His Ambassador

by Damian Johansson

  • Memoir
decorative header image from Volume IV Issue 2 · Spring 2018


At least twice a week I drive between Red Wing, Minnesota, and Minneapolis. It takes just over sixty minutes. I call it my Crying Commute. After I pass the exit for Treasure Island Casino, as my old Honda Accord begins to climb the bluffs that girdle Red Wing, I put my music on shuffle. My iPod is stuffed with three thousand songs; anything could play, from opera to polka, from punk to the music we made together in the basement studio we built in the middle of the night with borrowed power tools and our hands. It doesn’t matter what plays, I almost always cry, surrounded by all that nothing between Red Wing and the city: farmland, refineries, the supper clubs that always exist in small towns, a vacant strip club, burger shacks.

“Universal Traveler,” by Air is especially effective. I’m fine until one about a minute and a half in, when the song transitions into an un-voiced chorus, backed by strings. The absence, or removal of the vocal track is sudden, and perhaps my sadness and separation rush in to fill it. Perhaps.

Whether I’m stopped at a traffic light or driving the open, empty farm highways, and I am immediately, crashingly terrified, and imagine I can feel my consciousness being torn away. For a moment it feels as if what is essentially me, my self, might completely shatter, and disappear, and I’d join him wherever he is, in the unknown, in the Ever that exists after this reality.

At the same time, my mind is invaded by the forever-image that accompanies thoughts my death, bidden, or persistently unwanted; a motion picture that plays in my brain whenever I think of what death will be: a video of Earth from space, in the right hand and bottom sides of the frame; perhaps one-eighth of the Earth.

Algid, white cirrus clouds ribbon against the brilliant blue, and the blackness behind it is so much more real because of the light of the Earth. As the camera moves away from the Earth, up, and left, there is a sound like the white noise rush of air during a commercial flight.

I’m so used to this, my imagining death cinematic, then realizing again, as real as the floor mats beneath me in the car, that he’s gone. The realization allows me to pull my self back into place, and obliterate the image before I yield to the complete terror of being alone.

Sorrow replaces the fear as it leaves, some of the energy of anxiety and terror, I imagine, is sublimated into water, and tears are left behind on my face, and in my eyes.

Once, near the Koch refinery, still thirty-eight minutes from Minneapolis, I screamed in my empty car. Seconds were ticking loudly, and I still hadn’t achieved separation from the death-image. The scream broke up my moving away, stopped my slipping from the Earth, and I remained in my seat. The scream turned into laughter as I knew I’d made it back.

Photo by Ricardo Hernandez

Photo by Ricardo Hernandez


to one. Mirrors. We weren’t mirrors, more like complimentary images, like that famous picture of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady on the jacket of On the Road.

Jack Kerouac died vomiting blood. Nine years earlier his favorite cat, Tyke, died the same way, the day after Jack left for a trip to Monterey, California.

Once we’d keyed onto the Beats, we were always playing the Past Life Game. In a combination of mysticism and proto-literature-review, I suppose, we’d make arguments for which Beats we were reincarnated versions of.

Ginsberg was still alive, so he was out. As was Gary Snyder, who I felt was a dubious addition to the list—he wasn’t really a Beat, was he—but I admired him so much I might have chosen him if he’d been dead.

Matty always just said Bukowski, Bukowski, Bukowski, so we didn’t play the game much with him. He’s not a Beat, Tony said, I don’t care how many poems he wrote about fucking.

We knew that it wasn’t true, of course; if there are past lives I don’t expect many of us were Marie Curie or Archduke Ferdinand. I expect that we were the guys who fixed faucets, or made your breakfast, those that only had faces and identities for the half-hour they rode next to us on the bus.

We always argued, interestedly, amicably, which of us was Kerouac, and which of us was Neal Cassady.

I’m sure the closest most people ever got to fame in past lives were people like Edwin Meese’s secretary, the cue card holder for Ed Sullivan, or the executive chef of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s White House. I suppose it’s just mirroring; we want to see parts of famous people in our own makeup.

We always argued, interestedly, amicably, which of us was Kerouac, and which of us was Neal Cassady. Who was the writer, and who was the acting force? Now that I’m left here writing, does that make it more likely that I’m Kerouac? Or since I’m the only of us still able to act, in this dimension, am I Cassady?

Survivors get to decide because they’re what’s left.

1, 2, 3;

Ever since Tony left, my therapist suggests I number my thoughts, going towards categorization rather than away from it. This is noteworthy because other therapists have tried to release me from categorization.

She hopes that using numbers as journal headings will allow me to focus on what I’ve been avoiding, letting my mind wander into “corridors of confrontation” because of the random associations I’ll have with numbers.

Structure is good, she says. First, write numbers. Next, write something after them.

Anything, I ask.

Anything, she says.

Does it matter what the numbers are—*should they have some sort of order? *

(I’m always interested in order.)

Just write any number that comes to mind, she says.

And this will help, I ask.

Let’s hope it will help, she says.


October, walking in the Experimental Garden, my hands stretched from my sides, touching prairie grass tops, a two-year-old on my shoulders, saying Twees!, trying to touch the limbs above him. A woman rises out of a group of basil plants like a character from an absurd children’s story, but not Alice in Wonderland; that story terrified me. A ghostly woman rising out of a field of basil at 9 p.m. is just comically absurd.

The sun is down, the moon is out, quarter orange shaped.

You can take it, she says. Take it. Take it. Take it. The students told me I could take it. Do you like basil? They compost it after the season. They don’t even eat it.

I wonder if this is a test. Maybe she’s a sociology student. Her senior thesis, “Confronting Strangers with ‘Free’ Herbs; a Study in Morality.”

She could be a ghost, a casualty of a love-triangle between Horticulture students, her body buried beneath the purple basil, composted into the hundred-year history of the university’s agricultural showplace.

She pulls off a sprig, chews it. Tasty, she says. Take some.

I look around, confused, but the others see her too. So—not a ghost.

Isaac, atop my shoulders, under branches, in awe: Twees!, and we line up to tear off pieces of basil to bring home, to transubstantiate into Holy Basil Supreme, “Damian’s Painfully Spicy Pesto,” homemade pizza—fresh basil, olive oil, mozzarella, pecorino, laid over 14-inch pita bread from Holyland Deli.


inches across the aisle of the bus a woman with hair the color of coal moves a baby from her shoulder to her lap. She looks tall, but is sitting, so that’s only a guess. Her arms are uncovered, and I am having trouble not looking at them. I am close to staring.

The distance from her shoulder to her elbow is so long, and as I stare I keep thinking: Long muscles. Long muscles. Long muscles.

I look up and she has caught me looking at her. The blue / green veins in her arms (Long muscles) stand out from her yellow / orange skin like seams in leather; she is beautiful in indignation, shifting the baby again.

At the base of the necklace: a raw piece of schorl, black tourmaline, a gift given, historically, by certain Native tribes to the grieving…


times today I touched my necklace, my fingers lingering on the large wooden beads that recur along its waxed black thread. I touch the necklace and recall the song “Slowly Revealed,” by Arizona desert artist Steve Roach. I’m anxious, and the fear is ascending.

I go to the song like a blanket to cover my anxiety, and I see tall cumulonimbus clouds, and my mind leaps to another moss-covered stone of a thought, stuck in the river of anxiety, in a row of rock-thoughts that help me ford it. I see the cover of a Robert Heinlein book, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, a nude woman, wrapped in red hair, standing on a shell—Heinlein’s heroine/assassin Maureen Johnson as Botticelli’s Venus. She’s in front of cumulonimbus clouds, what my mind has labeled “Heinlein Clouds.” I touch the necklace, completing the circuit. “Slowly Revealed,” cumulonimbus, Heinlein book cover, talisman touch.

At the base of the necklace: a raw piece of schorl, black tourmaline, a gift given, historically, by certain Native tribes to the grieving: funereal gifts. Beautiful, as black as a closed casket, alien in this world, it’s as familiar to my fingers as the crushed rock and organic matter we call dirt, as familiar to me as his electric blue eyes, behind a row of fallen auburn bangs.

Vertically striated, prismatic, my tourmaline could be igneous, but I’d rather it be metamorphic, bent through millions of years, twisted by immense volcanic and magmatic pressures, turned by movements in the Earth’s hidden insides. Black tourmaline was my favorite stone before all of this. It’s my favorite stone still, now, in the afterwards.

I think of my girlfriend’s tiny hands, working along the wood and glass beads, drawing them over the waxed cotton, wrapping the tourmaline in copper as she makes this necklace for me.

“Slowly Revealed,” cumulonimbus, To Sail Beyond the Sunset. Finally, I touch the tourmaline at the necklace’s terminus.


times a month I drive to the Experimental Fields, eight acres of unexpected farmland behind the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota. In fall it becomes a sea of wheat and soybean. After harvest it looks desolate, but is decorated with mounds of the blackest, most nutritious soil ever created; the black mounds are more beautiful than the fields in bloom.

In winter, it is a lovely tundra, a wasteland with dead wheat branches rising like half buried giant forks from the snow, organic Dada sculptures in negative forty degrees Fahrenheit. Most often, when I go there, I sit in my car, not smoking anymore since he died, I sit and watch the frozen wheat forks lean in the wind.

In summer, fall, and harvest time, I walk through the wheat. I leave my keys in the car, and voices from the radio drift over the fields to me.

I run my hands along wheat tops, followed by the dislocated, ghostly voices drifting from my car as they discuss aliens from Zeta Reticuli, the War in Heaven, thousand-year conspiracies, and true Messiahs. In winter the voices are close-up as I sit in the car, not smoking, enjoying the view of the tundra through my traveling picture window.

The fields are for students’ experimental variations of common Midwestern plants, grains mostly. The eastern corner is gilded with the Experimental Garden (Twees!).

A raptor house slumps near wooden signs on the western edge of the field, like a horror movie house, windows boarded, rust-colored stains running down the opening. A row of antique looking Edison lights runs the eastern perimeter of the fields back to the road, leading me back to reality.

Most things my eyes find in this landscape are special to me, familiar, stuffed with memories that encircle and protect me, and that’s why I come here.

A faunal nook between the bench and the arborvitaes, floored in cedar chips, where I slept in my Atom-era orange sleeping bag, not seeing the six-inch spider and its four-foot web beside my head until I woke to the fulgent sun, too early, my body grateful, stretching after sleep.

The dirt and grass footpaths between the planted rows where I biked between the fields, sweated, chased friend’s toddlers, and wandered in the night, pretending I was in a 1950s Science Fiction feature on a farm on Ganymede, with Jupiter looming closely in the sky above me.

An inexplicable wrought iron table with matching chairs in the center of the garden where we would meet for late night takeout, sandwiches and pickles and wrappers with stars overhead, verging on the fields. The fields.

The fields are perfect for kite flying.


I begin writing a poem about him. Simple. A poem. Just a few words. Forty-six times I erase the words I’ve written, finally tearing the page, then the book, in half. I stand up and walk away from the table.


Last night I dreamt he was alive. Mixing music in the basement studio we built, splicing guitar over husky beats, fitting them like frames around his halcyonic bass lines that drive us up into the beautiful sky over his parents’ house by the train tracks in St. Anthony Park.

He turns to me, asks if I have a cigarette.

I look away from the screen, to him, and his sockets are eyeless, black oval voids, but he doesn’t know it, he’s still talking. His skin slips from his cheek; he’s decaying, and I realize he’s dead. This is a dream, but he’s still talking.

Small things are moving in the abscesses and the absences of his face as he stares at me, eyeless, smiling, waiting for a cigarette.

I wake up in sweat. I hate the number six.

It feels like


times a day I force myself to see him, but it’s probably more like thirty.

I see him put a cigarette in his mouth and laugh around it.

I see him raise his eyebrow in communication, anticipating my response, enjoying the banter as it goes between us.

I see him turn to look at me from the edge of the Grand Canyon’s north rim and feel his spirit as it moves to me in beatitude, vulnerability, reaching, in the sacredness of sharing; it moves to me and encompasses me.

I see not-him as he smirks in his casket, not-him.

I force the memory of the not-him away, and I see him, handsome, china-blue eyes through the cigarette smoke in the dashboard light as I drive fast on a rural road’s curve, in fall, under pine trees.


The Beastie Boys recorded eight studio albums, over twenty-five years, before one of the three members, Adam Yauch, died of cancer, in 2012.

The Beatles released 23 albums before they broke up in 1970.

John Lennon released 11 studio albums before his death in 1983. Albums like Double Fantasy, and the posthumous Milk and Honey, are considered noteworthy for their strangeness, rather than their listenability. All I remember about his solo work is the video of him sitting at a piano while “Imagine” plays, and the photograph of him curled around Yoko, the camera above their bed, and the gun, in Mark David Chapman’s hands, as I imagine it, going off outside of the Dakota in New York.

After the breakup, and before his death in 2001, George Harrison released 12 studio albums, one of which was called All Things Must Pass. His songs “My Sweet Lord” and “Here Comes the Sun” come up occasionally during the Crying Commute.

Ringo released 16 albums solo, if you can believe it. The Beatles let him sing songs like “Yellow Submarine” and “With a Little Help from my Friends,” and it worked, although it surprises me every time I think about it.

I’m sure that not even death will stop Paul McCartney from releasing mediocre albums nearly every year.

Working solo is difficult.


years ago. This is a thought experiment. Two hundred years ago, my brain existed. Wait, strike that.


years ago, my brain existed, but was a barren slab of granite. Sentient granite.

Tremors under my mind cause fissures to crack the granite. Sub-mind magma flows up between the fissures, covering the surface of my mind with naked, ardent lava. The sea around my mind washes ashore, eroding and shaping the glassy obsidian into rich, loamy soil.

Soon, palm fronds and prairie grasses grow. Pleasant ferns and soft rushes, here and there a cattail waves by a newborn lake, poking up from the fecund grasses that ridge the beach my mind has grown.

Later, wheat joins the prairie grasses, lotuses elbow for space in the ponds in my mind. Dinosaurs eat the ferns, and each other.

Succulents, poppies, other beautiful and soft plants emerge, providing a soft landing space for difficult thoughts.

It’s ok to have difficult thoughts, to let them hang glide and parachute through my primordial-mindscape. I’ve cultivated my mind. It is ready for them.


times at first. I never want to tell it, but I always want to tell it. The first time I told it was a surprise. My phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number. I answered, and Jeremy asked me.

His question was just a word, his voice ragged in disbelief, with a tinge of that hillbilly accent he used to affect when we were sharing a joke, when he would talk to me sweetly:

Tony? Jeremy said, half gasping.

Then: He’s dead.

Tony, I said, louder than Jeremy, like we had a bad connection. I stood up from the chair in the hotel room, and strode to the balcony. Tony (!), I said, practically screaming, and he said it right back at me in that hillbilly voice, a one word conversation, a bad Sesame Street sketch.

After Jeremy and I discovered we couldn’t say anything more, I closed the phone, and Bri came out.

Honey (?), she asked.

I’d said Tony’s name too loudly, moved too forcefully from the hotel room to the balcony.

Tony’s dead, I said. He’s dead.

Tony Bell (!), she screamed. Your Tony?

I put my hands on the balcony that overlooked the interior atrium of the hotel. Adults dressed as Jedi were mock-lightsaber fighting, on wide, open spaces of industrial carpet. Clumps of nerds playing board games on the carpeted plains beneath me. A pool with one swim-suited child, poised to dive into the deep end, her father urging her, belly-deep in pool water, arms open as a target.

I thought about that self-created colloquialism my grandmother used to repeat—“as open as the grave,” and thought: His arms are as open as the grave.

I remember Bri touching my back. I remember her bringing me a Two Hearted Pale Ale in a bottle.

I remember Justin asking, pain in his voice, after I’d called him: Where are you? And me saying: I don’t know. I’m notsurewhere I am. I’m at the hotel. The RadishTree.

Justin: I’m on my way.

Later, Justin, at my left, as large as a refrigerator, as immobile, holding a beer, neither of us talking, marking time together on the balcony, our hands on its lip as we looked over at the nerds below, cavorting.

He didn’t know it, but I was drawing solace from his shadow, in my peripheral vision, from his huge quiet. That’s Justin’s power, to console in silence.

I remember making the other calls. Sit down, I said, I have something to tell you. It’s hard, I said, and hearing the thumps of people falling down on the other ends of the telephone after I’d told them.

I’d started the day, as Anne of Green Gables would describe it, as his “bosom friend.” By the close of the day, I’d become Tony’s ambassador to the world, an ambassador for the dead.

times I want to tell it, with one caveat: I always want to tell how he died, and always wish I hadn’t, afterwards.

I’ll never be the same, I told my father. This was after the telling, but it was still a part of it.

I don’t know how to get back, I said. To me.

Dame, he said, You can’t. You’ll never be the same. You can’t be.

I’ll never be me, I asked, incredulous, made into a child again by the question.

You’ll be you, he said. But the you in this, now, will be different.

Made a child by this conversation, I imagined I’d come through a maze as sunset descended, chased by a Bronze Age hybrid monster, arborvitae walls brushing my shoulders as I walked through the exit, and turned back to see the foliage-door close behind me.

The maze, the foliage-door, the minotaur, traversing it, all of it making up the me, closed off from me in a way it hadn’t been before. I could return to it in memory—

—walking up to Tony’s bed in the late afternoon and wake him from a dream, covered in cast-off clothes, to see his big and shy smile and hear his first words of the day to me

—him, taking the back off his 1960s office chair, silver metal, green tacky fabric, afraid he’d fall asleep if he could lean back, as we sat in front of the computer and edited video for a contest due in four hours

—him, eating a McMuffin in the late hours of a road trip, after we’d driven all night through Ohio, and it was morning again, reborn

—arriving at the north rim of the Grand Canyon at midnight, full moon, with our cameras, tripods, our cigarettes, walking out on the overlooks, girded by fifty-year-old handrails, a thousand feet above the canyon’s floor, his face behind a camera, me, posing in the moonlight, him, setting his camera down, us, opposite, mirroring Wing Chung forms together on the outcrops, his eyes on mine as we moved, synchronized, in First Form, under his eyes, his smile, his smile, his smile—

But all of that is history. The new me, only openness in front of me, nothing yet, no maze, no familiar territory, nothing traversed.

4 days later/4 days before

I remember the sound of my parents: uncertain, stymied and sorry that sorry was all they could give me, and I don’t want to tell anybody else. I don’t want to give them that feeling that I see after I’ve given it. I don’t want to tell them of the moments made monument, “the last moments of his life,” soon to be green and oxidized on a plaque of copper in my mind, a plaque that nobody reads, that on the best days, children play around it, oblivious.

I don’t describe the start of his day with Emily in bed in the second month of their marriage.

I don’t want to tell everyone about the energy drink he sipped as he drove to their new house. How they scraped paint off the garage. How he scolded Emily for doing it wrong.

How he stood up, grabbed his chest and said: That hurt.

How she led him to the back step of the house they hadn’t moved into yet, and sat him down.

Grief is dislocation, and sometimes I think my soul is like Tony’s, dislocated by his… leaving.

How he grabbed his chest, and then fell backwards onto the concrete.

How the pupils in his beautiful blue eyes dilated, and how she screamed his name just before she started CPR. How the white liquid poured from his mouth as she phoned the paramedics. I don’t tell this unless I must. I wasn’t there. For a long time, because I wasn’t there, it might not have happened. For a long time, I couldn’t say he’d died, I’d just pause between words and say: he…left.

Grief is dislocation, and sometimes I think my soul is like Tony’s, dislocated by his…leaving.

I don’t tell how Emily pushed on his chest and breathed into his beautiful mouth and how she knew he was gone.

I knew he was gone, she tells me, the day after, because there was nothing in his eyes, his eyes relaxed into the blue, and I knew he was gone.

I don’t tell this, but I imagine it: his heart, his ascending aortic artery as it gave way, filling his insides with his lovely hot blood, red, highly pressured, filling up his off-limits insides where it shouldn’t go.

I don’t tell this to anyone: that I hope he had a soul, and that I hope, that when it needed to leave its casing he was as satisfied by the leaving as he was in living, and that he was held in the arms of the universe as he left, making that satisfied Tony-face, floating above as his wife dialed 911, as she called his father, as she dropped the phone and her voice rose into the air senseless and screaming like a frantic bird.

When I try to tell it, or come close, people’s faces become chasms that cannot be resolved, just as uncertain as my parents were when I told them. People don’t know how to respond, and ambushed by my honesty they are reduced to statues, uncertain, and this inverts them. I’ve tried to apologize after telling them, but this doesn’t return them to a resting state, and I fear this unalterably dislocates them.

I don’t tell how we stood outside of that same house he died behind, four days before, smoking and smoking and smoking.

We’ll make tube amplifiers. Basement kits, he said, the kind that come in the mail.

He was 36 days into his marriage, his sons, three and two years old, and we stood there under the light of the antique street lamps of St. Paul. We stood there talking about what we’d do next.

I don’t want to tell any of this.

I need to tell all of this, but I’m too tired to continue my new ambassadorship today, and most days.

Sometimes it seems like life is direction, a purpose - and death, without that purpose, a dislocation. The grief of us, left behind, isn’t sadness, it’s disorientation. For me, it’s a particularly gruesome disorientation: probing and discovering that part of me wasn’t me, but who I was in his reflection.

Whatever I thought was me has been unseated, and what remains isn’t exactly me, either. Today, I don’t want to be his ambassador, but who am I, without him, besides that ambassador?

At least 


 miles before I go home.

Since he’s gone, I’ve stopped smoking. I’ve replaced it with treadmilling, and running around a track at the university gym.

Sitting on my knit oatmeal-colored couch after work, the feelings start to come in through the cracks in the null that grief has created and surrounded me with. I don’t want to feel them, and grief doesn’t want me to, either. It’s protective. As the mists of emotion start to get thick, I don’t see the butcher’s block in the kitchen, the squat robot of my television, or the oatmeal couch around me.

Afraid that emotion will catch me unprepared, I grab my keys, and rush to the gym. Feelings are parsed out better atop a treadmill. Somehow they’re filtered. If they cause me to cry, it’s just a river of tears. On the treadmill, or turning circles around the track, I trust that I won’t totally lose my self.

As I walk through the double doors I convince myself it’s not avoidance, but a safe decanting of what I need to let come out. Down the stairs, I bypass the treadmills, headed upstairs.

A class of rock climbers unfolds up a faux-rock wall in front of me as I walk past. They’re belted in, red ropes tied to metal clips in the mottled brown of the wall, feet splayed above them, tentatively touching the wall, in tiny clown-colored shoes, bits of rubber on the toes.

I walk past the squash courts, in front of a Hispanic woman on an elliptical, a frantic and too-skinny college girl on a stair climber, nervously looking at me as I walk by, quickly looking away. I hear people upstairs bouncing basketballs and I go through the doors, I get my towel from the towel-bin.

I walk past beer-gutted men reading magazines in exercise-bicycle-recliners, turn a corner by the pilates people speaking pilates-ese on unrolled mats, through a door, and up flights of stairs to the third floor track that overlooks the basketball court.

There are two teams using the court, scheduled games with scorekeeper-lit signs, red lightbulbs, studying students on the sidelines, but instead I see him, I remember him in the eye of my memory, and counter-clock-wise, I start to run.

Damian Johansson (L) and Tony Bell. Photo courtesy of Damian Johansson

Damian Johansson (L) and Tony Bell. Photo courtesy of Damian Johansson

Tony, under the 280 bridge, fifty feet from the train tracks, earnest face, Lincoln-on-Rushmore nose, eyes following me, talking to me, fingers fast on the frets of his upright bass under the shadow of the bridge. I look down and see my hundred-and-fifty-dollar left-handed acoustic guitar. I’m puzzling my way through some Bosso, fumbling half-chords and single-string melodies.

Matty leans into the picture in my mind, trying some poetry over us. He stumbles onto a vein of rhythmic words and digs in and Tony hears it, catches the rhythm in the frets of his bass, and together we make sense, sonically.

Tony swings his bulk closer to the bend in the bass, he moves closer to it like a woman going in for a kiss, big and graceful, and I see his eyes light as his notes follow my Bosso, as my Bosso blends into his notes, and his mahogany hair’s falling into his so-blue eyes, but I can still see them. We’re all together, with each other in the Bosso, with each other in the words.

It feels like it lasts, like we’re slipping into timelessness, and then a container truck blows its horn on the bridge above us and Matty falters. The wind catches his words, juggling them, and Tony doubles down, fingers riding the hard black ebony of the bass’ fretboard, trying to catch Matty’s words back from the wind as they wobble. I’m pounding the strings but the Bosso won’t come out, I can’t put our togetherness back together, and the cohesion we’ve created is tearing.

The world and the wind pushes their way into our circle, and the moment is gone, it falls apart. It’s only us again, doing a Friday, and we look up at each other and at the bridge, and the stars above us in the deep blue and I realize I’m sweating from playing too hard, and the streetlights are coming on, and Tony smiles, sharing it all with me.

Matty yells Fuck! and it echoes through the underside of the bridge and I laugh. I reach out for Tony, relieved that whatever it was is gone and we’re back to Just Friends, doing a Friday, not trying to hold it up, keep whatever it was spinning in the air with some magic between us. Tony has a cigarette in his mouth and he’s lighting it around his bass, still hugging the maple of it and Matty comes over to get a cigarette from me, reaching into my front shirt pocket unbidden, and as I smile my guitar slides, goes side-saddle, like a wooden infant on my hip. We’re an accidental triangle, my palm, flat on Tony’s chest, across his upright bass, his arm around the high-middle of Matty’s back, and we stand there for a moment, laughing into each other, out of breath, sweating, looking in each other’s eyes, sharing and enjoying some satisfied exultation, lighting and smoking our cigarettes.

5 a.m.

I’m in bed. I start crying. It’s a surprise, this swell of emotion and water, and I search in my mind for a reason. Donna Reed has just come on the television, and Mr. Ed will follow.

Last week I was ambushed by the same swell, Fred Astaire-ing around my house, dancing in socks on a hardwood floor, twirling, Swing music loud on my stereo. The vintage tubes from my covetously old amplifier light up the dark corner of my living room, playing on the spines of art books on my bookshelf: a fragment of Basquiat, a sliver of Rothko, the bottom of the spine of Gerhard Richter. I pretend-ice-skate-on-imagined-pond in my stockinged feet on the hardwood floor, hands clasped behind me like the children skating in the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.

Hazelwood Cemetery, Grinnell, Iowa. Photo by Emily Mamrak

Hazelwood Cemetery, Grinnell, Iowa. Photo by Emily Mamrak

Just like now, I started crying. Tears out of nowhere—and that feeling—what did I forget? Why am I crying? And just like now, searching for the why, finding nothing, trying to convince myself that it must be Tony, it must be because of Tony, and my obsessive mind reaches for connections. In our post-high-school-music-combo we’d sketched out a cover Skating by Vince Guaraldi, Tony playing the bottom half of the piano on his bass, me daintily finger-walking the melody on a delayed Fender Jazzmaster, but we’d never played it more than a few times at practice, and never completely. We’d get halfway through, realize we were sort of doing it, making it work, and the groove would fall apart in our hands, and we’d fall apart in laughter that we’d done it, sort of successfully.

This must be why I’m crying, I thought. Jazz on the hifi + pretend-ice-skating on hardwood with my hands clasped behind my back = somehow that thwarts my usual avoidance of the fact that Tony’s dead. My brain rejects, this, and the otherness—the extra voice that OCD creates talks back: OCD is typified by odd connections, and the emotional weight within.

I remember this, and still have no idea why right now I’m crying in bed with Donna Reed on my television, or why last week, atop my stocking-skates I’m ambushed by emotion. Are these only other Crying Commutes?

In bed I circumvent the sobs. I say out loud:

Oh, Tony.

This sounds too intimate, like we were lovers, or I’m his mother, and I think of his mother, medicated, diving into a messy dissolve when I see her at the gravesite.

How are you, she says, and she doesn’t care. I don’t mind that she doesn’t care. He son’s death is a bell, constantly ringing, taking her out of every conversation, interrupting, and she’s looked lost inside since he left. I’m surprised that she can’t find her place, and in a flash of memory she’s letting the dogs out at 4AM, smoking a long white cigarette as Tony and I arrive back at his house, just coming in from the night, and then we’re in Forest Lawn, and she kneels over Tony’s grave to wipe away some speck of something I can’t see, and maybe there’s nothing there, and she says: Oh, Tony; and she’s gone again, vacant, inside. Her new husband walks tentatively to her and rests a hand on her shoulder, and looks around for someone to tell him what to do as he stands on Tony’s grave.

In bed, I say his name, and this doesn’t stop the sobbing. It sounds strangely intimate, and I don’t mind that so much anymore. I’m saying his name, and taking breath in, and pushing it out. I say it over and again:

Tony. Tony. I make up permutations of his name, sing-songing in the way I repeat things. Tony. Tony. T-Billy, Tyrone, and suddenly the plastic overlay, the neutrality and dissassociation of grief is rolled back, and I’m assaulted by feelings, and they’ve got me crying, they’ve turned me into a stutterer: Tah-Tah-Tony.

It’s 5AM. I’m saying his names, casting them like a spell to stop me crying, and Donna Reed is on the television.

I hear his first girlfriend, Christina, say his name at a party in the darkness of my basement, questioning: Tony – where are you, in the dark?

I hear his mother yelling it to us atop the stairs, as we replay songs we’ve made in the basement studio. Tony! Cut out that boom, boom, boom shit! I can’t have you this loud in the morning!

I think of the darkness in my life since he’s left, and the darkness of my imaginings of the afterlife, lonely, cold, both together: algid, like the clouds in my forever-death-image.

I imagine my neighbors hearing me slapping my chest and singing nonsense in my bed, and my voice falters halfway through, and then I don’t care about the neighbors. I do care, but not enough to not sing his name, and this brings me further back from crying, into a wide smile underneath/separate from the tears that stand as big as statues on my face.

I slap my naked chest twice, singing his roulette of names. I start laughing because it’s so ridiculous. T-Billy. T-Billy. Tyrone. The tears turn off.

I’m not alone. He’s here with me—in his name. Donna Reed is still on the television. Mr. Ed will still follow.

It feels like I’ve said his name more in the last three years without him than I did in the 27 years I had him. I like saying his name more now, and I’m in that place between crying and laughing, and I slap my chest and say his name louder: as an incantation, an adage, a precept, a battle cry.


trillion raindrops fall, according to USA Today, during the average thunderstorm, none of which are teardrop shaped. The actual shapes of raindrops range from tiny spheroids to middling hamburger bun shapes, to thin parachutes of water with a tube-shaped drop towards their bases.

This knowledge is elegant, sundry, and terribly amusing, but at this moment, on the scooter, only conjecture; I don’t feel the marching army of raindrops as they storm down the beach of my head, as I sit on my scooter waiting for a stoplight to change.

Earlier, a camera watched me as I cried my way through ninety minutes on the treadmill - another version of the Crying Commute. The only common denominators were the music, the movement (one the actual movement of my limbs, the other, only movement across space and time), and my dissolve into laughter. This time, my smile came because I imagine the bored gym attendants folding towels, watching the monitor screens like televisions, the way you’ll watch anything to arrest boredom.

Look at that fat guy on the treadmill, they might say. He’s working out so hard that he’s crying. I imagine another attendant looking up at the monitor from her phone in her hand. Aw, poor guy, she might say.

This imagined scene made me laugh, then cry, then laugh all over again. I imagined Tony, like an immense cumulous cloud on the horizon in May, his arms resting on the broccoli forests in the deciduous belt of Minnesota that we lived in for so many years together, together, his confident face and awkward, too-long fingers—

(Jack Kerouac: “Sweet face—hard to describe…swaying to the beat, tall, majestical,”)

And it doesn’t matter what teardrops or raindrops are shaped like. I know they’re there, but I can’t feel them, and I wonder where Tony is, if Tony is.

I don’t know if he’s really here, or if I just tell myself that I feel him. Some days it matters if he is, and others it only matters that I remember what it was like to be with him.

On the scooter, I look up at the sky. The rain coming down makes it feel like I’m traveling fast, the way light-speed is shown in science fiction movies, but I’m anchored, waiting for the stoplight. This is what life is like: feeling permanent, when we’re all just waiting. This is what life is like: accepting the illusion of permanence, and not missing the brilliance of being here, the uniqueness, while we wait; finding the beauty as the sorrow passes us by, the beauty through the sorrow.

I look across the street. The road is empty, and I’m still waiting. I’m raw from the crying and the laughing, still waiting, ready to move. The scooter doesn’t weigh enough to trigger the light, and the light never changes. I just decide to go. A substantial part of the guilt that I’ve been holding calves off—that I’m still here, at the stoplight, on the Earth, in his children’s lives, and he’s not, and that I can’t see any reason that all of this should be as it is—releases from my body in waves like a flood over the prairie that surrounds me as I stop waiting for the light to change. Rootstalk leaf-bug icon marking the end of the article's text.

Hazelwood Cemetery, Grinnell, Iowa. Photo by Emily Mamrak

Hazelwood Cemetery, Grinnell, Iowa. Photo by Emily Mamrak

About Author Damian Johansson
Portrait image of author Damian Johansson.
Damian Johansson is completing his MFA at the University of Minnesota., where he writes, takes photos, and teaches throughout the state’s two seasons (Winter and Summer) Preferring the liminal spaces, he can be found near the Minneapolis/St. Paul border, in the university gardens, and picnicking in the experimental fields of the university’s agriculture campus. His work has been published in The Tower, Anamesa, Juxtaprose, and other small and important publications in both corporeal and digital corners of the world.