NOTE: Dunno why Sony sent me this — perhaps a publicist with a sadistic sense of humor — but, forever the professional eardrum, I activated my flapjack spinner, wallowed in 20 slugs of Old Milwaukee, and let my addled mind mosey through melodic fields of wheat.
Keith Urban, “Kiss a Girl”
Dan Harris didn’t know why, but whenever his ears caught that riff he swore it was The Outfield returned, or a misheard lick from “Jessie’s Girl.” Then came that honeyed grumble in a barn-dance timbre, and his excitement turned to eh. It was that damn Keith Urban, shimmying loose from Breanna’s glitter-specked iPod jukebox he and his wife bought her last Christmas. Hadn’t there been some other girl-smooching song she was into last summer, by a real live girl who didn’t look too bad curving up the tabloids at the checkout stand? But that was 12 whole months ago. Breanna was dating Terrence Jorman now, and he had both C and W leaking out his pickup, his ears, and that twang he must’ve spent the better part of a year perfecting to a chick-magnet flow. All these qualities stood cornstalk tall beneath a ten-gallon hat whose condition mysteriously defied any change in climate.
Dan couldn’t complain, though, really. Terrence was the better of the two Jorman boys, born of good blood. His daddy, Preacher Tim, slipped from the womb gripping a pulpit and spitting wholesomeness off his tongue, even if a few of the non-devotional tongues burned with gossip about a gradual plunge following his wife’s exit seven years ago, destination none of your goddamn business. If the rumors were true, then Terrence’s brother, Bill, was getting a 20-year head start on downtrodden, as if Preacher Tim had gone back in time to drink himself to an early grave.
Kenny Chesney, “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven”
So read the righteous signage outside the recently erected Conway Belt Baptist Church, a monstrosi-temple screwed into the solid earth once occupied by a more modest house of worship. The building was still in the honeymoon stage, where it resembled nothing more than a garish tower of hues so bright and unreal they looked almost appetizing.
Bill Jorman sat on the hood of his pickup in the just-poured parking lot and regarded the failing sun by sparking flame to what the boys called an “enhanced Marlboro” or “hillbilly spliff,” a stick sweetened by a sunsplash of Jamaican heaven. Yeah, that’s the shit, Bill nodded to no one but the birds. What he wouldn’t give for his own island, rocked by titties and hips, with neverending Cuervo lapping the shoreline. “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to go now,” said the song. “Speak for yourself,” Bill grumbled as he took another tug.
Taylor Swift, “Love Story”
Breanna remembered the first time she saw Terrence. Well, it was more of an “ogled” than a “saw.” He didn’t look like no Terrence, but that was only part of his unpredictable charm. The rest was concealed behind a sideways shotgun smile that turned most of her friends into mashed potatoes ready for the gravy boat. He was sitting on his brother’s tailgate during the last football game of the season, off in the parking lot by his lonesome. He was always there, like he wanted to be seen being apart from the action, hoping for an inquisitive, curvy type to answer his prayers.
While he waited, he patiently peeled an apple, the Chinese symbol on his arm undulating against a rolled-up sleeve. Breanna broke the ice by asking him what his tattoo signified. “Peace in love,” he winked, slipping a chunk of Granny Smith past those lips she’d find herself dreaming about from then on in. He’d played hard to get, but Breanna was tenacious. She finally snared him at the Grab-n-Go in June, right by the candy rack, where they’d someday lay a true-love plaque.
But now they were driving to the lake, chewing up backroads in his father’s old Dodge. She watched in silence as he concentrated on the drive, then returned her gaze to the passenger-side window, where her foot rested over the door, playing with the wind and catching summer between her toes.
Rascal Flatts, “Here”
Breanna inherited her looks, especially those burnt-ember tresses that sighed at her shoulders, from her mother, but every deadly atom of romanticism came from her dad. Dan and Mara Harris had been married forever (23 years in non-Breanna time), but Dan still looked at his wife through the same eyes that dropped dead for her back in high school. Today he sat at the kitchen table, elbow against the fading checkerboard cloth, as his beloved poured a cup of black coffee. The sun crested just so through the window over the sink, caressing her body in youthful shadows. He filed the image away, where it danced with the others.
Montgomery Gentry, “Roll With Me”
Bill poured himself out of bed, yet another layer of luster stripped from his wasted life. His fuzzy mind implored him to piece shit together, but it lacked the will to do little more than shove him into another pointless day. What purpose he’d once chased eluded him now. Bill manipulated his cranky joints with a groan and stumbled into morning. Waking up was like starting failure all over again.
Trace Adkins, “Marry for Money”
Preacher Tim slid another Lincoln across the counter. It was still daylight at Friendly’s, so the bartender was all his. He was part of the unacknowledged humiliation shift, peopled by those who ought not to drink but do, to dull something private and insistent. Tim could feel his eyes burning red, smell the numb filling his fingers — all a necessary part of the transformation, the ritual he began shortly after She — there’s always a She at the bottom of an empty glass — bowed out by long-distance in 2002. He’d always suspected she’d snuck his self-respect and sense of direction into that carry-on, which somehow was enough to transition from 20 years with him to a new life with — hell, Tim couldn’t even bring his mind to form the name. It was like slapping at dried cement to retrieve your keys.
“Penny for your thoughts, Preach?” asked the barkeep. Tim snickered and applied his best preacher face, which nonetheless logged every trace of his mid-life anguish, like the ones he’d counseled so many other couples through. But his reassuring words could not cure his own. Next time, he vowed, he wouldn’t walk the aisle for love, not a solitary goddamned drop.
Carrie Underwood, “I Told You So”
It all went down so suddenly, even had the nerve to swoop into the afternoon, where bad news serves its cruelest and worst. Tim’s increasingly heavy soul as he endured every tear-soaked mea culpa and confession of indiscretion streaming through his cell phone was juxtaposed by the sun resting over lush lawns and neighborhood bustle. His own sons were oblivious, shouting and laughing as they drained bucket after bucket after brick through the driveway hoop. Tim shuddered slightly as the sprinkler flung spatter against the side of the house. He imagined it was the blood from his heart, a void he needed to fill by any means necessary.
Alan Jackson, “Country Boy”
Tim wrestled sadness with a bottle, but his oldest son coped inside every willing girl in town. Bill donned them like back-to-school fashions, then chucked them just as quickly. He’d found a new conquest that very morning en route to work, stopping at the 7-Eleven to buzz his shell with coffee and scope the local action. Today it was Regina, a long-gammed breathtaker attached to a gallon of milk and a box of the luckiest doughnuts Hostess ever packaged. He stood behind her in line and fantasized about how that flank would look sashaying down his porch at dawn. When it turned out she didn’t have enough change, Bill saw his chance. He kicked his voice down to the register where his idol George Strait lived. “Allow me,” he drawled, passing a dollar to the clerk and a twinkle to his customer. After four minutes of parking lot chatter, he moseyed off to work one phone number heavier. He’d never call it, though. He didn’t have to. It was just an accepted part of the dance.
Josh Turner, “Everything Is Fine”
Dan watched in amusement as that Jorman boy conned another wide-eyed girl with just the tang of his tone. Both sons seemed to be gifted in this way, but Dan supposed Terrence used those powers mostly for good. Breanna coaxed the best out of anybody; she could dust the black off the devil himself. Dan was thankful for his luck. With only minor setbacks and barely enough turbulence to startle a baby from its nap, his life was surprisingly easy. It was something his own daddy stressed. “Keep it simple, Dan,” he always said. “Complicated’s for a troubled mind.” If that was true, Dan suspected Bill Jorman was the most complex boy alive. Hopefully, he’d grow up someday. And hopefully by then every Jorman in existence would be a speck in the Harris family rear-view.
Sugarland, “All I Want to Do”
Just as Bill had predicted, Regina didn’t waste time with things like chivalry and guidelines. She made her demands known by lunch, when she called him at work and told him things that damn near peeled the pink off his ear. That night she devoured him. Tore down his front door, grunted a greeting, then shot him to the moon. For the next eight hours they were a restless tangle of sweat and sheets. When he finally rose from battle, she was in the kitchen, free of stitch and inhibition, preparing pancakes from the ingredients he’d forgotten were in his cupboards. “Breakfast?” he asked as he watched this very special episode of Rachael Ray. “It’s the least I could do,” she smirked. “You took me places, tiger.” “Still got a full tank,” he growled as he swallowed her nakedness in his arms.
Miranda Lambert, “Gunpowder & Lead”
His right hand soothed the fading bruise on her side, the one he discovered the night before only seconds after trading hellos. “My ex-husband,” she whispered, as if he might be hiding in the room. He was apparently a real wild dog, vicious, jealous scum. Chased questions with accusations, then punctuated those with his fists. Never to her face, but in the neighborhood of her stomach, where no one but him would see. Bill told her he’d handle it, but she caressed his solid chin and said, “That’s sweet, honey, but it’s all taken care of. He’s a different man now, and far away from me.”
Asshole didn’t realize that all the lessons he’d heaped upon her body had turned her into a most attentive and vengeful student. What she took away from those beatings was that his days of swinging, cursing, and connecting were coming to an end. Six weeks earlier she’d been out with a couple girlfriends, taking harmless after-work whirls at Friendly’s while he stewed in the shithole they shared, entertaining thoughts of mad perversions. When she finally rustled through the front door, she took a shot to the side that sent her staggering into the kitchen counter. All those memories of beatdowns jumbled past anything warm and fuzzy, and she came up knowing it was time to retort. “Who you fuckin’?” barked the tyrant. Smiling, she produced a handgun from her purse. “I’m fuckin’ you,” she said and fired.
Gary Allan, “Learning How to Bend”
The preacher addressed no one from his pulpit. He paced the stage throwing words at two levels of vacant benches. On Sunday, this right-fine superchurch would be packed. He’d look out upon a choppy wave of expectant eyes and programs fashioned into fans against the holy heat. But today he had the congregation he deserved. How would he lead this flock when he himself was so hopelessly lost?
Jamey Johnson, “In Color”
He thought back to his own father, a steel-girded man of the cloth. Dad was ramrod straight, as straight as his father before him. His family had founded the church that once sat on this patch. It was a much smaller structure, of course, and not as ornate, and Tim kind of missed that. When the new place was built, Tim made sure that its pulpit stood exactly over the old one. Maybe some of that old family certainty would rise from this sanctified earth and take hold of his shattered life.
Darius Rucker, “It Won’t Be Like This for Long”
Terrence emerged from the restroom and passed beneath an old sign depicting an angler’s tall tales to his buddy over a couple of campfire cold ones. “Must’ve been a blowfish,” the buddy cracked.
Shanty Town was the only seafood joint in Conway Belt, the last locally owned eatery left in the city. It passed for date-night cuisine among the serious teenage set. While Terrence was preoccupied, Breanna had traveled to the future, seen their children, bore witness to their impending bliss. Terrence found it all curious. “You named our kids?” he chuckled. But he listened as she described their house, the things they did with friends, the dynamics of undying romance. Their whole lives passed as they waited for pie.
Dierks Bentley, “Sideways”
The Jorman family’s second shift began at Friendly’s around dusk. Preacher Tim by then was safe at home, pretending the drinking had stopped. Bill was safe at the bar, ordering another rum and Coke and talking over the disco shout that passed for rowdy gitdown with the locals. Though most of the clamor came from a group of bridesmaids eternally feeding the jukebox and howling through the first three notes of every song. “Such a shame,” Bill sighed at the barkeep. “All them records, ain’t none of them half as good as the worst George Strait.” He turned to watch the girls take over the floor, donning hats copped off potential suitors and spinning with delighted squeals. Bill readied his sweet talk, magically produced a round of mixed drinks, and forward-marched into glory.
Jake Owen, “Don’t Think I Can’t Love You”
Jillian left a pretty memorable impression for a one-night stand. His brain caught fire just pondering the shit they’d done. It was a motel fuck for the books: orgasmically cheap and wildly desperate. They clawed at each other like junkies, each thrust and parry jarring their sense of civility. They were carnivores, primitive and hungry. Bedhoppers who’d found each other at the peak of their respective games. There would be no breakfast, just the usual morning-after rules.
Bill opened his eyes just as a shirt sailed into his face, followed by the word “Up.” He moved the shirt to see two impatient legs pacing the floor. “I’ve got to be at a wedding in three hours,” the legs said, “and I need to get stuff ready.” Bill grunted a pinch and asked, “How long you in town?” in the most innocent voice he could muster.
Jillian cut through his charade with a thin laugh. “You’re a big boy,” she replied. “You know what this was.”
“Yeah, but, I dunno. I was thinkin’, you know, Southern hospitality, dinner, conversation. It’d be fun, just hangin’ out.”
The legs stopped to consider.
“OK,” they said. “Reception ends about 5, pick me up at 8. One thing: the redneck chic’s got to go.”
Eric Church, “Love Your Love the Most”
Bill smiled through the weary morning slog, a trail of smoke billowing from under his tires as they met the dirt backroads. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d taken a girl out on anything resembling a date. He was always so official in his slutdom: skip the prelims, hit the springs. George Strait purred his approval through the truck’s speakers. Country at its best.
Billy Currington, “Don’t”
The “date” went better than expected. Bill thought it was the shirt and sports jacket; Jillian said it was a good start. There was a slight trip-up thanks to the deliberate obstacles she tossed before Bill’s rolling train: the other couple, a handpicked friend and her significant other, who joined them at Shanty Town and dominated most of the dialogue. Rather than getting to know the girl who struck him curious, Bill sat quietly as the trio went inside baseball, speaking in a slang unknown to him. But he was eventually engaged, and he didn’t let go. By the end of the night, after the appropriate number of celebratory tip-backs, everyone was hugs and kisses under a descending moon.
For someone who hadn’t suffered the ritual since high school, Bill didn’t fare too badly. Not bad at all, he thought as they arrived at the motel and no farewells were exchanged. Instead, Jillian said, “You’re a better guy than I’d suspected, Bill Jorman. Walk me to my room?”
Only a few inches separated the doorway from the room, and with a kiss Bill crossed them with ease. “Not tonight,” she murmured as he pressed her backward toward the bed. He moaned in light protest, but she remained steadfast. “It’s all part of the new dance,” she whispered before she went to the desk and dropped her address on motel stationery. “Souvenir,” she said, handing it off, a playful secret. He scanned the page and saw something amiss.
“Where’s the phone number?” he asked.
“Dance,” she smiled.
Lady Antebellum, “I Run to You”
The facades and cityscapes may change from generation to generation, but the life of Conway Belt, population anybody, like life anywhere, follows a time-honored path. At 1o a.m., the clack of locks still sharp in the barroom air, Preacher Tim will creep into Friendly’s to drown his grief. For now he does it mostly in secret, but soon the talk will come. Breanna will watch her parents in harmony and pile that template onto her own fantasies with Terrence Jorman, like she’d done with her previous boyfriends, like she’ll do with later boyfriends, like she’ll do with the man who will eventually become her husband, voiding all the other perfect lives she’s ever entertained. Regina and her abusive husband will pass into urban legend, their tale only growing in morbid intensity.
No one will speak of Bill Jorman. Even Dan Harris will forget that name, just as Terrence becomes a wallet-sized memento tucked in a chifferobe, that infamous Jorman swagger lost to time. Because Bill Jorman woke up one morning and watched the town rot from his living room window. Then, much like his mother did seven years earlier, he stuffed everything he needed into a duffel bag and left the only trace of his existence in two words on the back of folded-up motel stationery:
After that, the freeway took him, and he went willingly.
George Strait, “Troubadour”
Somewhere the sun rises on a car moving south. Two voices chirp from the backseat, children in boredom-fueled play. The passenger hears a song on the radio with a very familiar voice. “Isn’t that George Strait?” she asks the driver, resting a knowing hand on his knee.
A lot of things had changed, but it still didn’t get better than George Strait. “I’ll be an old troubadour when I’m gone,” the singer vowed in a voice the driver had emulated through many torrid nights in another town, another life. “Speak for yourself,” said Bill Jorman as he hit the last exit home.