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Wasted and Wounded: Narrative in Tom Waits' Songs

 

Midnight Lullaby

He knew many people resented a child who wouldn't sleep. They'd read simple lines of a story in an increasingly frustrated voice, their pace becoming more rapid, their fingers tapping on the page beside where rabbits and teddy bears rose from the paper for the child's attention. They would debate who should be the one to put the kid to bed, raising the unresolved from years earlier in order to be the one downstairs while the hapless one read the book a second time. Their victory would be a wineglass and when that grew dull, they would creep upstairs, their feet conscious of the creaking fourth step, trying to get close enough to the room that they might hear the repeated story, hear the high voice and its questions, hear what they'd excluded and what the wine had not replaced.

For him, the child's view was magical. In the view out the window, the crumbling tenement and rusted fire escape became a forest where the trees had slanted forms, the man rooting in the garbage can became an ogre, or a neglected prince who'd lost his dreams and only needed the labour with his hands to remind him how to return to the palace. The buildings reared out of fog or poked up through soft blankets, the hobo stepped into the light and his fine clothes reflected the traffic signals, a glancing of red cycled through yellow and green.

Tom imagined himself shushing the crying girl, pointing out the window and telling her they'd stay to watch the sun come up. He said aloud that he'd stay beside her until the rooster was done, until the frost of early March had left the leaves. He thought of wiping her tears with his thumbs, pushing them to the side of her face where they would mat her hair. He would point out the moon shining dew on the windowsill, the magical world just beyond that which had always inhabited his own vision and which he wanted in her dreams. He knew her head would turn on the pillow to track the moon on the blankets, her eyes would struggle open against the weight of her eyelashes, and her hair would spill like copper pennies from a lockbox.

He imagined how her head would nod, how she would fight to remain awake so that she could see how the dawn looked from the other side. His voice would drop until it could barely be heard, a gravel truck driving over flannel and each pebble wrapped in soft down. She would jerk awake, her arms shifting as she fought the drifting in the fog that came before the dreams were launched, then she would settle again, her neck softening and her face growing still as deep sighs lifted the blankets.

He would keep talking, he knew, asking her to imagine other countries, tropical islands, birds floating on the breeze above white sand like a slash against the brilliant blue of the sea. He would tell her of livid greens, brilliant parrots clattering in the trees, their meaningless racket a slumberous background to the wellspring of tropical life. He would build squat stone buildings and lowing cattle, slow moving sheep on wet grass in the summer morning. As he imagined he could tell of rolling hills, clouds overhead like pillows that were so light they had floated into the sky through windows left open to catch a catspaw of air on still humid nights.

The dreams were open doors and windows before the sash became swollen with rain and the hinges rusted shut. They were the handle on a tool that allowed the discerning eye to split the rail, to drive the spike, and in other ways increase the force that conscious living allowed. Dreams were small houses built between busy intersections and along the on-ramps to highways. Still places in the rush of to and fro. They allowed a breakfast to be cooked over split cedar kindling, and the pine knot to aroma the air and the food. Dreams meant that every moment was magical and that memory would have something to retain when the despair of the workday trudge kept worn shoes scraping on hard concrete instead of stepping onto the shorn grass of the park.

He could imagine how her breathing would deepen. He would sit in the wide-armed chair and watch, her face pouting with the force of the air that kept her alive, her fingers twitching on the keyboard while the house settled into quiet. He would wait for her dreams to carry her to the far-off lands, to bring her to where children played when they left their bodies behind at night.

He would think about how many years later she would remember the night when he tucked her in, when he brushed away the hair before he kissed her forehead, when he talked about the windowsill and the moon, when he spoke of dreams before they woke and took her away. She would remember the magic, when she was a hundred and he was dust, when her voice cracked with age and his had been forgotten. She'd remember then the night she'd had hours to sleep, hours to talk about the magic of the ordinary world, the twisted steel opposite her window and the voice that told her stories.

She would sit before a window much like her own and promise an endless night of story and vision. She would tell of eggshell houses and endless summer days where crickets played with spoons dropped by accident in the yard. And while she spoke she'd remember how her dreams had been lit as though from within, the world outside her window moon-shining shadow puppets on a crisp white wall.

 

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