That Night

Originally published in Soltice LitMag


We’d driven north for five hours straying off the highway to admire the countryside along billboard-free roads. I’d point to white houses with green trim, that onelike that, imagining a future when we’d own a house instead of renting. Thom’s new broadcaster’s license was in his pocket. One suitcase, orange crates of LP records and Thom’s stereo equipment filled the back of the very-used VW station wagon my parents had gifted to me after our wedding a few months before. I’d been grateful, even though the sunroof leaked.

Thom’s disc jockey job was starting in two days. The studio apartment we’d rented sight unseen would be available tomorrow. Thom had said he’d ask around the station for a place to crash; his new colleague Ben had offered. 

When we arrived at Ben’s, Thom and I sat on a sagging couch listing into each other. We chatted about our drive, me holding up the conversation like bait hoping for something to drink, while Ben swigged his Rolling Rock. It was seven-thirty at night, the sun lingering after a long summer’s day. Ben slapped his stocky thighs and stood up.  

“Okay, I’ll show you where to sleep.” 

We followed him into a hallway where he swung open a door and stepped back, gesturing. He walked away. 

We peered into a closet, dank air swallowing us.

Okay, not quite a closet since a small aluminum-framed window punctured one wall up near the ceiling. A single mattress claimed the floor space. 

“Here you go.”  We jumped at the sound of his voice behind us. He handed Thom a wad of sheets and one pillow. 


The door clunked shut. Thom and I looked at each other. The string for a ceiling light dangled overhead and I yanked it flooding us with harsh light. 

“Can you open the window?” 

Thom clambered onto the mattress and slid one side of the window open. No screen. The room was an oven. 

“Leave it open. I’ll turn the light off.”  

I tried to hide my dismay. Why did he offer his place to guests? He didn’t want us to be here. Jeez Jill, be happy we’re saving money. I didn’t think my expectations were that high. Some guys are just clueless. I’d grown up with parents who were hospitable. Traveling as much as we did for my father’s job, we often stayed in people’s homes and reciprocated by hosting others. Sometimes it was fun, or at least civilized. 

Dust bunnies piled in the corners. I figured Ben must be in between girlfriends or lived alone.  It was 1972 but the world was still a place where women cleaned and men didn’t.

Thom didn’t say anything. I had no idea what he was thinking. I felt a little sorry for him, glad I hadn’t gotten us into this mess. Rummaging in the suitcase, I grabbed my toothbrush and crept down the dim hallway looking for a bathroom. I could hear the muffled sound of a TV. The canned laughter. 

Scooping water into my mouth, I cringed at the toothpaste-spattered sink, the gunked-up razor, hairs by the faucet. I dried my hands on my jeans. 

“Can you go ask if he has a fan?”

Thom shrugged. “It’s one night.” 

He rolled over and fell asleep. I looked at his thin pale shoulders, his hair–brown like mine–sticking to his neck. I wanted to read but didn’t dare turn on the light. The whine of a mosquito, then a chorus. I yanked the sheet over my face. A detergent smell made me feel a little better. 

I’d grown up overseas and had been stuck before in unpleasant living conditions. When I was ten, after my dad’s two-year assignment, my family had driven from Jordan all the way to England. We’d stayed someplace in Turkey or Greece where the room was so infested with flies that my mom, who seldom cried, wept. I’d learned not to expect a clean toilet, or any toilet at all, or familiar food or much comfort. It was temporary, a stop on the way to someplace we’d call home. And here I was again, just turned twenty. 

This day was the first stop of our independent lives. Thom and I had met at college, dropped out after two semesters. My father was fine with saving the tuition especially after my mother had opened and read my letter addressed to my younger brother. I’d expounded on the pleasures of LSD, while bemoaning the mediocre weed compared to Nigeria’s. Dad stopped all allowance. I stopped the charade of college. 

We spent the next year living with Thom’s parents in Suffern, New York. He’d commuted to school in the city to earn a disc jockey license, and I’d waitressed at a Greek diner in nearby Spring Valley. Thom blanketed radio stations in New England with his resume and landed an interview that led to this first job, airtime on the graveyard shift. 

“It’s a foot in the door.” I’d been confident. 

Lying there, back glued to the mattress, my mind looped on a one-track tape. I railed at Thom: how did we end up here? My eyes closed and sprang open blinking sweat, maybe tears. I could smell my anxiety. I could smell Thom.

I railed at Ben. How could he be so rude? And me–I could’ve spoken up–and what, left? Thom had to work with Ben, this colleague in his first job. I couldn’t shake the feeling that my new husband had failed a test. 

This night seemed like an omen. 

I talked myself back from the edge. Come on Jill, it’s unlucky, sure, the guy’s an asshole, Thom did his best. You’ll survive.  My optimism would surface until I slapped a mosquito. At least they don’t carry malaria like in Nigeria. I’d never expected to be caught like this, feeling helpless like a kid. God, I hated mosquitos. 

When I’d left college, my parents were still living in Nigeria. They were due home later that summer. I’d needed an exit plan. I wasn’t going to live with them, wherever that might be. Thom and I would figure out the future, together. 

 When he surprised me by asking me to marry him, I’d hesitated, then, sure, why not? I didn’t see the point, but I went along. Now I wondered if I’d been scared of being alone. I’d lived all over the world and I’d never been timid. Hanging back in doubt, or ignorance, had not been my thing. Now that I was back in the States, was I turning into someone else? Someone who couldn’t stand on their own? 

Maybe I’d lost my compass. 

Panic started rising. No, I was adjusting, being part of a grown-up couple. We would each have our strengths. And Thom was the one on track with a career. 

I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. How could I? I’d just started living it. I’d expected to finish college. I had a vague idea of Doing Good; working in a prison as a counselor or joining the Peace Corps. Colleges were spitting out young zealots with action plans to change the world, an inspiration I wasn’t feeling. 

Thom was passionate about music ranging from obscure rock bands to Beethoven. We both liked to read. He turned me on to new universes created by Heinlein and Asimov to Frank Herbert’s Dune. He taught me cribbage. He had patience. What other stuff might I learn from him? He shored up my American cultural deficit after living away from the States for ten years. Yeah, I’d absorbed plenty of foreign culture. I had stories. None were easy to share without sounding like I was from another planet.

Was Thom a placeholder? I pushed the thought away. Besides, he was crazy about me. 

I twisted my wedding band around on my finger. I couldn’t see a thing except for a faint light out the piece-of-shit window. Maybe I’d needed this night to think about careless decisions. Morning would bring daylight. We’d be out of this dump, and I’d see who I could be. I’d see who Thom turned out to be.

I nailed another mosquito. I watched a tree top spear a sliver of moon. Footsteps down the hall and a door clicked.

The peepers were going wild outside.


1964 Discovering life in Kathmandu published in Clockhouse Volume 7, 2019

I’m racing down Kalimati Road heading for the bazaar, what we call downtown back in America. A chicken surprises itself and me by running into my bike’s front tire. A man yells over the chicken’s squawks but I pump hard and don’t look back. My cycling has improved since moving to Kathmandu. 

I swerve around a toddler at the road’s edge, swerve again to avoid a porter hunched under his bulging basket. Neck of steelcalves of iron I write in my head. I’m thinking about my article due tomorrow for the school newspaper. The porter turns his head and spits a streak of betel juice, red flecks sticking to my sneaker.

Detouring through Himalaya Heights, the ex-pat community where most families live, I’m on the lookout for one of my friends to go to town. When we first moved into Round House I complained, wanting to be in the American development. Now I like our house, which is circular and white and tall like a three-layer birthday cake. We live in half the cake, our apartment three floors top to bottom. Dad likes to joke how he can never corner my mother. 

The Cathys aren’t home; no other kids are outside playing. Leaving the Heights, I call namaste to the chokidar at his usual post sitting on a stool guarding the gate and turn left, almost hitting two little boys squirting their dicks in the dirt, reminding me of my brother trying to spell his name and soaking his pants. These kids have no pants on to wet. The outdoors here is a wide-open bathroom. Mom doesn’t let us go barefoot in our yard and nags me to stop biting my fingernails: “It’s unsanitary!” All our water has to be boiled and filtered, our vegetables washed in that cleaned water.

Wobbling in recovery mode, I smile at a woman watching from the baked-brick house that leans into the road. A girl squats while stirring a pot on a fire, rice or lentils for dahl. I half-wave steering around a cow sprawled on the asphalt, serene in the knowledge no one will hit her. She’s holy, not even milked like the Holsteins back home on my grandparents’ dairy farm. 

I cruise around a tole, remembering to stay left until I exit from the circle of traffic onto to the main road. I’m almost to the center of the bazaar and about to turn back home, when I smell meat grilling¾it smells like a barbeque. I wonder if Nepalis are celebrating another holy day, offering rice or flowers along with a prayer at the god’s shrine, and having a cookout with relatives like Americans do on 4th of July or on Labor Day.

American Christians pay attention to God maybe once a week and at Christmas and Easter, but Nepalis celebrate their religion all the time. There are tons of Hindu gods, their images displayed everywhere in statues and carvings¾smiling and dancing or fierce with weapons, showing bare bosoms and way more. 

I’m partial to Ganesh, a boy god with the head of a little elephant. His dad, chief god Shiva, lost his temper and lopped his kid’s head off with a sword. In remorse, Shiva grabbed a head from the nearest living thing he saw and stuck it on his son. I wonder what Ganesh did to enrage his father or whether he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time¾the consequence changed everything.

This starts me thinking about being in that taxi in Amman when I was nine, squashed between my dad and a stranger. I’d been in the wrong place. The man smelled like cigarettes, his kaffiyeh hiding his face. I leaned away when his hand pressed against my leg but his fingers kept going, under my skirt, between my legs, even though I clamped them shut. I froze. I think about that a lot. Why didn’t I tell my dad right then and there, or at least my mom afterward. What stopped me? 

Curiosity moves me on, my nose following the scent of cooking hamburger. I keep thinking about the taxi, and Ganesh. I dodge two pi-dogs fighting over something gross-looking and lurch by a slow-moving rickshaw. Maybe Ganesh’s story means dads, even a chief god, do the best they can. Although doing his best didn’t work out for poor Ganesh. How did the boy deal with waking up with the giant nose and ears? At least Ganesh remained a god. I guess I remained me, a little different inside, but nothing obvious like new ears.

My mouth watering, I pedal across one of the small bridges that connects the Bagmati’s banks throughout town; Pashupatinath temple looms, its wide steps leading into a murky river. Sweat beads under my bangs. Like my body knows something I don’t. I hesitate and think about turning back; I never meant to come this far.

A small crowd spools ahead of me. People shuffle to a stop and I put a foot down balancing my bike. The smell shifts, less like hamburgers now that I’m in the smoke. Most Nepalis aren’t much taller than me and I peer around people’s heads and see the burning platforms, the ghats, dotting the river’s edge. Blackened human feet poke out beneath flames. 

I remember about cremation and the stories about Hindu wives, some only girls like me, joining their dead husbands on funeral pyres. When I first read about the tradition I thought it was romantic, dying for one’s true love, but now I’m twelve and think more about what things mean, like why that man would want to do that to me, and what does that mean about other men, and how would it feel to go up in flames? 

Ahead, two men step out of the crowd carrying a body wrapped in white, festooned with garlands of marigolds. They head towards the ghats. Swallowing, I back away from the stink, the fires, the temple, ignoring the grumbles when I shove through people.   

I’m home in record time, not stopping to walk my bike up the steep part, calling out sorry, I’m sorry when a man gesticulates at me over that suicidal chicken still pecking in the road. I yell sorry again so loud I surprise myself. The chicken hesitates, and so does the man. 


Uganda 1972 

“Who’s got matches, anyone? Come on.”
My brother and I look at each other then at Dad 

crouching over a meager pile of sticks. 

I shake my head, imaginary heat emanating from the flattened book of Hilton matches in my pocket. 

The week before, I’d snatched the matches from the lobby after we’d landed in Entebbe from Lagos. When Mom
and Dad disappeared into their room to freshen up for dinner, Eric and I had bounded up stairs ignoring an “Employees Only” sign to the hotel’s rooftop, seizing an opportunity to sneak a smoke. Lightning forked from a dark furl of clouds while we puffed and chattered about leaving at daybreak for Murchison Falls, the starting point of a three-week safari, our last family vacation before I left our expat home in Nigeria for another stab at college, this time in the States. 

“Now Ralph,” Mom says. “Why would they have matches?” 

Denial comes easy to Mom. 

Our packed lunches eaten before noon, the afternoon snack of biscuits and oranges devoured. We’d seen enough birds. Other living things slip around on the periphery. The sun’s ferocity subsides and shadows lengthen. Our retrieval from the island by the boat guy is way overdue. 

I speak up. “I don’t.” 

She would freak if I produced matches. They could only mean I smoked cigarettes, probably pot. Worse than that, her suspicion of me corrupting my younger brother would be sealed. Quaker heritage had cemented her views on alcohol, drugs, tobacco, and fighting amongst nations. Family strife didn’t count. 

“Me neither.” Eric claims the high ground. 

Dad turns a baleful eye on me. His concerns are in the moment—how to spend a night in an African sanctuary meant for birds, not four meaty humans. If I hand over the matches, his reaction will come later. Decreased allowance, a lecture, whereas Mom’s scathing words will gut me: “We raised you better than this!” Worse, she might cry. 

My mother’s righteous tone, her black and white code squeezes the juice out of me. I stopped liking her when she’d stopped liking me for not being her. 

I want to proffer the matches, saying, “Sure, here Dad,” like the stupid reveal it is in these circumstances, but I feel trapped. 

The evening before at the lodge, we clustered on the patio with other guests and watched elephants muddy
the watering hole, caving in its banks with their tree-trunk legs, then hosing off. Baby elephants sank to their knees and rolled and splashed without fear of being stepped on by mothers and aunties. 

I tried to pair up moms and offspring but couldn’t discern any pattern of affection or affiliation. A particular kid didn’t stay in a particular adult’s orbit. An adult didn’t hover over just one kid. They shared the watch over the young. Hierarchy seemed based on tusk size and I wondered at what age the elephant kids started growing them. Someone said the bulls were solitary, arriving later or satisfying their thirst elsewhere. 

At a silent signal, in accord, the elephants departed in a whoosh, water flying, the little ones enveloped within the herd. Quiet settled and other animals, impala and kudu and a couple of warthogs, stepped in to drink. 

Abandoned on the island, Mom asks, “What are we going to do?” 

“Wait,” Dad says. “Collect more wood. Try to light this damn thing.” 

“We can drink from the lake.” I look at the flamingos, a melt of pink obscuring the water. 

“Are you crazy?” Eric nudges me. “Bird poop.” 

Mom ignores us, questions Dad: “Didn’t you agree on a time? I hope you didn’t already pay him. Who arranged the guide anyway? And the boat, the lodge, the agent? It’s getting chilly . . . ” 

“I made the arrangements.” Dad pokes his wannabe fire. “Come on kids, you sure you don’t have matches? Check your pockets.”

“No one has matches, Ralph.” So certain. 

I hesitate, gauging. Is this the time to tell the truth? 

Mom watches the lake, her back to us. “He has to come back, how could he forget?” 

Hoping for distraction, I dig into my shirt pocket and break up the last of a wrinkled Cadbury bar, handing her a piece. 

Mom shakes her head. “I don’t need any.” 

I roll my eyes at her self-sacrifice. Dad, Eric, and I wash the chocolate down with the last dregs from the canteen. 

Dad takes out his Swiss army knife and starts scraping the blade on a rock. 

She cradles her arms. “Do we need a fire? It can’t get that cold.” 

“Maybe not, but for safety.” Dad keeps hacking at the rock. The knife sliding off its side.

Shit. “What do you mean?” 

“Hyenas.” Eric says to me.

“I don’t know, jackals, wild dogs anyway.” 

Mom snorted. “Oh Ralph, for pity’s sake.” 

“Don’t hyenas only eat dead things?” I envision those sloping bodies circling, waiting. 

Birdcalls soften with the sun’s descent, shadows merge and deepen and something coughs. An animal clearing its throat? 

No sparks. Knife and rock are not connecting. Dad’s neck starts to redden. I’ve waited too long to admit anything, and Mom falls silent. 

My hand inches toward the matches. After the recriminations, maybe we’d sit shoulder-to-shoulder around the fire,
our parents on either side like sentinels against the dark, the hyenas, and recall the easy stories: past adventures and fairy tales. 

“Look!” Mom yells making us all jump. 

A dark dot skims the almost-as-dark horizon. The sound of a motor cuts the gloom and we swivel as one, watch a light approach, dim, grow bigger, then blinding. 

Published in Under The Gum Tree, April 2019

This short piece was originally published in Solstice Literary Magazine’s blog in 2017.

Managing Editor’s Note: Jill Johnson describes herself as a “third-culture-kid”, someone who grew up in developing countries. Her essay featured here, “Lewes, Delaware,” reflects how this way of life, combined with their Quaker heritage, affected her family’s political beliefs-and the conflict it often created. In one crucible of a moment, Jill yells her frustration at her mother, saying that “if she spent as much time solving family problems as she did on world problems, maybe our family would be happy”.

Amy Grier

Truth as a Hammer: Managing the Politics of Family

Lewes, Delaware

Jill F Johnson

Sorting through files in my parent’s office after they’d moved into assisted living, I found an old newspaper clipping¾an editorial Mom had written. I paused at her bio: activist, teacher, homemaker. The description evoked a woman with defined lines, neat and contained. Her teaching career had consisted of several years with fifth graders at Lincoln School in Kathmandu in the ‘60’s; a homemaker, yeah, she’d set up house wherever we’d landed for Dad’s job in developing countries. The activist part, well, I’d never thought to apply that term to my mother although she loosed her opinions with abandon and often without invitation.

When I was in high school, she’d been the one to march on Washington DC to protest the Vietnam War. I’d boasted about my Mom who stomped several positions left of most adults in those days. Protesting in my own way at boarding school¾ experimenting with pot and boys, skipping the mandatory Quaker meeting on Sunday mornings, learning to swear¾I’d watched her from afar. 

Later, married and living in New England, I’d enjoyed our political chats over the phone, a beer in hand hidden from eyes that narrowed at the sight of anyone drinking alcohol. The cushion of distance between us blunted the edge of her rising indignation at the world’s woes and misguided policy-makers, the societal inequalities. A little rant together on the same side for a change felt good. We’d both suffered through my cliff-hanger of an adolescence. Worse than hard-liners in a fracturing country, we couldn’t conceive of compromise. For me, and maybe for her, a residue of that acrimony lingered, an off smell that hadn’t dissipated.

I’d mention to my adult friends about Mom’s election as president of the Women League of Voters, or how she picketed at her state capitol of Dover against U.S. military spending, her speeches about the stalled Palestinian-Israeli two-state solution. Having lived in Jordan, our family personalized the Palestinians plight. Living overseas had fostered an immediacy to global issues. 

I tried to think back to when my mother’s politicking and the delivery of her point of view began to make me clench my teeth.

When I was in my forties, visiting my parents with my third husband, Mom and Dad took us to visit Lewes, a Chesapeake Bay town near their home, the streets lined with painted buildings preserved in their slice of history. High-end clothing and gadget stores next to cafes and chocolatiers. A shoe store. My eye caught on a pair of Naots in the window.   

“Those are great sandals,” I said to Mom. “I’m going in.” 

The proprietor asked if she could help. I gushed about the comfort of the Naot’s I’d once owned. I picked up a pair. Before I could ask for my size, Mom interrupted.

“Where are they made?”

  I turned towards her wondering why she cared about their provenance. I’d never known her to be much of a shopper. In fact, she hated shopping. Her clothes and shoes worked beyond a graceful retirement.

Smiling, the woman replied, “Israel.”  

Mom turned away, snorting, “I’d never buy anything made there.” The bell clanged when she yanked the door open. Stammering an apology, I fled.

“Mom, I can’t believe, I…that was pretty rude.”  

“Why? It’s what I think.” She shook her head at the idea of being polite about her politics.  

“Yeah, but…” I stopped.

I let her go ahead to catch up with Dad. My husband waited for me and shrugged when I told him about the encounter in the store. “That’s your Mom.”

Later, I berated myself for not engaging my mother in a conversation about her approach. Or staying behind at the store to explain. How it was easier to walk away, just like she had. 

She hadn’t used to be rude, not to strangers anyway. Strident yes, opinionated always. The frustration of years of protesting injustices combined with advancing age had turned her truth telling into a hammer. But we all had our own version of truth, a tack hammer or bludgeon perhaps the only difference in the delivery. 

I wondered what the storeowner told her family about the incident. I envisioned her sitting at the dinner table that night, saying, “There was this rude woman who came into the store….” The dismissive nature of Mom’s tone and her words couldn’t have promoted world peace, Mom’s ostensible life-long mission. Wasn’t the point to pick apart each other’s truth to find commonality? After all, The Quaker way was about consensus.

I thought back to my teenaged years and realized that I could give myself a break about being a screaming, door-slamming teen; my mother had never been one to give an inch. I remember yelling at her during one of our fights that if she spent as much time solving family problems as she did on world problems maybe our family would get fixed. 

After the visit to Lewes, I didn’t talk politics with her again. I’d dropped my hammer.