"The Name of the World"

An excerpt from one of Salon's 10 favorite books of 2000.

By Denis Johnson

Published December 18, 2000 5:38PM (EST)

After dessert, Ted took three or four of us up to a parapet above the house.

From the third floor a corkscrew staircase entered a dome on the roof, a curious structure like a glassed-in birdcage, about eight feet in diameter, say, and without illumination, so that the little group of us stood suddenly in the night, and in the sky. The weather had cleared, the snow had blown off the glass, and there were stars and moonlit, decorative clouds in the black heavens. "This used to be a sort of widow's walk," Ted explained, "but you can see it's been turned into -- well, I don't know what it was turned into, to tell you the truth. I bring people up here because I'm curious whether it's something with a recognizable purpose." None of us recognized its purpose. In the end, I was left up there to ponder it all with a woman named Heidi Franklin, a historian from the Art Department. A friendly but awkward woman, precise and despairing -- a homely woman, and I think I have license to make such a remark, because I'm homely, too, and older than she, so I was homely first. I'm cherubic, baby faced, past fifty but taken for years younger, with cheery blue eyes, and for all of that, homely. In the glittering dark we stood talking very softly, probably about the stars. Heidi may have been interested in a nightcap somewhere downtown; I might have been, too. That neither of us put out finger to the balance, so to speak, and urged it in that direction owed to a sense we probably shared, and I certainly felt, that we'd been left up here alone together by design. If I'd asked, I might have learned that she was single, as I was, or worse, maybe recently divorced, as I was recently widowed.

When I say recently, I don't mean it in the sense that I might have bought a car recently, or seen a movie recently. I'm speaking as I'd speak about the recent change in the earth's climate, or the recent war, the recent -- I think that's clear enough. It had been nearly four years, long enough to make me eligible again. Other people seemed to think so, anyway, and I wasn't going to argue about it.

When it was somehow decided the evening was done, all the guests left together, and the drivers started up their cars and sat inside them with the doors open while everybody said goodbye a second time. Here and there among the evergreens, lumps of snow dropped from branch to branch and down to the ground, yanking at the boughs. We'd all covered ourselves in caps and scarves, all but the lady cellist, who went hatless and carried her coat over her shoulder. In the fluorescent light of the curbside arc lamps she looked ghastly, her blue velvet dress a sudden mournful black. I heard her say three words: "Sane? Or tame?" Her abundant red hair looked purple, her big blue eyes looked fake, inhuman, her lips stood out starkly in her face. She was talking to her date, she didn't know the rest of us existed, the aging rest of us, the sane, or tame, rest of us. I felt kindly toward her, glad of her presence, maybe because she was drunk and didn't care about herself.

-- From "The Name of the World" by Denis Johnson. ) 2000 Denis Johnson. Used by permission, all rights reserved.


Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson is the author of a collection of short stories, "Jesus' Son," and five novels, including "Angels," "Fiskadoro" and his latest, "Already Dead: A California Gothic." His last piece for Salon, "Jungle Bells, Jungle Bells," was about a monsoon-plagued Boy Scout campout in the Philippines.

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