her memories too and maybe it made her feel better, knowing the place was still standing, even if she wasn’t. Soon as she died, though, her son, he’s a lawyer down there, he couldn’t dump it fast enough.”
“Made some money too, I’ll bet,” 1 of the men said.
“All that land and a little tiny house,” 1 of the men said, a relic, surrounded by all those summer mansions with their rock gardens and elaborate boathouses and swimming pools. Swimming pools, and with the lake right there in the front yards.
“Oh, how she loved bragging on Augie,” the boss said. “She kept his medals from the war in an old tackle box and she’d bring them out and show them to us.”
“Why’d she leave the picture in the house, boss?”
The boss shrugged.
“She got old and forgot to take it with her, I suppose, or maybe she thought it should hang there for as long as the place was standing.”
The boss stared some more, not at the picture but at the lawn, where it met the lake, and he was lost, not in Augie’s world but in his own, those mid-60s hot summer afternoons with blue skies and puffy white clouds and the water and the girls with their scent of suntan oil.
The mountains were right there behind the store and he remembered how suddenly the storms could arrive. It’d be blue skies 1 moment and dark clouds and swirling winds the next and with downpours that sent the kids scurrying. He remembered the nights too, the chorus of crickets and bullfrogs, the clicking of the locusts in the trees, the scent of perfume, and the excitement of flirting and making-out in the dark and with music and disc jockey talk out of those hand-held transistor radios.
“Well,” he said, smiling. “It was all a long time ago, wasn’t it?”
Nobody disagreed and the boss walked back to his truck and just before he got in and without looking again at the picture, he tossed it, hard. It sailed like a Frisbee through the air and glancing off a plank sticking out of the debris pile, bounced up into the air and fell back into the pile.