The following story is based on the Jason Isbell song of the same name. The plot deviates from Mr. Isbell's lyrics though those lyrics in their entirety are included here. They are denoted by italics within the story.
Jenn Ryan was the best thing that ever happened to me. But she would be the first to admit, she was also the worst thing that ever happened to me. Most of the time, after the elephant first entered our lives up until the day that it and Jenn disappeared, things were bad... for both of us. Still, in the long run, the good totally overwhelmed the bad, no matter how bad that bad got, and it did get pretty bad... at times.
We just encouraged each other's worst excesses. But as Jenn so often reminded me, claiming with a wink of her eye that William Blake's proverb – "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom" – just made so much sense! It was her mantra she said – her life's highest ideal. She wasn't serious, not really, but she lived her life like she was.
If Blake was right, then Jenn Ryan was probably the wisest person I ever knew. But wisdom is not really what comes to mind first when I think of Jenn – and that happens pretty much nonstop nowadays. I'm not sure what does come to mind first, beauty perhaps, humor maybe, almost certainly bravery.
I guess the real truth – and Jenn always claimed that I, above all others, could always find the real truth – was that too many things come to mind when I think of her. It would be as futile to try to pick out one as it would be to select your favorite star from the vast pantheon of the firmament – "the heavens," as Jenn preferred to call them.
Speaking of heaven, Jenn told me once that she didn't think she'd go there – said she was pretty sure she couldn't find her way – too many stars in the way, she claimed. It wasn't that she thought she was a bad person, or that her sins would prevent her entrance into those pearly gates. It was just that she thought she'd get sidetracked along the way – too many beautiful things to distract her. She thought she'd get lost.
I first met her about a year and half ago at this place outside of Athens where we were playing – The House of Booze, a hole in the wall really, certainly not the kind of establishment that I would have taken her to if I had had the choice, but who am I fooling? Both of us belonged in that rat's nest anyway – we were made for the damn place.
I was playing in a band that Luke, the owner, thought fit the "ambiance" of THOB to a fucking T. That we did. Our band was made for the place, too. In consequence, Luke had hired us as a sort of house band – we played there almost every Saturday night when we weren't touring. We were just alt country shit-kickers whose stuff was distilled through a filter of Southern blues and R&B boogie, and, as every member of the band was either a promising, full-fledged, or recovering alcoholic, Luke couldn't really have found musicians that looked the part of the house band at The House of Booze any better than we did.
I fell into the latter category, or at least I was trying to, and as such, I was understandably wary of a woman who looked like she was born with a glass of bourbon in her hand. Hell, playing with a bunch of miscreants, like the other members of New South, and gigging regularly at dens of debauchery like THOB, it was hard enough staying clear of the demon rum without falling under the spell of some Georgia Jezebel.
I suppose in most ways, though, she didn't look the part. She was too pretty; too fucking educated, too. But when I first saw her on that cool spring night, sitting cross-legged on a barstool, like nobody sits anymore, I thought she looked at home.
It was around 7:00, about two hours before we were scheduled to go on, and we'd been hauling our gear in from the van for the past 45 minutes. I had stopped at the bar to get some seltzer water, and I was just standing there waiting to get the bartender's attention. Unlike me, she had apparently already gotten his attention – several times over.
"Heh, you're the singer in New South, aren't you?" She flashed me this beatific grin, the cherub smirk of a drunken angel in a denim skirt. I could tell – I don't know how, but even after hearing only a single sentence, I could tell that she was a Georgia girl, even though she was very careful to conceal any tiny, residual hints of a Southern drawl.
I stared back at her. "Well, the answer to that question depends on whether you're a cop, a bar owner who's banned me from his place, or any number of bankers whose loans I've defaulted on! Which one are you?"
She giggled. "None of the above, just a girl who likes your music!" she winked at me and drained her glass. "I'm Jenn, by the way; what's your name?" She reached out her soft, white hand with the palm down like she expected me to kiss the top of it, and though I accepted it, I didn't shake it, just touched its petite, soft whiteness momentarily before releasing it.
I somehow instinctively knew that answering her question was almost certain to get me into trouble that I should have known enough to avoid. "I'm not sure I should say," I answered, grinning just enough to prove that I posed no real threat, but not too much to suggest that I had any designs on something more. I was going to tell her later, but I thought it might be fun to tease her just a bit.
"Well, if you're gonna play hard to get, I'll just invent a name for you. I think you should be... 'Mike.' So, Mike, did you go to UGA? You look really familiar, like you might have been in a class I took at one time or another."
"Nah, I went to school in Memphis, until they kicked me out or I dropped out – I can't remember which," I answered.
"Oh, a serious scholar, huh?" She smiled at her sarcasm.
"I can't spell 'scholar,' so I sure as hell can't be described as one." I said in as jaded a tone as I could muster, as the bartender, who'd been stocking the side liquor well in advance of the real crowd's arrival, approached us. He hadn't heard a word of our conversation.
"What can I gitcha, Andy?" When he drawled the question, she grinned at me again, that same cherubic smile I'd seen previously.
"Just some seltzer, Jake." He nodded, grabbed a pint glass, and filled it with ice, sprayed it with the soda gun, squeezed in a lemon slice, threw it in the glass, and slid it across the bar to me.
Then, he turned to her, "Can I get you another, Jenn?" She didn't say anything, just looked at him like he'd just asked the dumbest question ever uttered. Simultaneously, he grabbed her rocks glass from the bar, and a bottle of Maker's Mark from the well and poured her a double neat. He went back to his work.
"Oh, I see you're a big drinker, huh, Andy?" I could tell she liked saying it, like it gave her comfort somehow to be able to call me by my given name. Besides, she thought she was real clever to have found out so quickly. "By the way, you didn't really look like a 'Mike,' anyway!"
"That I am," I said, defiantly in response to her question, "that's why I drink seltzer water now." I gave her a sardonic toast and took a drink.
"Trying to walk the straight and narrow, Andy?"
"Trying," I answered, "sometimes the walking turns to stumbling, but...."
"Been there, done that." She said. She wasn't smiling.
"Looks like you're done 'trying,'" I said. I wasn't smiling either.
"I'm trying... I'm just not sure what exactly I'm trying for. But, I hope you make it, Andy. You've got a lot of talent; I don't want you to waste it."
"How do you know?" I asked inquisitively. I wasn't trying to come off as standoffish or aloof, I just wondered how she knew anything about me. And then, for the first time, I sized her up. She really was incredibly pretty – long, straight, light brunette hair, these sad, hazel-green eyes, nice body. It wasn't like she was trying to conceal it, but there was a modesty to her that suggested that she was a good girl, no matter how many bourbons she'd had.
She had this really beautiful skin, perfectly smooth and just a little bit pale, though somehow fresh and vibrant, like she spent a fair amount of time outdoors. She looked healthy and, ironically, happy. Her facial features were delicate and perfectly proportional – thin, arching eyebrows that hung above her almond-shaped eyes, high cheekbones from which her slender face tapered downward, a long, straight, slim nose, and soft, thin lips that formed a perfect pout.
She was wearing this white, satin halter with spaghetti straps. It kind of billowed out around her midriff to expose a slender waist. A denim skirt was neatly wrapped around her hips. On her feet, she wore black, strapped, platform heels. Her leather jacket was slung over the back of her bar stool.
"I've seen you guys a few times. But I figured out something about you the very first time I saw you. You're a helluva songwriter, Andy. You may try to play the dumb, redneck rocker, but you don't fool me. Either you studied creative writing somewhere or you're some kind of freak fucking natural – you know, some Georgia fucking Faulkner, or some damn thing." What the fuck, I thought to myself. I don't know this girl. What makes her think she knows me? She took a drink of her bourbon.
Despite having been right about some it, I decided to set her straight on my background. "I'm from Northwest Alabama," I corrected her.
"Well, then I was right! You're closer to Faulkner than I could have imagined. I'll bet I'm right on both counts! I've got you sussed, Andy!"
"Sussed? You've got me sussed?" I laughed out loud at that word. Two can play this fuckin' game, I thought to myself. "Who the hell are you? Pete Townsend? Paul Weller? You don't fool me either, Jenn!" I said, emphasizing her name, with particular derision. "You've got a degree or two in English lit hidden under there somewhere, or I'm not a fucking drunkard!" I leaned back against the bar and took a greedy sip from my glass.
She laughed, not just a little chortle, but a hearty, full-throated, belly laugh. "You got me there, Andy! You got me there!" she giggled. It might have been fun to keep this playful banter going, but we needed to do a sound check.
"Well, it was nice to meet you, Jenn, but I've got a gig to play, and we need to finish setting up, so..." I guzzled more of my seltzer.
"So you do, Andy. Well, I hope you come back to see me later. I'll be sittin' right here all night long!"
"Not planning on moving, huh, Jenn?"
"Nope." I gave her that same smile from earlier – the one that said I understood exactly where she was coming from without a promise of anything, and then I went back to the stage and helped the rest of the guys finish setting up.
We did two sets that night, and despite a big crowd, from my vantage point, I could see her throughout the evening, sitting there cross-legged, watching, drinking. I made a point not to approach her during our break, even though I wanted to; there were plenty of other people I needed to talk to, and I was a little afraid of her already. Maybe more importantly, I was afraid of myself. But when we finished, I made my way back there with my empty seltzer glass.
I could tell how drunk she was from a mile off, and I could tell by the way she sat there looking at me when I approached that she knew damn well I was coming back. She said, "Andy, you're taking me home." I should have known. As much as I had tried to project a non-committal attitude, she was right, she had me sussed.
"It looks like somebody better," I answered, as Jake slid another glass of seltzer water across the bar to me. I nodded my thanks.
"Right again, Andy! Right again! You're a real astute problem-solver."
"Okay, Jenn, but you're gonna have to sit tight while I help the guys tear down. I'll come back for you as soon as we're done. "
"Sitting and being tight – two things I do extremely well, Andy! You know where to find me when you're finished!"
We finished tearing down and loading up, and I went back to the bar and found her sitting in exactly the same position on that bar stool that she'd maintained the entire night. "Well, Jenn, you ready to go?"
"Ready, as I'll ever be, Andy." I helped her put her jacket on, and then got her to her feet, and as she took her first steps on her unsteady legs, I reached for her hand. "You can do better than that, Andy!" she said with another wink of her eye. The place was nearly empty now, and it was 1:45 a.m. I put my arm around her waist, and she put hers around my shoulder, and we walked out of that hell hole bound together.
I had driven with Ken, our pedal steel player, in the van, so I didn't have a vehicle. "Where's your car, Jenn?" I asked when we reached the parking lot.
"Over there, the Honda," she said pointing to a red, mid-sized sedan parked in the corner of the lot.
"Where are your keys, Jenn? Better hand them over now, before you start have delusions of grandeur about driving."
"Delusions of grandeur? Hell, Andy, I can barely keep that car on the road when I'm sober! Besides, what the hell do you think you're here for, your good looks?" I laughed, long and hard, and she handed me the keys with a smile. When we got closer, I unlocked the doors with the electronic key fob and helped her into the passenger side. I walked around to the driver's side and got in.
"Where to, Jenn? Where's the ol' homestead?"
"The ol' homestead! I like that, Andy! Well, the ol' homestead's just down the highway toward Athens. Just get on 129, and then I'll direct you from there. I started the engine and pulled out of the parking lot slowly. I wasn't sure that she wasn't going to lean over at any moment and start yackin' in my lap, so I was particularly cautious about inciting the least bit of motion sickness by driving too fast.
After we were a mile or so down the highway, she turned to me and said sarcastically, "I hope you don't mind my saying this, Andy, but you drive like my fucking granmama! I'll probably be sober by the time you get me home!"
I marveled at one thing about Jenn – even when she was really drunk, and I would go on to see her really drunk many, many more times, she never slurred her words, never sounded the least bit intoxicated. Four sheets to the wind or stone-cold sober, she sounded exactly the same whenever she spoke.
The other thing was, she had this wit. I swear it was sharp as a tack, and it, too, was totally unaffected by her drinking. The drunker she got the quicker she could land a zinger. I learned later that that was the way that Jenn Ryan kept her emotions in check, under control. It was her defense mechanism, so that people couldn't tell how fucking depressed or sad or insecure she felt at any given time. So, if she was drinking heavily, people just thought she was this really, funny drunk lady, when the truth was she was so much more complicated than that.
"Just trying to keep that bourbon where you put it," I said.
"Shit, I'm not gonna puke, Andy! I usually only do that in the morning and when I'm sober. That's been happening a fair amount lately, for some reason, but I'm not gonna puke when I'm drinking! I'll pass out before that happens."
"Oh, that's great, start puking after you pass out! That'll get you to heaven, Jenn! Haven't you ever heard of Jimi Hendrix?"
She ignored my question. Then, she did something curious. She leaned as far forward in the passenger seat as she possibly could and looked up through the top of the front windshield at the sky. That was when she first told me what she thought about heaven. "I don't think I'll go to heaven, Andy!" she said, looking up with a smile. "I don't think I could find my way there! Too many stars in the way!"
It was a really interesting comment, and one so laden with psychological implications that, had I known her better, I would definitely have asked her about it, but I didn't know her, and so, at this point, it seemed best to ignore it. I changed the subject.
"You have a roommate, Jenn? Somebody you live with?" I don't know why I asked that question. Maybe I was nervous about what she'd just said, maybe even a little afraid.
"Nah, just me, myself, and I." Now, I was sure that I was afraid.
We went three or four miles east on 129, until she told me to turn south onto Georgia 330. Almost immediately, we merged onto Tallassee Road and then onto John Collier Road. After a quarter of a mile or so, she told me to pull into a driveway that led to this small Cape Cod tucked into the edge of the woods. It was pretty far out, still sort of in the country, but it was a nice house, and I couldn't believe she lived there all alone.
I went around to the passenger side, and just as I had in getting her out of The House of Booze, I put my arm around her waist, pulled her out of the car, and led her to the side door. She managed to get the key out of her purse, and unlocked the door, and we went inside, first to the kitchen and then to the living room.
She seemed drunker now that at any time in the entire evening, and she wasn't talking to me anymore. It was like the moment I got her through the door of her house, she gave up even trying to maintain any last hold on consciousness. It seemed to me that all of a sudden she felt safe, so she could relax.
I instinctively knew two things. One, I needed to get her into bed as soon as possible, and two, she planned to sleep alone. Not that that mattered. I'm not that kind of guy – the creepy, fucking dude, who goes around hitting on drunken women, so he can crawl into bed with them when they're unconscious. I had been that drunk so many times in my life, that I knew better than anybody how easy it was to fuck with someone when they were that soused. It's not some fucking badge of honor, but I just wasn't going there.
At that point, I started thinking about my own situation. I figured as far as finding a place to sleep, I could fend for myself. It wasn't like she was going to make up a bed for me, for god sakes. Besides, once I had agreed to drive her home, I pretty much knew that this was how I'd cast my lot.
I led her into the hallway and opened the first bedroom door I came to and determined that it had to be hers. I pulled back the covers and helped her sit up on the edge of the bed. I took off her leather jacket and her heels, and then laid her down. I purposely propped two pillows under her head. I wasn't taking any chances on her getting sick in the middle of the night and then suffocating to death à la Jimi. Then, I pulled the covers over her, and as I was walking out the door of her room, she whispered, "You're a regular prince, Andy!"
I went back out to the living room. It seemed that there was probably another bed somewhere in that house, but I didn't feel like snooping around in a place I'd never been before that belonged to a woman I didn't know.
I went to the kitchen, found a clean glass, and I got a drink of water from the tap. Then, I walked back into the living room, and as I took my time drinking the water, I found a huge bookshelf that, through a picture window, was illuminated enough by a street light just down John Collier Road so that I could explore its contents. It held hundreds of books and, on the top shelf, displayed a dozen or so framed photographs. I didn't intend to pry into her life, but the pictures were just sitting there, so I didn't think it would hurt to take a quick look at them. Besides, she was a real interesting person, and she already had me intrigued. I wanted to know more.
Most showed a younger, smiling Jenn posing, sometimes with other people. I guessed that most of them captured her with her parents, grandparents, and siblings. One was of her alone, wearing a graduation gown and hood. I also looked at some of the titles of the books stacked carelessly on the shelves, in a way that convinced me that these were books that she actually read – a lot of classical works of literature, but a whole lot of criticism as well. And though she'd already told me as much, I realized that I was probably right when I told Jenn that I knew she had a few degrees in literature.