Jill Talbot and Justin Lawrence Daugherty
I. a suddening
I read your story that ends—No matter where the monsters go or what they return to, they never know it ain’t the wild—words that reminded me of a porch light blaring down back steps. That light lugubrious—like watered-down bourbon at the bottom of a glass—a warning. I’m inside, a kitchen on a muggy East Texas night, the door wide open and the porch light losing to the dark. Yellowed linoleum sweats. Here everything yellowed. From smoke. From what’s never spoken. And every other minute a moth flits against the screen door. You don’t want to come in here, I think. I grip the counter and stand this silence that’s no silence at all but what’s bound to come, the monster in this house that hides behind a door and a day’s worth of drinking.
That night the way you write—lugubrious. I stand inside it, swallow down the deep of what I can’t possibly remember but do. Because I never stood in my grandmother’s kitchen on some long-into-the-fight as she spilled out of her bedroom and stumbled through the thin hallway to scream into the linoleum. I’ve imagined it from what I once overheard in the middle of the night. Knowing there is home and there is the world outside, and that neither is safe. I’ve remembered a split second out of one night and built a kitchen around it with a porch light and dark windows, a screen door.
If I’m honest, it’s what I do with your words.
You once posted you were writing in a coffee shop, so I cast regulars sleeving lattes in the glow of a mid-October. In a state I’d never been. Still, I could see you there, sitting not by a window, the way I would, but off in a corner, brows furrowed to leave where you are for where you write. But surely lines like yours don’t come in places where lights drip from the ceiling to accent tables and chairs as if they’re art. No. Your lines are stripped. Stark. Shattered. Shivering. Somewhere far away. I suspect they come when you drag yourself back to your apartment and unlock the door to your night, a slow whiskey-burn til you’re unsettled. And when you’re worn enough, you press toward some porch light in the distance and throw back the screen. Scream.
Maybe every night’s just a suddening of no surrender. The hours that don’t have any reason to go on but do anyway, and you stare into a silence that’s no silence at all, the way my grandmother looked down every glass of bourbon. Maybe that’s just me. Maybe all we ever do is read ourselves into what we read, who we write.
An old-boned house with its old bones creaking, always aching and stretching with extremes of heat and thunder. So many ghosts – not even necessarily of the still-longing dead – but ghosts filling a house like dust motes, like cobwebs. Ghosts of a no-longer tire swing no-longer dangling from an overgrown willow. Ghost of burnt-out candles and the ghosts of long ago emptied bottles of bourbon, bits of ghost-glass worked into the floorboards and walls like infection.
Imagine, Jill, these lines as you’d imagine them, this world, these ghosts.
Imagine, Jill, this world as I imagine it for you, a world of closets and overturned shot glasses working their wet rings of liquid into wooden tables.
Imagine: storm cloud watercolored on horizons, despite the sun.
Imagine: interstates and highways bustling with their traffic, the buzz of conveyance always just out of sight, no roads leading to this house.
Imagine: a shirtless, muscled man, tanned unforgivingly by the sun he works all day beneath, rough and unsteady hands working – always working – and a face we never see as he never turns to us.
Imagine: you, sitting in the grass outside, facing the stormclouds, attempting wine-fueled exorcisms. Imagine: tugging at the grass. Imagine: holes dug into the still-grassy mud with inadequate tools. Imagine: the dusty, rust-caked voice of some cracked-soul folk singer leaking into the air from a record player inside. Imagine: train tracks. Imagine: ghosts, ghosts, always
Imagine: This man, saying, ain’t a thing to be done but to just let it come and go.
Imagine: You, standing – and, this is how I imagine you – in a doorway, empty glass of wine barely suspended from your fingers, a certain way your collarbone is exposed under some button-down shirt, your left foot scraping of the threshold, and the way all that says, the way you say [without saying], never ever is anything to do, darlin’, except to just blink into the deluge.
Imagine, Jill, how I imagine this all: as elegy. As flash floods and crop kills. As the imprints in dust of fingers on headboards. As that calling collarbone, the asking empty glass, the echo of your foot against the floor. As lust, then as fissure, then as entropy. As a watercolored stormcloud, always lingering.
III. a disappearing
If you were here, where I am instead of where you imagine me to be, you’d know I stand at my kitchen window looking out to the woods. Trains thunder through this town, behind these woods, so I only catch clicking slides. Cars. Couplers. Connecting rods through crowded branches. I burn toward the window and wonder where the train’s headed, if I’ve been there before. Every time, it feels as if I have.
Let’s say you are here. In this kitchen. And it’s late afternoon and the train. And there’s wine in my glass, whiskey in yours. And we dig into the wood and knock the wine and whiskey to the floor and map the storms rather than wish them away.
I want to draw you a map. Of the boxes of books I haven’t unpacked since I moved here two years ago. Of the glass of Chardonnay I pour every night around seven. Of the massive photograph of a road I hung in my living room so that any moment, I can stand in front of it and feel gone. Of the pine tree out back that shoulders the snow. Of the gravel drive I back out of every morning. Of the kitchen table where I write these words.
Your words like woods. And your voice the bearing down of an oncoming train and its warning. A declaration. A disappearing. When I underline one of your sentences—We strive harder and with more care to name the things we do not understand or have no explanation for—it feels as if you’re tracing a line down my body all the way down through Central and South America to the very end of the continent. I want to roll in your words until I’m scratched.
You and I as writer and reader.
You and I as underlined words.
You and I as verge and violence.
You and I as reader and writer.
You and I as persona.
You and I as character.
You and I as whiskey. Wine.
You and I as stormclouds out my kitchen window.
You and I as hops and bitter.
You and I as names at the top of this page.
Here is a story: In grad school, I stood naked in art rooms, posing. I’d watch fingertips charcoal my shoulders and smudge my nipples. Smear chalk into the backs of my knees. Once, the instructor stepped up to the platform and pointed to my collarbone. This is a beautiful line. At the end of every hour, I’d step down, my feet cold on dull tile. While pulling the belt of my flannel robe, I’d walk between the easels, through the fictions of my form.
I am writing you up the back steps and into my kitchen. In less than month, I won’t live here anymore.
IV. index of lives and lives
I’ve been writing on down desolation. There are apocalypses in every word, like explosive fireflies careening in the night, avoiding collisions and destructions. You say we hide our secrets in our art. What secrets have I hidden away, what stories of my own are there in the man, poisoned, wandering desperate through the desert to revive his just-dead wife?
Newly emerged from her sticky cell, some queen bees will go cell to cell, stinging each of her sisters to death as they, too, climb out, rising. The queen feels nothing, of course, when she does this other than ascension.
I wonder away your kitchen door, the frame, the wood encasing this house, the kitchen inside, you and a paring knife skinning vegetables. I wonder away this life I only know through these words you’ve written, these vulnerabilities like breadcrumbs left along the forest floor, leading me to this ghost of you.
Females of some species of octopuses showcase fierce dedication to their unhatched young, staying with their unborn children in dens, not even leaving to feed. To the point of starvation they guard and mother, eventually resorting to devouring their own arms for food. Exhausted upon the births of their young, the octopus will finally leave her den, armless, to gather food for her young, and, defenseless, she will die as a result of her devotion.
Draw me a map to the worlds we only dream up in our darkest nights. Draw me suns burning out and bodies and bodies huddled, warming, against the light. Draw me blood. Draw me a map, Jill, that is only scars and blemishes and nothing clean. Draw me men marching, stamping out everything until all that’s left is ash and bone. Draw me the end. Draw me the world that after us remains.
I am lately obsessed with dissolution.
I will write you men destroying all they come across in the pursuit of love. I will write you stories of men. I will write you stories of the trauma of losing ghosts, of maps. Stories of the endings of things with the endings erased, stricken. I will write these endings and place them in bonfires, pouring whiskey into the flames.
We’re never going to know each other. (I wear lipstick to bed. Cherrybud. And I wake in the night, wander through moonlit rooms and flip on the kitchen light to check the locks of the doors. Too many mornings, I find the garage door open, a gaping. I shudder at the thought of some stranger’s silhouette in the dark hallway.)
All we can do is shoulder each other’s stories, carry them like splitting suitcases, and drag them across one scorched border after another. We’ll never do a thing but squint into the hard wind. We’re dust and tumbleweeds, rust and empty roads, storefront signs that whine in the grit of the wind.
You and I build maps of endings. The ones you imagine. The ones I remember.
But let me warn you: I like to drive to some side-of-the-highway dive bar and not be bothered. Shoot a game of pool with a man with ease and a finger that’s been busted a time or two and a day off from fitting pipe. Outdated calendars on the wall. A yellowed Coors sign. A second ceiling of smoke across the room like the lies I keep telling. I’ll order one after another of whatever’s cheapest and whatever’s going to give me the chance to scrape out whatever’s been chasing me, gulping and gutting. I’m telling you, I do things like throw bottles at my feet. Tease the shards. Walk into the back one-stall bathroom and forget to lock the door. I do things like this on a Tuesday.
This is how your writing carves mine, how the distant train of my longing leaves for a hardscrabble desert, where I stand, sun-weary, howling into the edge.
If you slept next to me every night, would you be able to stand-the-fuck back? Let me fall down as hard as I wanted to—to the earth, gripping handfuls of sand and desert insects and the dust of bone and teeth and skin—because that’s what I’m like when I’m writing the remains.
Nothing ever ends for me. This thing will go on forever.
I’ve torn a page from a map. It’s a section with two cities. One Chicago. One Atlanta. I’ve drawn a line connecting them. Tomorrow, I’m going to put the page in the mail. Address it you. So you can see how coordinates on a map can’t possibly show all the words between us.
In the middle of the night in the middle of my bed (Cherrybud), I struggle against the sheets to imagine the scratch of your words against my body. If I could, I’d sleep in your pages so that with each flutter of my fingers, you’d whisper, no, no, we must keep going, we must not stop, not ever.
VI. I want to tell the story of a different man
If we’re being honest, I’m bad at the beginnings of things. I cannot trace origins or the moments where stars first come into being stars.
I said, of course, that I write myself into these stories, but I’m uncertain of who he is, who I am.
I wrote recently that your words have been inspiring my words. That I’m learning to be more honest in the whiskey-burn of my writing, in my witchcraft manner of soothsaying. I used to pick these things out of the air as if standing atop some rain-soaked barn, holding a weather vane, begging for lightning. I said recently that your writing has made my writing more vulnerable, more wanting. I’ve been writing her into these stories, writing her ghosts into fingernails and open wounds and brown recluse spiders.
If I’m being honest, I will tell you a story of:
Him, watching her sleep, even though she hasn’t been there in years. A haphazard room bare of anything except a painting still not hung, leaned against a wall in the closet, a bed always unmade as though she’s just left, stacks and stacks of books piled on the hard wood and a cold cup of coffee on the desk, lingering. We could say it’s storming – the kind of storm we build storm cellars for – but it’s not. This is Atlanta in the sunlight, in early fall when everything begins to seem possible again, when the palmetto bug hum of summer begins to fade. He looks to the bed from his desk, imagining her. Long blond hair and green glasses and she’s talking about wolves and all their loyalty and love. He writes, ignores. The bar is always calling him, and he often goes alone these days and he always imagines the bar as the kind you write down, always the peanut shells and men with work-hardened hands and he always imagines that’s the place he’ll meet her again.
But, that’s not a beginning, either. I always write starting from the moment after the world ends. If the world is still intact at the beginning, I say, just you wait, watch, it’ll come, some distant moment when a house has fallen into a sinkhole and taken with it memories of some lost love. Beginnings in endings, in aftermaths.
I’m always trying to begin things, and often there’s where I stand, watching out to the horizon, waiting red for some earth-ravaged storm to come.
If I’m being honest, I will write these same stories forever. I will write the same man I used to be like you write a woman you see in some dusty rearview mirror. We are leaving maps behind for each other to find the places we’ve left. Imagine Nebraska or the Michigan north woods, but not the way I will tell you. Draw a map of it, of the places you think you’ll find me. I’ll do the same. I want your words to break me with every movement, every glass of wine you down, every man whose hands you can’t remember. Draw me a map of my hands. Draw me a map of the dim bars you’d find me, of the women you imagine I would wound myself for. Let’s draw these maps and leave them on bar stools and stuffed in the cracks of falling-apart buildings and drawn on bar napkins and crumpled in empty shot glasses. Draw me a map so I know where to find you. Draw me a map so I know where to begin.
Justin Lawrence Daugherty lives in Atlanta, runs Sundog Lit and edits Cartridge Lit, a lit mag devoted to video game-inspired work. He’s on Twitter @jdaugherty1081.
Jill Talbot is the author of a memoir, Loaded (Seal, 2007), and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (Iowa, 2012). Her essays have appeared in journals such as Brevity, DIAGRAM, The Paris Review Daily, The Pinch, and The Rumpus.