Jailbirds Like Me
by Randy Lowens
The Acid Queen towered over Hemingway. She was clad in the regalia of the Roma, her sneer framed by a crimson scarf. Bangles glinted and bells tinkled as she swung her skirts. The Roma are said to be Asian, but the face was Cherokee. The Roma are said to be impoverished nomads, but her cheekbones bespoke royalty. The Acid Queen could appear however she chose.
"Old Fool, you carry on about pain, hardship and endurance, but these are not real. Reality isn't imposed or even created. It's whatever we imagine, whatever we dare to dream. And so," she announced, as thunder rolled and lightning streaked across the window behind her, "for the select, the Illuminati, the world can be anything we desire. *Anything we desire.*"
I furrowed my brow. I didn't wish to seem rude, but I was puzzled.
"Balderdash!" Hemingway roared. His face reddened, and the veins in his forehead bulged. "Horse manure! Life hurts. Whiskey helps, but only a little. There is no more." He leaned back in his chair.
I nodded in agreement.
Beside Hemingway, Willie Nelson sat rolling a joint. He picked it up and licked it. "I feel your pain, Ernie. When I was stuck in Folsom Prison, time kept dragging on. I heard that lonesome whippoorwill and got so lonesome I could cry. When them prison gates finally did swing wide, wasn't no time till I was drowning in a whiskey river. I feel your pain, indeed." Willie sighed. He lit the joint, glanced over at the Acid Queen and continued. "Yesiree, I was a drowning man. Drowning in a sea of sin, that is, when the fishers of men snared me in their nets. We gathered at the river, and they told me of a land where no storm clouds arise. Yes, they told me of an uncloudy day. So right then and there, I put my hand in the hand of the Man from Galilee, and Praise the Lord, I saw the light. So now I don't burn my draft card down on Main Street. I'm waving Old Glory down to the courthouse instead. Living right and being free."
The Acid Queen curled her lip. Hemingway stared at the table. Willie added, "Of course, I can't deny the life I love is making music with my friends, and I can't wait to be on the road again. So pass that bottle over here, Ernie."
"Life hurts," Hemingway groaned as he slid the bottle of Monte Alban ten inches closer to Willie. "But this helps."
I smiled and shook my head.
"Pain is all you know, because pain is all you can see," hissed the Acid Queen. A brilliant light flashed where her face had been. Hemingway shielded his eyes with one hand, and Willie pulled the rim of his hat down. "I see stars in the sky at night," she announced, "so light illumes my path by day. You see only your scars. Therefore pain, and the flight from pain, are all you know."
"Speaking of which, lookee here, Ernie," said Willie, turning in his chair and rolling up his sleeve. "I got this 'un in a bar fight outside Austin."
Papa smiled. "To fight in barrooms. What more need life offer?"
Jeannie C Riley stepped over from the kitchenette where she'd been frying eggs and bacon. She wore a tight sweater, leather miniskirt, and shiny, knee-high boots. The fragrant mix of perfume and vagina trailed after her. She curled her arm around Hemingway's head, wet her finger, and traced the outline of his earlobe. "You all should listen to what this here man says," she cooed. "Ole Papa knows Harper Valley inside out. Main Street, backroads, and alleyways to boot." Ernest nuzzled her breast appreciatively.
The Acid Queen morphed into a doe-eyed Debra Winger circa Urban Cowboy and began to deep throat a long neck bottle of Bud.
"I'm down with that," breathed Willie.
"Come sit in Papa's lap?" croaked Hemingway.
"You ain't woman enough to take my man," hissed Jeannie C, clutching Hemingway's face to her hip.
Our table was the dinner bench of a jail cell. A small window in a nearby metal door opened, and Richard Nixon's face appeared. "You people aren't gambling on cards in there, I hope? Because gambling is this illegal in this state."
Charles Manson sat on a stool in a nearby corner, drawing up a shot. "What you gonna do, Tricky?" he chuckled as he pulled a white, milky fluid into the syringe. "Put us in jail?"
"I have strict orders from Commissar Cheney to execute anyone found gambling at cards. But first, I deliver a warning. Because to execute someone without first giving a warning would be wrong. Crooked, even. And I am not a crook." A rimshot sounded from the next room. Nixon shook his jowls, and we knew he was making a vee for victory sign behind the door. The window slammed shut.
Bill Ayers stepped out of a bedroom and stood in the doorway. Janis Joplin put her chin on his shoulder from behind and looked out, her hair tousled as she tied a bathrobe about her waist. "The simple fact that Nixon never grasped," Ayers pled, "was that even though Mao was a mass murderer and the Weather Underground was Maoist, the Weathermen themselves were not murderers. The sins of the father were visited upon a subsequent generation. It was all so terribly unfair."
"Baby," murmured Janis, "Life is unfair."
"You play the hand you're dealt," countered Hemingway.
"Deal me in, Janis," Manson said with a leer. "I promise I won't cheat."
"I heard that!" screamed Nixon as pulled the peephole open once again.
"You're playing cards! I'm going to call a gendarme!" I held my breath and listened to his footsteps echo down the hallway outside the door.
"You gotta love somebody, right now, today, 'cause that's all there is," Janis murmured.
"Barack Obama understands," Ayers continued. "He knows the Weathermen weren't killers. Brother Obama will march us to Canaan. He is the Light and the Way. Close your eyes and believe, and the truth will set you free."
"The truth is whatever you think it is," purred the Acid Queen, channeling Hanna Montana. Hemingway surveyed her young form, from her slender ankles up to the cleavage below her bare neck. He slid a two ounce shot of mescal in her direction, then winced as Jeannie C's grip on his shoulder tightened. The table rocked, and the worm in the bottom of the bottle momentarily appeared animated, swimming, before
coming to rest once more.
"Hanna, honey," said Willie, "I'm thinking maybe Janis is right about loving somebody right now, today. You think after a couple more shooters, you could rub a tired old cowpoke's shoulders?"
Jeannie C rolled her eyes. Janis howled in derision, then disappeared into the bedroom.
Elvis Presley staggered out of the bathroom, his belly swaying from one side to the other as he surveyed his companions. He snatched a pill bottle off the kitchen counter and tossed off a large, careless dose of relief.
"The fact that Mao murdered," Ayers went on, "hardly makes Maoism murderous."
"But Maoism is unpatriotic," said Willie. "Communist China never gave a dime to Farm Aid. All that noise about the peasantry this and the peasantry that. But not one dime."
"Amen, brother," mumbled Elvis through the mouthful of pills he was chewing. "Amen. God and country."
"I fought in Spain against the fascists," said Hemingway. "I swear I did. No shit."
"No war but the race war," Manson put in.
"The problem with sucking on hard rock candy," said Shirley Temple, standing where the Acid Queen had been, "is my lips get all sticky. Do you have some candy I could suck on, Mister?"
Hemingway opened his mouth to answer, but Jeannie C slipped her hand inside his shirt, and he jerked upright instead. "It's going to rain soon," he announced, turning towards the window and rubbing his neck. "Rain saddens. Sadness is real."
"Well, I'm gonna stand by my man, come hell or high water," said Jeannie C, her arm still across his shoulder.
"Somewhere, over the rainbow," sang the Acid Queen as Dorothy, "bi-irds fly…"
As we talked, Manson continued to prepare his shot. When little Judy Garland reached the part about lemon drops above chimney tops, he lifted the syringe and, with a flourish, poked it into the flesh of his arm. Instantly, fluorescent crimson lines streaked up into the white fluid. He plunged, immediately and with conviction. Upon withdrawing the needle his fingers curled, his eyes rolled back in his head, and the syringe rattled to the floor. Manson's body fell close behind, pulling Dorothy's song up short with the thud of his collapse.
"Reality is just a dream, so all my dreams are real," whispered the Acid Queen, in Roma garb once more. "Are you truly dying, child?"
"Oh, for Pete's sake," grumbled Hemingway. He crossed the room and slapped Manson across the face. Bill Ayers fetched a wet cloth from the bathroom. Elvis gathered a pot and some water, and set coffee to boil. I pounded the door with my shoe, calling out for a medic. Within moments our various debates and jealousies were set aside, and we all went to work trying to save him. There were only two places to
be, see, inside or out. You were either outside the door with Nixon and Cheney and the rest, or you were inside with us. Charlie was one of us, so we all pitched in and tried to save him.
Randy Lowens lives in a cabin in the Kentucky hills. His work has appeared in Dogmatica, Word Riot, and elsewhere. The Flotsam and Jetsam of War received the Tacenda Literary Award for Best Short Story of 2007 that illuminated social injustice.