I’ve decided to publish my short story Jonnybell exclusively on this site. It’s pretty short, so I’m going to just insert the whole thing in this post.
By Jason Royal Hart
My favorite memory of Jonny was of him leaning over my grill with a summer sun warmed Pabst Blue Ribbon in his right hand. His other hand held back a sweaty strand of neon-red hair.
“That damn bell,” he said. Every morning. Six in the morning. Seven in the morning. Eight –“
“In the morning,” I asked, deadpan.
“Like clockwork,” said Hanna, winking at me.
“Like a clockwork crying baby,” continued Jonny, “With no respect for boundaries. Someone should teach it a lesson.”
“Yeah,” I said, turning over my veggie bratwurst with the tuning fork I’d lifted from the music building the day before I left school, “let’s teach some lessons to bells.”
“You got it,” said Jonny.
Living twenty feet from the world’s biggest alarm clock had deafened Jonny’s ear for irony. We still loved him.
He was right about the bell. Ineloquent as he always was, Jonny was usually right. The bell on the top of St. Casimir’s was a sharpened metronome that spiked the ears of everyone in the neighborhood.
Once, this part of Milwaukee had been full of working class people grateful for free wakeup calls. Now it was full of punks who just wanted sleep past noon.
“I got the keys,” said Hanna. Her blue overalls were painted with stars.
“To what,” asked Jonny.
“To the frigging church, slow-bee. From when I used to run the bake sale,” she said.
Hanna used to be big in the church, until her recent conversion to laziness and brewing beer in her kitchen.
“That so,” asked Jonny. I could see his eyes beetling up and down under his black brows. He was formulating, or fornicating. I could never keep those two straight. One of them you do by yourself, and the other you do with at least one other person. I can remember that.
Whichever one he was doing, Jonny came up with a plan. He lived next to the church, in the illegal attic of a hundred year old house. There were a bunch of these set-ups in Riverwest: apartments that weren’t exactly safe or registered, but the tenants paid in cash and the landlords didn’t look too closely into things like how many people actually lived there, or just what you were growing in that well-lit closet, really.
I lived in a basement over on Booth. We called these apartment Polish flats in Milwaukee – but in a city with so many Poles, that wasn’t an insult. I’d heard they were called garden flats in Chicago, but I was half Polish and I refused with pride to call them that. It was damp and smelly and the only source of heat in the winter was a large gas powered space heater. A Polish flat.
Hanna and I worked over at the bike co-op and we could pretty much scrounge up enough parts to move any amount of brass. We built a device, out of bicycle parts and wire. It looked like something Da Vinci would build, if he were a couple of college dropouts with only a gut feel for engineering.
That night, we stayed up later than usual. Jonny and Hanna drank home brew and smoked fresh from Jonny’s closet, while I sat in Jonny’s backyard and threw sticks for my black lab and my yellow lab. I’d been sober for five years, as had my labs.
At around three A.M. we started building. We had the wheels and gearshifts from a dozen bikes, a whole spool of gauge six wire, and the pointless determination of the casually mad.
It sat in the middle of Jonny’s bedroom. We’d pushed his mattress up against one wall and carefully moved each of his army of terra cotta peace activists to the kitchen. A single bulb hung there, casting a Gandhi-shaped shadow into the room.
I sat down and began to pedal. It was fast at first, but as the wire wound around the spool, the strain on my legs became intense. It felt like the first time I had biked to the top of Holy Hill, back when I had just quit smoking and was out of shape. Hanna aimed the harpoon and took stock of the wind. Jonny stood, salivating, wrapped in a parachute we’d reclaimed from the dump.
“Let go, Jonas!” Hanna shouted, and I dove off the seat.
The harpoon sailed across the sky like a spear destined to martyr a saint. It landed in the bell tower. Jonny pulled the wire taught to confirm its security, and then he dove into the empty space outside of the window. At first I thought he had missed and was meant for the ground. I ran over to the window just as he floated up the wire, noiseless in the cold night.
The bell tower was illuminated only by the blue-white flame of Jonny’s blowtorch. In the room it was dark. We watched the sparks fly out of the tower windows to become moths drowning in frost. Hanna put her hand on my leg. I looked up at her. When she smiled, her lip ring turned and I could see myself reflected in it. We kissed.
“Hey hey!” shouted Jonny.
I pulled away from Hanna and whispered, loudly, for him to shut the hell up.
He tugged on the line, and I plugged the extension cord into the back up generator we’d acquired from the carelessly unlocked bar down the block. The industrial fan hummed as it powered up, and Jonny and Hanna unrolled the parachute across the gap between the buildings.
The chute began to fill with air, and Jonny finessed the bell along the wire underneath with the skill of a card sharp. Then he leapt out, kept aloft by the fury of the fan. It would have never worked normally, but I swear physics was broken that night.
The bell floated down, buoyed and baby like. Jonny sat on top of it like a fairy prince perched on a strawberry. It made no sound as it shuffled papery onto the ground.
What do you do with a kidnapped church bell? We decided to bury it.
Since my apartment was the deepest, it would be the best place to start the digging. Hanna brought over a keg, I baked a veggie pot pie, and we went to work, reconfiguring our faux-Archimedean apparatus to usher the bell into its new home.
Jonny arrived at midnight with the bell in the back of his van, and we noisily squeaked it along guided rails into the house. It was shrouded only by a sewn together mass of blankets and t-shirts, and it clanged once as we moved it, giving Hanna and me an excuse to grab each other’s hands in worry.
But we were not making the most noise on my street that night. There was a show at the punk house next door. We moved the bell into the basement while they made clear their disbelief in residential noise ordinances. A hundred kids and three guitars twenty feet away were likely to prevent anyone noticing any dull peals our stolen friend might manage to mutter.
A few of the punks did notice, though, and poked their heads in through the windows. When they saw that we had stolen the bell, the morning-time nemesis of the neighborhood, they cheered. When they saw the beer and the food, they volunteered to help.
With the help of a whole party house, we ripped into the ground with pickaxes, shovels, and a stolen sledge hammer. By two we’d dug a dozen feet down and six around, and the bell sat in it like a song bird in a stone cage.
We just kept digging. There were always a few of us there, picking away at the walls. For a while, we took the remains out in bags, but then Jonny learned how to craft stone and started making tables and chairs out of the granite and limestone we pulled from the earth.
After a while, we had enough of this crude but smooth furniture to build a kind of cafeteria. Long benches stretched out next to sturdy stone tables that I covered in simple and plentiful food from the aboveground kitchen.
Every day at six, Jonny would ring the bell, mad with delight that he was now its master. The sound aboveground was faint, like a dog barking from a far away hill. The chamber we’d built to hold the bell, though, was underneath the center of the neighborhood. If you were walking above, and the earth began to vibrate a little, it was time for dinner.
Through my door they walked, down the stairs and past my labs, and then to the ladder. They marched vertically, lit by long strands of white Christmas lights that made constellations of their shadows, into our moist and fertile cavern.
At eight P.M. I would send out the soups, at first made from land vegetables, but later on from mushrooms and beans we bred to grow in our underground farms, dim and lit only by light leaked in through the grates which had replaced our back yards.
Some of us caught blind fish in the deep river we discovered, and a few even raised chickens and hogs. Those people were responsible for their own meals – no animals except my labs were allowed in my kitchen.
In spring I quit my job. I was making more then enough money selling my food to restaurants in the surface world. Hanna, likewise, became a full time brewer. Jonny lived on good will and was generous with his crops.
In summer I bought the house I’d been renting and Hanna and I moved in together. Jonny sold his van and made a house boat from reeds. He moored it on the shore of the deep river, and slept there, far from any noise more troublesome than the babble of cold water.
In fall we made the house into a full time gate, and we moved into the first of the underground apartments the miners had begun to dig out. Jonny made us a fine soapstone bed, which we covered in cave cotton and fluffy moss.
On the day our first daughter was born, the miners discovered a giant, near perfect ruby, and we named her after it. This began a trend, and most of the cave girls had names like Jade, Opal, or Emerald. Boys we named Onyx, Copper, and Silver.
Jonny still rang the bell three times a day for meals, and he spent most of the rest of his time wandering through the ever growing mazes of tunnels. He never married. We all considered him our father, although he was only a few years older than us.
When he died, all three thousand of us attended his funeral, and there were very few dry eyes. Alden, his apprentice stone carver, spent a year crafting a great obsidian statue of him carrying the bell on his back, and the day of its unveiling in the great hall, we declared our new city’s name to be Jonnybell.
I and Hanna are old now, and my health does not allow me to travel above.
Hanna still goes up every few days to take our grandchildren to see the sun. We are traditional in that way. Some of the Bellers have never seen the sun, except through the grates and in pictures. When they do go up, it is at night, or under deep cover and special glass, for the unfiltered sun would blind them and burn their skin.
The people who live up there in houses separate from each other, and eat alone in tiny kitchens, know about us. The door is always open, and still some stray down into our subterranean colony. But for the most part, they ignore us, preferring the orthodoxy of dwelling in sight of the stars, instead of each other.
St. Casimir’s never got a new bell. They replaced the one we stole with a computer attached to giant speakers. On some days, I hear its synthetic toll, and I think of Jonny, driven mad enough by sound to create a new world. Then the ringing ends, like all sounds do, and I forget that there was ever a place I lived in that had not been carved from the earth.