“Ten years ago, on a cold dark night”
I worked at a record store from ages 16 to 22. Naturally, we’d all seen High Fidelity, and
emulated its protagonist, a professional appreciator of culture who shallowly declared it
matters what you like, not what you are like and I agreed. That character’s favorite book
of all time was Cash by Johnny Cash. After seeing the film, I read it in two days.
“Did you know my mother loved Johnny Cash, too?” my own mother asked when I
returned home with a shrink-wrapped copy of Cash’s 1968 Live at Folsom Prison. “Of
course she loved that beat—she didn’t like the slow mushy stuff,” she continued.
“Blanche loved the tone of his voice, and the meaning of his words. ‘I Walk the Line.’”
My mother listened to the radio upstairs and, when Cash came on, Blanche would yell
from the kitchen, “Turn it up!”
In 2000, hardcore-kid-turned-hip-hop-producer Rick Rubin had Johnny Cash record “I
See a Darkness” on American III: Solitary Man. Critics called it Cash’s swan song. He
passed two and a half years later from a diabetes complication.
“There was a girl in Portland before the winter chill”
When I first moved to Portland, Maine, it took a while to find a job and establish a social
life. So I played Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s “I See a Darkness,” on repeat-and-sob until I
couldn’t breathe, mourning the life I left in Burlington, Vermont. Burlington had music
venues, thrift stores, coffee, alcohol, and cute film students, all in walking distance from
my apartment. It was a revelation. The song encapsulated everything I felt about leaving
a place where for the first time in my life ‘many times we’ve been out drinking, many
times we’ve shared our thoughts.’
Then I met the man who would go on to take my virginity. Josh struggled. His doctors
said it was bipolar, but none of his medications seemed to work quite right. So he went
cold turkey and lost the ability to anything.
Josh’s best friend managed Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s tour and accompanied him to the
recording session with Cash. I tried to tell Josh how mind blowing it is when one of your
all-time most devastating songs is covered by one of your personal idols, and
furthermore how crazy it is to have access to someone who was in that room. He
responded, “Please. Call him by his real name.”
“She could laugh away the dark clouds, cry away the snow.”
If June Carter could look beyond Johnny Cash’s addiction and wild rebel streak and see
a man burdened by sadness but buoyed by love, I could love Josh into the man I knew
he was supposed to be. The man who got excited about trips to strange roadside
attractions, who danced with gusto. When he played me his demo songs, I cried. He
inspired me to start writing with a modicum of seriousness. I wanted to June Carter him
For my 23rd birthday, Josh bought me a Johnny Cash figurine. Despite my unabashed
love for both Josh and the Man in Black, it wasn’t an item I coveted. I didn’t want
tochtkies or clutter in my young life, in our young love. When I saw over his shoulder an
email confirmation for the gift, I felt I should be honest with him. “That is not a thing I
want.” Understandably, he did not take it well but gave it to me anyway. In the seven
years since, the Man in Black has listened to me answer the phone at a non-profit, hid
in boxes while I moved, then supervised me troubleshoot personal care product issues
at a natural toothpaste manufacturer. He now stands on my windowsill, ten inches tall,
mid-gait, next to a tiny terrarium and a cobweb or two, while I wash dinner plates and
highball glasses. That one who took my virginity, he came home one day and said he
was moving back to New York. “What about me?” I asked and when he said he hadn’t
thought about it, I broke up with him. He never did tell me he loved me, anyway.
“Can’t help but wonder where I’m bound.”
My boss from the nonprofit gave me a recreated, laminated show poster from a Sun
Records gig Cash did with Elvis in 1956. Cash says of Elvis in his memoir, “With one
single to his credit, he sang those two songs over and over. That’s the first time I met
him. [He] was so good. Every show I did with him, I never missed the chance to stand in
the wings and watch. We all did. He was that charismatic.” After Elvis died of a drug
overdose in 1977, Cash got sober, and wrote, worked and toured with his wife June
Carter until she passed away in 2003.
I didn’t know Blanche and I had Johnny Cash in common. She died a month before I
was born. My mother always said I had a little bit of her in me. My strong will, like when,
in high school, I refused to be my mother’s designated driver because I didn’t
understand the necessity of drinking. Or that we left the last bite of our sandwiches
Blanche and I both loved to read. Between her shifts at the mill, she’d fall asleep
reading in a hammock under the weeping willows in the back yard of the house where
my mother grew up. The breeze between the hanging branches must’ve been like a
white noise machine.
My eyes are just like hers.
It was Rick Rubin’s idea to have the 70-year-old Cash put a spin on Nine Inch Nails’
“Hurt.” Cash’s storied past, his struggle with amphetamines, philandering and his
biggest heartache, the death of his brother Jack and his father’s lament, “God took the
wrong son” — you believe him when he sings, “I hurt myself today.” As a performer,
Cash’s struggles had been in the public eye for half a century. He knew his past hurt the
people he cared about most and thinking about those moments, I think that’s what he
thought of when he sang “Hurt.”
They said he died of complications of diabetes, but I think he simply couldn’t live without
June Carter cradled her autoharp like a baby and wrote “Ring of Fire.” I always thought
the song was about the uncontrollability of with whom you fall in love.
Jason was supposed to be the one with whom I would be the best version of myself. He
was good; kind and patient. A teacher by day, an animal shelter volunteer by night. He
didn’t drink much, didn’t eat meat. Portland offered him tenure, and at 26, that’s where I
planned to be for the long haul. When he came into the bowling alley where I was a
waitress, I always gave him an extra smile. I think that’s how we met, flirting for tips.
It wasn’t until later that I considered him a person I wanted. It wasn’t a great time for me.
Within the previous year, a friend committed a brutal act of violence. Then I totaled my
car, in part because I was distracted, thinking about the aforementioned act of violence,
and then reenrolled in college. So it wasn’t a big deal that my roommate and I would
have a cocktail occasionally before our respective waitressing shifts. I regularly read
blogs about the debauchery of the restaurant industry. Then I’d go to work and see our
bartenders throwing one back behind our bar. Eventually, my one occasional cocktail
turned into two mandatory pre-work cocktails, which became sometimes going across
the street for a shot on my break. Then one night I was sent home and subsequently
fired for showing up under the influence. That night, I drank and drank and drank
because it was easier than thinking about the shame I’d face in the morning.
On an amphetamine-fueled haze, three years before he married June Carter, Johnny
Cash set a fire that destroyed hundreds of acres of Las Casitas National Forest and
killed 49 of the area’s 53 endangered California condors. He said at the trial, “I don’t
care about your damn yellow buzzards.”
Blanche’s drink of choice was a Sombrero, made with Allen’s Coffee Brandy and either
milk or half and half. I prefer boozy iced coffees—whiskey, Frangelico and cold brew.
“I admitted to myself I needed you.”
I ran into Jason at a dance party a week after I was fired. I noticed he noticed I wasn’t
flirting. So I pursued him. We started dating and I sank into my studies. My life, our life,
got better after that. We prepared healthy meals together and took long walks; made
each other laugh and held hands. Maybe he was my June Carter.
Two months into our relationship, we celebrated New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2010,
together at my neighbor’s house. It was one of those Solo-cup, sticky floor, shoulder-toshoulder
dancing kind of parties. I’d been taking Tylenol PM to sleep through an excruciating toothache
and I felt the pain despite multiple shotgunned PBRs and swigs of whiskey. So I made a bad decision
and took a Tylenol PM, blacked out, and had the wildest sex of my life.
When I told him I didn’t remember, he was so hurt he didn’t speak to me for another day
and never brought it up again.
Once, I asked my mother what her parent’s relationship was like and she said, “As I
started getting older, I realized my parents were having sex. She didn’t like sex.” My
mother said she would hear them, “In French, he’d say, ‘C’mon.’ Then Blanche would
say, ‘Stop it.’ She thought it was dirty but after a while she’d let him do it. Then she’d get
up and wash her hands and go back to bed.” My mother said she always thought it was
sad because he wanted to be affectionate.
I wonder if Blanche ever had an orgasm.
Before I broke up with Jason, because I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life with him,
he bought me a necklace. The oval pendant read “I Keep A Close Watch on this Heart
of Mine,” hand stamped on copper, like a flattened penny. I lost it, and for the second
time in our three years together, I secretly replaced a gift he bought me that I misplaced.
Johnny Cash died of a broken heart and I wanted to love someone so much I couldn’t
live without them.
Blanche did not die of a broken heart, but of lung cancer. I’m told she smoked all the
time, every day, and passed in the company of her husband. I think she could have
been my best friend.
“We got married in a fever.”
When Joey and I met, there wasn’t a rush or butterflies. All I knew was that I wanted to
continue to hang out. We had been dating for about a month when he showed me his
childhood bedroom. I assumed what I saw was intact from high school: framed drawings
of Spiderman and Superman hung above the bed, a few crime novels, some craft books
on writing, action figures ranging on the desk, ranging in height and three framed 45s
from Sun Records, including Johnny Cash’s “Big River.” I saw it and touched the penny
I didn’t need him to save me and he didn’t want rescuing either.
Early on, I asked him, honestly, how could being intimate feel so different and so
amazing when it’s not like I woke up one day, shook my hair out, and figured out sex.
He said it was chemistry, but that’s because we weren’t calling it love yet.
Amanda Pleau has an MFA in Creative Writing from Stonecoast. She’s diligently working on her first memoir and her bowling average, but maybe not in that order. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband.