The room was completely dark, save for a sliver on the corner of the curtain that flew away from the wall every time the oscillating fan spun its direction. Every five seconds, the mirage of nighttime was interrupted by the reality of the day that was moving… and moving on, outside.
Even through the blurriness of contact lenses that had been slept in far too many nights in a row, Jake Whitley could tell that it was after noon. He’d laid in this bed enough over the past few weeks that he was well versed in the position of the sun as it moved from east to west throughout the day.
He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and stared at the ceiling. Though he knew it was sometime around 1pm, he had no idea what day it was. Was it still May? Or had it rolled over to June? As his eyes were adjusting to being open again, Jake found himself wishing that it were already time to get back in bed.
A few sleeps ago, he’d been so relieved to find no light at the corner of the curtain when he woke. The realization that he’d skipped an entire day had been the first ounce of peace he’d felt in weeks. The night that followed, however, had been as restless as the days were, the lack of sun bringing no relief from the storm in his soul.
His feet found the ground at the exact same time as the fan, making the cold of the wood floor an even more drastic contrast from the warmth of the bed sheets. He walked into the bathroom and was blinded by the abundance of light that came from the uncovered windows. Had the bedroom not been so black, the light would not have been so polarizing.
As his fingers found the knob marked “Hot,” he scrunched his face, closed his eyes, and rinsed the sleep from his forehead and beard. He exhaled and looked in the mirror. He felt like he’d aged 10 years in the last two months. Maybe he had. As he stared at his 32-year-old face, the wrinkles that hadn’t been there a year ago, he remembered her words that seemed like a lifetime ago. I can’t wait to watch you grow old, she’d said one night as they shared a sleeping bag under the stars.
He walked out of the bathroom and shook his head, as if to shake off the memory. He studied the room he’d slept in these past twenty-something days. It looked so starkly different than his real life. Back at home… if he could still call it that, the rooms were filled with life; memories in picture frames and furniture full of blemishes that each had a story. But this, the sterility that looked like an IKEA show room, made his stomach turn. A few months ago, he’d have happily traded his messy house and laundry-laden bedroom floor for all of this new stuff. But now…
He dressed quickly; jeans, a plain white t-shirt, wayfarer sunglasses, and earbuds attached to an iPhone. He grabbed a worn Moleskin journal from the nightstand, and then walked down the hallway and through a few more IKEA showrooms before he found the front door.
He hit play on the iPhone as he walked out into the summer air, the voice inside his head saying “one… two… three…” before the acoustic guitar came in.
He walked down the wooden stairs of the front porch and into the sunlight that had crept in through the bedroom window and woke him just fifteen minutes before.
Even with his sunglasses on, the green of this city was overwhelming. It made sense that the trees were called “evergreens,” but by that logic, the grass, plants, and overall landscape should’ve also shared the name. This definitely wasn’t Dallas.
A year ago, this would’ve been exciting; an entirely new city to explore, to conquer. He had always considered them adventurers, weekend trips spent diving into the music scene in Austin or the culture in New Orleans… vacations in San Francisco’s Alamo Square Park or the off Broadway theatres of Greenwich Village.
Portland could’ve been one of “their cities.”
But today, his feet found the same path he’d walked every day since he’d arrived. He stepped off the sidewalk and toward the Ladd loop… the center of quite possibly the most confusing set of streets he’d ever encountered. He’d only been in town for 19 days, but he’d heard the locals complain about “the addition” and its frustrating octagon of roads that only made sense from the sky.
With the afternoon sun beating down his neck, he walked up Elliot Avenue to Hawthorne. He then headed north on SE 20th for almost a mile, and then right on Burnside.
He’d done this every day since he’d arrived.
The song rushing through his ear buds hadn’t changed, either.
If he concentrated hard enough, he could almost put himself at the spot of the recording. It was as if he could see the balding man on the other side of the control room glass, his remaining hair and massive beard in disarray, as if he’d just woke. In the live room, the only instruments in use were a handful of acoustic guitars; the only players huddled around a single microphone.
For no particular reason, he’d always pictured Johnny with his famous D-35 when he transported himself into this story. The black Martin acoustic guitar had been made specifically for Johnny, and knowing its origin made Jake feel like he knew those involved.
The guitar had been produced in secret. The craftsmen had to hide the guitar from C.F. Martin III, the company’s owner at the time, as he thought the idea of a black acoustic guitar far too radical for the company’s reputation. Little did he know that it would become a trademark of the Martin name for years to come.
The guitar started off with the well-known melody, leaving nothing to the listener’s imagination as to what was coming. Still, Johnny’s haunting voice and Rubin’s stripped down production were more than enough to keep you listening.
As Jake walked through SE Portland in the midday heat (if you could call the SE Portland summer that), the words that were coming in through his earbuds were even more real than they had been 19 days ago…
The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping
I dreamed I held you in my arms
So I bowed my head and I cried
He’d listened to this song hundreds of times in the past three weeks. In fact, he hadn’t intentionally listened to anything else since he’d arrived in the Pacific Northwest.
He knew every instance of fret noise, every vocal inflection, every blemish in the 3 minute 17 second recording. There was the spot at 1:51 where you could hear an arm hit the body of a guitar, and there’s the way that Johnny’s voice gives a little every time he sings the word “sunshine.”
But it wasn’t the 2 minutes and 33 seconds of music that kept the song repeating… it was what followed that haunted him.
I always hated that 3rd verse.
Jake didn’t know whose voice said it, but he pictured an old man holding an old acoustic guitar somewhere off the mic. But it wasn’t even the oddity of that statement that mesmerized the listener. Or even what immediately followed…
The laughter, the words “that was a nice short version” by another unidentified voice, or even the question that came from the control room…
It was the unmistakable voice of Johnny Cash, right on the microphone, that was of utmost interest.
“Well… Whattya wanna… Let’s uh…” Cash’s words slurred together.
“Well, if I feel like my song is sung, it don’t care… I don’t care if it’s short.”
The words hit Jake every time.
“And I feel like my song is sung.”
There it is.
And so as the chatter and chuckling continued off mic, Jake touched the screen on the iPhone, restarting the song.
And I feel like my song is sung…
There was a peace in the weathered voice that spoke those words. And so Jake listened again, searching the chords and melody, trying to figure out what exactly made the song sung…
It wasn’t an exercise in songwriting, or even the actions of an obsessive fan… it was the cry of a man who desperately wanted his song to be sung.
He pictured himself sitting on the porch at midnight, with his own Martin in hand, finally finding the song that feels sung. He didn’t need, or even want, a studio full of musicians surrounding him. He no longer desired to have the signature voice, an entire catalogue of vinyl with his name on it, or a movie made out of his career. None of those aspects of Johnny Cash appealed to Jake Whitley. All he wanted was to finish a ballad, an anthem, or a lullaby, whether it be 2 minutes and 33 seconds or 33 minutes and 2 seconds, and at its conclusion, set the guitar down on the porch and walk away.
He simply wanted his song to be sung.
The phone could repeat the song about eight times during the walk from Ladd to Burnside, sometimes nine. One time last week, in the rain, it had only played six and a half times when Jake removed the hood from his head and stepped into the small coffee shop.
On that rainy day, he’d wiped his feet on the rug at the front door, unzipped his hoodie, and walked to the counter that held a La Marzocco espresso machine, three commercial grinders, and a few white mugs that were waiting to be filled.
“Hello again,” the barista on the other side of the counter smiled at him, her red hair pulled back into a bun.
Jake removed the buds from his ears, wiped his forehead with his sleeve, and set his Moleskin notebook on the counter, studying the worn out brown cover.
“Single origin Americano, black?”
He’d studied her face as she listened to his reply. Her smirk told him that she’d been proud of her memory. As her eyes realized his, she blushed ever so slightly, and turned to fill his mug with hot water.
“So, Single Origin Americano,” she spoke with her back to him, calling him by the name of his coffee. “Do you have a name?”
She turned and cocked her head, as if studying his response.
“Hi Jake,” his name sounded far less solemn coming from her lips. “I’m Haleigh.”
On this day, a week later, the sun was shining, and he arrived at the café’s front door during the second verse of the track’s eighth time through.
The smell of coffee roasting hit his senses the moment he opened the door. It’s crazy, the difference in aroma of roasted coffee and roasting coffee. It almost seems magical how a smell so harsh can lead to an aroma so pleasant. A thin cloud of smoke hung near the ceiling, and in front of the line that led to coffee was Haleigh.
He’d been here almost daily in the last seven days, and this was the first time she’d been working since they turned the corner from coffee name to first name basis .
“Hey Jake.” There it was again… the smirk. “Sorry for the wait. What are you drinking today?”
He found it odd that she’d remembered his name, which she’d heard only once, but apparently forgotten his drink, which she’d heard at least half a dozen times.
“Single origin Americano.”
“Ok,” she said. “Anything in it?”
“Just black,” he replied.
A month ago, he wouldn’t have thought twice about the exchange. In fact, in the busyness of life, he likely wouldn’t have even noticed that the barista who knew him by his drink name a week earlier couldn’t remember his order.
As he stood in front of the espresso machine, watching the other barista, a mustache-sporting hipster, hastily try and catch up to the mugs that were awaiting his work, he thought about how different his life had become in just a few weeks. Had Haleigh really been the only person he’d had a conversation with in the last one hundred and sixty eight hours?
He stared at the counter as the mustached man poured in a double shot and called his name. He grabbed the mug, watching as the espresso invaded the steaming water.
He took a seat, the same seat he’d sat in every day, at the thin half circle of a table that surrounded the coffee roasting equipment. He glanced at the longhaired twenty-something that was pouring beans into the roaster. His ears disappeared underneath his oversized headphones, accentuating the words of the wooden sign that hung above his head.
Please do not disturb the roasting operator.
Jake studied the man’s eyes as he meticulously watched the meters on the machine.
I bet his song is sung, Jake thought, flipping open the brown leather cover of his notebook.
He looked down at the white fiber and little blue lines that stared blankly back at him. Instead of wondering what he should put on the page, he found his brain thinking about the tree that died a hero in order to make this paper. He’d never cared about where his every day supplies came from, but she had cared… and she always told him everything.
“So first,” she’d begun, and Jake distinctly remembered the way that her face lit up when she was sharing information with him. Even now, it made him light up.
“After the tree is cut down, the fibers have to be unstuck from each other, because of the lignin that naturally acts like a glue. It’s gotta be turned into pulp, usually using a crap ton of water and a handful of chemicals to make it happen.”
He could picture the way she scrunched her nose when she said the word chemical. Her parents had mouths like a sailor, but this was a curse word.
“After it’s been pulped, it’s bleached and rolled out on a mat until… did you know that we pretty much make paper the same way the Chinese did it 2,000 years ago?”
She also had the tendency to interrupt herself in the middle of a sentence.
“Then it’s heated up and rolled out until all the water is gone. Did you know that the pulp can be up to 99% water?”
He didn’t, but he’d acted interested. At least he thought he did.
“So the paper is rolled out and heated up in these massive sheets,” she’d continued. “Sometimes they make ‘em over 30 feet wide. Isn’t that crazy?”
As he sat here now, inspecting the lignin and chemicals and bleach, he wondered if he should’ve paid more attention. Would that have made a difference?
He reached into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out the pen that he’d placed there before he left the coffee shop the day before.
His pushed his left index finger and thumb together, as much as the cylindrical pen would allow, and he leaned in as the tip of the ink found the upper left hand corner of the page.
I know I said I wouldn’t, but I have changed my mind…
About forty minutes passed before the page was filled with his messy handwriting, half of it scribbled out and rewritten. This felt good. Some days, he’d just stared at the empty page until he gave up and headed back home. He wasn’t sure that what he’d written today made any sense, but that didn’t matter.
He took the last sip of the Americano, the grounds from the bottom of the mug hitting his lips, and put the tip of the pen on the last line of the page…
Now if only I could figure out how to make my song become sung…
He stood, placed the mug in the bus tub, shoved the pen back into the pocket of his jeans, shut the Moleskin notebook, stuck the buds back in his ears, and hit play.
One… Two… Three
// TAKE A BREAK HERE //
It had been a couple hours since he’d made the change from coffee to whiskey. He sat on the polyester cushion of the sofa that had likely been in a box 30 days ago, waiting for some unassuming shmuck to come along and try to decipher the Swedish instructions and impossible to use tools to put the thing together. As he sat, his head beginning to swim from the buzz of the drink, he rubbed the fingers of his right hand over his left forearm. The letters that had been inked onto his skin sat underneath the light layer of hair that had grown over the tattoo. He carefully touched each letter with his index finger, moving toward his elbow.
L. O. N. D. O. N.
He had never regretted a tattoo. All of them told stories of specific spots in his life, an autobiographical account, right there on his skin. But now, at 11:43pm, sitting in this Ikea showroom-like living room with a few bourbons in him, he wished he could scrub the word right off his arm and down the drain… never to see it or think about it again.
Wanting it to stop, he shifted his weight to his feet, stood, rubbed his face with his large hands, and exhaled. The only noise in the house came from his bare feet as they walked from the carpet of the living room to the wood of the kitchen. He found the bottle on the kitchen table still open, and poured himself another drink.
He’d always liked buying things locally. There was something oddly satisfying about knowing that the produce that ended up on your plate was grown from the earth around your city. But honestly, he’d grabbed this bottle simply because he liked the old-timey photo of a man with ridiculous sideburns on the logo. He hadn’t even realized that the liquor was named after the street less than half a mile from the house where he was now staying. And he didn’t know that the distillery was even closer. Had he known these things, he might’ve felt proud of himself for investing in local businesses.
But honestly, he just liked the logo.
He put the glass to his lips and emptied it. He’d taken much longer with the first two drinks he’d poured… or had it been three? With the swallow came a new motivation, and the next thing he knew he was walking out the front door with his Moleskin and Martin auditorium.
Let’s get this song sung…
The black night was made even darker by the tree cover that shielded the street from the moon, and if there were streetlights, they weren’t doing their job. Jake waited a moment for his eyes to adjust before taking a seat on the 2nd step of the porch. He sat the guitar on his lap, turning awkwardly so that neither end of the instrument would hit the wood posts that held up the railing.
Unlike the sterility of the Ikea showrooms inside the house, the posts showed signs of real life. Knicks and bruises covered every piece of wood that led up the stairs to the house. Jake had wondered, these last few weeks, the stories behind the names chiseled into the porch: Adeline & Ella.
Uncomfortable, and with nowhere to set the notebook, Jake stood and moved to the armless chair that sat toward the corner of the porch. He placed the open notebook on the railing, took a deep breath, and starting playing.
The words that had just this morning made their way from the ink of his pen to the fibers of the lignin and pulp inside his notebook now jumped off the page and fell out of his mouth.
It’s like some nights darkness takes its toll, and I yearn for the light…
The bourbon in his belly brought down his guard, and as he sat on the porch, he sang at a volume normally reserved for concert halls and recording sessions. He was belting out this song as if he wanted the whole world to hear, when in fact he didn’t think there was a person alive who wanted to hear his song.
As the song went on, his mind couldn’t turn off the voice of Johnny Cash…
“Well… Whattya wanna… Let’s uh… Well… if I feel like my song is sung, it don’t care… I don’t care if it’s short.”
Why can’t I find this peace?
He found himself at the bottom of his scribbled page far quicker than he would’ve liked. Disheartened and discouraged, he was unable to stop strumming.
I want my song to be sung…
His voice was weaker than it had been moments before, but he couldn’t stop singing. Without even realizing it, his cloudy brain sent the words of the chorus to his dejected voice:
I cannot find what I’m looking for
Where is the peace that I need?
Did you walk out with it when you walked out on me?
Nothing was helping, and still he couldn’t stop strumming. Almost involuntarily, he found himself singing the words that got sung by Johnny Cash all those years before.
If a psychiatrist were watching this go down, he’d likely say that Jake was projecting Johnny Cash’s situation onto his own, thinking that singing the words that Rick Rubin had captured all those years ago would magically give him the same harmonious content that he had heard at the end of that recording.
But in actuality, it was far simpler. Jake knew the feeling of his hands and voice stopping, and the silence that followed. He wasn’t yet ready to feel that, so he kept going.
He sang everything he could remember from Johnny’s recording of the song…
The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping
I dreamed I held in you in my arms…
When that last line hit his ears, he felt the full effect of the last month… the full scope of why he was living in an Ikea showroom of a house that his parents had bought on a whim a few months ago… why he was spending his days listening to the same song on repeat… why he wanted to scrape the tattoo off his forearm…
Did you walk out with it when you walked out on me?
It wasn’t that his song was sung, or that he even wanted to finish, but he couldn’t keep going. The guitar rang out the last chord that he’d played as he hung his head.
As the chord faded out into the middle of the night, right there on the front porch, Jake Whitley cried for the first time in longer than he could remember.
The next morning, Jake awoke to the same oscillating fan and sliver in the curtain as he had the day before. The ceiling was still there for his staring, and the angle of the light again told him that it was shortly after noon.
But something was different.
He sat up, spinning his legs to the edge of the bed, and put his bare feet on the cold wood floor.
Something was definitely different.
He made his way into the blinding light of the bathroom, and just like the day before, looked at himself in the mirror. He clasped his eyelids together, the dried tears from the night before causing his cheeks to tighten.
The steam from the shower felt therapeutic… almost as if the water was washing away the layers of hurt from his skin.
His routine hadn’t changed, but like I said, something was definitely different.
The sun hit his face as he stepped off the porch that he had been singing on not even 12 hours earlier. His iPhone was playing the same song as the day before, and his feet were headed to the same spot. The same Moleskin notebook was under his arm, his route had not changed, and Johnny sang the same notes. But something was definitely different.
Before he reached the black hexagon-shaped tile of the coffee shop, his nose told him that the roaster was running today. That harshness was back in the air. He stood at the back of the line, three people separating him from his black single origin Americano.
Had the song playing in his buds not been at the instrumental interlude after the first chorus, he wouldn’t have even noticed her words. It was Haleigh. Jake quickly paused Johnny and pulled the white bud from his right ear.
This was odd. He’d only spoken to Haleigh on the other side of the counter, but here she was, standing next to him, three people back, a backpack hanging off of her shoulder.
“What are you up to?”
“Well,” she replied, “just getting here. I’m closing today.” She raised her eyebrows as if to indicate her displeasure with the fact that she’d be here ‘til six. He thought about asking the question that had been bugging him since he arrived in Portland: Why do all the coffee spots close at 6pm? Sure, Dallas hadn’t had even come close to the coffee scene of Portland, but at least the places they did have stayed open until midnight.
But instead, he just looked at the floor and replied: “Bummer.”
“Yep. Well, good to see you. Maybe if you’re still here on my break, I’ll come say hi.”
He watched her bypass the three people in front of him and walk past the counter and through the door that read: do not enter: employees only, in all lowercase letters, as if to be less offensive. He couldn’t explain it, but something seemed different about Haleigh today as well. Maybe it was just the fact that she wasn’t ringing him up for a drink and filling a mug with hot water, but something had certainly changed.
Jake paid for his single origin Americano and found a seat along the front window of the shop, overlooking Burnside. He watched the drink that sat on the table in front of him, the steam rising from the top of the white mug that read: “Heart.”
Next to the Americano sat his Moleskin journal. It was the same book that he carried with him to the shop every day, but even it appeared different today. Jake found himself opening the leather cover, like he did every other day, but instead of finding the next blank page, like he’d done every other day, he started at the beginning… the very beginning.
Each day until now, he’d jumped ahead to a blank page… a page that had yet to be written. But for the first time in weeks, he was willing to read something he’d already written.
His heart raced as he skimmed the words that had come from his pen. These words felt like they’d been written so long ago… a different lifetime, almost. He skimmed the page, and then flipped it… and then again. Why was he doing this?
For a moment, he stopped, sipped his Americano, and looked toward the bar. Haleigh was there, smirking at the guy at the front of the line. She wasn’t looking at him, but something about the way her eyes were looking at the man who was ordering a quad-shot almond milk latte struck Jake, and caused him to refocus his own eyes at the Moleskin.
He turned the page again, and for the first time since he sat, he let himself feel the weight of the words that were on the page.
I wanna feel it in my bones…
Instantly, his mind left 22nd and Burnside and entered a place over 2,000 miles away… a living room on a Monday afternoon, his day off. He closed his eyes and could picture the way that the sofa didn’t quite fit in the room… the way that the TV was just enough off-center to notice. He remembered the way that she’d looked at him, wanting answers… wanting relief.
This was still months before it happened, and he almost laughed thinking about this point in time, at the fact that they thought life in this season had actually been difficult. Her eyes had asked for answers, for respite from the day to day. Those eyes had been searching, but they weren’t desperate… at least not yet.
He remembered how he’d watched her walk to bed that night, defeated, and how he’d sat on that ill-fitting sofa with his guitar in hand, late into the night. As he read his words on the page, he could almost feel that hopeful optimism that he’d felt that night as he sang. He remembered playing the song over and over, wanting to get it just right before she woke the next morning. He couldn’t wait to sing it for her; to remind her that everything was going to be OK. He’d even recorded it… wait… was it on this phone?
As he sat at that table, the half circle by the roaster at Heart Coffee on Burnside, Jake Whitley found himself doing something he hadn’t done since coming to Portland: he hit play on a song that wasn’t Johnny Cash’s You Are My Sunshine. He put the buds in his ears, exited the app aptly titled “Music,” and opened “Voice Memos.” He scrolled down until he found the date that matched the date on the open page of his Moleskin, and he reluctantly hit PLAY.
He wasn’t certain, but he thought he could hear the cry of an infant faintly in the background. As soon as the guitar began, he recognized the optimism that had been in the room that night, and it sent chills up his spine. And when he heard his own voice singing, as it had all day, he knew that everything was definitely different.
Maybe there’s hope, Jake thought as the recording abruptly ended. Perhaps it was just the memory, or possibly the optimism in his song from long ago. He didn’t know. But in that moment, Jake felt like he needed to find out for sure.
Jake looked up. It was Haleigh.
“Mind if I have a seat?”