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Apr/May 2002 fiction

Echoes of Johnny Gosh

by Eric Prochaska


 

Between four thirty and dawn, with the dew like glitter across the windshields of the rows of waiting cars along the curbs under the streetlights which are obscured by plush trees, Johnny Gosh echoes through the streets.

Wasn't it winter, and a five minutes' walk from my house, where they found only his paper-carrier's bag still stuffed with rolled and rubber-banded Gazettes? Me ten years old, and he only a few years more than that, and now gone. Missing. Headlines and solemn conversations, all breathing that hopeful word. Missing. But soon it was supplanted by another. Abducted. We feared for Johnny Gosh.

Distraught, his parents surely were. Their hands must have trembled for weeks without stopping. How could they settle in after work and enjoy their dinner, watch tv, read the paper? The paper with the headlines about their son. But no new news. Pleas and solicitations for information or his return, but as we waited for him, Johnny Gosh never came home.

Devastated, our town was. We held our breath for so many weeks, hoping each morning that the Gazette laying harmlessly on our top step would unfold to reveal the end to the suspense. "Found!" we hoped we would read. But all we found was that Johnny Gosh was missing.

 

Scottie Kiddman lived with his grandmother, as did I. We were both new kids in school, and both liked Star Wars toys and comic books. Scottie was a bit older, though, and had his own paper route. Like hundreds of parents in the weeks that followed, his grandmother would wake early and drive him along his route, creeping her station wagon steadily through the ranks of parked cars which separated her from Scottie, who marched up the sidewalk, lobbing lopsided papers toward porches and doors. When the cars of two paper carrier guardians would meet, they would roll down their windows, exchange reports, wish each other's child safety, and somewhere in their furtive council speak that name. Johnny Gosh.

Our grandmothers did not like the sound of the other's voice over the phone, but tried not to let that interfere with the friendship of their grandsons. So, about a month after the first headline was emblazoned into our collective memory, I was allowed to spend the night at Scottie's house. His grandmother was weary with rising before dawn and cruising the streets alongside him, and welcomed the idea of us two boys going out together. My grandmother would have thought it merely twice as dangerous, since there would be two children at risk, but Scottie's grandmother believed there was safety in numbers and stayed at home that day. Still, perhaps from habit, perhaps from concern, she could not help but wake and come downstairs to see us off as we embarked on the route.

As we opened the door and stepped into the beach of light from the porch lamp that eroded into an ocean of the darkest part of night, a warning washed over us. Johnny Gosh is missing.

 

When I had gone back to live with my father and his new wife, my grandmother never knew that I had a paper route. Four, actually, though not all at once, over the span of a couple of years. How could she have slept if she had known? In those first few days, when the newspapers and local broadcasts beseeched us for help, her rosary never left her grasp. Even cooking dinner, she would chant her prayers as the steam rose past her face.

Don't you know that she checked to make sure every window was latched at night? Don't you know that when the phone rang after dark she jumped with a start?

They must have known this was more than a fear. They told us years before not to take candy from strangers, and to never, ever go near a car with someone we didn't know. Look for the houses with gold stars in the windows, they told us. Run to the houses with gold stars in the windows!

Still, even they were not prepared for the horror of finding that it could happen. And it could happen here. It was all anyone talked about, and someone should tell them that we were all in tears. Don't his parents know that we agonized, too?

I wasn't even allowed to walk by myself to school in the broad day light, anymore, and I lived on the same block as the school. My older brother and I were under strict orders to accompany each other, and to even bring friends home with us if they had no one to walk with. When we did, our grandma would feed them cookies, her speech fraught with the worry she shivered in as she called their parents and told them where to pick them up. Don't you know you can't let your children wander these streets alone? Don't you know that Johnny Gosh is missing?

 

The first day was a Sunday, which was the heaviest day for papers. And a Sunday in December, which brought pounds of extra sale ads pressing me down atop the ice and snow which conspired to let me fall. The avenue a straight corridor like a lighted hallway, lined with shrubs oppressed under five inches of snow, bordered by snow banks. Waddling between the weight of two bulging shoulder bags which swung their loads into the sides of my thighs alternately as I plodded over the slippery surface of the road, I was as helpless as a crippled penguin. How could I have leapt for safety, had one of the intermittent cars creeping over the treacherous ice from behind me skid in my direction? How could I have hoped to run if a van with its sliding door open sailed smoothly to my side and I turned my head to see the figure looming over me from inside the cavernous shell of steel?

Winter mornings are the quietest. The birds are missing. The wind can not push swings heavy under the weight of snow. But a wind chime can haunt half a mile along each direction of an empty street. Your own feet crunch, and you can't hear anything behind you because of the stocking cap over your ears and the sweatshirt's hood pulled from under your coat and hugged around your head. So you form a habit of scanning around you as you turn your body to launch newspapers toward storm doors, where they will slap against the top step, then slide back down two more in their orange plastic sleeves over the top of the unshoveled snow. Suddenly your heart leaps and you freeze, rigid, unable to inhale, realizing that fear can render you powerless to scream.

A man, whose face eluded your abrupt glance at his ghost-like appearance, has trudged by swiftly, hands stabbed deep in coat pockets. When he turns around the corner, you wonder whether he will be waiting there for you, or coming around the block to capture you from behind. How could you forget to watch behind you? You want to collapse, your legs quiver, but there is work to finish and snow to conquer. How could you be so careless? How could we forget that Johnny Gosh is missing?

 

Twenty years. My own brother, who once was the same age as Johnny Gosh, died young, and I celebrated his birthday yesterday. I can't not think of him. This year I will be five years older than my older brother will ever be. I miss him like I miss my childhood. He is my memories.

There has always been an echo, always been a hope, always a prayer. These twenty years, and I finally tried to find Johnny Gosh. But the Internet held only a few postings from other well-wishers such as myself, and no news, no history. I heard there was a documentary made, but I don't know where to get a copy, and would it change a thing? The lost are lost among the lost.

Awake in these hours before dawn, you may want to pen a letter. But who are you to do so? Theirs is a wound that can never close completely, and would you wish to peel it open? But you would have said these things. You would have told them that empathy is not an empty sentiment.

Instead, you slip your sockless feet into your already-tied tennis shoes, pull a sweatshirt over your tussled head of hair, and find yourself wandering into the chill of night retreating. An echo. The slap of the flat side of a rolled newspaper smacking concrete. You count the seconds until you hear it again, your breath a wraith visible in the overflowing glare from the streetlight. Seconds later, another smack. When he finally appears around the spruce, trots up your walk and hands it to you with a smile, embarrassed perhaps to see someone so unprepared to be seen at an hour when we should all be sleeping contently, you grin and say "Thank you" quieter than you had intended, and don't exchange any small talk as he hurries along, slinging the burden from his shoulders one subscription at a time.

 

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