I’ll call him Johnny Massacre, but his real name was more violent.
He welcomed us to the neighborhood a decade ago. It was the only welcome we got, other than the neighbors on one side. He said the previous owner had employed him as a handyman so he knew all about our house if we needed him to tell us about it. He waved cheerily at my family and friends and asked if he could help them carry boxes in from the moving van, and I said no thanks, and he said well you’ll need those magnolia petals raked up from the sidewalk because they get slick as shit when they rot and you wouldn’t want somebody to slip on them and anyway later they’re gonna stink like 14 motherfuckers, a word he slurred into two syllables. You got a rake? I’ll take care of them right now and you can pay me what you think is fair.
Johnny Massacre was younger than me but looked older. He was missing his front teeth and had a scar on his face. He had hard, lean muscles, and the tops of his ears looked tightly pinned to his head, like he’d been a fighter. He often grew a short afro he swept straight back, and a thin goatee and moustache. His pants were always a little too big, cinched tight with a belt, and more often than not he wore a nice button-down shirt or a striped polo under a hoodie jacket and cheap but functional shoes. He had large expressive eyes and sometimes wore glasses that made him look scholarly or like a revolutionary. Other times his eyes were squinched narrow and were bloodshot as hell.
Johnny Massacre was a very hard worker, I saw, after I’d hired him the first time to rake leaves. A true capitalist, he always bid the job ridiculously low to make his labor attractive then worked as fast as he could to maximize profits. He also never finished the job as agreed and held its completion hostage. After a while I knew this was part of the condition of his employment and waited for him to ring the doorbell so the second round of negotiations could begin. He'd excitedly tell me he could pull the weeds growing in the ivy at the side of my house and would go into great detail about how he’d do it. After he'd had his say, I'd point out he hadn’t yet raked all the leaves we’d already discussed. He'd counter by saying he’d finish that up, plus pull the weeds, and all for just another 20 bucks, which made it sound like he was doing me a favor. I often agreed since the sum was still reasonable even when I threw in a sandwich, chips, fruit, and a Sam Adams Lager without being asked. He never left without making me consider future work, and he rarely came back to do it as promised.
I asked if he knew who laid the brick sidewalk along my house, and he said nah, man. I asked if he knew how long the enormous elm in my backyard had been threatening to split, and he said nah, man. I asked if the guy who owned the house before me ever paid him to work in the yard, and Johnny said nah, and I said but I thought you told me he did, and he said most of the white muhfuher in this neighborhood are afraid of a black man, you know what I’m saying? You’re the only one who’ll come to the door and talk to me.
Population figures run as high as 210,000, but that’s for both twin cities and probably the surrounding area and the transient student population too. We have America’s 14th-largest campus, the second-largest food manufacturing plant in the world, one decent and one defunct indoor mall, countless strip malls, and recent additions of Starbucks, Potbelly Sandwich Works, Cold Stone Creamery, and other businesses well above Hardee’s/IHOP/Arby’s in the food chain. People often think of this place as a small town in the corn belt, but we have the crime of a medium-sized city and a very obvious gap between rich and poor, which here often means white and black. On the busy road north to the big box stores, kids from the lower-income neighborhood walk across five lanes of traffic nonchalantly, slowly, fatalistically, as if daring SUV drivers to take anything else from them. The most recent spike in campus crime has been “sport” beatings of white male students by two or more black men, who are never students.
Don’t like to be told there’s huge disparity between rich and poor in America? The Times wrote last week that 400 families hold half of all wealth in this country. How you like that, muhfuher?
Many university employees own houses in a small area known as “the faculty ghetto,” a weirdly inverted nickname for privilege. When my wife and I mention to other parents that our house is on the fringe of this area, qualifying our children to go to the best public elementary school, they sigh, Ohh, as if we have no worries, but they bought plywood McMansions on the outskirts of town, with the other professionals and businesspeople, in neighborhoods designed to be so insular they might as well be gated.
Our street leads from a struggling business district that’s only about three blocks long and has a methadone clinic, the county courthouse, and the sheriff’s office and jail. Semis and beer trucks use the street as a shortcut to get to the highway. Student apartment buildings, a mechanic’s garage, a liquor store, a health-foods market, and a park district office mix with Victorian houses in what some have tried to legislate a historical district. The gutters on our house are rusting through, and we badly need a new roof, but the enormous elm must come down first, a job bid at several thousand dollars.
With no place of his own, Johnny said he stayed up with his girlfriend in that house on the corner, half a block away, on Boneyard Creek. The house has been converted to apartments, and there’s a Hispanic guy who lives there and walks to his food-service job, and a young white couple with a cat they walk outside on a leash. The lot next door used to have a Victorian house on it that was empty a long time. I was told the fire was started by homeless addicts. After it burned to the walls it was razed by the owner, a hardworking landlord who’d rather knock down his older properties anyway and build new apartments for college students.
Johnny’s girlfriend was an obese white woman he’d yell at as they walked down the street past my house. Once, I waved and he left her standing there to come talk to me. For some reason he denied, that time, she was his girlfriend. I saw him daily outside her place, tending a smoking barbecue grill, listening to music or the news, drinking a tallboy. Every year he planted a couple of tomato plants and some flowers there by her back door. He often had parties in the gravel driveway for his own friends.
He’d see me, from his rocking chair next to the driveway, walking my kids home from school and always yelled, “Pops!” in delight, his hand raised high, like a child waiting to be called on in class.
He said his Moms lived across town and that he sometimes stayed with her. She made great cream cakes, he said, and described them so insistently and in such delicious detail that I offered to buy one for our holiday table. He said, I’ll set you up with some of that shit, Pops!, they’re good, man, I swear, my Moms will make one for you. I never got one.
One time my kids and I walked past when Johnny was standing in his yard with two teen girls. He introduced one as his niece. You won’t understand when I say he affectionately cussed her, telling her to stay put while he walked with me to ask about work. She grinned and teased him by following us, and he threatened, lovingly, to kick her fuckin’ dumb little bitch ass all the way back up to his girlfriend’s apartment. And you best be using your head to stay safe, he added, when you're surfing the web up there.
Johnny Massacre had a MySpace page, which I only just found. He had three friends, including the fake administrator that MySpace assigns as everyone’s first friend. Johnny wrote eight months ago, as the title of his page, a caption intended for his photo: “Johnny Playing with my PUSSY! [I mean CAT!]LOL Love my sadie!”
My mother-in-law and I sometimes discuss how, in the towns where we grew up, the homeless and mentally ill were known by everyone and, in an odd way, often protected and respected as something central to the town’s identity. Here, the homeless seem more transient, except for Grizzly Adams, who keeps his bags in the doorway of the city building, and The Cowboy, a black man in cowboy hat and boots who was often in campustown. The Cowboy died recently.
Johnny Massacre was an ex-con. I found this out, after I knew him a year or two, by googling him, and the state’s felons list popped up. The link is broken now, but as I remember it was a nonviolent crime compounded by a failure to appear.
In ten years I never asked him to come inside. It occurred to me that if I angered him he might burglarize my house or, worse, break and enter when my children were inside. I sometimes looked at him closely, sizing him up.
Yet there’s an odd comfort in being on friendly terms with a former criminal. What do I mean by that? I’m not sure.
After growing up in a small working-class town and doing time in army units that were 40% black, I still have dual speech, not unlike Oprah. Mostly I use it in greeting or with the infinitive “to be” in place of the conjugated verb. Johnny heard this early on and seemed to relax around me. He had a hilarious, loud, raspy voice and was full of energy and life. My family would be steps away, and he’d be yelling muhfuher this and that and grabbing his balls and dick and laughing kk-kkk-kk in the back of his throat.
Johnny Massacre rang the doorbell and handed me a plastic grocery bag. Inside was some half-thawed, freezer-burned meat that was already unwrapped. I knew I wouldn’t serve it, and if I took it he’d use it as an excuse to ask for favors later. I said we didn’t really eat beef ribs, so thanks but no. His look of disdain and shock at something so stupid: Who has the choice of what to eat?
He always rode a ten-speed or was on foot. Two or three times I saw him walking near the town library, talking to himself loudly, his eyes angry and wild.
Johnny Massacre cussed my wife’s mother, who’s nearly 80. That sounds bad, but she’s tough, maybe the hardest-working woman I’ve known, and was in the Royal Navy. She grimaced when she pulled up that day and I told her Johnny Massacre was coming to work but all she’d need to do was hand him his money, since I’d be on campus. When he did two-thirds of the work, knocked on the door and demanded the money, she told him he’d have to finish the job. He stomped around cussing her, acting like it was under his breath, but he finished the job.
He and his girlfriend tried to get me to participate in a food stamps scam. I think I was to pay them cash, something less than the value of the card, and the girlfriend and Mrs. Churm would go buy groceries for us with the card. When I refused, Johnny was insistent then angry, then desperately insistent. Another time he asked me to buy two large sacks filled with basic food staples he got free from the food pantry at the Catholic parish down the street.
I took Johnny with me to pick up more lawn bags because he said his favorite smoke shop was next door to the Walgreens, and he could use some blunts. I bought the blunts in the end. In the confined space of the family car, he hacked and coughed and spit into tissues nonstop. At my routine physical I asked my doctor if I could catch TB from 10 minutes with him.
A few days after Obama was elected, Johnny Massacre worked for me. I had to run out and asked if I could bring him something from McDonald’s. He asked to ride along. When I brought up the election and said it was about time we had a black man in the White House, he shut up and didn’t speak again, not once. His eyes glittered psychotically, and it was the one time I thought he might attack me. Even after I had bought his lunch in the drive-through and we returned to my house, he quivered with rage.
Johnny often showed up to ask for a dollar or two, his breath smelling like beer or liquor. He started ringing the bell after the kids were in bed. Also, my porch light burns out a lot, and all I could see going to the door was a dark figure through the glass. Picture his long sly talk in buildup to a handout for smokes, and my exasperation standing with him in the dark.
There were times, when he was sober and it was daylight, that I wished I could do more for him. But what could it have been? He asked once if I would be a reference, and I said yes, but he pulled out an official form and asked me to write down that I was a nonprofit employer and to lie about the number of hours he’d worked so he’d be entitled to benefits. He was angry when I refused, and I was irritated with him. Ever get hassled by a homeless guy in the city when you don’t have money to buy your own lunch, let alone send your kids to the park district educational camps where all their friends will be? And you know when he looks at you he sees credit and a place to live and to store your stuff?
I sometimes gifted Johnny Massacre the flavored beers I didn’t like from multipacks: the Cranberry Lambic, the Scotch Ale, the Harvest Pumpkin Ale, the overhopped Noble Pils. Once after I hadn’t seen him in a while he said he’d been arrested on his bike for carrying an open container—which I had given him, he told me with a look of cunning.
Johnny Massacre reminded me a little of Thoreau.
Sometimes I had to tell him why his ideas for helping me fix up the place were a little ill-advised. I didn’t need a water garden, for instance. Dousing my side yard in kerosene and setting it ablaze might not be the best way to clear weeds when the neighbor’s house is a dozen feet away. And if he tore out my front porch to rebuild it from the ground up in the way he described, its roof would collapse. I shut him down on practically everything he proposed. When I relented for normal work he very often never showed up, and I had to change my plans to do it myself. In that way time passes quickly, and I often lost track of when I had last seen him.
It was terribly, unusually cold this past winter.
At some point, maybe Thanksgiving week, he rang the bell and handed me a bottle of red wine he said he bought special for me for 30 dollars.
Johnny Massacre died a week before Christmas at the hospital where my sons were born, two blocks from my house. I didn’t know until the third week of January and then only because I googled him again for some reason. Maybe I had a feeling he was in prison again and wondered if I’d dodged a bullet. I still don’t know how or why he died. Neither the funeral home nor the police have answered my e-mail queries, and no one else I know had anything to do with him.
I shouted out, Who killed Johnny Massacre? when after all it was you and me.
A friend who always thought I acted like some kind of liberal soft touch asked, You didn’t hear him knocking on your window one cold night, saying let me in, did you?
The local paper ran an obituary of 161 words. Johnny was 43 and preceded in death by his father, Johnny Massacre, Jr. He was survived by his mom; three brothers (including another Johnny), three sisters, and two step-sisters. He was born in Chicago but graduated from a high school here, where he ran track. The piece described him as a very reliable handyman, very funny and loyal, and a fisherman—in his spare time.
At an online site called Tributes®, there are only two lines about his life. Then: “Tributes received this obituary from The Social Security Death Index, a public source. No further information other than what is displayed is available.” In the cold, partial knowing of the Internet, he is still listed as alive on MyLife™ and Reunion.com. An uncle of mine is there too, 105 years old. He died in the 1970s.
Every school day I walk my sons home and feel an instant of tiny dread as we approach his girlfriend’s house, thinking Johnny will be outside and will insist on work. But his empty rocker in the yard and the unplanted tomato patch: I remember.
The fact that I am writing about him, and not the other way around, is significant too.