Vietnam, three marriages, three divorces, a son killed in a car accident, a daughter on crack, bankruptcy, eight months in the state pen for assault, plus a tour of duty—his words—in a psychiatric hospital: I haven’t seen him in two decades, but here he is, pulling up a stool beside me in The Press Box, a bar near the school where he tried to save his life by writing all its sadness onto a page, so he could crumple it up and start over. Poem after poem of anguished prose about his miserable life, all as difficult to discuss in class as stanching a dozen wounds at once. “Hey, Teach,” he says, then shakes my hand as if my bones are glass. Even in his forties he looked half dead, sparse hair grimy gray, cheeks and neck raw from Agent Orange, chest Auschwitz-thin. Now he’s just risen from his grave. Even his dirty T-shirt and jeans seem half decayed. I try to smile, ask him what he’s doing these days. “Hauling Hazmat,” he answers. “You know. Hazardous materials. I’m a trucker now. I drive those big chrome bombs on wheels. Toxic shit. Explosives. I’m the last guy you want to see driving down your street, but the pay’s great, and if I go, man, I’ll really go. There’ll be parts of me raining down everywhere.” He says this as if it’s a joke, but he’s not smiling. Then he asks me something, but I can’t hear what because I’m remembering the first time he turned in a poem, how he stood there in my office, his face pale, lips drawn tight, and held it out toward me, one thin sheet of ordinary paper covered with black words, his hand trembling as though it might explode.
David Jauss is the author of five books, including Black Maps, the winner of the AWP Award for Short Fiction, the poetry collection Improvising Rivers, and the essay collection On Writing Fiction. He has also edited three anthologies, most recently Words Overflown by Stars, which contains essays on the writing of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. He teaches at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and in the low-residency MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Photography by Eleanor Leonne Bennett