UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
Out Brief Candle: Recreating Johnny
His corpse, bones really, were found wedged into the rocks of the Long Beach breakwater where I would like to think that he had cried his last tear.
A kayaker had found him in the rocks. The plastic bag that had been tied over his head before his skull had been shattered, had been chewed away by various animals: first the gulls, then the crabs, then the cats, then the rats. There were others, but these are the main culprits in Johnny’s destruction. His head bubbled and festered for quite some time before the gulls pecked through the bag as if it were a sack of potato chips left by picnickers on the beach; eventually the soup of his skin and fat mixed in with a bit of saliva and brain and snot. It was delicious for the birds. Irresistible, really.
The swarms of gulls were noticed by several passing pleasure boaters leaving the harbor, but they had no time to notice the teenaged boy’s corpse rotting away on the offshore rocks. They had fish to catch, girls to parade, Catalina to drink on. Actually, it wouldn’t have mattered. John was dead as dead could be and he could wait. He had always waited. He would always wait. For all he cared, eternity had him and he would have it.
The seventeen year old smiled at the kayaker who had found him. Actually, he wasn’t smiling, it was just that the crabs and rats had gnawed his lips off so it appeared that he was grinning. The kayaker’s name was Tom Miller. He was trolling along the rocks, bouncing a rubber lure on the bottom of the sea, attempting to catch calico bass. When he saw the gleaming bone, he figured it was the corpse of a sea lion. He paddled by the boy, thinking that the skeleton was nothing more than an unfortunate penniped. Then he saw a metallic shimmer.
“John was a smart boy. He was the type of kid that didn’t have to try. Maybe that’s why no one missed him. I can tell you, as a teacher, it kind of makes you feel useless that someone doesn’t need you. Doesn’t even want you around.”
This was Johnny’s homeroom teacher, Mrs. Gretchen. And, man, she was as wrong about John as she could be. Along with teaching zero period, she taught biology and sex-ed. She had enlightened John that a woman could say words like “pussy” and “orgasm” without being embarrassed. After Mrs. Gretchen had said to a class of tenth grade boys of which Tom was a member, “I kind of think that the word pussy is cute,” John never stopped fantasizing about the forty-five year old divorcee with thick hips, plump lips, and an ivory neck. If she had known his fantasies, I have a feeling that she would have never thought of little John Cooper the same way. As a matter of fact, his imagination might have even shocked and intrigued the unshockable Mrs. Gretchen.
From that shimmer of silver in the sun, Tom Miller soon saw that John was not a sea lion at all, but he was a real, dead boy. Johnny Cooper was smiling out at the kayaker with his death’s head grin, the silver coming from his hand like a stigmata. John was almost holding onto the silver pot leaf flask still half full with Jack Daniels. It was as if he were smiling, offering Tom Miller a drink.
The sun was warm and the wind was blowing hard onshore; Tom and John were sheltered from the wind by the breakwater since they were inside the harbor. The sun flogged both Tom and John. One was smiling and one was not. Tom looked up and saw the gleam of the flask and then he saw the healthy sparkle of the the dead kid’s healthy, unstained, teenage teeth; unstained even though the police would eventually find a half filled pack of Marlborough “Reds” in his jean’s back pocket.
“I knew that it wasn’t him when they told me about the booze and smokes.” This was Johnny’s father, Big John.
“His mother was adamant that we bury him, that we put his name on the grave. But I knew it wasn’t him. I know that wasn’t Johnny. Junior wasn’t a drinker. He wasn’t a smoker. Sometimes I wish that he was. I wish that he had lived life a little wilder. But he was too much like his mother. I’m not saying that I wanted him to be like me. I didn’t want him to be a bad boy. But sometimes I wish that he had lived.”
Big John was a retired cop; snot glistened in his grizzled moustache as he wiped his eyes. He looked embarrassed by the tears. “It makes no sense. John wasn’t that way. And now some unknown kid is in my kid’s grave and his parents won’t ever know what happened to him and I won’t know what happened to my Johnny.”
Big John held a picture of Junior when he was fourteen. He was wearing his baseball outfit in the photo. Big John kissed it. I would find out later that he never kissed his living son in the same way.
“That’s why I couldn’t go to the funeral. It was so sick that she wanted to bury that boy that wasn’t even our own son. “She never let me forget it.
“She never forgave me.
“She never did nothing after that. I didn’t have a choice. Don’t you see? I couldn’t go. That wasn’t my son we were burying.”
He looked angry as he answered my question. “I don’t give no shit what the coroner said. I’m a cop. You know how much bullshit I’ve seen in my time?”
Tom, the kayaker flagged down a passing Coast Guard Defender class inflatable vessel on patrol, searching out terrorists or some such shit. He explained to them as he admired the M240 mounted machine gun on the bow of the boat. He saw the eighteen year old kid behind the gun and wondered just what kind of damage the gun and boy could inflict given the right circumstances. Tom told the crew what he had seen and they forced him to paddle to the spot where the bones were. The Coast Guard called to the Harbor Patrol who responded within a half hour. When they arrived, they realized that this crime wasn’t in their jurisdiction since the corpse was on the rocks, so they radioed a lifeguard boat near by. When the lifeguards arrived they had a wisecrack about not being able to resuscitate Johnny since he no longer had any lungs. The lifeguards radioed the local police department boats. Three Long Beach Police Department vessels cruised up to the spot. The four different bureaucracies then argued over just whose jurisdiction this was. Ultimately, a call went out to the Bureau of Homeland Security. Hours passed as the different departments floated and glared at each other. Tom sat in his kayak, bouncing up and down, watching the sun go down. He hooked into a rather large white sea bass. By the time he landed the fish, one of the over anxious law enforcement officers notified the Department of Fish and Game who were waiting for Tom when he arrived back at Mothers Beach with his well-earned catch well after dark.
Tom had forgotten his fishing license and was fined five hundred dollars for poaching.
“I mean, it was really terrible how John just came and went and no one seemed to notice. It makes me wonder what would happen if I died, if I was murdered. Would people just forget about me, too?” This was Kelly, a very popular, very pretty sixteen year old Junior who went to school with Johnny. She had fairy wing eyelashes and a crooked but mournful smile. Her eyes were the deepest azure, like the waters of Avalon harbor. “Johnny and I were lovers, you know?” I didn’t answer. “He was the sweetest boy I’ve ever known. A real romantic. I’m not ashamed to say it. I used to be ashamed. We kept it quiet. But we loved each other and we made love so often. John never said anything, never told anyone because he said that he respected me and he didn’t want to tell if I didn’t want to. Well, I want to now, but he’s dead and nobody’s listening. He’s gone and it’s just like Shakespeare said, ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.’
“I mean, he would read Shakespeare like that to me in the night, under my window, after everyone was asleep. It was just him, me, and the night.
“Here. Here. Look. He gave this to me the last time that I saw him.”
The sheet of paper read:
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
“Isn’t that beautiful?”
Coming from her perfect little mouth, Shakespeare was beautiful. Nihilistic and beautiful, though I certainly didn’t think that she knew what the quote meant. Then she proved me wrong.
“Oh, I suppose that you’re like everyone else. You see me and you see something, and maybe it’s true, maybe I am some dumb blond who’s all popular and vain. Maybe I am the typical jock slut. Maybe that’s true, but John saw something different. He saw something special in me, something beyond the cliché. He told me so. He treated me like I was something more.
“Listen, I don’t care what other people think anymore. I did. The last time I saw him was at the party the night he disappeared, that’s when my heart broke. Why? Because he was trashed. Completely. I mean, he really liked smoking weed and drinking, but he was on X that night. He was floating through the party and it was like I was the only one who saw him. He was a ghost. He was that way. He always seemed to be around but it was like I was the only one who saw him. Maybe that’s because he was the only one who saw me. Who really saw me.
“Then he disappeared. Even I couldn’t see him.”
“Now that he’s gone, nobody’s noticed. Like you watch the news and you see nothing but beautiful blonds gone missing in Barbados, girls who look like me with families like me. Or kids. Kids abducted by molesters. They’re always kids like me. Could be my kids if I was lucky enough to get pregnant. I still haven’t tried the test. I should. I could be pregnant. But those kids. Just like me. Blond, blue-eyed. But not John. He goes missing and nobody seems to care. I asked people about him and they would say things like, ‘John, oh, yeah, I remember him. Sad.’ But they never noticed when he stopped showing up. The police never came to ask questions. No news reporters. You’re the only one who’s come around to ask. Just you and me. The boy I loved is gone and I’m the only one who noticed. That’s why that Shakespeare quote meant so much, means so much. It’s like John knew what was coming to him. He seemed to know what a meaningless life he was living, what a meaningless life we were all living. Do you see? Don’t you see? It doesn’t matter what happens to me. Every day is just one more step forward to nothing. Each breath is just another blowing out the candle. Nothing; John. Nothing; me. Nothing; you. Nothing; everyone. Nothing.”
The toxicology report came back confirming what Kelly had said; Johnny’s body did contain traces of marijuana, alcohol, and Methylenedioxy-methamphetamine. Along with these, the report showed other narcotics such as opiates, cocaine, ketamine, and lysergic acid. When you got down to it, Johnny Jr.’s body was a veritable laboratory of pleasure and pain.
This drug use was not what had killed the seventeen year old. What had killed him was much more obvious since there was a gigantic section of the back of his skull shattered to dust. A blunt object was swung at quite a velocity to the back of his skull. There may have been several blows from something like a baseball bat since the damage was so extreme. As a matter of fact, had Johnny’s brain not been mostly consumed by the various wildlife that made their home on the jetty, the coroner would have certainly found a brain so mashed and blended that it would have appeared to be a gray and red soup not really identifiable as brains, but something more akin to a gray borscht.
Johnny was not some drug fiend. He was respectful. He was intelligent. He was dutiful. He had never stolen anything in his life other than Kelly’s heart. Actually, he was particularly ethical. But on those evenings when he got lost, those evening’s that I can only imagine since no one except for Kelly could see, he had somehow flew high and low on a chemical magic carpet. He saw colors that I can only imagine. He saw the demons of youth. He saw the truths and the impossible contradiction of truth. He saw it all, he stumbled through, and he went home to his other world with his face tied in a Hefty bag listening to the sound of the ocean’s swells upon the rocks and the whistle of the baseball bat just before it connected with his skull.
I can imagine someone saying from behind him, “Watch me hit a homer,” but that is just my imagination and has nothing to do with what Johnny Cooper experienced. It’s just that he left me with nothing, so, somehow, I am left reconstructing his life.
“This is his bedroom. This is where John spent most of his time. He was very introverted. He was just learning to be comfortable in his own skin when he was murdered.”
This was mom and mom started shuddering with tears.
“The room is the same as it was when he left that day. He was so happy. He was going to the party. He said that he was in love with a girl and she was going to be there. He said that she was so beautiful and that he was going to pop the question.”
“Ha. No, not the marriage question. Johnny said he was going to ask her to go steady. Do kids still do that? Go steady. It sounds so anachronistic. I mean, you would know. Right? So, he was going to ask her. He said that he and she were keeping their relationship quiet because she had a boyfriend. But she didn’t love her boyfriend and Johnny said he was ready for a real woman. I suppose that this doesn’t make sense now, but I never really believed him. I just thought it was some fantasy, something that boys tell their mothers so that they will stop worrying. But you say that there’s a real girl? I am glad. My beautiful boy. At least he knew the love of a girl. I wonder if she saw how special he was. You say that she did, but I don’t know how she could, not at her age.”
She walked to the small desk. “He wrote poems here. All sorts of poems. Poems about flowers and justice and girls and hypocrites. He wrote about the war and how he didn’t belong in the world. All that adolescent stuff that we have to live through before we figure it out. I think that this is the last one that he wrote.” She held the paper up to show me. “It’s titled, ‘A Tale Told by an Idiot.’ I wonder who he was talking about? You don’t know, do you? No, of course not.”
“I think that he was talking about God.”
She sat on the bed. She put her hands to her forehead. “You know, there was hardly anyone at his funeral. His father wouldn’t even come. Sick. Sick. Sick. This whole world’s sick when a boy, a talented boy like him doesn’t have a chance to grow up.” She looked at the papers in her hands. “You know, the cops didn’t do anything to try to find out who did it to him. His father’s a cop, but he doesn’t do one thing to try to find the killers who beat him. Beat him with a baseball bat. Animals.”
She patted the bed. “Do you think that he made love to that girl here? I know that you wouldn’t know, but do you think so? I hope so.” The woman looked through my eyes as if I were her child, as if I were the one who had had his eye sockets emptied out by a seagull’s beak.
“That was my boy, my love, and I knew nothing about him. He had a girlfriend that I didn’t even know. He used all sorts of drugs. He smoked. He drank. He went to parties. He had a life. Now, when I smell his clothes, I can smell the tobacco, I can smell her. He had a whole life that I knew nothing about. And you come here. You come here asking your questions like you can do something about it, like you can resurrect him.”
Jonathan Cooper Jr. 1992-2009
On May 14, 2009, a kid named John Cooper, aged 17, died of blunt force trauma to the back of his skull. The murder was at an undisclosed location on the Long Beach breakwater. The victim had a plastic bag tied over his head. He was ordered to his knees. He breathed heavily and was beginning to asphyxiate when the murderer or murderers repetitively struck the back of his skull until he was dead.
On May 27, Tom Miller, a local poacher, was paddling along the Long Beach breakwater, illegally fishing without a license. Upon discovery of the victim’s remains, Mr. Miller flagged down the authorities who took over the investigation.
John Cooper’s body was significantly degraded by exposure to wildlife and the elements. Because of the condition of the body, it was necessary to match his dental x-rays with those of the remains.
No suspects have ever been arrested in the case.
Scott Underwood currently lives in Long Beach, CA, with his wife, Christy, daughter, Darby, and son, Buster. They live a couple of houses away from the ocean and a mile from the surf. Scott holds a MA in English and a MFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University (Orange, CA). He teaches at the Art Institute (Santa Ana, CA) as well as the University of the West (Rosemead, CA).
His work has appeared in Cezzane's Carrot, Elephant Tree, Taj Majal Review, The Julie Mango, among other places. When he is not raising his kids or playing in the ocean, he is working on four novels: The Moon and Clarence Monk, The Rise and Fall of the Smithy Dynasty, maGic, and More Grace Than I Ever Expected. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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