Man in Black
by Leah Holbrook Sackett
Orange Sherbet reminds me of my summer with Johnny Cash. I was eleven years old; my brother Marcus was seven. We were spending the summer with Dad. Well, not the entire summer, three weeks. That year Dad had negotiated Mom down from five weeks. When I asked why Marcus and I had to go at all she said, “Look Gemma, I need a break. Your father could do something.” That summer Dad did his something in August.
“Listen kids, I have to go to work. I’ll try and get out early. Your leftovers from McDonald’s are in the fridge and there’s soup in the pantry.”
I stared into my bowl of Captain Crunch. Five golden mush lumps floated in the milk. I didn’t want to look up or open my mouth, afraid I’d give voice to the lump in my throat. I didn’t want to make Dad feel bad, but I didn’t want to spend another day locked-up in the A/C, in an unfamiliar apartment.
“Ok, here’s a five. Get yourself some ice cream if the ice cream truck comes by. And we’ll go out for dinner tonight. Okay? Okay.”
Marcus and I continued to sit at the Formica table that used to be in Grandma Shirley’s basement. A lot of the furniture in Dad’s new apartment migrated from different rooms of Grandma Shirley’s house. I had the vinyl seat with the duct tape down the middle. When I hesitated sitting in that chair on our first morning Dad had said, “It’s kitcshy.” I didn’t know what that was, but I didn’t believe him. “Be good,” Dad called as he walked out the backdoor with his computer bag in one hand and his tie in the other. We listened for the shut of the car door, start of the engine and the fade of supervision.
“At least Mom kisses us good-bye,” Marcus said setting his bowl in the sink. “And gets us a sitter.”
The phone rang.
“What are we going to do, Gemma?” Marcus said.
The phone rang, again. I picked it up from the base on the kitchen wall.
“Gemma, watch out for your brother. Call me at work if you need anything. And don’t go anywhere.”
Was there anywhere to go? Marcus and I weren’t familiar with this neighborhood. The entire block was squashed together with dark, red brick buildings, each three stories high; each with a green and red door. The sameness of this place was interrupted with the occasional empty lot of weeds. But in the lot to the left of our building was a big garden, more like a collection of little gardens. At night, from our bedroom window, I could see the outlines of towering sunflowers and shadowy patches in the moonlight. During the day it was a tangle of green with moments of color. St. Louis sure was different from home. Last summer, Dad still lived back home in Atlanta. We stayed with him in a Condo in the city; that was when he was dating Heather, who looked at Marcus and me like we were cockroaches on her kitchen floor. I added my bowl to the climbing tower in the sink. Heather would hate this place.
“What did he want?” Marcus said.
Marcus sat on the floor watching Tom and Jerry cartoons and biting his toenails.
“Mom doesn’t like that.”
“At least dad has cable, so we can watch cartoons all day. The last place had cable, too.”
“Stop biting your toenails. Mom doesn’t like it.”
“Mom’s not here,” Marcus said straining to jam a new toe between his teeth.” He spit the ripped nail on the floor. “Do you think we could get Mom to get cable?”
“No. It’s too expensive.”
“Hmm, maybe that’s why Dad lives in this crummy place to pay for the cable.”
“You’re gonna have stinky feet breath.”
By afternoon, I was tired of cartoons and felt stiff from the A/C. I wanted to go out in the sun, in the garden.
“Want some ice cream?”
“Do you hear the ice cream man?” Marcus said as he jumped up and looked out the window.
“No, but I’m sick of sitting in here. Let’s check out that garden.”
We weren’t outside, but 10 minutes, and I already missed the air conditioning.
“Huh, it’s a vegetable garden,” Marcus said. He nudged at some swollen eggplant near his untied, dingy converse. “I think Mom tries to get me to eat this stuff.”
Each garden patch was different. Some were vegetable, some flowers, and a ton of leafy or stalk like plants that I didn’t know. There were butterflies and bees both real and ornamental, little stools, ceramic bunnies, and chimes.
“This is really boring, and it’s getting hot, Gemma.”
“Do you think one of these belongs to Dad?”
“I’m going inside. If the ice cream man comes, I want a bomb pop.”
I continued to make my way through the plots till I found a shady place inside a little vine-constructed tee-pee. The ground was damp in this plot. It must have just been watered. I decided to squat so as not to get my white shorts dirty. Dad didn’t do laundry too often. I found a little stick and began to dig my initials in the cool, packed soil of the tee-pee. I wonder why someone made a tee-pee of vines. I ran my finger over the long green tendrils to see if I could identify the plant. I’d just finished Ms. Seibert’s 5th grade honors science that year. I felt a long, curvy, bumpy pod. I plucked the green bean. It was the longest, thinnest green bean I’d ever seen. I could make a necklace out of this, but a green bean bracelet would be much cooler.
The urgent clang of the ice cream man brought back the heat of the afternoon. I dashed from the green bean tee-pee, and tripped over the red-painted railroad tie framing the garden patch. I hit dry, hard earth catching myself with my right knee, palms, and chin. The clamor of the bell along with the circus music sounded about half a block away. I got up, brushed my burning, grass patterned palms on my t-shirt and ran through the maze of mini-gardens. The clamor of other kids hailing the ice cream man rose over the leafy labyrinth. I hit the open expanse of lawn in front of the community garden. I could see two older girls and a boy walking away with their frozen delights. The churning circus tones called out, and I arrived at the front walk. I tried to make a quick study of the truck’s offerings. What do I want? My heart was pounding and I was beginning to feel the pain in my chin. My eyes scanned up and down the pictures of ice cream and popsicles.
“Hey, kid! It’s your turn. What do you want?”
“Ah, um. A Bomb Pop and a Push Up.”
As soon as he said it, I realized I’d left the $5 bill on the kitchen table.
“Wait! I left my money inside.”
“I can’t wait kid,” and he started to turn up the volume of the circus music.
“Wait! I have money, here.” I pulled two crumpled dollars from my pocket.
“Well, which one do you want?”
“I want the Bomb Pop and a Push Up.”
“Kid, you don’t got enough. Which one? The Bomb Pop or the Push Up?”
I looked back at the apartment. I could see Marcus at the window waving to me.
“The Bomb Pop,” I said looking down at the mud squished between my toes and smeared across the weave of my sandal on my right foot.
“And I think I’ll take two Push Ups,” a voice boomed behind me.
I looked up and standing next to me was a broad shouldered man in black leather.
“Hey, kid. Your bomb pop?” the ice cream man said.
I took the oversized Popsicle and my change from the ice cream man, but I looked at the man with the swept-back, black hair and large sideburns. He looks hot. That’s probably why he wants two Push Ups. I started towards the apartment to give Marcus his Bomb Pop. The noise of the ice cream truck resumed as it pulled from the curb.
I turned around and just looked at him.
“Miss? Do you want one of these Push Ups? I can’t eat two. I gotta watch my figure.”
“I don’t know you.”
“Very wise of you. I’m Johnny Cash. I’m your neighbor, too.” And he gestured to the floor beneath our apartment. By this time Marcus had come out to fetch his Bomb Pop. I took the Push Up.
“I saw you in the garden. I don’t think your Dad has a plot. Would you like to see mine?”
“Is it just more vegetables?” Marcus asked with blue juice already dribbling from his chin.
“Is it the tee-pee?”
“No. It’s better. It’s behind Mrs. Hardy’s sunflowers.”
Johnny Cash gestured and we followed. He was right, his was better.
“That’s awesome,” Marcus said. “Can I sit on it?”
Johnny Cash’s garden was a sod sofa and a moss-covered tree stump for a coffee table with potted flowers on it.
The three of us sat on the moss sofa. I was in the middle. It was cooler in this shady spot, and there was a soft breeze.
“Miss? How do you open this thing?”
“Oh. You peel the top off and then as you eat it you Push Up with the handle. Oh, and thanks.” I brushed my long blond hair away from my face. “It’s kinda windy.”
“It feels good, and you’re welcome. It’s hard being a kid on a hot day. It’s hard being Johnny Cash on a hot day.”
“Who’s that?” Marcus asked. He was leaning around me and dripped more blue juice, but this time he dripped it on my shorts and my left leg. The sticky blue syrup ran down my pale thigh turning pink in the sun.
“Me, of course. Good pick, miss. Johnny Cash loves orange sherbet.”
“Really? It’s my favorite.” I wiped at my leg with the palm of hand.
“Why do you talk like that?” Marcus blurted leaning across me this time.
“Marcus,” I said through my teeth.
“You call yourself by your name like Elmo.”
“Is that a friend of yours, Marcus?”
“Nah, He’s on Sesame Street,” I said.
“Oh. Well, I just like being Johnny Cash, I guess.”
“I like being Gemma. That’s my name.”
“That’s a beautiful name.”
“Thanks. My Dad picked it.”
“I call her Germma, because girls are gross,” said Marcus. His dark curls were sticking to his forehead with sweat. Everything about him was sticky.
I went into the garden every day that week, and ordered Push Ups every time the ice cream man passed-by. I was prepared with the money in my pocket. And I made sure I always had enough for a Push Up for Johnny Cash, too. But I didn’t bump into Mr. Cash again. So, I wound up eating twice as much orange sherbet.
When we watched cartoons in the afternoon I would hear his shower run and his muffled singing. I tried to make out the lyrics. Although I didn’t recognize any of his songs, I liked to hear him sing. I’d press my ear to the cool hard wood floor and make up my own words as I listened.
“Gemma, get off that floor,” Dad said. “Come on, she’s going to be here any minute.
“So, get over here and act like a lady, not a baby on the floor.”
“I’m not being a baby. I’m listening to Johnny Cash.”
“What? Since when do you listen to Johnny Cash?”
“Since I met him in the garden.”
“He bought her an ice cream, because there was only money for one and I got it,” Marcus chimed in.
“You are not supposed to talk to strangers for one. You are not supposed to accept things from strangers for two. And why do you think this stranger is Johnny Cash?”
“Because that’s his name, and he lives downstairs.”
“Oh. Oh, yeah, right. The impersonator.”
“What?” Marcus said, wrinkling his nose.
“Kids, he impersonates Johnny Cash at the Hard Rock Café downtown.”
“You know where he works? What does he do?” I said.
“Can we hear him sing? Please?”
“Maybe, if it will keep you off the floor.”
With that there was a knock at the backdoor, and within the hour, Marcus and I were pretty much invisible. Dad made us go to bed early that night, too. He said it was grown-up time for him and his friend Tanya. Marcus and I brushed our teeth and climbed into the double bed in our room.
“I get the window side.”
“Not fair! You take the window side every night, Gemma!”
“No fighting in there,” Dad hollered.
“Fine,” I hissed and threw a pillow at him.
Sometime in the night I woke-up, I mean wide awake. I wasn’t use to going to bed so early. My body just wasn’t tired anymore. I lay in the graying light listening to Marcus snore softly. I watched his face. His mouth was hanging open enough for me to see his two oversized front teeth. I was wondering what he would look like if he were a rabbit, when I heard something. It sounded like a grunt, like if someone got punched in the stomach. I heard it again.
“Marcus, Marcus,” I whispered tugging the elbow of his sleeve.
“Do you hear that?”
“No. I’m sleeping,” he said. “Why? What was it?” He pulled the blankets up to his chin; just then I heard it again.
“Wait, I’m coming with you,” Marcus said as he stood closer to me than normal. He stood next to me like I was Mom or something. I cracked open the door and peered into the blackness of Dad’s room. Marcus peeked over my shoulder. Even though I was older, he was nearly as tall as me. We got down and crawled into the entrance to Dad’s bedroom. Scrunched together on the floor we watched. We watched I didn’t know what, but I did. I just had never seen it before. I never thought about what it looked like, but I didn’t think it would look like that. It was so rough. In silence we crawled back to bed.
“What were they doing?” he asked.
“Didn’t Mom ever talk to you about it?”
“About what? Naked wrestling? No.”
“About making babies,” I said angrily. I felt like I was going to cry.
“Is that what they’re doing? Dad wants another baby?”
“Go to sleep, Marcus.”
I tried to sleep, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t get comfortable. I felt funny being so close to Marcus. I felt funny thinking at all. I wanted to go home. I wanted my Mom. I had to get away from the apartment, from that moment. Anger was twisting and coiling in my stomach. Without shoes, once all was quiet, I slipped down the hall and out the back door. The Sun was starting to come up; the gray light was warming to a fine yellow. The dew dolloped grass tickled and licked my feet as I made my way to Johnny Cash’s living room. I sat on the sod sofa, not caring if my nightgown got muddy; feeling like I might puke. And that’s when I saw him park his old Buick.
He didn’t seem surprised to see me there, and I hadn’t even realized I was crying till he offered me a white handkerchief.
“May I have a seat?” he said, as he sat down.
He was in all black again with that same leather jacket. I took the handkerchief from him. It was embroidered with JC in the corner in black, and I noticed he had a big gold ring on almost every finger.
“Gemma, what are you doing out here?”
“You’re a liar,” jumped from my lips. “You’re a liar. You’re not Johnny Cash. He’s dead. I know. I looked it up on Google. I’m not some dumb, little kid you know.”
“I don’t think you’re dumb, Gemma. And I’m sorry. I was just pretending.”
“Pretending is lying. Grown-ups are always lying.”
“I think pretending is fun. Don’t you pretend?”
“Not anymore,” I mumbled into my shoulder.
“Aww, I hate to hear that. I really do.” I wanted to scoot closer to him, to curl-up in his lap like I use to with Dad. I wanted him to hold me. Instead, I closed my eyes waiting for his warm, deep voice.
“Gemma, let me tell you something. Grown-ups are just big, ugly children. And sometimes we pretend, because we don’t know what else to do.”
“I don’t think I like growing-up,” I said opening my eyes and gazing out at the breaking light.
“Then don’t stop dreaming, Gemma.”
I blew my nose in the handkerchief.
“I didn’t know men wore rings.”
“Sure. What about wedding rings?”
“My Dad never wore one.”
“Well, every man is different. Look at me I like a lot of rings and sod sofas.”
“Thanks. Pretty sunrise, isn’t it? I love a good sunrise.”
“Yeah. Yeah. Me too,” I said, although I didn’t remember ever paying much attention before.
We watched the sun come all the way up, the soft yellow and pink blushing into day. Johnny Cash walked me to my backdoor, where we met Dad and Tanya kissing in the door jamb. At first, Dad looked like Marcus when he’d been caught doing something Mom didn’t like, but then he looked like he couldn’t figure out the answer to a really hard math problem.
“Gemma? What the hell are you doing outside?”
I looked back from his face to her face. They both seem surprised or scared, just like me.
“I’m gonna go,” Tanya said as she bent like flamingo and jammed a foot in one of her high-heels. She gave Dad a kiss on his cheek that he didn’t seem to notice, and she squeezed past Johnny Cash and me.
“Good night, ma’am,” said Johnny Cash with a nod of his head.
“What the hell are you doing with my daughter?”
“She was sleepwalking, Andy. I found her in the garden when I got home from work and went to water my flowers. Early morning is the best time to water them, you know. She may still be asleep. It’s best not to wake them,” Johnny Cash said.
Everyone stood there. We just stood there. Dad looked guilty. I was trying hard not to blush, not to remember what I’d seen. I didn’t want Dad to touch me.
“I gotta get her in bed. I’ll talk to you later,” Dad said steering me by my shoulders into the apartment. He shut the kitchen door behind him. I could see the back of Johnny Cash’s head turning away.
“Gemma, I don’t believe you were sleepwalking.”
“Then what were you doing with Johnny Cash?”
I stared at my wet toes. There was a grass clipping on the right pinky.
“Did he hurt you?”
“Are you sure? Cause I’ll…”
“No, no. It’s not like that.”
“I know about safe touch and bad touch, Dad. They’ve talked to us about it in school since first grade. Even Marcus knows about that.”
“Well, then what were you doing out there?”
“I went for a walk. He saw me in his garden when he got home.”
“Gemma, why would you go for a walk at night?”
“Ah, ah, what about Tanya?”
“I heard you. We saw you, okay,” I turned my back to him and gripped the back of the kitchen chair in front of me.
“Oh, we were just…”
“I’m not a baby, Dad. I know what you were doing.”
“I’m sorry, Gemma. Next time I’ll remember to close the door.”
“Okay, sorry. No next time, for now. Gemma? Do you have…are you…I don’t know what to say.”
“Okay, go to bed.”
I let go of the chair, my fingernails had pressed little crescent moons into the vinyl. As I stepped into the hall Dad asked me, “Gemma, let’s not tell Mom about this, okay?”
“Yeah,” I said and I felt empty inside, in my chest. I didn’t know if I was telling him the truth at that moment, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t care if I was lying to my Dad.
He never asked me about the incident again. The following weekend, on our last night in town, Dad surprised Marcus and me with a trip to the Hard Rock Café to see Johnny Cash. I hadn’t seen him since the night in the garden. I was so excited. I wore my favorite pink daisy sundress. We got a table right in the front, and Dad let us order whatever we wanted off the menu. It was great. I got a chocolate milkshake, cheeseburger and fries. There were posters and photos everywhere. The music was really loud and the waiters and waitresses were dressed really crazy. Dad said they were dressed like the 70s, when he was born. It was really cool. I love that way back in the olden day stuff. But it was hard to concentrate on all the people or my dinner, because I kept looking for Johnny Cash.
“Hey, Dad. Can I ask you a question?” Marcus said with a mouthful of fries.
“You just did.”
“Ha, Ha, Ha. You’re real funny, Dad.”
“Well, what is it?”
“What ever happened to that lady?”
I shot a shut-up look at Marcus, so he just kept going.
“The one that came over. The one like Grandma Shirley.”
“The one like Grandma Shirley?” Dad said looking confused. “The only lady that came over was Tanya.”
“Yeah. Her. What happened to her?”
“Marcus, how is Tanya like your Grandma Shirley?”
“She smells like cigarettes and too much perfume.”
Just then the lights went low, from the darkness emerged the strum of a guitar, and a spotlight came up on Mr. Johnny Cash. He sang all the songs I had listened to through the floorboards, but now I could really hear the lyrics and see him.
“Dad, quick I need a pen.”
“Okay, okay. We’ll get one from the waitress.”
I bounced my foot on the peg of my barstool and scratched at a mosquito bite on my calf as I listened and waited for the pen. Once the waitress returned with a pen I began jotting down lyrics on my paper napkin, the ones I couldn’t understand before through the floor like “I keep my eyes wide open all the time, I keep the ends out for the tie that binds” from I Walk The Line and from A Boy Named Sue “And I came away with a different point of view. And I think about him, now and then, Every time I try and every time I win.”
Everything was better than I had imagined. He stood there like a rock with his guitar. His jaws quivered when he sang, and he gave an occasional tilt into the microphone and then a wink just at me. In that moment, I belonged to something special. Johnny Cash broke into a Ring of Fire and the restaurant erupted in applause. I was so proud. They didn’t know him like I knew him. I watched their shadowed faces, eating, talking, and laughing. I looked at Marcus stuffing his face with fries, Dad playing with his napkin and singing along. I knew they saw a man on a dark stage, but I saw the man in black.
As the show ended, Dad reached across and handed me his napkin that he’d twisted into the shape of a rose. “For my lady,” he said as the lights came up. Mr. Cash descended the stage and crossed to our table. He and Dad chatted for a while like neighbors, like I’d never seen at home. He shook Dad and Marcus’ hands. When he bent down to hug me I was swallowed by his black leather coat. He was warm. I could smell soap and some men’s cologne suffuse the air inside this leather cocoon. I felt heady, swaddled in dark security.
Some people pretend to be a good parent while running away from home. Others pretend to be a celebrity while living a small life, working a small stage. I wanted to stay glued to that moment, wrapped inside that coat with him, but I knew I couldn’t. I had to pretend to be innocent while life was forcing me to grow-up. I whispered into his chest, “I believe in you, Mr. Cash,” and I let go.
Leah Holbrook Sackett is an adjunct lecturer in the English department at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. This is also where she earned her M.F.A. Additionally, she has published three short stories: A Point of Departure published with Connotation Press, Somebody Else in Kentucky published in Blacktop Passages, and The Birdcage Nests Within published with The Weekly Knob through Medium Daily Digest. Upcoming, her flash fiction entitled What the Looking Glass Reflects will be published in the spring 2017 issue of Zany Zygote Review.
She lives with her husband Jonathan and daughter Bella in Webster Groves, Missouri along with their puppy Presley and two cats K.C. and Kafka. In her free time, Leah is an avid collector of Lewis Carroll memorabilia and a member of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America.