With Jack in Egypt


Suddenly, I’m feeling old
even ancient. Sitting
in Jack’s house, I listen
for the tapping of his fingers
on the 1937 Underwood
as he pops another benny
and breaks into song   into
that jazz cantata he beat
from the drum of memory
from the pulse and passions
of friends   from the dream
of connection.

It’s certain that the gods
of writing visited Jack here
that his spirit lives here still
under the old scuffed floor
between the rusting coils
of the vintage electric stove
behind the half detached head-
board of Jack’s old bed
and in the huge dynastic oak
that spreads astonishing wings
over each limb of this small
gray house.

I think of Jack tapping
so rapidly on those 46 keys
calling back   with each bhikku
word   his days with all the lunatic
greats of New York City   San
Francisco   Mexicali   L.A.
his backwoods North Carolina
home   his burials and dis-
interments   the cold jolting slides
along California’s astral coast
the dark midnight freights
that held his soul captive

And then   in a down-
pour of icy January rain
I hear Jack tapping grace-
notes onto the scrolling
page: his white-magic
tantric spells and blitzing
ecstasies   his prayers
for release from the dark
50s furies of America,
as if he were a spirit
who could not find
his Egypt.

And, suddenly, I remember
our South Bronx walk-up
earlier still than Jack’s rise
to fame     Wheeler Avenue:
wide asphalt street
of my boyhood lined
with leafy trees   the light
burning down through curling
branches   a soft blue flame
and the cool hardness
of the stone steps that led
back into the building.

And then I see my father
in his washed wool shirt
and baggy khakis
his black hair already whitening,
his strong fingers tapping
the cigarette case
in his pocket   and my mother
leaning back in the sanctum
of her kitchen   almost at ease
in that blue plastic seat,
taking a few quick puffs
and letting memory play.

I remember the Philco radio
that moaned all day   and chanted
into the evening   its green
and amber dials glowing
how the black-crowned heron sky
rose with a mystic fire that threw
bright sparks of history
into each room   and how,
after bedtime, the closet door
loomed   like an unextinguished hearth
like the sealed gate of a king’s crypt
in Egypt.

I remember how the night
carried me   beyond the city
lights   into a desert garden
where I walked slowly—
a prince in flowing robes—
or sat, cross-legged,
in the cotton shroud
of a prophet and, once,
how I was set down
so gently   amid ten thousand
splendors   wearing the heavy
mask of a young pharaoh

doomed   like Jack   to die
to lie down   golden   but far
too early   in the Blue Nile sleep
of eternity. And now, at last,
I recall how I woke to the sounds
of a new epoch   to the rich
perfumes of life   to a wild sunlit
music   to ghost feluccas sailing:
with Jack in Egypt   our fingers
grasping for the last loose sheaves
of papyrus floating past   and pulling
pure pearl light   from the moon.


Jack Kerouac wrote The Dharma Bums (1958) in 11 days,
while living in a rented house at the corner of Clouser Avenue
and Shady Lane, in College Park, Orlando.


© Charles Fishman