Be careful when you pull at the thread of a memory

Someone I used to sort of know died. Skelly told me about it. I couldn’t remember if I knew him or not. I always feel lacking when I can’t remember a deceased person, but I’m not sure if I want to or not. Remember him and there’s a hole where the hurt can get in. Forget him and he seems to have mattered less. I’m selfish either way.

We talked about him and where I would have known him from. I didn’t remember him. But I do know someone else who may have known him. I told her about him, because I didn’t know if she would remember him or not. I couldn’t remember his name, so I was in that weird place of being the Worst Herald Of Death in the World.

“Someone died. You may have known him.”

“Who?” she asked. Of course she did. What would she say? That’s nice. No, she wouldn’t say that. Why didn’t you have the information, Seer?


What do you see? I don't even know.

We had been talking about the place we knew him from, so she mentioned a name. I knew it wasn’t him. I thought his name began with a particular letter, but I wasn’t sure.

“It wasn’t J., was it?” Her voice had a tingle of urgency. That sounded like the name. I still couldn’t see anyone picking up the tag at the table with that name on it. I still couldn’t see his picture at the memorial. I still didn’t know who died.

“I’ll text Skelly and see who it was. I don’t want to give you the wrong name. That would be bad.”

It was J. And I saw someone have the appropriate reaction to his death. She crumpled in the shoulders, and the sides of her mouth fell, and her forehead was furrowed. We agreed she would ask someone else for more information about the whole thing. I was failing miserably on bringing the news of his passing.

But later, I realized I did know J. I had several experiences with him. They started to surface. It was as if he had been at another table in the restaurant we were in, and he waved to me. I can see him now in my mind. I see the time he blew a kiss to me and told me to “sleep like an angel.” Yeah, that was weird, but it wasn’t threatening. I think that was the first time I met him. And I remember the time he called me. I called him back, and he acted as if his initial call had been returning a call I had placed to him. I don’t know if this was his way of meeting women (it was creative, I’ll give him that), but it didn’t lead to anything but an awkward, terse two minutes on the phone.

I remember his voice. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it wasn’t a broadcaster’s voice, either. It was like lentil soup with malt vinegar in it. A little sour, and a little hearty. Somewhat Brooklyn, or maybe Boston, but a long time in Los Angeles had mellowed it out a lot. I remember his hair was salt and pepper. He was friends with the man who flew a plane as a hobby.

I heard he died ill and in pain and sad. That hurts my heart. I am glad to know that he hurts no more.

The whole thing is a strange sort of waiting-place of memory. It’s from six and seven years ago. Two years can hold a lot of memories, but since then I’ve driven across the country and lived in two different states, only to return to California. It’s been an active five years. There are a lot of people there, and a lot of people died on me–people who I was close to, who had nicknames for me, and who I knew about while they were dying.

But for ten minutes or so tonight, I was back in West Los Angeles, and Venice, and Santa Monica. I remember the fog coming. I remember the traffic, and the food. I remember that my winter wardrobe was a scarf. I could put it on over my tank top. I remember going to brunch on the Westside and seeing women who looked like sisters, but knowing that they were mother and daughter; the resemblance was due to plastic surgery.

I remember the sun. I remember the smell of the paper where I worked, and holding the poster for the Black Panther benefit where the Grateful Dead played. I remember working my ass off in school. I remember the people I worked for and worked with and worked around. I remembered everything, for just a moment.

I wanted to indulge myself and think about the present, and how it would be the past in seven years, too, and what that would be like. But then I remembered that J. died. I want to commemorate that. His death is more important than my flights of fancy. Peace be unto you, J. I’m sorry I’m saying this too late for you to hear.

Emmylou Harris — “Calling My Children Home”


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