i. North Country
For a while I lived along the Canadian border. Never crossed it, though it felt like it on snowy nights I’d settle into corner booth of the inn’s wooded lounge. Hockey on a small screen in the corner, men lined up in fleece and flannel leaning toward the rink like players waiting to be called. One night (one wine after another and another and and and) one of those men stumbled into my shoulder, his heavy beard gray bristles, the gruff of his scotch-soaked whisper an urgent asking. Upstairs. I tipped the dark-haired Louise more than half my tab (I admired the way she knew how to fight the fight of too-long-losing) and headed toward the door, high-stepping through the banks along the sidewalk until I stomped the snow off my boots and surrendered to the dark of my empty house.
There I knew every bend and fallen branch of the hidden, wooded trail along the Grasse River. I’d rock-hop across shallows, hover above the upper drop of a fall, or slow-step the banks collecting stones to skip, each one a wish for those who never knew I’d said their name on a Wednesday while the sun shimmered the whispers of sweet pines (a cemetery across the bridge). When the blue of the sky gave way to pink-orange and the chill snapped to cold, I’d undo the belt I’d made of my sweatshirt and pull it over my head, then climb the trail to the pavement (I called it Cemetary Road).
The house I lived in had a train running behind the woods of my backyard. I liked to go out to walk the steel tracks, step on each wooden slat making my way to the curved crossing at Route 11 before turning around to count rusted spikes, knowing the train would come the next morning, when I’d stand at the kitchen window, watching snow cross the gray sky.
All those woods—of the bar, along the river, beneath my feet—all that wanting.
ii. an Atlanta
This place is a scattering of images: hundreds of plastic forks and knives all down a sidewalk, the train tracks shadowing overhead; stray cats in my neighborhood wandering from one yard to the next like itinerant faith-sellers; a graffitied tunnel popular for hip-hop video shoots or prom pictures where an entire wall’s messages one day will be covered and buried the next; a muddy stuffed teddy bear, hanging from an overpass by its neck; “Win banana costume” nailed to a wooden electrical post; the science fiction whiteness of the first time I saw the blooming of the dogwoods. An old man emptied himself of all his stories in a dusky bar filled with bad taxidermy once the day before Thanksgiving. The tales tumbled out one after another, a slick, eager burden. I did not share any stories of my own. He paid my tab while I was in the restroom and left. I went outside, shattering the dark, a parking ticket on my windshield.
I prefer getting lost on foot here. I wander down new streets and find a lawn filled with metal cat sculptures or hundreds of padlocks of different colors and types on an overpass fence looking down onto the interstate. I avoid sheen and sterile. I walk and walk and try to hold somewhere the answer to a question a friend asks each time he visits, one I never know how to respond to: what is this place?
I can tell you the story of places I know by the bars I find myself alone in. She told me once she worried about my drinking, that it wasn’t a problem, but could be. I wonder at that image: the edges of the body telling a story of self-immolation.
I’m thinking about the desert lately, of how its openness is one kind of loneliness that announces you are here.
iii. making a map
For years I’ve circled words I don’t know in books (always in blue except the year in Chicago I held a green pen on the bus, every circle shaky). I’ve drawn a line from each circle to the margin, and when I finish a book, I thumb through its pages to locate all the lassos. A dictionary at hand for deciphering. It’s like making a map of towns I’ve never visited, marking turns so that when I do come across them, I’ll know which street to take to the post office, which back road will keep me off the highway, which store has the best wine selection.
I don’t think I know any city as much as you know Atlanta, your Atlanta, and maybe that’s because since I moved to Texas I drive a car without a working air conditioner and never let a day pass without imagining where I want to go. Or where I wish I could get back to. So many times, it feels like it’s the places that wander the distance, wondering after me.
esurient: (n) hungry or greedy. As in: “esurient desires.”
It’s true, isn’t it? How we all live in our own cities, built from what we have found, and who we find ourselves next to, what doors we duck in and out of daily. I think of a man I used to sit next to on afternoons in the dark of a cement-floor bar in Utah, the day bearing down through the open door, the only light in the place beyond the video game in the corner I never saw anyone play. He’d be in there (salt and pepper hair, thick moustache, plaid shirt tucked in) after a long morning shift of excavating holes in the ground and lowering caskets into them. He’d tell me about building monuments of undone earth. Once, he told me it was the lone grievers who got to him, the ones who watched until the bulldozer blade’s last shoving, such unwillingness (inability?) to leave until it was done.
threnody: (n) a lament. As in: “this threnody I’ve become.”
I’d like to create a city from all the ones where I’ve lived or passed through or left in a hurry (or pulled from the drive as slowly as possible, sobbing against some marked day on a calendar that declared it was time). Maybe I’d start with that town in Utah, where my own drinking shifted from could be to you are here. That town backed up to the red rocks of a desert that turned into silhouettes and shadows every night, about the time I’d begin to dull myself with wine.
chatoyant: (adj.) changing in color or luster.
iv. the place of images
Another way I build where I find myself is in the image. What I remember is usually of a moment I can’t replace. The picture of me looking at her in a way that made her say, this picture is how I know you love me. Chickens, free from cages or enclosures, roosting up in trees away from predators at sunset in Cabbagetown. Do not enter when flooding. Coyotes at the shore of Lake Superior. Omaha is the smell of the no-longer-there slaughterhouse off the interstate as you drive into the city or the sense of something the opposite of nostalgia I feel when I return to town.
I only know any city in any way because I live in the image. I’m always searching for a way of seeing. I have not left many places, yet. Perhaps it’s because I still walk streets I don’t know looking for the image of something that redefines where I am. Perhaps it’s because I don’t approach my car awaiting any reason to go, but instead burn too hot until a place demands my leaving.
a word meaning longing for something that could not exist
Because I am lonely, or because I give others reasons to ask me to leave, or because I am eager or afraid of overstaying or because I haven’t found the right image, I am always looking forward. The way I have burned through relationships thinking, but what if. The you are here is a mirage. It calls but I don’t know that I believe in it. A woman last night passed me at the bar and said, you’ve done so much. She was talking about the book I held, Joy Williams’ The Quick and the Dead, and how I read a lot since I got there. She had been there the whole time, and we had not spoken, but the number of pages I left behind says something about the going.
a word that means elegy, but for the unknowing of myself
I’ve been thinking of leaving and picking a city to search myself out in. Of seeing July in Atlanta as my you are now leaving sign. Heading into Chicago or Denver or Portland and wearing out new streets. I almost feel myself as burden in Atlanta now. If I keep chasing new starts, I’ll never have to build a city of all the scraps of myself I’ve tried to leave in the dirt.
a word for sunrise, but the kind you only know by sound, the birds announcing it while you keep to the dark
v. life, still
I don’t know how to write without returning.
I once told you I liked to drive to the next town and sit in a corner booth. I’m sitting here now (middle of the afternoon) behind a red-sweatshirt at the corner of the bar hunched over a (full) pint. Every time I come here and throw back the patio door, the long-ponytail bartender pulls out a bottle of Chardonnay and pours.
I brought a copy of Mark Doty’s Still Life With Oysters and Lemon, finished weeks ago, though I can’t let it alone. I re-read my underlines: “ . . . permanence, stability, rootedness. It is what I want most in the world, although I’m always fleeing it.”
And while I’ve never wanted any of the things he mentions, I’d say we all contain rootedness:
- a house we lived in as a child (and drive by whenever we get back to that town)
- an East Texas accent that tumbles out after a few drinks
- a bend in a river we once rock-hopped on a Wednesday
- deep set eyes
- the words we read, the ones we write
- a bridge where we watched someone go (a scene from an essay of yours that stays with me)
- a letter we keep tucked into a box
- or how we grab the car keys and go when any or all of them come chasing.
I’ve had no still life at all.
Last fall, I stood beneath the tree outside each night taking photographs to trace the turning of the season (the leaving of the leaves). Those trees finally bare are blooming again, breathing in and out, whispering of locations we’ll never know.
Red-sweatshirt slides from his stool and ducks out the door. Now it’s me, the bartender, and Fleetwood Mac.
More than once while reading about Doty’s still lifes, I’d set the book down to wander to another room and stand before the daisies my grandmother painted and signed in 1972 (the date under her name). That painting all golds and greens, burnished, loose daisies discarded next to a bowl, the way I’m sure she saw herself while she sat in her golden chair burnished with cigarette burns, sipping Jim Beam for years after her husband made a phone call in a hotel room before dropping the receiver and the rest of his time. She’s been gone years, too, but I still write that East Texas town where I watched the smoke from her Pall Malls (one burning in the ashtray, another between her coral lips) linger in the air of her living room like a second ceiling. The smell of coal pressing down along I-20, the creak of her backdoor screen, the feather bed I slept beneath the daisies.
In the last years of her life, there were no easels. No palettes or paintbrushes. Instead, my grandmother yellowed the walls with smoke. Dabbed bourbon into the corners of every comment. Turned herself into a still life.
Doty again: “There is a Japanese word for things made more beautiful by use, that bear the evidence of their own making, or the individuating marks of time’s passage: a kind of beauty not immune to time but embedded in it.”
I asked a friend who speaks Japanese, and when he wrote back, I transferred the word he sent to English. The impossible translation: rusted.
vi. a word for coming back to a place you never created
I don’t know that I’d trust any of this if we circle back to each other the way I’ve heard people lost in the woods, without instruments to guide them, forever head to the left in a circle. Maybe the return is instinct, animal.
I have only had a handful of days without a beer in the last three weeks. I’m writing to you today as I again told myself maybe I’ll stop for a bit. Run until I can’t. Chase down some ghost of emergence. Last night, I let people know I was in the bar with the painting of Lee and Grant, the strange farmland photos framed here and there in a place where you used to be able to buy cocaine from a man in the bathroom. As on many other nights, most did not answer the call and did not join me. Sometimes I find myself reading with a drink away from the bar by choice. Sometimes, more lately, I holler out for the following, but the result is the same.
The way my grandmother’s every action, until she was gone, was a knock at the kingdom’s door. I try to imagine devotion and I can’t name it. My parents’ house’s foundation rotting under them from water damage and flooding. The way sober loneliness isn’t enough. How the longing in chasing a beer alone is one mythology of searching.
I’ve burned out of every home I’ve tried to build.
I’m the only person in my family inclined to seeking. My grandfather went to Korea and though he came back to Nebraska changed, he came back. My parents had a farm in Missouri when I was new in the world, but it is by now something not what it was in 1982. My mother does not know why I do not want to return to the banks of the Missouri. She knows I could find a job in Omaha if I’d just come home. It was not until I was 33 that I heard only a rumor of what happened to my grandfather overseas, of what he did. He will not speak of it. Now, his hearing is practically nothing and he is nearing 90, and he is a man who holds onto his stubborn ideas of masculinity and so he refuses to get a hearing aid. I called him on St. Patrick’s Day, his birthday. I yelled into the phone from my porch in Atlanta. He still could not hear me despite the shouting. He called me by my brother’s name and eagerly ended the call. I think of him there unable to make sense of that moment in the world. He is alone now in that house he hasn’t left since the early fifties. My grandmother always answered the phone, even to take sports bets for him. Now the phone rings and he has to suffer through the hearing. I don’t know that my mother will ever really tell me what happened and I don’t know that she knows. I wonder if he lets the world go silent around him not out of some masculine need, but so he doesn’t have to hear the dwindling of things in their use around him, the rusting of days. What can the ghosts tell you of your making if you refuse to hear them.
Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Her essays have appeared in Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Passages North, The Normal School, Slice Magazine, and more.
Justin Lawrence Daugherty lives in Atlanta. His novel, You Are Alive, is forthcoming from Civil Coping Mechanisms in 2018. He is the Co-Publisher of Jellyfish Highway Press, the Founding Editor of Sundog Lit, the Fiction Editor at New South, and he co-pilots Cartridge Lit with Joel Hans. His work has appeared in Barrelhouse, Catapult, Electric Lit, The Normal School, and more.
Jill and Justin’s collaborative essays have appeared in The Account, The Chattahoochee Review, Fourth Genre, Hobart, Passages North, The Pinch, Pithead Chapel, The Rumpus, and more.