Late last night word was starting to spread online that Denis Johnson had passed away. I was hoping it wasn’t true as more and more people on Facebook and Twitter started to post passages from his books and stories. This morning it was officially confirmed. Denis Johnson was one of the great American writers and, like all the best writers, he wrote short stories that are better than most novels. His collection of slightly interconnected pieces Jesus’ Son is still such a huge book for me. When I first read it I just kept having to pause after certain sentences and let them sit for awhile. It’s an amazing book.
So last summer I had the opportunity to attend the Disquiet program in Lisbon where Denis Johnson was a visiting guest writer. I arrived in Lisbon on one of many extremely hot afternoons. After a long, mostly sleepless, flight I met the rest of my housemates at the airport and there wasn’t much time for a nap at the residence before we had to head over to the orientation and welcome reception. It had been a long day and I don’t know how long I’d been going without sleep at that point. The reception that evening was on a beautiful rooftop patio with a gorgeous view of Lisbon. Everyone I met was so friendly and also so well rested and fresh. I remember my eyes felt fuzzy and even though I was able to shower before heading to the reception I was already sweating profusely from the intense summer sun. The view really was spectacular and I would just quietly take it all in while trying to stay awake. I would pop inside to get some shade and drink more cold water and then back outside again to try and smile and say hello to the fellow writers I would soon be sharing a workshop with.
I met Katherine Vaz, who would be leading our Luso-American writer workshop and was the sole reason why I had been invited to Lisbon. She was so friendly and she said something nice to me about my writing right away. I felt almost completely incoherent from exhaustion and heat and jet lag at this point. I remember very clearly her asking me if I had met Denis Johnson yet. I had not. Of course I saw him immediately. My first impression of him was that he looked extremely relaxed and comfortable. I told Katherine that I had not met Denis Johnson and then she said oh you have to come meet him and she basically led me by the hand to the table where Katherine’s husband and Denis Johnson and his wife Cindy and others were at a table with sunglasses on and smiling as bright as the Lisbon sunshine. Katherine introduced me directly to Denis Johnson and said something nice again about my writing and I felt elated by this compliment and I gave Denis Johnson one of the best handshakes I could give and I said hello to his wife and her warm smile is something I will never forget. I don’t think I said anything other than hello and thank you but I looked the man in the eye and that meant so much to me. I have Katherine Vaz to thank for that. There are times when I don’t feel worthy of that trip to Lisbon. I was welcomed there with such enthusiasm and all I encountered in those two weeks was friendship and wisdom and sweet words and, of course, heat. It was an unforgettable experience and now that Denis Johnson is gone I realize that I have to work harder than I’ve ever worked before to make sure that Disquiet did not waste their money and time on someone as small as me.
Denis Johnson read stories for us in Lisbon. In the basement of a bookstore where it was slightly cool and damp until it filled up with more people. My new friend, Michael the poet and I sat front row center for his reading. We sat right beside his wife Cindy Lee. I should have taken more pictures. Denis Johnson read a story that was made up of vignettes and one of those moments had a woman asking to see a man’s amputated leg. He agreed to let her see it only if she kissed it. The last line of that passage is, “You and I know what goes on.”. And we all had that feeling like he was saying that line to each of us individually.
Last night I had a dream that my parents gave our family dog away. Partly because they were worried that she would soon become too sick to take care of in a way that they were able to. They knew I would not be happy with this move but they also knew that if I begged them hard enough they would bring her back. I promised to help take care of the dog and I begged my mom to bring the dog back. At the end of the dream I was sobbing so loudly that I could feel my body shaking outside of the dream. I was sure that I was crying in real life. Maybe I was crying so hard because I knew I was in a dream and that only in a dream are you able to bring things back.
This is the last passage of the Denis Johnson story The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, the one that he read parts of to us in Lisbon:
I note that I’ve lived longer in the past, now, than I can expect to live in the future. I have more to remember than I have to look forward to. Memory fades, not much of the past stays, and I wouldn’t mind forgetting a lot more of it.
Once in a while, I lie there as the television runs, and I read something wild and ancient from one of several collections of folktales I own. Apples that summon sea maidens, eggs that fulfill any wish, and pears that make people grow long noses that fall off again. Then sometimes I get up and don my robe and go out into our quiet neighborhood looking for a magic thread, a magic sword, a magic horse.