What’s recalled returns by chance. Stirred not by any wish to remember but by the taste of mint in the back of your throat or by a slanted light through amber curtains or by in passing the briefest scent of soap or lotion or the shape a trail of smoke who rises from a cigarette describes or by the sound a single engine airplane makes or what’s recalled is vivid again by the shift in tone of voice or by the quaver or stirred again by the way a garment hangs or by some unnoticed trip like so many occasions trivial and gone but for a note awaken some bloom who puts together pieces of an older record. There is a name for the history of the lives of saints but there is no name for the sudden chaff we suppose and bear.
The recollection of car rides, the recollection of back seats and legs next to legs or where hands go, highways and nights driving, counties and states and regions crossed and re-crossed, the memory a foreign land but wholly familiar, local, a foreign language there but in silence and in brief scenes and story boards of what we lived the language falls away and becomes the sounds of an expression, the note who ends the verse.
A college and the city it’s in, a loose assemble of friends we somehow get us all into a car and drive us all packed to where I grew up an hour west from there. A winter night and wool coats gathered us around the closeness of us all tight quartered in the back seat the steam loading up inside the windows her finger draws letters draws “catapult” into the steam of the back window.
How simple is it to recall when this recall has been often. But other pieces of this story remain fled.
The car ride the first night in some communion the love later the beginning of a map.
We came together it was nothing it was all. A true abandon and a pulling back and then a true abandon.
Our bones dredge up what seem like years like grand movements of the chorus but are only weeks or months at best. At most or when recalled become markers outside the grid of our olden clocks and journals.
Our bodies loaded close into the back seat driving west to where I grew up to where I left our bodies close and then unknown. What chance was it that it was us there? What alignment arranged that? This all gets us nowhere.
I trust the motion of the planet the loops we mindless make around the sun the stars in night the pinpricks in the sheet above us.
She was from a north land where lakes went uncounted and she lived near a city spread out on that cold plain. The shape of where she was from bewildered me and I could only see one street corner and one back yard where her father cultivated green grass.
In college in the spring we had just our devices left to us a week off from school and school shut down to what became a quiet week. We found ourselves bewitched she and I bewitched unlike what else we’d know until then. Unable to part and about each other like breathing. The foreground and the background at once. This underwater sense, quiet and complete and surrounded on all sides, this room not safe in full but most alive and vibrant. A week away from her was unjust.
She flew back to the plains and I rode with her on the train to the airport and we walked to the gate. From here I don’t recall our severance but instead what’s clear is when I rode the train back to the city where we went to school and all sound scuttled to what became light and colors and a cotton stillness came around me on the train the train who went inside the ground and then back out into the sunlight. I got off the train and through some thick pond who now lived around me I went slowly and with no sound only notes muffled by this us we found I went to the curb and stood there in the sun. I soaked in what I could. I soaked in what the silence told me, how the new quiet of this big city was constructed of a union urgent by the rules of better chance. The sun was there and laid itself down on me standing at a loss inside the stillness at a loss inside the loss I knew I’d signed. The tearing away in truth what was then a gathering. Sun and stillness and the loss of what then was of course undefined. She flew back to the plains and I stood sunned and quiet with some new chart to go on with no chart in hand.
I walked a few blocks and I crawled through the back window of a friend’s apartment and put my head down on his pillow. He’d also flown away for the week and I had nowhere to go. The school was closed and our city was vacant. On his pillow I could hear the sound our city made but it was outside and distant and a small band of sunlight came through the curtains and fell across my shirt. When I closed my eyes she was there and her dark eyes and I could feel her black hair hanging down the sides of me in a room our faces were and her black hair the walls who kept us there. The city sounds near mute and a warm patch on my shirt where the sun landed and the city whoever continued continued on.
There was a photograph taken of us but I’ve never seen it. She was standing up inside an old sedan and I was on the street up against this car. She was standing with herself up out of the sun roof and our foreheads touched because there was no world no time enough to contain the grand shifting of our hearts as we held them there was nothing ever enough.
He came to us a photographer from a local paper and gave me his card and told us what section of the paper we’d be in. Human interest.
I looked in issues for a couple weeks and never saw the shot but from where I keep these things inside my bones I do know what that photo looks like. I see it from where he was.
What I did have was a photograph of her at a diner. She sits with her back to the counter on a diner stool her elbows back behind her up on the counter top. A white t-shirt and cardigan and jeans and what was not a smile but a warm warning a wager a calling off of all what’s not essential an invitation a summons to rise in kind.
The English band Felt released ten albums in ten years. Their fifth album was titled Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death. When the album was reissued over twenty years later the title was changed to The Seventeenth Century. The album contains ten instrumental tracks, all brief and all evocative of a certain place or mood. I transferred the album onto a cassette tape and I listened to this tape in my car for months straight.
3. Seventeenth Century
We drove from Boston to Cape Cod in the winter. We drove south and the sky was winter gray and there were piles of snow along the sides of the road and piles of snow in the middle land of the old highway. There is a tall old two-lane steel bridge who crosses a canal and after the bridge is Cape Cod.
6. The Nazca Plain
Of this trip with her I remember so little and what remains is soft and silent. The hotel room in Eastham. The light in the hotel room, a Sheraton near the sea the curtains drawn in day and gray light coming into the room around the edges of the curtain a bed as wide as it was long and later in the day and into the night the only light in the room from the bathroom the door mostly shut the sink light on there must be some of this someone else could help fill in but now this is all I can see of it.
2. Ancient City Where I Lived
Her eyes and shoulders her black hair her closing eyes and arms in her slow landing on me the bathroom sink light what of it made its way to us was on her neck and where her neck ran up behind her ear and down the slow bend to her shoulder where her black hair it fell like hair inside a river.
5. Indian Scriptures
Shouldn’t a melancholic have better memory? That serving to forever recross those grounds to always open and lay out what’s for us all left better hidden.
4. The Palace
The way the light slanted into the room from the bathroom door left open a finger or two to let in the light from the sink light this light when after our eyes had learned to see by it was enough in that room a hotel room in Eastham a Sheraton I could not afford we closed the heavy curtains made up of more than one layer of cloth these curtains kept it dark for us all day I can’t remember if we ate at all or left to walk or what else we might have done except remain there in that dark except the light who slanted in from the door unshut enough to let in what piece of it lights this of it to me now.
8. Viking Dress
The way all hotel rooms are alike. The bathroom and an alcove for bags near the entrance, where to hang things on hangers. A low bureau and on top of that a television. A chair no one sits on. Thick curtains and bedspreads made of some unreal fabric. Some lights and a nightstand with a book in it. There must have been our clothes on the floor. Our things in the bathroom. My keys on the low bureau.
Our one silent drive an intentional unease. South from Shasta back to our apartment in San Francisco. Five hours. Seven. I watched from the passenger seat the countryside the orchards the hills the passing land and lives and I placed myself inside the landscapes. Like a child inserts himself into the castle or the cave. I placed myself inside a test run – quick trials of a different life, whichever life another than the one I lived. In silence builded of a broken day, a broken week. My leaving by now practiced and announced only to myself. Why sully what was left of us? My leaving in the works the orchard where I run a test in our silent drive by.
Following a gesture follow your heart or follow another’s eyes follow her eyes and glance from upstairs a gathering inside a house a crowd the music on from upstairs we followed what was unsaid we followed the other downstairs and outside and into the close August evening.
From her slow tidal measure the movements against the pace of what was said the slowness in a gauze around us from this slowness to the August outside our bicycles locked to several trees. From near Oak Square we began on roads with our two bicycles on roads in night or almost morning so the roads were still and empty she went ahead and I followed and I worked hard to keep up. Through traffic signals and down unlit one-way streets the other way and then left to cut us over the Charles River on the Arsenal Street Bridge. The Charles River in the evening with its own slowness its own unmeasured floor under darkness under the black pane who bends through Allston. Across the bridge and right I follow her and try to match her pace she’s up standing on her pedals pulling away up Coolidge Avenue and to see her was at once a defeat but also when I saw her she was shining and she was a kind of star there up ahead a wonder and leaving me behind. Past the streetlights who green the way along Mt. Auburn Cemetery that long stretch of iron gate and fence to keep what all’s inside inside. Then into where the houses stood side by each she slowed to cut left and right and led us to the back alley behind her address where we put our bicycles in the garage.
It was late or almost morning. She rented a bedroom in the house of a university professor. We crept through this old fine house and up the stairs and she brought me to her room and in.
Weeks later she wrote me a letter and delivered it by hand to my apartment. She passed the letter through the mail slot and it fell onto the floor inside the door. I didn’t see her leave the note. The message that she left though like a seed who stays unplanted and dry her message remained there small but it remained. Years passed before I understood what it might have been like to write such a letter and then I saw her clearly there, walking up the steps to my apartment and kneeling down to open the mail slot and with her right hand pushing through the slot her envelope onto the floor and from there I could begin to trace back her path to where she held a pen and back to how her heart was rent and back again and back to when we silent crept upstairs to her one room.
Some nights we drove until dawn. If we both flagged we’d stop and sleep with the extra shirts we had covering our faces for the shade that was below the shirt and cars would pull in next to us and doors opened and then closed and in a few minutes the car doors would open again and close and the car engine started and in the early sun we heard the cars pull out and drive away and then there would be no sound except for the gray murmur of the highway behind us. We slept into the dreams our chaff came up with, loose ambles hard to fathom – in our exhaust we began our dreams quickly so as to all fit them in. Our shirts the shades who kept the days of our accord. How we choose to set the margins against the regular rising of the sun and the setting of the sun.
We will grow old and get sick and then we’ll die but for now we sleep off highways after driving through the night and when our bodies rest our bodies deeply rest and time passes in the shade of our extra shirts.
The smell of Oklahoma from the back seat where I slept. Half slept and watched you drive when I woke. The moments when I watch you and you’re unaware are like the moments when I watch you when you sleep and it’s then we both inhabit the stillness born inside us for this one verse. Your nose and jaw and the way your mouth is lit by the lights of cars oncoming and the smell of Oklahoma is shit and fertilizer or some chemical I can’t name but has the smell of sharp water and the smell walks back into the walls of my throat and remains there in night. Your dark hair in night lit up along an ear by the dash lights and I fall again asleep I pull a jacket or shirt over me to cover and I become asleep again in the seat behind you. The gaps in the concrete highway knock a rhythm and this becomes a train to me and the highway sound is the sound of this train on tracks and then I’m inside a dream and this dream describes what death is like and I try to speak but I can not.
When we stop at night we listen to the bug sounds. We stand outside and you look out over the field behind the parking lot. Your jeans and your t-shirt are good for long travel. I’ve seen you undo the button of your jeans and work the waist down over your slight girl hips and down your summer legs with the soft down on them – the down I’ll note from then on as something perfect and inviolate – an index of the path my early heart would follow. At night we remain unspoken so instead we listen to the bug sounds different than the bug sounds in New England and I see you leaning with your jeans against the car leaning with a tilted hip a slant I also note and keep with me for long.
We stopped for bottle rockets after passing through St. Louis, somewhere in wooded Missouri. In early evening the wooded gullies of Missouri gave way to the shapes and flats of what we’d come to know as something western. With Kansas up above us we crossed into Oklahoma and we drove. The land itself the marker for the latest where. I learned how state lines are decided not so much by rivers or old clan borders but are instead decided by an aesthetic. How Missouri changes from Missouri into Oklahoma in the palette and the topography and the geology as New Mexico is the etched basin below the elevated floor of the Texas panhandle.
I slept back-seated and built into my dream was the rhythm of the gaps in the concrete highway and how our tires bumped over them.
We woke up on the top floor of a parking garage in Oklahoma City. There was no roof and so we woke us elevated and above and also exposed. The views for stretches we hadn’t known. Some odd color to the sunrise and a hum below and that was the city itself.
You slept the night in the front seat and in the morning when the sun was new you got out of the car and leaned against the concrete wall who ran along the outside of the parking garage. You must have driven us here last night when I was sleeping. To the top floor of a public parking garage. You limber in your jeans and in your t-shirt and from the back seat I see you there unaware that I’m awake. Your silhouette against the wholly western foreign dawn – you stretched into your utter tallest self and there I set into my unfaded banks the images the frames who remain. How can something unintentional last until we die? What then is unremarkable?
You limber and even then you’re a thinner version at your tallest you are nowhere near tall. When I think of you in Oklahoma City in the dawn and stretching tall as tall as you were able there is something within me burning with a brightness I’m unable to measure or describe this felt enormity but also I could stash it all away from view and there sequester it – but we gather here to hear only what we tell ourselves.
When I look on the lessons left there for me to gather I can say for sure I mulled not one of them for long. It’s now decades after you limbered it’s now I cast my nets and I come up with chum. Chum and the ones who chased those bait kivvers.
I’ve slept in the back seat of a car heading north from Tennessee. I’ve slept in the back seat heading west in Oklahoma and I’ve slept in the back seat heading south through Georgia. I once slept in the back seat of a station wagon driving down a mountain pass from Kennedy Meadows and then south to Los Angeles. I’ve slept in the back seat of my own car while someone else drove and I’ve slept in the back seats of the cars of others and I’ve slept through long night stretches of desolate highway that smelled of fertilizer in those moments between sleep when I woke and heard the wheels and the rhythm of the wheels on the highway joints and looked up to see her dark hair and the lights run across her nose and cheek and ear and I’ve slept in the sun in the back seat in Oakland drunk on afternoon gin and tossing hours away I’d wish back. The back seat as a carrol in between moments. In transition but at the mercy of others.
We must have made our way into the downtown. I didn’t have money for a Stetson but we agreed we’d find a western-wear store downtown and at least go inside.
Single words of what was said. But like music the half-notes fall away and what remains is the tone, the cadence, the shift of any eyebrow, the quaver in a morning reminder when a heart was new wounded and the cut stood bright. Single words if any. This mosaic assembled and often false, just a near version of what was.
All the eyes who had the same expression you had. All of every set of eyes who entered into that vast unknowing that unattached and had no wrangle no moor no good root no where to start.
It turns out we’re graded not by what we contain but instead by our elisions.
Texas, an afternoon panhandle, then Palo Duro Canyon and the horses there. We rented horses for an afternoon but what of all this remains is not so much the horse and she was good and brown and went herself as slowly then but what remains is not only you and your smile looking back at me from your brown horse but instead the terrain and rocks and the shadows and the contours of the canyon and the dry wash where silt was sculpted into a smooth trough and the deep horse muscles who walked slow so I could ride and see all this but also our cloudless afternoon I don’t believe it rained once that drive we took west I don’t believe it rained once that month that summer there was not a day of rain one day that year we drove us for the first time west. Does it make a difference if I say it was a bright morning in that downtown, or if it was a cloudless day in Palo Duro Canyon?
We kept on west. From Palo Duro Canyon we must have headed back up toward Amarillo and the beltway there. To interstate 40 west and the service road who runs alongside the highway for miles. Driving west from Texas into New Mexico I saw for the first time the land fall away. As if the state line was a decision of topography or geology. From Texas the highway descends into New Mexico and it’s clear the tops of the buttes are at the same elevation as the plateau of the Texas panhandle and what you descend into is the land washed away by some ancient flooding we’re incapable to imagine in terms of years and rivers and the silt they move. The eroded land is red muscle underneath the skin of the west.
In Tucumcari we stayed at the Palomino Motel, the cheapest on the strip. Old Route 66 and the excellent neon. This was 1990 and there were still unspoiled remains of the old U.S. highway. Unique motels and diner food and drug stores named after the families who owned them for decades. Tucumcari. It must have been late afternoon. Your olive skin would have been at its most arresting in the light when the sun has gone down but there is still the red and orange glow up in the sky and there are no shadows and the wind has died down and it is not yet as cold as it will get this night and all the colors of you and where you are and what’s behind you near you are all at their most vivid and alive the colors are the skeleton of these brief moments called up in memory and sustained there.
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Russell Persson lives in Reno, Nevada. His work has appeared in The Quarterly, Unsaid Magazine, 3:AM Magazine, New York Tyrant, Fantastic Floridas, and Hotel. His novel The Way of Florida was published in 2017 by Little Island Press.
35 McGilpin Road
An acre of wooded land behind the house where I grew up. On all four lot lines is an old dry-laid fieldstone wall. This acre is the woods where I first learned to wander and explore and discover and unearth and climb and where I hid some things inside the stone walls.