E
June/July 1998

Setting the Woods on Fire (Dancing with the Devil)

by Stanley Jenkins


Comb your hair and paint and powder
You act proud and I'll act prouder
You sing loud and I'll sing louder
Tonight we're setting the woods on fire.
Hank Williams
June 13, 1952—Castle Studio, Nashville, Tennessee

"Hold it, fellas, that don't move me. Let's get real, real gone for a change...."
Elvis Presley
December, 1954—Sun Records, Memphis, Tennessee

 

[Click....]

OK? Ready. Testing 1,2,3. Testing 1,2,3.

Here goes:

In 1958 my father killed ten people in the course of eleven days. They made movies about him. Oh, they wrote songs. He was executed by the state of Nebraska a year and a half later. He was 18 years old.

Popular character in American imagination.

I grew up outside of Chicago and Kansas City. I, of course, never knew my father. I had a normal childhood. I had a suburban childhood. But my adoptive parents made a decision early on to tell me all the facts. I don't know if they made a good decision. They don't either.

 

When I was in college I read an essay by Friedrich Nietzsche. It was about History. It's been years since I've read it. But I remember that he said that at certain points a culture's History becomes paralyzing. The way to a present, then—the way to a present—is by way of forgetting. To forget is to create a new world—to clear a space for a present—to clear a space against the high-tide-rising of ages.

I am an American. A clearing.

 

Are we still recording?

 

I

O my baby—you, who say you love me.

You said you wanted to hear. To hear it all. And I expect I'm bound to tell it. Tell it all. How is a man to keep the old blood from rising? How is a man to walk barefoot and bleeding in Babel-lands—O for to find the balm of Gideon!—when the devil knows his name? That's the story, baby.

 

Listen. I've been drinking. But we've got to talk. Clear the air. Make a clearing. Figure this thing out. Got to tell it. Tell it all. The whole story. And from the beginning. I'm drunk. But still.....

Awhampbampalumbabingbangbong!

Crank it up!

 

Listen baby, after my father was electrocuted in the chair and he jerked about like a young Elvis in heat in 1958 and the Nebraska State Prison yard was crowded with hoods and juvenile delinquents in chinos who cheered and chanted my father's name like a movie star—after that had happened, I tried to grow up.

Which is to say, I grew up in small towns that were no longer small towns. These were the days of white flight, you understand. And subdivisions were creeping out and subdivisions were swallowing up the small towns. It was worse in the seventies. But these are the sixties we're talking about. And it was bad enough. Late sixties. When America tried to enjoy itself. When America tried to still be a kid. Man, we were born old! Youth culture. A band in every garage. When Puritan America found out that it wasn't good at playing at all. Man, we were just too damn serious. Even ecstasy got mandated—like the bombs of the Weatherman Underground. Land of the grim. Ever seen a subdivision?

Now don't get me wrong. I understand the suburbs—and what they meant to a whole generation. Hell, I grew up there. I imagine Teds and Alices all over the country newly married after the war—and we're talking the fifties here now—moving out of their parents' houses—and I can just see them using their GI loans—and GI bills—and Ted putting on a tie to go to work just like his Daddy never did before him except on Sunday mornings for church when everybody knew he would just as soon not be there—(and anyways would likely as not slip out the back before the sermon was half over and smoke a filterless Camel or Lucky Strike with his foot up on the running board of a Model T)—and I imagine these Teds and Alices buying their first homes and losing regional accents and, you know, just being real proud about that.

This is something I truly understand. I'm proud of them myself—these countless Teds and Alices. These people without roots. My people. Blood.

But they got lonely out there, I think. Ted and Alice. In the suburbs. And they had their kids. And Ted kept getting those promotions. And Alice; she had every new appliance that came out. But man—I can see them out there—and they weren't happy.

 

Yeah. I remember that. I remember things. Hell, I remember things that happened before I was born. So let me tell you like it is. We-e-e-e-el-l-l-l-ahellahella.... And baby it ain't no lie, the latter half of the twentieth century has been the latter half of the American Century. We are a Rock'n'roll nation. And History and beaucoup Authoritative Texts tell us that Americans have enjoyed a measure of success unparalleled. And the weird thing is that our America has never learned to enjoy itself.

Do you remember what my father said when they finally caught up with him and he had killed at least ten people and they asked him if he was sorry?

"Well," he said, "at least for a little while, me and my gal—we had us some fun."

This is not bullshit. This is not just me avoiding the issue at hand. There is a rage and a sense of vengeance in our entertainments. Don't you think? Contents under pressure. I know you think Elvis was just a whiteboy stealing from black folks—and God knows that was true—but Elvis was something else too—I'll tell you a secret—America vented its anger in Elvis. America raged. America screamed. And those cheers coming from the crowd at the Pan Pacific Auditorium in Hollywood in 1958—(and don't kid yourself, baby—that was after he'd made his first movie and supposedly got domesticated)—were howls from something dark. Something real old.

And it only got uglier.

But back then, in 1958, it was the several-story-high flames of a silver refinery smokestack seen from miles away in the Arizona desert at night and you are frightened and fascinated. American Gehenna. Old Faithful! "Thar she blows!"

Like I said, in 1958 my father killed ten people in eleven days.

 

Old blood.

 

*

Blah. Blah. Blah. I got angles. I got stories. A million stories. Man, you got to clear a space just to breathe. Gotta get a purchase on this thing. We tell each other stories. History. The stories are the walls—the dike—the levee. And anyway you said you wanted to hear it all.

 

Oh, hold on to me, baby! It's water on the rise. Big water on the rise. There's been a crash on the levee.....

....and Daddy done something unspeakable. Horrible. Ineffable.

 

And me? I grew up in the suburbs and got a good education.

 

O my baby. It is strange to say but I have always seen my life to be emblematic. Something about my family—and I'm talking here about both my families. Yeah. Two fathers. My Daddy—he's out there running through the woods—"Run through the jungle! Don't look back!"—he's running—a ghost always riding lost trains—"I hear that lonesome whistle blow"—huddled over campfires—murdering folks in their sleep—desperate—a strange lack of restraint—a howl—vicious—feral—vital. Ever smelt the sweetness of rotting leaves? And the other. I got two Daddys. My adoptive father. You know he was never really much of a farmer. In fact, his people weren't even from Nebraska. Never lived in Nebraska—that was my adoptive mother's people. At the time of my adoption my folks had long since made that great divide. You know it stirs a whole lot of things up when a man exchanges his workshirt for a suit and tie.

Originally his people were from Oklahoma. Wildcatters. Or at least they heard the call when that dark rich oil burst from the barrens. Saw the light. My father's people saw the light—and they raised themselves. Raised themselves—until my father was able to attend college—I kid you not—God bless the GI bill!—and so he was stepping up in our America—and my first father—well of course, they never met—but my first father—I think maybe someday—O my Baby—I fear sometimes at night—when I hear what cannot be the screech of an owl—cannot be because I live in the city—when I hear that sound—O my baby—I think maybe that he is coming for me. Drag me back down. Pull me down. Bury me deep—in this soil—this curse. And I wanted my new father to protect me. I wanted a new father.

And that is probably why I got religion. I told you about that. I was sixteen. It was no surprise. Religion was one of the things my people brought with them after they crossed the great divide and my father became management.

I remember two things. I remember my adoptive mother's mother. Her face flush and furious. Terrified. She has just slapped my adoptive mother. "Don't you ever think that you're better than us!" My adoptive mother is in tears. She has just shown her mother her brand new sewing machine. It is a fine machine. She is so proud. And a hand reaches out and beats her down.

And the other thing I remember. I remember prayer meeting at the Bethany Methodist Church. Wherever we went—(we moved so often in our upward flight)—there was a Bethany Methodist Church. I remember prayer meeting. And my mother's people had been Free Will Baptist. And prayer meeting. And suddenly my mother's face got twisted and words were gushing out like vomit and she was speaking in tongues and so ashamed. So ashamed. Her past would not free her.

But me. I never had a real present—always caught up in a past. So I had no problem returning to a legacy my people struggled so hard to leave behind. I understand things discarded. O Sweet Jesus! I fell upon my knees—And I'm telling you my love, my sweet, I felt him. I felt him. Holy Spirit! And I went limp. O slain in the Spirit. And perhaps you've seen it on TV. And I was dancing. Dancing. Dancing.

See baby. I know the power of love. Don't think I don't. I have seen with mine own eyes. The coming of the glory of the Lord.

I was sanctified. And my Daddy—my banshee-beastie-evil Daddy—was dead. Dead. Dead.

 

Blood memory.

 

Seven weeks before my father went on his killing spree he held up a gas station in Lincoln, Nebraska with a shotgun. There was an attendant and a young woman. My father saw them together when he held the gun and demanded quick obedience. He emptied the cash register and then he took the attendant and his young woman to the car. He told them to get in. In those days you did not need to drive far to leave the city far behind. They parked out there in the Great Plains with the city lights calling them. And then my father tied up the attendant and made him watch as he raped the young woman. When he was done he put the barrel in the attendant's face and fired.

 

But old things return—like the sap of a tree in spring—blood memory:

 

And the young woman was left out there. After she was raped she was left out there. And after the sound of the shot wasn't ringing anymore she was left out there. She screamed and screamed. She was found dazed and wandering beyond the city limits at dawn.

Her parents never reported it. And her people took care of it. And she was pregnant. So she was sent somewhere else to have the baby and when she came back an older relative was prepared to take on the child. And so she gave the child to the relative. And the child was raised by the relative.

 

Baby—it is the dark secret of America. You cannot escape your origins. Someday, you gotta pay the fiddler.

 

And I grew up in the suburbs outside of Chicago and Kansas City. Trying not to think about the blood of the fathers. Raised by good people. Relatives of my Mama. Good people. Trying to find stories that might keep the high muddy water at bay. Trying to stay afloat.

Got a million stories, baby. Got a million stories. And my hands ain't clean.

I have held my father's hand.

 

*

Drunken jibberish? I don't know.

How long have we known each other now, baby? It's been awhile. Hasn't it? Look at me. I'm 41 years old and never been married. And now you say you love me and want to spend your life with me. Now you say you don't care about the past—or where I come from—or who my Daddy was. You love me.

Well, that's just fine. And that's a good thing. But I gotta tell ya—it unnerves me, baby.

It's like I'm standing on a cliff. And I'm gonna jump. And you still believe we're capable of walking on air. Don't get me wrong. I'm gonna jump. But before I jump I've gotta talk and talk and talk and tell you my name. My stories. There is space in the stories. In the telling of the stories. So I got drunk, baby. And I'm drunk now. And I got a hold of this tape recorder. And I'm talking to you. In broken English. In fragments. In the voices of my people. Da-do-ran-ran.

Cuz it's the silence. The silence after I stop talking. Can't trust the silence. The silence of you so fully in my arms—and me not looking over my shoulder. The sheer terror of getting what you want! But also the silence of maybe me turning out to be my father's son. The silence of me no longer trying to restrain what my father could not restrain. The silence of old blood. Oh my heart is loud, baby. Just give me time. Time to talk. Time to brave the silence. Time to stop talking.

Like a man.

 

On January 21, 1958 my father was visiting his girlfriend. She was fourteen years old. He was seventeen. Her breasts were only beginning to bud. Her parents did not approve of my father. He was short and bowlegged and carried a rifle. He was Elvis in your living room. And they were a God-fearing couple and beat their daughter when she needed it. And they told my father to leave and he picked up his rifle and shot the father. Then he moved the gun across many inches and shot the mother. And they were silent. And they weren't telling him anymore that he was hanging around too much. But the little sister. She was two years old. The little sister wasn't quiet. And so my father stuck the barrel of the gun down her throat. And she suffocated. And then she was quiet. And when he looked up my father's girlfriend was watching TV.

 

Old blood.

 

II

Alright. I flipped the tape over.

Check this out. More stories. History. High muddy.

"Without preamble, the three-piece band cuts loose. In the spotlight, the lanky singer flails furious rhythms on his guitar, every now and then breaking a string. In a pivoting stance, his hips swing sensuously from side to side and his entire body takes on a frantic quiver, as if he had swallowed a jack-hammer. Full-cut hair tousles over his forehead and sideburns frame his petulant, full-lipped face. His style is partly hillbilly, partly socking rock'n'roll. His loud baritone goes raw and whining in the high notes, but down low it is rich and round. As he throws himself into one of his specialties—Heartbreak Hotel, Blue Suede Shoes or Long Tall Sally—his throat seems full of desperate aspirates ("Hi want you, hi need you, hi luh-huh-huh-huhv yew-hew") or hiccuping glottis strokes, and his diction is poor. But his movements suggest, in a word, sex.

"He is Elvis Aron Presley, a drape-suited, tight-trousered young man of 21, and the sight and sound of him drive teenage girls wild. All through the South and West, Elvis is packing theaters, fighting off shrieking admirers, disturbing parents, puckering the brows of psychologists, and filling letters-to-the-editor columns with cries of alarm and from adolescents, counter-cries of adulation...."

(May 14th, 1956, *Time Magazine*)

"Well there's one thing about dead people—they're all the same." (Charlie Starkweather, 1958)

"In Boston Roman Catholic leaders urged that the offensive music be boycotted. In Hartford city officials considered revoking the State Theater's license after several audiences got too rowdy during a musical stage show. In Washington the police chief recommended banning such shows from the National Guard Armory after brawls in which several people were injured. In Minneapolis a theater manager withdrew a film featuring the music after a gang of youngsters left the theater, snake-danced around town and smashed windows. In Birmingham champions of white supremacy decried it as part of a Negro plot against the whites. At a wild concert in Atlanta's baseball park one night, fists and beer bottles were thrown, four youngsters were arrested.

"The object of all this attention is a musical style known as "rock'n'roll," which has captivated U.S. adolescents as swing captivated prewar teenagers and ragtime vibrated those of the '20s. It does for music what a motorcycle club at full throttle does for a quiet Sunday afternoon.

"Rock'n'roll is based on Negro blues, but in a self-conscious style which underlines the primitive qualities of the blues with malice aforethought. Characteristics: an unrelenting, socking syncopation that sounds like a bull whip; a choleric saxophone honking mating-call sounds; an electric guitar turned up so loud that its sound shatters and splits; a vocal group that shudders and exercises violently to the beat while roughly chanting either a near-nonsense phrase or a moronic lyric in hillbilly idiom."

(June 18, 1956, *Time Magazine*)

"Naw, I didn't think too much of killing individual people.....I used to think of killing the human race sometimes...."

(Charlie Starkweather, 1958)

 

*

My adoptive parents never laid a hand on me. Never struck me in anger. They treated me as one of their own—and my three older sisters insisted upon drawing me into their games. They dressed me up in old dresses—and once introduced me to my mother as a new friend—new little girl just moved into the neighborhood. And my mother. She was so sweet, my baby. She extended her hand and said "welcome". That night I sat through dinner with barretts in my hair. I had lipstick on my face. And my sisters were giggling. But I was treated as an honored guest at the table. I was so proud. And when I went to bed, scrubbed and PJ-ed, my mother told me she was happy to see me again. Told me she had missed me. I have always loved her for that. She is a woman who knows how to let a man be something else for a while. I expect she knows a thing or two about longing. About neither being able to return or to be fully where she is.

Anyway. O my baby. When my adoptive father died about ten years ago. I did not call. I have not spoken to my sisters since. I never went home. My mother is out there. I never even called her.

 

And me. Out here in the big city. Such a city. City of lights! New York is the city of make-believe. No one here ever seems to have grown up here. No one here ever seems to be who they used to be.

 

After my adoptive father died I changed my phone number. Unlisted.

 

I smashed every plate in the house. I ripped up every book I loved. I pushed a pen into the palm of my hand until I drew blood.

 

I woke in a cold sweat to a ringing phone.

 

I stood before the bathroom mirror stupid in rage. Clenched. Tremble. Tremble. Tremble.

 

Gave a karate kick to the image in the mirror. Hunka-hunka burning love. Thumbs up sign.

 

Went to the movies at 84th and Broadway.

 

Listen, baby. My father and his girlfriend stayed in the house with the bodies of her family for six days. They put a sign on the door. "Stay a Way. Every Body is Sick With the Flu." People came to the door, but they were not let in. Then my father and his girlfriend left. In the winterlight my father saw things disappear in the rearview mirror. And they rode out into "that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night." And the next day they got stuck in the January mud of a farmer's field.

The farmer came to them. My father shot him in the chest and then he shot the farmer's dog when it stood before him without complaint or hope. It was time to go.

So my father and his girlfriend left the car and bodies behind. And they walked to the highway. And there they stuck out their thumbs. On the Road. They were maybe thinking to light out for the territories. And somebody in America was thinking, "I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up". And then pausing, and then more thoughts, "I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won't bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead."

And wouldn't you know. The high school sweethearts stopped for them. He was 17 and she was 16. So my father got the drop on them and told them to drive. And they drove out into lost land until they came to an abandoned school. And a settlement that was no longer there. And ghost houses. And went down down into the cellar of the abandoned school. And my father shot Romeo six times in the face. And Juliet. After she was dead someone stabbed at her genitals with a knife. My father later said that it had been his girlfriend. She was a jealous type. They did not stop but dashed out again into dark night in the car stolen from the sweethearts. And they were singing.

From heart-break some people have suffered;
From weariness some people have died;
But take it all in all,
Our troubles are small
Till we get like Bonnie and Clyde.

Some day they'll go down together;
And they'll bury them side by side;
To few it'll be grief—
To the law a relief—
But its death for Bonnie and Clyde

(Bonnie Parker, "The Story of Bonnie and Clyde", 1934)

 

III

Man! What was going on back then? This is old. Older than memory, baby. I imagine an ancestor. An ancestor and a ghost. It must be the 1850's. The ancestor is an American type. The type you might imagine hollow-eyed and shattered in a bar. One more lost soul along the Lost Highway, baby.

But the bar part's not right. He does not drink. He does not not drink out of some sense of propriety or even because he never thinks to drink—but because of a kind of a meanness, a kind of perverse continence—an aggressive refusal to extend. He is a town drunkard who refuses to drink. A fool who refuses his part. The ancestor. He is like what you'd imagine a black hole is right before it becomes a black hole—a sun, a star, an explosion so concentrated upon itself that it passes into it's opposite—so concentrated upon itself that it collapses and passes through the looking-glass—except this sun, this star, this implosion is frozen on the lip of collapse—a smashed fly on a mirror—touching the place where both worlds meet—a door never opened or closed. A meanness. A refusal. A vengeance.

Timothy McVeigh.

I imagine this abstemious ancestor—and how he would have been a farmer—and how he would have hated and feared the land.

They write books and songs and you see movies about farmers—and how connected they feel to the land. Banks come with bulldozers and are met by farmers with guns. "You can take my machinery, but you ain't getting my land."

But I've never met a farmer who, in certain weather, wouldn't tell another story—a story they live in their dreams. A story about the fear and hatred. The resentment toward the land—it's otherness—its indifference—its maddening tolerance of us. There is a haunting out here.

My ancestor would have been a little more straightforward than his neighbors. His life would have been a kind of constant presentation—a witness to this fear and hatred. With every step behind the plow he would have reminded his neighbors of the truth of their dreams, their nightmares. He would not have been a popular man.

Jeremiah among the beseiged.

And the ghost. I imagine an ancestor.

 

O my baby. So this is what I'm saying. There are things that you can never know about a man. Things you couldn't even begin to explain. And so maybe it's best to just keep quiet about what you can't explain. But this is what I'm saying. O my baby. In the silence I hear other voices. Many voices. And these voices are neither not my own nor entirely unfamiliar. And this is what frightens me.

When the talk gets too broken. Fragments. And it is like cold water now rising up in the cracks. Ice floes. And I am frightened and drunk.

This is what I'm saying. Baby.

 

So it's an ancestor I imagine. And a ghost. I imagine the time is the 1850's or so. He would have come over in the potato famine. He would have seen people he knew with children with bloated bellies. He would have seen his own. But it's nearly ten years later—and he's been here nearly ten years. And he has been prosperous in America. You can see him. You can see him in other people's old family daguerreotypes. Common ancestor. American type.

But one night in the 1850's the ancestor does something uncommon. He does something really bad, baby. He drinks the water from a hollow log when the moon is full. And this is not good. And this is not good at all.

The indians used to have stories about the spirits that walked the land. They told of angry and hungry ghosts enraged by the refusal of the whiteman to see them, to acknowledge them—to give them fear. But the whitemen did not see the spirits—and now was the time of the vengeance of the unseen. Fear would no longer be enough.

And so drinking from a hollow log when the moon was full in the American wilderness in the 1850's—such deliberate superstition!—such courting of the spirits which no whiteman must see—and so doing so when it was the time of the Mechanic and the Common Man and the Great Democracy and the Abolitionists in places like Philadelphia and Concord and there were still utopian communities throughout the Burnt Over District in New York State—O a shining city on the hill cannot be hid!—was not good. It was not a good thing to do. Traitorous. And evil must come of it. And spirits walked these lands even after President Jackson evacuated the Cherokee along a trail of tears and so many died that there could never be a remembering of names and we should have no truck with them and yet still these spirits whispered dark truths in the ears of pilgrims and poor wayfaring strangers.

And there was great cause to give fear to the spirits. But it was too late, baby. The spirits wanted only vengeance. And sometimes good men lost their reason in the woods and rutted about in the moist moist soil, hungry to discharge.

But mostly the ancestor that I imagine would stand silently. Silent as a daguerreotype. A reproach. A witness. There is a meanness in a man's heart. There is a need to lash out. A need to no longer be bent and beaten—to no longer be cringing—no longer be in need of tenderness. And this need is in the heart of the ancestor—and he is waiting. He is waiting. Across ages. Like a cancer. Waiting with the spirits. He knows that he will not always be so silent. He has drunk the water from the hollow log when the moon was full. And he has given fear to the spirits. He is intoxicated.

 

This is what I'm saying.

Old blood.

 

*

And so sometimes I would like wake up and I'd be really giving it to her, you know. And then I'd see these hands and they're all sticky and red—like you stuck em in a can a paint but it's not paint—and so there I'd be really going at it and her beneath me like a little rolly polly—her nubby little bubbies sloshin' around—and those hands and it's the old in and out, in and out, you know? but this time its a knife. And I don't know whose hands those are.

Jesus!

It ain't no knife. Cuz she was with me later when we took out the shoe salesman.

So anyways. We took off man, didn't leave nothing for the laws just left the sweethearts down there in that cellar like couple of tulip bulbs—and we planted em, that's for sure. So me and my gal we took off roaring and hooting and we weren't going nowhere in particular and couldn't get nowhere in particular and so came back to Lincoln. You know, I'm always coming back to Lincoln. Can't ever get away from Lincoln. And we pulled up to the bigwig house—man those fatcats!—Jesus H. Christ! You talk about your Mansion on the Hill!

That Hank Williams is somethin' else.

So anyways. Walked right in like we fucking owned the place and the shot gun didn't feel right. Made me a little nervy. It just didn't feel right, you know?—and I got all hepped up—so this time I just stuck her with a knife. Stuck her with a knife. She was fat too. Big fat old rich lady. Had to push. And her fat bubbling out all over the place made this like farting noise—and that was pretty good—and I got the giggles and leaned over and told my gal to pull my finger—but she was in a mood like her time of the month—and so I just put a little elbow grease into it and got her done. And did she squeal? Whoowee!

Gurgle gurgle! Cuz I had to slit the bitch's throat. And she just kinda caved and plopped like when you smash an old rotten pumpkin.

And then there was the colored girl maid—and that don't really count—but she had a pair on her let me tell ya—and my gal, well she must a seen the way I was looking at her and she just turned away and I could tell she was getting a head up—so I did her real quick—nothin' special you understand—just did her like that—and didn't do the other, you know?—but I kinda wanted too, you know?—anyway just stuck her—and she didn't make any noise and that was kinda cool—cuz then it was like there wasn't any noise at all and I got the chills and it was like I was watching myself in a movie and there I was. Man! Big as Jimmy Dean in *Giant*—and I was just 2 cool 4 words—and digging it—I looked great, man—and man, I don't know why I was up there on the screen—but you know how you get, sitting in a dark theater and the movie you're watchin' is real gone, and it's like there ain't no space between you and the guy up there you're watching—like you're just the same—but the distance is still there, it just seems like it don't really matter? Well that's what it was like—I was watching myself do her and thinking how great I looked and there was distance between me and the guy up there doing those things—I mean like real distance—like you could feel a breeze blowing between us—but the distance hardly mattered and so I did her and it felt real good like I was real big or sumpthin' and she didn't make any sound at all until I like woke up and heard that little rat dog yapping at me and reached down and wrung the little cunt's neck cuz there just ain't time enough for that—just ain't time enough.

My bad knee was kinda achin'.

 

Is there room for this too, baby? This voice too. I hear it when I'm not talking. I don't mean all crazy like. You know what I mean. I hear it in our America. The keening of blood in veins. The ancestor is intoxicated.

And I am drunk.

We are children of countless mothers and fathers. And I am 41 years old and to this day have never lived anywhere longer than four years at a time.

 

There is more. Things you ought to know.

Oh my baby. There is something old in our America. Something very old. Older than the stars. When I was sixteen I got religion. I wanted to be someone new. I wanted to be new. "Whoever is in Christ Jesus, there is a new creation." That's what I wanted, baby.

Oh and when I was sixteen I got it. I got what I wanted. You've heard the stories. You've heard the tales.

But I have not told you everything. When I was sixteen I got something else. Something I can't shake. I wanted the gift of tongues. Possession. Tongues as of fire. I knew that it was not good to wish for things not given. I knew that. But I wanted the gift of tongues. I wanted to lay down my burden—Oh study war no more!—I wanted to lay down and open my mouth—I wanted to speak the words that would come, the beautiful, meaningless words, words of pure sound, words of pure rhythm. Tongues of angels. That's what I wanted.

And I prayed. And a presence came to the end of my bed. And it sat at the end of my bed. And it was not good. Baby. It was not good.

I've got to keep movin'
I've got to keep movin'
blues fallin' down like hail
blues fallin' down like hail
Umm mmm mmm mmm
blues fallin' down like hail
blues fallin' down like hail
And the days keeps on worryin' me
there's a hellhound on my trail
hellhound on my trail
hellhound on my trail

 

Oh to let go. Who will catch us, my baby? My love? My life?

 

IV

And then the real fatcat himself came home. And I met him at the door with the gun. "Welcome home Daddy." And then I blew him away.

And me and her. Well we just lit out again. Took the sumbitch's limousine. God damn right! Mother fuckin' Mansion on the Hill. And we're driving, see? Driving like bats out of hell. Hellhound on our trail. O do not lay your hand upon the head of Cain to harm him or to hurt him. We are marked, my pretties. We are marked. And we lit out and don't you know they had 200 of them laws sitting there in a roadblock. Nebraska National Guard. 200 of them motherfuckers. And I am howling now. Gasping great chunks of air and there is spittle in the corners of my mouth. And we are in Wyoming now. And we are hot, I'm telling you. Had to make the switch on that car and I don't mean maybe. So what do you think? Just then we pull up upon the shoe salesman sleeping in his car. Poor bastard shoulda stayed awake cuz tonight I am setting the woods on fire. And man, I pulled that limo over and walked right up to that son of a bitch and I put nine bullets of USA lead into his body and I still wasn't satisfied but Jesus Christ you can hear the laws now and they're coming up and so there's me and my gal and I'm yelling at her to get in the car but I can't get the bastard out of the seat—his body gone all squishy and he is trapped behind the wheel and he is slippery so's I can't get a purchase on him and I hear them coming and grab for the gun and turn but it ain't no law it's a civ but it seems like now I know him, like I seen him before and I guess I hesitated just a little too long cuz 'fore I know it he's going for the gun and we're struggling—but you know what's funny? it weren't really like we were fighting at all—more like some weird dance and I ain't no faggot you understand but I felt better in that moment than I had ever felt before—I was beautiful and graceful in the dance with my weird man and I wanted to hold onto him all night—until maybe he told me my real name—until maybe he told me the name of my real father—until maybe—but there weren't no maybe cuz later the boys told me there weren't nobody there—just me whirling and whirling—and besides while we were getting down to it the laws really did come for real—and I hear my gal—my gal—my gal—I hear her say as she's jumping into the cop car, "He killed a man". And I think, "I sure done a lot more than that little missy, I surely have."

 

And so I jumped back into the limo and sped away and I knew I wasn't gonna make it but just wanted to give them a little chase is all and when they finally got me I had already figured out what I would say to the reporters when they came to ask me if I was sorry—I would say—this is what I would say: "At least for a little while, me and my gal—we had us some fun.

And then I'd go down like a hardass.

 

*

I think there is something not good in our America, baby. I think maybe we stirred it up by reaching so high. You know, you go looking for the New Jerusalem and you're going to stir up the beast—lie with Leviathin in the deep deep. "O out of the depths I cry to thee, O LORD."

And I think it's in me too.

 

Anyway. I'm drunk.

 

But you know what? And after having said all that. The funny thing is that tomorrow morning, after this drunken tirade—O bad case of the demons, baby! Bad case!—I'm going to get up just like any other morning. And I'm going to brush my teeth and tie my shoes. And you know, it's funny but life just goes on. I know that. I understand that. And maybe—if you say that none of that stuff matters—O my lost fathers—and maybe—if in your eyes I can truly see that strange and wonderous truth that, you know, life really does just go on. O my baby. It's just license to shut the fuck up.

Silence.

 

Let the dead bury the dead.

 

Yeah.

 

So what do you say? Fuck the devil. Play that crazy horn, baby. And maybe maybe—walls come tumblin' down—and maybe baby—the walls of Jericho come silently tumbling down.

Yeah. Go, cat, go!

 

A son is only half a man until he is an orphan of the heart.

 

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