Three Tales from The Iowa Goatsinger
by Mike Moran
“In Hank’s Brain”
And I’m thinking. And I’m walking. And I’m thinking. And you left and you were gone. And I’m walking in circles around the place where I used to think your heart was but apparently wasn’t anymore, and so I was just walking in circles around my room thinking the rawest thoughts.
And I kicked the bed – boom! But that didn’t make me feel better.
So I slammed the door – crack! And that didn’t work either.
So I picked up some lipstick you’d left sitting out and I threw it at the lamp – ponk! And that was just stupid.
So I held a pillow and I punched it. But that was all wrong. So I picked up your picture to punch it, and I couldn’t. So I set it down, and I punched the door.
And the pain made me so angry that I punched myself. And that felt closer to right, so I punched myself again. And then I punched myself one last time, and I knocked me straight out the window: Crrrashhh…!
And I fell down, down, down……through the trees – piff! pow! boof! – and – thump! – right into the head of Hank Williams.
I got myself up on my feet there in Hank’s brain, and I saw the trees moving with the night breeze, and I saw the glow of the city over the Tennessee mountain like a promise, and I said, “Dammit, Hank, she left me.”
And Hank Williams, sitting there in some motel room in Memphis or outside Nashville or Roanoke, scratched his head and said, “I’m having the saddest thoughts.”
And I walked in circles around Hank’s brain, with the trees shaking in the wind and the glow of the city over the Tennessee mountain like the forest had caught fire on its backside, and I told him the story of where I figured you’d gone and why.
And Hank wiped his eyes and said, “I am truly having the saddest thoughts.”
And there in old Hank’s brain, I told him what I thought needed to maybe happen to you, that maybe someday you would know what this is like! And then you’d be sorry, you and your cheatin’ heart!
And it was then, with the trees whipping around in this howling wind and the sky an explosion of fire, that good old Hank picked up his guitar and said, “I think I feel a song coming on.”
And then he sat himself down on the edge of that motel bed and he wrote a song.
And there in Hank Williams brain, dancing and crying, this is exactly the way I heard it:
(for “Your Cheatin’ Heart” written by Hank Williams)
“On the Way to My Sweet Home”
I was young. I was living in North Carolina. I remember standing beside my packed and gassed and ready-to-go car with my baby, my sweetums, this woman I used to know. City street. Sunny morning.
And I remember how I felt looking at that lady that morning, and I remember how I felt when she looked back at me.
Cuz when I said, “Come on, baby!” my baby said, “No.”
And I said, “But we’re leaving now. I’m packed, I’m ready to go.”
And on the hill behind her, I can see this guy walking down towards us.
And I tell her, “Let’s go.”
And she sez, “No.”
And I looked at this guy and I looked at my lady and I looked at the car all packed and ready, and I said to her, “I’ve been talking about this with you for months now! I’m playing Chattanooga tonight, then Nashville the next two nights. Hell, I want to get as close to the burning core of Memphis as I can before swinging like a Mark Twain tale through the little towns southwise along the Mississippi River all the way to New Orleans – then beating it west and watching the lush green of the delta through the car windows burn down to desert: San Antonio; El Paso; Tucson; Phoenix; San Diego where we should’ve first met. And then back: a fast, cheap dance through Las Vegas before peeing off the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, then sliding through the Painted Desert to Sante Fe; Amarillo, Oklahoma City all the way to Tulsa where we can set our watches, then swinging the compass northward, up to Kansas City, hey hey, Kansas City here we come; finally rolling across the Mason-Dixon line, up through Des Moines, where we pull it around east, those Iowa hills rolling like hips on an unmade bed; and then back to the electric lights and the plugged-in blues, baby, back to my own sweet home Chicago. Don’t you want to go?”
And the guy reaches us, and he stops and looks down at her. She looks up at him and then she looks at me.
And she says, “Nope.”
And later, while I’m on my lonely way traveling down along the Mississippi, I’m playing at a little place called the Crossroads Inn. And they got another guy playing that night as well: this black man with a sort-of white eye – sort of a blind-looking eye. His name was Bob Johnson. And he sat up in front of the crowd and laughed like a crazy man. And he told us all, “I went down to the crossroads and I sold my soul to the devil, and the devil tuned my guitar! You wanna know what a devil-tuned guitar sounds like?”
And the crowd went, “Yeah-bob!”
And I looked at his fingers on the fretboard and I thought, “Yeah, Bob!”
And then he turned around and faced the corner. And then, looking over his shoulder, looking like he was looking right at me, he said: “Then I suggest you listen carefully.” And then he proceeded to blow my mind.
He was in agony singing – a lot of that delta-bluesman, blue-ball kind of agony, with words that were naughty if you thought of them the right way – but also a good deal of that existential-despair kind of agony – no matter what he does, nothing changes, and so he just keeps on doing what he does, and nothing changes and nothing changes and nothing changes. That’s what he sang.
And all the while I could hear his hands dancing like skeletons across that fretboard, picking out two, sometimes three lines at a time. And the way the crowd danced to that skinny little bastard’s ghostly moan got me almost aroused – and then more lonely.
And later, after he played his songs, he bought me a beer and asked what a skinny northern white boy was doing in that particular town all by himself. And so I told Bob Johnson my story – didn’t even leave out the crying part – how I begged to that woman on the side of that street in Raleigh – on my knees, while they both looked down at me.
And Bob, he fingered the lapel of my jacket, and he said he felt my pain.
I sniffled and said, thank you.
Then his hand twisted around the edge of my coat and he pulled me in close and whispered, with this gin-soaked breath, right in my ear, “But, goddammit, boy, that’s not your story, that’s my story!”
And I swallowed and said, “Okay, Bob.”
The next morning Bob came around while I was packing my car, reeling and rolling – he had this wild way of walking.
And I said, “Hey, Bob.”
He cocked himself up against my car and said, “Wanted to talk to you before you went. We gotta problem.”
I said, “We do?”
He sez, “Yeah. You remember what I told you last night?”
And I said, “About the devil-tuning your guitar?”
And he sez, “Nah, not that.”
And I said, “Oh, the one about the hooker with the dysentery?”
And he squinted his blind white eye at me and he said, “You know what I’m talking about.”
And I said, “Oh, you mean about how what happened to me not being my story? About it being your story? Yeah, I remember, Bob. What’s the problem?”
And then he turned his head and looked at me with that single, sad brown eye of his, and he sez, “The problem is, son, you don’t believe me.”
He pointed. “Gimme that guitar.”
I handed it over. He took it and strapped it on, bowed over it, and seemed to whisper to it while he gave the tuning heads a couple quick turns.
Then Robert Johnson sang these exact words to me:
(for “Sweet Home Chicago” written by Robert Johnson)
“She Stopped to See a Weeping Willow”
Sixteen years old and I walked out that night because I was angry and I was lonely. And the two combined – when you’re out in the middle of the woods and your mother’s out on a date, and your sister took the truck and she’s out on a date, and your little sister is sleeping over at a friend’s house, and your dad lives twenty miles away, and you finally got up the nerve to call the girl you like, that one you’ve been wanting to call, and it’s very clear she most definitely is not interested, and so you call your buddy and he says, “Well, I told you so,” and so you hang up on that jerk – makes you look for something new to do.
So what’re you going to do?
And you grab your jacket, take the flashlight off the peg by the refrigerator, and straight out the back door you go.
And those woods – you stand there before them, and they’re great and dark, and they breathe on you. Ohhhh!
The flashlight comes on and in you go.
The woods slope down. There’s a path cut through that your dad made before he moved out. You’ve walked it and rode your dirtbike on it enough to know it without the light.
That’s when you turn the flashlight off.
The leaves whisper and turn overhead. You hear the crack of a branch – maybe deadfall settling, maybe a possum or a raccoon moving through the night.
This is what it was like for me. And while I’m standing there, listening to the darkness, I hear a sound.
It sounds like this: hm-hm-hm-hm-hmmm-hm!
And everything feels like it just drops out of my belly. And I got that brrr-feeling shooting up the back of my neck, and suddenly I don’t want to be looking around. I got this awful feeling that if I look down towards where the creek is, I’ll see a woman standing down there, dressed all in white, and with her arms open, staring at me – leaves in her hair, and dried mud on her ear.
And the sound comes again: hm-hm-hm-hm-hmmm-oh!
Do I run back to the house? I live in the woods. Who’s to stop it from floating up to my house and moving from window to window, peering in?
Is it a ghost?
Do I really really believe in ghosts?
And that’s when I turn on my flashlight and head down to the creek.
Halfway down and again, Hm-hm-hm-hm-hm-woh!
And I go, “Hello?”
Nothing. And it’s the worst, because you’re standing there waiting, listening really hard, heart just pounding and you get that awful feeling when you just know, you just feel someone’s going to speak out of the darkness: Yesssss… I’m heeeerrrrreee…
And you hear out of the darkness, “Yeee-esss… I’m heee-eerrree…!”
And you think of the girl you called on the phone and your I-told-you-so friend and your mother out with her new boyfriend and your father twenty miles away. And you think of your house, empty, and you floating around inside it, trying hard not to look out the windows, afraid to see a woman with leaves in her red-blond hair and dried mud across one half of her face and good curves and a sweet-looking mouth, peering in, hands on the windowpane. You know what that’s like.
But what’s down by the creek? You don’t know what that’s like.
And so down I went.
Closer, and I could hear leaves crunching. Someone was walking down there. And I heard the sound again: “Wo-oh-wo-oh-whoooa-oh!”
And then I see her – sitting down on the end of this willow tree that’d fallen across the creek.
Must be one of the neighbor-ladies from the other side of the woods. I don’t know her.
So I say, “Hi.”
And this lady looks over at me. She’s got a camper’s lantern she’s carrying. A woman in her thirties, probably had a couple of kids already, wearing cuffed blue jeans, and a red plaid jacket, and she is one sweet-looking lady.
And she smiles and says, “Well, there you are.”
And I say, “Yeah, where else would I be, right?”
She scooches a bit on the tree she’s sitting on and beckons me over.
And it was all that easy.
Except that I’m sixteen years old and she’s this pretty-mouthed lady with these big eyes and a leaf in her hair.
And she told me that it was good to come down here and walk, or sometimes down along the highway, after hours – that’s always when it was, she said. And she talked about a man, like her husband or boyfriend or something, but sometimes she wouldn’t say that, sometimes she’d say “you” when she was talking about him while she was looking at me. And I’d get scared and excited all at the same time – the curve of her neck and the drop of her earlobe, the angle of her cheek and the look in her eyes.
And I finally asked her, “What were you singing down here?”
She sang it again, looking at me sideways with those big eyes.
I don’t remember going back up the hill. I don’t remember getting into bed. I remember waking up in the morning. I remember going back out into the woods every night after that for two months, but never seeing her, or hearing her sing in the woods, again.
Last week I was up back home, back in the house there surrounded by the woods. And late at night I stayed up. Said goodnight to my mother and my stepfather, said goodnight to my kids and my wife, played music until late, and then put on my jacket, took the flashlight off the peg by the refrigerator, and headed out the back door.
And the woods breathed at me – ohhhh! – as I walked into their shadows, and I sang her song:
(for “Walkin’ After Midnight” written by Alan Block and Don Hecht)
Mike Moran is a playwright, director, performer, and schoolteacher with an M.Ed in Curriculum and Instruction from Loyola University Chicago. Currently an MFA candidate at Hollins University, Moran was co-director of the children’s educational program, Odyssey Theatre, in Mt Vernon, Iowa for twenty years, was producer of The Goatsinger Show for twelve years, has had plays produced in Iowa and Chicago and has seen his work published by Bitter Oleander, Whale Road Review, and great weather for MEDIA. He lives in Roanoke, Virginia.
About the visual artist:
Christopher Woods is a writer and photographer who lives in Chappell Hill, Texas. He has published a novel, THE DREAM PATCH, a prose collection, UNDER A RIVERBED SKY, and a book of stage monologues for actors, HEART SPEAK. His photographs can be seen in his gallery http://christopherwoods.zenfolio.com/ . His photography prompt book for writers, FROM VISION TO TEXT, is forthcoming from PROPERTIUS PRESS.