When the pandemic first hit and none of us could go anywhere I took the time to recount the stories I’d been trying to forget from my year in prison and I wrote them down before the memories eventually faded. I had written short stories before but I knew that prose is a whole different animal than song writing. I did my best with the stories I had. It wasn’t easy to rehash these times. For legal reasons I have to say that names have been changed and this should all be considered fiction, but well… ya know. I’ll be releasing these stories here and at www.JonnyBurke.com every week for the next month or so. They are in no particular order but at the very least I hope they provide some context as to where the songs on my new album, Behind The Pine Curtain, grew out of. They aren’t edited and I’m sure there are commas missing and words misspelled but I hope you enjoy reading them.
Visions of Sophia
By Jonny Burke
She always comes in a dream. We are thirteen. The weeds are wet. We run through the cedar branches and our ankles scratch red with chigger bites. The sun has yet to rise.
While the world sleeps, we sit on the banks of the creek. Sinking into the black Southeast Texas mud, she places my hand on the inside of her thigh. She is all I’ve ever wanted at this moment and I feel it would be an act of sacrilege to ever want more. I wonder if this is love and a water moccasin swims towards the bank.
A light drizzle comes down and a faint light appears in the east. She gets up and takes off her nightgown. Wading into the water, she looks back and stares blankly at me. I hesitate.
There is thunder and lightning. The rain comes down in sheets and the once still creek slowly becomes a raging river. Where earlier I felt peace and serenity I now feel a rising fear inside of me. I try to call out over the storm but words do not come as she swims out towards the middle.
I can hear turbines start up. The river begins to whirlpool. I now see the blades of the machine cutting through the water.
I feel helpless. We are all helpless.
I cry out ‘Sophia, can you cross that river wide? Will you languish on the other side? Can you swim these tides of sin, new and violent? Where are you…where are you going?’
Where earlier I felt only the cedar and the creek and Sophia and her thigh, all of a sudden I am now in a hallway unable to find my class on the first day of high school. A vague authority figure chastises me.
Next, I am two songs into a show and my guitar strings break one after another as the crowd boos and heckles.
Then, I am walking down a city street and ghoulish voices call to me under manhole covers.
Finally, I am working construction on a high rise and a childhood bully pushes me off a skinny beam. Suddenly I’m falling, always falling.
I awake in prison at 3:17am. I am thirty-two. I’ve been here for 6 months, 2 weeks and 5 days. I’ve gotta say it’s not at all it was cracked up to be. I don’t mean that in the way you probably think I do. On the contrary, it is underwhelming and nowhere near as poignant or terrifying as it sounds.
Yes I am reminded daily at this hour that sleeping on the bottom bunk below me lays a convicted murderer. However, right now he rests in a slumber that at eighteen years in these kinds of places must seem a comfort. He is as polite and broken as a crippled sparrow. I doubt he has it in him to ever murder again. What a shame.
Yes, the guards do their best to torture us night and day. But their best just isn’t good enough. They are not the cruel tough specimen you might find in a typical jailhouse movie. They are insecure pudgy boys and girls. If they don’t get out of this rural West Texas town they all grew up in, many of them will end up behind these very walls in the not too distant future. Not that there is much difference in this part of the country between guard and prisoner. Convicted of some minor felonies or drug charges that the community indifferently suspected they had been committing all along, they will no doubt start the end of their lives as haphazardly as they had begun them. There is no need to fear the guards and we return their idle threats with stale insults. How drab and pathetic.
Every two weeks is commissary day and we line up hoping our loved ones have pitied us enough to put money on our books that we may enjoy the few simple pleasures we are allowed in here. Hardened criminals line up to buy ice cream and Ramen packets, their brutish impulses, which led them to rape and rob now replaced with apathy as they devour pints of Blue Bell and bowls of noodles. The whole thing is sickening.
I myself am no stranger to such treachery these days. Rather than spending my time writing verse and melody, bathing in the fountains of Dionysus and worshipping at the temple of Aphrodite as the good Lord intended, I make plans to eek out a meager living upon my release and one day hopefully rise back into the middle class my parents raised me in, if there is a middle class left by then. Ah the self-deception!
I practice breathing exercises to calm my nerves and quell my sexual appetite for the petite, brunette prison counselor who sees me once a month. Sometimes I give into my lustful thoughts about Ms. Brown and jerk off into a sock, only to regret it later because now I have one less clean sock to wear.
I spend the week looking forward to reading the Parade magazine insert in the Sunday paper, which I will not see until Thursday. I should kick my own ass for such vile transgressions!
I quickly move towards the bathroom to shit and shower before the 3:30am wake-up call summons the other sixty-seven unfortunate souls in this tank to do the same. There are no dividing stalls for either shitting or showering. A solitary ten minutes at this time of day is as much of a luxury as one could hope for in here. I almost feel free standing alone looking into a cracked mirror at someone I barely recognize. Well… I almost feel free. After eight minutes looking into this mirror, the whistle and the gaurds and their nightsticks come in banging on the walls and trash cans to distort the peaceful dreary morning, but it doesn’t bother me really.
When I saw Sophia and what awful fate awaited her in that dream, I saw God in all His wrath and glory. What’s a few malicious guards or murderous cellmates compared to that? The day is looking up, already.