Late October, they hurry in
just before the rains begin
and they make themselves obscure against a wall
flattening in place like onion skins
or glassy flakes of coal
split off in sheets of fossil darkness
Furred brown or opalescent
seeking heat but not your heat
they pretend to be dead
until one day they are
more dead than pretending
folding in on themselves in a gesture
we recognize as a kind of clinging
to the consolation of form
— The Moths, Camille Norton
the last restroom of the rounds— a square, grey cinderblock hut sitting along the evergreen tree line, the most remote of all the point defiance restrooms, visited almost solely by trailrunners at this time of year. a september crisp had crept into it all, through the fir needles, the puget sound eddies, the narrow dark pavement, the surely rotting picnic tables, the vertical clay cliffs, the chain link fence failing to keep the cliffs from bootprint erosion. the sun rose, but more shyly than in august, and the lookout was a hideout, a territory of solitude. i was alone with the white parks truck and box of blue gloves.
this was routine, of course. five a.m. sundays used to greet me with sunrise, but with the turn of the season, the leaves too wanted to turn, and the sky strained to open. i’d start the rounds turning the truck through black woods, spraying down the walls, wiping porcelain, sweeping, mopping, freshening, until i reached that final restroom, that farthest point like an iceburg’s summit, where dawn finally existed. the sun, the silence, and finis.
only weeks were left of this job, and then i’d be onto the sandwich shop nearby. stretching out the blue gloves, i already felt myself missing the moss air and sponge dirt beneath my boots, the solitude followed by a meet-up with ross, who may have a quick project before my five hours were up. i had a short walk to the restroom door, which i unlocked, swept open, and stepped through. there was the welcome of white tiles and concrete floor, the fluorescent lights. quiet.
but that one morning, something else held a presence in that square room, some unfamiliar movement, something soundless.
i walked into a swarm of moths batting mint wings. dozens on dozens, all of them caught in their own floating eddy. the tiny silhouettes created a flickering effect under the fluorescent light, patterns of shadows rippling over the walls. like a flurry — green flakes of snow caught up in a restroom wind gust. i stood still, beneath, trying to count them like stars, until they slowed their flight and fell to the walls, muted, all of these little candle flames steadying their dance after a draft, the draft being my sudden presence.
where had they come from, & why settle here, in this dingy park restroom? and why had i, out of anyone who could’ve fallen in on such a scene, witnessed their spell?
they had cast a net, something intricate spread out over the simple square room, and i was caught in it: an eclipse of color among gray, beauty among grime. a sacred flurry. a web of still motion.
a swarm of moths.
the first sign of moths found me in corruption, a skinny volume of poetry by camille norton. i had picked it up in missoula’s bird’s nest bookstore, where a smiling golden retriever, rightfully named “gloria alleluia”, meandered through the maze of shelves. i was aiming my life towards spokane, but had stopped in missoula to visit kinsey, who transferred there the year before and thrived among like-minded friends and days filled with theater courses. with her schedule keeping her occupied, i wandered downtown beneath the overcast, read gregory corso in a cafe, and contemplated if i should finally commit to my first tattoo.
the rebellious allure of tattoos hadn’t evaded me, though they’re so common now i can hardly consider them that rebellious. i never believed i could pull one off until summer 2017, when i clenched my focus around the words & music of patti smith. i was reading m train, a collection of patti’s memories and, more memorably, a collection of dreams. it was her dream that coyly introduced me to sam shepard.
I had another dream about the cafe in the desert. This time the cowpoke was standing at the door, gazing at the open plain. He reached over and lightly gripped my arm. I noticed that there was a crescent moon tattooed in the space between his thumb and forefinger. A writer’s hand.
— How is it that we stray away from one another, then always come back?
— Do we really come back to one another, I answered, or just come here and lazily collide?
He didn’t answer.
the image melted into me— the sprawled hand, the dark ink, the sliver of moon. a collision of thought. a writer’s hand.
i’d considered the moon ever since i eyed the line, and then again after i read just kids, where i discovered that the crescent mooned cowpoke was in fact a real man— sam. his name led me through a maze of research, of interviews and biography pages, of scanning bookshelves for collections of his plays. i was peeling into his life, collecting shells of fact. sam played the drums. he loved horses. he wrote plays. he settled in midway, kentucky, a certain small bluegrass town i dreamed about as a nine year-old. i was tracing lines between our names, not necessarily digging for coincidental constellations, but coming across them naturally. i was a little of him, he a little of me. our separate lives intersected within a given name.
sam shepard wasn’t the first sam to make me wonder about my own name. my mother named me after her late brother, a painter and piano player, a cook with assertive wit. as kids, he and mom bickered often, although with age they grew closer, a truth evident in a basement treasure chest filled with letters he wrote, pressed flowers from his last rented room, a painting he gave to my mother. she dreamed of his death the night he passed away. all of my knowledge of him i’ve collected slowly, second-hand, through her and family. she says he lives in me, she sees him when i’m sautéing at the stovetop , laughing at gene wilder’s antics in young frankenstein, writing by the window, saying something sharp.
there’s a third sam i met as a coworker in a small montana grocery. he studied architecture, and with a steady hand, would write with the cleanest, almost mechanized handwriting. i worked several closing shifts with him, the winter sky fading into candy gradients, and he’d stare out the broad windows, blue eyes beneath his baseball cap, and ask me funny questions. i always feared that he found me boring with my blank stare, when slow stores hours brought me to a thoughtful stupor, swimming laps in daydreams. he would pace and move constantly— i see the swing of his feet as he sat, the tapping of his fingers on the counter. sometimes his energy found no escape, and i would grow restless too, taking pennies from the spare change bowl and testing how many i could spin at once. usually, five or six.
over the course of several shifts i noted how he, too, loved mint chip ice cream. he grew up with step-parents and step-siblings. we both compulsively rearranged and organized — i would re-organize the lotion and candle stand to give myself something to do, and later, i’d spot him rearranging the same stand. little similarities i’d find with him, although any two people uncover bits like this. pieces shared.
i remember a handful of conversations with sam, most of which are stories from his life. but one i turn back to more than others.
the market was empty, save for us two, and i sat barely fitting into the plastic bag cubby. beyond the glass threshold was navy night, that montana winter ink. sam stood across from me, beside the register screen.
— so, what do you really love to do?
i guess a lot of things.
— but what really… brings you joy? if you could do anything in the world right now what would it be?
i like to write, play music. i’m saving up for a camper van, so after i graduate i can travel across the u.s.
— why not just do that now?
well, i’m here, i have a scholarship. i need a degree for a job, don’t i? that’s what everyone says.
— who cares what everyone says! you should do what you love, now.
how will i pay for it? my parents won’t be throwing money towards it.
— find a job, you can find a job anywhere, and save it up.
his urgency took me back.
— just think about it. why wait?
i nodded. it was strange, everyone else offered me the same bullshit whenever i said i just wanted to get school over with: that’s smart. get a degree, get a good job with it. you’ll be set that way. and sam rarely asked me a question like that. the end of the shift loomed, so i stepped into the back cooler to stock drinks, music in my ears, thinking about what he told me.
i think of sam when i think of sam shepard, and then i think of sam, my uncle. all the sam’s. oddly i’ve fallen upon traces between them all, like finding a worn trail beneath my feet while wandering the woods. for instance, when i first heard joni mitchell’s coyote, the afternoon sun illuminated the browns and faded yellows of the market walls, and sam was playing music through the speaker. i knew the voice, one i’d listened to dozens of times, but not the song.
hey, it’s joni! i said.
— yeah, it’s a good song
months later, i was flying through david yaffe’s biography on joni, where i read about joni’s run-in with sam shepard. the coyote in her song is, supposedly, sam.
Coyote was jumping straight up and making passes
He had those same eyes just like yours
Under your dark glasses
Privately probing the public rooms
And peeking thru keyholes in numbered doors
Where the players lick their wounds
And take their temporary lovers
And their pills and powders to get them thru this passion play
all of this harbored, anchored in my mind in missoula, as i passed the blaque owl tattoo shop. i had just dropped school the day before, let it fall like pennies onto the pavement. the volvo was packed full with my old dorm room. all of my friends were crammed in windowless rooms taking exams as i walked alone on gray sidewalk cracks. i was going to work behind counters, save my money, fly to undetermined cities, reach my hand out to strangers, write. the blaque owl’s door opened.
the plane window, an oval of polished opal, peered over my shoulder. spokane was only a forty-five minute flight from seatac but offered enough time to sift through camille norton’s corruption. of all the poems, i dogeared only a few pages, the moths being one of them. it reminded me of sarah, a girl i knew in high school, who harbored a particular adoration for moths. turning to that page now, i see i’d written two identical annotations on that flight. ghosts.
the plane landed in spokane, my city of experimental venture. i wanted to plant roots somewhere different, without parents, to find a job to fund future travels, walk the streets, soak in the array of alien faces, pavement, and verdure. that past august, as we were rolling towards bozeman, my parents and i had stopped in spokane to visit the stewarts, the family who’d rented a room out to uncle sam. on their sprawling porch, they welcomed us like old friends — heaped spaghetti onto our laps, refilled our wine glasses, spewed off stories. their voices bounced off the stars. dusk closed around us, and i listened.
sam had died in that house. jobi led the story, remembering that day as the first time her future husband met her family. it was bloomsday — runners filled spokane’s brim with spring ardor. jobi thought it odd that sam hadn’t come downstairs amidst the commotion, so she opened his door, tried to wake him.
— but i knew. i looked up and said ‘oh, you’re gone sam!’
he’d dyed his hair violet just before he died. all of the stewarts knew him for his cooking, his take-no-bullshit personality, his sturdy gait. he’d throw ornamented dinner parties, facilitated an impromptu “three-hour vacation” involving scarves and a convertible car ride. i could see their love for him, still alive, swirling in that singular house above the spokane river.
that was the house i moved into april of 2018. i unpacked in the teal-walled room, across the hall from sam’s. it felt strange, cooking at the stove where he cooked, sleeping two walls away from where he passed. but it was a comforting strange. the stewarts treated me with incredible kindness, always looked out for me, like they’d found their long-lost cousin. i’d bike around the city, ingest the high desert sun. i’d write and draw a fair amount in my room, or at st. john’s cathedral on the hill. moths were everywhere, upside down on my ceiling, sideways on a fencepost, flying crooked on the porch. little felt angels.
still, despite all the good fortune that fell into my hands, i stressed about finding a steady job, grew withdrawn without making many new friends. after a month, i decided to repack, drive back to tacoma.
a few nights before i left i sat in sam’s room for a while, listening. the french doors opened out to the tree talk — nothing but little whispers between leaves. the rectangle opening out into the night was so perfectly indigo, like raven hair, black but not black, but blue. i had lit a slim white flame on the bedside table. the breeze would slow and outside would fall so quiet, not even the street cats would shout. only, every once in a while, there came the air drifting with joyous coyote quips. i listened for something, i don’t know what. pulled a few tarot cards, which told of oversea travel.
maybe sam was there, telling me something too.
maybe he wasn’t.
grandpa’s dining area i know so well, with the fireplace brick, rickety rocking chair that’s been replaced by a cushier rocking chair, doors of sliding glass with a view of the green grass hill, oval wooden table, chairs with woven backs. the mantle homes photographs of our cousins, aunts and uncles, josh and i growing up.
i sat at that table last may, telling grandpa about my move to astoria. as always, a baseball cap topped his head, his glasses magnified his eyes only slightly, and he sat in the corner by the sliding glass, nodding at my words. he perked up when i talked about working at a butcher.
— hey! i used to work at a butcher. or, well, a grocery store. that’s how i met your grandma.
i’d never heard this before. tell me the story, i said.
all drenched in a west virginia timbre, grandpa’s voice flowed with memory, with love. he was the teenage delivery boy for the town grocery, and one day, as he unpacked the simmons’ delivery in their kitchen, a young lady named dorothy walked in.
— she shook me up. all along the drive back i thought about her. i forgot to deliver the next order, and had to turn around.
the image of it endeared me: young grandpa behind a truck wheel, aglow with captivation in a small west virginia town. what if he hadn’t delivered that day? would he still have run into grandma, eventually? and what about my own two parents — did they find each other, or was it written in stars?
how comforting it is to believe in celestial direction, to feel that every moment is precisely placed, to reassure myself that i’m not alone and adrift even when i am. when i started writing this in the kitchen nook, a moth rested up above, wings still on the ceiling. a sign, i thought. and i had recently read a particular line from the qu’ran:
… they ask you [Prophet] about crescent moons. Say ‘They show the times appointed for people, and for the pilgrimage.’
i underlined it, drew a star on the margin. but i also shake my head. moths aren’t a rare creature. a crescent moon is a popular symbol. sam a common name. am i drawing lines between invisible dots?
last january, my grandma and i attended a psychic fair, which i approached with curiosity and slight skepticism. genuine psychics exist, i believe, but so does this trend for astrology and the occult — anyone could try to profit from faith in divine circumstance, especially if that anyone has a knack for reading body language or reading people in general. how easy it must be to “foresee” an answer for someone who approaches you seeking an answer, any answer. the first two psychics seemed to hinge on my obvious intention to talk to my uncle, my over-explained introductions. but the second two specifically said i would move by the end of march or beginning of april, that this decision would bring me fulfillment, room for growth.
of course i decided, on a whim, to relocate to astoria on march 23. i had visited emma, ris, and maddie in astoria for the day, and something told me to stay. before they arrived, i wrote in my black notebook, cornered in the blue scorcher bakery.
return, i have to
return with a board in arms.
a promise to myself i manifested. was it this promise, a conscious objective, that prompted me to move? or was it the subconscious messages of the oracles?
real shit, bullshit. psychological evolution, god’s design. i can’t deduce down to one or the other, and i can’t completely believe in either. again i’m at this window table within the blue scorcher’s mustard walls, and two girls behind me discuss their sun and moon signs. i keep startling at moths creeping on my bedroom windows. crescent moon still sinks into my hand, and i swear i see the sam’s i’ve never met. looking out for each other, or just passerby’s. the pattern of this chapter — being twenty-one — repeats in rows of golden thread.
— Do we really come back to one another, I answered, or just come here and lazily collide?
i read about camille’s ghost moths over a year ago, moths dead and frozen in imitation postures of life. but all of the moths i run into beat their wings, fast, like leaves flitting before a storm, the consolation of form futile in their movement. and i, i’m caught in their gale. the swish, wave, air tide of breath. i don’t see ghosts in them anymore, but instead, a joie de vivre. seeking light.