I was after a seventeen-year-old belly dancer who was always in the company of a boy who claimed to be her brother, but he wasn’t her brother, he was just somebody who was in love with her, and she let him hang around because life can be that way.

I was in love with her, too. But she was still in love with a man who’d recently gone to prison.

I looked in all the worst locations, the Vietnam Bar and so on.

The bartender said, ‘Do you want a drink?’

‘He doesn’t have money to drink.’

I did, but not enough to drink for the whole two hours. I tried inside the Jimjam Club. Indians from Klamath or Kootenai or up higher—British Columbia, Saskatchewan— sat in a row along the bar like little icons, or fat little dolls, things mistreated at the hands of a child. She wasn’t there.

A guy, a slit-eyed, black-eyed Nez Perce, nearly el- bowed me off the stool as he leaned over ordering a glass of the least expensive port wine. I said, ‘Hey, wasn’t I shooting pool in here with you yesterday?’

‘No, I don’t think so.’

‘And you said if I’d rack you’d get change in a minute and pay me back?’

‘I wasn’t here yesterday. I wasn’t in town.’

‘And then you never paid me the quarter? You owe me a quarter, man.’

‘I gave you that quarter. I put the quarter right by your hand. Two dimes and a nickel.’

‘Somebody’s gonna get fucked up over this.’

‘Not me. I paid you that quarter. Probably it fell on the floor.’

‘Do you know when that’s it? Do you know when it’s the end?’

‘Eddie, Eddie,’ the Indian said to the bartender, ‘did you find any dimes and nickels down here on the floor yesterday? Did you sweep up? Did you sweep anything like that, maybe two dimes and a nickel?’

‘Probably. I usually do. Who cares?’

’See?’ the guy said to me.

‘You make me so tired,’ I said, ‘I can hardly move my fingers. All of you.’

‘Hey, I wouldn’t fuck you around over a quarter.’

‘All of you, every last one.’

‘Do you want a quarter? It’s bullshit. Here.’

‘Fuck it. Just die,’ I said, pushing off.

‘Take the quarter,’ he said, very loudly, now that he could see I wouldn’t touch it.




Just the night before, she’d let me sleep in the same bed, not exactly with her, but beside her. She was staying with three college girls of whom two had Taiwanese boyfriends.

Her fake brother slept on the floor. When we woke up in the morning he didn’t say anything. He never did—it was the secret of his success, such as it was. I gave four dollars, almost all my money, to one of the college girls and her boyfriend, who didn’t speak English. They were going to get us all some Taiwanese pot. I stood at the window looking at the apartment building’s parking lot while the brother brushed his teeth, and watched them leave with my money in a green sedan. They ran into a phone pole before they were even out of the parking lot. They got out of the sedan and staggered away, leaving the car doors open, clinging to each other, their hair flying around their faces in the wind.




I was sitting on the city bus—this was in Seattle—later that morning. I was down front, in the long seat that faces sideways. A woman across from me held a large English-literature textbook in her lap. Next to her sat a light-skinned black man. ‘Yeah,’ she said to him. ‘Today’s payday. And it feels good, even if it’s not gonna last.’ He looked at her. His big forehead made him seem thoughtful. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I got twenty- four hours left in this town.’

The weather outside was clear and calm. Most days in Seattle are grey, but now I remember only the sunny ones.

I rode around on the bus for three or four hours. By then a huge Jamaican woman was steering the thing. ‘You can’t just sit on the bus,’ she said, talking to me in her rearview mirror. ‘You’ve got to have a destination.’

‘I’ll get off at the library, then,’ I said.

‘That’ll be fine.’

‘I know it’ll be fine,’ I told her.

I stayed in the library, crushed breathless by the smoldering power of all those words—many of them unfathomable—until Happy Hour. And then I left.

The motor traffic was relentless, the sidewalks were crowded, the people were preoccupied and mean, because Happy Hour was also Rush Hour.

During Happy Hour, when you pay for one drink, he gives you two.

Happy Hour lasts two hours.




All this time I kept my eye out for the belly dancer. Her name was Angelique. I wanted to find her because, despite her other involvements, she seemed to like me. I’d liked her the minute I’d seen her the first time. She was resting at a table between numbers in the Greek nightclub where she was dancing. A little of the stage light touched her. She was very frail. She seemed to be thinking about something far away, waiting patiently for somebody to destroy her. One of the other dancers, a chop-haired, mannish sort of person, stayed close to her and said, ‘What do you think you want, boyo?’ to a sailor who offered to buy her a drink. Angelique herself said nothing. This virginal sadness wasn’t all fake. There was a part of her she hadn’t yet allowed to be born because it was too beautiful for this place, that was true. But she was mostly a torn-up trollop. ‘Just trying to get over,’ the sailor said. ‘The way they charge for these drinks, you think you’d be half-complimented.’ ‘She doesn’t need your compliments,’ the older dancer said. ‘She’s tired.’

By now it was six. I walked over and stopped in at the Greek place. But they told me she’d left town.




The day was ending in a fiery and glorious way. The ships on the Sound looked like paper silhouettes being sucked up into the sun.

I had two doubles and immediately it was as if I’d been dead forever, and was now finally awake.

I was in Pig Alley. It was directly on the harbor, built out over the waters on a rickety pier, with floors of carpeted ply- wood and a Formica bar. The cigarette smoke looked un- earthly. The sun lowered itself through the roof of clouds, ignited the sea, and filled the big picture window with molten light, so that we did our dealing and dreaming in a brilliant fog. People entering the bars on First Avenue gave up their bodies. Then only the demons inhabiting us could be seen. Souls who had wronged each other were brought together here. The rapist met his victim, the jilted child discovered its mother. But nothing could be healed, the mirror was a knife dividing everything from itself, tears of false fellowship dripped on the bar. And what are you going to do to me now? With what, exactly, would you expect to frighten me?

Something embarrassing had happened in the library. An older gentleman had come over from the checkout counter with his books in his arms and addressed me softly, in the tones of a girl. ‘Your zipper,’ he said, ‘is open. I thought I’d better tell you.’

‘Okay,’ I said. I reached down quickly and zipped my fly.

‘Quite a few people were noticing,’ he said.

‘Okay. Thanks.’

‘You’re welcome,’ he said.

I could have gotten him around the neck right then, right there in the library, and killed him. Stranger things have happened on this earth. But he turned away.

Pig Alley was a cheap place. I sat next to a uniformed nurse with a black eye.

I recognized her. ‘Where’s your boyfriend today?’

‘Who?’ she said innocently.

‘I gave him ten dollars and he disappeared.’


‘Last week.’

‘I haven’t seen him.’

‘He should be more grown up.’

‘He’s probably in Tacoma.’

‘How old is he, about thirty?’

‘He’ll be back tomorrow.’

‘He’s too old to be yanking people off for a dime.’

‘Do you want to buy a pill? I need the money.’

’What kind of pill?’

‘It’s psychedelic mushrooms all ground up.’

She showed me. Nobody could have swallowed that thing.

‘That’s the biggest pill I’ve ever seen.’

‘I’ll sell it for three dollars.’

‘I didn’t know they made capsules that size. What size is that? Number One?’

‘It’s a Number One, yeah.’

‘Look at it! It’s like an egg. It’s like an Easter thing.’

‘Wait,’ she said, looking at my money. ‘No, right, yeah—three dollars. Some days I can’t even count!’

‘Here goes.’

‘Just keep drinking. Wash it down. Drink the whole beer.’

‘Wow. How did I do that? Sometimes I think I’m not human.’

‘Would you have another dollar? This one’s kind of wrinkly.’

‘I never swallowed a Number One before.’

‘It’s a big cap, for sure.’

’The biggest there is. Is it for horses?’


‘It’s gotta be for horses.’

‘No. For horses they squirt a paste in its mouth,’ she explained. ‘The paste is so sticky the horse can’t spit it out. They don’t make horse pills anymore.’

‘They don’t?’

‘Not anymore.’

‘But if they did,’ I said.


Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son is published by Granta in the UK. You can order a copy of the book here.

Train Dreams
Paul Auster In Conversation