Note: The following short story started as an experiment. I wanted to see if I could rewrite a folk song as a story. It is based on a murder ballad that goes by various names — “Johnson,” “The Three Butchers,” or “The Two Butchers.” I re-imagined it in a modern setting. It was originally published in the journal Panopticon under the title “Johnson” in 1997. I have revised the story for republication here at Medium. Warning: it’s violent. That’s what you’re in for with a murder ballad.
Johnson was driving along the interstate in his Mustang GT at 85 mph, pushing 90. He liked to drive as fast as the car’s V-8 engine could handle. Nothing better than to hug the road with those 16” speed-rated tires.
His stomach dipped and sank as the automobile soared over the small crests of hills. The Mustang responded nimbly, thanks to its “quadra-shock” rear-suspension. This was Johnson’s first chance to really “let it all out,” and test drive his month-old machine. With the Speedmatic radar detector plugged into the cigarette lighter, Johnson was safe from the State Troopers.
He had originally bought the GT for its SEFI V-8 single overhead cam design and the passive anti-theft system. In both respects he was not disappointed. There was no question about the brand name. His father collected Mustangs, and Johnson himself was on his third. Mustangs gave him freedom, made him feel powerful and assured.
His father also collected guns, and always told his son that there was no better way to protect oneself and to live the confident life than to own your own handgun, or better yet a shotgun. Since Johnson didn’t live in the country like his father, he thought a rifle too conspicuous, but the advice was not unheeded. He always kept a pistol in the Mustang’s glove compartment.
The stereo was pumping a song he didn’t know well. The forest around him in the last twenty miles had become thicker. Tall pine trees, some eighty feet high. The highway swathed through the woods like a gray scar after a knife slice.
The further he went, the more “weedy” the surroundings got. The grassy areas to the side of the highway were overgrown and thick. The tree cover was more dense. Johnson turned down the volume knob…