Plain China

In Fall, In Winter

by Damian Johansson · University of Minnesota
"Popcorn", Karlen Lambert · Guilford College

2                 At least twice a week I drive either to, or from Red Wing, Minnesota, from     Lauderdale. This takes just over sixty minutes. I call this my Crying Commute. After I pass the exit for Treasure Island Casino, as my old Honda begins to climb the bluffs that ring all sides of Red Wing, I put my music on shuffle. My electronic music device is loaded with three thousand songs; anything could play, from opera to polka, from punk to the music we used to make together. It doesn’t really matter what plays, I almost always cry. Something about being alone on the drive, having time to think, and being surrounded by all that nothing between Red Wing and the city: farmland, refineries, small towns and burger shacks.

 

 

Air’s “Universal Traveler” works every time. I’m fine until the twenty-six second mark of the song, when it changes from the repetitive verse / intro into the unexpectedly expressive chorus, backed by strings, suddenly, without vocals. At this point, whether stopped at a traffic light or driving the open farm highways, I am immediately, crashingly terrified, and can feel my consciousness being torn away from my face, anticipating my self completely shattering, disappearing, joining him in some non-entity form in the unknown.

 

Along with this I get my forever-image of death, a little movie that plays in my brain whenever I imagine what death will be. It starts with an image of the Earth from space, in the right hand and bottom sides of the frame; perhaps one eighth of the Earth. Algid, white cirrus clouds brilliant against the marble blue, and the blackness behind them. As the viewpoint moves away from the Earth there is a sound like the white noise rush of air during a commercial flight.  

 

I’m so used to this, imagining death cinematic, then realizing again, as real as the ground beneath me, that he’s gone. This realization allows me to pull my self back into place and obliterate the image before I go away into complete terror.

 

Once, near the Koch refinery, still thirty-eight minutes from home, I screamed in my empty car; I still hadn’t achieved separation from the death-image. The scream broke up my moving away, stopped my slipping from the Earth, and I remained in my seat, the scream turning into laughter as I knew I’d made it through.

 

1                 to one. Mirrors. We weren’t mirrors, more like complimentary images, like that famous picture of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady on the jacket of On the Road.

 

Jack Kerouac died vomiting blood. Nine years earlier his favorite cat, Tyke, died the same way, the day after Jack left for a trip to Monterey.

 

Once we’d keyed onto the Beats, we were always playing the Past Life Game. In a combination of mysticism and proto-literature-review, I suppose, we’d make arguments for which Beats we were reincarnated versions of.

 

Ginsberg was still alive, so he was out. As was Gary Snyder, who I felt was a dubious addition to the list – he wasn’t really a Beat, was he – but I admired him so much I might have chosen him if he’d been dead.

 

Matty always just said “Bukowski, Bukowski” so we didn’t play the game much with him. “He’s not a Beat,” Tony said, “I don’t care how many poems he wrote about fucking.”

 

We knew that it wasn’t true, of course; if there are past lives I don’t expect many of us were Marie Curie or Archduke Ferdinand, more like Doug, the guy who fixed your faucet, or Lonely Phillip, the man that rides next to you on the bus.

 

I’m sure the closest most people ever got to fame, even in past lives, were people like Edwin Meese’s secretary, or the guy that held the cue cards for Ed Sullivan. I suppose it’s just mirroring; we want to see parts of famous people in our own makeup. 

 

We always argued, interestedly, amicably, which of us was Kerouac, and which of us was Neal Cassady.

 

Who was the writer, and who was the acting force? Now that I’m left here writing, does that make it more likely that I’m Kerouac? Or since I’m the only of us still able to act, in this dimension, am I Cassady?

 

Survivors get to decide because they’re what’s left.

 

26            October, walking in the experimental garden, my hands stretched from my sides, touching prairie grass tops, a two year old on my shoulders, saying “Twees!,” trying to touch the limbs above him. A woman rises out of a group of basil plants like a character from an absurd children’s story, but not Alice in Wonderland; that story terrified me more than this.

 

The sun is down, the moon is out, quarter orange shaped.

 

                     You can take it, she says. Take it. Take it. Take it. The students told me I could take it. Do you like basil? They compost it after the season. They don’t even eat it.

 

                     I wonder if this is a test. Maybe she’s a sociology student. Her senior thesis, “Confrontation of Strangers with ‘Free’ Herbs; a Study in Morality.”

 

She could be a ghost, an unfortunate casualty of a love-triangle between Horticulture students, her body buried beneath the purple basil.

 

She pulls off a sprig, chews it. Tasty, she says. Take some.

 

I look around, confused, but the others see her too. I’ve seen a ghost, so sometimes I check to make sure. Isaac, atop my shoulders, under branches, in awe: “Twees!”

 

 

678     I am old enough to get up, get a drink of water by myself, but it is still new.

 

In winter, lying in my bed, under the simple down comforter I got for my birthday, I slowly open the big window near my head. As it slides horizontally I feel a burst of cold air, and pull my comforter up to my chin.

 

I look out on the wastes of the yard, the neighborhood. Everything in white, from tiny shapes by the garage that look like miniature ghostly white sand dunes to the heaps of glinting silver snow back near the alley. By moonlight it could be the North Pole, Antarctica, Novosibirsk, Neptune, if Neptune had a surface for snow to fall on.

 

I imagine that my bed is my personal spaceship, equipped for terrestrial landings and mammoth journeys between planets, stars. This planet is in winter.

 

My spaceship has a bubble top, impervious to cold, heat, anything. It arcs over me in a half oval as I lie at the controls, under this down comforter.

 

I see an Eskimo. Ok, so this is Earth. I press a button, retract my impervious shield.

 

Are you cold, I ask.

 

I sit up, press another button revealing the apple cider machine and video game display. I always liked apple cider more than hot chocolate.

 

1,2,3   My therapist has suggested I number my thoughts, more towards categorization rather than away from it. This is a change in therapy, but she hopes that this will allow me to focus on things I’ve been avoiding, things that come up in my dreams.

 

                     Structure is good, she says. First, write numbers. Next, write something after them.

 

                     Anything, I ask.

 

                     Anything, she says.

                    

                     Does it matter what the numbers are – should they have some sort of order?

 

                     Just write any number that comes to mind, she says.

 

                     And this will help, I ask.

 

                     Let’s hope it will help, she says.

 

 

 

72     inches from me on the bus a coal haired woman moves a baby from her shoulder to her lap. She looks tall, but is sitting, so that’s only a guess. Her arms are uncovered, I am having trouble not looking at them. I am near to staring.

 

The distance from her shoulder to her elbow is so long, and as I stare I keep thinking: long muscles. Long muscles. Long muscles.

 

I look up and she has caught me looking at her. The blue / green veins in her arms (long muscles) stand out from her yellow / orange skin like seams in leather; she is beautiful in indignation, shifting the baby again.

 

4        maybe five times a month I drive to the Experimental Fields, eight acres of unexpected farmland in the city, behind the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota. In fall it becomes a sea of wheat and soybean. At harvest, it looks desolate, but is decorated with mounds of the blackest, most nutritious soil God ever created; the black mounds are more beautiful than the fields in bloom.

 

                   In winter, it is a lovely tundra, a wasteland with dead wheat branches rising like half buried giant forks from the snow. I sit in my car, not smoking anymore since he died, I sit and watch the frozen wheat lean in the wind.

 

                   In summer, fall, and harvest time I walk through it, as the noises from the car radio drift over the fields to me. I run my hands along wheat tops. In winter I listen to the radio in my car talk about UFOs, Shadow people, the chupacabra.

 

The fields themselves are used for experimental variations of common Midwestern plants, grains mostly. The edges of the fields are gilded with a large Experimental Garden (Twees!)

 

We called it the Spearmint Garden.

 

A raptor house slumps near wooden signs on the western edge of the field. A row of antique looking Edison lights run along the fields, leading you back to reality and the road.

 

Places like this remind me of old attractions, of times when things like The Electric City and Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota brought spectators, just because someone couldn’t stop winding thread together and it became as big as a house, or just because a town has lighted streets, and it is 1912.

 

The fields are perfect for kite flying.

 

46     I begin writing a poem about him. Simple. A poem. Just a few words. Forty six times I erase the word I’ve written, finally tearing the page, then the book, in half. I stand up and walk away from the table.

 

6       Last night I dreamt he was still alive. Mixing music in our basement studio, splicing guitar over thick beats, fitting them around halcyonic bass lines that always urge, always confirm, driving listeners into a beautiful sky.

 

He turns to me, asks if I have a cigarette.

 

I look away from the screen to him and his sockets are eyeless, black voids, but he’s still talking. His skin slips from his cheek; he’s decaying, and I realize he’s dead. This is a dream, but he’s still talking.

 

Small things are moving in the abscesses and the absences of his face as he stares at me, eyeless, smiling, waiting for a cigarette.

 

 

I wake up in sweat. I hate the number six.

 

28       times today I touch my necklace, mostly the big wooden beads that recur every two inches. I breath in and imagine “Slowly Revealed,” a song that calms me, brings to mind images of what I affectionately call “Robert Heinlein Clouds;” clouds like glacial walls that appear in May. Most of Heinlein’s 1980s reprints have pictures of near-naked women standing in front of these types of clouds.

 

At the base of my necklace hangs a raw piece of schorl, black tourmaline, a gift given by Native Americans to the grieving, as funereal gifts. It is vertically striated, earthy and alien. My girlfriend made the necklace for me; I think of her tiny hands moving along the string of beads as I touch them, and this calms me.

 

It was my favorite stone before; it is still my favorite now, in the afterwards.

 

 

 

It feels like

 

100     times a day I force myself to see him, but it’s probably more like thirty.

                    

                     I see him put a cigarette in his mouth and laugh around it.

 

                     I see him raise his eyebrow in communication, anticipating my response, enjoying the banter as it goes between us.

 

                     I see him turn to look at me from the edge of the Grand Canyon and feel his spirit as it moves to me in beatitude, vulnerability, awe; it moves to me and encompasses me.

 

                     I see not-him as he smirks in his casket, not-him.

 

                     I see him, eyes yearning excitedly to me as I drive fast around a sharp turn on a rural county road, miles from anywhere, him, me, the car, combining, forming one multi-conscious being, interacting differently with the road, the pine trees, the stars, and the national park fire towers we encounter than we would as solo units.

 

 

200        years ago. This is a thought experiment. Two hundred years ago, my brain existed. Wait, strike that.

 

200 000 000    

 

years ago, my brain existed, but was a barren slab of granite. Sentient granite.

 

Tremors under my mind cause fissures to crack the granite. Sub-mind magma flows up between the fissures, covering the surface of my mind with naked, ardent lava. The sea around my mind washes ashore, eroding and shaping the glassy obsidian into rich, loamy soil.

 

Soon, palm fronds and grasses grow. Pleasant ferns and prairie grasses, here and there a cattail can be seen, poking up from the fecund grasses my mind has grown.

 

Later, wheat joins the prairie grasses, lotuses fill up ponds in my mind. Dinosaurs eat the ferns, and each other.

 

Succulents, poppies, other beautiful and soft plants emerge, providing a soft landing space for difficult thoughts.

 

It’s ok to have difficult thoughts. I’ve cultivated my mind. It is ready for them.

 

 

1000    s of times, probably, I’ve heard macabre stories from friends. Getting off the bus from elementary school, Alison was witness to an automobile accident. The windshield of one car, shattered, the driver, a young mother on her way home from retrieving the children from daycare, decapitated. Her head shoots over the dashboard, rolls down the hood of the car. Alison and the other children are shooed away by bystanders.

 

                     My girlfriend, in her job as small town mortician, is pulled away from bed to a smaller town nearby. Someone has had an accident, what’s called a single car accident, in the night.

 

                     She helps a policeman pull the remains of a man from the front seat of his pickup truck, his body charred, adhered to the vinyl seats. He was smoking meth when he lost the handle on his lighter. His car was full of accelerant.

 

                     These stories are colored a lurid Halloween tint in my mind, not truly gruesome, but stimulating in their ghastliness. The story of his death, what the therapist calls “my own tragedy” -

 

(this is too corny for me to acknowledge it in session, but it rattles a bit in my mind, sometimes resonating, sometimes sounding like dumb, simpleton-words that I will not accept)

 

This “tragedy” has become Halloween colored, too. I suppose this is just another way to avoid.

                    

                    

8         studio albums, over twenty-five years, were recorded by the Beastie Boys before one of the three members, Adam Yauch, died of cancer, in 2012.

 

The Beatles released twenty-three albums before they broke up in 1970.

 

John Lennon released eleven studio albums before his death in 1983, finding it difficult to obtain success, outside of his single Imagine. Albums like Double Fantasy are considered noteworthy for their strangeness rather than their listenability.

 

George Harrison released twelve studio albums after the breakup, until his death in 2001, one of which was called All Things Must Pass. His songs My Sweet Lord and Here Comes the Sun come up frequently during the Crying Commute.

 

Ringo released sixteen albums solo, if you can believe it.

 

I’m pretty sure that not even death will stop Paul McCartney from releasing mediocre albums nearly every year.

 

Working solo is difficult.

 

 

1.620  trillion raindrops fall, according to USA Today, during the “average”  thunderstorm, none of which are teardrop shaped. The actual shapes of raindrops range from tiny spheroids, to middling hamburger bun shapes, to thin parachutes of water with a tube shaped drop towards their bases.

 

Elegant, sundry, and terribly amusing; I didn’t feel any of them as they rained down on my head as I sat on my scooter waiting for a stoplight.

 

Earlier, a camera watched me as I cried my way through ninety minutes on the treadmill, perhaps just another version of the Crying Commute. The common denominators are the music, the movement (although one is actual movement of my limbs, the other is just movement across space and time), and laughter. I laugh because I imagine the bored gym attendants folding towels, watching the monitor screens like televisions.

 

Look at that fat guy on the treadmill, they might say. He’s working out so hard that he’s crying. Another attendant looks up from her phone. Aw, poor guy.

 

This makes me laugh, then cry and laugh all over again. I imagine Tony, like an immense cumulous cloud on the horizon in May, his arms resting on the broccoli forests in the deciduous belt of Minnesota that we lived in for so many years together, his confident face and awkward hands -

 

(Jack Kerouac “Sweet face – hard to describe…swaying to the beat, tall, majestical”)

 

And it doesn’t matter what teardrops or raindrops are shaped like, I know they are there, but I can’t feel them.

 

I’m raw from the crying and the laughing, and the survivor’s guilt finally releases from my body in waves like a flood over the prairie that surrounds me.

 

About the Author

Damian Johansson · University of Minnesota

Damian Johansson takes pictures, writes fiction, nonfiction, and still tries to write poetry, even though everyone tells him to stop. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Illinois. His work has been published in Quarter Mile from the Cherry and Spoon, the Ivory Tower, Anamesa, and the McNeese Review. "In Fall, In Winter" first appeared in Ivory Tower

About the Artist

Karlen Lambert · Guilford College

"Popcorn" first appeared in The Greenleaf Review