When I look back now…I think I truly fell in love with Johnny Taylor at that 8th grade Halloween Party…and never really fell out…

He agreed…but then…he always agreed with me.

Within a week, I had moved into Johnny’s apartment.

It was like we had been together forever.  Everything fell so easily into place.  There was a bus line that went right down Snelling Avenue to the East River Road and into the U of M campus…no one wanted to drive a car to the U. if there was some other way.

I got a job as a waitress at Pierre’s Pizza, just a short one-block walk from our apartment and my student loan had kicked in so I could quite my other job as…

Yes, I had gotten the weekend popcorn girl job!  Even after only a couple of weeks I knew I was going to miss that butter  I mean…popcorn.

Johnny, who had been close to failing ALL of his classes, cleared his mind, stopped partying and began to study…and not just to please me…but to please himself…to please us.

When we weren’t being in love, making love, working or studying, we spent every minute doing whatever we could to protest the Vietnam War.  We marched.  We made signs.  We went to meetings and protest rallies.  We wrote letters.

But still…more and more young men were coming home in body bags…shown in full color on CBS news.

Every night there was  footage…showing young men…somewhere in Nam…either bleeding from wounds or shooting at the enemy.   It was horrible to watch.  But I felt I owed it to every soldier to do so.

One night…as we were drifting off to sleep…Johnny, holding me close to him as he did every night, softly whispered.

“I don’t think I could ever kill anybody, Riley.”  And then…even softer…

“I don’t want to…”

 

At the airport…Johnny held me in his arms as tears poured down my face and my body shook with sobs.

“It took so long for us to find each other…” I cried.

“Please don’t leave me, Johnny!!  I will die without you!!  I will!  I will die!”  And my voice rose…causing others nearby to look away from the painfully sad couple…

Johnny pulled back…and took my face in his hands…as I had done to him so many times in high school…but this time he was forcing me to listen.

“I will never leave you again, Tinka…I promise!  When this year is over…I will come home to you and we will always be together.  I promise you.”

And then he kissed all the tears from my cheeks and held me so tight I could hardly breathe and then…before one more second passed…he quickly turned and walked away.

One year later…Johnny Taylor came home…as promised.

Fucking Amen.

MANY, MANY YEARS LATER…

So…there I sat…in the restaurant section of Larson’s grocery store…watching dead leaves swirl around on their charming but now “Closed for the Winter” patio…leaves whistling by…like the memories from so many years ago…

I finished my coffee and looked out the window and wondered how soon it would snow…

I had been gone from Minnesota for a long time and had only returned a few months ago to help Alec’s wife, Cara, deal with the crushing burden of his unexpected illness and impending death.

Alec had joined me in Canada rather than register for the draft in 1969, secured a college degree, met the enchanting Cara, got married and then returned to the United States in 1977 after President Carter issued amnesty to those men who had moved to Canada rather than go to Vietnam.

He and Cara had visited me several times each year…they had no children…so we became a “family”.

Dearest Cara…confined to a wheelchair after a car accident several years ago…had reluctantly asked me for help…and I had come down with no hesitation.

I was pretty confident that enough years had gone by for any of the ghosts from my past to rise up and cause me any problems…I was pretty sure of that by now…sure that they were all dead.

I got up, grabbed my purse, turned and started to walk toward the grocery area of the store…when suddenly there was a slight tap on my shoulder.

I turned around and looked at a white-haired man…about my own age…maybe a couple of years past seventy.

He tilted his head a bit but didn’t quite smile.  Then…in a low, gravelly voice…that is usually the result of years of smoking and drinking…or both..he said…

“Remember me?”

And…at first, I didn’t remember.

But then I looked a little harder…past the many years of living that can sometimes change a person completely.

I looked at his odd eyes.  He was wearing bright, blue contact lenses.

I thought…how strange for an older man to do so…

But then he smiled…and suddenly I knew exactly who he was…

“I thought you were dead, Tommy.”

 

After Johnny died, I registered for Fall classes at the University of Minnesota because I knew I should.

I moved back home…partly to save on expenses…but mostly to absorb the healing magic that only parents can give you when you’re hurting…I needed a lot of magic right now.

I had packed up all of Johnny’s clothes and had given them all to the Salvation Army because I knew Johnny would like that…except for one blue plaid flannel shirt that I think I wore more than he did…it was ‘our shirt’…it still smelled of Old Spice…Johnny’s favorite after-shave cologne.

I had called Johnny’s mom and asked her if she wanted any of Johnny’s clothes or if she thought Alec would want anything.

“No, Riley.  The Salvation Army is a good place for them.  Alec is having a really hard time dealing with John’s death…he blames his father.”

“He says when he has to register for the draft in two years, he’s going to Canada instead…”

I didn’t know what to say…I wasn’t sure if Johnny had told anyone of my idea for us to go to Canada.  But then she continued…

“John told Alec that he wanted to go to Canada with you…and would have…if it hadn’t been for their father being so against it.”

“I wish he had gone, Riley.  I wish the two of you had just packed up and gone to Canada.”

More tears than I thought possible were falling down my cheeks and stopped me from saying anything more than a choked good bye.