Josey Rose Duncan

The Write Site


When we drink

I embarked on my first bender because I got dumped. Even when you know it’s coming, when you’re nineteen—and maybe, when you’re not—it sucks. After pleading and crying and empty threats, I called some friends, went to the Greyhound station, got hit-on by a dude on his way to a Job Corps forestry program, and tearfully rode the bus to Santa Cruz, where I wallowed in cheap vodka, puked up cheap vodka, and might have at some point eaten a burrito. I stumbled through five misty, hazy days before catching a ride home. Splitting headache and trembling hands aside, I felt much better than I had before I left. I felt cleansed.

I embarked on my next bender for every graduation, promotion, win, completion, or triumph. Birthdays and weddings and new apartments in San Francisco with working fireplaces and picture windows with crane-necked views of the Bay Bridge and the bay (happy housewarming).

When we tied the knot, we toasted with guests and shots of Black Maple Hill bourbon poured into square glasses printed with our initials. I celebrated with white and red wines, and club soda spiked with vodka or bourbon, through the midnight reception, until almost sunrise. We cheered and spilled and sang and shattered glasses and bendered because we were happy.

After a death, after the blood drains from behind your eyes and the world rushes past and is frozen at the same time, there are drinks. Numbing the exposed, while hugging the fresh pain close. Memories and tears cascade steady with each swig, the glass bottle bottom a story’s end. Pour a little out on the asphalt or the dirt.

Wit chases drinks. Now there is talking to strangers who are no longer strange. There is that song, that one song, and that thing that happened one time that you both think about a lot when your minds wander, when you are alone. And there is far, far less fidgeting, and arms uncross and hands gesture loudly. If you’ve panicked, you’ll know that feeling of tight-chest and pressed-against. And you’ll know that sweet booze is the deepest breath.

When new love is found or fake love is gone or decayed love falls away completely and our raw, wet selves are exposed, when we are lost or have discovered exactly what we are looking for—this is when we drink. When we must drink.

And sometimes there is nothing. There is the morning. Or the sunset, or the almost-sunrise. 12:34 or 5:13 or 7:06 and it is not-bright or too-bright or it is a dim room or it is not a room at all. There is an outside-your-fluttering-blinds where it’s not hot, or it is raining and there is thunder. Or it is one weird week of sticky Portland in December snow. Or there is fog, because it is San Francisco and there is always fog. Blinking away last night, or the last 10 hours of crisp-eyed-awake, or your last-seen 10 am, you press your neurons to spark and feel the day or night ahead and still there is nothing, except a bender.

There are always drinks. And after drinks possibilities rise like after-rain steam on sweaty sidewalks, from your warming body in the dark or the sun or the dim room with the blinking bright numbers. And you are alone or you are with someone who is so a part of you that you are basically one, one alone, or you are alone, alone, and don’t feel alone. The sweetest smoke spilling from the coldest fire that grows as you sip, and then you swig, spilling.

—Josey Rose Duncan

Read for Quiet Lighting at Public Works (San Francisco), January 2011 and published in sparkle + blink. Watch a recording of the reading here.

Bay Leaves

The creek is where all the kids went to smoke bay leaves. They’d pick them off the low branches of the bay trees that draped their crooked arms over the damp and rocky creek bed, and roll them together loosely into short cylinders that never stayed lit for longer than one drag. Somehow this had become a neighborhood rite of passage—to crouch behind the wide, white-washed cement pillars of the bridge, hidden from the road and hoping no one’s mom would wander down the banks and catch you sucking down that woody, earthen smoke.

In middle school the bay leaves were cast aside for real cigarettes, Winstons swiped one-by-one from the pack mom or dad left on the shop table in the garage, or propped open on the dashboard of the minivan while they ran into the store for a gallon of milk. Cigarette smoking required walking even deeper into the creek, past the bridge, far enough that the birds were louder than the sounds of passing cars. The cigarette smell was more incriminating than bay leaves, so it was important to walk past the old rope swing, into the greener and more overgrown dark bends and turns, where the air was moist and it smelled like piss, and there were always dirty blankets and pale, rusted beer cans lying around.

Smoking bay leaves and cigarettes turned into smoking pot out of metal pipes fashioned from pieces of plumbing, or apples, or crushed, empty Coke cans speckled with pin-holes. This meant wandering even further into the creek, treading carefully across mossy, slippery rocks that rose only slightly above the trickling water. Here there were no wide, dirt banks; only muddy hillsides that had to be gripped with the soles of sneakers, toes curling to perch on tree roots, everyone whispering, “shh, shh,” when birds whistled or squirrels sprinted through dry leaves.

When the kids were drinking, though, they were back to right under the bridge, barely out of sight of the passing cars and pedestrians. It was loud shouting, glass breaking, pissing on the white-washed cement pillars, scrawling graffiti in black sharpie on the pale primer, and soaking the cuffs of too-long jeans in the stagnant water. Here they crouched on the bright white and gray rocks of the wide banks until it was dark and they had to rub the goose bumps out of their naked summer arms.

After climbing back up the creek-banks to the road, the summer nights seemed too still. The creek was like a loud and echoing room, in a house they’d all grown up in. It was broken glass and dirty fingernails, the pinpoint flies circling rapidly above the surface of the shallow pools. The night was always bleary and exciting, bright and looming around their bodies; not like on the street, where everything lay still and quiet in asphalt lines, where everything was mapped out. Nothing could happen up there, with the porch lights and the cars resting and ticking away in the driveways, the hum of television sets flashing bright blue behind windows.

Once they climbed up the banks, there was nowhere to go but home. Nothing to do but unlock the front door and listen to the dog jingle his tags as he scratched his ears, rolled over and went back to sleep. And then there was nothing to do but peel off your clothes, and climb under your sheets, the ceiling fan whirring against the warmth and heaviness of the room as you fell asleep, the thick, green musk of bay leaves clinging to your skin.

—Josey Rose Duncan

From my Reed College senior thesis, In This House Where We Were Both Outsiders , 2006.


This beach is where you can fill a bag full of white, brittle sand dollars, the star emblazoned on the center. There is always smoky green sea glass half-buried under sand and driftwood, and dried husks of kelp and sea cucumbers, which once danced to the waves at the bottom of the Pacific. Sometimes the driftwood is big enough to sit on, hollow and gray and thick; the mast of a ship that sank a hundred years ago. There are perfect curved white shells with thick, uniform ridges. At first you pick up every one you see, even the ones with little bites taken out of them, the ones that have jagged earthquake cracks running down the middle. But by the end of the day your bag is heavy, and you sort through the shells, and you leave the ones that are not quite as perfect in a pile at the end of the beach, the place where the ocean meets the lagoon and tall, sharp, dry grass pushes through the sand, and where there are pebbles that nip at the soles of your soft feet.

Sometimes you find smooth, gray rocks with perfect, round holes in them; Swiss-cheese rocks. Then there are shells with that thin layer of green and silver iridescence on the inside that flakes off like old paint if you are not careful when you try to rub the dried sand off. They used to have mussels inside, and they smell like heavy salt, and like dead flesh. They are very beautiful, but they are fragile. If you are not careful with them they will turn to dust in your bag; they will crumble under the weight of so many white shells and Swiss-cheese rocks.

When you are very young you crouch in your red and blue swimsuit on the dense, wet sand where the thinnest tongues of waves lap against the beach. You wait and watch for the wave to reach, then as it leaves you wait for the bubbles to form. You dig as fast as you can to catch the sand crabs before they burrow too deep. One time you decide that you want to keep them as pets, and you put them into a blue plastic bucket full of soft, dark mud and take them home. But then the mud turns to cement and when you dig them out, the crabs are already dead, their bodies broken by the weight of dry sand. After that, you see their quiet bodies, their tiny orange hearts, still and cold, as you fall asleep to the rhythm of crashing waves.

When you are older you sit on the dark, night sand in tight jeans, a green 1940’s Air Force pilot’s jacket wrapped around your thin, huddled body because the zipper is broken. You watch as the white foam on the crests of falling waves turns into a row of shiny metal shopping carts, pushed down the beach by ghosts, and you laugh, because it is beautiful. That same night your friend drives his mom’s minivan too far out onto the beach and spins the wheels, burying the tires in cold sand. But the gray-haired locals appear when the bar closes with rusted pick-ups and ropes and chains and tow it out.

Another night you walk fast down the beach, so fast that you cannot breathe, your heart beating so hard that you can hear it; dark, red muscle pulsing against white rows of calcium. You need to walk to the end of the beach, where the sharp grasses push up out of the bleached dunes and the sand is pebbles. You are following the moon, you want to touch its round glowing eye, which stares down at the Pacific, setting the choppy, dark waves on fire with white light. You realize that you are walking on millions of tiny, ancient creatures; dried kelp and sea cucumbers, tossed and broken brown-and-green bottles, bleached blue whale skeletons and shark’s teeth, shipwrecks and dead pirates and shards of Pangea, and they are cool against your feet. The air is salt and wet; it is heavy and bright in your lungs.

—Josey Rose Duncan

From my Reed College senior thesis, In This House Where We Were Both Outsiders, 2006.