Lies We Choose to Believe*

One of the few times I complimented the South while in the South, I was talking to my mother. I was remarking on the Southern storytelling tradition. What I was saying—probably wondering why such a backward region produced such great storytellers—is less important than my mother’s response. She said that the South is a Romantic culture, a place that believes that stories can evoke more truth than available in the individual words themselves or in what actually happened. In this vein, the South creates a past that may or may not correspond to actual history, but nonetheless lives on in the cultural imaginary. This past, then, only becomes real when it is told or thought, and so the past comes into existence in the present, bearing down on those doing the speaking or thinking. Looking at three of Faulkner’s novels: The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom!, and Light in August, we see the Old South push upon characters in three different ways—as a repressed memory that violently imposes itself on the present, as an ever unfolding line that ensnares those who attempt to unwind it, and as an image that drives the seer into madness. In examining these moments, I hope to understand why the South becomes an obsession for these characters, and work toward an impressionistic answer to the question that has haunted me, and I believe haunts Quentin Compson: How can we hate and love the South at the same time?

To begin with, let us look at Quentin’s portion of The Sound and the Fury. In the novel, the old south is ostensibly dead, or at least on it’s deathbed. Yet nonetheless it presses upon Quentin, making itself real in the present. Events from the past that Quentin is remembering interrupt things that are actually happening in the present—while Quentin is staring at Shreve, Faulkner writes, “he went on, nursing a book, a little shapeless, fatly intent. The street lamps do you think so because one of our forefathers was a governor and three were generals and Mother’s weren’t…Jason I must go away you keep the others I’ll take Jason” (Faulkner The Sound and the Fury 101). As he watches Shreve, the words of his father and mother echo, which then brings to mind a moment from his past until he is back in that moment, the words being remembered as spoken in the present even as they exist in the past. Quentin’s obsession with the past causes it to intrude on the present.

Much of what Quentin remembers his father saying relates to conceptions of virginity, and particularly his sister’s virginity. Still obsessed with the old southern belief that a woman’s worth is defined by her virginity, Quentin tries to tell his father that it was he who slept with Caddie, believing that claiming it could somehow make it true and put him in a special hell with her, where he could protect her. This belief suggests that he sees the past as something malleable, something that can be changed after it has happened as long as it is remembered in a new way. Part of the reason for this is because, as Faulkner’s prose reveals, Quentin experiences the past in the present as vividly as it was in the moment it actually occurred. And part of it is that, ostensibly if one remembers something, then it happened or exists in someway—although this obviously is not actually the case, as individuals remember falsehoods and stories and things that exist only in their minds. However, this is not the entirety of why Quentin believes that the past can be changed in the present, and remembered past can differ from history. To fully grasp why Quentin believes what he believes, we must pivot to two different books, including one in which the Compson clan is absent: Light in August and Absalom, Absalom!.

It is admittedly counter-intuitive to examine a character through a book he is not in. However, it is nonetheless apt. In Light in August, Reverend Gail Hightower is paralyzed by images of his grandfather fighting in the Civil War. His mammie, Cynthie, tells him that his grandfather killed many union soldiers, and even rode into the garrisoned city of Jefferson to conduct a daring raid. The imagery sticks with Hightower, haunting him. He imagines that he is partly his grandfather, and died 20 years before he was born, when his grandfather was shot in Jefferson. This belief shapes his entire life—he works to get posted in the city, and even when he is removed from his position, he continues to live there, even risking his life to stay. The past he is told, the one he dreams of, effects his present, even becoming part of it—at times he speaks of his grandfather’s actions as if they are in the present. Furthermore, he is unable to “get religion and that galloping cavalry and his dead grandfather shot from the galloping horse untangled from each other” (Faulkner Light in August 62). He tells the congregation, and himself, about the noble death of his grandfather, how there was no looting of Jefferson even as it burned. However, as Hightower admits at the end, Cynthie told him his grandfather was “killed in somebody’s else’s henhouse wid a han’full of feathers” (Faulkner Light in August 485). The past he believes is true usurps true history for most of his life, the latter only coming into the reader’s evidence at the end of the novel. Indeed, one could argue that his imagined history is in some ways true, at least in that it was this history that dictates his actions, how he thinks, and how people treat him throughout his life.

However, in true Faulknerian fashion, Hightower’s understanding of his grandfather’s history is not this simple. We know Hightower was told that his grandfather was shot in the henhouse during his childhood, since his mammie told him it. He has kept both pasts in his mind—his father being shot off his horse in the street, and being shot with a shotgun by the wife of the confederate soldier—because for a hero, their “physical passing becomes rumor with a thousand faces before the breath is out of them, lest the paradoxical truth outrage itself” (Faulkner Light in August 484). He says that he believes Cinthy’s story because even if she made it up, “even fact cannot stand with it” (Faulkner Light in August 484). What matters is not which happened, or even what Hightower thinks happened, but what Hightower believes happened, which is both pasts. When talking to the congregation, his grandfather was shot off his horse, but when talking to his wife on the train, his grandfather was shot in the henhouse. Neither death may be accurate, but because he believes both, they both are, in some way. The past is not history, not an accurate representation of what happened, but what people remember happening. Indeed, the same moment in history can have several contradictory pasts.

This, then, starts to offer an understanding of the past that explains Quentin’s belief that if he can claim Caddie’s virginity to his father, then he might be able to protect her in some way after the fact. Hightower lives his entire life believing these two pasts about his father, and hence both become true in some way, shaping his life as well as the lives of those around him. As he says, he is the “debaucher and murderer of my grandson’s wife, since I could neither let my grandson live or die” (Faulkner Light in August 491). His obsessions with these pasts shape not only his life, but also his wife’s and the community’s. Furthermore, these false pasts manifest themselves in the present, overwhelming Hightower, taking control of him and making it so he cannot live his own life, but instead only a life dictated by said pasts.

Unlike Light in August, Quentin is very much present in Absalom, Absalom!. Much of the novel is people recounting the story of Thomas Sutpen to him and vice-versa. He is at the center of this novel that is obsessed with the relationship between history and its retelling as the past. As the novel unfolds, the same story—the rise and fall of Sutpen’s Hundred—is told from several different perspectives. Sutpen’s sister-in-law, Rosa Coldfield, tells Quentin some of it, his father tells him what his father told him, and Quentin and his roommate Shreve discuss it. As this constant talk about the South happens, the dialogue is peppered with “perhaps” and “maybe.” Partly this is because they are talking about the thoughts that other people had, and it is impossible to say for sure what is in someone else’s head. However, it is also because though it is one history they are retelling, it is several pasts.

For example, part of the derailment of the Sutpen dynasty comes when Thomas Sutpen refuses to let his daughter marry Charles Bon, causing Bon and Henry Sutpen, Thomas’ son, to run off. Jason Compson tells Quentin that it was because Charles Bon was Judith’s sister, only for Quentin to learn from Rosa that Charles Bon was part black, and it was this that stopped the marriage—Rosa does not even suspect incest. As the book draws to a close, Quentin and Shreve come to the idea that it was Bon’s black blood that stopped the act of incest from occurring by causing Henry to shoot Bon to stop the marriage. As Bon tells Henry, “so it’s the miscegenation, not the incest, which you can’t bear” (Faulkner Absalom, Absalom! 285). The discussion continues, and Bon taunts Henry that he is not his brother, but “the n****r that’s going to sleep with your sister” (Faulkner Absalom, Absalom 285). The two pasts merge into one, yet still stay as two. To Mr. Compson, incest is the central issue that causes the impasse. To Rosa Coldfield, it is miscegenation. But to Shreve and Quentin, it is both. The pasts imagined by Mr. Compson and Rosa bear down on the boys, pushing them into creating their own past that holds both of these other pasts to be true, regardless of what the historical record says.

From Light in August and Absalom, Absalom!, it has become more clear why Quentin Compson might understand the past as something able to be modified in the present—the past in Faulkner is something separate from history, something linked to memory, community, and the individual and hence constructed in the present and then put onto history from such a vantage point. In such an understanding of the past, it makes sense that Quentin believes that if he is able to claim Caddy’s virginity to his father the claim will somehow become true. However, in doing so we have strayed from the questions that inspired the essay. Let us return to them. In Faulkner, much as in life, the past of the South—how it wants to be remembered, not its actual history—imposes itself on those from there. It is inescapable, pressing constantly upon the mind. Reverend Hightower becomes so obsessed with the death of his grandfather that, as he says, “for fifty years I have not even been clay: I have been a single instant of darkness in which a horse galloped and a gun crashed” (Faulkner Light in August 491). His entire life can be reduced to a single moment not in history, but in the past. Similarly, when Shreve is talking, Faulkner says “he had no listener…then suddenly he had no talker either…because now neither of them was there. They were both in Carolina and the time was forty-six years ago and it was not even four now but compounded still further, since now both of them were Henry Sutpen and both of them were Bon…” (Faulkner Absalom, Absalom! 280). And, as mentioned above, in The Sound and the Fury the prose of the past jumps into the present, interrupting Quentin’s thoughts about where he is to refocus on where he is from.

The South’s past is reliant on memory, and pushes upon those tasked with remembering it. It exists only in the minds of those in the community. Through individuals describing what happened in in the temporal past, the imagined past is created in the present, and then is mapped onto history. The South has to obsess those who carry it with them for its history to live. The implication of this process, however, is that the South’s past is always personal, in that it says something about who created it. This, then, starts to explain why these characters are obsessed with the pasts they and those around them create—it is a way of learning about themselves. And it also starts to explain why it is impossible for Quentin to hate the South, nor not hate it. It is the reason why Absalom, Absalom! concludes with that striking paragraph:

I Dont hate it,” Quentin said quickly, at once, immediately; “I dont hate it,” he said I dont hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!

(Faulkner Absalom, Absalom 303).

How can one not hate something that tells one about oneself even when one looks outward? And yet how can you despise something of your own creation? For those of us from the South, it is not that the south is part of us, just where we are from, something that can be disavowed and cleanly analyzed. The south is us, for we construct it. There is a dialectical relationship with the South’s past: it consumes and swallows those who live in it and those who try and escape it, yet it is those same people that it consumes that create it.

When I was younger, I could not eat in the rural South. Whether at a Chili’s in Dothan, Alabama or an unnamed barbeque shack in Arapahoe, North Carolina, the smell of food would make me nauseous. If I tried to eat, I would throw up. At the time, I figured it was fear of getting food poisoning. Now, however, I realize that it was a different form of anxiety. I hated these places, hated them with all my heart, hated them as only someone deluding themself can hate. I hated them because though they were ostensibly different from what I was used to, I recognized myself in them. They were from another time, stuck in the past, and whispered that I was no different, that I was equally stuck, no matter how much I fought it. In identifying them as relics, I admitted that I too thought of the South’s past, and I too am unable to escape it. If they are relics, so am I.

The individual in the South, however, does not exist alone. There is always a community around them. If the South’s past is created by individuals remembering the past in the present, and the individuals are part of a community, then it stands to reason that the community has some relationship to the past, complicating the process discussed above. Returning to Faulkner’s novels, both of the characters analyzed above are simultaneously part of the community and outsiders in some way.[2] Reverend Hightower, of course, is a pariah in Jefferson, almost an exile who never left. Quentin leaves the South, putting both literal and metaphorical distance between himself and his community. The act of creating the South’s past falls upon those who are not entirely within the community.[3] If in the creation of a Southern past there are always remnants of the individual doing the creating, then it becomes clear why this is the case. It is a way of re-inserting oneself into the community.

Here, it is important to clarify that though it first appears that Reverend Hightower is made an outsider by his obsession with the past, in fact his outsider status begins much earlier. His father was an old man by the time Hightower was born, and “though born and bred and dwelling in an age and land where to own slaves was less expensive not to own them, he would neither eat food grown and cooked by, nor sleep in a bed prepared by, a negro slave” (Faulkner Light in August 467). He is a soldier in the confederacy and a man in the South, yet also a firm abolitionist, putting him at odds with most of his contemporaries. The result is that Hightower “grew to manhood among phantoms, and side by side with a ghost” (Faulkner Light in August 474). This does not sound like the upbringing of someone deeply rooted in the society of his contemporaries.

Both Reverend Hightower and Quentin are outsiders, then, and use construction of the South’s past as a way to place themselves back within the community they are exterior to. This is often manifested in the stories themselves. When he arrives in Jefferson, Reverend Hightower talks such that “the dogma he was supposed to preach all full of galloping cavalry and defeat and glory” (Faulkner Light in August 63). His story about his family’s past becomes a fable about the community and humanity, putting him in the community’s history—which the community resents him for doing. Furthermore, he thinks that he “skipped a generation…I had no father and that I had already died one night twenty years before I saw light” (Faulkner Light in August 478). In bringing forth the past in the present, he can imagine himself as his grandfather, a garrulous man who shared values with many other Southerners, rather than as the son of his semi-outcast father, one who still has a soft spot for the plot of African-Americans in the south.

Similarly, in Quentin and Mr. Compson’s stories, General Compson (Jason Compson’s father) plays a large role, both as supplier of information and as Thomas Sutpen’s best friend. Throughout the story, they take pains to emphasize General Compson’s standing in the community— he is able to get people out of jail, loan money, and eventually becomes a higher-up in the Confederate Army. If they are telling stories about the community, and they or their forbearers are in the stories, then in a way they are in the community.

However, the act of telling the past inserts the individual into the community in another way. One final personal anecdote may clarify. Though I am from the South, one would be hard-pressed to find another Southerner who would identify me as “Southern,” or as part of the region’s lineage. I am Jewish and cosmopolitan, with no Southern accent and a disdain for the region’s ideology and history. But when I construct a past of the South, it is one that provokes certain temporal questions in the writers it produces. As someone interested in those questions, I can then position myself as part of this South that shares a history but not a past with the other South. In this, I then assert a claim to membership within the community. Quentin does much the same—the characters in his South are interested in the same questions of miscegenation and incest that he is, and if their thinking is produced by the community’s beliefs, and they think of the same questions as Quentin, then he is produced by the community and its beliefs and hence part of it. Reverend Hightower does something similar, though slightly different. In Light in August Faulkner describes how after the war “men returned home with their eyes stubbornly reverted toward what they refused to believe was dead,” namely the South they once knew (Faulkner Light in August 474). Reverend Hightower, in his obsession with his grandfather’s history and fighting spirit, becomes another one of these men, joining the community. Constructing a past of the South allows individuals who might be excluded based on the actual history to imagine themselves as part of the community.

Finally, we have come to something resembling an understanding of the relationship between the South’s past and individuals in Faulkner. It is a symbiotic relationship—the past cannot exist without these individuals, and the individuals need to create the past to claim a position within the community. It is no wonder they become obsessed with the past—it is their only grasp on those around them. Without it, they would have to disavow the region. But to do that would be to go too far. Instead, they create their own version of the region through their telling of the past, knowing quite well that it differs from actual history. They love the former and hate the latter, but are unable to separate the two, seeing them as one, confusing them, making their denials confirmations and their confirmations denials, until it is all one big neurosis, history and the past bleeding into each other like they had made a blood pact to torture these characters that can never be undone even when Quentin is at the bottom of the river and Reverend Hightower is bleeding on the ground of his house and Caddy is exiled and everyone is dead or crazy except for Shreve practicing surgery in Alberta and maybe occasionally thinking of his suicidal freshman roommate who was hounded by the very past he created into self-destruction and thinking that this is the cost of the south, this is its disease that it destroys the very people who work to create it, chewing up storytellers until there is nothing left of them but empty shells and broken minds. He hates it, he hates it for that and its racism and its absurdity. He does not exist; I hate it and left it and will return more obsessed than when I left.

*This title is adapted from John Moreland’s song “Lies I Choose to Believe”

[2] In fact, even the more peripheral characters interested in the South’s past are in some ways outsiders. Rosa Coldfield lives alone and has almost her entire life, and was raised by an abolitionist father who starved to death rather than help the confederacy. Mr. Compson is an alcoholic and failed classicist. Finally Shreve, who is at times less invested in the act of constructing pasts than Quentin, is Canadian. He is fully the outsider, and is thus able to construct pasts with Quentin without being swallowed by the act, without drowning in the subtle undulations of Mississippi history.

[3] One can see something similar in The Hamlet, where it is Ratliff who tells many of the stories and hence creates the past. Though he is ostensibly part of the community, his job as a travelling salesman takes him away from it for long periods of time.

Empty Gestures

“The house I built is burning”

The Turnpike Troubadours’ lyric echoes in my ear as I walk, the original stuck to the corner where I heard it, its copies mutating and shifting as the real becomes more distant. “The house I built is burning… the house I built burnin…the house we built…burnin…” It’s sunny and warm here in Providence, but the remnants of the bomb cyclone that stormed away weeks ago still liter the corners. Across the country, my sister’s town is covered in the scar tissue that fills the void burning brings. In Atlanta, there’s still ice on the ground. Before I left, I watched as fire failed to melt the snow around it, my understanding collapsing with each flicker. In between these coasts sit proud mountains stripped of their cold coverings, the snow refusing the peaks’ plea for modesty.
*******
Down in Southeast Atlanta, there’s a park centered around two ponds. The ponds were created by The South River Brick Company, who used the area as a clay quarry. They weren’t the first diggers though—the area around the park had been a quarry as far back as 3000 BC, mostly for soapstone. After SRBC closed down, an African-American family homesteaded there, only for white neighbors to burn their house and chase them out, turning the location into a dumping ground. Years later, after a billionaire philanthropist gave Dekalb County the money to turn the land into a park, local artists started using the remaining trash to create installations. Dolls’ heads and broken brick dot the hiking trail, sitting in old TV’s and playing tricks on the local copperheads. Geese land on the lakes, flapping their wings until they have a readymade whitewater ride. The dead trees have ornate tattoos, the product of termites’ artistic ambitions. Occasionally otters appear, messing with the floodplain in unexpected ways.
Yet something is off as you walk through, a palpable tension independent of the lifeless eyes that track walkers or the greedy poison ivy that reach for your legs. It comes from the nagging suspicion that though we gave this land back to nature, it didn’t forgive us. Huxley writes that English forests and marshes are “only there on sufferance, because we have chosen out of our good pleasure, to leave them their freedom.” But the truth was these wilds did not accept their enslavement peacefully—it is only now that we begin to see their vengeance manifesting, and so we desperately return what we never actually conquered. What good is a million dollars for a park, when the money came from the system that destroyed it in the first place? Our house is burning; even our most conscientious leaders are doing little more than throwing cups of water on the ever growing flames, knowing damn well it’ll change nothing. They’re in collusion with the fire, just like those in the back dumping gasoline and laughing as the flames grow. They don’t feel the heat, at least not yet. Cotton and linen, the make-up of currency, are mighty fine at cooling.
*****
“And all that trouble you’ve been looking for is easy in the finding
Well the devil’s into fine detail” The Turnpike Troubadours sing. Oh how I wish they were right! The devil Huxley found in nature, the alien distance that fills the tropics with dread, that asserts there is world outside of us we cannot know, is gone. With it is inimical goodness; the devil cannot exist without God to cast him out of heaven. Those details the devil loved—the ice on the corner, the burned out tree, the rock strewn peak—reveal nothing but his retreat. Climate change is the manifestation of capitalism, of our society. Every tree we plant is already dead, stripped of its essence and power.

Crimes

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.”

Get Yourself Home (In Search of the Mistress Whose Kisses Are Famous)

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.

We Go Down to That Corner

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.

Honor Amongst Thieves

“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.

 

Old Chapman Takes a Good Long Walk

“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.’”

When You’re Traveling at the Speed of Light (Spotify) 

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.