Low Down on Low Dog: The Short Fiction of Jason Tinney
- by Rafael Alvarez
"… his very body was an empty hall echoing with sonorous defeated names …"
- "Abaslom, Absalom."
Jason Tinney and I drove from Houston to Los Angeles in January 2007, a road trip much different from the one he portrays here in his new short story, "Pressed Luck."
Roaring a couple thousand miles east on Interstate-10, we grilled my brother’s homemade chorizo amidst the red rocks of Arizona, listened to and talked about "Bob" for hours – "you gotta serve somebody" – as our shared love of Dylan ate up the miles and, inspired by sepia-toned, gas station post cards, gave each other Indian names.
Strange Horse for me.
Tinney conferred with Low Dog.
We also laughed and cried about the subject at the root of each other’s writing: boy meets girl, particularly when the boys are no longer boys and girls are no longer girls. Or can’t quite remember when they were. Some of this is explored in stories we both contributed to a 2006 anthology called "Out of Tune."
It is dissected more closely in the story before you, which Tinney read to a small audience last month in Greektown.
Often mistaken for a man of constant sorrow, Low Dog is a triple threat: author, musician and actor—what Bob might call "a song and dance man." On Oldham Street a few weeks ago, he mumbled through some of the story’s more intimate dialogue.
Not because he is given to mumbling (though his wife, the ever-patient Prairie Heart may beg to differ) but because the story demanded it. Here, he baits the hook
"There was a time when I didn’t believe in you?" says the wife.
The husband is startled.
"I wasn’t sure about you. Had my doubts."
Definitely lines you don’t want to enunciate too strongly; a woman to whom you have been married for 25 years—indeed, with whom you are taking a Silver Anniversary trip to celebrate—lets it pass that you are quite possibly a long, empty hall of Faulknerian defeat.
[The couple in the story are visiting Oxford, Mississippi among other spots in and around the Delta.]
As Tinney read the story I knew two things: I wanted it for the Alvarez Book Page and it could not have been written about a relationship between people in their 20s, or, in these days of kids growing up faster but staying children longer, early 30s.
A hard rain has to fall for more than a single day before someone who has once believed decides they don’t believe anymore.
By Jason Tinney
"Pilgrims," she whispered. Helen watched from the hotel room as her husband packed their green Honda CRV. She finished her blueberry muffin and drank the rest of her coffee. Oxford, Mississippi had been the last stop on a road trip to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. Helen and her husband, Jack, had joined the thousands of motorists who embark on the autumn Natchez Trace Pilgrimage, a lazy Southern sojourn along a 444-mile scenic parkway which runs from Nashville to the Mississippi river town named for an Indian tribe that had settled upon the banks of the "big muddy" in the 1500s.
Over the last week they had taken in the fiery fall foliage, toured antebellum mansions, consumed copious amounts of catfish and sipped a mint julep or two. Oxford was not along the trace route but Helen wanted to visit Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner.
Last night they toasted 25 years and dined on shrimp and grits at City Grocery. At the table next to theirs sat Morgan Freeman. At one point, the actor leaned over and whispered congratulations. They thanked him but did not ask for an autograph. Helen and Jack left the restaurant and marveled at the sight of this tall, regal black man standing on the square, the elegant elder statesman of stage and screen—the voice of God—flanked by swooning petite blond debutants deep in the heart of the former Confederacy.
They walked back to the hotel. Once in their room, Jack poured Helen a glass of red wine. He had a glass of bourbon. They kissed. They got into bed. There were some suggestions of love-making but eventually they both fell asleep with the television on.
Helen was thinking about Morgan Freeman when her husband walked into the hotel room dabbing at sweat on his forehead with a handkerchief. It was mid-October but still very warm in Oxford. Jack looked at his new Timex watch, an anniversary gift from his wife (he gave her earrings). "All set?"
She walked up to her husband and brushed lint off his black polo shirt and smiled. "All set."Eight-hundred and sixty-three miles back home to Maryland.
They rejoined the Natchez Trace in Tupelo, birthplace of the "King of Rock ‘n’ Roll." Not a single word had passed between them since they left Oxford. Blues music was tuned in low on the radio. Engrossed in a road map, Helen decorated asphalt veins in pink and yellow and orange highlights, plotting a course upon the 8,000-year-old trail—the "Devil’s Backbone"—carved and trampled upon by the wild, bearded buffalo, the Choctaw and Chickasaw, Spanish Conquistadors (De Soto and his futile search for gold), hearty pioneers propelled by an unwavering belief in Manifest Destiny, Davy Crocket-type-frontiersmen and thieving highwaymen.
"You know there’s a whole country passing you by while you’re looking down at that map," Jack said.
Helen took a deep breath, and looked out the window. "There was a time when I didn’t believe in you?" she said.
She shook her head gently. "I wasn’t sure about you. Had my doubts." Helen pulled a small journal from her purse containing notes and information she had copied from a Reader’s Digest travel book. She tapped a page. "When we get into Tennessee, I would like to stop at the Meriwether Lewis Site," she said, circling the spot on the map with her yellow highlighter. "That’s where he killed himself—or was murdered, depending on who you talk to. Quite a controversy. His grave is marked with a broken stone which symbolizes a life cut short."
"I want to get back to this not believing thing. What’s that about?"
"Yes," she said, neatly folding her map. "There was a time when I had my doubts."
"Before or after we were married?"
She opened a bottle of water and took a sip. "Well, of course I had doubts before we were married. Why wouldn’t I have doubts before we were married?"
Jack didn’t respond.
"Even when were committed or you committed"
"What the hell does that mean?" Jack shot her a look.
"You make it sound as if you were the only one invested in a commitment, in a relationship…"
"Relax. You sound like a child. Watch your speed. This road is notorious for speed traps," Helen said, leaning over to record the mileage on the odometer. "As I was saying, after we resolved that we were going to be together—marriage or no marriage—I wasn’t sure I believed in you."
"Believe? Believe, what does that mean? What—am I Santa Claus? A ghost?"
"I wasn’t sure you were going to see this thing through."
Jack felt his blood pressure begin to rise.
"Before you were so wild," she said. "Remember?"
"You don’t remember being wild? I was so in love with you and I knew you were in love with me but you were so crazy. You had a life I didn’t feel a part of—the music, the late nights. And let’s be honest, you didn’t know if you were coming or going." She looked at him. "You don’t remember that?"
"We were living together, sometimes dating, sometimes not dating. And you—all those other women. Good Lord."
"As I recall you had plenty company yourself.”
"Thought you didn’t remember—speed!" she said, pointing at the speedometer. "I know I had plenty of company. I hate thinking about that period in our lives."
"You brought it up."
"But yes, after we made the commitment I had my doubts, even after we got married."
"Why is that?"
"You had this terrible habit of pressing your luck." She took another sip of water. "Don’t remember that either?"
"I have no clue what you are talking about."
"Blocked those days out, huh? Erased them from your memory? Banished them to some dark closet?"
"I don’t remember ever being that person."
"You believe in erasing the past? Each new morning removed from the day before—like the day before never existed? Are you saying we woke this morning as strangers? I mean, I understand that. I wake up sometimes and feel like a completely different person than the person I was the day before. Sometimes I look at you and for a split second I don’t recognize you."
"Were you drinking this morning?"
"Answer the question. Do you believe that you can erase the past?"
"Of course not."
"But you don’t remember the past."
"I don’t know anything about the past. I believe in moving forward, moving on."
"So do I. But you’re not haunted—shit, that’s not the word, that’s dumb. But haunted, yes, aren’t you haunted by the past? I mean you were pretty screwed up. You don’t remember being screwed up?"
"Why are you bringing this up now? How did this little nugget get lodged into your head?"
"I don’t know—just landed here. I wasn’t going to bring it up but you say we never talk when take these road trips. So, now I’m talking."