Johnny On the Spotby Donald Dewey
We called him Johnny, but that isn't what his mother and father called him. Back when they were drippin' the holy water on his skull, he was known as Michel Grossard. Not a French name I'd run across before, but who knows with the French and the Germans and the way they've always been jumpin' back and forth in Alsace? That's where he told everybody he was from - Alsace. I couldn't swear to it. When you don't want people knowin' where you're from, you pick some place that's got a new flag flyin' over it every few years. Makes it harder to look up the birth records if that's what you want to be doin'. This one's from Transylvania and that one's from Croatia, that kind of thing, and who's the wiser? You got Alsace in the same category. "Why does Grandfather always sing those strange songs?" you ask your mother. And she says, "Shut up and get those peas out of the pod. You'll understand after the next invasion." If you follow what I'm sayin'.
But anyways, knowin' the man, I'd have to say he wasn't lyin' about where he came from. If he said he was from Alsace, he was from Alsace. If you're goin' to lie about somethin', sayin' you're from Alsace wouldn't be at the top of any list of mine. We never really knew him as Michel Grossard, though. To us he was Johnny, like in Johnny On the Spot. We called him that because he was never on the spot except for when he was and didn't know it. A gentle sarcasm, like, but with a grain of truth in it. In all your life you never met a correspondent who missed more street cats runnin' past him. There was this one afternoon, for instance, when he was workin' in Algiers and he gets a call from his paper askin' about a rumor the Algerian President has been overthrown in one of your bloodless coups. Johnny is past all annoyance at the call because he's in his livin' room with yours truly drinkin' the scotch the Algerians don't like seein' bein' drunk on the streets. But just to do a favor to this editor on the phone, he agrees to leave me alone with his bottle for a half-hour, gets on his motorbike, and scoots across the city to the presidential palace to get an official denial of the rumor. When he arrives in front of the palace gate, he unfurls the local slang that's made him popular with waiters and market vendors. This guard he knows, name of Akbar, says he don't know what coup Johnny's talkin' about, there's been no trouble at the palace. Now doubly annoyed he's been forced to leave his guest - meself - stranded in his home with his scotch, Johnny scoots back home, tells me what happened, and calls his editor to pass along the nonsense of the rumor. He's still bein' connected to the paper when CNN comes on to report Akbar must have left his sentry booth to take a whizz for a few minutes that mornin' while the new president was seizin' power.
It was after that episode people really started callin' Grossard Johnny On the Spot. Say this for the man: They wouldn't have had anythin' to smirk at if he hadn't been the first to go around tellin' the story on himself. Nobody roared more than Johnny did when one of the other boys allowed as how Akbar might not have been the best news source in Algiers. A good one was a good one where Johnny was concerned, and if it was on him, that was all right, too. When his wife scolded him for playin' the fool, he comes back to her like simplicity itself: "What, play?" he says to her. "I was a fool!"
The wife Felicia, you have to understand, was of the sensitive sort. One of your tall, raven-haired beauties that seems to rise out of the sea and with the divine temper of Galatea to match. I always connected her beauty to her knees. With most women their knees are their least attractive feature. Even the ones who aren't attractive elsewhere are more unattractive in their knees. They're always too knobby or not knobby enough. When the skin's not foldin' down on them, the bone is all out of shape. The way I see it, you shouldn't have creases in your knees and they shouldn't be lookin' like sharp elbows, neither. But Felicia Grossard didn't have those flaws. She was blessed as perfection itself in that department, just the right amount protrudin' out. When you matched that up with the rest of her, you knew it was no accident, that the creation deities had given her a second good shakin' to make sure she'd stand out in any crowd of knees you see goin' down your public thoroughfares. When she'd throw her long legs over you, you didn't feel no awkward impingin' around the waist, if you follow me. It was all smooth from her pubes down to her ankles.
But that's another story. What I was sayin' was that Felicia didn't like Johnny actin' what she considered the idjut. The way she looked at it, his wont to be so calm before his own foibles was also a criticism of herself. What did it say about her that they'd been together for 15 years on what suddenly felt to her like the most superficial of surfaces, above another level where some seriously agitated Johnny lived all private and locked away from her? For meself, I never got any whiff of this lower level, of Johnny boilin' downstairs under the amiable lad up top I saw all the time. But you couldn't convince Felicia of that. For her, there had to be another Johnny who was hidin' down in the depths from her and refusin' to admit episodes like the one with Akbar disturbed him. And mind, that was only the spool of her thinkin'. Reel it out and what she got was that if he couldn't be honest about an Akbar, how many other deceits was he playin' on her day in and day out? There was no secret to her suspicions, either. She'd given great ponderin' to them in this syndicated advice column she wrote and invited him to comment on her conclusion. Johnny? The way she told it to me later on, just a shrug of his big shoulders, a whistle through the pipe stem he was cleanin' out at the time, and a "Could be, Felicia. You see these things better than I do."
For Felicia that reaction just confirmed her worst fears. Nobody could be that untroubled by strikin' other people as a horse's arse. Now your base thinkers might jump to the idea she was thinkin' only of herself, how Johnny's pratfalls might reflect on her and slow down sellin' the books she got out of her advice columns or keep her from bein' invited to the next hoity-toity cocktail party. All that social calculation guff. But that wasn't Felicia. The truth of it was she was genuinely bothered that Johnny's behavior was a telltale criticism of their marriage, of their honesty with one another. How else to say it but that she loved the man and was payin' one of your insecurity fees when you get into that condition? Sure, she liked her little adventures, and some of us were grateful she did. But so did Johnny follow the feedbag out of the stable every now and then and he wasn't more or less of a horse's arse for it than he would've been otherwise. That wasn't what they call the issue. First and last, the issue for her was their marriage.
For awhile, Felicia kept rein on her apprehensions. And she had some help with the task. Between her columns and her books she was a busy woman, tellin' this one what to do and that one to stop doin' it. And you'll also notice that whenever there's some uneasiness in life waitin' to become full-blown strife, you always get your fill of ironies hoverin' about. Wasn't Shakespeare that made that up. With Johnny and Felicia you found your ironies exactly in him bein' the horse's arse he was. Because he was given to screwin' up where he was sent by his paper, you see, he rarely lasted long in any one city or even with the same employer. So he was forever settin' up quarters in some new foreign capital for this paper or that magazine. And, funny to say it, that's exactly what kept the blanket on Felicia's jitters! They were always havin' new adventures together, discoverin' new people and new cultures, findin' out about new problems in another part of the world, movin' in to new apartments and findin' exotic things to eat in the markets and restaurants. As Felicia said in one of her books, there was always a stint of makin' love thinkin' that the Johnny learnin' about the Tuaregs wasn't the Johnny learnin' about the Armenians, like she could look forward to havin' breakfast with him thinkin' that the Johnny readin' up on the Zulus wasn't the same one readin' up on the Lapps. And for an extra payoff, there were always these new local customs she could learn to approve and disapprove of for her newspaper and book readers! Because of always havin' to find a new job, there were lots of Johnnies and lots of Felicias to go around. Come up with a better irony than that one!
But then they go to Istanbul. It just so happened I was there, doin' my usual. I'm not sayin' it was fate that brought us together again. I'm always uncomfortable throwin' that word around. I can't help thinkin' you mock another's religious creeds by borrowin' a principle like fate to explain what coincidence has ordained. But forget about yours truly. The point is, I can attest to what happened. If there was a closer witness to the events in Turkey, it had wings, a halo, and one of those little portable harps.
Now I've told you how Johnny was always losin' his jobs. What I've yet to mention is how come there was always some new employer to come along and hire him again. How come they all kept missin' that track record of his? You had your theories, of course. Some said it was because he could learn any language under the sun after a few days. I don't dispute that helped. You got wise men in your universities with an alphabet of letters after their names who could learn a thing from him in that department. And he wasn't one who looked down on his surroundin's, neither. Nobody went native, as they say, faster than Johnny On the Spot. Most correspondents took a year to build up the local contacts he did in a week or two. Plus he wasn't known as the worst writer on the planet. There was some said you could take a blindfold test with his dispatches and always know who'd written them. I don't know who actually did that, I can't say I ever tried, but that's what they said. And let's not forget the benefits Felicia brought. You could've had whole religions concocted out of desires for that creature, and it didn't make no difference if you worshipped in them wearin' a burnoose, a crucifix, or a yarmulke. You'd invite Johnny to your temple or mosque just to have Felicia sashayin' her fine rear quarters down the aisle with him.
No question these were all factors. But as important as all those things were, Johnny also had another asset that kept him employed: He was just a nice man. Thought no harm against anybody. One second you're meetin' him for the first time, the next second he's charmed his way around you like your favorite publican. Engagin' is what your dictionary would say. Which is another way of sayin' I was as taken with him as everybody else. It took me a long time to figure out what the secret of that charm was. The stories he told were all right, but they weren't better than the next man's. He never skipped a round, but you had to be a special skinflint to do that and you'd never be allowed to forget it if you did. So what did I find so engagin' about him? How could he be so nice? Why did all these employers seem to line up to hire him after another one had given him the boot? Then one day it came to me: Johnny was so engagin' because he was happy!
You heard right. Your usual lot of foreign press club slugs, their idea of happiness is the smart repartee, the tart crack as an antidote to their boredom. They're all just cynical bastards who jot down the sufferin' and depravities where they're assigned like shopkeepers takin' down the delivery order on the phone. They've got hearts like an ATM machine - you need a code to open 'em and even then you won't get rich. But did you ever stop to think there's also a reason why the lot of them go around actin' like there can't ever be anythin' under the sun they haven't already seen? The reason is because they don't want anythin' new to happen. They're too busy hidin' the fact they once did believe in somethin' more than what they're doin' and they sold it out to the first pimp in the marketplace who gave them a passable wage and put them up in a good apartment. If they can act like the world's never goin' to change, they've got themselves an alibi for their own lack of spine. They're just doin' what's been done since the cavemen were doin' it so don't get it into your head to go criticizin' them for all the sorriness around.
Johnny wasn't like that. He never had anythin' to sell so he never had reason to cover himself up by soundin' cynical. Maybe it was bein' born in a waftin' balloon of a place like Alsace, but he never grew up clingin' to one belief more than another. He was always a lark bouncin' from tree limb to tree limb, pleased to meet whatever roots were waitin' for him. Anything you said to him was as important as what the next one said and all of it, minus your hangover here and there, made for chirpin'. And because he had that outlook he wasn't ripe for a pimp to come along in the marketplace and offer him untold tomorrows if he'd just give up what he'd been holdin' on to for dear life. He was the farthest from your cynicism you could find outside some blind waif singin' the Ave Maria on Assumption Day, and even that kind you have to keep an eye on.
Now look at it from the point of view of the editors and publishers who kept hirin' him. Men and women with their own bitterness for bein' what they call successful at their trade. Themselves, some of them, former foreign correspondents who knew all about the ways of the cynical marketplace. Experts on everythin' and believers in nothin'. You got those who envied a lad like Johnny for bein' what they could never be. You got others who liked the idea of throwin' him in the middle of some charnel house to see him admittin' defeat and comin' down to their level. Maybe you even had a couple who looked to Johnny for givin' them back the innocence they'd lost along the way. So what if he gets a little fact wrong here and there? They could cover that over by stealin' from the news agencies or CNN. Facts were always in what they call your public domain. But you associate your paper or your magazine with Johnny On the Spot and you got a chance at a lot more than that. You might get to be as happy as he was!
Mind, I sound a lot more firm about all this now than when I was back in Turkey. Back then, I still wasn't a hundred percent positive happiness had been the key to his success and failure. But I had to know, for me own peace of mind. So when we all met up again in Istanbul, I decided to put it to both of them to see if I've hit on the secret. I'm not proud of it, not after what happened, but I did it, first with Johnny at the hotel bar one evening. He just stares at me like I've found out water is wet. Why shouldn't he be happy, he asks. He's married to a beautiful woman, he's been all around the world, he's in good health, and he only misses the meals he wants to miss. What bothers him is the assumption behind me question, that I'm the one who's less than happy. I assure him I mean no such thing, and he believes me because he's always givin' people the benefit of the doubt, but I know to meself he's put his finger on somethin' I'd rather not have him fiddlin' around. I'm so busy coverin' up me flanks that I lose sight of how odd his response is compared to your normal run of mortals. Here's a lad who's not only happy, but he has no trouble sayin' so! Who'd you ever meet more than a week after the honeymoon who's up for the likes of matchin' that natural-as-you-please? Shouldn't the jinx factor alone have left him more evasive?
I'm ready to drop the whole subject then and there, but a few nights later, with Johnny off to Izmir on an assignment, here's Felicia calmin' herself down in me bed and me over me nicotine habit gettin' the brilliant notion to fill the catarrh void with thoughts on Johnny's happiness. At first she gives me the same look of marvelin' Johnny had. But whereas he thought me question funny because I should've known the answer, she thinks it's funny because only a crazy man could have me thoughts. She's not even sure she's heard me clearly. So what do you do? You could try to get her excited again, but what's that goin' to lead to but a lot of mechanical motion when the last excitement still has you left empty? Right you are. I insist on repeatin' what I said about Johnny and his happiness.
Well, let me tell you! The deeper it sinks in I'm bein' serious, the less she likes it. I tell her I don't know what she's so upset about. If Johnny's so happy, I remind her, a lot of that has to be because of her. Fifteen years and he's still bouncin' around like he's got the lease to the Garden of Eden? There's not a Turk outside walkin' the streets who wouldn't want to trade places with Johnny. But she doesn't see it that way. She's gettin' madder and madder, pacin' up and down around the bed in her godly flesh. Then finally she gets it out: "Happiness is more than my husband! It has to be!"
When she yelled that out, you could've knocked me off a cliff with a feather. For once I didn't know what to say - a miracle me good mother had been waitin' for since the day I was born. Is Felicia so wound up in her advice columns, tellin' others how to reach happiness, that she's ashamed she herself didn't recognize it right next to her for 15 years? Or is she of a philosophical frame of mind, takin' it for granted happiness is in the strivin', not in the arrival, so Johnny bein' the epitome of happiness sort of blurs her aim on where she should be puttin' her dainty toes next? Whichever, it's enough for her to grab all her clothes off the floor and dress like she wants to be out of the buildin' before it burns to the ground. She's through the door before I can even offer to call a cab for her. A teensy-weensy flea in me ear says that's all for the better because I don't want any taxi driver tellin' the police she came from my place in goin' off to shoot Johnny. You don't like petty thoughts, but that don't keep them from comin'.
I wake up the next mornin' and turn on the radio for news from Izmir. It's all just blather about the Turks and Greeks facin' off in Cyprus and how the Turks are sendin' reinforcements across the Aegean to keep the Greeks in their place. What else was I expectin'? Edgy I was, like the next worst thing to sayin' you're happy is pointin' out to others they are. You feel like you're breakin' the spell for them. I go through the rest of the day doin' the usual and expectin' the phone to ring any second with news I don't want to hear. Finally, the clock gets to five and I go down to this café in the Stambul quarter where the boys always gather. And who's sittin' in the middle of them all but Johnny, back from Izmir! To my eyes he's as gloomy as a crow, but at that point I wasn't trustin' much of what I was seein'. What they call the guilt factor. I'm even on the verge of apologizin' to him for my loose talk to Felicia. The way I see it, it's one irony too much when talk of happiness makes you unhappy. Then one of the others says somethin' that shuts me up.
It turns out Johnny's gotten himself fired again. The way he tells it, he was seein' off the last of the Turks for Cyprus when a photographer comes along and asks for a picture of him and the crew of a tank waitin' to get loaded on the ship. Johnny figures the tank crew just wants some record of their sail they can share later with their wives and families. So he gets up on the tank where the Turks are all happy to see him, everybody smiles, and the photographer snaps away. It's all thank-you-very-much and the tank sets sail to blast away at the Greeks. It's only a few hours later in Istanbul he hears how all hell's broke loose. His editor calls to tell him the Greeks are runnin' the picture of him on the tank all over the world as proof the press isn't bein' objective about the doin's in Cyprus, that here's one of their correspondents bein' pally-wally with the Turks. The paper can't afford that kind of criticism in such a delicate international crisis, the editor tells Johnny, so the paper's puttin' out an announcement he's bein' given the axe for his bad judgment to mollify the Greeks.
Me? I'm thinkin' it could've been worse if all the gloom I'd made out was about Felicia demandin' to know what he was so happy about. Takin' the long view, wasn't it more important the lovebirds don't break up because of this one's loose mouth than because the Greeks had their little haemorrhage over a picture? But that's just the opinion of yours truly. Johnny, meanwhile, he's tryin' to be the good sport while the others go on raggin' him. He's all sincerity when he says he didn't know the photographer was a Greek spy and he would have done the same thing for the Greeks if he had been in Athens instead of Izmir. I'm sorry some Greeks aren't there to eavesdrop when he says it. But as I'm dwellin' in that wish, here comes Felicia stompin' down the street, her black leather boots all the way up her calves and emphasizin' the beauty of her knees. She don't care if there's a stadium of witnesses for what she's about to accuse him of. And the needles she throws me says she won't mind throwin' me into the fire while she's at it. "So we have to move again?" she starts out.
Professional that he is, Johnny wants to know the sources of her information. "How do you think I know?", she says, snatchin' his glass from the table and swallowin' half the scotch in it. "They called to confirm our address for sending the severance check."
So now he had no choice but to explain the whole tank business to her, and this in front of all of us who don't need to hear all the details of the story again. But we kept our patience. There were war clouds over Felicia's head, and it wasn't for us to be thickenin' them more. Then Johnny finally finishes his tale and, out of words as he is, he just gives her a little shrug - not like some defeated warrior, mind you, but more like that cartoon rabbit with his That's All, Folks. And she who's been ignorin' all this time a chair that's been pushed out for her to park, she looks around at us all with this expression that says we're not by any stretch of the imagination the witnesses she would want but it's too late for her to fly in any others. Then she makes the big announcement. "Johnny," she says, "I want a divorce."
Speakin' for meself, I'm mortified. I don't like being dragged into personal business. As my good mother used to say, that's why they invented walls. But then I get over those scruples fast when, thanks to Johnny, I'm made part of the most beautiful thing I've ever had to witness. "Great," he says. "So we'll be free to marry again."
She doesn't give up the lines in her forehead so easy. She asks him what he means, already not trustin' what he'll answer, and he simply repeats what he said. The breath goes out of the table, startin' with yours truly. Have the great poets ever had such a sentiment in such a situation? She certainly can't think of one who has. She stands flabbergasted and wantin' to keep her fury. Here she's been givin' advice to people from New York to Djakarta, but she don't know what to say to herself! And then Johnny puts a dollop of fine cream on it all by reaching' into his pocket and comin' out with a phone number for some magazine in Copenhagen that wants to hire him as its foreign correspondent. Not only that, he tells her, but they could have their new honeymoon in Patagonia because that's where the Danes want to send him on a first assignment. How many times have they talked about goin' down there? Isn't she still interested in knowin' what the Patagonians should be doin' and not doin'?
She all but collapses into the chair that's been waitin' for her. I had no doubt then and there that the chance to go to Patagonia was part of her fast calculations. But I also see they weren't the most important part. Her eyes were too swollen to be envisionin' only blessed penguins. "Why are you so happy, Johnny?"she finally comes out with it, and in a voice so tender the angels would have been leanin' over to be sure they were hearin' it. "Is it something I've done?"
Johnny bein' Johnny, he don't understand the mystery. He even looks at me to be the one to laugh along with him. I don't have the titters in me. There's cruelty and then there's cruelty, and I've contributed more than enough of it to this particular imbroglio to be addin' still more. Seein' he's on his own, Johnny goes back to her and has to say, "It's everything you've done," he says, his voice risin' as though it should be obvious. "Why can't you see that?"
The tragedy of it, as Shakespeare and the old Greeks before him might have said, was that Felicia did see it. And didn't want to see it. "Patagonia is the end of the world, Johnny" she gets out with more lumps than the Andes in her throat. "There'd be nothing after that. So no, I won't go with you. And yes, I really want a divorce."
We were all what they call frozen. She's up on her fine boots again and she's walkin' away from the table so that we can't even see her fine knees. Beethoven symphonies don't have as much finality to them in the last movement. And Johnny knows it, too. He watches after her for a long moment, then back at the piece of paper he's tried to use to win her over. I'm ready to put meself on the bottom of somebody's shoe because I get this sudden expectation that he's finally been brought low like the worst of us and I'll be as relieved for it as the most cynical bastard up in some nest of a newspaper office. You don't like discoverin' your own nature through another's destruction.
"She'll change her mind," he says, pocketin' his assignment from the Danes. "Patagonia isn't the end of the world."
Somebody objects that, at least judgin' from your average atlas, it's pretty close to it. Johnny flags down our waiter Hakim and orders a round for everybody to celebrate his new assignment. "There's more world than there is me," he laughs. "And Felicia knows that."
You may not take it from me as your most reliable source. I won't deny that. But he was right.