I’ve recently been suffering from writer’s block, especially as I’ve tried to write fiction again, something I haven’t done in well over a year. At the same time, I’ve been listening to Crimes by These United States a lot. Like, an unbelievable amount. It mourns a place and time that it knows never existed, crafting this world while softly reminding us to not imbue it with too much meaning or treat it as history.
And so, as an exercise to break my block, I decided to write the beginnings of twelve separate stories—one for each song on the album. The rules were simple: the story, diction, and structure of the stories had to be true to the song, without simply fleshing out its lyrics. Even though part of me wanted to reorder it, I stayed true to the original track listing. These are the results.
Certain studio songs aren’t available to listen to on YouTube, or only live versions are available. In these cases, I’ve linked to the Spotify page, because the live versions are so different from the studio ones.
West Won (Spotify)
He talked in a way that dissolved each word’s meaning. Empty catch phrases, bungled clichés, and indefinable buzzwords all combined to make a piss-poor pastiche of the English language. He’d rode in from Sacramento, or maybe San Jose—whichever is the shining city of the West. He’d spent forty days and forty nights wandering through the desert in the middle of the most developed area of the West, a dwindling bottle of whiskey his only escape back to society. He’d been in gunfights with Indian tribes long gone from these parts. The coyotes that followed him around had a “multitude of follicles.” Our coffee was damn fine. Assigning each word a truth-value was an exercise in futility—it lost this value as soon as it was chained to the ones that preceded and succeeded it. It was all true, even when it wasn’t. We only realized our wallets were missing thirty minutes after he left. Destroying meaning acts as a mighty fine smokescreen.
Susie at the Seashore (Spotify)
I wandered down to the pier. There was Susie plying her trade while avoiding the grasping hands of unsubtle old men. Only steamers over eighty feet were allowed to dock today, so it was especially bad. Assorted lawyers and bankers, titans of industry and boozed-up old money, none a day under seventy, whispered about her bra. Or more accurately, her lack of one. Approaching from behind, I tried to giver her a peck on the cheek, which she deftly avoided.
“Why do y’all never get the message?”
I shrugged. “Trying anyway keeps us young. That and the expedition.”
“Ah yes, the creeps’ search for the sunken city, filled with nymphs to deflower and resources to plunder.”
“Something like that.” In reality though, it was mostly an excuse for the men to drink without their wives and ogle the blue-collar crew, indulging our more repressed fantasies.
“I get why you reject these geriatrics still sucking on silver spoons, but why me too? I’m single, self-made, retired, and still sort of young. How can you resist?”
“In asking that question, you’ve supplied the answer,” she said pinching my cheek. “Now, if you aren’t going to buy anything, please leave me alone.”
“Same as yesterday. Fifty dollars worth of rods, please. One of these days I’m going to have to learn how to fish.”
The train rounded the bend, a little too fast as always, and there was his hometown up on the horizon.
At the station, his brother was leaning against a white column. Their mother sat on a bench nearby. As the man disembarked, the brother shouldered one of the man’s bags. There were no greetings. The three began to walk in silence—past the intersection with the stoplight and the hardware store; past the antebellum courthouse; past the empty docks; past the homes of childhood friends and foes. Mostly foes. Eventually, they arrived the house—more of a glorified trailer, really, twice as wide as it was deep, single story with an old slate roof. When they were children, the brothers would jump from the dark tiles to the wooden zip line platform their dad had made for them.
They entered the house. It was no longer empty, as it was for most of the man’s childhood, but brimming with relatives he’d thought long dead. Uncles on the Lazy-Boys, aunts packed shoulder to shoulder on the sofa, cousins on Calvinistic chairs. No conversations stopped when the three walked in, mostly because there were no conversations to stop. An unopened bottle of bourbon sat on the table. Staring out at the yard where he had learned to swing a bat and time a tackle, now covered in kudzu, he smiled and cracked the jug’s plastic safety seal.
Pleasure and Pain and Pride and Me (Spotify)
Chris was regretting the pact he’d made with Luke all those years ago. Hadn’t he noticed the stolen glances, the uncomfortable pauses, the signs that were so clear in retrospect? When they promised to be partners for life, they had been small time. Stealing horses and loading die, just until Chris’s political career took off and he could swindle legally. Now they were scoping out First State Bank, prepping for “the crime of the century,” as Luke kept calling it. Chris damned his partner’s adrenaline addiction. Luke didn’t care for girls or gambling; he’d given up alcohol after that unfortunate incident with Brady the Brute. Chris never had to drag him out of the brothel or saloon at 3 A.M.—no, that’d be much too easy. Instead, on a near daily basis he’d have to use his silver tongue to diffuse a duel or veto a plan. But there was no deterring this. Luke had been dreaming of it since he was a boy with a cap gun. And Chris’s pride wouldn’t let him back out. They’d either rob the bank or it’d rob them.
Ben stumbled back two steps, landing on bended knee, arms akimbo as if he was proposing again. He squeezed off two rounds that lodged in the wooden frame of the corner saloon. Edith had broken his heart for good this time. He fell on his back. The mountains at the bottom of his field of vision danced, contorting themselves up and down, left and right as the dust around him floated. He could’ve sworn he heard her scream, though maybe it was in celebration. The setting sun was getting closer, moving down to reach his level. Ben’s cigarette smoldered on his chest, burning a small hole in his vest. “Well I guess this means she’s keeping the ashtray,” he thought.
“Jimbo stumbled out the bar on his own accord…though just barely,” I added through a chuckle. “And who’s standing outside but Atticus and his trusty revolver. ‘Well’ says Atticus, ‘I reckon this the proper time to…let’s say repossess that money you stole yesterday.’ Ole Jimbo can only laugh and hand over his last fiver. Once he does, Atticus holsters his gun, slaps Jimbo on the back and says, ‘why don’t we grab ourselves a drink. I’m buying,’ and the two go right back into the bar.
Well, three hours later, the two have run through the fiver. Jimbo is out like a light in the corner, but Atti still wants another. He begins wandering out the bar to look for a new drinking partner, only to walk headfirst into the barrel of Raymond’s six-shooter. He complies—hands over the rest of his cash and turns back into the bar yelling ‘Raymond’s buying this time.’
A couple more hours pass, and now Atticus is done. I mean, head on the table, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth, hand shaped as though it’s still holding a whiskey tumbler. Jimbo is coming too, though the only thought getting through the haze of his hangover is ‘hair of the dog,’ which he’s repeating like some kind of mantra to keep the spirits at bay. Problem is, Atticus took his last cent. So he walks out, and lo and behold, it’s Sara Anne. He fumbles out his .44, shrugs, and says ‘revenge for last week.’ The—”
“Why didn’t anyone ever rob you? You must’ve been around to see all this?”
“I was behind the bar. And common decency said that, if you don’t tip your barkeep, you don’t rob him either. What type of person’d do that?”
Six Bullets (Five Complaints) (Spotify)
I awoke with a start. Why’d it feel like I was moving?
“Because we’re in the back of a car, silly” Dana laughed, baring her straight white teeth. “Sarah,” she said as brushed her blonde hair out her eyes, “aren’t you going to show our guest some hospitality?”
Sarah nodded and reached into a Givenchy purse, producing a perfectly rolled joint. “And what is that, may I ask?”
“Don’t your small town manners mean you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth?” They handed me the number and small lighter. Raising my head a second later, something hit me.
“Who’s driving this thing anyway?”
“I am,” responded Jeff from the front. “Isn’t she a beaut?” A beauty it was. A brand new 1963 Cadillac El Dorado convertible, fins and all, painted baby blue.
“I was talking about this, actually” he said, waving a .38 in the air. “It’s the same one as in The Big Heat.” Hiding my surprise, I tried to change the subject, preferably to why I woke up in a car going 90 down I-9. “So what’s happening? Do I need cash? Can I chip in for gas or something?”
“Don’t worry about it. We’re taking care of you—our treat.” Sarah chimed in.
“Being from New Mexico and all, can you teach us how to use this thing, actually?” Dana added, pointing toward the revolver.
Heaven Can Wait (Spotify)
Joel sat in his room, staring out the window at his mailbox. Why had he sent that letter? Maybe her response would arrive today. Then again, he’d thought the same yesterday, and the day before that too. Taking out a piece of paper, he began to write. Why not did the hole a little deeper?
Upstairs, Patricia finished packing her bags. Thomas kept trying to approach, filling her nostrils with the smell of good whiskey and cheap perfume. The stench kept his indiscretions fresh and her anger strong. She threw her last dress into the trunk and slammed it shut.
Study the Moon (Spotify)
They found him in Georgie’s saloon. Though I guess they call it a bar now, and Georgie doesn’t own it anymore. The coppers put their hands on Ole Frank’s shoulder and hauled him down to the courthouse, where the judge demanded he be cuffed. A jury, no faces he recognized, had already been assembled. His stone-faced public defender, fresh in from Pittsburg, was waiting for him. The prosecutor, wearing saddle shoes shined to an inch of their life and a silk tie, coolly asked for death by hanging. As he did so, Frankie couldn’t help but blurt out, “Aw hell, I didn’t take nobodies’ money. Just figured, what better place to get the cash Georgie owes than the bank itself?”
Well, the jury didn’t like that much. Didn’t take more than a minute to convict. In the back of the room the sheriff, Frankie’s old drinking buddy, did his best to stifle his sobs.
Matt was the only congressman sitting. Papers floated around him, fluttering down into his lap before slipping onto the wood floor below. Everyone was face-to-face in one big scrum, a hurricane of screams and middle fingers with Matt as the eye. Eventually, a member of his party noticed him. “Why aren’t you leading the charge like usual?”
“Doesn’t matter. They’ve already won, whether or not we vote no. The funding is coming in from the feds thick and fast. So what if we win? Another three months? Another six? Nothing worth losing your voice over.”
John sat at the edge of the party, glass in his hand, staring up at the moon. In front of him, women in hoopskirts two-stepped with Colonels. As Ignacio approached him, John looked up with a smile notable only for how appallingly fake it was.
“You keep grimacing like that, it’ll become permanent.”
“How you enjoyin’ the party?”
“More than you, evidently. They haven’t been married but five minutes, and you’re already the grumpy father-in-law.”
John grinned. “That make you the nagging mother-in-law?” His smile dissipated as he stirred the ice cubes in his bourbon with his index finger. “It’s the end of us, Ignacio. It’s not just the groom; everyone here is from the city,” he lamented, staring at a man in a business suit across the room. “Pushing us and our ways out.”
“Like your people did to mine.”
The two chuckled. Ignacio kicked the dirt. John took another sip of bourbon. “Guess so.”
The men in loafers and gold watches were streaming out, leaving glasses stacked nicely on the abandoned tables and various bits of detritus scattered across the ground. A silver coin reflected the moonlight onto John’s drink. “Remember when these things’d go all night?” He reminisced.
“What’s all this hot tin for? Declaring us dead already. The girls are still dancing, aren’t they? And the bar’s still serving. Come on.” He offered a hand to help John stand, and, arms draped around the other’s shoulders, the two meandered through the crowd of revelers, still spinning on and on, for one more night at least.
Low Country Girls (Spotify)
We pulled the pick-up over to the side of the road, got out, and hopped the fence onto the farm. We ran towards its eastern edge, she and I, where the outline of tobacco plants gave way to moonlight reflecting off the water. Sitting there with our feet in the lapping waves, her dirty blonde hair almost glittered.
“You aren’t worried about being caught?” she asked.
“What’s it matter? I sail off again tomorrow.” I whispered as I leaned in for a kiss. Pulling away a few minutes later, I smiled and said, “each time I come home, it gets harder to leave.”
“What happened to the wanderer without a country, the border-hopping heartbreaker?” She teased.
“Carolina girls, I guess.” Seeing lights in the distance, I grabbed her arm. “I think that’s our cue.” And we were off again.
“So I tell him,” he says, chuckling softly, “I say ‘Sam, you know how to kill a hog?’ And he shakes his head no. ‘Well, you can’t shoot it in the head, unless you got a real cannon.’” He tries to make a hand motion, spilling whiskey on his prodigious belly and the empty notebooks of the crowd gathered around him. It doesn’t faze him, though he might not have even noticed. ‘“If you take it head on, you’ll have a real bad time. They’re mean creatures, hogs. No, you gotta climb a tree in the morning and wait. And wait. And wait some more. And a bit more after that. Eventually, it’ll pass underneath. When it does, you jump on top of it, stab it in the neck, and flip it on its side. We’ve got to do the same with this legislation. It’s cowardly, sure, but it’s also our only chance. They’ve got the speaker. They’ve got presidential and public support. They got us dead to rights, but we still got our wits.’” He stops for a second, watching the crowd lean in and flashing a smile that foreshadows the punch. “And so Sam thinks for a minute. I mean really thinks, you can see it in his face, and says, ‘well Tom, that sounds great.’” Tom pauses for a beat. “‘Except I don’t know how to climb a tree.’” The previously enraptured reporters explode in laughter as Tom bellows, “well, there goes our wit. Only the finest minds here in Washington.”
As the crowd calms, a young man in the back, one hand scribbling furiously, looks up at the congressman. “Would Senator Nance corroborate this, that this conversation happened?”
Dozens of unhappy faces turn to face him. Tom, still chuckling at himself, sends the cub a wink and a smile. “Sonny, let me buy you a drink and tell you what a wise man once told me: ‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.’”
The hard twang of a blues guitar waft from the window of the car. If I were going any faster, the rules of relativity would start to apply. I’m in no real rush—just that middle Alabama looks like Middle Georgia looks like Middle Mississippi and when you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it a million times. Doesn’t help that the word that best typifies these places, especially at night, is creepy. And so I drive onwards, hard and fast, reaching towns with names like Moultrie and Doerun at daybreak, leaving them two nights later, passing through kudzu covered forests and over snake filled swamps, singing along with B.B. and co like I’d have it any other way.