The Title Wouldn’t Be Mine, Either
All those pretty horses gallop away, running from the cities of the plain and into the expanse where I cannot see. Before they broke my hold I shepherded them as far as I could, or drove them—whatever the term is for horses. They want a land my borrowed words cannot paint.
I’m abandoned and flatfooted beside my faceless cowboy...
This story had been kicking around in my files for several months before it found the right home: https://lespritliteraryreview.org/2022/06/15/the-title-wouldnt-be-mine-either/ My thanks to L'Esprit Literary Review for publishing my odd little flash fiction.
A 90s deep dive: The Gin Blossoms, “Hey Jealousy”
“And if you don’t expect too much from me
You might not be let down.”
--The Gin Blossoms
If you turned on a radio in the mid-90s, chances are you recognize the chorus of “Hey Jealousy.” The singer cheerily offers, “Tomorrow we can drive around this town / And let the cops chase us around.” If you listen no further, you bop along to the bright guitar line while you drive down the highway and belt, “Hey, jealousy!”
And for years, that’s all I heard—disposable pop rock glee.
And I was wrong.
The song opens with a request for a place to stay. The singer, “in no shape for driving,” asks if “I can just crash here tonight.” He has a history with the woman he’s asking: the singer declares her “the best I’d ever had.” But he blew it, somehow or another. (Booze seems likely, given the scenario, and another line hints toward infidelity.) Whatever substance-induced screw-up he committed, the speaker blames it for his being alone, looking for a roof.
And then that bright chorus kicks in.
You can’t help but be caught up in it. “Tomorrow we can drive around this town / And let the cops chase us around.” Which of us hasn’t, at least once, daydreamed about the kind of mischief that chorus advertises? The long arm of the law isn’t a real threat here. The chase is a game of cat and mouse starring Barney Fife as the cat. More mall guard than menace. Between this crystal-clear assurance of a Keystone Cops chase and the unmistakable “Hey, jealousy!” it’s easy to miss the line in the middle: “The past is gone, but something might be found / To take its place.”
And that’s the song’s hidden heart. In among the frivolity and the hooks and the playful bassline, there is a hole. The morrow’s mischief— if it happens—wouldn’t be a spontaneous frolic. It will be planned, and therefore fake. Think of the craziest story of your youth. Did you pencil it on your calendar? Chances are, it was sudden, splitting instantaneously from the ordinariness that preceded it. And that’s what the singer is missing here: he can’t manufacture the new joy. The past is gone, he recognizes, but he still wants to bring back a piece of it through force of will. And hijinks aren’t born from determination. Or loneliness.
The song’s second verse is heartbreaking. The first four lines:
“And you can trust me not to drink*
And not to sleep around
And if you don’t expect too much from me
You might not be let down…”
He has broken his first promise before he made it; a man too drunk to drive is asking for confidence in his sobriety. In this context, the promise of faithfulness sounds just as empty. He means to reassure this girl who got away, but with his intoxication having gotten the better of him, his words are more likely reminding her of his past sins. And yet it’s not exactly dishonest because as he stands there on her doorstep, he means every word. He wants so badly to measure up for her and to her, but at least in his own mind, he is destined to fall short. Hence the sad hope that “if you don’t expect too much from me / You might not be let down.” There’s a subtextual question in those lines. He’s a failure; he knows it. But surely, he pleads, he can still be worth something. Right?
The next two lines reveal the full extent of his desperation:
Cause all I really want’s to be with you
Feeling like I matter too
Whether that’s the bottle talking or not, it’s the truth as he feels it.
The song was written by Doug Hopkins, the Gin Blossoms’ lead guitarist. He co-founded the band in 1987 and saw it become a big enough draw in the Tempe area to lure a record deal. “Hey Jealousy” was the first single off the major-label debut, New Miserable Experience. The album eventually went quadruple platinum, but Hopkins never lived to see it: he shot himself on December 5, 1992, a few weeks after A&M Records sent him a gold record for his song. An alcoholic, he had been out of the Gin Blossoms for months. Reportedly too drunk to stand in his final recording sessions, Hopkins was receiving treatment for alcoholism at the time of his death.
A listener’s first impression of “Hey Jealousy” will be of high spirits, both because of the melody and the most audible lyrics of the chorus. That’s the façade. The truth becomes clearer if one more closely examines the intonation of the title. The optimism sounds a little forced, the voice a bit more plaintive than pleasant. A drunken man is trying so very hard to sound hopeful.
But “Hey Jealousy” isn’t really a love song, or even a devil-may-care invitation. It’s a confession.
*According to Wikipedia, the band changed the lyric to “trust me not to think,” but Hopkins originally wrote the version printed here.
John McGurk, Entrepreneur
The dancer kicked her leg high and swished her pink dress, cut low how McGurk liked it. He watched her and not the screaming woman who kicked her legs even higher, albeit with the benefit of a man carrying her aloft toward the door and the waiting Bowery cop.
“Where do they get it?” the barman asked him beneath the piano music. He poured three more fingers of whiskey for a swaying, unshaven man.
McGurk stroked his moustache and eyed the dancers, choosing. “Get what?”
“The carbolic acid.”
McGurk’s flat gaze remained on the edges of the dress, which had slipped a little, it seemed to him. “Don’t your missus clean house, Willie?”
“Not if she can help it.” A customer put three bits on the bar, so Willie extended the tube to him. The man took a deep breath, then began gulping as the crowd began hooting around him. “It could be a problem, Mr. McGurk,” Willie said.
The dancer on the left had stopped smiling, McGurk noted. He didn’t pay her to frown. She’d get a little pick-her-up before her time upstairs. “How’s that?”
“These women. That’s the third one tried to kill herself, now. In two weeks. The cops might ask questions about upstairs.”
“They all know upstairs. There ain’t a one of ’em but he dips his wick at McGurk’s after a patrol.”
The drinker coughed beer onto the floor. The surrounding patrons jeered, and McGurk smelled the camphor he cut the beer with. A drunkard reached for a dancer’s leg, then yelped as she brought down her heel on his hand.
“The customers, then,” Willy said. “Bit hard to have your fun while some woman’s burning her throat out next to you. And everybody’s heard about it.”
McGurk turned to his barkeep. “That’s right,” he said. “Everybody’s heard about it.”
John McGurk was a diligent man. He worked through the wee hours. Before the Bowery rose from its stupor sometime the next afternoon, he had affixed his new sign to the crumbling brick. New York City had 7,000 saloons, but everyone would hear about McGurk’s Suicide Hall.
Bringing Down the House
The curtain fell, before intermission. The rusted bar smashed a dent into the stage, nearly smashed the Artful Dodger, and ended our dreams of ovations.
It's been a happy day, Prose friends.
Through shadowed days
hunker while you must,
bear it for a time and dream
of green, barely born,
slipping free from wood in the
fragile sun at dawn: April
I love the scurry scurry pitter patter,
sleep snort beside my feet,
mail alert before the door,
tinkle tags with stair rush,
linoleum nail click, the
eager-for-arrival door leap,
the bowl lap
A Modest Fundraising Proposal
Sanctions are leaving the Russian economy in tatters, and poor Mr. Putin might find it difficult to fund his indiscriminate slaughter of civilians. Granted, it's quite clear that his only desire in life is to treat sovereign nations like spaces on a Milton Bradley board game [everyone: do not explain to Putin that holding Siam locks in the two bonus armies from Australia]. It's also very clear he does not care whether his people can enjoy international sporting events, or fly beyond their borders, or participate in the global economy in any way, or buy luxury goods like, you know, food. All the same, I suspect Mr. Putin might welcome the opportunity to bring some dollars and euros into his treasury; the ruble, after all, might be a couple weeks away from hey-children-make-some-paper-dolls territory. He also really, really, really wants to stick a Russian flag (and perhaps a giant banner of his face) into Kyiv. Unfortunately for Putin, having currency more valuable than used Kleenex and occupying Kyiv would seem to be diametrically opposed goals.
I have a modest proposal.
Putin needs to put himself in the octagonal cage for a pay-per-view MMA bout. Sure, he's 70, but he's a fearsome judo master, and we all know how impressive he looks while riding a horse shirtless (ladies, amiright?). He's just 5'6, and we'll have to cavity search him to ensure he's not trying to sneak in a deadly nerve agent, but Putin's got that crazy dictator willpower, and I'd even suggest a bureaucrat for his opponent: who better to fight than the Mayor of Kyiv? The winner gets all proceeds from PPV sales and control of Kyiv. How about it, Mr. Putin? Call off the cluster and vaccuum bombs; let all those unwillingly conscripted 19-year-olds go home to their mothers. Just fight the Mayor of Kyiv, and if you win, you win the money and the city. I would happily pay $1,000 U.S. dollars to watch the fight, and I'm sure others would, too.
Speaking of which, who is the Mayor of Kyiv, exactly? Let's see... Google... Wikipedia...
Oh. Oh yeah, that'll be fine.
Let's make that PPV buy-in $2,000.
Writer, in the early hours
The morning’s gray. The kettle whistles steam
into the dullness, stillness, piercing through
another winter dawn. Unshaken dreams
still cling to me, my sight and skin, like dew.
The pages hide unfound, unwritten, out
beyond my fingers’ reach. Uncertainly,
I try to catch a scent beside the doubt
I’ve woken with and this still-steeping tea.
But when all’s said and done, that’s what I’ve got:
a foggy dream, this doubt, a morning hope
to hold alongside tea. (That line is not
a real insight: I wrote another trope.)
Stop. Breathe and smell, and sip my morning tea—
my anchor, thing that’s real. Thing to taste, see.
Snow falls into the waves. By the thousands, flakes unify with the water while I sip coffee and watch, separated from the chill by my sweater, the fire I lit upon waking, the tall pane of glass that overlooks Keuka Lake.
I dream of winter because the lake is for summers. It’s not cheap at any time of year to rent a house on a shore: if you’re spending the money, you do it when you can kayak or swim or fish, or at least read a novel in the shade of a tree without the upstate January driving you indoors. My wife and I married within sight of our lake in July 2008; since then, her parents have rented a house on Keuka for a week every summer for us to gather. Those seven days are a highlight of the year because they exist outside of man-made time, without external demands or appointment calendars. There is food; there is love; there is the water. Two million years ago, glacial ice scraped out the valleys that would fill. Since then, the lake has been. Lakes invite being.
We have a couple kayaks and a canoe in our garage where we ought to park a car. Between May and October, I’ll hoist the boats atop our vehicles, lash them down and drive fifteen minutes to the public beach, solo or with the family. We admire the various lake houses as we paddle. Our favorites are not the new constructions, whose thousands of square feet dwarf the family cottages they replaced. We prefer the homes that have been here for at least the fifteen years we have, the old favorites.
“I wish we could live in that one,” my daughter said once as our canoe glided by.
“We could have owned a lake house,” I answered. “I started college as a business major on a finance track. Fund managers make a lot more money than teachers.”
“Why did you become a teacher?” she asked.
“People in finance told me to expect 80-hour work weeks, and I knew I wanted a family. A house on a lake is no good if you don’t have time to be with your family. And I wanted to teach,” I added. “I believe in it.”
My own father passed on lucrative promotions that would have uprooted us from our home and schools; he did, genuinely, attend every baseball game and concert. I understood then, as his son. I understand as a father now, and I hope my children will, too.
Regardless, I chose my path. As I told friends at the time I changed my major, I did not want to dedicate my life to earning more money for rich people—I wanted to teach; I wanted to have a family. These were the right choices. There are good days and bad days, but I do not pine for a road not taken. My hours are meaningful and good. The road ahead has unseen twists and turns, and there may be bridges out. Accidents. I feel optimistic, though, that I can continue to glance in the rearview mirror and see a life well-lived. Be a simple kind of man, Lynyrd Skynyrd sang. Be something you love and understand.
A teacher can live securely, not luxuriously. It is still possible my wife and I could someday retire to a lake house of our own through a combination of prudence and luck, but well-lived lives do not necessarily yield dollars. I am at peace with that truth. All the same, as my kayak cuts through Keuka’s waves, I dream sometimes of occupying one of those homes for decades rather than a rented week. I dream not just of summer but winter days, of that coffee and snow on the water. I dream of watching seasons pass over the water a morning at a time so I am part of the cycle of the lake. Of being there.