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