ISSN 1545-2859




               KYLE KILLEN

Johnson's March*

My name is Abraham Lincoln Johnson. My younger brother, who I mostly like but sometimes don’t, is Tecumseh Sherman Johnson. We are black. Our father is an angry man.

Both of us are born on the fourth of July, which is quite a trick. My father studies and plans our conception to maximize the chances we’ll both be delivered on that day. Tecumseh Sherman almost doesn’t make it. While the doctors and nurses shout Push! my father stares at his watch and pleads with my mother to hold on. My mother is a perfect person, and even though he’s angry, she very much loves my father. Tecumseh Sherman is born three seconds after midnight.

Growing up, my father puts us to bed with stories of the Civil War. He is mostly obsessed with it. He tells us of battles and marches, and always he makes himself so angry he leaves the room in a fit. Then my mother comes in and chases away the blood and death with cows and spoons. Most of his stories I forget. Some I remember. Like the battle that was fought in the winter on the same ground where a battle had been fought in summer. In summer, people died and were buried where they fell. In winter it rained, and the graves were washed away. They fought the winter’s battle standing on the summer’s dead.

You can’t bury the dead and expect them to go away, my father says. Put something where it doesn’t belong, and everything changes. Then he leaves in a fit.

That night my mother reads about spiders and tuffets for a long time, but my father’s story, a quiet ghost, stays in the room even after she leaves.

Fine, people say to my father, you’re an angry black student of the Civil War. Why not name your children after some of its black heroes? Why not Booker T. Washington Johnson or Frederick Douglas Johnson? But my father is firm. When you strike a man, he says, best to use his own tools. For a while I’m too young to understand this.

My father takes the issue of our names very seriously. He always calls me Abraham Lincoln, even though it’s a mouthful, so that no one will be confused and think he’s just named me Abraham or Abe. Why didn’t you include the William in Tecumseh Sherman’s name, he is asked. Because, he says, that’s just what they wanted me to do. He has our perfect mother sew our whole names into the breast pockets of our shirts so that always people will see a pair of young black boys and know that we are Abraham Lincoln and Tecumseh Sherman. Once we are lost in a grocery store, and my father wanders the aisles screaming: Abraham Lincoln, Tecumseh Sherman, get your asses over here! The people think he is crazy, and the people may be right.

My father hates the South with a passion he claims to be able to taste, so when I am ten we move there. My mother protests. You hate the South. Why should we move? Because, he says, if you’re going to strike a man, best to do it in his own yard. She doesn’t understand. None of us understand. Perhaps we’re all too young. Can’t we stay, she pleads, as we finish packing our things. No, he says, that’s exactly what they want me to do.

We move to Alabama, to a town my father is sure doesn’t want us, and we buy a house right in the middle. My perfect mother unpacks while my father dresses us in our best monogrammed shirts and takes us around town. These are my sons, he says to the people we meet, Abraham Lincoln and Tecumseh Sherman. We live here now.

My father is correct in predicting that we’re not wanted. Wherever we go the hate follows us like a fog. My father is still angry, but this is as close to happy as I’ve ever seen him.

When my father grows tired of people hating us just because we’re here, he decides to join a club. Fine, the people say, you’re an angry black student of the Civil War who’s come to live in an Alabama town where no one wants you. Perhaps, they suggest, you should join the Black Panthers. Never, he says, that’s exactly what they want me to do, and he joins the Ku Klux Klan.

It’s not easy at first. At first they don’t approve of his joining at all. They say that he doesn’t meet the requirements, that he isn’t proper membership material. But my father is persistent. He takes his case to a lawyer, and the lawyer takes it to court, and a white judge, who is already in trouble for sleeping with his secretary, decides it would not be good to be both a racist and an adulterer, and he decides my father can join the KKK.

My father gets his white hat, and his white robe, and he goes to rallies, and as long as he has his hat on, the others seem to think it’s okay. Okay to burn crosses with him. Okay to talk about hating niggers with him. But when they go out drinking afterward, without their hats, they decide my father being there kind of ruins the fun. Most of them quit. Several join the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam, just to stick it to my father, and for a while there are rednecks in black berets shouting Black Power! and men with names like Bubba putting on bowties and becoming men with names like Muhammad. But then those groups get sick of it and they shut down too. Mostly the town is tired. My father wears them out. We march on.

For three years we move. Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia. We’re never welcome. We arrive like the plague, and at every stop my father takes their hate and ingests it, and in several places I even think I see him smile. In our wake we leave those who have hated my father until it wore them out, and when we go he takes their anger with him, boxes it up and packs it in our car under the dishes and blankets.

When we arrive in South Carolina my father is famous. Word of our travels arrives before we do. We buy a house in the middle of Charleston, but people do not hate us. Where we’ve been, the anger we’ve stolen, the relentlessness with which my father has marched is deemed impressive. We are welcomed. My father is not happy.

On our second day, a group of men come to the door. We’re Democrats, they say, we’d like you to run for Governor. We’re the party of Kennedy. Never, my father says, and slams the door.

On our third day, another group of men come to the door. We’re Republicans, they say, we’d like you to run for Governor. We’re the party of Lincoln. They wink at me. Never, my father says, and slams the door.

On our fourth day, still more men. We’re Johnsonians, they say, and we’d really like you to run for Governor.

What are Johnsonians, my father asks.

We’re a new party, they say, formed solely to get you to run for governor Mr. Johnson.

What is your platform, he asks.

Whatever you say, Mr. Johnson. We want you to set the agenda.

Fine, he says, I’ll run on one issue, and one issue alone. I want a McDonald’s right in the middle of Rodeo Drive.

The Johnsonians look at each other with confusion. They huddle up and talk for a moment while Tecumseh Sherman, my perfect mother, and I wait with jangling nerves. They turn back with a smile and my father is a candidate.

A press conference is organized and all the reporters show up intent on tearing my father to pieces. They will slash him with questions and burn him with articles. He will be laughed at and forgotten and tomorrow they will find something else to slash and burn.

Your entire platform is to put a McDonald’s in the middle of Rodeo Drive?

Yes, my father says.


If you’re going to strike a man, best to do it with his own tools.

What does that mean, asks another.

If you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you.

You have no campaign funds, no supporters. Aren’t you just wasting everyone’s time?


Why not?

Because that’s exactly what they want me to do.

And it goes on like this for nearly two hours, until the reporters are tired and my father has answered every question without saying a thing, and the reporters decide that maybe he’ll make a fine politician after all. The next day they all oversleep and forget to write scathing articles, and my father’s candidacy rolls on.

Even though he is an angry black student of the Civil War, people think my father is funny. The idea of putting a McDonald’s in the middle of Rodeo Drive strikes them as a great joke. On Election Day thousands of people come home, and they turn to their families, and they say, you’ll never believe what a funny joke I played today. Honey, they say, wait till you hear what I did. Mother, brother, father, sister, son, daughter, you won’t believe this thing, the funniest thing. And while everyone is at home and laughing and tears are coming out of their eyes and milk is shooting from their noses, my father is elected. It’s a landslide.

South Carolina wakes up with an angry black governor, with sons named Abraham Lincoln and Tecumseh Sherman, who now has a mandate for putting a McDonald’s right in the middle of Rodeo Drive. The first calls to the governor’s mansion are from California. They are not happy. They do not want a McDonald’s in the middle of Rodeo Drive. You’re the governor of South Carolina, they say, why don’t you put a McDonald’s in the middle of one of your streets? If you’re going to strike a man, best to do it where he sleeps, my father says. California hangs up. California is angry. My father is angry. My father is so angry he almost looks happy.

Suddenly the new governor of South Carolina and his mandate become a national issue. My father gives interviews and talks without saying anything, talks about doing what people don’t want him to, talks about striking a man in his own yard, striking a man where he sleeps, striking a man with his own tools. We sit by his side, young black teenagers with monogrammed shirts and my perfect mother who smiles enough to offset my father’s frown.

Suddenly the joke is not funny anymore. My father and California continue to exchange words, and California gets angrier and my father gets angrier and he likes it. The country is abuzz. The country is a bee. Washington tries to step in. They look for ways to calm the situation. They check in the libraries to see if there are any laws to stop South Carolina from putting a McDonald’s in the middle of Rodeo Drive. But there aren’t. They try to pass a new law, but a congressman from Alaska tacks on a rider that would allow Eskimos to marry polar bears and the bill gets bogged down in debate.

People choose sides. South Carolinians, who elected their angry black governor as a joke, now stand firmly behind him and his mysterious plan to put a McDonald’s in the middle of Rodeo Drive. The states east of the Mississippi soon fall into line. California, who thinks it should have control of what goes where in its own streets, draws support from Idaho, who is convinced that South Carolina and its angry black governor are planning something devious regarding potatoes. They’re quickly joined by the states west of the Rockies. The remaining states eventually join one side or the other, fat kids finally picked for dodge ball. Kansas stands with us while Nebraska joins California.

Across the country the people wait as my father prepares to sign the paperwork through which South Carolina will purchase and erect a McDonald’s in the middle of Rodeo Drive. The anger fog blankets the entire country. In the middle, where the sides can see each other, the fog is thickest. Knives are cleaned and sharpened. Guns are loaded and aimed. Trigger fingers itch. One side waits on pins. The other side waits on needles.

On the eve of the signing, my father is in the hospital.

You’re a very sick man, the doctor tells him.

No, you’re very sick, my father says.

It’s all the stress, it’s bad for your heart.

No, it’s bad for your heart, my father says.

You have to stop being so belligerent.

You’re belligerent.

Then my father insists they start calling him Dr. Johnson and that he be allowed to wear a white coat. The doctor sighs and gives him a white coat.

There. Now, Dr. Johnson, you really must listen. What I’m about to say is very important. Your heart can’t take this. Do you understand? It’s too much. If you don’t change things, and change them right away, you’re going to die.

But my father just looks at him, the angry expression I’ve always known still tattooed on his face and says, no, you’re going to die.

Then my father gets up and says he has to check on his patients. He releases Mr. Williams, and then dies while reviewing Mrs. Livingston’s chart.

They say it was a heart attack.

The angry fog is buried with my father. The states mostly apologize to one another and shake hands without incident, except for some places in Nebraska and Kansas where it’s decided that it would be a waste to have sharpened knives and loaded guns without having a fight of some sort. But the battles are small and they end as quickly as they begin. Rodeo Drive remains free of fast food, and the Johnsonian party announces it is tired, and that it’s going to break up.

But as a show of good faith we are invited to California, to Rodeo Drive in fact, for a ceremony in my father’s honor. It is generally accepted that he has done something, that people on both sides have learned something from the angry black student of the Civil War who became governor of South Carolina. It’s just that no one seems quite sure what it is.

We arrive and there are chairs waiting for us on a podium. One for Abraham Lincoln, one for Tecumseh Sherman, and one for my perfect mother. Someone from California says something, and someone from Washington says something else, but no one pays much attention. They all stare at me, waiting, anticipating. Abraham Lincoln is going to speak, they whisper. They expect a Gettysburg address in the middle of Rodeo Drive. When I finally step to the microphone, the crowd is a lit fuse. They lean forward until some fall over, and the rest feel like they’re on top of me. I feel their eyes, even those who watch me on TV. They search me, going through my pockets, rustling under my skin, trying to steal the brilliant things I’m expected to say before I have the breath to say them. I think I feel their disappointment before I even speak. I have nothing of value. I am not Abraham Lincoln. I am not my father.

I clear my throat and I wonder what will come out. Without knowing why, I tell the story my father told me, the only one I really remember, about the battle in the summer, and the rains, and the skeletons, and the battle in the winter, and how you can’t just expect the dead to go away. And then I make an angry face, as much like the angry face of my father as I can, and I say to the crowd, put something where it doesn’t belong, and everything changes.

And then it’s quiet.

(*Winner of the John Steinbeck Award by Reed's Magazine in which this work first appeared and was also the author's first publication.)

Copyright © 2004 Kyle Killen. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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