The following is a work of fiction:
“But to live outside the law you must be honest.” – from the Bob Dylan song “Absolutely Sweet Marie”
Can anyone explain why as time goes by it’s easier to become someone you don’t want to be than it is to just be the person you’d like to be? That’s pretty much life in a nutshell isn’t it? I’m now that 40-year-old man who stays up past midnight on a weeknight nostalgically listening to the music of the Eagles. 10 years ago, I would’ve dismissed those songs as fodder for dads suffering midlife crises. There’s just something oddly comforting about that music though especially those early songs. As I write this, I imagine the over 40 crowd air guitar-ing to the lush acoustic sounds of “Doolin-Dalton” or mouthing the lyrics to “Desperado” while trying not to wake up their sleeping wives. Here’s an easily disputable universal truth – At the end of the day, men just want to be outlaws. We romanticize what it’s like to live “out there” free from entanglements going wherever the next score takes us while staying one step ahead of the law. If you’re an American male, it’s in your blood whether you realize it or not – even if the riskiest thing you’ve ever done was like your unrequited crush’s Instagram post.
The universal truths in these songs are just inescapable, at least for those of us who wished we’ve done more with our lives. Lately I find myself literally “all alone at the end of the evening . . . thinking about a woman who might have loved me” while craving freedom from entanglements and the allure of “easy money and faithless women” yet the “Queen of Hearts is always your best bet.” That’s life in a nutshell right there only I didn’t realize it while I was in my 20s. Sooner or later we either pursue our dreams and ambitions or we settle down, grow old, and die quietly with someone you thought you wouldn’t mind spending the rest of your life with. Isn’t life just a series of distractions until you die anyway? The day inevitably comes when you hear those Eagles tunes and you say to yourself, “Oh yeah that’s what that’s about,” and “That’s what my life could’ve been.” All of a sudden, I become nostalgic for a life I never led yearning for a woman I never really knew. Then several different songs become an anthem I can’t get out of my head as I think of the one who got away.
We spend so much time inside our own heads sometimes that it becomes easy to believe the unbelievable when it comes to relationships. Just the other day, I was on the bus listening to “Take it to the Limit” by the Eagles (of course) imagining that she was thinking of me – that somehow she could hear the song too, that somewhere wherever she is she’d understand everything that’s hidden deep in my heart. Then the song ends, the music stops, and reality sets in. She’s just living her life out there without a thought in the world for me, and there’s no discernable reason for her to think any differently. In fact, I can’t even say I blame her. If I were her, I wouldn’t exactly be longing for someone like me either. Whatever connection we ever had (whether it was real or imagined by me) must have surely faded with time. Sadly, most love fades except for the unrequited kind. It’s this longing that refuses to fade when it’s impossible to stop thinking about what could have been if only fate would have allowed me the chance to try to know her, if only fate would have allowed for the chance of her and I sharing a life together. There was once a window where perhaps I could have gathered up the courage to tell her how I felt about her, but that window has long been shut-slammed more likely. Courage has never been my strong suit . . . but hey! Listen to me – can’t you tell I’ve always wanted to be an outlaw?
I first met Delia years ago while working at a bookstore in Brooklyn. I’ve always felt a special affinity and kinship with books. If you’ve ever watched the film Clerks and worked in retail, you might arrive at this same conclusion as I have – that the job would be so much better if it wasn’t for the customers. I think that’s an understanding we both secretly acknowledged but never said out loud while we worked together. From the moment I first saw her, I knew she was smart, kind, brilliant, sweet, and attractive both inside and out. Don’t ask how I know all this to be true when I barely even got to know her. I just do. It just feels right, like a summer breeze or sun shower arriving to remind you that sometimes rain can be a good thing. For reasons I can’t explain I found myself drawn to her. It’s a cliché to say this but words can’t do her justice. Sometimes you think there’s no one out there who can understand you and then someone appears who might understand you except you’re not sure why or what gives you the right to hold that conviction. Well, that’s how I feel about Delia. She’s that person just out of reach who might make life feel that much more exciting if she’d only just acknowledge my presence. I sense a kind of warmth emanating from her that only a kindred spirit might feel, but I never really got close enough to say I felt for sure. I can only guess, imagine, and believe it to be there. That’s as much as I can say about Delia without taking a giant leap. She’s that “just out of reach” woman. The woman “who might have loved me, but I never knew,” a siren who beckons with the silence of whispers but who isn’t actually a siren. All at once she’s a mystery and an answer yet no matter how much I long to get close to her I’ll never circumnavigate the distance between us. The truth is that even if fate were to bring us together, I’m almost certain that I would amount to nothing but a disappointment to her. In the end people always disappoint.
“If loving you is a big crime, I’ve been guilty a long time.” That’s a lyric from the song “I Stand Accused,” which I first heard on Elvis Costello’s Get Happy album. Somehow it rings truer every time I hear it. Sometimes the days just rush by and with each passing minute any chance I might ever truly get to know her slips away. Even if circumstances were different and we were free to get to know each other, I have no idea if she’d develop mutual feelings for me. One can admire someone from afar for a lifetime but once those feelings are taken to the grave, where does all that suppressed passion go? Does it evaporate like a hidden mist along with the soul? Does it stain the wood inside the coffin as the body decomposes? I wish I had any kind of answer. The older I get the fewer answers I have.
When I was younger, I thought I’d make something more of my life and then reality hit me like a ton of bricks. “A man could use his back or use his brains,” according to another lyrical gem from the Eagles song “Doolin’-Dalton.” It just turned out that I was useless at both, but in my preferred fictional life I have the courage of a thousand outlaws. I can walk down the center of town with purpose and find a gambling table where I’d take down the house. Then I’d ride off to the next town and then the next one until fate brought me to her and even though I’d be rough around the edges she’d be drawn to me just as I am to her, and we’d have to figure out how to make an honest living or risk the fate of Bonnie and Clyde. Either way, life would be eventful. In my fictional life, we’d already have a past and the future would take us to whatever is on the horizon until that fateful day arrives when the law catches up and she’d lie through her teeth to give me an alibi only to no avail. Then she’d be the last person I’d think of as the hanging man covers my head, and she’d wail and cry and fuss over my dead body as they laid me to rest later placing tulips on my grave mistaken for lilies. The townspeople would pity her remarking upon her loyal devotion, and “what a pity it was that she fell for such a louse.” Wherever my soul ended up I’d feel her warmth and her tears and her sorrow and her love. Then maybe my life would have meant something.
Ever wonder why we live these outlaw lives in our dreams? Why does the myth of the outlaw run deep in the veins of every American man? It isn’t because we fear death. It’s because we ostensibly believe we’ll live forever, and it’s that belief that forces our hand so that those of us who prefer common comforts will inevitably choose the safest choice. If you think you’ll live forever you don’t want to make sacrifices for the life you want because the lingering potential of failure is so great that the thought of it frightens one to the bone. One thinks, If I don’t succeed I’ll be a failure for eternity yet if I don’t even try I can adapt, I can be content, I can settle and be comfortable. The result is a slow dirge towards the grave as we stuff our mouths with comfort food and plaque gathers around our hearts until the day we drop never having truly lived except in our outlaw dreams.
The truth about love can be found in the voice of Hank Williams singing about how he’s so lonesome he could cry. It’s in the gravelly sound of Tom Waits asking if he will see his love on a downtown train. It’s Van Morrison singing about Crazy Love. It’s in the Chelsea Hotel with Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin engaging in oral sex. It’s in the beauty of finding that there’s a connection in ugliness. It’s in the bond that forms when two people discover that they’re simpatico. It’s in the cold hearts who refuse to be melted despite the impassioned plea of ol’ Hank crooning away at it like the sun beating down on a frozen stick of butter. It’s in the goal that can’t be reached and sadly also in the sighing breath taken just before giving up and quitting.
If there are two lives we live and when we die we lose both of them leaving nothing behind, then why is courage so hard to muster? Why is it enough to dream and never do? How is it that I can live an entire lifetime without ever telling Delia how I feel about her and finding out what (if anything) she feels about me? If no spark exists between us, then why do I feel the way I do about her? I wish I had answers. I really do. Maybe then I’d write pages that mattered.
It was a stormy night when a posse of riders came barreling into town. They darted and dashed about up and down the thoroughfare like beasts in wild abandon. They were fearless and untamed, everything that Cordelia’s father had warned her about when he sat her down and told her about the ways of men, yet still she found herself drawn to one of them. She listened in as the commotion outside her home reached a fever pitch averting her eyes from the man as if that might somehow make him disappear. Still, she knew that he would find her. She was taught not to put much stock in words like “destiny” and “soulmates” but even she couldn’t deny the pull she felt. It was like the sound of the wind carrying a love song infecting anyone in its path with a wanton sentiment that was akin to lust. If anyone had disrupted her fixation in that moment, she very well could have composed herself enough to manage a cognizant reply, but deep down inside (wherever that was) she couldn’t deny the pull.
The man for his part had introduced himself to her just two days prior. His name was Jake, and although he said he worked odd jobs here and there, she knew he was a cattle rustler. At that moment it didn’t matter. They fell in love, and he promised he’d come back for her. He told her that women like her were a dying breed, and while the compliment may have insulted her if it had come from a dullard, she intrinsically sensed he was more than what he appeared to be on the outside. In fact, in all her years of living she often found that few people are more than what they appeared to be on the surface, and if her upbringing taught her anything, it was this one thing: When you find someone who is more than what they appear to be on the surface, make it a point to get to know them and try at all costs to keep them in your life. Jake not only struck her as someone fitting that description, there was something between them she couldn’t deny that went beyond words.
He whisked her away that evening and took her to an outdoor repertory theater. The company happened to perform Romeo and Juliet and when the final scene had ended and both hapless lovers lay dead on the stage, she looked at him and he looked at her and that was all the truth she ever needed. He brought her back to her doorstep that night, kissed her passionately, and told her, “Cordelia sweetheart, sooner or later we all have to die. Sooner or later, that’s a stone cold fact.” Then he kissed her once again and rode off into the night to a destination unknown, perhaps to a land where they both could live together inside an outlaw’s dream.
The night was cold as he rode into town with surliest group of men anyone had ever laid eyes on. In the distance he could see the light of her home, but he tried to avert his eyes. He was afraid that if he looked directly at it that he’d lose all sense of focus. They had to ride into town this way on this very night. After all, it was one of their own who betrayed their men to the sheriff’s deputy and was due to be hanged straight away in the morning. The hanging judge hadn’t wasted any time handing down the full weight of the law on Clyde Elmsly, but Jake Elmsly would have none of that. He had to save his younger brother from the grips of the hanging tree, and he’d do it with every last breath of life he had inside of him. It would be an evening of desperation. . . at least it would’ve been in my mind’s eye. I might have had a decent dream and told a cleverer more erudite story were it not for the rigamarole of a feckless routine that has me trapped in the twenty first century, a malcontented misfit. Still, it was an outlaw’s dream – the only kind of dream worth having for a man living in America today.
“They’ll never take me alive!” I said sitting up and waking up in my bed talking to no one who cared to listen. It was still the middle of the night, so I laid back down and fell asleep again and dreamt of a wild night with Delia. It’s funny how on most nights you can’t control what or who you dream about but on this night for some reason I could. The setting and many of the specifics I still had no control over. The only constant was Delia, music, and the outlaw life – as Prince would sing in “Pop Life,” “Everybody needs a thrill….”
There was a score to be settled as there always is with these kinds of things. The city was burning. Cops had barricaded 69th street to keep our crew away from midtown. We looked for help from Frank Lucas, but he was nowhere to be found. There’s got to be someone who wants to move this stuff. The thing is that everyone is really meant to go at these kinds of things alone, but one could do worse than have Delia for company. Who am I kidding? Delia is the only kind of company worth having. Somehow, we ended up in Brooklyn after crashing through the barricade unscathed. It’s worth noting that Delia in her ripped up black jeans and her anarchy tank top has more sex appeal than any of the dames dolled up over at Tammany Hall. The small burning fires on the concrete might have very well emanated from the hobos lucky enough to catch a glimpse of side boob as the wind blew up her tank top when she left the car for cigarettes. It’s the sort of thing that might have otherwise led to my own demise were I not distracted by her long black flowing hair and the same secret smile she’d toss my way when I told her a dirty joke – something about dimwitted blondes and their white privilege.
I looked to see what was in the bag we were carrying and had been grateful for having dumped the poison somewhere over on Broadway. Cash was always better. One could live a lifetime on cash and liquor. Despite everything, there are always favors to be met and people to have to cater to. “Every stranger you meet in the street will make demands,” I told her. Delia understood my burden as only she could. They could threaten her with 20 to life and she’d never wear a wire. In that moment she was my rock, my life, my alibi all rolled into one, but a distant awareness gradually kicked in signaling the end of my somnambulism. There’s that feeling of trying to grasp on to a dream when you don’t want it to end but the tighter you grasp the closer you get to awakening.
Delia – the one of my dreams at least – understands all this and more. She even hears these midnight songs that play in my heart just for her. When I whisper her true name, maybe she hears it in the distant echo of the midnight wind searing its way across the pavement. Honestly, dreams and fantasy always beat out reality in my estimation because reality only serves to reinforce the cruel inadequacies, insecurities, and shortcomings that’ll keep people tied down. For every romantic whim I’ve ever had there are a thousand reminders reality insists on shoving in my face the moment I think I might muster up anything resembling courage. One can’t help but think it’s by design.
Something about airbags. Does it make sense to have them removed once you’ve got nothing left worth saving? I know a guy who might be able to fence me a few bucks for them. Then again, I’m someone who believes that trains were invented for the express purpose of robberies. The entire Industrial Revolution was a robbery of sorts so why not get in on the fun. That’s what I figure. If the system is inherently corrupt and against you, why not level the playing field a bit? What was I saying again?
Oh, I was running the numbers racket down in Red Hook and word had come down about a new loan shark encroaching on our territory. I went out on my collection run last Friday to teach this new guy a lesson only to meet the most beautiful woman ever to run numbers on a city block. It may have been time to settle the accounts on my book that day, but Delia was really something else. Behind her eyes was a mystery that I needed to solve so I left my boss in the lurch and offered her my services. I kicked up my tribute to her with as much nobility as I could muster, and my heart skipped a beat each time she placed my offered envelopes close to her chest. I had no choice but to shoot my boss in the back of his head. His brains splattered all over a plate full of clams – a waste of good seafood. It’s only a matter of time before we all meet our fate. It just comes sooner for some than for others. Delia knew all this and cherished our ticking time for all that it was worth. We had an understanding even though not much had been said. What more could I ever want? What more could I ever dream? Get your mask on, baby. We’ve got a train to rob.