“One ticket to Ladyland, California,” Johnny said quickly when he reached the window.
“May I please see your I.D, Sir?” the woman behind it asked professionally.
“Um....Can I not get a ticket without one?”
“Not unless you're accompanied by someone that does. In which case, they'd have to pay your way.”
“Um.” Johnny had not anticipated this. Nor had he expected any of the events that transpired after he was called to the principal's office at Brooks High School. Nothing seemed to be going his way. Now, he was going to have to return to his mother's house and explain to her that he couldn't get a bus to Ladyland where his uncle lived, without adult supervision. He didn't know how she would react. She was even more unpredictable than he was. Johnny was now experiencing one of the rarest moments of his life: awkward uncertainty. As he stood there at a loss for words, a man stepped up from behind and crossed slightly in front of him.
“He's with me,” the man said, pulling out twice the amount of money Johnny had brought with him and handing it to the woman in the window. He appeared to be in his 40's; he had a fairly young-looking face with the exception of a thick black and gray beard around his chin and hair to his shoulders of the same color. “Two tickets to Ladyland, California.”
“I.D. Please?” the woman requested. The man pulled out his wallet and showed his identification card to her, then put it away quickly. The woman pressed a button at her station twice, ejecting two tickets from the dispenser in front of her. “Thank you. Your bus will be leaving at 7:45pm.”
“Alright, that's fine,” the man said, taking the tickets and handing one to Johnny. He couldn't believe it. This random stranger had just paid his way out of turmoil for no apparent reason. But why? The man walked to a seat nearest a wall of vending machines. Johnny followed.
“Hey man,” he called after him with a level of distrust. The man turned around as he took his seat. “What was that all about?”
“What, Me paying your way?” the man said with a smile. “I figured you had a valid reason for leaving this place, so I decided to help you out.”
“Oh,” Johnny replied with a bit of confusion. He thought for a second and said, “I'm not gay or anythin', just so you know.”
The man chuckled. “I'm not either. I'm married, see?” He held up his hand to display a wedding band on his finger.
“Yeah, but there's such a thing as the down low,” Johnny said with a smile, but he believed the man and sat down in the seat beside him. He put his bags on the floor at his feet. “So you just saw me and decided to help?”
“That's pretty much it.”
“That's kind of you, man. Do you always do stuff like that?”
“When, I can,” the man shrugged. He held out a hand to shake. “I'm Will.”
Johnny took it and introduced himself. “Johnny B.”
The conversation briefly ended as Will pulled out a small book from his jacket pocket and cracked it open while Johnny slipped his guitar from around his torso and brought it to his chest. He crossed his legs as he started to strum a few chords then he grabbed for one of the wires from his bag, plugged it into his amp, turned it on, and began to go through his scales, adjusting the tuning pegs to the right pitch.
“You play?” Will asked, looking up from his book.
In response, Johnny strummed hard and danced his fingers across the frets of the guitar, playing a random riff that he had memorized over time. The sound blared from the speaker of the amp. People looked his way and smiled at the display of talent.
“I don't carry a guitar across my back for my health,” Johnny joked. “I call her the Night Bird.”
“You're left-handed,” Will said, watching Johnny's peculiar style of playing. “And playing a right-handed guitar. I've never seen that before; that's incredible. You must have had to re-string it yourself. How long have you been playing?”
“Since I was ten,” Johnny said, strumming lightly as he spoke. “And I never needed to re-string it. My father got me started on it and I basically taught myself how to play backwards. He died shortly after I bought this one.”
“Oh, I'm sorry for your loss.”
“No, its all right. He was a great man, very cool about my aspirations. My mom never understood me, but I could always connect with him. I'm just glad to get away from her though.”
“Yeah, I've been meaning to ask you that,” Will mentioned. “Why Ladyland?”
“My uncle lives there. I just recently got expelled from school because I tore the place up after they tried to get me to break up with my girlfriend. Little did I know, the slut was fuckin' some other guy while that was going on.”
“Ouch,” Will responded.
“I know. I don't really care though. She was annoyin' me anyway. But eventually, my mom found out and kicked me out of the house, so I went on.”
“So you're pretty much all alone in this world, huh?”
"I guess so. At least I've still got my guitar. Look out now.” Johnny played a simple blues riff, causing the crowd to turn their attention to him again.
“Play on, brother,” called a passerby walking by with his bags in hand. Johnny smiled and nodded at him without breaking the flow as his fingers slid up and down the strings. It felt so natural to him, as natural as basic actions like walking or breathing to anyone else. Whenever he was too far away from his guitar, he would grow increasingly anxious and it would become clear, just by looking at him, that he was having guitar withdrawal and needed his instrument to steady his mind. It was an extension of his body. Seeing the passing fan, Johnny realized something about Will.
“I noticed you don't have any bags on you,” Johnny said to Will, halting his playing.
“Yeah, all of my stuff is where I'm supposed to be right now,” Will said, turning back to his book, but mainly looking past it. “In Ladyland. Had my bags forwarded there in advance.”
“What are you going there for?”
“Going to see my daughter. Haven't seen her in a while so I thought I'd pay her a visit.”
“Oh, so she's in college?”
“No, she's about your age actually, living with her mom. I've been on business for a while so I need to get myself reacquainted with my family.”
“What business do you work for?”
“It's independent, one of my friend's many attempts to get an established company going. I don't even know why I bother. He's barely much of an entrepreneur.”
“He must be somethin' if he has you travelin' from state to state like its nothin'.”
“I'd be more grateful if that meant traveling by air. I have to take a metro bus everywhere.”
Johnny chuckled. “At least, you're gettin' paid. I expect to see your face on a billboard in New York somewhere in the next few years.”
“Right,” Will laughed. “And I expect to see your face right beside it down Time Square or something. Diamond albums, the whole nine yards. Just don't let it influence you into the wrong things.”
“You don't have to worry,” Johnny said, pulling out his MP3. “Life constantly changes but I wont let it change me.”
“That's a good code to live by.”
“I know. I made that promise to my pops. I don't intend to break it.” Johnny put the headphones in his ears, sat back, and began to play the corresponding notes from each song on his guitar.
Johnny sat against the tree by the lake in his tuxedo, plucking away at the black Les Paul, which he now labeled as the Night Bird, without the use of his amp. His playing was sporadic as he began to teach himself a new riff. He tried to keep it on rhythm but he found himself forgetting the fifth fret of his riff repeatedly, which was beginning to frustrate him. Out of the corner of his eye, up on the hill where the funeral procession was coming to a close, he could see the attendees gathering up their belongings from the garden cemetery where his father was being laid to rest. He could hardly sit through the actual funeral service. As he sat listening to the apathetic preacher address the half-filled church, he watched closely, surveying his aunts and uncles and the supposed friends of his father as they bantered back and forth with each other, having irrelevant chats that had nothing to do with the event taking place. They talked over the preacher and occasionally called out a few "amens" and "preach" to show that they were giving him a fraction of their attention. Johnny could feel a lump in his throat. These people acted like they were here because it was required of them, not because they wanted to honor his father's memory. This was especially evident when he saw that once the service was over, no one addressed the casket to give their final respects to their colleague, with the exception of Johnny, one uncle, an old friend of his father's, and possibly a few others. Not even his own mother said her last goodbye to her husband. They all simply left as quickly as they could, as if in a hurry to get it all over with. At the burial, Johnny had chosen to stray away unnoticed (Not that they had paid him much attention to begin with) and spend time practicing on his guitar, something that he cherished just as much as his father's life, by the lake.
A heavy set black teenager, roughly the same age as Johnny, made his way down the hill with his hands in his pockets, also wearing a tuxedo similar to his. When he approached, Johnny paid him no mind and continued to pluck at his guitar with a degree of amateurism.
"Hey Johnny," the boy greeted somberly as he reached him.
"Hey," he responded softly.
"I'm....I'm sorry about your dad."
Johnny looked up from his guitar and made eye contact with his cousin. "Its all right, Lorenzo."
His cousin swallowed hard and looked up at the hill where the adults were having casual conversation, some even laughing heartily as if they were attending a party of some kind. He turned and looked back down at Johnny.
"Um, my mom wanted to know if you wanted to come over to our place and hang out this afternoon. I can pull out the bass and we can jam like last time."
Johnny shook his head lightly. "I don't think so, Lorenzo. I think I just want to be alone for a while."
Lorenzo looked down in disappointment but nodded. "Okay."
One of the older boys from the top of the hill ran down jovially, patting Lorenzo on the back as he passed by. He was also black, but carried a soul patch on his chin and a thin mustache, despite being only a year older than Johnny and Lorenzo. He too was one of Johnny's cousins. "What's up, peeps?" he said excitedly, looking at the two with a large smile. Lorenzo gave him an offended look and etched his head toward Johnny. The boy looked at him and smacked his teeth. "He's still down, isn't he? Damn, when my dad died, I got over it in like five minutes. My mom was like 'your dad died today' and I was like 'hmm' and went back to playing video games."
"Your dad was a jerk that used to beat you, Tyler," Lorenzo said sternly. "You barely even saw him. Johnny was very close to his dad. Show some respect."
Tyler snorted. "Right. Hey Johnny, whenever you're done sulking, meet us at the top of the hill. We're getting dinner together."
Tyler turned and began to head back up the hill. Johnny looked up at him as he began to leave. "I'm not going."
Tyler turned back to him with a look of offense. "What?"
"My mom told me to stay home after the funeral."
Tyler chuckled. "So you do whatever mommy tells you to do?"
"I actually want to stay home."
"Instead of hanging out with family like a normal human being? Really? Pathetic."
"My dad just died, Tyler!" Johnny exclaimed.
"And that gives you an excuse to blow off your whole family, kid? Jeez, so what, you're going to use your mother's death as an excuse to go shoot up a school next, huh? Is that it? Stop acting like your father was so great, he was just a regular man like every other grown up around this place."
"Don't talk about my father that way," Johnny said through grit teeth, staring up at Tyler intently. "My father was everything to me."
Tyler pressed his hand against his face in frustration. "Well guess what, little boy? Everything is gone and its not coming back."
Johnny's eyes squinted and he lifted his guitar from around his torso, lying it down by the tree and standing up as he began to confront Tyler. Lorenzo, sensing the hostility, stepped in front of Johnny protectively.
"Its not worth it, bro," he whispered to Johnny lightly.
"I used to think insensitive and inconsiderate people like you didn't exist in this world," Johnny said loudly, just barely holding back his anger. "My dad told me otherwise but I had never met somebody who cared so little about the next person; so selfish that they don't give a damn about anybody's feelin's. Now I'm startin' to realize that you're probably one of the people he warned me about."
Tyler smiled. "And my mom would always told me that your dad used to talk a lot of nonsense. It was only a matter of time before you started adopting his ability to spout bullshit on a regular basis"-
Johnny pushed Lorenzo from his grip and pounced forward onto Tyler. Tyler was ready for it and struck Johnny in the face. However, unexpectedly, the blow did not stop his momentum and he collided with Tyler, tackling him to the ground. The sudden pressure that Johnny put on him incapacitated Tyler enough for Johnny to prevent another blow. With him down, Johnny proceeded to bash him in the face repeatedly with all his strength. He watched as Tyler began to bruise up and blood spewed from his nose and lips with each strike. Johnny could hear screaming coming from the hill above but blocked it out of his head as blind rage took over, his eyes stretching open and his teeth gnashing tightly. After a few minutes, he could feel hands pulling him up from the boy forcefully. His fist was covered in blood, both his and the boy's.
"Jenna!" a voice screamed behind Johnny as he felt one of his older cousins grip tightly at his shoulder and arms. "Jenna! You need to control your child!"
"No," Johnny said softly, before twisting his body around and breaking free of their grip. "FUCK YOU!"
He jerked from their clutches and turned to them roughly as they gasped at his use of vulgar language around the family. He could see the majority of them standing around on the top of the hill as he addressed his cousins. He saw nothing but backstabbing snakes in all of them and very few were really here on his father's behalf; most were there to gossip and speak ill of him and he wasn't even around to defend himself. They didn't care about his father and they didn't care about Johnny. No one did.
"You can't control me!" Johnny screamed hysterically, his face getting red with anger. "So stop fuckin’ tryin’ to!"
He swallowed hard and turned away from them, storming up the hill as the crowd of individuals moved past him cautiously. They wanted to give him whatever space he required. He kept his eyes from the lot of them as he passed by, walking aimlessly away from the cemetery as he left his guitar alone against the tree by the lake.
A bump in the road jogged Johnny out of his slumber. He was in the window seat of the metro bus that was taking him to California. His MP3 was still in his ears, hammering music into his brain. He snatched them from his head and looked around. There was an empty seat beside him where Will should have been. They had spent a good majority of the ride talking and now he was suddenly gone. Johnny got onto one knee in the seat and looked over the others in a 180 view. There wasn’t anyone he was familiar with that he could see on the bus. Everyone was either asleep or attending to themselves, not even noticing him. Hmm. He must have went to the bathroom in the back, Johnny thought.
A day or two had passed and the realization that things were finally going to change were setting in. A microscopic-sized part of him would miss Louisiana but for the most part, he was longing to see the rest of the world. At least then, the opportunities would begin to flow more frequently than they ever would in such a rural and negative environment. Ladyland was outside of Johnny's comprehension, especially after his entire life had been spent in Louisiana and he'd never been to a big city aside from New Orleans. The only part of Johnny’s appreciation for the state he was leaving had died along with him.
It went without saying that Johnny's father was the only person Johnny let get close to him. When he died, all he left behind for him was Johnny's newly purchased dream guitar. He would later name it, the Night Bird, after the nickname his father had been given by his students during his time as a music teacher in New Orleans. Mere moments after the guitar was purchased, Johnny walked out of the shop only to find his father lying in the middle of the road in front of the music store. He had been involved in a hit-and-run accident. He was killed instantly.
Johnny hadn't been the same since. He was already a growing novice at playing the guitar before purchasing the Night Bird, but he had never developed the habit of carrying it around everywhere he went until after his father's death. As a result, his playing skills had grown above average to exceptional and eventually to gifted. He'd been blaming himself for the accident and used the guitar as a constant memory of his selfishness.
In some ways, he felt that his father's soul might have migrated into the guitar and by having it around, he could feel his father's spirit with him as well. However, that was only on a subconscious level, nothing he'd use to actually explain his actions. He began to act out in school, accumulating barely passing grades and spray painting detailed but abstract murals in remembrance of his father in various places around town. As he got older, he continued to remember his father, but it was clear that he was no longer the motivation for Johnny's actions. No one, not even Johnny could explain the exact reasons for why he acted the way he did. It seemed as if he were still lashing out, but at this point, his father's death and his rebellious attitude had formed a new Johnny B. Goode, one that carried unbridled intelligence but was tragically impulsive, his most obvious character flaw which was beginning to shape into what could eventually lead to his demise, thus his personal need to make a change. His poor decisions were slowly ruining his life, day by day, and to a small extent, he felt that maybe this was his goal all along; to cause enough trouble for him to leave his dreadful home for good.
Almost 30 minutes after Johnny had awakened, the bus pulled into its destination: Port Electric of Ladyland, California. As the bus stopped and everyone began to exit, Johnny got up and looked around. Where was Will? Johnny went to the bathroom in the back and saw that it was vacant. Maybe he had moved to the front and got off with the others. Johnny left the bus and grabbed his bags from the compartment above him.
He spent several minutes searching outside but with no luck. Where could he have gone? Johnny looked at his watch. It was 2:30am. No time to worry about it now. He needed to get going. He walked into the station and took a seat, pulling his cell phone from his bag and dialing his uncle's number. He let it ring a few times before a groggy, exhausted voice answered.
“Hey, Uncle Chuck? It's me, Johnny B.”
“Johnny B. who?” Uncle Chuck asked with slight frustration.
“Johnny B. Goode, your nephew,” he answered in annoyance.
“Oh....Well what do you want?”
“You're supposed to be pickin' me up from Port Electric. Didn't my mom tell you I was comin'?"
“Yeah, she did. I'll be there in whenever.” Click! The conversation was over. Johnny looked at the phone to see that Uncle Chuck had hung up. That was okay. Johnny had known Uncle Chuck to be somewhat of a bitter and impulsive man, almost like a reflection of himself. He would just have to wait it out until he arrived. So he waited...
...And waited...and waited...Johnny looked at his watch. It was 4:04am. Johnny dialed the number again and listened. No answer. He tried several more times but still received nothing. No way was Johnny going to spend the night in some Bus Station because his Uncle was acting like a jerk to prove a point. He got up, grabbed his things, and kept moving.
He walked down the dark roads of Ladyland, California, a peaceful but fair-sized suburban city, virtually unknown to the rest of the state despite being considered a metropolis. Orange streetlights illuminated the sidewalks. Though aware of the dangers that night life in this type of city might possess in its shadows, Johnny walked without fear along the path to his Uncle's house. If anything, he was more angry than fearful. Angry that his Uncle had been lazy and most likely forgot he was coming to visit.
Johnny continued on until he saw a sign that said “Gypsy Sun Park.” That was the neighborhood where his Uncle lived; tracing the GPS from his phone to his uncle‘s, he was able to find his house on a map of the city, which was within walking distance of the bus station. Further observation showed him that his Uncle's house was just as generic as the rest of the suburban houses that surrounded it. He walked into the neighborhood and spotted the first steps that led up to the front door. He took them and reached it, pounding on it as hard as he could. While waiting, he leaned from the front step and into the semi-open garage beside the house where he could still see his Uncle's car, untouched. This only added to Johnny's anger. It wasn't like he could really do anything about it though, no matter how irritated he got.
“Who the fuck is it?” came a voice from behind the door.
“It's Johnny B.”
“Johnny B. who?”
“Johnny B. Fuckin' Goode, now let me the fuck in,” Johnny said, losing his temper.
The door swung open and an arm grabbed him by the shirt, yanking him through the doorway. Johnny was thrown to the floor and an overhead light flew on. A shadow lept through the air and landed on his chest, instantly slapping him in the face.
“Who the FUCK do you think you're talking to, boy?!” Uncle Chuck yelled. “You're not in Louisiana anymore. You're in my house. What's the word?”
“Get off!” Johnny yelled, but Chuck threw his fingers around Johnny's throat, grasping it tightly.
“The word, bitch!”
“Get the fuck off!” Johnny yelled in a strained voice. Chuck let go of his neck, then pulled him up by the collar of his shirt and shoved him against the wall.
“FINE!” Johnny said, through the parts of his shirt being shoved against his mouth by Chuck's grip. “PLEASE Get the fuck off!”
“Now that's more like it,” Chuck said, letting go of his collar. Now that the scuffle was over, Johnny could see Chuck's face clearer. Chuck Goode was a middle-aged black man with incredibly dark skin, contrasting with Johnny's caramel complexion. He was just as slim but a bit more robust in size. He was also considerably shorter than Johnny. His hair was short but he sported thick sideburns by his ears and a loose, animated face that prevented him from hiding any emotion. Chuck was shirtless and stood in his underwear as he wrestled Johnny to the ground, leaving Johnny feeling uncomfortable and somewhat violated when they parted. Chuck tapped Johnny on the cheek and smiled, revealing a set of straight, shiny teeth. Chuck started to turn around and walk away but swiftly switched gears, pinning Johnny, who believed that the ordeal was done and let his guard down, back onto the wall with his forearm at his neck.
“What are you doing here?” he asked menacingly.
“I already told you, Ma told me to come here,” Johnny said between breathes. “You were supposed to pick me up, but you took too long so I came here.”
“Oh yeah.” Chuck finally let go and softened up a bit. “Sorry about that. Fell asleep again, lost track of time, you know how it is. So what'd you do? Get expelled again?”
“Again? I've only been expelled once.”
“You sure? Because I remember you doing some shit at school...busting up the place after they discriminated against you or something?”
“Yeah that's what just happened. That's why I'm here now.”
“Oh,” Chuck said, finally getting with the program. “So what am I supposed to do?”
“Uh, let me live here?” Johnny replied with sarcasm. “Help me get back into school, find a job and all that-”
“WHOA WHOA, wait wait wait wait wait, hold up now,” Chuck said abruptly. “You're what? 22?”
“Even better, 17. You can get a job on your own. That's your responsibility. I already got school covered. I enrolled you this afternoon. You're going first thing in the morning.”
“What?” Johnny said in surprise as he looked down at his watch. “It's 4:45am. What time does school here start?”
“But I don't have any of my shit together. I haven't unpacked, I haven't gotten any sleep, I don't even know what school I'm even going to yet.”
“Bitch, you're a Goode! Adaptable in any environment. My brother didn't birth no pussies!" Johnny started to correct Uncle Chuck on that last statement, since Chuck's brother wouldn't be able to "birth" anything, being a male. He decided to let it go. Johnny got the picture. "You're going to Garfield High School, so you best get to shit together and in bed 'cause I'm gonna be up in your face to get you up at 6.”
“Shit,” Johnny muttered under his breath. Grabbing his bags, amp, and guitar, all of which had scattered across the room during the scuffle, Johnny walked up stairs thoroughly irritated. As he proceeded, Uncle Chuck noticed the guitar and called out to him.
“Boy, what do you know about playing the guitar?” he asked with a smile.
Johnny looked back at him with disdain, continuing up the steps. “A lot.”
“Don't let me find out, boy. I'll come up there and teach you a thing or two myself. I used to be in a band.”
Johnny stopped at the top step and turned to him. “You were in a band,” he repeated in disbelief with a mix of sarcasm.
“Yes sir. Back in the 70's, I led guitar for this group called....called....aw fuck the name, but we were good. REALLY good. I'll let you listen to some of my records when you get home tomorrow.”
Johnny was silent for a bit. “All right,” he said, his mind elsewhere. “Good night.” He continued up the stairs into the room where he dropped his things and began to unpack. Interesting. Just a few minutes ago, Johnny was dreading the idea of starting school again so early without so much as a break after his fiasco days ago. On top of that, he would only be getting an hour or so of sleep that night, which wasn't nearly enough to make it through the day. But the last thing his Uncle said gave him an idea. A band. Johnny had never truly entertained the thought because he was sure no one he knew in Louisiana would commit to the idea; however, it was definitely possible now. Playing the guitar, which was originally a hobby, inner sanctuary, and in some ways, an OCD impulse, could actually take him farther than he’d anticipated if done right. He'd have to get the right people though, people he could trust with his life. It may be a work in progress but he'd have to establish something in a moment's time. He was a Senior and it was already late October, half way through the semester. If he wanted things to go his way, he'd have to make several good friends and get something together before his 18th birthday, when his Uncle could legally kick him out on the street, which he could and probably would do. But that was enough time for Johnny to make a name for himself in this little town of Ladyland. It'd involve a lot of hard work, he thought. But hell, he wasn't planning on putting his time and effort into anything else in his life, so there was virtually nothing to lose. He smiled to himself. Time to get the ball rolling....
Highway Child by Jimi Hendrix