I learned last week from a friend’s Facebook post that Denis Johnson had died. I don’t know Johnson’s writing well, but I am thankful to have heard him read a couple of years ago at the University of Rochester. I know he read at UMass Amherst while I was in graduate school there, but it was during a time when I didn’t make it out to a lot of events.
The more readings I attend, the more I appreciate the good ones. His was a good one, a terrific one—memorable—in a sea of not-great ones where I’ve fallen asleep (really). Johnson was well-prepared, funny, read short pieces, talked in between. I went with my friend Angus (originally from Rochester), who was visiting from out of town over fall break. He’s a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was a good Q&A and I wrote down several phrases from Johnson’s reading. I recently found the notebook where I jotted these notes down.
And I forgot for a while (about a year and a half) about the Denis Johnson quotes, because most of the middle of the notebook is grocery lists, and even those languished in a corner for a while, while we looked for other notebooks in which to write lists. I just started using the notebook again for grocery lists and so had seen my notes from the reading—mostly lines from stories. Individual sentences of his stay in your head.
Denis Johnson 10.9.15 UR
“I decide to call ____. They’re in my phone. Odd expression.”
From “Silences,” a story:
“He said the worst silent thing he’d ever heard was the land mine that took off his leg in Afghanistan.”
“How often can you witness a woman kissing a prosthesis?”
“Yes, they’re husband and wife. You and I know what goes on.”
“People in our neighborhood stroll around in bathrobes, but not usually without a pet.”
@end of story, looking at reflection in glass, sky and celery, ski and cycling [?]. “I headed home.”
First sentence of a different story:
“I was having lunch with my friend Tom Ellis one day, just catching up.”
“His opinion about the afterlife. Mason was for it.”
“Then, more often than you might think in a San Diego café, we were interrupted by a woman selling roses.”
“New York and I didn’t quite fit. I knew it all the time.”
“I presided over all the litter, the people in restaurants in small tables.”
“Our public toilets are just that—too public. We can see each other—black shoes and cuffs. The walls don’t go down all the way to the ground.”
“By staring down at my feet and hunching over I attempted to disappear (to make myself disappear).”
“I had a moment. I have them sometimes…bereft…and not even a physical gesture seemed possible painless.”
He signed my copy of Jesus’ Son. I bought another book of Johnson’s (Train Dreams, on a friend’s recommendation) that I still haven’t read. I will now. I want to read so much, so many things, before I die. And my shelves are full of books I’ve bought in the last two years and haven’t finished reading. That’s a goal for this summer. To read more.
Johnson was funny. He read well. He’d timed himself. The short pieces worked. I just remember, as others said about him on Facebook and Instagram, he was present. Even in that reading. I felt present, and I felt him as being present.
I’m sure I got some of the sentences wrong, they’re partial, they’re misquoted. I don’t want to go back and correct them. I don’t want to look them up. I will read his work. I wanted to write this down. That’s all. I was inspired enough, I remember his cadences—and how stories started and how they ended. That I wrote notes. And that in itself signals something to me. I felt alive as a writer, reader, listener.
Last week, I was talking to my friend Ravi about the reading. (He had been there, too.) Ravi said, “And you asked that question about his endings.” I was glad he remembered, because that was the kind of thing I would ask about, but I didn’t remember that I had asked it. I had however written something in the notebook, and I didn’t know what it meant, but it must have been his response (or my interpretation or thoughts on his response). I think I asked how he knew or decided where to end a story.
Usually, when I get that ending feeling / feel
Endings are end—ending—complete or [something] about to be said or about to be said
I remember thinking it was a good answer; it was a satisfying exchange.
That day was good…it was one of those good days. After Johnson’s reading, Angus and I went to the Owl House for dinner and I had tea with Irene earlier in the day. And then we also stopped by The Bug Jar. Angus was at his best—someone you could take anywhere. He talked about his mom, whom I’d never met, and the school she’d helped found, which had recently closed. I’m not sure he’d been back to Rochester since she died.
But there we were, across from the park, and we walked through Highland Park, where we had met 20 years earlier, through mutual friends. And who were we then? Twenty years ago, Angus was just leaving his PhD program in creative writing and moving to Brooklyn. Later, I moved to Brooklyn, and even later, I became a professor, too. And then I left that profession, and became who I am now. A writer.
That October, we were just two people, old friends and writers, listening to Denis Johnson. Then we walked out into the rest of the day, still thinking about his sentences.