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The Last Leaf on the Tree: Narrative in Tom Waits' Songs

Home I'll Never Be

He woke with a start and turned over in bed, it was only six o'clock and he'd already been dead at least five times. He had three hours before work, and then twelve hours before he clocked out to hit the bar, and then two days and he'd be in Reno, had to meet a friend. The next time he glanced at the hands it was nearer seven, and he'd added a suicide and a murder and almost a death by hanging.

He told a doctor once he dreamt of being dead, that he woke up every night with a noose around his neck or a gun to his head. He told him about the car spun out of control on a slippery road, the oncoming trucks which hit the crumple zones over the motor and then over him. He mentioned the many times he'd been lost at sea, the endless days of dehydration and drinking sea water to bring on the hallucinations. The drowning and the sharks and the washing up on the rocks. The stabbing pain through his kidney with the hospital scalpel in his groin, the peeing blood before there were antibiotics and lurching into a heart attack in the john. He'd been buried alive by well-meaning relatives who thought he was honestly dead, and he'd been deliberately covered up by men with guns following orders from the government. He was working the high tension wires and fried his flesh down to bone, he fell from a twenty-floor building by accident and plan. Infection had run through his dreams and killed everyone but him, and then he'd been the only one affected and died in quarantine.

At the first few deaths the doctor was all ears, but his attention began to flicker when the rolodex of mayhem was pulled into the open and the incidents listed. By the time he'd been swallowed in an airplane turbine, the doctor was reaching for the phone, and police were grinding down his fingers by the time another doctor came in. I'm going to refer you to Matthews, he's been working in the field, he will understand where you hurt and he's best able to indicate a cure.

I was suffocated by my mother while I was still in my womb, and once a writer stabbed me when I was too critical of his pen.

Go with him and behave and he'll get you right in no time; we're done here but you can be assured that you'll be tested.

He was seven years in a room which he measured by where he died. He'd been beat to death in the corner and his blood had spattered on the wall. His eyes had burst from a disease the doctors couldn't name, and he'd taken his own life largely because he couldn't handle the pain. An orderly had stabbed him with the needle meant for someone else, and then to cover up his crime he offed him with a shoelace. A woman who was also admitted had spit on him with AIDS, and the military had inserted machinery into his arm and were using him as a guinea pig. A cockroach had crawled into his ear and no one even looked, and it laid eggs behind his eye and the larva ate his brain. He was burned when the building was torched by teenagers for a lark, and burned again when a mad doctor went insane. He died from smoke inhalation from a circulation system gone amok, and was shot trying to escape more times that he could count.

Although they asked him questions and gave him medicine they wouldn't want to take themselves, they mostly left him alone. He curled up in a ball and tried to keep from falling asleep. No one died from lack of sleep, he whispered to himself, but before long he would be dreaming and falling into a void. He heard the voice of god calling from his bible home; he was laughing at the misery while he was cooking up some more. Satan also tweaked at his bones and took his muscles for a stroll, but all of it was internal so the doctors said it was nothing.

You have no phobia which would explain why you twitch, even when we poked you with a needle you didn't flinch. You aren't worried about dying, which is most of what we get, and you aren't hanging from the ceiling when you claim you're well. We've done nearly everything that we can think of to do, so you better make sure to keep to your medications and come back soon.

They turned him to the street, and he wandered by his old home. There was a young couple living there and the tree in the yard had been cut down. He went to the corner store where he'd died at least twenty times, and stood in the very aisle where he'd been shot by the police. He bought a bag of chips with the money the hospital had given him, and went to the counter where he'd robbed the place and the place had robbed him. He stood in the puddle of blood he'd left on the floor, and pushed cash across a counter where he once had pushed a gun.

You're that guy on my TV, the clerk said when he handed over the change. You're the guy who can live a thousand lives where normals have only one. I wish I could do that. I'd be flying a plane. I'd live a year in the Amazon and go to South America in the spring.

It's not all it seems, he told him while he left. I get to live just like you and I die just like the rest. He was on the street before he completed the thought, and by then he was just another crazy guy talking to himself in public. I've lived a thousand lives but only the last part. I've seen my blood spill on the table and I've been torn apart in the park. I've been crushed by heavy equipment while at work making the world a better place, and I've been teargassed and tasered to death for a good cause.

It wasn't long after he found a lump that he went to seek some help, and by then it was too late and they gave him a room where it was quiet. You rest now, they told him, and we'll send someone to deal with the fear. Would you like a priest of a monk or a rabbi, or someone even more obscure?

I'm not afraid of anything, he told them while they wheeled him into his room. I've died more than I've deserved and I've been waiting to deserve to die. You're a good man, the priest told him; we were all born in sin.

I was born with my guts wrenched out, I've been reversed like a glove; I've bled rivers and puked trout and broken bones you don't even know you have. Cancer is nothing but a slow-moving word for someone like me. Stand back to keep your shoes clean and you can watch me go.

As peaceful as an angel, the nurses said about him. He had made his peace with his maker and is prepared to go to him. I've never seen a man less afraid to die. He's an inspiration to everyone and a lesson to us all.


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