Dear Readers,

I’m interrupting the chronological story of Johnny and Sharyn to write about current events: yesterday I made my last pilgrimage to the house on Marcella Street where Johnny lived the entire time I knew him. I lived there, too, a couple of times, as did my beloved cat, Fiona, or, to give her her complete name, Fiona Felina Houdini Cobweb Purrington (aka “Mrs. Purrington,” aka “Tex”).

I moved out of the Marcella Street house for the last time in late 2019, not long before the pandemic hit, and, because of the pandemic, with public transit declared risky, I did not visit the house often. I saw Johnny once in March 2020 when he asked me to come out and get some things I had left behind and I spent a half-day in his backyard earlier that month, while he was in the hospital, digging up shrubs, trees and tomato plants that I had planted there in order to transplant them to pots in Kensington. I left that day with a fig tree, a raspberry plant that Johnny called “Robert” (for Robert Plant), a blueberry, and a couple of tomato plants.

When I last saw Johnny at Marcella Street in March 2020 he was wearing strange clothes: either someone had given them to him or he had found them at a thrift store. He wore a sweatshirt, blue jeans, some unlaced tennis shoes on his feet. I had never seen Johnny dressed in street clothes other than head-to-toe black: black jeans, black long-sleeved button-down shirt, black socks, black leather dress shoes, black leather jacket. He carried a black leather satchel, and had a black watch cap and a black cotton sweater for inclement weather. I did see him wear a red or purple tie once or twice, but I had not seen him in colored clothes, other than blue and white hospital gowns.

The house was not too bad on that visit. A friend of Johnny’s had gone in and straightened it up and perhaps Johnny, too, had made one of his periodic efforts to clean and order his environment. We met in the living room and he pointed out things he wanted me to take. I used to be able to take anything I didn’t want down to Thrift Town on East 14th Street, a short walk from the house, but Johnny told me it had closed down after I left in late 2019.

Although Johnny and I had more than one conversation about my coming back to Marcella Street for a visit, ostensibly so we could rehearse some music we had previously developed arrangements for (We both missed playing music with another person), I never went. I told Johnny I was a little afraid to see what condition the house was in and I didn’t know how it would feel for me to be there — I was afraid that I would feel sad or shaky. What actually kept me from going back, however, was not fear of discomfort, it was Johnny raising the stakes: just when we had worked out how I could visit, he said, “I wouldn’t want you to come unless you were thinking of staying. It would be too painful if you came and then left again.”

Coming and leaving again was precisely what I had in mind. I understood Johnny’s point and told him so, but I was not ready to promise to do anything other than play some music and see how it went. I said, “Johnny, we haven’t been able to see each other at all. We couldn’t meet for coffee, or have a meal, or go to the movies. Now we’re talking about an overnight visit, a couple of days, after which I’ll have to quarantine.”

Johnny never reissued the invitation and I did not go, although I would have loved to resurrect our music.

After Johnny died I made a couple of trips to Marcella Street. The first time, about a month after his death, I sat on the floor of his office and went through files and boxes of paperwork, removing “Sharyn” files and “Ballad Group” files, correspondence, and signed CDs and cassettes I had given him, taking home the paper trail of a shared life. I had dinner that night with Johnny’s niece at the home of our friends Jerry and Sally who lived in town. We ate greens and red beans and rice and homemade peach cobbler and talked about Johnny. We played a little music on two of his guitars. I picked up his Martin and played “Buckets of Rain” softly while Jerry and Lucy talked.

The second time I went back to Marcella Street, I brought pruning shears and cut wayward spurs from the peach tree I had planted. I chopped the errant growth into short lengths for kindling and brought home an armload of budded peach and persimmon branches. I dug up the main root and runner of an olallieberry I had planted, along with a tomato plant and some cut chard. I went with Edie O’Hara, Johnny’s friend, student and protege. We took a few pictures in Johnny’s living room in front of a wall of records, still in their shelves.

Yesterday I went back to pick up a few more things Johnny’s niece and his ex-wife had set aside for me. There was a slim binder of charts for a few songs I had written and a few I had performed at a show with Johnny, including Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” plus a couple of set lists from gigs we had played in my home town, a birthday card I had sent him, a cassette of mine that had strayed into his collection. Once again, I visited “my” trees in the yard and took photos of them. I peeked into the shed where we had stored many belongings that did not fit in the two-bedroom house: the only remnants of my life there were seed packets that some animal had torn into and the square pavers I had laid as a path to the shed. I cut a final bouquet from the rogue chard that insisted on growing between squares of the patio.

I walked through the old bedroom one more time, seeing a wooden block that had once supported my central double bookshelf, still screwed into the wall. I saw a bag of wrapping paper I had bought in a paper bag in Johnny’s office. The kitchen junk drawer still held a curtain I had taken down and a collection of old shoelaces I kept for tying up plants. Few traces, really, of a life together. Outside, chunks of concrete I had broken with a borrowed sledgehammer sat near the back gate — no one had ever hauled them away.

I walked around and snapped pictures, gathered chard, stowed binders in my backpack without much emotion. After I had called for a ride service to pick me up, Johnny’s ex-wife helped me carry a heavy turntable down the front steps. As I went through the front gate she said, “It must be hard leaving somewhere you lived together.”

I teared up then. “I hope there will be some kind of closure, “ I told her.

I balanced the turntable on the rusted trunk of Johnny’s old Toyota Corolla that still sat in the driveway while I waited for my ride.

After I greeted my driver, put my belongings on the backseat of his car and buckled my seat belt, the driver and I exchanged remarks about the hot weather. As he followed directions given by his talking GPS, taking a route to the freeway that Johnny and I would not have taken, my tears spilled over, blotted by the edges of my mask: I had caught the song on “the jukebox,” Johnny’s name for the songs that play in our heads — all the way home from San Leandro to Kensington, I heard a variation on Steve Earle’s “Goodbye”

“Maybe I was off somewhere,
Maybe you were just too high,
But I can’t remember
If we said goodbye.”