Myna Chang "Hometown Johnnies"

It was the night Johnny came back to town, one of those pent-up summer nights when the sky trembled heavy with unshed moisture, weighing us down, the burden of it pressing us into the dust, and we wanted to scream let go! but heaven wouldn’t unleash that water, held it fist-tight, just out of reach, pushing the young people to burst and the old people to beg.

Someone said Johnny came in on the bus, he hitchhiked, Johnny cruised into town in a candy-apple Mustang, sweet as punch. He stood in his momma’s driveway, outside the diner, on the tracks by the overpass. Someone saw him walking down Main Street, eddies of powdered grit swirling in his wake.

It was the night of the harvest moon, beams breaking through the clouds, spotlighting the wheat stubble, casting shadows sharp across the shredded stalks and the ruts. Johnny bought a six-pack at the gas station, a fifth of bourbon at the liquor store, a coffee at the donut shop, paying whatever he had for a chance at deliverance.

They said he’d been working on an oil rig, he’d enlisted in the army, he’d gone to California. Johnny followed the rain to places made of more than dirt, where droplets flew wild in the night, free from sacrifice and prayer. He’d gone to swim in the ocean, to wade in a creek, to dive headfirst into an impossible pool of crystal blue. They said he’d gone to make his way.

It was like so many other nights when the sky teased and the ground ached, like so many other Johnnies caught in the between, consumed. We heard he lost an arm in a thresher, he shot a man in Tulsa, he struck it rich in Vegas. Johnny came home in a leather jacket, a three-piece suit, a star-striped box. His momma didn’t cry, but his daddy did, standing smack in the middle of the VFW parking lot, the high school parking lot, the Methodist parking lot, salting the hardpack earth under that brutal moon, bargaining with that bitter sky.

It was the night we searched everywhere, hoping to see Johnny around the next corner, wondering if our own sky would ever let go, or if we, too, might burst before we made our way through the drought.

Bio: Myna Chang’s work has been selected for Best Small Fictions, Fractured LitX-R-A-Y Lit Mag, and The Citron Review, among others. She is the winner of the 2020 Lascaux Prize in Creative Nonfiction and the 52nd New Millennium Award in Flash Fiction. She lives in Maryland with her family. Read more at MynaChang.com or @MynaChang.