Updated: Dec 18, 2022
Inside the amazing brains of Robert Peate & Lindsey Royce
Robert Peate is the author of The Recovery, Sisyphus Shrugged, the *Sun Children* series, and fifteen collections of short fiction and poetry. He calls his mind a word fountain. Though independent, his work has garnered the attention of some of the World's most interesting readers. Regarding his work on religion and society, Robert says, "Controversial topics are only controversial because they are important, so we must address them, in some form or another. I do so with my writing, but of course there are many ways to be an engaged citizen of the World. If we don't address what matters in some way, we skirt our duty as artists and human beings. I just happen to do it with these words that come out of my mind. What do you do it with?"
BLM: Where do you find inspiration for your writing: stories in the news, your own life, out of the blue, or somewhere else?
RP: The World provides too much material. The dilemma is truly: on what do we choose to focus? I have devoted my major works to social inequalities, as I wish to use my fiction to shed light on them. That said, I have used anything and everything--the news, my own life, my own imagination--to serve the purpose. We take different existing puzzle pieces and assemble them into a new picture of our own design.
BLM: As a child, what scared you?
RP: My father. I lived in fear of him, sensing that violence was always under his surface. When I was six a bully took my Big Wheel. I was more afraid of the bully than I was of my father, so I walked home, knowing that he would not help me. At six I knew I could not count on my father. But I went to him. He slapped me across the face and sent me to bed without supper for failing to stand up for myself against the bully. This did not teach me to stand up for myself. Later I realized that he was distracting from his own cowardice: he did not have what it took to confront the bully's parents. (When my son reported that a boy took his scooter, I took my son to the other boy's front door and talked to both his parents, who then made their son help retrieve my son's scooter.) When I was fourteen and my parents were having a bad fight, my father was throwing dishes and things were looking bad for my mom. I left my bedroom to find my father on the verge of hitting my mother. I said something like, "Hey, Dad, don't you think you should take it easy?" and he slapped me across the face again, which completely changed my mother's demeanor and the dynamic of the situation. I continued to fear him ever after. He is dead now, but the damage is done. I only wish I had stopped hoping for better years earlier than I did. Hope is the mind-killer, not fear.
BLM: What do you feel is your favorite or most successful short story, and why?
RP: I chose "Chasing Kerouac" (2008) for its construction, its blend of pathos and humor, and its hopefully-satisfying conclusion.
“I’m telling you, there’s a lost scroll!” Dean Tucker insisted to me. “It’s mentioned only in passing, in the January 1957 Steve Allen Show interview. Kerouac clearly states that he’s finished a short story, but that he isn’t satisfied with it. ‘For fun,’ he says, ‘I hid it in the wall of my friend Bill’s bathroom. Let future excavators come across it and marvel.’ Then he takes out a cigarette and never mentions it again. Most historians take that line as a joke, but I tell you, it’s there!”
“On what do you base that?” I asked him with the courtesy of someone who was tired of the topic.
“His schedule. For the entire year of 1956, there is a record of everything he wrote except for the month of September—when he suddenly goes silent, picking up again with The Lords of Chicago. There is no explanation for the silence, in the middle of his most fertile and creative period, except that he wrote the most famous piece of his that no one has ever read!” Dean glowed, triumphant.
“It’s an intriguing theory,” I conceded. “But who was this ‘Bill’? Where did he live?”
Dean was prepared for my question, pulling a folded map from his pocket. “I have a map.” Unfolding just enough of it to show me the relevant area, he smoothed it with his hands. “Up outside of Yosemite National Park, this is where Kerouac went to recuperate after he caught the flu that August. It’s the only explanation that makes sense, and I can’t understand why no one else has figured this out before.” He shook his head with sincere rue.
“Maybe no one else is as crazy, or ‘dedicated’, as you,” I offered in an attempt to be helpful.
“You’re probably right. Kerouac is my life,” Dean nodded.
“Well, I think you’ve solved the mystery,” I said. “Now someone will just have to find the scroll someday.”
“We leave tomorrow,” Dean said. “I’ve already packed the car.”
“It’s Friday tomorrow. You don’t work again until Tuesday. We can go there, find the story, and be back here by Monday night.”
“You are insane—I’m not breaking and entering!”
“It’s for literature! Even if we get caught, we’ll be heroes!”
“We’ll be locked up!”
“Won’t it be glorious?”
“I’m not going.”
“Aw, come on.”
I couldn’t say no to my best friend, in the end.
“What’s the name of this story?” I asked the next morning, bleary-eyed, not really caring, as we got ready.
“No one knows,” Dean said, “not even his mother. That’s what makes the mystery so exciting.”
I couldn’t help but notice that, even at six in the morning, Dean was as awake as ever. We had a long day of driving south from Portland, Oregon, ahead, but all he could think about was this holy grail of Kerouac’s. I was still convinced it didn’t exist. Everyone knew that Kerouac liked a good joke, and that he was capable of spinning yarns at will. Maybe he took September 1956 off to smoke dope with Allen Ginsberg or Gary Snyder in the mountains? But I couldn’t begrudge Dean his excitement. It mattered a great deal to him. Kerouac had been his hero all his life.
A short time later we found ourselves in Dean’s beat up 1991 Nissan Sentra, loaded for bear, heading south on I-5 toward Salem, Oregon. “This is crazy,” I said, as I started to wake up.
“Nah. It’s fun. Worst-case scenario, we don’t find the story, but we have a good time.”
I took this as a rare moment of rationality from Dean. “Worst-case scenario we get arrested for burglary,” I couldn’t help saying.
It was a hot day in July, and we drove with the windows down, as Dean’s air conditioning was long busted.
After driving all day that Friday, with the usual pit stops, we made it to Eureka, California, that night. After supper at a bad Indian place, I argued for stopping, but Dean was too excited. He wanted to continue.
“I’m too tired,” I said. “I can handle long drives, even not eating, but I can’t handle not sleeping well. I get cranky,” I warned. “You won’t want me burgling in that state.”
He seemed to take that seriously, so we stopped at the cheapest motel we could find, a pink-painted dive named the Flamingo, with bullet holes in our room door and graffiti on the furniture.
“Wow,” I said as we walked in. “This place is straight out of Kerouac.”
“Now you’re getting the spirit! Feel his ghost passing through you,” Dean enthused, and I wasn’t sure if he meant it figuratively or literally. I was still dubious about the existence of this supposedly “lost” story, but I didn’t mind humoring Dean. Named after the character Dean Moriarty in On the Road, he had spent his life in the shadow of Kerouac, immortalizing him, worshiping him. Who was I to shatter, or otherwise hinder, his illusions? So, with Dean’s parents to thank, we found ourselves on the road, chasing Kerouac.
The next day, Saturday, we continued south to San Francisco, then turned east to Stockton, Modesto, and Merced, on the road to Yosemite. We drove straight up into the mountains, where we knew Kerouac and Snyder had hiked, backpacked, and visited “Wild Zane of the Mountain”. This mysterious, semi-legendary figure was rumored not even to be real, since no photographs of him existed. Cynics said Jack, Gary, Allen, and others made him up to create an excuse for their excursions into the forest when others disapproved. Dean was a believer. I was apathetic. Dean whipped out his map as we approached the roads on it. The gravel under his tires crunched as we drove off the highway, the Sun beating down on both of us.
“Try not to be too disappointed when we don’t find anything,” I said. It was a slip, an accidental violation of my own internal promise not to harm his pleasure.
“You try to have more faith!” he said. “Remember, Kerouac was raised Catholic.”
“Yes, yes, he was,” I said. My own personal hypothesis was that Kerouac’s Catholicism caused him a lifetime of self-loathing and alcoholism over having been bisexual, and that faith in destructive concepts or attitudes was contrary to Kerouac’s own stated ambitions. Of course, in this case, Dean’s faith in a lost manuscript couldn’t be too destructive…could it? I looked at Dean, tried to evaluate how he would react if he didn’t find his holy grail, and decided he’d be able to handle it. He was rational enough to know it was probably long gone, eaten by termites, or bulldozed with Bill’s house. We didn’t even know if the house was still standing. Come to think of it, we didn’t know if this house, or the friend named Bill, wasn’t just another product of Kerouac’s eternally spinning imagination. I had odds, placed silently to myself, that we would go back home that day or the next, defeated and dejected, but wiser.
“Right here,” Dean said, studying his map carefully. We had been taking turns driving, and it happened that I was the driver at that point. I offered to let him drive the last leg of our exciting journey of discovery, but he quickly shook his head no, saying he would much rather read the map. “Keep going straight until we come to another fork, then turn left.”
We followed the network of narrower and narrower gravel roads, until they became dirt with deep tire tracks akin to gullies, and I began to wonder how Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, or anyone else ever found his way here. But the tire tracks proved someone had.
We came upon a small brown shack by the side of the road on the right, and we stopped and got out to ask directions. Then we noticed the house was so run down it didn’t seem possible anyone could live there. A name on the mailbox read, “Carlson”. Dean puzzled over this.
“I seem to remember in an interview, or story, or article…Kerouac mentioning a Carlson girl…I think we’re on the right track!” Dean jumped back in the car. “Come on! It’s not much farther now.”
I slowly walked back to the car door, opened it, and got in.
“It’s not long now!” Dean said. “Aren’t you excited?”
“Yes,” I said. “Your enthusiasm is infectious.”
“Even if you don’t care about the story, it will be a significant literary discovery, which will make us famous,” Dean offered by way of compensation for my participation in the journey.
“I want to be famous for my own writing, not someone else’s,” I countered. In a way, Dean’s sycophantic love of all things Jack Kerouac made me sick. But then, didn’t I have my idols? I did, but I told myself they were different, or at least that I was different in regard to them. Somehow. Perhaps it was that I simply didn’t share his idolatry. Idolatry in common can be blissful, but when it is not shared, idolatry can be tedious.
We drove a little longer. “We should be able to see Bill’s house after we clear the next rise…” Dean said, his voice fading as his mind switched resources from his voice to his vision.
We cleared the next rise, and saw a little cottage set apart from the road, on the left. “That’s it,” Dean whispered.
The cottage looked lived in, its faded blue paint chipping and cracking, grass overgrown, a dead old tractor on the other side. The driveway was empty. We stopped and got out. “They’ll probably be nervous, so let me do the talking,” Dean said.
“Funny, I was thinking they’d probably be nervous so I should do the talking,” I bantered back. “I mean, you’re a lunatic.”
A young, tired woman in a cleaning apron answered the door. “Hello,” said Dean.
“Hello,” said the woman, her hair matted with perspiration, leaning on a broom.
“Are you aware that you are living in the former home of a friend of the twentieth century’s greatest literary genius, Jack Kerouac, the creator of ‘spontaneous writing’?”
The woman seemed neither to know nor to care. Trying again, Dean said, “There is the possibility that a literary work of great value is hidden in your house. May we look for it? That’s why we’ve driven for two days from Portland.”
“You can talk to my husband when he gets home from work,” she said. She gave us a suspicious look. “After seven.”
“Thank you, Ma’am,” I said. “Let’s go, Dean.” I grabbed his arm and tugged. We walked back to the car. Though the afternoon was lengthening, it was still hot out. “We can go back down the road and get dinner.”
“Dinner? How can you think of food at a time like this?” He was shocked at the idea of leaving this sacred place, in case the holy grail would get away from its bathroom wall in the few hours before the husband returned home.
“We can’t stay here. The woman already thinks we’re freaks. We have to leave, or she’ll call the police.” I could have been wrong, but I had to stress to him our need to appear reasonable.
“You’re right,” he said suddenly, casting a look back at the house, a look filled with friendly joviality. “Let’s go.”
Whew, I thought.
We talked about it over supper at a diner back on the main road, thirty minutes down through the mountains. “Clearly, that woman is insane. Did you see the look on her face? Or she thought we were insane,” I said.
“Perhaps a little of both. But we’re getting close—I can feel it! I can feel there is something here.”
“Maybe we should go look for that mountain man—Old Zane, was it? If he exists, he might know about it.”
“You just want to get away from this house,” Dean accused.
“You’re right—that woman gave me the Willies. Her husband is probably some big lumberjack who’ll kill us on sight.”
“Come on, Scott. Where’s your sense of adventure?”
“I left that behind with roller coasters as an adolescent. I like playing it safe now. It keeps me alive. And well.”
“Well, not me. I want into that bathroom wall, and I’ll do almost anything to get into it.”
“You’re the crazy one.” I bit into my hamburger and said no more about it.
That night the husband thought it a great idea to open the wall. “We’ll do it tomorrow. I’m off then, and it’s too late to start tonight. It’ll be dark out shortly, and impossible for searching.” He said he had read On the Road years before, so knew something of Kerouac. “You really think there’s a piece of Kerouac behind our bathroom tile?” he asked Dean, as his wife looked on skeptically, haggard.
“Yes, I do. I know my friend Scott here thinks I’m crazy, but I do.”
I said nothing, but rolled my eyes to reveal that I did, in fact, think his enthusiasm was a bit irrational.
The master of the house, an older man with bushy grey hair, a beard, and a plaid flannel shirt, of the Viet Nam generation, had introduced himself as Reddy Marx when we arrived. After we secured his agreement, I felt we should leave Reddy and his younger wife to their evening. Dean and I would need to find another motel, hopefully one better than the Flamingo.
“We should go,” I said. “We need to find lodging.”
“Don’t be silly!” Reddy said. “You can have our room. Anya and I’ve already discussed it. And if you get the urge to break through the bathroom wall during the night, I don’t suppose I can stop you.”
“Well, this is an unexpected pleasure!” I said, extremely suspicious. He wants to rob or kill us, I couldn’t help thinking. At first I thought he’d get rid of us out the door so he could look for the manuscript himself. Then I thought his motives even more sinister. “But we don’t want to be any trouble to you,” I finished, giving Dean a significant look of, “Let’s not stay here.”
Dean was too excited. “Scott, they’ve just extended their hospitality,” he said in front of them. “It would be rude to decline. Besides, if you feel uncomfortable, you can sleep out in the car.” We both knew that was not an option—the car was filled with his rucksack and other gear. Sleeping outside under the Stars, à la Kerouac and Ryder, suddenly seemed preferable to me.
“Fine,” I said, feeling very bad about this, my inner New Yorker highly skeptical of these odd hosts.
The night passed uneventfully. Reddy and Anya were up late, but I was up later, sitting in the dark on the bed as Dean snored, watching the light crack under the door, expecting them to attack us any minute. I sat upright another hour after the light went out, finally falling asleep about three. I knew Dean would be waking about four anyway; he usually did, being jumpy. When I dragged myself out of bed about eight, Dean, Reddy, and Anya were already studying the bathroom tile.
“Did you find it?” I asked sleepily. “May I use the bathroom?” They had been engrossed in their tile analysis, but, startled back to courtesy, ceased and stepped aside for my sake.
“There’s coffee left over,” Anya offered. It was the first kind sentence she’d uttered.
“Thank you!” I said, and gently closed the bathroom door.
Dean’s entire life had been spent in anticipation of this moment. He was not actually very much like his namesake; my Dean was more quiet, scientific, and introverted, not so much a womanizing car thief. He took out his notes, and concluded, “There is nothing specific. We have to tear it all out, unless we can figure out which tiles may have been open or loose in the ‘Fifties.” He searched the tiles pleadingly, hoping they would give him an answer. And they did. In one corner, he noticed a discoloration, what seemed to be a mismatched tile. “Could it have been broken and replaced?” Dean asked Reddy.
“Anything’s possible,” Reddy said. “Might as well smash it, since we’re considering smashing all the rest anyway.” He produced a hammer and began hitting the tile. It cracked, then fell apart. Reddy stuck his hand in. “I think I’ve got it!” And he had: it was too easy, almost. But he had found a rolled-up parchment, fastened with an old rubber band, typed in the unmistakable font of an old typewriter. This was pre-Apple Pages, pre-Microsoft Office Word, or even WordPerfect, to be sure.
“Amazing,” Dean uttered. The rest of us gathered around Reddy in the cramped bathroom. We had to see it for ourselves to believe it. Reddy was leaning farther and farther backward over the toilet bowl as we crowded against him.
“Let’s go to the living room,” Reddy said, supporting himself against the back wall. We made straight for it.
“This is an amazing discovery, as Dean said,” Reddy said. “As owners of the property on which it was found, we have some rights.”
I foresaw a huge haggle, fight, and pain.
“What do you intend to do with it?” Anya asked us, primarily Dean.
“Get it published,” Dean said. “I want the World to read it.” Speaking of reading, none of us had even thought to open the scroll, we’d been so wrapped up in the simple excitement of discovering it. Reddy handed it to Dean, appreciating that even if he had rights, this was Dean’s show. Dean touched the rubber band, which had grown brittle over fifty years behind a basement wall, and it crumbled into dust. He opened the paper, which seemed fairly long.
“I can hardly believe it,” Dean said, tears forming in his eyes. “I’ve dreamed of this my whole life.” He read aloud:
In my wanderings across our fair nation, I spent some time in the southwest working in an old gold mine for a week, helping some crazy grizzled prospector, Old Sparky, who insisted there was gold under the New Mexican mountains. It was the final parting gift of the ancient Indian gods, he’d say. After a week outside Las Cruces, Old Sparky and I parted ways, with no gold dust found. I didn’t think he’d ever find anything. He paid me three dollars for my trouble and I was off. I thought about trying to find Terry again when I reached LA, but it had been years, and I was sure she’d settled down by then. She was just another fanciful dream.
I found myself in Albuquerque. I was dropped there by a friendly older couple, religious types, who hadn’t felt the need to share with me the Good Lord’s word, probably since they could tell I’d already heard it. It was a beautiful day. I stopped into a silver diner opposite the railroad tracks for a bite, possessed with the spirit of good fortune. Something had changed for the better, I could feel it. The first thing I did was have a fine coffee, strong enough to glue your toes together.
“This is…wonderful!” Dean exclaimed. “It’s the lost adventure of Jack Kerouac!” He sat down. “It goes on—it’s all about some people he met at this diner in Albuquerque. He gives character analysis…meets another girl…has a romance. Her father doesn’t like it, chases Jack out of the house with a gun! He could have died!” Dean was overcome. “This makes everything else more meaningful! He hadn’t written The Dharma Bums or The Subterraneans yet! Imagine if he’d been killed!”
“We’d all be sitting around thinking On the Road was all he had in him,” I said. “All right, I was wrong. Let’s go home and call publishers.” I stood up.
“This calls for a celebration,” Reddy said. He produced two bottles of wine and some beer. “We’ll all be rich and famous.” I felt that eight-thirty in the morning was a little early to start drinking, and was dubious, but Dean was delighted.
It turned out that Reddy was a poet who’d been waiting years for an audience, so he took this opportunity to give a reading, “in tribute to the Beat Generation”. Before we could protest, he whipped out a sheaf of papers and began to read aloud. “Ode to a Horse,” he intoned. “This one is about my favorite childhood pet.”
About two hours later, I excused myself to get some air, strolled out onto their humble porch and past it to the car. I stood at the driver’s side door, wishing Dean were outside getting air with me, so I could pack him in the passenger side and go home. Anya came outside and saw me shuffling about in the dirt road.
“You haven’t had breakfast yet,” she said. “Come back in. I’ll fix you something nice.”
“No, thanks,” I returned. “I’m fine.” She kept coming toward me. After she had stepped around the car, she picked something off my shoulder.
“Reddy and I don’t love anymore,” she said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had the pleasure of a man’s full company.” As she made eyes at me, the breeze played with her hair, and her face looked more attractive than it had the day before. She placed her hands on both my shoulders and leaned in for a kiss.
“I’m sorry,” I said, pulling back and disengaging her hands from my shoulders. (Luckily, I could still hear Reddy inside roaring away, about cars and trees and Life, even Dean shouting, “Yeah, yeah!”) “I’m sorry for your troubles, but I’m spoken for,” I lied, “and, whether happily or not, so are you.”
Her face soured. “Reddy doesn’t mind!” she said, making another attempt to sweet-talk me. For all I knew she was a serial killer. I stepped backward, New York nerves on alert. I had to get Dean and the scroll out of there. I went back inside, Anya following.
At the moment I stepped back in, Reddy had finished his sheaf of papers. “You all right, man? This is great stuff! You just missed the best one!” Dean inquired, exclaimed, and mourned, after clapping.
I nodded my sorrow at having missed “the best one.”
“You got any more?” Dean sincerely asked Reddy.
“Do I!” enthused Reddy. “I’ll be right back!” He went to the bedroom to rummage. Now was our chance. I grabbed “Quirky ’Querque” and pulled Dean up. He didn’t have any other belongings to retrieve. “We’re going,” I whispered.
“No!” Dean slurred. “It’s just getting good!”
“It’ll have to get good some other time.” I dragged him outside by one arm past Anya, who smoldered and glowered at me.
“I’ll tell my husband you made a pass at me!” she threatened. That was when I really knew it was time to leave—and that he would really mind his wife fooling around with other men.
“Have a good Sunday,” I said. “Tell your husband we loved his poetry.” I opened the passenger door and placed Dean inside his car as gently as I could, but his limbs, and his mind, didn’t always cooperate. I could hardly believe he had allowed himself to become drunk before breakfast.
“Hey, man! Lemme outta here.”
As fast as I could, I ran around to the other side of the car. Luckily, Dean’s attempts to open the passenger door were hindered by his inebriation and his cradling the scroll more gently than a baby. He cursed me. At that moment, Reddy emerged from the house with another sheaf of papers.
“I got ’em!” he exclaimed proudly. “My set of ‘honeymoon’ poems! I wrote these when we went up to Bear Lake!” Reddy was tipsy himself, but not so much so that he didn’t notice me starting the car to go, or Anya standing there with arms folded, tapping her foot in anger.
“What happened?” he asked, but it was too late. We were off. “Hey,” Dean moaned, his head falling to the side. “That’s not nice. Where are we going, anyway?”
“Home,” I said. “Fast.” I just hoped the Marxes hadn’t made a note of Dean’s license-plate number.
“What about Wild Zane of the Mountain?” Dean asked as I drove as fast as I could, his car raising dust from the dirt road.
“We’ll visit him next time,” I said, concentrating on not getting stuck in a tire-gully. “That was wild enough for me.”
Looking back, I saw Anya shaking her fist at us.
“We’ll have to send her a card,” I said.
A few hours later, Dean was sober, driving, and pensive, not speaking half as much as usual.
“Well? What is it?” I asked, turning to face him. “What’s got you? We accomplished—you accomplished your lifelong dream. You were right when everyone else was wrong. You’re going to be remembered forever as contributing to the history of American literature.”
“Yes,” Dean said grimly, still concentrating on something beyond the road beyond his steering wheel. “But now that it’s found, what do I live for? What is there left to seek?” He looked at me then, doubt in his eyes.
“You live for you,” I said. “Kerouac will live forever, and even more now, thanks to you. But you are alive here and now. Frankly, I think he’d trade places with you.”
Dean nodded, slapped his steering wheel in imitation of Dean Moriarty, and said, “Whee! You’re right!”
“That’s the spirit,” I smiled.
And we continued roaring down the road, driving all day and night for kicks. We found ourselves on the outskirts of Portland at eight o’clock the next morning, ravenous for breakfast. At Sully’s in Milwaukie, we found it. I had their Mediterranean omelet, which I loved.
Soon afterward, “Quirky ’Querque” took its rightful place among all other Kerouac classics, even kindling interest in him in a new generation of readers, thanks to the buzz it produced in the media. We attended press conferences to announce the discovery and then the publication of the short story. Dean realized his lifelong dream. I was very glad for him. Even Reddy and Anya got their due, as reporters and tourists made regular pilgrimages to gaze at the hole in their bathroom wall. They turned their home into a mini Kerouac tourist trap. Dean gave them a share of the publishing royalties as well.
We caught you, Jack.
Lindsey Royce’s poems have appeared in periodicals and anthologies, including the Aeolian Harp #8, #7, and #5 anthologies; Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts (periodicals and anthologies);The Hampton-Sydney Review; TheNew York Quarterly, Poet Lore, and The Washington Square Review. Her poems have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes in 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022. Royce’s first poetry collection, Bare Hands, was published by Turning Point in September of 2016, and her second collection, Play Me a Revolution, published by Press 53 in September of 2019, won second place for poetry in the 2020 Independent Publishers Book Awards. Her third collection, The Book of John, is under contract with Press 53 and will be “born” into the world in April of 2023.
BLM: Talk a little about what it was like to write a whole volume of grief poems for your husband John.
LR: John’s death was brutal to watch. I was his caretaker for most of the time he was sick and then dying from stomach cancer. The pain in watching him suffer was excruciating, although it was nothing compared to his agony. But I put on a cheerful face to take care of him through his time at home when we still believed he might live, through medivac flights to the front range when we still believed he might live, and then for hospice when his mother joined me to help, and we knew he was dying but still hoped for a miracle. It was devastating to watch a burly, healthy man of just 56 years old wither away, lose about 60 lbs., and ultimately die.
I had posted my hope and grief on Facebook and got a tremendous amount of love and support from all my wonderful online friends. Before John died, strangers sent him cards and gifts, which meant the world to him. Some of these things I wrapped with my presents for him: I had a tower of gifts for John that I suspected he’d never use, the receipts tucked away in order to return them after he died. But I gave him a great Christmas when he was in hospice. It would have been the Christmas of his dreams had he been healthy.
John died in January, and when I was grieving online and privately, Aliki Barnstone called me out of the blue. We didn’t know each other. She was compassionate and kind, inviting me into her then-daily writers group. The group met online every day, and I poured my grief into poem after poem with the support of this group. I initially had 120 pages for The Book of John, but when it was tightened, the collection went down to 70 pages.
Why did I write it? I wrote it because I had to. I wrote it because John deserved to be known, loved, and remembered by people other than me and his family and friends. I wrote it because I couldn’t NOT write it. I wanted to chronicle John’s life and death, not only for him and me but for his family as well. I wanted his memory in words, in a concrete form. I wanted his friends and family to recognize him in the book and those who didn’t know and love him to come to know and love him. I wanted to write a tribute to him—one of deep love.
BLM: You’re asked to present a lecture on the greatest thinker of all time. Who do you choose and why?
LR: I admire Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Baldwin, visionaries and activists for social change. It’s one thing to be a great thinker and another to put brilliancy into action. I admire these thinkers because they have made an enormous difference in our world, and although justice is still tragically lacking for Black people, these men contributed to greater equality. Ultimately, I want to see 100% equality, for MLK, Jr.’s dream to come true.
BLM: What do you feel is your best or most successful poem, and why?
LR: This is difficult. I am not a good judge of my poems. I have a blind spot when it comes to “ranking” my poems. So, I called Pam Uschuk. She and I had a tough time, but we decided that I have a fondness for "Portrait in Half Light", although we like a number of poems in the collection. So, I’ll include this poem.
Portrait in Half Light
My husband could be anyone
in this half-light. I pay gentle attention
to massaging his toes, the balls of his feet,
and his arches, the only body
parts the cancer hasn’t slit
like the gut of a fish.
I am not granted the luxury of turning back,
wistful salt-stone like Lot’s wife.
I contemplate his full
mouth, no longer quick
to grin, but grim
on his bony, dying face.
his hands rant in his sleep.
They twitch, strip a line, and reel in
he cooks into a dream amandine.
All I can manage are the tasks before me—
to inspire, encourage,
put locks of his hair
at the feet of statues
of Jesus, Brahma, Buddha.
The hook that would reel him from me
judders through the hours,
its steel piercing hope.
Chiaroscuro, the altar of the white sheet,
hints the fabric is light itself
upon which his skeletal body leans
into my arms, a living Pieta.
My resolve is marble, my powerlessness, absolute,
while his green eyes flicker open, supernaturally pale,
and I hinge another panel to paint a diptych of our life,
one in which he gets succor, mercy, and his full share
I would change this narrative
the way I alter lucid dreams,
turn morphine into manna,
transform his agony
with drugs and prayer.
We’d nestle by a fire, dream not of exotic travels,
victory, fortune, or perfect love—
but of watching fun standup on Netflix, playing
with our dogs in snow-tromped fields, my husband’s steak au poivre
steeping the house in peppercorn, butter, cognac—
I’ll pray for these small marvels,
and beyond John’s weak reach,
which cannot grip
to twist out
the deep-set hook that yanks him away.
Against my dread,
I’ll pray for every beat of his heart
against the emergency alert blaring
against what’s left of our stupid hope.