Every night as the sun hints at hiding behind the buildings across the street, I stand beneath the large, leafy tree outside my apartment and hold my camera up to the canopy. I am recording the day’s last light—its edging of leaves—to capture glints of eclipses in verdant branches. I want to trace the shift of the season, gather evidence of every leaf that gives way until the branches stretch bare. What then will hold the light?
Last year, I missed the transition, didn’t notice the loss of the leaves until I walked out one day to find them bright yellow. Then another morning, when I heard the shuffle-crunch of my steps through brown husks. The season of summer gone—like a bus from a corner.
Toward the end of every August, I long for October. The month calls forth a memory, but why long to remember a loss?
I once lived along the Canadian border, where autumn trees spilled yellow leaves. I’d stand on my back porch, mesmerized by the way those leaves spun the air, chasing each other to the grass below where they landed with majesty, a marigold mosaic.
When I think of October, I think of deep ochre, a south Texas highway that traces the Davis Mountains, a fire’s shadows undulating against the limestone liccoliths of Big Bend at night. Flannel. Woodsmoke. A season of between. Of suspension. Of decay.
In On the Road, Kerouac writes: “I walked along the tracks in the long sad October light.”
And: “The bus roared on. I was going home in October. Everybody goes home in October.”
And again: “But now it was October and getting much colder at nights.”
Years ago, I sent a telegram—as if I could change his mind—an attempt to reverse time and the season of his leaving:
It is October, a month of slowness and Texas roads. These days hold on to
themselves like the last leaves on the tree outside our bedroom window. Everyone
goes home in October, I once read. Come home.
I don’t know if he ever received it, but I do know that every October I feel elsewhere, like I’m on a day-long drive toward a desert canyon. So much left behind, everything changing.
October winds toward another end, and the days fall faster into darkness. Some of the leaves outside stubborn the tree green, while top branches disintegrate into dullness as if scorched. A wound. Still, others cloak the ground in yellow wispiness. Maybe I’ll gather some in an envelope, keep them in a drawer.
I do not want to write here that Kerouac died in October, but he did.
In Lonesome Traveler—a collection of sketches and stories published three years after On the Road—Kerouac bops and drops his observations about the days in San Francisco when he worked as a railroad brakeman in “October in the Railroad Earth.” An essay written around 1953. In my favorite part, he unfolds his morning routine—raisin toast, eggs, potatoes, bacon, a side of lettuce and a dab of peanut butter—followed by his rush to the tracks in the “rainymouth fogmorning” to catch the 7:15 Number 112. Late, he sprints through tunnels toward the tracks, racing to a train that’s pulling away. Suddenly, he trips, landing face down.
The first time I read “October,” I was distracted, wondering which morning he had written about: Did he have most of the month before him? Or did he feel it slipping away like that train? Then I got to the ending: a dated note from the conductor—October 15.
I see photographs of variegated woods—collages of yellows, reds, and oranges—from people who live in other parts of the country, but they do not match the warm October of Texas. If I were to include the photographs I’ve taken, you might mistake the days, blue or dusk-pink skies, for summer.
I worry that October will end before the leaves tell me it’s so. I worry October will end.
Kerouac never mentions the train’s whistle, but I hear it anyway, the way I imagine the churning of the coupling rods as he approaches the rear car before hopping it.
At night in Texas, the train whines outside my bedroom window, so I step out to the balcony and sink into the sound of passing through, of moving on, those four-whistle warnings. Is that wail the beginning of desire or its disintegration?
It’s true that October will vanish like a hobo, shuffling off before turning a corner, gone. I’m heading out to take the nightly photograph. I’ll grab an envelope, collect some of what’s fallen.
Lately I’ve been reading poems I wrote years ago, ones I worked on when he was in the living room or away at work, pieces I’d cut up and spread across the floor or the comforter of our bed, arranging and rearranging lines, letting some fall away. He’d walk by—worried he’d step on a fragment or disrupt the design—always with wonder. When I’d finish a draft, I’d sit cross-legged across from him on the futon and read out loud.
I miss that, knowing he’s waiting in the other room, anxious to listen, to tell me where a line catches like those silver-stringed ones he used to cast on the surface of the Poudre River. Once, he predicted that everything around us—the creek trickling behind our apartment, the steamer trunk we used as a coffee table, the bookshelves he built into the wall—would one day be just details in my writing.
And then he left, and I wrote this line—“the truth of leaves changing.” Every October, I mutter the line to myself throughout the days and their closings. I remember when I wrote that line, how the leaves outside the window trembled with dissolution, a declaration.
Every time I read the lines I wrote long ago, I’m rummaging through rooms I haven’t been in for years, and he’s there, coming in the door with his paint-spattered boots or strumming a guitar on the edge of a thrift store chair. Maybe that’s all we ever write, some version of ourselves from a different season. But here I am, writing still.
According to scientists, leaves don’t fall, the trees throw them off. When the weather shifts, cells— shaped like scissors—appear at the place where the stem meets the branch. They cut themselves and go to protect the tree.
Those poems I wrote won a prize, and I gave him the money because he wanted a blue truck, and I wanted him to have it. We made a plan: he’d take a train from Colorado to Washington and drive back.
Here’s another room I go back to: the living room where I stood with the phone to my ear, hearing his voice from a faraway station, telling me how much he wished I were there. I remember pressing the phone to my ear, hard, to counter the distance I felt rumbling toward us. During the days he drove back, I unfolded his atlas and spread it across the floor, mapping his route, tracing my finger along the cities he moved through, reading each exit before he arrived at it.
There’s a man who recently moved in on the third floor of my building—he looks exactly like him. It’s arresting—Carhartt pants, tool belt, beard, build, the way he lumbers. Yesterday, when I saw him, I gasped and hid in the breezeway to watch him for a moment.
In that moment, it was a long ago October.
Leaves brings back a lost season, and I keep writing, building it a map so that I can spread out the pages and point to a phone call, a room, or even a breeze, and say, here.
Years ago, I declared: I will stop writing this man. Now, all these years later, it seems less like a promise. More like a wish.
Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir (Soft Skull, 2015) and Loaded: Women and Addiction (Seal Press, 2007). She’s also the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (University of Iowa, 2012). Her work has appeared in journals such as Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Passages North, the Paris Review Daily, The Normal School, The Rumpus, Slice Magazine, and more. Three of the essays in The Way We Weren’t were named Notable in Best American Essays 2014, 2015, and 2016.