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,
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.