street was full of words
o you believe in ghosts? The question became academic for me the
second the phone rang.
"What?" There was a hand-rolled cigarette in my teeth.
It was still early enough that I couldn't see straight through the
remnants of last night's dream. Somewhere in the world, there was
"Ed-ward Mor-ris." The mock-lackadaisical singsong voice
kneecapped me. I had to sit down fast on the gray carpet. Jessica
sounded tired and yet beside herself. "You'll never guess where
I'm calling from."
"What ... what ..." I had come utterly unglued.
"No, sweetie, I am not calling from What. I'm in grad school
now," she told me matter-of-factly. "At Portland State.
Already got a supe post at the Northwest Film Center. Good morning."
She paused. "You don't know everything. It's been a while.
"Um ... where does Mike fit into all this?"
The snap in her respiration sounded to me like breaking glass.
I looked over at the opposite wall and saw a roach the size of
a Milwaukie fireplug being nonchalantly and methodically wrapped
up by my volunteer spider where he spun his solitary web high in
the opposite corner. You live, you learn.
"I'm at Broadway and Main, downtown," she continued,
as if I hadn't spoken. "At the movie theater. Get your country
ass down here. I'm lost."
I heard myself reply, "Yessum." The bottom dropped out
of my cheap room.
here is an indefinable beauty to Portland in the spring. Six months
of Oregon winter shrugs itself off in an eye blink to reveal verdant
park blocks of trees with clover-honey sunlight breathing out through
their branches. Everyone talks to you like they know you. Street
musicians with improbable instruments sing the sun up and down.
Anything can happen here, and very often does.
Total recall seemed imminent. Petals were falling from the trees
in March snowstorms. The city wavered in front of me ... and for
a very short while I was actually standing outside the art department
at Mercyhurst College, at Governor's School for Writing, in the
dear dim days of 1993.
I could smell Lake Erie on the wind. I could actually see Jessica
sitting at the top of the hill, at the rail of the little gazebo,
waiting for me above the vast lawns outside the English department
where we met after class. For a moment, the present day made that
greater bit of sense.
I hadn't heard from her in a while. We'd tried to start up again
after Governor's School, when we were both in Philadelphia, but
we had outgrown each other. We were still friends for a while until
her fiancé, Mike, got jealous. She had put me in a studio
to read "Howl" on DAT the night Allen Ginsberg died. We
cried. It was a good session. Neither of us walked away mad.
The timelessness had already begun to repeat itself from 11 years,
3,000-miles-and-change away. Every cirrus cloud above me was a smoky
streak. The light of the sky bled frosty potlikker over mossy branches.
Every raindrop burned white with the sun. There was a double rainbow
over downtown. I barely noticed.
My head was slamming shut. Every ounce of obsession from the past
11 years, every stored-up last word ... had evaporated. There was
only the rain and the light. The wind rose up. The theater marquee
read only "LORD OF THE RINGS." The big lines for the matinee
hadn't really started yet.
Every part of my day up to that point sloughed off with the chaff
of those past years. It all seemed as cheap, desperate, angry and
false as any B-movie I ever sat through, because there was nothing
All around my feet, demons were dropping out of the sky like poisoned
pigeons, smoking as they died. Homeless people nonchalantly stepped
over them, poking the carcasses with sticks to search for petrified
rubies of infernal blood to haul down to the hockshops of Third
Avenue for beer money. The street kept going. But I could not even
The last time the sunlight had looked like this had been the day
I realized all too briefly that the one I loved was something within
me, a twinkle on the surface of the deep, another voice grown hoarse
from years of singing in the dark. I knew Jessica so well ... because,
back then, I knew who I was.
We blew it, of course. We were young and I was stupid. Everybody
sing along, you all know the words. And yet ...
yet I saw her sitting there, dressed in stagehand blacks and high
boots, her trench-coated back to the wall and her calm, beatific
face turned toward the sun with her heavy-lidded eyes closed and
a small smile that solved its own equation. The sunlight of that
day had been my best-kept big fat secret for 11 years. And I had
waited for it to return ever since.
I took a deep breath and stepped before Jessica at the second she
opened her eyes.
"You haven't aged a day."
The hell she had sought had changed her shape, but in a weird way
that I liked. She was small and lithe, and her hair was much shorter
than I remembered. But there was still a beauty mark under her left
eye, and she still lit the whole street brighter than floodlights
up and down the front of the Schnitzer Hall across the street on
any given opening night. On the God-lined avenue of stars over there,
the brass statue of Anansi the Spider seemed to rear up on all eight
legs and grin like Morgan Freeman.
The wonder had not left the black, dancing depths of Jessica's
eyes. She was paler. She was still flying the anarchist colors of
my red-and-black glass bead necklace. I was fibrillating with every
"And you never stopped being full of shit." She popped
to her feet like a marionette. "You look good. Where is your
house from here?"
I pointed north. "Couple blocks that way. You got I.D.?"
When I asked, she looked at me funny.
"St. Francis Hotel," I explained. "Where they filmed
'Drugstore Cowboy,' only they rebuilt the building. You gotta sign
guests in with I.D. because security's so tight, on account of"
She turned her head right. The way her wavy black bobbed hair moved
in the wind made me stop breathing for a second.
"Is there any place to get good Japanese around here?"
"Should we" My voice was two inches tall, wavering
and trembling. "Should we hit a couple of thrift stores while
we're out? This place ... this place has as many as Erie did. More,
actually. You should check out Ray's Ragtime"
Jessica threw up her funny, endearing e.e. cummings hands. "You
said in that one old email that you were reading the Stoics,"
she smirked. "You'll always be a Romantic, Edward Morris. You're
too sensitive to be a Stoic. You're funny."
I could have argued, but my bouncer instincts were already directing
her to Kojii's on Broadway. The lunch rush would not have fully
come to fruit. There would be time.
"It's better than you know to see you again. I've been in
a rut with my writing, lately," she said moodily as we started
walking down Broadway. I couldn't stop laughing. She looked puzzled.
"Which part of that was funny?"
"The one that sounded like me." I looked at the sky and
winced. "I'm working on ... well, on the sci-fi novel you always
told me I could write. It's called 'Eve of Destruction.'"
"Cool." I could see her drinking in every new detail
of what was for her (and still for me) this strange new West. An
old street guy in a long, flowing skirt flitted past us with two
carry-on bags full of cans. That day, he could have been Epictetus.
"So where are you hung up?"
I sighed. "It's like building a cathedral. I have a lot of
help, but it's still very overwhelming. Bouncers in the future.
They always say in the trade that you have to take a step back before
you solve any issue, which is what I'm doing. But ..."
We paused at the crosswalk just before Pioneer Square. In the square,
two black men in Tommy Gear windbreakers were putting plastic buckets
and hubcaps through drum solos that raised all Portland's jazz-war
dead in a sea of thunderous applause for blocks around. (On the
other side of town, the great percussionist Mel Brown had no idea
why he was sitting up and clapping.)
"You're a bouncer?" Jessica looked at me like I had grown
I grinned. "Yep. Just took the state certification test last
weekend. But ..." I thought a moment. "... as far as the
writing ... I need something fun and liberating off the clock. I
need to write something truly cathartic. And short. Something that
would be sci-fi to me, in my own life. Physician, heal thyself.
"Well, I can understand that. Why don't we collaborate? Maybe
we can work security on both sides of that street."
For that I found no ready answer. Jessica seemed to accept this.
As we walked past Starbuck's on the square, the outdoor speakers
began playing an old Laurie Anderson song about a storm, called
"Progress." For the first time, I noticed the T-shirt
Jessica was wearing beneath the coat. She'd had it on the day we
first met. It was the Sex Pistols' album cover for Never Mind
the Bollocks. The neck of the T-shirt was ragged now, but the
logo had held.
Jessica reached in one pocket of her famous black trench coat,
producing a pack of Djarum Supers and a tiny Bic lighter that could
not have, after so many years, looked familiar ... and yet it did.
is all really happening," she announced. "Remind me, if
I look like I'm having a hard time processing that."
The street was full of words and I could barely even talk.
"Can ... can I get one of those?"
Without a word more, Jessica put two of the clove cigarettes in
her mouth, like Marlene Dietrich in an old movie, and lit them at
the same time.