Imagine a third floor balcony of an apartment in Boulder, Colorado. Imagine standing on it, your hands on the rail, your sigh long as you look out to the Flatirons. The fresh smell from the laundry room vent on the first floor. Through its windows, the shadow of slow-spinning clothes. Imagine it’s the middle of the afternoon, and you have nowhere to be and nothing to do but the missing. The balcony door open, the screen door shut. From here, everything inside painted in shadow: the black futon against the wall, the small box on the end table that holds two letters, the calendar on the kitchen wall, the one with black and white photographs of trains. The book you bought a week ago on the plastic folding chair behind you. Now imagine sitting down and flipping to the page where you left off yesterday. Imagine the words: “Shall I meet you at the bus stop, even if dead of night? I’d like to.”
You imagine. I’ll remember.
It was July 2002 when I read Door Wide Open, a collection of letters between Jack Kerouac and Joyce Johnson written between 1957 and 1958. They met on a blind date—set up by Allen Ginsberg—at a Howard Johnsons, and Joyce, 22, bought Jack, 35, a hot dog and some baked beans. (He had spent the last of his money on a pack of cigarettes.) This was January. Within eight months, On the Road would be published. But on this night, Kerouac walked Johnson back to the two furnished rooms she rented on the ground floor of a brownstone on 113th between Broadway and Amsterdam, and the next morning, Johnson made them bacon and eggs on a rickety two-burner stove in the corner of the living room. What followed was weeks of “long sleepless nights” full of “hard-drinking people.” After a month, Kerouac set sail for Tangiers where he would type William Burroughs’s manuscript, Naked Lunch. He wrote his first letter to Johnson aboard the S.S. Slovenial in March. He signed it, “Love, Jack XXX.”
I don’t remember what happened to the letters in that box on the end table. I’m sure he took them when he moved out in July. 2002. For months, I left the numbered boxes on the calendar blank. I couldn’t bear to record any of those days, to name them. Each train before me still.
The underlines of my blue pen spill out and split the pages of Door Wide Open, and I return to them, again and again. In her introduction, Johnson writes about a day in 1998 when she received a package from the Kerouac estate containing Xerox copies of all the letters Jack had written to her forty years before. “Some lost things have fully come back to me,” she writes. This is how it is for me when I re-read the letters. I remember a balcony. The slant of the Foothills. The middle of the day sun. The shadows inside. And I remember a phone call, the one he made from King Street Station in Seattle. I had my own Kerouac, running rails and riding roads to places I still haven’t been. But unlike Jack, once he was gone, he never wrote to me again.
I carry these letters with me—the ones I have, the ones I’ve lost—everywhere I go.
I live in small town in New Mexico now, and yesterday (mountains in the distance), I watched a bus pull up to a station where I was getting gas. Imagine if I had abandoned my car at the pump and drew in the direction of the p-shhh of the door. Imagine if I had stepped up into the shadows and handed the driver whatever money I had and said, “How far can I go?”
After a letter dated June 11, 1957, Johnson writes in her commentary: “The trips I didn’t take in the summer of 1957 have always haunted me.”
I know you understand me when I tell you this. I know you understand dead of night. Tell me what lines you’ve read so I know how to imagine you. Tell me who is gone. Tell me if you, like me, always think of going.
There’s a love letter inside a novel she gave me on my twenty-eighth birthday. I’ve moved five times since then, each time alone, without. That book gets packed up in boxes amid all the other love letter-less books. I unpacked it in Atlanta, in August, under the threat of dissolution. I’ll tell you what that letter says, but not yet.
I wrote her poems this year. She won’t read them like she won’t call me, like she won’t look out the window to find me there, like she won’t, like she won’t.
Each of those roads took me farther from her, but she was already as far from me as she could be the first time I left.
The folklore of music history goes that Justin Vernon, lonely and vulnerable and without, holed up in a cabin in the Wisconsin woods and recorded For Emma, Forever Ago on aged, dusty musical equipment, alone. It goes that he was haunted by the breakup of a former band and more, by a breakup with a woman, a ghost. It goes that he was ill with mononucleosis, with drink, with the specter of a gambling loss. In a piece in the New York Times, Vernon states that Bon Iver is a sentiment more than a project, that Emma is a person, but also a place. The author of the article says the record is “deep primal purging.” The next album, Vernon says, was about “trying to gather,” to become, about becoming. Fans tell him often how this recording helped them heal.
I can’t tell you how For Emma came to be the trigger to helplessness it did. I can’t trace the trajectory back to the source for you. All I know is that it fused with her inside my heart, became one. Each time Vernon high-voice warbles, “And now all your love is wasted/And then who the hell was I?” a flush takes over in me, a memory triggers, a flash of her at the edge of cliffs over Lake Superior, reaching for my hands, or her crying in my arms after watching a war movie where the hero comes home and she tells me never to die and I never tell her I won’t.
It’s been four years since she called me while we were 750 miles apart and told me she’d packed all of my things and sent them to Omaha. It’s been three years since I asked her, on a bridge over the flooding Missouri, to find me again. It’s been three years since she stopped looking for me in poems, in books, in walks by the water.
I wrote: “You are at sea and I forget how to build/a boat made of the man I could have been.”
She wrote: “You have my heart forever.”
The book sits dusty, on my bookshelf, unread. This love letter is scrawled on the first page, the page I can never turn over. The book I’ve tried to not place in the box with the others so many times.
I got in a car in July and left from Atlanta before getting in another car and going all the way west in this country, actually to the farthest west you get before you’re ocean, before you’re undulating waves, before there’s nowhere else to go but back where you came from. I was uncertain, unsteady. The life I’d created seemed false, something I couldn’t or didn’t want to carry. I almost stayed where I found myself, but then again, that staying never holds.
No matter how many calendars I’ve hung and replaced, no matter how many times I’ve moved since I last saw him step into an elevator on an August morning, I read him into every line. I’ve unlocked many doors to borrowed rooms and carried Door Wide Open into all of them. Boulder to Utah, Utah to Boise, Boise to Wichita, Wichita to Oklahoma, Oklahoma to New York, New York to Chicago, and now, New Mexico. This copy is fragile, the back pages unhinged from the spine, edges yellow.
In the blank space at the bottom of the index, I wrote nine lines in blue ink. And on the inside of the back cover, eight more. I remember the moment of writing them. On the balcony. In the middle of the afternoon. The Flatirons in the distance. Those shadows, two letters inside. I cannot bring myself to tell you all of these words. But I will tell you the last line. Maybe.
This is the book that holds the first pages of my missing like a hidden key. Read it, and you can imagine me there. You can imagine a love falling away like loose pages.
During the days I read, he was still coming home even though I knew a day was coming when he wouldn’t. “Will you come creeping in with your key in the middle of the night? I’ll be waiting . . . ” These words end Joyce’s letter to Jack on January 14, 1958. He didn’t return until March.
I want to tell you something that terrifies me: It’s been twelve years. What if I keep moving, city to city, state to state, room to room, so that I won’t have to feel like I’m waiting for him to come back? As if with every key I leave on the kitchen counter I’m trying to obliterate any room where he might knock on the door. As if I keep going to the post office to erase every address that might be listed under my name. I pack up. I go. It feels like running. Joyce urged Jack: “running isn’t being free.” Maybe I’m Kerouac.
That last line: “Rain makes me miss you.”
In every room, even in the one I’m sitting in and writing to you now—where out my window the branches of thin trees gnarl in the desert wind—I feel him. There are moments I shudder at the sense he has died and it’s his ghost I feel, the way he once said on the phone he would picture me during the day and at certain times of night. As if he were telling me he’d always be reading me through the distance. But no, I suppose he still lives, somewhere. Moves in rooms beyond these words.
I’ve only had the keys to this house for a month, and already I worry toward the day I will leave them on the kitchen counter and walk away. The day I will once again carry out all the boxes, all the books, all the rain.
iv. a song, then, another
Another song: I’m in a house she rents in east Omaha. I’m leaving for Michigan, and I need to make an offering of all my insides. Her roommate is asking me why, how I know, how I am so sure. This is the part in the song where the turn happens, the horns turn into so variant a melody, where the piano keens for something lost, something forgotten.
Another: she lies on a floor somewhere—Minnesota, Wisconsin—somewhere. She’s telling me on the phone she still loves, her heart still blooms. I don’t tell her I don’t believe it, that I’m in another room, another place I don’t find her. I don’t tell her. I’m not in the place she last left me.
I’ve written lines about her in so many places. One line or two lines I wrote as a sparrow slowed in its death throes, as its life whispered out. Lines I’ve jotted in notebooks and the insides of people’s essays. Postcards I’ve written to her that I’ve never sent. How many times I’ve sang the song of her and been out of key, a voice hoarse and hollow from the hollering, from the whiskey-drowned sunrise of a too-late dirge.
And, this song: Volcano Choir’s “Alaskans” includes the static-strangled voice of Bukowski, crude and sexed, and by the end he’s broken-down about it all, drunk and bawling. In an interview, Justin Vernon says of Bukowski on the track: “He’s like, ‘Make it so that I die in my sleep and not in my life.’ It’s this incredibly powerful man completely giving into the fact that he is weak and small.”
I never got to wait for the day it would end. One day, it just did. The echoes of it in my skin, in the wind chorus behind me, in the rush of road going by from town to town to city.
I’m not afraid now. At this moment, I write to you from a room filled with her things, this new her: a gray cardigan, an overnight bag that’s been here many nights, the smell of her, the way she looks up at me and smiles and we say nothing because we don’t need to. But, I wonder how that makes someone forget to long for something, for the newness of roads, of leaving, of going, of staying only as long as I’m welcome. What if I stay? What if I stay?
When I asked her, those years ago, she said: “yes, yes, for all of my life, yes.”
Love songs are so often about its loss.
I’ve said before that maybe all I can sing are love songs.
I don’t know where she is now, what poems she’s written about wolves or lightning. I don’t know if she writes poems anymore. I don’t know if she thinks of the ghost of me. I don’t know what happens to her when Justin Vernon sings:
Would you really rush out?
Would you really rush out?
Would you really rush out for me now?
Would you really rush out
Would you really rush out for me now?
Would you really rush out for me now?
Would you really rush out for me now?
Would you really rush out
For me now?
v. another book, then, and still
After the publication of On the Road, after Jack Kerouac had written his last letter to Joyce Johnson, he holed up in a cabin at Big Sur, singing Sinatra and writing the sea.
The last camping trip he and I took was in June, in 2001, in Poudre Canyon, in Colorado. He took his fly rod and I took a copy of Kerouac’s Big Sur. In the afternoons, I’d sit along the bank of the Poudre River. “The creek bouncing along as tho nothing had ever happened elsewhere.” Or I’d crawl inside the tent and read while he chopped wood. And when the sun slipped below the tree line, we’d each sit on a log across from each other with the fire between us. Our shadows shivering against the back wall of the woods. You may not believe me when I tell you this, but I read this sentence—“I realized you can always study the character of a man by the way he chops wood.”—one afternoon while he did just that. I’ve gone back to that moment to see if I could have possibly read “leaving” in the way he arced the blade and heaved it into the wood.
Joyce Johnson carried Jack’s letters with her for decades—through jobs and lofts and apartments—in a battered white metal file that always moved with her. She did not read them for twenty-three years. “The letters were part of my story,” she writes in the introduction to Door Wide Open, “but unlike my memories, the words on the old pieces of paper did not belong to me.” So she sold them.
I finished Big Sur on that camping trip. Feeling as if something wasn’t finished and everything was already, somehow, “the present moment fraught with tangled woods.” I can still see us, hiking down to the water’s edge. He carries his fly rod, and I have my green journal and Jack’s words. Shadows and the sun take turns leading the way. We read our own lines for an hour or so, and his casts conduct an orchestra of un-scored patterns. His fingers lace the delicate featherburst of a fly and offer a line so tenuous it breaks free from sight. We are suspended at the edge of an afternoon, at the edge of what we have no idea is coming.
The last line of Big Sur: “There’s no need to say another word.”
After reading your words, I opened all the boxes that are still taped, the boxes I carry from city to city, the boxes that hold all I remember. These boxes in the back of my closet, these boxes stacked in the shed in the backyard (the thin trees standing guard). I was looking for the green journal, for the words I had written that afternoon.
I found no journal.
I found no words on pieces of paper that don’t belong to me.
I can read any line of Big Sur and imagine the cadence of his fingertips, the arc of river swells that swallow his footsteps rushing out from the distance.
Joyce Johnson used the money from the letters to build a small brown house on the edge of the woods. Near the close of her introduction: “Jack would have approved, I thought, remembering his dream of finding a shack somewhere for himself.”
There’s always need to say another word.
v. then, then,
Emerson: “Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again.”
I can read you the lines of where this new story comes from, the one she tells me as I write this, trying to find the place in song where all this comes to the closing of rivers: she’s in South Africa, doing field work on cultural memory, on the history of people and place. She’s listening to Bon Iver, the self-titled album. She’s separated from someone, someone she’s lost in a different way. She’s in South Africa. She feels unplaced. She feels the separation in her—of loss, of physical space, of the distance she created through closing a distance with someone else other than her partner. The album sings to her of that loss, while the first album sings to me of other ghosts. She sits here and tells me this. Communion through the confession of song. She tells me this all as we locate the ghosts of ourselves, together.
I’ve tried to tell her in long nights the story of the woman I lost. I have these stories and no settled seas in which to float them.
This book with this letter inscribed sits inches from us in this bed. I would show it to her now if it meant anything. I might carry this book with me farther, yet.
She tells me that “Holocene” reminds of the things she’d done and how things could never go back again. Maybe the line she means to sing to me is, “And at once I knew I was not magnificent.” Maybe what she means for me to sing to her is: I am just as unplaced as you were. Maybe, then: home is the altar where we would hope to offer ourselves, if only we could find it. Then: Are you home?
I don’t tell her the line from the song that still sends tremors through me.
She tells me in bed that “Holocene” comes from a night in a bar in Portland, Vernon alone in some strange place he finds himself where he breaks down from all the weight upon him. She says she felt this crashing-down in her there, far away from this person she could never go home to again.
I was in Austin, Texas when I should have noticed the first signs of our unplacing. She called me and had been calling me. I had been in bars and on trails and she’d been trying to find me. I remember walking down a street, drunk, her on the phone confessing. She tried to tell me she needed me in words I didn’t understand, then. A homeless man came to me as I spoke into the phone and tried to sell me something [some item I can no longer remember now, for all the importance it might have held]. He made his pitch as I tried to talk her through her lonesome. She told me she was fighting a war I’d gone so far away from. She confessed and confessed and the man kept speaking, louder and louder, and I said, “I can’t hear you.”
Sometimes I look for her, but not hard enough to find her. The specter of her is the closest I can reach out for.
In bed, she, this new woman. I will hand books over to her with white space begging to be inscribed with letters, and she looks at me in that longing way. I can’t tell her how it unsettles the foundation of me.
There won’t be another For Emma. As much as we want to return to that place, that place is gone. We can travel all the highways and back roads back to it, but it will not be where we thought we left it.
I will write the poem of her until I get it right, if I ever do.
I’ll put the vinyl on and start from the beginning, and when he sings, “And I’m breaking at the britches/And at the end of all your lines,” no matter where I am I’ll feel a ghost pass through me, and I’ll think first of elegy, then of song.
Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.