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A Junkman's Choir: Narrative in Tom Waits' Songs

Hoist That Rag

There were swamps and marshes along the coast where the weed-filled days of people in the Louisiana muck combined with the Texan urge to howl and wail at the empty sky. On the border between the bog and the pine knoll, fourteen men watched an alligator in the mud. Some of them were grinning, and others were hefting a gun, and the sun was glistening in the sparkles like diamonds of rain in the Spanish moss. A prehistoric bird was crying out its soul in the swamp, and frogs peered over hillocks of mud and grass. It could have been a lynching or a hanging or some vigilante meeting, where plaid shirts and knee-high boots had been called upon by the weather to stomp under the trees.

The alligator struggled; it was bigger than anyone had ever seen, and of the men who didn't have a Dutch-courage gun, their skin was white with fear. It could have burst through the wall while I was sleeping, it could have gone for the kids. I might have been bending over to pick a flower for the wife while it sawed my day in half. If it got amongst the chickens, or had hatched in an upstairs bed, then it could have eaten my family for breakfast and the preacher for dessert. We need traps and controls, we need a way to keep safe from the storms; I hear the levies are breaking and letting these monsters in. I locked the closet before I went to sleep, I propped a gun by the bed, and if the kids wanted water in the night I fed them liquor instead.

If they were watching from the sky, they would have seen a tiny group; like ants on a log pushing for the path, they were miniscule men in a vast swamp. In their minds the mud was roiling with all the ways they could die, whether animal or vegetable or a triggered bullet from a gun. They would never find the body; they wouldn't know where to look, and there would be no one to care enough to ask the tough questions about where the body had been sunk. I'm a speck, I'm a tadpole, and the world's violence can't be controlled; there are monsters here and there that make me cling to a gun in fear.

Sometimes they could hear the train running for the station, from the raised track above the trees, and they imagined that it was running for them, or running away from malarial forest; it was smashing flat the settled order or predator and prey, and because it was their machine it might not mangle their bodies at all.

The alligator gave another gasp, and then lay like one dead. They waited and then Broom stepped forward, poked its side with a stick. They sighed with relief, and their pent-up talk came spilling out, and they turned away from the suddenly small body and laughed and joked and shouted. We are master, we are stronger, we have nothing to fear in the world, and then the alligator lurched and Broom lost his bristles in the alligator's mouth. They screamed and shot and blasted, they felt like they were tearing the swamp apart, but the animal they were afraid of, after waiting two hundred million years to jump, had vanished below the water and four men were dead. Broom was bleeding out and scattering his gore along the bank, his body was thrashing like he was still alive, but he was missing too much above his neck. The others had been shot by their friends in their fright, and they were stone cold dead and resting as though they'd lain down for a swamp-side nap. You better wake them, you better call, and let their wives know they're not at all well, but their intentions were worth nothing and the swamp went silent.

I better head to town, one of them said, I better get back to work, said another. Someone's going to have to call this in, and give me your rifles to keep them safe. I'll find a deep hole where no one fishes and no one swims, and I'll bury the evidence with our story. It was an alligator, it was a murderer, inspired by who knows what, and they went on a killing spree and we few friends managed to get out. If someone asks you saw nothing; if they suggest you weren't here. If they ask about your rifle, you can say that old thing isn't around anymore.

Five of them went to their boats and pushed them along the shore until they scattered under the trees, and the remaining five walked along the dirt road that led back into the village to the town to the city along the coast. I saw nothing, I know nothing, I never even knew that guy; they straightened their story like a tablecloth over a table made from a board.

The swamp was quiet at first, and then the birds began to call. The frogs jumped from one pool to another, and flies buzzed around the blood. The alligator poked a snout from under the weeds, and with no fighting about what needed to be done, it pulled the bodies into the water. There was more than enough for everyone, as it poked limbs into roots below the waterline; we'll be feasting until Christmas, unless someone comes to find the food they left on the shore. People were cryptic and confusing, but sometimes what they did made sense, and with such a huge offering, the alligators were grateful for the chance. We should consider them on our wish list, we should offer them recompense, for they have done more than well by us, and they didn't have to get us a thing.



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