Women Writers: Excerpt from “The Book of Jon” by Eleni Sikelianos

From The Book of Jon

Dear Dad Dear Father Dear Jon Dear Pop,

(This letter is now a part of the story.)

It is mostly a quiet Sunday here in New york – the cats (you have never met them) are lying around or scrabbling in the suitcases in the closet, Laird is in the other room working on his novel, the small voices of children escape from windows across the courtyard and then the rise. Someone outside is banging on something with a hammer; it gives the hour a regular rhythm. It’s a grey day here, with a little patch of blue at the top of the sky, and even though it is hazy, I can go out without a jacket – warm for late October.

This morning I woke up with a liquid image of Albuquerque’s gridlike streets under a big blue autumn sky, cedar smoke rising and filling the neighborhood with the smell of the highlands, mixing with the whiter clouds, the Sandias laid out and also rising in that luminous watermelony-and-gold light. The neighbors are so quiet there. I think of the times I walked down Marble or Lead with you or Zeke or Pouli, the only sound our feet scuffling up leaves, or our voices shot up through the breakable, crystalline air.

When did I see you last?

In March, I think there was snow, and you were not well.

The first day, we had a good talk in Pat’s backyard, you crouching, me sitting in the hard-crusted dirt, the sun warming our shoulders. I can hardly remember what we talked about-books, maybe. And then the talk turned to guns – the variety and nature of each you had investigated and examined or had pointed at you recently. You had a job to do and we walked through the quiet streets of your old neighborhood (you had wrecked your truck a month earlier and were wheeling a bicycle along with your Left hand) and on through other neighborhoods, past little dry plots of sandy dust that stood for yards, past medians, barking dogs and all manner of crocuses poking up from the dirt, till we reached the site. The owners of the house invited us in for tea and toast, they had just moved from Chicago, their son lived in Baltimore. The woman was painting burgundy- and cream-colored squares onto the kitchen floor. Houses were much cheaper here, she said, and needed a lot of work. They had a tree down, but they had a lot to talk about, and you didn’t work that day.

The next time I saw you that trip, you were drunk or high, and babbled about your recent love interest, and your half-cracked entrepreneurial schemes. I didn’t want to hear about it, and for the first time, I told you. Then you were excited about the prospect of seeing me read, because you thought maybe I would stop in the middle and say to the audience, And there is my father, pointing, and all the good-looking women in the room would turn to you like luscious, trembling flowers to a dark, underwater sun, and smile. But you did not make it the fifty miles to Santa Fe.

I have never thought of you as part of any trend – just as a human out there, sometimes gone missing in the desert, sometimes out of his cracked mind, a person whose spinning thoughts could never be predicted or duplicated – but here you are, part of a long, boring trend of absent fathers and junk-high assholes.

Pat tells me you lost your apartment. You are living near a dumpster off University. You O.D. at regular intervals, have grand mal seizures, get beat up with crow bars, have your wallets stolen, come down with pneumonia. There must be a black hole out there somewhere near your pocket sucking up keys and good sense, trucks, tools and cash.

As a child, the few times I saw you, I gloried in the hours when you pounded out songs on the piano, told stories about dogs or cats you’d known, about pulling a piece of paint off Rousseau’s painting in the Louvre when you were 16 and keeping that morsel in your pocket all summer, fingering it till there was nothing Left but powder. I have seen you falling asleep under that fixed blue sky, with those black lions. I have never – I suppose it is particular to sons or daughters – really thought you were going to die. In a hotel room, soon, with a shoelace strapped onto your biceps, or tumbling down a long flight of stairs with your brain in a quivering yellow seizure. That your blood might freeze into icy clumps one of these winter nights, that you won’t get your methadone, that the final pneumonia will sneak over you come dawn. That you will become so stupid you’re not worth talking to, and there will be the ongoing endeavor to remember the old Pops, on his best nights. I have no hopes of you meeting grandchildren, or seeing my sister into adulthood.

There are the factors: a chemical predisposition, habit, availability, weakness of will – but I cannot fathom how your life has continued to be so dissolute. You have fallen apart, you have recovered, fallen apart. In the white snowy towns of your youth, in the brutality of American families and lawn-filled landscapes, with the blue winter light opening over you – how will you survive?

I am sending this letter on to Pat, in hopes that she will find you. . . .


bookofjoncoverWith a seamless weave of letters, reminiscences, poems and journal entries, Sikelianos creates a loving portrait-and an unblinking indictment-of her father. Jon, a multitalented, eccentric visionary, emerges as a brilliant, charming, irresponsible, frustrating, and ultimately tragic hero.

The Book of Jon is a saga of the rise and fall of family lines-a tale marked by bohemia, Greek poets, intellectuals, drugs and homelessness. It is the story of eccentrics and survivors, the strength of personal vision and the nature of addiction, and what it does to families. An exquisitely rendered exploration of the harrowing and motivating forces of family, history, and individual choices.

Eleni Sikelianos‘ previous books include Earliest Worlds and the National Poetry Series winner The Monster Lives of Boys & Girls. She lives in Boulder, CO.

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