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Elegy for John Denver as my first imaginary friend

by Sophie Gauthier

 

You had a wild-bear smile; that’s what my father used to call it: wider than your cheeks and wrapped in egg-shaped glasses.

It appeared in photographs like a ship in a bottle—that, once opened,

never moves again.

 

A lady at Sunday school once told me,

one day you’ll find yourself a nice boy to marry,

and I found you—

 

sitting by the radiator with paintings we hadn’t yet hung. 

I must have borrowed the shape of you 

from album covers: nebulous below the chin, and all in denim.

You leaned on an oil canvas field 

of sunflowers, holding a fiddle—just about to sing. 

 

What was a love song but two people sitting next to each other?

Happy to be close, but not needing to be closer.

 

I imagined us as survivors—leftover cowboys,

praying to the gods we made up;

I imagined us at the end of the world

and whatever grew after, running barefoot through bone-dry fields 

that rustled like fire.

 

I learned, with you, to hold a wet reed between my thumbs

and make it sing. The dead are birds, you said, and this is how you call them.

We cupped our palms to our lips like mugs of hot tea,

breathed into a space created

by knucklebones, and fluttered our fingers like wings.

 

You sat with me, one night,

as I was cutting off my hair in the blue-cloud dark

with a kitchen knife; fingers trembled, loose, as wet rags.

You told me, you look fine with it—and anyway, 

who’s left to appraise you in the end-times?

 

A love song was this:

a girl and a ghost sat two feet apart in cowboy country,

whistling grass.

It was walking with men who don’t have bodies

and writing of women who do.

 

These days, I still dream of the desert after

an apocalypse, when all the other cars are still, 

and we tear past them—down asphalt scarred by however the world 

may have ended. 

 

I want to hold a living person there, or else

remember how to love a dead one.

 

I confess: I like to miss you. I practice loss,

and you are easy for it. Easier than the house, and the burnt-out fields of cheatgrass,

easier than the dog,

and every girl I’ve dated since.

 

I picture you

in the backseat of my car, singing louder

than you’ve ever sung on cassette. I try to imagine your glasses,

in the rearview mirror, lifting as you smile.

 

I drive, in search of you, to the edge of logging roads—where swaths of forest drop 

into a sky

so wide that touching is a waste of it.

 

I count the birds on fenceposts;

I cup my fingers to my lips and blow

between the bones.

Sophie Gauthier is a self-proclaimed cowboy with only a hat and an affection for John Denver to back it up. She was raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, and her work will appear in the upcoming issue of Weber: The Contemporary West. She currently resides in Oregon, where she works as a medical lab technician.