In the Can

by earthquakeinthepoorhouse

Cast:

Thurston Miller: A Nashville-based country musician and singer-songwriter, hailing originally from Newcastle, Australia. Thurston is contracted to Barrel Aged Inc. – a leading country music publisher – to write at least 100 songs per year. He is 34 years of age, and a known alcoholic.

Charlaine: A mid-level Barrel Aged Inc. executive in her mid-to-late 30s. Charlaine was born and raised in Nashville, and speaks with a broad, drawling Tennessee accent.

Fisher: A low-level Barrel Aged Inc. executive in his late 20s. Fisher is Charlaine’s immediate subordinate. He, too, speaks in a nasal Tennessee drawl.

Set:

The action takes place in Room 23, a dedicated songwriting room within the offices of the fictional Barrel Aged Inc.

Barrel Aged Inc. is a leading Nashville-based country music publisher. Its headquarters are located on Nashville’s famed “Music Row”.

A huge, square Persian rug in dull reds and blues covers the floor. The rug is edged with a white fringe, and is badly worn.

Along the back of the stage is a rack housing an assortment of acoustic and electric guitars.

Above the guitar rack is a laminated calico banner with brass hoop-studs pressed into the corners. The banner bears the name “Barrel Aged Inc.” in bold script, along with the company’s logo – an old-fashioned oak barrel.

The scene is lit from front-centre stage, directly overhead. The guitars and banner, being situated at the back of the stage, are partially obscured in shadow.

The light picks out a single black barstool that stands about a third of the way across the rug, toward stage right.

On the other side of the rug, closer to stage left, is a battered vintage guitar amplifier.

Sitting atop the amplifier are a white A4-size writing pad with lined pages, a cheap blue biro, and a white 250ml plastic bottle of cleaning fluid with a spray nozzle.

Note: Thurston is badly hungover and suffers increasingly acute symptoms of alcohol withdrawal throughout the action. His movements and dialogue are, accordingly, generally slower and more ponderous than those of a healthy person at full force. 
Scene:

Charlaine and Fisher loiter at stage left, hovering by the door to Room 23.

Charlaine is scrawling something on a clipboard. She glances at her watch from time to time.

Fisher leans against the wall, shuffling his feet.

Fisher begins to hum tunelessly, which he does for several beats.

Charlaine casts Fisher a dark look, silencing his humming almost instantly.

The sound of footsteps is heard from the hallway outside Room 23.

Fisher turns his head to watch as Thurston Miller shuffles through the door into Room 23.

Thurston is badly hungover. He is in a state of some dishevelment, his hair long and unkempt. A short, scruffy beard clings to his chin and throat. Thurston wears a grease-stained rodeo shirt with gunfighter sleeves and pearl snaps.

Without acknowledging either Charlaine or Fisher, Thurston heads straight for the guitar rack at back of the set, selects a tan-coloured acoustic guitar, and shuffles over to the stool.

Thurston holds the guitar by the neck in his right hand as he pats his jeans pocket absentmindedly with the left, before seating himself on the stool.

Thurston settles himself on the stool, and sets the guitar down in his lap.

Almost as soon as he is seated, Thurston is struck by a sudden realisation. A pained, slightly panicked expression crosses his face. He hops down from the stool with a rapid, jolting motion, still holding the guitar by the neck.

Thurston: Hey, Fish –

Fisher: Yeah, bud?

Thurston: I forgot something. In my car.

Pause.

Fisher looks inquiringly to Charlaine for a beat, before turning his attention to Thurston once again.

Fisher: Your flask?

Fisher pauses a beat, smiles, and chuckles. He gazes knowingly at Thurston. Fisher turns this leering look briefly toward Charlaine.

Fisher: Say, Charlaine?

Charlaine: What?

Fisher: We got time for Thurston here to run on down to his car?

Thurston: Fifteen or twenty minutes. I’ll –

Charlaine: (Abrupt, interrupting, shaking her head) Nope.

Brief pause.

Fisher: Sorry Thurst’. Seems we’re runnin’ a tight ship in here this mornin’.

Pause. An awkward silence.

Thurston: (Anxious) But I just –

Charlaine: (To Thurston, interrupting, severe) If I were you, pal, I’d be more concerned ‘bout the demos you still owe us for last year.

Charlaine looks to Fisher for support. None is forthcoming.

Thurston is a little dumbstruck.

Charlaine: Let me tell you somethin’ for nothin’, Thurston: there ain’t much standin’ ‘tween you an’ a breach of contract suit at this point.

Fisher: You’d best believe this ain’t just Charlaine makin’ pillow talk, pal!

Fisher looks to Thurston expectantly, as though he anticipates Thurston will laugh.

Silence endures for several beats.

Thurston stares gormlessly at the still-open door to Room 23.

Fisher: Hell, I guess I could have one of the interns run on down there an’ – ?

Charlaine: No time. I’m lockin’ this door at eight a.m., on the button.

Brief pause.

Charlaine: (Brusque) You remember who else we got comin’ in here today, Fisher?

Fisher: (Pausing momentarily) I recollect we gotta have the room clear for Lonnie-Mae by eleven-thirty.

Charlaine: (To Thurston) That’s right. We’re expectin’ a bona fide Grammy-winner in here later this mornin’. Lonnie-Mae and The Gold Standard, comin’ in for a writin’ session.

Fisher: Least somebody’s bringin’ some kind of a standard to this here Room 23 – right, Charlaine!

Charlaine: (Sneering) Aside from “standard drinks”.

Pause.

Fisher: (To Thurston) Never mind, my friend. You’ll be out in time to make Santa’s by midday.

Thurston: (Pinching the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger in a show of discomfort) Four hours.

Fisher: Four hours ‘til dollar Buds and ten-cent wings!

Pause. Fisher looks contemplative.

Fisher: “Dollar Buds and Ten-Cent Wings”. I don’t mean to tell you your business, Thurst’, but I damn sure reckon there’s a song in that!

Charlaine: ‘Cept he already wrote and recorded it twenty times before.

Fisher: Hell, we all love a good drinkin’ song, Charlaine!

Charlaine: Just cain’t always expect a good songwritin’ drink to help it on its way. Ain’t that right?

Fisher: Our apologies once again, Thurston.

Thurston: Could –

Charlaine: (Interrupting Thurston, severe) Y’all know the drill by now. Let’s get at least a couple decent demos in the can today.

Fisher: Sure he knows the drill! They call him “San Quentin”.

Thurston: (Pleading) Could you just leave the door unlocked? Just for –

Charlaine: (To Fisher, interrupting Thurston) Who?

Thurston: (Trailing off) – a couple minutes?

Fisher: (To Charlaine) Y’know, Thurston “San Quentin” Miller.

Charlaine: Who calls him that?

Thurston: Fisher could run the thing in here before he –

Fisher: (Interrupting Thurston, starting to feel foolish) “San Quentin”. Seems appropriate, is all –

Thurston: (Mumbling, forlorn) – before he locks me in.

Fisher: – what with all the lockdowns he’s done in here. Like a convict? Come on Charlaine, it ain’t a stretch!

Charlaine: Seems to me “Parkview Psychiatric” would be more appropriate than “San Quentin”.

Brief pause. Fisher grins.

Thurston stares into the middle distance and worries nervously at his beard with his free hand.

Charlaine: Anyways, it’s “Thirsty Miller”. That’s what they call him.

Pause.

Thurston: (Sulking) I heard CMR were calling me “The Worm” these days.

Charlaine: (Savage) Over in legal, they’re already callin’ you “The Defendant”.

Fisher: “The Worm”?

Charlaine: On account of how well he knows the bottom of a bottle.

Fisher: (Chuckling, looking to both Thurston and Charlaine for a shared laugh) Nice!

Thurston, still standing beside the stool and holding the guitar by the neck, stares at Fisher and Charlaine. An expression of bewilderment and uncertainty is frozen on his wan face. His left leg begins to twitch – a nervous tic.

Charlaine: (Dismissive) We’ll be back at eleven. (Pauses briefly) Or maybe a little later, dependin’.

Fisher: Make hay, bud!

Charlaine turns with a jerking motion and exits the stage. Fisher follows close behind her, leaving Thurston standing alone beside the stool.

Fisher closes the door to the room behind him.

A key turns in the lock to stage left. Charlaine is locking Thurston inside Room 23 for the duration of his three-hour songwriting session. The sound of the door being locked is unusually loud, exaggerated.

Still standing, Thurston cradles his forehead in the palm of his free hand and rocks back and forth on his heels.

While the door is being locked, and for a few moments afterward, we hear snatches of dialogue between Fisher and Charlaine from the corridor outside.

Fisher: (Muffled) … why he’d bother …

Brief pause, during which a few measures of muffled talking is heard from the corridor.

Fisher: (More clearly) … might as well lock some toothless meth-head in there for a couple hours …

Brief pause. More muffled talking is heard from the corridor.

Charlaine: … ‘course, he’s flat broke …

Pause, more muffled chatter.

Charlaine: … they ain’t gonna spring for another stint in Greenhills …

Inside Room 23, Thurston sighs a long, deep sigh, and settles himself on the stool. Facing out into the audience, he sets the guitar down on his thighs and begins to strum absent-mindedly, staring blankly into the middle distance.

The corridor outside falls silent.

Scene:

Thurston stoops to lay the guitar on the ground at his feet. He rises from the stool, walks hopelessly over to stage left, and tries to open the door to Room 23. His every motion suggests he knows the effort is futile. The door is locked.

Thurston, frustrated, rattles the door-handle. The impression he creates is roughly that of an animal trying to get at food or prey through a closed screen-door.

Thurston gives up, and shuffles back to his stool.

Thurston lifts the guitar from the ground, settles himself on the stool, and sets the guitar down on his thighs once again.

Thurston begins to strum distractedly, absent-mindedly, for several beats. Gradually, his strumming resolves itself into something resembling a song.

Thurston plays a couple of bars of ¬¬¬¬¬¬¬the Bob Staunton-penned song “I’m a Truck” – a hit for Red Simpson in 1971.

It is clear from Thurston’s affected enthusiasm that he is trying to muster the energy he needs to make it through the morning’s session.

Thurston: (Singing his own corrupted lyrics to the above song) “There’d be no drunk drivers if it wasn’t for us drunks…”

Thurston stops singing and strumming abruptly.

Thurston: Nice one, Charlaine. Room 23. The one with no windows.

Pause.

Thurston: Feels a lot like the tank.

Thurston lifts the guitar and tilts the body up toward his face, contemplating it as he runs his thumb over the timber veneer. He tilts the guitar back and forth so as to catch the light in the varnish.

Thurston: (Affecting the accent and tone of an over-enthusiastic DJ on country music radio) Up next we got a new one for y’all, folks. This un’s called “Drunk Tank”, and it’s the latest cut from e’rybody’s favourite Aust-ralian, Thirsty Thurston “The San Quentin Worm” Miller and his all-American, all-honky-tonkin’ show band, “The Defendants”.

Thurston lays the guitar flat on his lap, front facing upward, and stares down into the sounding hole for several beats.

Thurston: (Soft, wondering) “The Worm”.

Thurston purses his lips, and nods his approval.

Pause.

Thurston: “Pabst Blue Ribbon”, is the shade of shit-awful I’d use to describe the colour of this guitar. (Affecting a high-pitched Tennessee accent) And that ain’t right for a hangover song. We gon’ need “Jack Daniels ’n’ Coke” for this ’un.

Thurston stands and walks over to the guitar rack with the beer-coloured guitar in hand. He replaces the guitar on the rack.

Thurston walks to the far end of the rack and selects a very dark brown (almost black) acoustic guitar. This he picks up by the neck and scrutinises in similar fashion to the beer-coloured guitar.

Thurston: That’s better.

Thurston looks lovingly at the guitar.

Thurston: Mr. Daniels, you’ve sure seen me through some times.

Thurston shuffles back over to the stool, carrying the guitar by the neck, and sits down.

Thurston takes a much closer look at the guitar, scrutinising the strings and fretboard. He lets out a long, frustrated groan.

Thurston: Assholes! They couldn’t even wipe off the fuckin’ frets?

Thurston runs his thumb over the fretboard. He rubs thumb and forefinger together in an effort to identify the substance that is smeared on the neck, strings, and frets.

Thurston: What were they eating?

Pause.

Thurston: Chicken wings?

Thurston lays the guitar down flat on the ground beside the stool, and takes a step or two toward the amplifier.

Thurston: Could’ve been me, I s’pose.

Thurston comes to a stop. He finds himself standing beside the amplifier and looking distractedly at the ground.

Pause.

Thurston: (Thinking) When was I last here at lunchtime?

Pause.

Thurston: Guess it didn’t need to be lunchtime.

Thurston picks up the small white spray bottle from atop the amplifier, and retrieves a grubby rag from the back pocket of his jeans. He turns the bottle over in his hands, scrutinising it.

Thurston: (Reading in a nasal, affected Tennessee accent) “Doctor Stringfellow’s fretboard cleanin’ fluid”.

Thurston turns the bottle over in his hand, and silently scrutinises the label for several beats.

Thurston screws his eyes shut, clenches his fist tightly around the bottle, and marches quickly over to the amplifier.

Thurston replaces the bottle on top of the amplifier with a heavier motion than is necessary, and returns the rag to his back pocket.

Pause.

Thurston: (Scornful) “Jack Daniels ‘n’ Coke”. Maybe if you want the fuckin’ ants to chase you.

Thurston picks up the brown/black guitar from the floor, carries it back across the set, and replaces it on the guitar rack.

Thurston gravitates toward the middle portion of the guitar rack and selects a ruddy-brown, semi-acoustic guitar. This he picks up by the neck, holding it out at some remove from his chest.

Thurston considers the colour and lustre of the new guitar briefly. A look of triumph spreads across his face.

Thurston: Third time lucky. “Ol’ Spiced Rum” it is.

Thurston lowers the guitar, carries it back to his stool by the neck, and sits down, resting the instrument on his lap.

Pause.

Thurston: Fuck!

Brief pause.

Thurston: I had an idea a second ago.

Thurston closes his eyes and bows his head, trying to recall the idea he had for a song. The effort pains him.

Thurston’s leg twitches uncontrollably, bouncing up and down on the ball of the heel as he sits.

Thurston pinches the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger in a show of discomfort.

Thurston: Something tank.

Pause.

Thurston: “Fish Tank”?

Brief pause.

Thurston: (Manic) Ha!

Thurston bows his head, lost in thought.

Thurston: (Now stony-faced) Shit, shit, shit.

Guitar still in hand, Thurston stands, walks back over to the amplifier, and picks up the bottle of fretboard cleaning fluid.

Thurston stands stock-still for a moment and regards the bottle with a vacant expression.

Thurston considers the bottle’s label for several beats.

Thurston: (Reading) “Beeswax-scented”.

Still holding the ruddy brown guitar by the neck, Thurston squirts a single spray of the cleaning fluid into the air. He lunges forward so as to position his face in the middle of the misty cloud, and inhales deeply. He turns his face this way and that, a little wildly, so as to breathe in as much of the vapour as he can.

Thurston walks back across the rug, and gently places the bottle of cleaning fluid under the stool.

Guitar still in hand, Thurston turns, walks back to the amplifier, and picks up the pen and writing pad with his free hand.

Thurston returns to the stool, and sits down.

Thurston fumbles for several beats, trying to fit guitar, pen, and pad on his lap in a workable arrangement. He quickly realises (with some frustration) that the effort is futile, and stoops to lay the guitar flat on the ground at his feet.

As he bends down to lay the guitar on the ground, Thurston stares at the bottle of cleaning fluid under the stool for several beats. He holds this position and stare for so long that we begin to wonder if he hasn’t been paralysed.

Thurston: (Jolting upright and yelling, remembering his song idea with considerable satisfaction) “Drunk Tank”!

Thurston takes the pen in hand and makes as though to write something on the pad. He stares vacantly at the ceiling for a moment, tapping his foot (rhythmically now) as he tries to formulate lyrics.

Thurston: (An irreverent smile creeping across his face) Plenty of raw material to draw on for this one, Thurst’.

Pause. Thurston recalls his experiences in the holding cells of Nashville.

Thurston: (Sniggering) That time in the lockup over in Rutherford County. Trying to read the Garfield comic in that shitty, 10-day-old paper, dizzy as all fuck. Threw up all over it. What’d the warden say?

Pause. Thurston thinks.

Thurston: (Quoting the warden and affecting a broad Tennessee accent for lines in inverted commas) “Big night, sir?” And then he says: “Hell, I seen you perform down at the Bluebird Café when you was twice as drunk as this! At one of them ‘Aussie Artist Showcases’, y’know?” [Note: in mockery of the warden’s accent, Thurston pronounces “Aussie” “Ah-see”].

Pause.

Thurston: (Still recollecting) Then he notices the vomit all over the newspaper, and asks: “What’s that you been eatin’, anyway?” So I say – on account of the Garfield comic – “that, warden, is lasagna.”

Pause. Thurston’s expression is now morose as he dwells on the remembrance.

Thurston: Can’t anyone say I discriminate, anyway. I’ve been sick on William Blake just the same as Garfield.

Pause.

Thurston: (Sighing deeply and gently shaking his head) Fuck me dead I wish I had a Gatorade. Gatorade and Vodka.

Thurston rubs his weary eyes with the heels of his palms.

Thurston: The “College Football Martini”.

Pause.

Thurston: Charlaine, you’re a spiteful woman.

Thurston smiles to himself.

Thurston: I’d piss your bed again in a heartbeat.

Brief pause.

Thurston: Given half a chance.

Thurston runs a hand down the length of his face, shakes his head as though to cast off his hangover, and tries to concentrate on penning a song once again.

Thurston thinks for several beats.

Thurston: (Half talking, half singing as he pens rough lyrics on the writing pad) Had – a – night – out – with – my – buddies / just – the – usual – twenty – Bundies –

Pause.

Thurston: (Still half talking, half singing as he scrawls) – an’ – a – taste – of – some – police-issue – mace / Now – I’m – readin’ – Sunday – funnies / doin’ – crosswords – in – my – undies –

Brief pause. Thurston is gathering momentum.

Thurston: (Still half talking, half singing, and writing, his enthusiasm mounting) – Friday’s – paper – down – in – cell-block – “D” –

Thurston pauses in his writing and hums a melody to himself with some relish, tapping along with his pen on the writing pad.

Thurston: (His face registering sudden annoyance) Sunday funnies in Friday’s paper?

Pause. Thurston sighs deeply and sets to thinking again.

Thurston: And does anyone over here even know what the fuck a “Bundy” is?

Pause.

Thurston: Fuck it.

Thurston makes a show of scratching out a couple of words on the writing pad.

Thurston: (Resuming writing) Last – week’s – paper – down – in – cell-block – “D”.

Pause.

Thurston resumes his writing and stilted singing.

Thurston: So – the – warden – comes – to – see – me / makes – to – tell – me – what – the – “D” – means / by – now – I – know – this – speech – to – a – “T” –

Brief pause. Thurston thinks.

Thurston: He – says – “the – ‘D’ – is – for – ‘drunk’ / this – here – tank – is – for ‘U’ / I – aint – a – banker – so – there – aint – any – ‘Q’ / Y’all – just – mind – where – you – ‘P’ / won’t – have – no – trouble – with – me – “

Pause.

Thurston: (Uncertain, screwing up his face) Something – something / I – got – sick – on – his – shoes –

Pause.

Thurston: (Bitter, affecting a broad Tennessee accent): This here “Drunk Tank” cut might could be a turd.

Thurston stoops and lays the pen and pad on the floor at his feet. He picks up the guitar from the carpet, grasping it around the neck. As he does so, Thurston absent-mindedly picks up the bottle of cleaning fluid from beneath the stool with his free hand.

Thurston sits up and lays the guitar in his lap, the front facing up toward the ceiling.

Moving very slowly, Thurston sprays some cleaning fluid onto the fretboard of the guitar, restores the bottle to the floor at his feet, and retrieves the rag from his back pocket. He wipes the frets with the rag for several beats.

Thurston: (Groaning as he polishes the fretboard) Urgh.

Thurston stops what he is doing, brings the rag up to his face, presses it against his nose and mouth, and inhales.

Pause for several beats.

Laying the guitar at his feet and the rag on top of the guitar, Thurston stoops and retrieves the bottle of cleaning fluid from beneath the stool once again.

Thurston sprays a small squirt of cleaning fluid onto the inside of his wrist, lifts the wrist to his nose, and inhales the scent of the cleaning fluid.

Thurston touches the tip of his tongue to the fluid he has sprayed onto his wrist. He wrinkles his nose.

Brief pause. Thurston hesitates for a second.

Thurston licks all of the cleaning fluid from the inside of his wrist with a single broad sweep of his tongue.

Thurston roughly tosses the bottle of cleaning fluid onto the ground at his feet, picks up the rag from atop the guitar, and returns it to his back pocket. He lifts the guitar onto his lap as he seats himself on the stool once again, and begins to strum a few simple chords.

Thurston: (Singing tunelessly) Doctor Stringfellow, you dirty ol’ bastard –

Pause. Thurston continues to strum distractedly.

Thurston: (Still singing tunelessly) – you’re breakin’ my heart.

Thurston continues strumming for a couple of bars, and stops abruptly.

Pause.

Thurston: (Thinking out loud) Beeswax.

Pause.

Thurston: Kinda tastes like that shitty, honey-flavoured bourbon.

Thurston lays the guitar flat on his lap. He sits and stares blankly out into the middle distance for several beats.

The lights fall, throwing the stage into darkness.

Scene:

Charlaine and Fisher stand to stage left, illuminated by a single spotlight. Thurston’s side of the stage (stage right) remains in darkness.

On the floor between Charlaine and Fisher is a small, white plastic rubbish bin.

Fisher and Charlaine each clasp a takeaway coffee cup. They sip their coffees from time to time as they talk.

Fisher: Goddamn, he looks like death hisself this mornin’. I’ll be surprised he’s still breathin’ when we open the door.

Charlaine: (Severe) What’re you thinkin’, anyways? Bendin’ over backwards tryin’ to fetch him his flask? He don’t need no encouragement from you to drink hisself to death. Asshole’s still got yesterday’s load on as it is.

Fisher: I don’t know. He sure ain’t gon’ be writin’ much of nothin’ today, anyways.

Charlaine sips her coffee.

Charlaine: (Disinterested) Hell, he ain’t wrote much of nothin’ in near to four years.

Fisher: That’s the truth!

Pause.

Fisher: Shit – maybe dyin’ while he’s still sorta young’d revive his career some. If it ain’t already too late for that.

Long pause. Charlaine is very still and silent.

Fisher: Say, you know that kid with the beard over in P.R., Charlaine?

Charlaine: Nope.

Fisher: The one with them horn-rimmed readin’ glasses?

Charlaine, her face severe, shrugs and shakes her head.

Fisher: (Persisting) Well. Anyways, one time I overheard this kid talkin’ to someone ‘bout our friend Thurston’s first record. The guy seemed to reckon it was somethin’ pretty special. Near-to-perfect, even. So he said.

Charlaine sniggers without relish.

Fisher: Said it was far ‘n’ away the best thing Thurston ever did, anyways.

Charlaine: It was a near-to-perfect goddamn flop, maybe. Sure as shit didn’t move any units.

Fisher: Yeah. Still, the way the kid was talking, you’d think it was some kind of a masterpiece. He was all like “it was Pitchfork’s Number One Country Album of the Year” and so on.

Charlaine: Hell. It didn’t sell.

Fisher shrugs.

Pause. Charlaine swigs from her coffee cup.

Charlaine: I guess busted-ass winos from the far side of the fuckin’ world were hot property back in ’07 [Note: “o-seven”].

Fisher: I guess so.

Pause. An awkward silence endures for several beats.

Fisher: Cain’t say I really dig any of his material, be honest.

Charlaine: Nor me, either. Shithead’s been slummin’ it ever since he put out that “Beer Gardens of Babe-ylon” record back in 2011 [Note: “two-thousand eleven”]. That was the last halfway decent thing he did.

Fisher: I bought my niece his Christmas record a few years back. “Leave the Bottle Out for Santa”, I think it was called. She seemed to like it well enough.

Charlaine: Yeah, well. Apples. Trees.

Fisher: (Ignoring Charlaine’s barb) How come he don’t ever seem to have a girlfriend or nothin’?

Charlaine, her expression forbidding, throws her empty coffee cup into the bin.

Charlaine: He’s the kinda sorry asshole you’d have to burn the sheets.

Brief pause.

Charlaine: Hell, you’d burn the whole goddamn mattress while you were at it, you had any self-respect. And be ashamed to show your face at the liquor store buyin’ the matches.

Pause. A smirk forms on Fisher’s face.

Fisher: I don’t know – plenty women I seen hangin’ ‘round downtown look like they’d chance it.

Charlaine ignores Fisher. She retrieves her phone from a jacket pocket and makes a show of checking it for emails and messages.

Fisher: (Pressing his advantage) I seen that flask of his close up, one time. It –

Charlaine: (Abrupt, interrupting) Can it, Fisher. Coffee time’s over. Finish your shit.

Fisher: (Pointed) It’s got an inscription on it. Says: “Dear Thurston, with love, C.B.”

Charlaine: Hurry up. We gotta get this hamper put together for Lonnie-Mae.

Charlaine turns on her heel and exits the scene to stage left.

Fisher watches Charlaine leave, staring after her for several beats.

Fisher: Hell if you don’t have the stink of scorched cotton about you, Charlaine.

Fisher exits the scene.

The spotlight falls on stage left.

Scene:

Lights come up on Thurston, who is still seated on his stool.

Thurston sighs deeply.

Thurston: I don’t know why the cheap pricks can’t spring for a fuckin’ coffee machine or something in here.

Pause.

Thurston: (Derisive) I’ll bet those spent old wine-bladders Lonnie-Mae and the Old Standards get a bottomless bucket of Patrón laid on.

Brief pause.

Thurston: Repetition’s thirsty work, I guess.

Pause.

Thurston: Then again, it gives the elderly and infirm something to do.

Thurston lifts the guitar from his lap and begins to play.

Thurston: (Strumming along on the guitar, very slowly, as he sings through the lyrics he has composed for “Drunk Tank” thus far) Just a night out with my buddies / sank the usual twenty Bundies / chased ‘em down with some police-issue mace / Now I’m readin’ Sunday funnies / doin’ crosswords in my undies –

Brief pause. Thurston finds a chord he likes and continues to strum along.

Thurston: (Still singing) – Last week’s paper down in cellblock “D” / So the warden comes to see me –

Pause.

Thurston stands and retrieves the cleaning rag from his back pocket. He presses the rag to his mouth and nose once again and inhales deeply.

Long pause.

Thurston drops the rag on the ground behind him.

Pause.

Thurston bends forward again and picks up the bottle of cleaning fluid from the rug. He grasps it tightly in his hand, contemplating it with a deep frown for several beats. As he stares at the bottle, Thurston hums the loose melody he has been composing for “Drunk Tank”.

Thurston rises, guitar still in hand, strides over to the amplifier, and replaces the bottle of cleaning fluid atop it.

Thurston returns to his stool and resumes playing “Drunk Tank”.

Thurston: (Strumming and singing along) So the warden comes to see me / makes to tell me what the “D” means / by now I know this speech to a “T” –

Suddenly, Thurston stops playing and singing. He clears his throat.

Thurston: It’s a turd.

Pause.

Thurston lays the guitar on the carpet at his feet.

Thurston stands, bends, and retrieves the pad and pen from the floor, sits down on the stool once again, and jots something at top of the first page of lyrics. He narrates as he writes.

Thurston: Working title – “Song for Charlaine”.

Pause.

With deliberate, almost mechanical movements, Thurston bends down again, lays the pen and pad on the floor, stands, and walks over to retrieve the bottle of cleaning fluid from the amplifier.

Thurston stoops, picks up the bottle, and unscrews the nozzle in one smooth motion. He sniffs the contents of the bottle, inhaling deeply, before replacing the lid.

Thurston sets the bottle back atop the amplifier and returns to the stool, sitting down empty-handed.

Pause.

Thurston: What else we got today, Thurst’? I reckon a couple solid song ideas, plus the half-finished turd I already wrote, and Charlaine’ll think it’s fuckin’ Christmas.

Pause.

Thurston: She oughta be happy with “Drunk Tank”, anyway. Half-finished and putrescent though it is. It’s a drunk song and a prison song.

Pause.

Thurston: I just need to work a train or a pickup truck in there somehow and I’ll have a mega-hit on my hands.

Pause. Thurston thinks for a couple of beats.

Thurston: Something like … (singing haltingly to the tune of “Drunk Tank”) The warden’s got my keys / he says my pickup hit a tree / I got charges now from “A” through to “Z” [Note: “zee”] –

Pause. Thurston continues to hum the tune to “Drunk Tank” as he thinks.

Thurston: (Still singing tentatively to the tune of “Drunk Tank”) I’m on the fast track to the pen’ / and the “G” train leaves at ten –

Pause.

Thurston: (Losing his thread) Something – something / I – got – sick – on – his – shoes –

Pause.

Thurston: I’ll sleep on it, anyway. (Optimistic) But for a bit of low-hanging fruit, it might just be salvageable.

Pause.

Thurston: What else?

Thurston thinks, his expression vacant.

Thurston: How about … (mulling over potential songs) Let’s say … a summertime party anthem called “Honey-Flavoured Bourbon”.

Pause.

Thurston: That one’s a bit too “poetic” for Nashville, I expect.

Thurston sighs deeply.

Pause.

Thurston: What about “Bourbon-Flavoured Honey”?

Pause, during which Thurston summons a few quick lyrics.

Thurston: (Strumming simple chords and singing off the top of his head in a stilted, almost tuneless fashion) She’s there dancin’ in the firelight / them blue cut-off jeans are real tight / she’s been hittin’ the bottle all night / she’s a bourbon-flavoured honey al-right –

Pause. Thurston ceases strumming, but taps his foot rhythmically for a couple of measures as he thinks.

Thurston: (Singing stiltedly) Her boyfriend’s got her in sight / I can see that he’s all fight / me, I’m just barely upright –

Brief pause.

Thurston: (Still singing, ending with a self-mocking flourish) – but he’s probably full of fuckin’ piss himself.

Pause.

Thurston: That one’s just a bit too predatory, I reckon. For me, anyway. Maybe not for Nashville.

Pause.

Thurston: I’ll put it in the slush pile.

Pause. Thurston thinks.

Thurston: Something Celtic, maybe?

Thurston coughs a small cough.

Thurston: (Singing a loose melody with an affected Irish accent) It’s Christmas Eve I’m barred from every bar on Music Row –

Long pause. Thurston stares at the ground in front of the stool, cradling the guitar.

Thurston: Whatever. (Shrugging, his mood darkening) That’ll do.

Thurston bends and places the guitar on the floor in front of him once again.

Thurston turns his head and stares in the direction of the amplifier (upon which the bottle of cleaning fluid still rests) for several beats.

Thurston appears agitated. With the palm of each hand he rubs compulsively at the tops of his thighs. His right foot twitches.

Thurston: (Under his breath) Yuck.

Thurston stands abruptly, walks over to the amplifier, and picks up the bottle of cleaning fluid. He begins to unscrew the cap, thinks better of it, and stops. He tightens the lid once again.

Pause.

Suddenly, without warning, Thurston hurls the bottle of cleaning fluid against the wall on the far side of the room. It rebounds and comes to settle near the edge of the Persian rug.

Thurston seats himself on the stool once again and buries his face in his hands.

Long pause.

Slowly, Thurston relaxes his shoulders, drops his hands from his face, and visibly sinks in his seat.

Thurston lifts his head very slowly.

Thurston rises from the stool, dawdles over to the edge of the rug, and picks up the bottle of cleaning fluid. He turns it over in his hand, before bringing it up to his face.

Thurston scrutinises the label at back of the bottle very carefully for several beats.

Thurston strides over to the amplifier and places the bottle of cleaning fluid atop it.

Thurston turns his back on the bottle and walks a couple of paces back toward his stool.

Thurston turns to face the audience.

Thurston: (In a dark humour) When did these assholes start with the fuckin’ name-calling? Nobody ever called Hank Williams a fucking worm. (Pause) You wouldn’t open your mouth now but to praise poor heartsick Hank – who’s been dissolving bone-by-bone in a silver casket the past sixty fucking years. He was a howling ghoul, pickled in whiskey. (Brief pause) But fuck me dead if MGM won’t have missed him when he died. (Brief pause) That last long pull at the bottle, the light comin’ up at him out of the cold and dark, livid as a hangover. Christ only knows whether he could even hold a table-tennis paddle by that stage, for all the morphine and chloral hydrate and top-shelf Tennessee sourmash in his timbers. (Brief pause) Twenty-nine was a good year for me, too. Only I didn’t have the wherewithal to peg out with a gutful of steak dinner and pills and piss onboard while I was still generally well liked. Sure smacks of hillbilly romance, going out like that. (Affecting a Tennessee accent) Luke the Drifter bin’ done driftin’ for good. It’s a real gone as-pi-ration to end one’s days on such a high note. (Resuming his normal speaking voice) Slumped on the backseat of a Cadillac while some kid ferries you through the night – and is glad to do it. The road slick with ice. All them grey, naked branches crowding out the pines. (Brief pause) And no one so much as trying to keep you from hittin’ the flask. (Brief pause; Thurston turns his head slightly as though to direct the following to an unseen companion onstage) But I never heard anyone mention that cold, bony corpse of yours, stiff as a board against the upholstery. The shit-scared kid trying to get his story straight. Both of you shrouded in petrol fumes on the concourse of some strip-lit gas station at the edge of town, wrong side of midnight. (Brief pause) I’ll bet you pissed yourself on the way out.

Pause.

Thurston kicks lazily, sullenly at the pen and pad where they rest on the ground at his feet, sending them skidding across the floor.

Long pause. Thurston plants his hands in his jeans pockets and stares vacantly into the middle distance.

With laboured movements, Thurston resumes his seat on the stool. He stares at his feet for several beats.

Thurston: (Affecting a Tennessee accent) Yessir. We all love a good drinkin’ song.

Long pause.

Thurston: (Bitterly reciting a portion of William Blake’s “Jerusalem” from memory, his face turned confidently upward, one arm held aloft and outstretched, palm facing up – all in a show of sneering, mock theatricality)

“ … That Human Form
You call Divine –

(pause, during which Thurston lowers both arm and face; his eyes glaze and his expression dulls; Thurston’s tone slips into a sad, weary register)

– is but a Worm seventy inches long
That creeps forth in a night and is dried in the morning sun”

Long pause.

Thurston: (Distant) We all love a good drinking song.

Thurston glances over at the bottle of cleaning fluid where it stands atop the amplifier. He stares at the bottle for several beats.

Thurston stands, walks over to the amplifier, and picks up the bottle of cleaning fluid.

Pause.

Thurston unscrews the lid from the bottle and tosses it (the lid) across the room. It comes to settle somewhere between the amplifier and the door.

Pause. Thurston hesitates for a beat.

Thurston begins to drink the contents of the bottle of cleaning fluid, swigging greedily.

Moments later, we hear the sound of footsteps in the corridor outside Room 23, to stage left. Charlaine and Fisher are returning to unlock the door.

Thurston drains the last few sips from the bottle of cleaning fluid.

Hearing Fisher and Charlaine approaching, Thurston quickly swallows the last of the fluid and stealthily pockets the empty bottle.

Thurston draws his sleeve across his mouth, wiping off any trace of the fluid.

Thurston walks back across the room, picks up the guitar from the floor, and seats himself on the stool.

The sound of footsteps ceases and we hear a key turning in the lock.

Thurston strums a few gentle chords and hums a strange melody. He affects the air of someone who was, until this very moment, deep in concentration.

Scene:

The door to Room 23 opens, and Fisher and Charlaine enter the scene.

Charlaine: (Striding toward Thurston) How’d we do this mornin’?

Thurston begins to play and sing his corrupted version of “I’m a Truck” once again.

Thurston: (Singing, a leering smirk on his face) “There’d be no drunk drivers if it wasn’t for us drunks…”

Thurston breaks off playing and singing with a flamboyant sweep of his strumming arm. He lays the guitar flat on his lap.

Charlaine: Better have more’n that.

Fisher: I don’t know. It ain’t a bad chorus. Sure sounds like a Thurston Miller cut!

Charlaine: (Annoyed) It’s a half-assed spin on a shitty novelty song from the ‘seventies.

Fisher: Yeah? Man, if you’re gonna do a cover, at least pick an evergreen hit!

Brief pause.

Fisher: Oh, yeah – here – catch. Compliments of the Barrel Aged P.R. department.

As he speaks, Fisher reaches inside his suit jacket and retrieves a small, minibar-size bottle of Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey.

Fisher tosses the whiskey bottle to Thurston, who moves in a jerking fashion to catch it with both hands. As Thurston lifts his hands to catch the whiskey, he upsets the guitar on his lap, knocking it noisily to the floor.

Thurston catches the whiskey bottle all the same, and clasps it to his chest for a beat or two.

Thurston sits and stares down at the bottle in his hands, his face expressionless.

Charlaine: (Annoyed) Jesus.

Brief pause.

Charlaine: So, you gon’ answer my question? What’s in the can for us today?

Thurston nurses the miniature whiskey bottle. A frown creases his face.

Thurston leans forward and lays the whiskey bottle on the carpet at his feet with one hand.

As he sits up again, Thurston clutches at his stomach with his right hand, a pained expression on his face.

Fisher: C’mon, bud. The sooner we lock this write down, the sooner you can hit the bars!

Thurston stands and walks briskly though unsteadily from the room, staring fixedly ahead and ignoring Fisher and Charlaine.

Fisher and Charlaine, perplexed, watch Thurston as he exits Room 23.

Charlaine: (Calling after Thurston, annoyed) Hey, Thurston!

Charlaine swiftly exits the stage, chasing after Thurston.

Fisher, meanwhile, spots the lid from the bottle of cleaning fluid lying on the carpet by the amplifier. He walks over, bends down, and picks up the lid.

Fisher frowns deeply as he considers the lid, turning it over in his hand for a couple of beats.

Fisher pockets the lid, shaking his head as he does so, turns, and exits the stage.

END

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