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  • 9. I’ll Never Get out of This World Alive

    By Thomas Cobb

    We have Thomas Cobb to thank for many things: For writing Crazy Heart, which the Houston Post called “the finest country-western novel ever written.”
    For the Oscar-nominated film based on that novel. And for the stories in his award-winning collection Acts of Contrition, including this fine meditation on love, fidelity, lyric poetry, and the siren song of a steel guitar.

    “I mean Negative capability—this is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after facts and reason.”

    —John Keats, 12/21-27/1817 in a letter to his brother

    Jeffrey, I say, it is beginning again. You have got that steel guitar in your heart and you are fed up. This is trouble, Jeffrey. You are headed for the depths and you do not swim well. Take hold, boy. Take hold.

    Jeffrey is fed up, being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, etc. He cannot read his book, and he cannot write on his paper. Jeffrey boy, you are a good teacher, and a good teacher reads his book and writes on his paper. A good teacher would grab Mr. Keats and Mr. Shelley by the shirt collars and drag them into the classroom where the biscuit-brained students would nod and fall asleep as the wimpy old poets caterwaul in counterpoint.

    What a good teacher does not do, is sit in some bar—no, not some bar—the very Rodeo Bar where you are now drinking that whisky listening to that jukebox and rolling dice with the barmaid to see who pays for the music. You are only pretending to write your lecture, and you are fooling no one. No matter how much you like watching those little plastic horses pull that little plastic wagon in the Budweiser sign, that is their work, which they are doing, not yours, which you are not. Get to it, boy. Now.

    But I cannot do it. The heft of the Norton in its maroon cloth cover does not thrill me. And I cannot remember what it is you say to students about John Keats. They like the bright arterial blood, the coughing and the dying. They like to hear about John, caught by a passing Fanny, and seem to regret that he died before he could marry her. But they have no fears that they will cease to be, and they figure anyone who has lived to twenty-five has lived longer than necessary anyway. I do not know how to convince them that a thing of beauty is a joy forever, and I cannot read the lines

    Catch the white-handed nymphs in shady places
    To woo sweet kisses from averted faces—
    Play with their fingers, touch their shoulders white
    Into a pretty shrinking with a bite
    As hard as lips can make it . . .

    without looking at the thighs of Sandy Holguin. And I cannot look at the thighs of Sandy Holguin without thinking of John Keats, who wondered

    Were there ever any
    Writhed not at passed joy?
    The feel of not to feel it,
    When there is none to heal it . . . ?

    Heel, Jeffrey. Get yourself back to that school, your desk, your book, your paper and that gnawed-on Eberhardt-Faber number three pencil, and work your work. That you are a twenty-nine-year-old English teacher who has discovered that he cannot beat the boredom of his life with a new pair of Tony Lama boots, a GMC pickup truck, and a Smith & Wesson .357 magnum revolver, and more blues than he has any legitimate right to, means nothing to these darling little children who are expecting you—no, demanding you—to get your tired butt into that classroom and teach them so they may become good, tax-cheating, adulterous suburban citizens, and, most likely, make more money than you ever will. It is your duty, son. Write on your damned paper.

    I can put part of it together:

    John Keats (b. 1795, d. 1821) was the son of a stableman. His were, by accounts, decent people, and though poor, able to send John to school. His father died in an accident when John was eight, and his mother died of tuberculosis when he was fourteen. After his mother’s death, John became an avid reader and began to take an interest in poetry. However, only a year later, he was taken out of school and apprenticed to an apothecary, ending his education, but beginning his career as a poet. He published his first book of poems at the age of twenty-two.

    What is that you’re writing, Carol, the barmaid, wants to know. Carol is a fine-looking woman, and I have done a great deal of looking. She could be, if necessary, the Levi Strauss company’s main reason for existing. It may be my imagination, but in the last few weeks, she seems to have become more liberal with both her smiles and her pouring.

    She has, she tells me, gone to college herself, right here at the community college where I teach, and has even taken Survey of British Literature II. She hated it. What college needs, she tells me, is someone who can translate poetry into English. I find that remark
    oddly charming.

    By 1816, Keats had committed himself to becoming a poet. In that year he set forth his plan in the poem “Sleep and Poetry”: “for ten years, that I may overwhelm / Myself in poesy; so I may do the deed/That my soul has to itself decreed.”

    The worst thing about working the day shift, Carol tells me, is that at 5:00 you go home to reruns of Seinfeld or the 5:30 news with Tom Brokaw. Seinfeld has been stale for years, and Tom Brokaw is kind of cute, but in an uncle-ish way. The thing is, it’s no fun to curl up on the sofa with Tom Brokaw.

    *

    Wait a minute, Jeffrey. There is more at stake here, I would say, than a lesson plan, which, you will remember, has to be delivered at 9:00 Mountain Standard Time tomorrow morning. There is the further matter of your wife, all questions of her faithfulness put aside for the moment, who is, in fact, a good woman. And who, apart from any minor failings she may have in the fidelity department, does love you, need you, and want you home with her. Soon. What is beginning here, Jeffrey, will not make matters any better.

    *

    What I like most about a pickup truck is the sense of enclosure. You can haul that several thousand pounds of metal around at a horrifying rate of speed, as I am doing now, the wind catching the tailgate and just demolishing the mpgs, and the cab just snuggles around you, fitting in close. It is a vehicle that allows you to drive as alone as you are able. There is no empty seat following you, reminding you that there may be others who may want to ride wherever it is you’re going. Those with you are next to you. It is an intimate machine.

    What is it, Carol wants to know, that you find so interesting in a man like John Keats? Negative capability is what I find. Who could not love a man who wrote something like this:

    Just so may love, though ‘tis understood
    The mere commingling of passionate breath
    Produce more than our searching witnesseth:
    What I know not: but who, of men can tell
    That flowers would bloom, or that green fruit would swell
    To melting pulp, that fish would have bright mail
    The earth its dower of river, wood, and vale,
    The meadow runnels, the runnels pebble-stones
    The seed its harvest, or the lute its tones,
    Tones ravishment, or ravishment its sweet
    If human souls did never kiss and greet?

    He said that? Carol asks. Yes. He said that, and there is no need to translate that into English. No, she agrees, what you translate that into is not English. Turn here, she says. It’s a small farm road, straight open and dirt. Here, she says, this is my poetry. She takes a cassette from the dash and runs it home. We are doing sixty miles an hour down the farm road that twists and swirls behind us in a sheet of dust. Hank Williams begins to sing through that long and exquisitely fine nose of his:

    Your cheatin’ heart will make you weep
    You’ll cry and cry, and try to sleep.
    But sleep won’t come, the whole night through.
    Your cheatin’ heart will tell on you.

    And there is poetry there. The steel guitar in that song cries, the way the hardest crying is done—low and steady, faithful behind the other instruments. It keeps at you until you ache with the throb of it all.

    I think I could sit through a poetry lecture if it was a lecture on Hank Williams, Carol says. Or Patsy Cline, or Lefty Frizzell. I think about that for a second. Why don’t they give lectures like that at the college, she asks.

    Hiram Hank Williams was born in 1923, the son of an Alabama lumber camp worker who spent most of Hank’s early years in the VA hospital. The boy did not like school, and he dropped out at his first chance. Except for the occasional odd job when money was especially scarce, he never worked at anything except playing country music, or “hillbilly” music as it was called then. He remained, for his whole life, an ignorant, semi-literate redneck. That did not obscure the fact that he was a genius who wrote significant, lasting music, though he rarely went beyond the most basic tonic-dominant-subdominant progression in any of his songs.

    Here, Carol says. Pull over here. We are about four miles from the highway on the farm road. Both sides of the road are piled high with dirt freshly cut from the irrigation ditches. Beyond the ditches lie long fields of alfalfa in first growth. Carol jumps from the truck, carrying the bottle of Jack Daniels she has taken from the bar. Here, she says, right here, patting the loose soil of the ditch-bank where she has sat.

    In the irrigation ditch, water rushes by, pushed by a big green Peerless pump, working about 300 gallons per minute. In the sky above the field, hawks turn as if the air were a bearing machined just for them. Beyond them, the late afternoon sun sends shadows deep into the rock faces and gullies of the Penelenos. I watch the small raptors drift and wheel against the mountains, then descend in excruciatingly beautiful dives to the fields below. Next to me, Carol watches and says only, damn.

    Damn, she says again. I guess that’s about the most articulate thing you can say about such sights, but I notice that there is a little catch in her voice. Damn, she says once more. He sure got it right, Hank did. From the open door of the truck, Hank keeps singing.

    Why don’t you say the things you used to say?
    What makes you treat me like a piece of clay?
    My hair’s still curly and my eyes are still blue.
    Why don’t you love me like you used to do?

    She takes a long pull from the bottle and hands it over. She is crying, very quietly. I’m sorry, she says. I take a good pull and hand it back. Her shoulders are shaking just a little. It’s my old man, she says. He left me last month. Just picked up and left. I didn’t even think he was slipping around on me.

    I take the bottle from her and try to scoot over. But the ditch bank has molded to my butt and I can’t scoot. I lean to her. The thing is, she says, he’s the third one that’s done that to me. Why don’t you check and see if there’s a sign that says “leave me” on my back? I put the bottle between my knees and pull her toward me. We look like two legs of an easel.

    The news is out, all over town
    That you’ve been seen a-runnin’ ‘round
    I know that I should leave, but then
    I just can’t go—YOU WIN AGAIN

    This is a world of fools, I tell her, people who don’t appreciate what they have. Some people can’t see what’s right in front of them.

    Much of Hank Williams’s best music, the songs that we remember most—“Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Why Don’t You Love Me,” “You Win Again,” “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You)”—were direct outgrowths of his stormy marriage to Audrey Mae Sheppard, one of his backup singers, a woman with little talent but an enormous appetite for fame and money.

    Hank understood, Carol says. He truly did. My wife is cheating on me, I say. And then I begin to cry, too. She holds me a little tighter. I’m not sure with who, I say. It might be my best friend. We hold each other and rock on the ditch bank.

    *

    Hold it just a minute, here, Jeffrey. This whole damned thing is getting way out of hand now. You are leaning too hard on the clichés here, and you are pushing to turn your life into a country-western song. You have, you will remember, no proof of that accusation. You have no smoking cigar, no prolonged absences that cannot be accounted for with just a little grace on your part. What you have is a woman of extravagant parts, and I myself would surely miss the sight of her. The smooth slope of her forearm, the grace of hair and eye, the shrug of her shoulders as she shucks her brassiere, the spread of her fingers as she pulls the elastic from her hips are sights that still knock the breath from us, and at last notice, still brought a lump to your pocket.

    *

    The only thing you have, Jeffrey, is your damned logical proof. You are capable of cheating on her; therefore, she is capable of cheating on you. That is a cruel enthymeme, boy, one you don’t need to support tonight.

    Carol puts her head on my shoulder. The smell of her cream rinse is exotic and wonderful. When I was little, she says, we used to walk these ditches for miles. It was the only cool thing you could do, walking in the cold water with the hot sun beating down on you. It was wonderful. It was a wonderful time.

    Let’s, I say.

    Footing is difficult. Where the water has left deposits of silt, our toes find purchase. But most of the way, the bottom is packed clay and slippery. Neither of us is too steady because of the whisky. But we are probably a hundred yards away from the truck and our boots, so far away I can’t hear Hank anymore, when she loses her balance and falls backward. I almost catch her, but I am also trying to keep the bottle from going in the water. I try to pull her up, but I lose my balance, too, and go butt-first into the ditch, still holding the bottle up. She is already on her feet when I get to mine. When I try to kiss her, she is spitting ditch water. She walks on. I follow, in love with those wet Levis.

    A thing of beauty is a joy forever
    Its loveliness increases; it will never
    Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
    A bower quiet for us . . .

    I hate walking in wet Levis, she says. They are awful, I agree. They bind and chafe something terrible. We look hard at each other, then lunge. We are in a tangle, trying to get each other’s pants down in the middle of an irrigation ditch, in the middle of someone’s field, in light that has not fully failed. We thrash in the water. Her Levis are tangled around one ankle. As I am trying to shimmy them over her foot, she gives a tug at mine, and I go over, backward and under. When I get up and clear the hair and water from my eyes, she is standing, waiting. I am stunned by the sight of her.

    Afterward, we are both covered with mud and dirt, slippery and gritty at the same time. It is more than a hundred yards to the pump and clean water. We gather what clothes we can find. My shirt and shorts are probably at the bottom of the ditch far downstream by now. I try walking the field. These fields are full of rattlesnakes at night, she tells me. I jump back into the ditch. Do they swim, I ask.

    I don’t know. I guess I never saw one.

    The water comes out of the pump cold enough to make our bodies ache. And when we have the mud and sand washed off there is nothing to dry ourselves with. We go back to the truck and run the heater up as high as it will go. And we listen to Hank Williams.

    I got a feelin’ called the blues, Lawd,
    My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
    My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk
    Since my baby said goodbye
    Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
    One minute past and Lethe-wards had sunk. . .

    When I wake up, Carol is still asleep. It is completely dark, the moon is out, and I am still drunk. I wake her and we dress. Then I turn the truck and head back. On the road, the headlights pick up a small dark shape—a house cat, maybe, or a skunk. Carol reverses the tape that has run out.

    She told me not to mess around,
    But I done let that deal go down,
    So pack it on over, tote it on over,
    Move over, nice dog, ’cause a bad dog’s movin’ in.

    I reach over and turn it off.

    You might as well come in, Carol says when we get to her mobile home. No, I say. It’s time to go home. You’re in no shape to go anywhere, she says. Stay here. No, I insist. There are things that have to be said, things that have to be settled. I’m sorry. I have to go. She gives me a quick kiss, but says nothing when she closes the door. Back in the truck there is only Hank and me.

    It’s hard to know another’s lips will kiss you,
    And hold you just the way I used to do.
    Oh, heaven only knows how much I miss you.
    I CAN’T HELP IT IF I’M STILL IN LOVE WITH YOU.

    The way home is a good ten miles, and about half way I begin to cry. The more I cry, the angrier I get. I turn the volume on the tape deck until Hank’s voice distorts and cracks.

    By the time he was twenty-six, suffering from a lung condition and a bad back, John Keats began a steady abuse of alcohol and drugs. He soon developed a reputation for showing up at concert dates drunk, if he showed up at all. Once, in Canada, he literally had to be dragged onto the stage in front of a thousand screaming fans. He stumbled to the microphone, and when his band, the Drifting Poets, began the intro, he seemed unable to recognize the song. Finally, he sang the first two lines of “Ode to Autumn,” repeated them three times, and passed out. Just two years later, in 1821, living on bourbon and Seconals, John Keats went to sleep in the back of his famous white Cadillac and never woke up.

    Understand that Jeffrey does not really like guns. They are ugly little things that serve only one purpose when they serve any at all. Yet there is nothing that fits a man’s hand quite the way a gun does. Of all the implements a man has ever held, none has been so perfectly designed as an extension of hand and fingers. You need only pick up a gun once, hold it, and get the feel of the thing to know that nothing is ever going to feel that good in your hand again.

    *

    When I pull into the driveway, right behind my wife’s Volkswagen, my hand goes immediately to the glove compartment. The barrel of the magnum is cold as I slide it into my jeans.

    *

    Now aren’t you one hell of a sight, Jeffrey, standing in the middle of your yard, shirtless, wet and muddy, defiant as a little mockingbird, waving that gun around and screaming to wake the dead? Don’t use that thing, boy. You are pitiful enough as you are.

    *

    Even holding the gun with both hands, I cannot steady the barrel. I don’t know where the first shot goes. I pull the trigger and there is only muzzle-flash and the sound of the shot with its reverberation. The second shot snaps a limb off the pecan tree in the front yard. Get out here. The third one disintegrates the right window of my pickup truck. Now. Goddamn it. When I hear the front door open, I spin in a low crouch and sight her there, in her robe, barefoot. My feet tangle and I fall. I’m crying loud and hard, and I don’t know what happens to the gun.

    *

    Jeffrey, boy. Look at your miserable self, I say. For God’s sake, boy, don’t crawl to her. Crawling doesn’t get you there fast enough.

    *

    © by Thomas Cobb. From the collection Acts of Contrition. Used by permission of the author.

    Read more about Crazy Heart here . . .

    . . . read an excerpt here:

    . . . and order a copy here!

    Don’t miss the film, with the heroic Jeff Bridges and the radiant Maggie Gyllenhall:

    And here’s an interview with Tom himself on his book and the film:



    One Comment

    1. Dave on May 29, 2010 :

      Like the story, very interesting. I'm not much of a writer so I tend to use http://www.storyjoin.com It allows you to create stories with other members. You start a story by writing 1 paragraph to as many as you want and any uncompleted paragraphs get completed by other members, it's fun to see how the story ends, but your story was good.

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