Already Dead

by Denis Johnson

This day, the one I’ve been thinking about, when I woke at Winona’s, when the men came after me and I visited my brother, was also the day the drought broke and we got two inches of rain.

It had been dry all spring and all summer. The Spanish moss turned brittle, broke away from the boughs and lay on the roads like ash. Meanwhile dust hung over the world like smoke from a gigantic fire. “Brown heat,” Bill said as if noticing it for the first time. And this may, after all, have been his first trip above the mist in months.

“Look,” I begged him when he dropped me off at Winona’s ranch, “Don’t tell Clarence about this.”

He and Clarence were buddies and pals, of a sort. They worked on cars together.

“Clarence?” he said. “Clarence isn’t like you think.”

“We have differing interpretations of Clarence. Only one of us can be right.”

We dropped the subject and didn’t bother fumbling around for another. When I got out of the car and rapped on its hood, he put it in gear and headed down the tiny road rapidly until he went around a curve. I heard him making a turn-around in a wide spot, and here he came again past the gate peering ahead intrepidly, speeding off toward wherever. And there I stood in front of my troubles without anybody to help me, not even my brother.

I noticed right away that the bogus sportsman had strung a filament of fishing line waist-high between the gateposts, a trick to find out if a car had entered—more use to me, once I’d ducked under it, than to them: flanking me as ably as any moat.

Just the same that night I was crazy with fear, cowering inside the house with all the lights out, maybe drinking. Not a fear of men. They’d only check their trip-wire, they wouldn’t come all the way in. They couldn’t reasonably expect me ever to return anyway. In fact I was only here because I couldn’t have stood another minute in the car with my brother, who smelled bad, who smelled like shit, who smelled crazy. To think of him as healed was exaggeration; he’d merely gentled down to a precarious strangeness. Anyway, no, that night the fear was of the earth and the moon. Of the abeyance in the air that signaled a storm. Of the silence, of the silver light, of the wolf-spiders’ webs I could suddenly see in the yard, the reflecting dew strung on every strand. Now the spider is a stranger in its nest, the wren confused by these miracles. In this perfection of lifeless things, this inanimate loveliness, everything alive is sordid, unwholesome. To live is evil, the word itself is evil spelled backwards. What a relief when the breeze picked up, stirring pockets of warm air, bringing noises in through the screen doors and windows—I heard things, and then one set of sounds was real—an engine, and a car’s headlights passed along the ridge road. They didn’t slow down.

I’m remembering now that it was after midnight when the shower began. But first we had the moon and the mist. The big ones blow past from the north, well offshore, and then twist back around to lash at us from the south, driving the coastal fog up into the inland heights. And yet the warm front, giving way before the coastal cool, keeps the heavens clear until just seconds before the rain falls. So we get the mist over the ground and the piquant irrelevancies of a moonlit sky and slashing meteors above.

And then it rained. I went out to the deck to take the hammock down just as the first drops started—tremendous things—exotic, glittering, cold. I had a sense of them crashing into the dust on my skin. The breeze had an animal smell. The empty hammock rocked. There was jazz in the little race to get it untied, a happy feeling in getting there just in time. The feeling of a poetic moment, a mingling of California and nostalgia—on the air a forbidden, a religious scent, an intuition of the summers of other people’s lives—airy summers, pleasant people, unfettered lives—of the land from which I was exiled. A moment of tenderness, the smell of rain overpowering, as thick and unbreathable as smoke, and almost sentimental, not just the atmosphere’s pregnancy and ripeness, but the strains of grief rising up from somewhere—from within. The simplicity of certain pleasures bursts in my heart. I’m weeping, and asking a ludicrous question: Will my life ever be like this?

For a few seconds everything was brushed with just a single quick stroke of moonshine. The deck-chairs and spool-tables and potted succulents stood out like negatives. Then I lost the moon. Vagueness came up over the ridge in billows. I’d had PG&E put a street lamp at the head of the driveway, it cost less than seven dollars a month and they took care of the thing. Its glow a quarter-mile off seemed unattainable, seemed imaginary. A large creature, an owl probably, in this atmosphere it looked white, swept up from under the edge of the hill behind me and passed directly over my head. I could hear its wingstrokes like desperate breaths. I followed around to the front of the house and watched it moving off toward the front gate and the streetlight, where its shadow opened out from behind it like a tunnel through the lamp-lit fog. The tunnel closed to nothing as the bird passed over the source, and now there was only the iridescent mist. Everything looked so much like the cover of a science-fiction comic book it hardly seemed possible to be inside it and not to be able to turn a page, impossible to be breathing the weather and the mix of rain and dust and sea-damp and tasting a little of my own sweat, washed to the corners of my mouth with the rain.

And then suddenly another tunnel opened in the light, the tunnel of a man, a ghost treading the backlit moonwater, drifting through the increasing storm.

I tried to convince myself it was the owl coming back, making another pass. Even if I’d been able to believe it my skin knew different, tightening all over me so that my scalp prickled and my scrotum actually shrank. But I didn’t run, didn’t even take a step, just stood there with my arms around the bundled hammock and waited, getting rained on.

The figure coming up the driveway was clearly a thing too sorrowful to be alive, it was a black absence, the ash of grief, a lost, wounded soul, but was now clearly, as it came even with me, heading right for the pond, a man walking. He got within ten yards of me. I could almost see his face. Still he seemed unconnected with our earth, had nothing to do at the moment with our violent dramas, not even with the taste of rain on the wind changing to a drink, not even with the strands of it thrown against the side of the barn and the sheds as he passed. There was something special about his stroll, as if he were exploring a place completely new to him and once thought familiar—like a youth on his first day of hooky, for whom simply walking inside this stolen holiday is exotic and monstrous and everything—this is what it is about hooky, and about this figure’s emanations—everything is original because it’s been chosen. Yes, he gave the impression of being somebody who’d rejected the routing forced on him and decided just to walk on the surface of the world, a pilgrim. We see them by the roadside, particularly on the coast, solitary unburdened travelers. They’re probably crazy, that’s true, but we have no way of knowing. Enlightened ones may live everywhere among us, looking like functional failures. This might have been the ghost of one of those.

There was nothing troubling about his presence; this apparition was emphatic but not desperate, also unhurried but not at leisure. It was passing along the edge of my life and I felt no fear. Only a hunger—I ached to discover what gift he’d been given. Because clearly he carried some treasure in his heart, some powerful token from the true universe. Nothing got in his way, the shrivelled clumps of fern in the pasture, the hunks of log and metal, the haggish sculptures—he’s withdrawn any investment in these things, they weren’t quite contemporary with his purpose. He never looked right or left. His every step had the quality of a stirring finish, of bursting through the tape. He walked right into the pond. At the edge of the bank he spread his arms like wings and took a great step out into the air. In the banshee squall his landing the water was inaudible, not quite real. And then I got it—I was witnessing somebody in his ultimate moment. For him, the planet, and its ponds and such, didn’t count. A deep preoccupation was making him invulnerable to the elements. He would stride on the floor of the water for its whole length, two hundred feet, and burst onto the facing bank like a military vehicle and head straight on, dismembering the pitiful redwood trees, I was convinced of it. I didn’t realize, until I took a deep, damp lungful, that I’d stopped breathing. Now I dropped the hammock at my feet. I was soaked. The rain ran off the ends of my fingers. And it whipped across the surface of the pond in sheets, covering any trace of him. But I could see him better now that he was gone—I was seeing the person I can’t be. The one who marches to the bottom of the depths, who beats his bullshit ruminations into a sword and hacks at life’s entanglements until he’s free. He’d come bursting up out of the water, in just a minute, like a baptismal figure . . .

I realized as the minute and then another passed that I was crazy, this guy was drowning, anybody would, it’s the natural result of breathing underwater. I shouted!—but naturally he didn’t hear. He was gone. He was now without action, he’d passed into the underworld of drowned souls—who would he rescue there? . . . No, I had to be him, I had to rescue him, call him back from the dead. I had to be the person I couldn’t be. I swear to you that this was the level of my thoughts and feelings, I was inhabiting the realm of the gods and heroes, this person had truly inspired me. I ran inside the front door and cut on the porchlamps, which lit up the yard and the dirt walk and hardly fingered the edge of the pond; raced back out into a scene completely changed by their illumination—the rain around the bulb, the crinkling and rustling of it on the pond as I plunged toward the water—this night!—wings, sorrows, iridescence, wounds, exile, the owl, the mist, the moon, dew’s light-emitting diodes on the webs—the blow to my guts as the water went over me. I could feel my eyes punched against their orbits, a seizure, a response of some electric force that shot strength out even to the ends of my fingers, even into my fingernails, as I splashed in a half panic, struggling for my own life now, no longer god, hero, not even human, more the mindless raccoon stalked by the dog of death, plunging out into anything. I couldn’t stay afloat. I kicked off my shoes and tore off my sweater, sinking below the surface as I wrestled it over my head. I came up again. My limbs were going numb in the chilly water and I was surprised that it was happening so quickly. I forgot what I was here for. In one direction I saw nothing but the porchlamps, the other way lay an acre of water in a world of darkness, sizzling in the rain. I was afraid.

Then he surfaced just ahead of me, modestly, without thunder—so unlike me, so much wiser, not struggling at all, unconscious and beautiful. I grabbed his sleeve and pulled him easily to the shallows, but dragging him up out of the water was murder. The world became terrible and slow. I fell backward. All I had out of the water was his arm. The rest of him drifted like a log. He was pretty well gone. I even thought, winded, nauseous with fatigue, of giving up, letting him float away. But I pulled him up the bank an inch at a time, resting between inches, until we were both stretched out in the mud. I’m saving this person!—but I’m so drained I can only lie beside him, just as helpless, the only difference being that I’m breathing and he’s not. All I can think of is turning him over and putting my lips on his. All I want to do is breathe into his death. But I can’t move. If I don’t, I myself will drown in the flood. I can see it rushing down at me, stupendous, wobbling globes. I turned onto my belly, got my hands and knees beneath me and crawled over to look down at his face—he had long mustaches, and a pair of eyeglasses snagged on his left ear. Mud dripped from my face onto his but there was no response, no breath, no pain or trouble there. He was dead! Complete! Mysterious forever! I’d heard of pinching the nostrils shut, tilting back the head, clearing the passages of obstructions, but heard about them it seemed in a foreign language I had to decipher now, in the act. Water ran out of his mouth when I turned his head to the side. I rolled him halfway over and he vomited into the mud—alive! Over on his back once more and I put my wide-open mouth over his. The fear ran out of me again and I entered another clear space in which I felt the rain washing us both until we were beautiful. We breathed. He tasted like vomit, but good, like my own when I’m very sick with wine and I know this purging is the cure.

 

Denis Johnson is the author of Jesus’ Son, Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, Fiskadoro, The Stars at Noon, Angels, and one volume of poetry, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation’s Millenium General Assembly. He lives in Northern Idaho. Already Dead will be published by HarperCollins this August.

Tags:
Excerpt
Novels
Death
Anxiety
BOMB 60
Summer 1997
The cover of BOMB 60
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