The Portable Jack Kerouac
(in which it turns out that Jim finally got around to reading that book in Sleeping Beauty)
The Portable Jack Kerouac was lying in the middle of Jim's bed. Blair stopped mid-pilferage, Jim's blue linen shirt draped over his arm. The cover photo looked just a little bit like Jim, didn't it? Just a little. Something about the strength of Kerouac's features. High cheekbones and forehead, piercingly intelligent eyes. In the picture, Kerouac was cradling a cat against his chest, and while the writer's expression was faintly shy, peering out from under his brows as if resigned to the necessity of the photograph but not very happy about it (and that reminded Blair of Jim too), the cat was staring right out at the camera. She obviously saw nothing at all ridiculous about being photographed upside down, all four feet in the air, held safe in gentle hands. Perhaps it was those hands that reminded Blair of Jim most of all.
Blair had noticed the book before on Jim's shelves, and had been aware, in that way he was always more of less aware of those glimpses of Jim's interior life, that over the past year the smooth white spine of the book had gained a rumpling of wrinkles and creases. He wondered suddenly if Jim were reading straight through or going back to a few favorite passages over and over again. Curious, he laid the blue shirt he was stealing down on the bed and picked up the book.
And by the way, he was not stealing the shirt, he assured that nagging little voice in his head. Just borrowing it. He would wash it afterwards and everything. He had noticed Jim ironing it last night, and it had occurred to Blair then that he would probably look pretty good in it himself. Just roll the cuffs up a couple of times, tuck it into his black jeans, and he'd be ready to roll. Neatly solving the problem of what to wear to that reception at the Del Sul gallery. He'd been sort of half way thinking about it ever since finding the pre-printed invitation his department mailbox Monday afternoon, with Hope you can make it - Anya written in a looping blue scrawl on the back. The card even smelled like her perfume, a clear, unblended floral scent, lily of the valley perhaps, or gardenia. He'd been so carried away that he had almost asked Jim if he could identify it.
And now he was wishing he had. It would have been worth Jim's eye-rolling and inevitable cracks about his love life to be able to identify Anya's perfume. Women liked it when you noticed that kind of thing.
He opened the Kerouac book, allowing the pages to fall open where they would, and read first off,
A woman is beautiful
you have to swing
and swing and swing
and swing like
a handkerchief in the
Well, that was a little too close for comfort, Blair thought, grinning broadly. Pretty much seemed to describe Jim's love life too, which was probably why Jim gave Blair such a hard time about his own. He sat down on the end of the bed, letting the book fall open again. He had never gotten around to reading Kerouac, though he'd heard stories from Naomi. She had met him in San Francisco after his return from Big Sur, and they had remained friendly - Blair didn't ask how friendly - until his death a few years later, a broken drunkard, living with his mother in St. Petersburg. Naomi talked about him sorrowfully as a bright soul who'd lost his way. Blair was inclined to be a little less charitable. What was it about these men who celebrated art as though it were a purely masculine urge and then ended their days living at home with their mothers?
Anyway, so he'd never read Kerouac himself, not even when he saw the book on Jim's shelves. If he thought much about Jim's choice of reading material at all, he just assumed he already had a neatly labeled drawer in his mental file cabinet for that part of Jim's life. You know, anti-establishment Jim Ellison, more in common with Naomi Sandburg than either one of them would care to admit, Jim who had been a surfer, a biker, a rebel. Traces remained, like the almost-closed piercing in one earlobe, but Jim wasn't that man anymore. His time in the service had changed him, as had those months in Peru, not to mention his marriage and his years with the Cascade PD.
Well, Blair had thought Jim wasn't that man anymore, but here he was reading Kerouac all the same. And it was a funny thing about labels. Like the ones on mental file cabinets. They tended to hide exactly what they were intended to explain.
The book had been very well read, no question of that. Jim was meticulously careful with his books, but the edges of these pages were soft from handling, the paper spine creased and re-creased.
So what did Jim find here? What had Blair not seen?
This time the book had fallen open to a page of haiku.
Missing a kick
at the icebox door
It closed anyway.
And then the next one.
- the fish store
What was this, Poems For Men? It tickled Blair to think of Jim reading these unadorned scraps. Literature at its most essential. He'd never imagined Jim would be much for poetry, but it stood to reason this would be what he preferred. No flowery language, no cheats. Jim through and through.
The bottoms of my shoes
from walking in the rain.
There was something a little sad about that one, and Blair wasn't sure what it was. Maybe because when he read it he saw Jim walking alone in the rain. Resigned. Head down under the battering shower, puddles of standing water splashing under his heels.
the heavy rain
Driving into the sea.
And that one caught Blair too. He thought of that nightmarish storm on the rig. Jim's fear of the open water. But he had managed to do what he had to despite the fear. Blair told him he could do it, and Jim had. So why did the poem seem so sad to him? Useless, useless. What did those lines mean to Jim?
Well maybe he was going about this all wrong. Maybe Jim didn't assign emotion to the words. Maybe he was compelled by the image itself and didn't need anything else. Jim was always looking for confirmation that other people saw and heard the same things he did. No wonder, when for most of his life other people weren't hearing and seeing the same things at all. Perhaps it was comforting for him simply to read that once upon a time another man had also looked out at the rain falling on the sea. Seen the same thing and thought the same thing about it. It wasn't such a stretch to believe that might be enough for Jim.
- Why kneel?
That one was different. There was a glimpse of something else there. Blair was almost afraid to press harder, half-fearing that trying to figure it out would destroy it.
He looked up from the book across the open space of the loft for a moment. The light of sunset was golden and thick, pouring through the skylights like honey. All these poems about rain. Living in Cascade, how could they fail to touch Jim? He could practically see Jim, still in that imaginary rainstorm. The rain pouring down his face, on his lips.
So did that line mean to Jim what it did to Blair? That the taste of the rain was religious in its power and meaning. No need to get down on one's knees to supplicate heaven, to speak to what lay beyond. The taste of the rain was enough.
The taste of rain to Jim's sentinel senses.
And thinking about that, Blair felt something vast starting to take shape. Nebulous yet, only partially formed in his mind, and even in that state it was enough to make him feel frightened but half ecstatic, like he was on the verge of something tremendous. He shut the Kerouac book again, balancing the spine on his knee, the palm of each hand against the front and back cover, and tried to let it fall open once more, but it slipped under his hand, slid over his knee and hit the floor before he could catch it. He bent over to get it and found that the top corner of the back cover had gotten bent back.
Oh damn, I'm sorry, Jim. He tried to fold the corner back, but that just made the crease more obvious than ever. No way to hide from Jim what he had been doing, he realized instantly, and felt his face get hot. Oh come on, he thought then, trying to argue the guilty blush off his cheeks. Jim would not mind you reading his book, you know that. Probably mind that a whole lot less than he's going to mind you borrowing the shirt that he just washed and ironed.
But of course he wasn't reading this because he'd suddenly been overcome with the desire to relax with a little Kerouac. He was reading it because he was curious about Jim. He wanted to know what was going on in his sentinel's head. In Jim's head. Everything that Jim would tell him, and everything that Jim wouldn't or didn't know how to tell him too. Like why he was reading Jack Kerouac.
Blair opened the book from the back cover, letting the pages flip against his thumb, stopping when he came to a page that lay open more readily. He skimmed the page - numbered paragraphs in a longer work - feeling faintly embarrassed because he was continuing to snoop so nakedly, and then reading on anyway. The embarrassment was nothing next to the slow dawning of discovery. "I was smelling flowers in the yard," Kerouac had written, "And when I stood up I took a deep breath and the blood all rushed to my brain and I woke up dead on the grass."
Zone out, Blair thought. No, he didn't believe for one minute that Kerouac was a sentinel himself. Probably had been drunk or hung over when he stood up too fast and fainted. But though the cause was different, perhaps the effect was the same. Oh man, he'd been right about the rain haiku, hadn't he? More than right, and when he thought of Jim poring over these passages alone, he felt such tender protectiveness for Jim and his private quest for understanding that he had to swallow back the sudden lump in his throat.
The passage went on, "I had apparently fainted, or died, for about sixty seconds. My neighbor saw me but he thought I had just thrown myself on the grass to enjoy the sun. During that timeless moment of unconsciousness I saw the golden eternity. I saw heaven. It was perfect, the golden solitude, the golden emptiness, Something-Or-Other, something surely humble. There was a rapturous ring of silence abiding perfectly."
Blair realized he wasn't breathing, and he took a sudden gasp of air. His hands were trembling so he laid the book down carefully so he wouldn't lose his place. Golden solitude. Was that what a zone out was for Jim? Blair had always been so focussed on teaching Jim how to stop them, keep them from happening in the first place - treating them only as a danger and a menace, a dangerous side effect of his senses. Because they WERE dangerous to Jim, not only when he was doing his job, but even just getting across the street safely, the poor man. Blair could still feel his stomach knot in horror when he remembered those few terrible seconds. Seeing Jim walking right out in front of that garbage truck, his gaze fixed somewhere ... else. On a red frisbee, Jim had told him later. Spinning perfectly, timelessly away from him.
That perfect Something-Or-Other. Heaven was humble indeed. And no wonder Jim never talked about it. He may have never found the words on his own. And even if he had, perhaps he wouldn't have chosen to tell Blair that so much of what Blair was doing for him, helping him with these past three years, all Blair's work and effort, so much of their partnership, was in essence cheating Jim of his glimpse of eternity.
Blair read on, more sure than ever that he was right. Kerouac was as pragmatic about the whole thing as Jim might have been. "The 'golden' came from the sun in my eyelids," he wrote in explanation, "and the 'eternity' from my sudden instant realization as I woke up that I had just been where it all came from and where it was all returning, the everlasting So, and so never coming or going; therefore I call it the golden eternity but you can call it anything you want."
And did Jim call it a zone out? Blair was extrapolating from the slenderest possible evidence, he knew that. Maybe Jim had no interest at all in this Americanized, self-conscious take on Buddhism. Maybe when Jim was gone in a zone out he was simply gone, and there was nothing profound happening in those moments of post-zone confusion. Blair didn't think so, though. He thought he was right about this. How could he not believe that experiencing the world with those senses had shaped Jim's quiet spirituality?
But Blair had never even suspected. They were going to have to talk about this. Blair needed to rethink everything. Maybe instead of trying to suppress the zone out effect completely, they could try inducing it in a controlled setting, though he wasn't sure how that would work. Maybe the immanence of the experience had a lot - or everything - to do with the fact that it was completely spontaneous. Might be no magic at all in a forced zone. He'd talk to Jim about it. Get to work right away, try to undo the damage Blair had unwittingly done over the past years.
He closed the book abruptly. No, this was Jim's decision. This was Jim's alone. After all, he had never come to Blair and said Hey, Chief, did you ever consider the fact that maybe I WANT to zone every once in a while? No, instead he had read these plain, beautiful passages about another man's experience with the extremes of sensory awareness and the nature of the human reality all by himself. Then he had returned to Blair and Blair's training, permitting Blair to teach him how to live in the ordinary world. Blair had no right to question that choice.
Looking at the photograph on the front cover, thinking more than ever that that handsome, sad man holding the cat looked like Jim, he remembered Kerouac's end and knew that Jim's decision might even be the right one. Nevertheless, Blair's throat felt funny and raw, his eyes prickling like he had allergies. Right. That's all it was. Allergies. Tell me another one, Sandburg. He wiped his eyes roughly, then stretched out across Jim's bed, grabbing a pillow and tucking it under his chin so he could read comfortably while lying on his stomach, and opened the book once more.
He was still reading as the honey dense light outside grew thicker and redder. He rolled over and turned on the lamp when it got too dark inside to read, but otherwise hardly moved again. He still wasn't sure if he would have enjoyed Kerouac all that much on his own, but reading it now felt as intimate as reading over Jim's shoulder. He was wondering what this wonderful, mysterious passage meant to Jim - "All that's left is that crafty omnipresent smiling essence abiding throughout things but not disturbed, leaving you with a single transcendental thought of Essence (a No-Thought) which is simply what it is, suchwiseness," - when a soft sound made him suddenly look up, and there was Jim standing at the head of the stairs, watching him. He had no idea how long Jim might have been there, so engrossed he hadn't even heard him come in. Jim didn't look put out, or even all that surprised to find Blair here on his bed reading his book. He simply seemed a little tired after the long day, and faintly bemused. Smiling. A crafty omnipresent smiling essence that was Jim Ellison, Blair thought, grinning back. He rolled over and sat up. "Hey."
"Thought you were going to that reception tonight," was all Jim said, walking to the dresser to put his gun down on top of it and loosening his tie.
He'd totally forgotten. "Oh, no, I decided to bag it."
Jim just nodded. "That shirt's going to get wrinkled if you leave it on the bed like that." Essence of Jim.
"Oh, right, man. Sorry." Blair got up, shaking the shirt out like a rug. Jim took it from him and rehung it in the closet before the significance of the shirt being out seemed to dawn on him.
"Sorry, Chief. Did you want to borrow it?"
"Nah, thanks though. I'm staying home tonight. Hey, what do you say we fire up the grill? I could cook us a couple of steaks before the game tonight, and I'm pretty sure there's still some Romaine in the fridge. Caesar salad, maybe a baked potato. Sound good to you?"
Jim smiled at him, again, obviously wondering what was up, but all he said was, "Sounds good to me
"Great. You hungry? I'll get started."
Blair was halfway down the stairs before Jim said, "Did you want to borrow the book?"
"No." Blair turned back and saw Jim holding it up. "Looks like you're still reading it."
"OK," Jim agreed, not making a fuss about it.
Blair hesitated, wanting so badly to say more. He had already decided this was Jim's decision, and he had no right to push or second guess him, but he still wanted Jim to know that he understood - or at least had had a glimpse, even if he didn't understand all the way. That if Jim ever did want to talk about it Blair would be here, would do whatever would help, even if it was just listening and keeping his big mouth shut for once. Like he was struggling to do now.
He didn't realize how long he'd been silent until Jim said, "Something bothering you?"
"No," Blair said quietly. "I was just thinking."
Jim looked down at the Kerouac book still his hands, turning it around so the cover was facing up. "Sure you didn't want to borrow it?" he asked at last. "I've read it already."
Blair took a breath. "Well, all right. Thanks." He came back up the steps. Jim extended his hand. Blair took the book from him, and then said because he just couldn't help himself, "I was reading those poems about the rain."
Jim smiled. "Were you? I like those."
"Yeah," Blair agreed. "They reminded me of you, somehow." He whapped Jim's shoulder with the back of his hand, intending to say, "I'll get those potatoes in the oven now," but Jim grunted in pretend pain, as though Blair had just clobbered him, and that made Blair laugh. Laughing seemed to free everything. God, he loved this man so much. He threw his arms around Jim without stopping to think about it, and squeezed for all he was worth. Jim laughed too, slightly breathless, and hugged him back, one arm over Blair's shoulder, his other around Blair's ribs. He squeezed too. Blair said "Ugh," happily at the pressure, and stayed where he was, on tiptoe, his chin pressed a little uncomfortably against Jim's shoulder, his arms starting to tremble from the welcome strain of keeping them locked tight around that broad back.
I'll be right here, Jim, he said to himself, as the moment stretched out. Whatever you're looking for, wherever the journey takes you, I promise to be right here with you.
He didn't let go, and Jim didn't either, arms around each other, no need to speak out loud when they were heart to heart like this, in a rapturous ring of silence, abiding perfectly.