Dinner and a Song

“That so.” Jimmy had sat at the right end of the sofa, next to Rex, Lefty sitting on a metal folding chair turned away from the card table in the kitchen area. Jimmy’s lips curled into his gums – “So tell me, if you like fencing so much, why’d you quit the team?”

Double-J snorted, as he turned the sizzling steaks over in the frying pan. “Quit is a strong term, one that doesn’t really capture my status on Jacob’s team.” All three of his guests opened their mouths to speak, but Double-J raised the his right hand in their direction and they fell silent, as if a spell was cast from his palm – “Later, after we eat.” The teen laid his spatula on the stovetop, then opened the microwave oven next to the sink, inserted the plastic bowl of frozen vegetables.

The four of them talked casually as the dinner preparations ended. Jimmy said business was good, he was struggling like everyone else in this economy, but just because times are tough don’t mean people stop getting married; Rex was pleased with how he’d fenced at the tournament a few weeks back at Tech, placing fifth in foil and second in epee, eliminated in both weapons by Francis Pine from the Academy; Lefty thought the transmission parts for Mr. Levy’s Oldsmobile should be in tomorrow.

Double-J lifted the fried steaks from the frying pan with his spatula – “Call me when that tranny comes in.”

Lefty shook his head. “Jip’s in the shop tomorrow, he can install it.”

Double-J snorted. “Jip’s got no business working on any tranny. Especially the Levy’s.”

“We’ll be OK – “

“I’ll stop by the shop tomorrow, at 10.” It was as if Double-J hadn’t heard Lefty’s response. “Got nothing else to do.”

The dinner was the best that Rex could remember having for the last several months, since the cookout at his uncle’s house that summer, certainly better than the boxed or canned meals he and his sisters routinely prepared for his family back at their trailer. The steak was moist, savory, and most significantly was steak, a food that would have been as out of place at Rex’s house as lobster or veal. The vegetables weren’t fresh – frozen vegetables prepared in a microwave, potato flakes poured from a box and mixed with water over a stove – but they were hot, filling Rex’s belly with a warmth he hadn’t experienced in weeks. Having known poverty as long as he could remember, Rex had learned over the years to control his hunger, to eat sparingly to prevent his appetite from growing, but within seconds of the dinner plate being placed before him he loosened his restraints, devoured the meal that Double-J had prepared, allowed himself to indulge the ever-present hunger within him in a way that he normally would not have trusted.

And there was dessert, fresh fruit that Double-J had sliced before they arrived, served with whipped cream spurted from a canister. “We must be paying you too much if you can afford all this,” Lefty’s joke prompting another admonition from Double-J that you didn’t have to pay a lot of money on food if you just paid attention to prices instead.

Jimmy and Rex offered to wash dishes, as Double-J and Lefty arranged chairs around the small couch in the living area. Double-J sat, his large body forming a long U into the cushion beneath him, the long black wires of his hair falling down across his shoulders, beard and mustache parting to reveal a broad smile of contentment on his face.

He and Lefty talked about the Levy’s transmission as Jimmy and Rex finished in the kitchen. As the two teens walked into the living area, Jimmy pointed to a guitar, propped against the far wall. “You play?”

“Yeah.” Double-J rose clumsily from the couch, as Lefty commented he was actually pretty good. “Christ Lefty, don’t oversell me.” Double-J reached down, grabbed the neck of the guitar, walked back to the sofa and sat, cushions again forming a long U under him, and began playing an instantly recognizable melody. A moment later, he began to sing:

When Johnny comes marching home again, hurrah – hurrah,
We’ll give him a hearty welcome then, hurrah – hurrah,
We all will cheer and all turn out, the children will laugh and give out a shout,
And we’ll all be glad when Johnny comes marching home

He continued playing, more softly and without singing. Rex raised his chin — “Didn’t know you were so fond of our high school fight song.”

Double-J shrugged while continuing to play. “How Bark Bay High manipulates the passions of its students, doesn’t concern me. What interests me, is looking at the stuff they give us – school, society, whatever – and find out what’s really there.” He began playing the opening bars of the song again. “You know what When Johnny Comes Marching Home is about?”

Jimmy cleared his throat. “It’s from the Civil War.”

“Right.” Double-J’s arms flew forward, across the guitar towards his guests. “See, Johnny was this soldier, in the Union army – that’s the North, Lefty,” a disinterested chuckle rising from his guests. “Johnny’s brother, he wrote the song, people thought the song was a celebration, became popular. Thing was, Johnny didn’t come home, and his family never did find out what happened to him. ‘Johnny’ suffered the same anonymous fate as thousands of other soldiers. Coulda been killed in battle, clutching a gut wound in some frozen mud field – coulda caught gangrene, died in some filthy army hospital tent – hell, coulda starved, that happened even in the North. Or deserted, decided the war wasn’t worth what they were paying him, or that things like slavery or states rights or God help us, preserving the damned Union was all just a bunch of bullshit. We dunno what happened to poor Johnny – ” and now Double-J looked up and smiled at his guests – “but hey, we do have this song to make us all feel better about war.”

[“Gray Metal Faces,” March 13C]

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