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Innocent When You Dream: Narrative in Tom Waits' Songs

16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six

The gun was loud, as if the whole world were holding its breath and wishing on a birthday cake dream. The crickets crept under the grass, and the birds sidled up on the trunk, the branches too in the open for hiding. An old dog stuck its nose out between a hedge and ducked back again, its tail hung low between its legs. Even the leaves hung expectant on the trees as the wind died to a whisper.

He wanted to shout into the stillness, jumpstart the sounds like an old car with a seized crank, but something made him hold in his yell, had him listening for the dripping of sap from a wounded tree, or the caterpillar stir in the folded leaves of its canopy home. He jacked out the bolt and set the gun on the ground, leaning over to one side like he was acting for an invisible camera.

The silence was crushing, the animal caution demanding that everyone wait for another to break the stillness, but not a single insect or bird dared to move. He felt as though he had strayed into a stolid Dutch painting, its uprearing clouds caught by the rays of sunlight, as concrete as a pallet knife could make them, less about vapour than trapped egg white on a stillborn day.

Finally his foot caught a twig, and as its dry bark burst, the day broke into noise, the animals outdoing themselves with relief, the rough teenage caw of the crow barely competing with the cicadas which seemed more numerous than ever in the suddenly breezy afternoon. He was panting heavily, as though he'd held his breath for the long minutes it took the starter turning on the world to catch a spark, and now his lungs had stalled.

The car was parked at an angle to the road, a telling sign for anyone who troubled past that he had tore it into the shoulder instead of solidly picking a spot. So he wouldn't be too long on the side of the highway, he hurried through the preparation. He positioned the gun by leaning it onto a tree, spilled out some shells on the ground near it, a casual ordinance drop to anyone who thought to link tire tracks, torn turf, and abandoned firearms.

He shook a few fibres from an envelope-he'd at least learned that much from late evening television-and then stepped carefully into his tracks as he walked to the car. It was lighter on the bumps and for the first time in a week he considered keeping it instead of shoving it into the quarry where the tannin-dark water roiled from too many sunken stories. He would give it a paint job, try some chrome from the year before, dress it up like he was fixing an antique and couldn't locate the right parts, not at all like he was hiding a 65 as a 64.

On the ride back into town he tried to shake out his shoulders as soon as he noticed he was ramrodding it too straight for honesty, and before long he was hunched like every other driver. He began to notice, sensitized now, the places where people had pulled over, either sudden stops because the kid needed to pee after they had left the gas station behind, or a slow, seeking the side of the road in defiant obedience of the flashing lights behind them. They might be cleaning ashtrays, tossing a half-eaten sandwich gone off from too many hours in the car, or emptying bottles that would be difficult to explain at the county line checkstop.

He learned he wasn't alone, and that was enough to have him edge up the speed until he was attracting less attention from the men passing him in trucks who waved their fists and honked their horns that he was slowing them from getting to work, or driving to the store. He leaned over to fiddle with the radio, to bring its normality into the day like tipping a snake out of a suitcase and finding it was a sock, but he stopped partway through the motion. The cop car on the side of the road was almost hidden by the sign, a billboard asking either for forgiveness or hatred for a baby and the hands that held it. He wouldn't have seen the car except that one of the cops was looking at the radar camera as though he'd found it in the ditch and couldn't figure out how to use it.

His foot went off the gas instinctively, but then, as he worried that he would attract notice, he pushed the pedal again, this time too hard. Now his car was almost stuttering down the road, speeding and slowing as he passed them. The cop in the car was leaning over to yell instructions to the camera-ignorant one, but both of them glanced up as he passed.

He imagined their eyes on the chrome, on the fine layer of silt that dusted the rear window and prevented from seeing too much inside, and by the time they finally saw him, he'd be over a mile up the road. Relieved at the thought, he kept his head forward and his eyes on the rear-view. If they were coming they would round the curve before him. He knew that sometimes they liked to play with their food, trapping a mouse with a paw and then releasing it to trap it again until it had given up dreaming of escape, but he also knew their interest was one second on and one second off, and that if he rode by when the switch was off, he was as good as home and in his bed.

Only later, when he was covered in sheets like a shroud and thinking about the ride into town, did he remember the shell in his shirt pocket that had fallen when he'd taken the rifle from the trunk. It drifted into his mind and then back out again, but it would return to haunt his dreams.



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