For more than a week the box sat propped up against my dresser. I didn’t want to open it because I didn’t think I was strong enough to face what I expected was inside.The box contained some items rescued from the New Orleans squat fire that took place 12/28/10, which I wrote about for The Boston Review.
Today I spread a towel out on my bed and opened the box carefully, with reverence for the dead. As the scissors cut through the thick tape, I thought about how whatever I found inside, I knew these items were the most important things in the world to the person who died, the things he or she clung to even when they clung to little else in the world.
The first layer of the box was the notebooks, some of which had fallen to pieces, their pages curled by the water that extinguished the fire and their edges singed. There also was a bunch of pages that had been ripped from a spiral bound notebook. The ink on those was blurred by the water, making much of the writing illegible.
The first small notebook opened to this poem
I’ll tell you all my secrets
Just like I told you then
They say it will get better
But never where or when
I’ve got a brick in my hand
And an eye on your new man
Now tell me what I shouldn’t do
Now tell why I should listen to you.
In another battered notebook that had no cover I found:
“Please be gentle with me. I’m half stoned on whiskey and pain pills (the poor man’s health insurance). I hurt my neck helping Elise move her gear. Anyway I’m sorry . . .”
Elise, I thought. Did I interview anyone named Elise?
I looked through my notes and couldn’t find anyone by that name, but then I found the definitive clue: the cover of a notebook that had the slogan of the Omaha, Nebraska bar Bones, where Justin Lutz hung out. “BONES: The Drinks Are Stiffer Than Rigor Mortis.”
I called his former wife, Kat Wise, to describe some of the things in the box. I’m going to send her the box and she can disperse to the people who would cherish these poems and the things he reveals about his life in his journal.
I opened the journal and read a few pages, then suddenly felt as if I had no business intruding on these private writings. There was a unique melancholy to Justin’s writing, resignation and sadness eloquently expressed. There were so many poems in these pages, some by Edgar Allen Poe and verses from Shakespeare, as well as by Justin.
Justin had a way of pulling you into his world, his cousin Jamie Hogshooter said, and of making it a world built for two. I can feel this in my struggle with myself not to read any more of his private writing. Sitting here, with the smell of smoke from the warehouse fire on my hands makes me tear up for all that was lost in the fire that night as well as the battered bits of beauty that remain.