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Good Letters

20080821-my-catcher-in-the-rye-by-kelly-fosterMaybe it’s because my students and I are discussing Holden Caulfield this week—this sweet kid who genuinely wanted to know where the ducks went in winter. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading Salinger and teaching once again at a rigorous prep school. Maybe it’s because I’ve just moved back home to Mississippi and it’s as terrifying as it is comforting. Maybe it’s because I smoked a cigarette for the first time in months yesterday. But I couldn’t stop thinking about my friend Zach last night, so I wanted to write about him.

Zach is the fourth child of an extraordinary family of six children who have a pretty ordinary last name—the Johnsons. They are all so incredibly gifted and tender and fascinating they might as well have been written by Salinger. They could even change their surname to Tenenbaum (that’s for you Wes Anderson fans).

They score movies (that then win Jury prizes at Sundance), they design album covers for platinum-selling albums, they graduate from Harvard, they play Red Rocks, they furnish the palaces of Near Eastern princesses, they design boutiques in New York, they model, and that’s all just in a couple months. They’re a bit ridiculously cool, in fact, and you’d have to resent them for it if they weren’t so terribly kind and self-deprecating.

Like my friend Reva whom I wrote about last week, I first got to know the Johnsons through our great Boston experiment. I first got to know Zach the way one gets to know Zach, smoking cigarettes on the front porch, talking about Dostoevsky and writing and, well, cigarettes.

Zach used to drum for The Fray. He jokes sometimes that he should make business cards that say, “Zach Johnson. I used to drum for The Fray.” Zach cried once when he read in People magazine about Avril Lavigne’s struggle with an eating disorder. One day while walking in New York, Zach got punched in the face by a complete stranger (to be fair, Zach did tell the man to do it—long story). Zach sings like Tom Waits, and if you compliment him on his drumming, he shrugs and says, “I was just trying to sound like the guy from Sigur Ros.”

On the surface, Zach looks like the kind of angel-headed hipster that should be volleying cynical comments with a Gauloise dangling between his smirking lips. Except there’s not a cynical bone in his body. He’s compassionate. He listens with rapt attention. To everyone. Which is why many of us who lived with him in Boston view him as our favorite old-souled younger brother. But he’s also this dangerous, seething muse—the kind of piercing radiance you’d hate to see sputter or cease to flicker in this dark world. Because life is often unkind to those who wear their power and their beauty so terribly close to the skin, and you shudder to lose it.

Not long after I moved to Massachusetts, my friend Katie got invited to play in Boston’s NEMO Festival. Her show was at a little pub in Brookline called Matt Murphy’s. She’d been rehearsing for days in our basement with several of our friends, including Zach on drums. I listened upstairs while I did the one creative thing I can do with my hands—I cooked. I chopped rosemary and braised chicken while everyone else tuned guitars and tried to sync up with each other. But I could sense the show rise and expand beneath me, and I had this prescient awareness you get before the things happen that mark you for life—a distillation of the world into something potent and real.

We ate our dinner outside—chicken, potatoes, arugula, red wine—as the sun set, and then we made our way to Brookline. The show was beautiful—this beautiful thing—like all Katie’s shows are—like being invited to the interior of some ethereal music box. “Taxicab Reveries” was her last song. It’s one of those songs that crescendos at the end into what’s almost an ecstatic cacophony—drums, guitar, piano, bass—and over it all the while Katie keeps repeating with a sort of breathless elegance, “Spiral downspin, spiral downspin.”

And what happened next is still so hard to describe. On the one hand, all Zach did was beat the drums loud and hard for a long time. But everyone who was there knows what I mean. And knows why it’s so hard to say. Ben played so forcefully his well-calloused fingers bled all over his guitar. Katie and Melissa just kept singing and singing and singing. Phil played bass like he was hypnotized. My friend Chad, who is anything but weepy, had to get up and leave because he was so affected. It felt like what would happen at the only kind of tent revival I’d ever want to be a party to—like the Spirit moving over the waters, the sun breaking out.

I felt sublimated, sublime. I felt like every hungry, fierce, abandoned and good thing in me was finally and fully awake. For the only time before or since, I couldn’t stop crying because of how well someone played the drums.

Now years later, here I sit. I’m an English teacher again—the kind of person who pays car insurance and grades for comma splices. Don’t get me wrong. I love my job. I love my life. I am trying to make peace with the mundane I’m so often given to celebrating.

It’s just that every now and again, I put Katie’s CD on and I listen to Firecracker loud as I can stand it. I drive. Zach plays the drums, and all that’s unbound in me mutters a prayer to him so much like the one Holden Caulfield muttered to his dead brother, Allie:

“Don’t let me disappear. Don’t let me disappear. Don’t let me disappear.”

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Kelly Foster


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