The Johnston Letter, Volume 3, Number 3
I moved to Pluto, and it isn't so bad
By Jill Johnston
People think we got rich when we moved to Pluto but I want to disabuse them right away. Ingrid may feel differently, but I'm just as poor as I ever was. And now I want to sell Pluto, you know turn it over as they say just as soon as possible. Then go to Swan's Island, another place I know well because of my mother. This Pluto place is where she died, but Swan's (in Maine, off Bar Harbor) is where she thrived as a young mother, then later on, before she retired to where I am now, had another life as a middle-aged bridge player and swimmer in Swans's frigid cove of seals. She loved the water and was permanently tanned from lying in the sun. I remember as a child getting to Swan's from Bar Harbor on a fishing boat. Now of course you have to approach the island by car ferry. I'm sure my mother went by car ferry when she took my own children Richard and Winnie there for a vacation one summer. To reach Pluto, we had a spacetruck that specializes in moving eleven thousand books. These are appendages that must be jettisoned before the next and imminent move. I looked around at the boxes the other day, and told Ingrid they resemble furniture to me now. Then there is the couch. In our 27-year history together, which began when Ingrid rescued me from Pluto and brought me back to the World, where it was imagined I could exist on one hundred dollars a week, nicely leaving my prized identity as a poor writer undisturbed, her once-beautiful Danish couch has been our favorite thing to fight over. When the stress of just living is too much, we turn to the couch. I told Ingrid I refused to go back to Pluto with it. But here it sits in all its decrepit grandeur, in its black-leather-tattered glory, our identified child, a Danish king who refuses to die, overlooking a large inert audience of boxes. Our spacetruck accommodated a huge past. What a relief to get rid of something. One day Sandra, who never left Pluto, or its suburbs anyway, made me laugh on the phone by saying, "You left the greats and the near greats and returned home to us." Then when she came over (and could view the boxes and couch and sit on the thick, extremely offensive, neither green nor gray, wall-to-wall ubiquitous rug), she announced that we had her Paracelsus! So after Sandra went home, Ingrid, who is astoundingly good at finding things, fished it out of the sea of boxes. It was our bathroom book for years, and I sometimes wondered what happened to it. In my old Pluto days, when my mother was dying around here, and I kept moving from place to place (all the while never telling my mother where I was moving to), I stayed at Sandra's for a few weeks, waiting for the closing on a house I bought with the money my mother left me, and I must have absorbed Sandra's Paracelsus then. At least all she wants is a book. Another friend, who lives in a suburb of the World, wants money she says I owed her lo those 27 years ago. She can't say how much, only that I owe her. Another friend took to telling me what I should do with my new riches, even to the point of detailing the amount I should give my dentist. So Paracelsus (a 1400s alchemist by the way, whose real name was Auroleus Phillipus Theostratus Bombastus von Hohenheim), in as bad shape as the couch, was something I could redeem. Using black shiny electrical tape I bought to repair the frames of a bunch of strange collages I made that summer of 1980 when Ingrid rescued me, I bound Sandra's Paracelsus spine to cover, and secured the loose sheaves of text inside with a rubber band stretched to encompass cover and leaves. Sandra and her friend Joanne wanted to know why we didn't tell them we were coming. I said but if we had told you, you would have told Lynn. And since Lynn and her husband Jamie, though much younger than me, were my surrogate or adoptive parents in the old Pluto days (they were raising five of their own: three of hers, one of his and one of theirs, but Lynn had a yen for taking in strays), and I had left them and made something newly peculiar of myself in the World, I felt the appropriate way to descend on them was to take them by surprise. The method was unclear until the end of the first day in our new "home" when we were starving, and I called Lynn to make sure she was there; then told her I had to call her back, whereupon we sped the five miles over what I call the beaver swamp road to their house. Though duly startled, Lynn simply thought we were stopping by on our way to the World from such outlying Pluto states as Vermont or someplace. After that, a series of orchestrated disclosures left us justly rewarded, with Lynn jumping up and down and yelling over this improbable "repatriation." I am now in the throes of transition. My exposition is over, and I have one or two themes to develop. As Heath Ledger was quoted recently, "There are many stories inside of me." These all lead however to the same place. There's a lull in a concerto where the composer has his instruments dilly and dawdle, resting, not going anywhere, murmuring at some ground zero of creation, until a strand emerges, uniting with another strand, then another, making you think something is about to happen again. One thing we know: if you live, you're going to get older. Driving away from the World late at night in a car that we bought in the Pluto area 20 years ago, we carried in the back seat an exclamatory phrase from my 1947 St. Mary's Yearbook. It reads that my "favorite thing to say" was, "I don't understand." So here I am. I don't understand what I'm doing in Pluto again. In the morning when our spacetruck arrived, the foreman Howard put together our big bed first thing, and I started camping out there immediately, way out of sight of the boxes, not to mention the couch. We had slept overnight on the road at a motel called Charon, named obviously after a satellite of Pluto's. Pluto, you are no doubt aware, is no longer classified as a planet, and/or has been demoted to a "dwarf planet." Our stuff keeps being redefined by experts, in celestial cases by astronomers. Since I "don't understand," I stick to fundamentals, reading for instance about Heath Ledger, avidly I might add, simply to find out whether he and Michelle Williams -- with whom he struck up a love affair, ultimately marrying her, and having a child with her, while playing the other gay guy in Brokeback Mountain -- were still together. No they are not; they separated recently, confirming my notion not that Heath is gay (necessarily) but rather that he had hoped to offset any impression that he was, and who could blame him, when he would be viewed universally in a film so starkly, so movingly, so straightforwardly and unapologetically, homosexual. The article was one of many I read in the World's leading newspaper -- a great number on subjects I never considered reading while living in the World -- in bed every day. And I clipped them exhaustively, every so often looking out a window with a view. We liked the windows here, with big sliding glass doors; and the fireplace, and a round bush outside, dense with countless little red leaves. I was still far though from being able to enjoy anything when my attorney Warren called me, about money surely (the attorney here on Pluto said to me, after I asked her when the closing was, "All we want is your money" -- implying that there was no need to be physically present) and I told him I was very homesick. Trying to be helpful -- he is actually an old friend -- he said, "Correction, what you mean is that you miss your old home." Okay, whatever. One night when Ingrid was away in the World, having driven a U-Haul to pick up more things from her office, I played "Castaway" -- you know, the one-man Tom Hanks film where he works for FedEx, his plane goes down, and he becomes stranded on an uninhabited island for four years -- tearing up one of our FedEx boxes to cover this bedroom window, a ground level opening. On his island, Hanks has to invent fire, and a companion. He paints a face on a soccer ball from a FedEx box that washed ashore with him following the plane crash, and calls it Wilson, after the soccer manufacturer. The film is worth it for the scene in the surging ocean after Hanks has finally decided to build an escape raft, and Wilson, tied to the top of a pole, having got loose and drifted away, makes Hanks start screaming, "Wilson...Wilson..." tying his raft to his ankle, plunging through surf and underwater to reach him but to no avail. Ingrid and I had to sort of invent fire here on Pluto. I once had a fireplace in southwestern Massachusetts, my first house away from the World, a situation much more isolated than Pluto. I lived there, no other dwelling in sight, a crick river across from a sparsely traveled country road, sometimes alone, for five years. The women would come and go, not looking for Michaelangelo, and I often made it impossible for any of them to stay, or stay very long. I remember having a cord of wood, but not building any fires, although I'm sure some were. And Ingrid never had a fireplace anywhere. In this transition, we're staring into a well-constructed fire, the andante or adagio over, lost in strands of flame that mingle and leap away then mingle again and curl around a log and vault upward and do all these pyrotechnics in their mesmeric fluorescence. Then we began chasing sunsets on hilltops and into valleys, brilliant streaking reds pinks and oranges, sinking into deep mauves and glowing crimsons stretching huge lengths of sky, none of which the astronomers have ever found in their hubblescopes. It's the landscape, stupid, I tell myself, that I loved here. And my mother drew me to it in the early nineteen sixties when she kept my children during summers in towns with lakes, and I would drive up in one of my poor writer vehicles to see them on Sundays. I had a dream here one night about my mother whose name was Olive. A woman kept reappearing who turned out to be another illegitimate child of hers. She looked like Olive. I was getting ready to approach her and ask her who her father was when I woke up. Another character in the dream was GW Bush, a miniature version, like five foot three inches tall. He looked otherwise precisely like himself, and was always smiling when he saw me. In one part of the dream he was being whisked off in a tiny gray armored car, like a tank, all closed. I "don't understand" the dream at all, and was soon diverted by a square picture of tree shadows dancing in sun on the bed. Meantime, I knew Pluto was dying because the leaves in their curled brown brittle death rattles were flying helplessly from their sturdy sticks. A paradise of yellows and breathtaking reds were heading for mulch. The tiny red ones I liked so much on the bush outside were desiccating themselves. We're surviving yesterday. I look for the evergreens. And linger over a bunch of everflowers, brought by Winnie in a small pot of earth. Trees, denuded, are now our bookcases, assembled by Ingrid and covering walls floor to ceiling just like at home in the World. And trees of the beech variety are covering our floors. That was the first thing we did: have three hardwood guys come and tear up the thick, extremely offensive, neither green nor gray wall-to-wall rug. Now of course we can't see the scrumptious new floor for the boxes. A woman across the way says she still has stuff in boxes after five years and since she can't remember now what was in them, it doesn't matter any more if she unpacks them or not. This is an appealing option. But our eleven thousand books make great decor on the walls, once wrested from their boxes. And anyway, room must be made for a new couch. Yes I went out with Ingrid miles away to a remote gigantic Jennifer convertible chain store, feeling certain I would see ONE couch there that would be practical, comfortable and aesthetic. Ingrid of course saw nothing. But she reluctantly agreed with my choice, a tweed pale mellow queen that you can sink into -- and with extra certification as a pauper's couch, very inexpensive the day after Black Friday. So for the moment we won't fight over her Danish antique -- as long as she finds a place to hide it.
Copyright 2007 Jill Johnston
©Jill Johnston. Previously published on www.jilljohnston.com.
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