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"We went from flirtation to infatuation to hunger, to love, to loss, and then anger. Well, at least, I did. I was never really sure what path you took..."

bourbon & the blues
essay by charles d. phillips


I've got a bottle of Gentleman Jack, a case of the blues, and a CD mix filled with songs about love. I just listened to Chris Isaak with his sweet, longing falsetto singing the remastered version of “Wicked Game.” That man wants to fall in love. Van Morrison comes up next. I like his voice better now than when he was younger. It's aged like good whiskey. It has more resonance now, more depth, and a gruff, burning sweetness that's his alone. He could transform the list of ingredients on the side of a cereal box into sad, soulful poetry -“Oh baby, baby, baby, we got yellow dye number two. There's high fructose corn syrup too, oh, oh, my darling girl.”

I get these urges to call you, even though we haven't spoken in years. It's probably because I occasionally think of you. Sometimes I remember how you would come to our bedroom fully dressed. The usually maddening light from the streetlight just outside our apartment window would become an artist's brush swathing us in 1950's film noir black and white, all harsh light and deep shadows. In that stark, sharp world, I would negotiate each button, each snap, and each inch of cloth. With every movement I opened up more and more of you to my touch and that palette of darkness and light. I could run just the shadows of my fingers across your nipples, and you would shiver. Other times I see you reading on the couch in the evening, with your feet tucked neatly beneath you and your glasses low on your nose, while you absently rubbed one of your feet.

We went from flirtation to infatuation to hunger, to love, to loss, and then anger. Well, at least, I did. I was never really sure what path you took. All I know is that we never reached a sweet equilibrium. We could never have swayed slowly, barely moving while the Bluetones and Sugar Ray ripped at our hearts with “Moment of Passion” or Bobby Blue Bland sang “Ain't No Sunshine” over and over. You never wanted just my arms and my scent encircling you, my warm breath on your neck, and that hypnotic music going on for hours.

Mr. Blue Bland just finished telling me about the absence of sunshine and the darkness of loss. Now it's The Box Tops with “The Letter.” In school, the guy in the room next to mine got a call from his girlfriend back home telling him she'd written him a letter. She couldn't talk about it on the phone, but he would understand when he got the letter. He then began a four-day marathon in which he stayed in bed almost continually, toking up or drinking. He played “The Letter” during his every waking hour. One of us stayed with him constantly. He was that far into, or out of, his head.

We had no idea what he would do when the letter arrived. We all stood by anxiously while he ripped hungrily into the envelope. He finished reading. He looked up at us with this blank, faraway stare. Finally, he smiled and said, “What a bitch!” She'd found someone else. He'd been catatonic for four days because he was sure she was pregnant, and his entire life was going to be pissed-away working for her Daddy selling Plymouth sedans and Dodge pickups in some jerkwater town, while she shopped with her Momma and had lunch at The Club. We all went out and used his latest GI Bill check to get falling down drunk.

You know, well I guess you don't, I've written you pages and pages over the years since you left. I never send them. I found some of the very first of them a few months ago. I used them as kindling in the fireplace and watched our, or maybe my, love rise up in rippling waves of heat.

Now it's KD Lang with “Constant Craving.” That big-boned, country girl from Alberta who went to Red Deer College sings like some angel who escaped a heavenly choir. She's been allowed to grace us with her presence for only a short time. So, she has to infuse every word she sings with all her emotion.

After you truly left for good, you came back to the apartment to get the remainder of your things. You were so happy to be on your way somewhere else. Later you came back to town on business and called to see if I'd have lunch with you. I told you I had plans. I did. I had plans never to see you again. You'd found what you had all along thought you wanted, which obviously didn't involve me.

Next, it's the original Derailers. Tony Villanueva with his sharkskin suit, thin tie, and pompadour hair is singing lead. This was before he quit drinking, found Jesus, and left the band. The originals transformed Buck Owens's California country sound into something uniquely their own, but they still had that wailing Bakersfield-style pedal steel crying on “Alone with You.”

I think about being alone with you. Would those full lips of yours be as soft and inviting as I remember? Would the scent and taste of you re-awaken dormant feelings sleeping fitfully in walled-up cells somewhere in my long-term memory?

Peter Green, after Fleetwood Mac and between massive doses of Thorazine, is beginning to slowly riff his way through “A Fool No More.” Those slow, elegiac chords transmit sadness like a telegraph key softly clicking and clacking his message of misery into the base of my brain. He's one of those special guitarists who understand just how wonderfully slow lingering notes pay the cover charge for entry into The Blues. He's telling us about true love betrayed.

I remember when we were living together, and you said you were going to a party with friends, but you didn't' come back that night. I would have called the hospitals, but I knew you weren't bleeding-out in a smoking wreck beside some dark road. A woman takes her diaphragm to a party (Yes, I checked when it finally dawned on me that you weren't coming back. Admitting that still embarrass me for some reason.), but she doesn't take her lover. Which is more likely? She fails to come back because (1.) She is injured in a tragic car wreck, or (2.) she has gone home with someone else? This is not a trick question.

You came back later, all tears and need. You knew I could never resist your tears. The next year you left again. That made twice or maybe three times. I admit I've never been too certain what happened when I left town for those few fall months. Each time you seemed to drop my love as easily as a deep sea diver discards weights when they decide to return to the surface.

Peter Green is almost finished packing his clothes. He's moving away from that evil woman's door. He's been her fool, but he ain't gonna play her fool no more.

For the next 15 minutes or so, Boz Skaggs will be moving through the long version of “Loan me a Dime.” It's the early recording done at Muscle Shoals with Duane Allman killin' on lead guitar and showin' those west coast hotshots what an Alabama cracker can do with six strings and a box. Boz has got to have ten cents to call his “ol' time usta be.” While he searches for phone change, I'm going for more ice. I'll have another drink, okay, probably two or three, while I listen a bit more.

Finally, I'll destroy this maudlin epistle like I've destroyed the rest. I'll then roll my semi-drunk ass into bed next to true love. I'll tuck my hand beneath her warm body. She'll remain asleep, but she come close enough to the surface to give me one of those soft, contented, nonsense murmurs that lets me know she's glad I'm finally there.

I'll lie there and wind my way toward sleep, listening in my head to Joe Cocker's cover of Billy Preston and Bruce Fisher's “You are so Beautiful.” The lyrics and progressions are about as pedestrian as a jaywalker in NYC. But that English dude with his hoarse, broken-glass voice makes them real. When his voice fails so achingly at those tough, high notes, he sounds just like my love for you.

(illustration: john richen)


Charles D. Phillips is a native Texan and a public health professional who lives and teaches in College Station, Texas. His short fiction has been nominated for StorySouth's 2009 Million Writer Award, The Pushcart Prize, 2009 and for inclusion in The Best of the Web, 2009.

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©2009 Charles D. Phillips • Smokebox
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