Kent L Johnson currently resides near Louisville, Kentucky on the Indiana side of the Ohio River, but previously spent decades in the Central...read more Valley of California, where many of his stories begin.. He has a degree in Biology and has worked in management, sales, webmaster, retail store owner, QA technician, cook, dishwasher, cement finisher and a bevy of other jobs. Kent was the son of a Naval Officer and grew up in many different places but he's also had the good fortune to travel extensively throughout the United States and Canada, and spent many days in Europe, South America, Australia and New Zealand. Being trained as a scientist helps see the detail in people, places and things and allows those unnoticeable items to come alive in the written word. Kent has published short stories in several zines, anthologies and on his website KentLJohnson.com.
I put the phone down and I picture Tawnya's face in my mind. I had been invited to an art exhibition at a gallery downtown. I ran into Marghi, from the old neighborhood, and she invites me to a gallery show. Said her partner was the artist. They live together now. Marghi said it was going to be great art, with wine, Hors d'oeuvres and all kinds of intellectually stimulating people. I'd really love it, and she'd love to catch up.
How could I pass that up? So I call Tawnya and invite her to go with me. Me and Tawnya, we're friends, but not lovers. She's got a thing about men ever since she was molested as a kid, so we don't go there, but I like her company.
I pull my sport coat out of the closet and hang it on the bathroom door. I'm gonna look decent come tomorrow. I scrounge through my stuff until I find some tape and lift all the dust and lint off the jacket with the sticky side, then turn the shower on to steam out the wrinkles. I'm ready for tomorrow.
Tawnya and I stand at the bus stop waitin' for our ride downtown. We get hit up for change by two different panhandlers. I guess they think we got dough 'cause we're wearing jackets. Tawnya's wearing jeans, a loose fitting shirt and a ladies sport jacket. She looks androgynous, with her short hair and all, but she looks fine to me.
"Ever been to an art showing?"
Tawnya wraps her arm around mine and leans into me. "Once," she says. "I know a little about art, but not much. I enjoyed the show."
"What d'ya like? In art that is."
"When I see it, I know. I like, you know, regular art and I've even seen some abstract that hit me the right way."
She separates from me, and fires up a cigarette. "I'm gonna have a quick one before the bus gets here. Don't mind do you?"
"It's your life. I'm not gonna harp, but..." I stop, nothing worse than an ex-smoker becoming holier than thou. "It's your life."
Tawnya smiles at me, and she knows I just held my tongue. She rubs the cigarette out a bit before the bus arrives. It's Saturday, and there's not a lot of people on the bus. We look out the window and point out places in the city that once were something else, like the thrift shop that used to be a deli, or a massage parlor that once was a shoe repair place.
It rained two days ago and washed the dust and grime off the buildings and sidewalks. They don't sparkle, but the city looks cleaner.
...read more (2/7)
The bus stops and I help Tawnya off, like a gentleman, not because she needs help. She locks her arm around mine and we walk the block to the Gallery. The Gallery is lit up with white Christmas lights, even though it's late spring. There's a sign outside announcing the event and four artists exhibiting. Pamela Strike is one of the artists, and I wonder if she's the same Pamela Strike I took some basic college classes with? She was going with Tall John Armond, a funny guy. I wonder if he's going to be here?
We walk into the gallery and make our way from the works of one artist to another.
"There's Marghi," I tell Tawnya. "She's the one who invited me."
"You know Marghi?" The tone of her voice is off, surprised.
"Do you know Marghi?" I asked her.
"Yeah. Sometimes we see each other at the bar."
I know Tawnya hangs at lesbian bars. Her childhood problems led her in that direction.
"So Marghi is a..."
"Yeah. Her steady girlfriend is Pam. I think that's who the artist is tonight."
Marghi spots me from across the room and smiles. She's eyeing Tawnya big time as we walk toward her.
"It's so good to see you," Marghi says as we approach. "Hi Tawnya. I didn't know you two knew each other."
"Since high school."
"Let me get you guys a glass of wine and I'll introduce you to the artist. Tawnya already knows her."
Marghi pours us cheap bulk white wine into plastic wineglasses and leads us to Pamela. The wine is okay but leaves a sour taste in the back of your mouth. Sure enough, it's the same Pam that I knew from college. We drank together on Friday nights: she and her boyfriend, Tall John, with a group from the history club.
"Pam, I'd like you to meet..." Marghi starts to say before Pam interrupts her.
"Long time since I've seen you," Pam says to me. She gives me a hug and a peck on the cheek. "Hi Tawnya." Pam looks Tawnya in the eye and gives her a wink.
"I didn't know you and Pam knew each other," Marghi says.
"The last time I was with you two," I tell them, "Marghi had just broken up with a long term boyfriend and we were dancing at the Campus Club. And you Pam...I think it was the final spring barbecue of the history club. I was in my junior year and you were seeing Tall John."
Pam looked sexy then and she looks just as nice now. She hasn't changed much. She's still pretty.
...read more (3/7)
Pam grins at me. "Yeah, it's been a while. Tall John and I were on the ins and outs for years. Marghi and I found each other and we've been a couple for a while now. What I don't understand is you and Tawnya." Pam's gaze moves to Tawyna.
"We've been friends since high school. He knows about me, and accepts it. We're just close friends, nothing more." Tawnya tells Pam.
"Let me get you some more wine. Get something to snack on," Marghi tells us. "Pam, you got some people looking hard at your art. Go sell 'em a painting."
Marghi herds us over to a table that's filled with cheeses, crackers, raw sliced vegetables, ranch dressing, dips and chips, salsa and crackers, little egg rolls, smoked salmon and melba toast. Tawnya and I fill little paper plates with some food as Marghi refills our glasses. She indicates a spot to sit and leads us to the chairs.
"I'm so glad you guys made it," Marghi says. "Pam has a hard time sometimes. Her art is incredible but she has this complex about not being good enough. The more people she sees admiring her work, especially people she knows, the better off she'll be."
"I'm glad we can help," I tell her. I take another sip of wine and suppress the expression that wants to appear on my face after the sour taste bubbles across my palate. I bump my shoulder lightly against Tawnya, and she responds in kind.
"Yeah, always glad to help," Tawnya says. "This complex, does it affect your relationship?"
I'm thinking that's a pretty personal question, but Marghi answers it, like it should be everyone's business.
"It used to bother me, I mean the pity party, and it seemed like she was overly needy. Then I met her family and I could see where it came from. She's never really opened up to me, but she's real nervous around her parents. If you look at her sister, she has virtually no social skills at all and eats compulsively," Marghi pauses and glances around. "She's like, three hundred pounds at five six and twenty eight years old and still lives at home, I mean there are some skeletons in that closet. I wish I could get Pam to open up, then maybe we could help her sister too."
Marghi looks depressed. Tawnya touches her on the arm. "Keep working at it. Maybe you can make it better."
"Sometimes I wonder. I mean, am I wasting my life? Taking care of her needs when I could have a partner? Sometimes I think of going back to men."
"I don't mean you," Marghi says. "I mean, you are just...you, I don't think of you as a man."
"You're getting yourself in deeper Marghi. What am I? A eunuch? "
"Sorry, I mean...well you know. I don't hate men, it's just that that last relationship hurt so bad when it was over."
"Do you think this one will hurt any less?" Tawnya asks her. Marghi is silent and stares in the distance towards Pam.
"Oh shit," Marghi says.
"It's Pam's Dad and sister. I hope they don't ruin her exhibition." Marghi gets up and walks to Pam.
A tall, thin man with short gray hair accompanied by a rotund girl with ratty hair and a bad complexion approach Pam. I see the man pointing to paintings and talking.
"What do you think Tawnya?" I ask.
Tawnya's eyes are pinpointed on Marghi and Pam and what's going on.
"I thought we were going to see an art exhibit today, but this turned into a pretty high drama." She empties her glass in one gulp, and I feel her scoot closer to me. "Oh no," she says. "Shit."
"What?" I look at Tawnya.
"Look at Pam," she tells me.
I stare at Pam but I don't see anything. I feel Tawnya's arm move around me and pull me closer. All at once I notice, a few drops coming from Pam's pants and a dark spot. She's pissing her pants.
"You think it was Pam's father's doing?"
"I think Marghi's right. There are some skeletons in that family's closet."
"Want to split?" I ask Tawnya. "Maybe Pam won't be so embarrassed if she thinks we didn't see it."
I feel her holding on tighter to me. "I don't know what we can do. I hate to run off if someone needs help, but you may be right...it may be less embarrassing if we slip out unseen."
Tawnya and I get up and sneak around the room until we step outside into the daylight and fresh air.
"Let's take a walk to the park two blocks down. We can take in a little nature and maybe salvage this outing."
...read more (5/7)
She wraps her arm around mine and we walk arm in arm up the street. A brick wall surrounds the park and the entrance is marked with a wrought iron arch that reaches a dozen feet in the air. We walk into the park on a paved path and find a bench that's clean and kind of out of the way. Our view is an open lawn spread out in front of us with thickets of trees off to the sides. I can see high rise tenements beyond the trees. Birds sing as they fly around us and the sound of street traffic is a constant din in the background. We sit next to each other on the bench; our arms locked together.
"I feel bad for leaving them," Tawnya says.
"I know what you mean, but really, is there anything we could have done?"
Tawnya unlocks her arm from mine and pulls out a pack of cigarettes from inside her jacket. She lights one and the smell of that first draft of smoke makes me crave a cigarette myself.
"I don't know. But why does it feel like we're abandoning them?" Smoke streams from her mouth and drifts gently into the sky.
"Funny how that works, isn't it. I mean, we feel guilty and yet, how well do you really know them? I haven't seen either one in over a year and it's not like we were real close back when we hung out."
She twirls the cigarette back and forth between her thumb and index finger, before she takes another drag. The smoke drifts out her nostrils, surrounding her head before dissipating.
"Yeah, I see them more than that, but it's not like we're close. Just at the bar. Not like we get together for dinner or a concert or even a double date."
She turns to me, then smiles. "Double date today, but I didn't even know they were going to be here."
She gazes off into the distance again. "Pam really seems fucked up. Hard to imagine what goes on inside a family, just look at me. It's like, you really never know unless you're there, and then you have to remember it."
"Yeah." I point off in the distance. "See the tenements over there?"
"Just imagine that you got a whole row of people and families living there. All through the middle, you got the folks that are all white bread, peanut butter and jelly, a glass of milk and incandescent light. Then, at one end, you got the folks that are Chateaubriand, Dom Perignon, and a torch so bright it can lead blind folks into sight."
...read more (6/7)
I lean back on the bench, stretch my legs forward and focus on nothing. "At the other end, you got the folks that are eatin' double boiled twelve cent Ramen, brown water from rusty pipes and don't want no light, 'cause they'd rather not see what they're livin' like."
"Did you just make that up?"
She leans forward and snubs her cigarette out on the ground and tosses it into a trash can next to the bench. "You really ought to write that stuff down."
"Because that really makes me think. I wouldn't mind pulling it out and read it again when I'm thinking about how life is mistreating me. I mean, sometimes I get all worked up over nothing really and when you talk about the Ramen people...man."
I feel her grab hold of my arm and turn me to face her. She brushes her lips against mine then kisses me. I taste cheap wine and mentholated cigarette smoke, but it's worth the sensation.
"What's that all about?" I ask.
"I just wanted to. I guess I'm more peanut butter and jelly, maybe on wheat than I realized."
"Wow, you mean you admit that perhaps you're a little more mainstream than you thought?"
"Yeah, I guess."
I lean in and we kiss again, longer this time. I pull away and look in her eyes. I feel a little mischievous.
"If you're startin' to realize you're mainstream, maybe we could try the mainstream boy, girl thing?" I lift my eyebrows in questioning manner.
"You mean like sex?" She smiles at me.
"That's the boy, girl thing, I was thinking about."
"Nope. Not ready for that yet. But when I am...you are the man I want, my friend." She hugs me tight and I feel her breath upon my ear. "Let's go back to the neighborhood, grab us some fast food and a six pack and go up to your place and talk, like we normally do."
"That sounds like a good plan."
"I'm honest with you too. When I think I'm ready to get over my past, I hope you're still available." Tawnya stands and offers her hand to me. She helps me up from the bench.
...read more (7/7)
We walk to the bus stop. I've got my arm around her shoulders, and she's got her arm around my waist. I'm thinking that I'm white bread peanut butter and jelly, but then I start to think harder: What kind of guy spends his day off with three lesbians, all with hang-ups about the past? Time to get a new analogy, 'cause I'm thinkin' there's another meal I need to insert...something unique, something strange. I'm definitely not white bread peanut butter and jelly.