The Incognito Lounge

Denis Johnson

The manager lady of thisapartment dwelling has a facelike a baseball with glasses and patheticallyrepeats herself. The man next doorhas a dog with a face that talksof stupidity to the night, the swimming poolhas an empty, empty face.My neighbor has his underwear ontonight, standing among the parking spacesadvising his friend never to showhis face around here again.I go everywhere with my eyes closed and twoeyeballs painted on my face. There is a womanacross the court with no face at all.They’re perfectly visible this evening,about as unobtrusive as a storm of meteors,these questions of happinessplaguing the world.My neighbor has sent his child to Utahto be raised by the relatives of friends.He’s out on the generous lawnagain, looking like he’s madeout of phosphorus.The manager lady has just returnedfrom the nearby graveyard, the lastceremony for a crushed paramedic.All day, news helicopters cruised aloft,going whatwhatwhatwhatwhat.She pours me some boiledcoffee that tastes like noise,warning me, once and for all,to pack up my troubles in an old kit bagand weep until the stones float away.How will I ever be able to turnfrom the window and feel love for her?—to see her and stop seeingthis neighborhood, the towns of earth,these tables at which the saintssit down to the meal of temptations?And so on—nap, soup, window,say a few words into the telephone,smaller and smaller words.Some TV or maybe, I don’t know, a briskrubber with cards nobody knowshow many there are of.Couple of miserable gerbilsin a tiny white cage, hystericalfriends rodomontading about goalsas if having them liquefied death.Maybe invite the lady with no faceover here to explain all these elections:life. Liberty. Pursuit.Maybe invite the lady with no faceover here to read my palm,sit out on the porch here in Arizonawhile she touches me.Last night, some kindof alarm went off up the streetthat nobody responded to.Small darling, it rang for you.Everything suffers invisibly,nothing is possible, in your face.The center of the world is closed.The Beehive, the 8-Ball, the Yo-Yo,the Granite and the Lightning and the Melody.Only the Incognito Lounge is open.My neighbor arrives.They have the television on.It’s a show aboutmy neighbor in a loneliness, a light,walking the hour when every bed is a mouth.Alleys of dark trash, exhaustionshaped into residences—and what are the dogsso sure of that they shout like citizensdriven from their minds in a stadium?In his fist he holds a notein his own handwriting,the same message everyone carriesfrom place to place in the secret night,the one that nobody asks you forwhen you finally arrive, and the facesturn to you playing the national anthemand go blank, that’swhat the show is about, that message.I was raised up from tinychildhood in those purple hills,right slam on the brink of language,and I claim it’s just as ifyou can’t do anything to this moment,that’s how inextinguishableit all is. Sunset,Arizona, everybody waitingto get arrested, all verymuch an honor, I assure you.Maybe invite the lady with no faceto plead my cause, to getme off the hook or nameme one good reason.The air is full of megawattsand the megawatts are full of silence.She reaches to the radio like St. Theresa.Here at the center of the worldeach wonderful store cherishesin its mind undeflowerablemannequins in a pale, electric light.The parking lot is full,everyone having the same dreamof shopping and shoppingthrough an afternoonthat changes like a face.But these shoppers of America—carrying their hearts toward the bluffsof the counters like thoughtless purchases,walking home under the sea,standing in a dark house at midnightbefore the open refrigerator, completelytransformed in the light…Every bus ride is like this one,in the back the same two uniformed boy scoutsde-pantsing a little girl, up frontthe woman whose mission is to tell the driverover and over to shut up.Maybe you permit yourself to findit beautiful on this bus as it waftslike a dirigible toward suburbiaover a continent of saloons,over the robot desert that now turnspurple and comes slowly through the dust.This is the moment you’ll seekthe words for over the imitationand actual wood of successivetabletops indefatigably,when you watched a baby childcatch a bee against the tinted glassand were married to a deepcomprehension and terror.

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Photo of Denis Johnson
Photo:
Cindy Lee Johnson

Denis Johnson (1949–2017) was the author of eight novels, one novella, one book of short stories, three collections of poetry, two collections of plays, and one book of reportage. His novel Tree of Smoke won the 2007 National Book Award.

From the award-winning poet and novelist—a must-have collection of his four previous books of poetry plus a selection of new, unpublished work.

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