The Struggles of Johnny Cannon

BOOK: The Struggles of Johnny Cannon
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TO THE REAL-LIFE MR. THOMASSEN,

WHO NEVER OWNED A CLUB IN CUBA,

BUT I EVENTUALLY GOT OVER IT.

I MISS YOU, ROGER.

Acknowledgments

I'm so very grateful for every person who believed enough in Johnny that this second tall tale came to exist. First of all, for my wife, the real reason I write anything. Also for Nicole and Erin. For my magnificent agent, Marietta, my incredible editor, David Gale, and his assistant, Liz. For the students in my ninth-grade English class, for the kids in my drama class, and for every person who read, loved, and shared Johnny Cannon's troubles. It all started with one boy's dream, and you have all made it come true.

CHAPTER ONE
THE BOY WONDER

M
y grandma always said there ain't much learning in the second kick of a mule. Reason being, if you didn't shoot him after he kicked you the first time, then he might be a mule, but you're a jackass.

Same thing goes when a dog bites you, she'd always say, or if a horse bucks you off, or if any other bad thing happens to you 'cause of an animal that ain't listening. That's why the Good Lord made bullets.

Of course, that was an old-fashioned way of thinking, back from the turn of the century when folks hadn't never seen
Bambi
and didn't know nothing about happy endings.

In other words, it was back when folks was smarter.

See, there ain't never been a lie in the history of man as big or as terrible as the lie about happy endings. Everybody these days believes in them, everybody waits for them, and when you get to the end of a story, as long as everybody's smiling, folks think all is right with the world.

But it ain't true. There ain't no such things as happy endings. Some things get to be happy. Other things get to end. But trying to mix them things together is like trying to shake up oil and water to make a new kind of medicine. Once you've swallowed it, it does a number on your stomach and you realize you're the biggest fool in the whole wide world.

Which is why, if you look up the word “fool” in the encyclopedia that came out in '61, you'll see my picture staring back at you. 'Cause in spite of everything inside of me that knew better, I was still hunting my hardest for my happy ending.

It was the middle of August, the weekend right before school was set to start and seventh grade was primed to hit me like a ton of bricks. It was hotter than a two-dollar pistol, even out there on the water of Smith Lake. We was in my brother Tommy's rusted old paddleboat, and by “we,” I mean me and the girl I was hunting that happy ending with, Martha Macker. And if there's a better way to get tangled up with the girl of your dreams than hunting catfish in the heart of Alabama, I'd like to know what it is. No, really, 'cause this wasn't turning out the way I'd hoped.

I was wearing my coveralls, which had been passed down from my grandpa after he'd had a heart attack reeling in a sixty-pound catfish. Hadn't been washed since then either, 'cause it don't matter that he died in them, if they was lucky enough to land a sixty-pounder, that's the sort of luck you don't wash off. My Cincinnati Reds baseball cap was perching on top of my head. It didn't fit so good 'cause it had been a birthday present from Tommy back in '58 and was about five sizes too small, but it was a fishing tradition. And them are sacred.

Meanwhile, Martha was wearing a wide-brimmed hat and Foster Grant sunglasses, which hid her blue eyes but made her red hair look even more pretty, and she was also wearing an Auburn University sweatshirt her pa had sent her up from Montgomery, where he was off doing business. I didn't have the heart to tell her she wasn't dressed sensible for fishing. I reckoned she'd figure it out on her own after we got some catfish blood on her white leather oxfords.

I'd put the worm on her hook for her 'cause I reckoned she felt a bit squeamish, even though she claimed she didn't, but I knew better 'cause she was a girl and all. Then I helped her cast her line 'cause she didn't want to hook her skirt. I reckoned she'd start enjoying herself directly, even though her face looked like she was as miserable as could be.

“When do they start biting?” she asked.

“They'll start biting here eventually,” I said. “Or they won't. It don't much matter. Fishing ain't really about getting bites—”

She smacked a mosquito that was trying to sting her arm. It was squished to her palm and she looked around her seat on the boat to find something to wipe it on. She finally wiped it on my sleeve. I didn't mind, it meant she was touching my arm.

“I knew I should have used some bug spray,” she said.

“It scares off the fish,” I said. “Besides, you can make a game of it.” I smacked one that was chewing on my ankle. “See, that's twelve for me.”

She sighed and didn't say nothing else for a little bit. We bobbed up and down as the water moved us farther along and we listened to the sounds of birds singing love songs to each other. Bugs hummed along with them off on the shore. Martha kept time by swatting more mosquitoes.

“Am I doing something wrong?” she asked. “I feel like I'm doing something wrong. The fish aren't biting.”

“They ain't bit mine yet either,” I said. “You're doing all right.”

Just then the tip of my fishing pole started jerking down to the water. I sat up and got to reeling in whatever was gobbling on my worm. I fought with it for a bit, 'cause it wanted to have a little fun with me. Finally, I got the big ol' catfish up out of the water. It was twenty pounds, easy.

“Grab the net and get him,” I said.

“Eww,” she said, “it's still alive.”

“Well, yeah,” I said. “They don't bite nearly as good when they're dead. Get the net, he's about to fall off my hook.”

She dug around the boat for a bit to find the net. Once she got it, she tried to hand it to me.

“No, stick it out there and get him.”

“But it's flinging water everywhere.”

It sure was, twitching and fighting against the hook and sending a shower of water in our direction. It felt real good, but she didn't seem to appreciate it. I tried to hold the pole with one hand and grab the net with the other. I put the net out there, but just before I got it under the fat catfish, he gave a big shake and went sailing off my hook. He landed right back into the river and took off to warn all his catfish buddies that there was a couple of walleyed yahoos out there fishing.

I couldn't hold back my groan.

“Maybe I should reel in the next one,” Martha said. “I don't think the net job is for me.”

I was just fixing to tell her that it was okay, after all, she was a girl and it wasn't important that she be able to net a fish as long as she could cook it. But then the air got split wide open with what sounded like a buzz saw cutting through a plague of locusts, and then there was a fuzzy voice.

“Superman. Superman, come in. This is Batman.”

Birds flew off like they was escaping an alien attack and I'm pretty sure the fish even ducked for cover. I dug through the tuna salad sandwiches we'd brought with us and pulled out a fancy walkie-talkie. I stretched out the metal antenna and clicked the big button on the side.

“Dadgummit, Willie, you pick the worst times.”

“I thought we agreed on code names. I'm Batman and you're Superman. Remember?”

Him and his code names. He'd been in supersecret-government-agent mode for the past couple of months, ever since he met Short-Guy, a fella from the CIA that almost took my pa to prison 'cause he thought he'd sabotaged the Bay of Pigs invasion. But that got all cleared up and we was sort of friends with him now. Except I couldn't never remember his name, which is why I always just called him Short-Guy.

Anyway, he'd given Willie the darn fool idea of working for the CIA someday. I tolerated it at first, even bought him those walkie-talkies since we was blood brothers and all, but he was starting to get annoying about it. Still, since he was a crippled black kid and there wasn't much else he could look forward to in life, I reckoned I'd let him hold on to his dream.

“Sorry, Batman, go ahead.”

Martha giggled. She always thought me and Willie was a hoot when we was together.

“How goes Operation Happy Ending?”

My face turned as red as my hat.

“It ain't going,” I said, and hoped Martha hadn't been listening.

“What's Operation Happy Ending?” she asked.

Dadgummit.

“It ain't nothing,” I said. “I mean, it's just us boys doing stupid things. Like farting and scratching ourselves. Like how we always—”

She grabbed the walkie-talkie from my hand.

“Batman, this is Wonder Woman, do you copy?”

There wasn't no answer for a bit and I could imagine Willie was sweating from his forehead.

“Copy that, Wonder Woman, go ahead.”

“What is Operation Happy Ending?” She had a possum grin on her face when she said that, and then she bit her lip while she waited for him to respond.

And she had to wait for a spell, too. Dang, Willie must have been sweating enough to fill up a bathtub. Which would really defeat the purpose of taking a bath. Unless you used the right soap, I reckon. Maybe Dove or something.

“It's . . . uh . . . it's . . .”

I started praying that the Good Lord would make something happen to get me out of that mess. Or kill me right there on the spot. But then I wouldn't never get to see the Reds win a World Series. So he had to come up with another plan.

Right then, Martha's fishing pole got yanked out of her lap. I dove across the boat to grab it.

“Holy cow!” I hollered. “You caught something.”

She jumped up and just about lost her mind.

“No! I'm reeling them in, remember?” she said. She tried to grab her pole, but when she did, she knocked the walkie-talkie into the water.

I didn't even give no second thoughts about it, I dove in after it.

The walkie-talkie sank pretty fast and I had to fight with a dead tree branch for it, but I finally got it and swam back up to the boat. Martha wasn't going to be no help getting me back in 'cause she was too busy fighting a losing battle with whatever creature was yanking on the end of her fishing line.

I pulled myself into the boat and went to help her. We fought and fought with that fish, and my arms was getting sort of sore. It surprised me that she hadn't given up yet, but maybe I was doing more of the work than I thought. Didn't look like it, but looks can be deceiving.

Finally she got it up to the surface.

“Oh, look at that,” I said. “You caught a gar.”

She peeked at what I was looking at, the long fish with the even longer nose and teeth peeking out from its jawline.

“An alligator? You didn't say anything about alligators!” She let go of the fishing pole. The gar took off swimming and took her pole with it.

I had to laugh. It was the only natural reaction besides cussing.

“Not an alligator, a gar,” I said. “It's all right. Girls is skittish, I understand.”

She glanced behind me.

“Hey, Mountain Man, isn't that your pole?”

I spun around just in time to see my pole go flying off in the other direction, another victim of a hungry gar.

Martha was laughing something fierce at my face, and it brought back memories of when me and Tommy used to go fishing together. So I reckoned I'd do what he always did when I thought I'd gotten him good.

BOOK: The Struggles of Johnny Cannon
3.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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