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Creek Running North

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November 16, 2004

J. (3)

[The titles of these posts have been changed for clarity. - CC ]

Whom Coyote loves, he first makes mad. His best gift to the writer is a difficult early life. Wait until the person hits the patch of black ice, and then make his transmission go out. If you survive – and one always does, until one doesn't – then you have a great story.

That must be why he took J. away from me, I thought. Ask those Authors Unknown who penned all those Childe Ballads: nothing grabs an audience like a lovely, dead young girl. Story writes itself: writer twists knife by mere act of remembering. Who was I to deserve such a generous, generous gift? I was not worthy.

I swore never to write another sentence. Especially not about J. I quit playing the guitar – easy enough, as Elissa wasn't particularly impressed by my musical talent. I had been involved, in my own naive, idealistic way, in peace activism: I drifted away. You think you're taking my purpose away? I'll show you taking my purpose away.

It wasn't self-loathing, really. I was always far too fond of myself to commit that particular sin. It was more a form of self-abnegation, though some would disagree. Ramana Maharshi maintained that Self is that left after all that the Self perceives is left behind. Take away the two-day hangover, the half inch of stale Tooth's Sheaf Stout in each of the bottles on the kitchen table, the cat box and the oven with the door that won't shut right and the sun and lemon tree outside; take away Matthew and Zoom the cat sunning themselves on the porch and the scent of freesia coming in through the window, the buckwheat somen in the bowl and the sound of Elissa coming up the front steps, glistening with sweat after a run, and what is left? The Self, Sri Ramana says.

Feh. Big help. The thought "I am not my pain" is not what I'd call an effective analgesic. And after I stripped away all the external, all the internal, everything that defined my life in Berkeley and my sense of who I was, what remained?

A hole in the world the size and shape of J.

I had increasing trouble talking. I'd use wrong nouns, calling a cat a car or a chair. I gave up, went days without saying anything not absolutely necessary unless I was talking to Matthew. Elissa misinterpreted my fear of saying the wrong thing as unwillingness to listen, and the arguments swelled. She pressed the point, demanded I answer her, angrily posed lose-lose scenaria. I put my fist through walls.

Another visit to Buffalo and the long Greyhound ride back, and I sat watching the West roll by through the tinted window. The bus groaned up over the Pilot and Toano ranges, past the Rubies and East Humboldts, rolled down into Elko as Joni Mitchell sang to Coyote in my ear. I worked 12 or 13 hours a day and came home to a small room I had to myself in the house Elissa and I had moved to with Matthew. There was a map of Nevada on the wall beside my bed. I soothed myself to sleep imagining infinite valleys, the scent of sagebrush.

Whom Coyote loves. I got a phone call from my sister. She was pregnant, and asked if I would move back to Buffalo for the summer to be her labor coach.

Oddly, my promise to go coach a woman who was not J. through a pregnancy that was not J.'s resulting in a baby that was neither J.'s nor mine didn't particularly spur any more resentment that I had lost J. That cup was already full. I had to walk that stretch of University twice a day past the sari shops, seen the plums drop their purple leaves and grow new ones, smelled the coffee through the doors of the Old Mole on my way between Herb's and the Caffee Durant. Getting out of town seemed a good idea. Besides, Elissa was heading to law school, probably on the East Coast.

It was decided. We'd drive back east, tour the schools to which Elissa had been accepted, drop me off in Buffalo to become an uncle, and then I'd meet Elissa wherever she decided to enroll. Matthew came along for the ride: the three of us (and all my stuff) crammed into a two-door 1980 Civic. We left Berkeley in late afternoon, watched the sun go down over the Temblor Range, coasted up over the Tehachapis – my first visit to the Mojave. I slept through Needles and Kingman, Matthew and Elissa trading the wheel.

And came the sound of brake linings, of skidding tires, of metal groaning on impact and my friends yelling in alarm. Elissa had fallen asleep at the wheel, then woke up in time to see us headed off the road. No one was hurt; we came to rest in the one spot for miles along Route 93 where there was shoulder to spare, neither rock wall nor cliff. A reflector pole had broken off, pushed a fender into a tire, dented the rim. I pulled out the fender with shaking hands.

I insisted I was awake enough to drive.

Was that how it was, J.? A moment of fright pre-impact and then the aftermath? Was your attention taken by our plans? Were you hurrying because I'd kept you on the phone for twenty minutes of goodbye? Are you sure? Are you sure?

"Chris! Are you sure?" It was Elissa. "Yeah, I'm really awake all of a sudden." We pointed the little car toward Wickenburg.

He was waiting for us a hundred yards down, standing at roadside, grinning wild and lupine at his little joke. Bastard. I started laughing.

J. (4)

Posted by Chris Clarke at November 16, 2004 05:25 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Unlike smiling Coyote, this old dog in New York is truly moved. I had my own "J" Chris. You and I seem to have been in all the same spots; just at different times. Fortunately for the rest of us, you tell the story so much better than I could.

Posted by: OGeorge at November 17, 2004 02:57 PM
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