Subterranean Homesick Blues

Sean Joseph Patrick Carney

Originally appeard in FAMILIAR QUARTERLY in fall of 2011.

This short story is an adaptation of the abstracted and absurdist lyrics to Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," released in 1965. The lyrics are posted at the end of the story. 

I know I shouldn’t look back upon it, but it’s still exceptionally difficult not to do so.  Because at the time, it was one of the oddest points of my life.  To say that I was feeling homesick would be a massive understatement.  It was somehow worse - as if I was simultaneously buried underground and turning (quite literally) blue from the suffocation.  Memory serves me pretty well regardless of what chemicals I’ve ingested to handicap my brain.  And any handicap that I’ve since obtained hasn’t cured me of these particular recollections.

There’s one day in particular that I recall... it was at John’s house.  Typical of said situation, he was downstairs in the basement putting one thing or another together.  You’re no doubt aware of the idea of the “chemist,” a man who miraculously concocts virtually any compound substance known to man.  A chemistry school dropout, if you catch my drift.  It would be masturbatory to give a comprehensive list of what the John could produce, so I’ll be brief in simply pointing out that LSD, MDMA and various strains of heroine-inspired opiates were of regular occurrence. 

On this day, one oddly comprised of a clear sky and general temperateness in late spring here in Portland, OR, I was wasted off of my fucking ass and lying on my back on the uncharacteristically warm concrete near SE 20th and Ankeny.  The clouds, which I usually think of as being categorically gay, were really coming together in some odd ways.  I’d witnessed a hexagram, a Michelin Man, and a problematic suite of images from 4Chan in but a few minutes’ time.  That conveniently counteracted my previous visions of political byte nonsense on back lit screens via multiple social networking platforms.  

 Topics included (amongst others):

*Obama’s policies

*Pictures of meals - side note: what is the fucking deal with this shit?

*The Tea Party’s obnoxious insistence on their relevancy

*And things involving the economy (which, to quote another dead hero, “Isn’t fucking real.”). 

So, while tripping literal and metaphorical balls on that sidewalk, all of a sudden in my periphery I see this jabrony walking up to me with, like, a purpose.  And to be honest with you, he looks like a fucking narc.  Why?  Well, for starters, he’s wearing a long-ass tan-colored coat - like a duster, but less ironic.  It makes me nervous, right?  So to make an impression, I do that martial arts thing where you like spring up off of your back.  This will fool him into believing I am in possession of some precursory knowledge of physics.  Quickly digging into my pocket, I locate a skewer from the BBQ that John hosted earlier (why on earth I have this, I cannot recall) and I point it at this diplomat from Narcville.  But wait - in this moment, the smurgler looks sufficiently WOUNDED - as if I’ve somehow hurt his narc-ass feelings.  #WHATTABITCH

And like that, a badge is out.  The sun glints off of it and we’re quiet - staring contest style.  I’m slowly lowering the skewer at this point and I can hear him breathing.  Like every environmental sound around us has been sucked out of the air.  No distant traffic.  No birds.  No dogs barking down the block.  His point has been made and he slowly slides the badge back into his jacket.  I can hear the leather of its case as it slides across the fabric of the coat and his slow breathing.  It’s rhythmic and calculated and COUGH/ COUGH/COUGH.

What a boner.  Lungs spitting nonsense and physical vitriol all over the sidewalk. 

“Don’t worry!” he hacks out.  Shows me a pink slip. 

Laid off.  No shit. 

Cash he’s got, he claims, yeah, says he’s got the $$$$ but he’s in a bad place.  Like I give a MOTHERfuck.  Shake it, that’s what he wants to do.  You ever seen a cop on the down slope of a proverbial roller coaster?  Me neither.  But it happens.

Sketching (v): coming down off some kind of downer/facefucker/herrrrrrrrrrrrron. 

Fall down, pig dick-farmer.  IDC (I don’t care).  “WATCH OUT!” says the little hamster inside of my skull.  “You been durr - you know da drill!”  Why is the hamster in my head an African American with a sense of entitlement? 

I don’t do heroine or Oxy or Methadone anymore because it’s for joblabbies, man.  As a result, I pull my shit together and suddenly become exceptionally eloquent.  This means being both succinct and articulate (which, if you’re applying to a graduate program and have to write a statement of purpose, is exceptionally useful).  “There is an alleyway a few streets over, cockmaster.  Score some shit there..”


“Yeah,” I reply.  “But be careful.  Because I know that your skanky ass thinks it costs ten dollar bills, but he’s going to want eleven.  BLADAT.”

Gross.  He rolls out (with purpose).  Hence, I get back to enjoying my own shit on this warm ass concrete when I am interrupted by the bitch we all know named MAGGIE (read: fleet-footed spinster).  She’s been fucking John-Boy for about a minute and a half and likes to think of herself as a hoe of the relevant persuasion.  But here’s the problem: her face is filthy as fuck - it’s like she’s an extra in “Mary Poppins” and shoved her goddamned mug right into the chimney flue.  Soot all over the mouth.  Soot all over her clothes.  All soot everything.  Drug-addled bitches. 

“The fucking PO-lice planted wires in my plants!”

Shut up, Maggie.  You are the grossest human being that I’ve ever met.

Next, she insists that not only are her house plants tapped, but her phone line is as well.  Despite the fact that John and I have both demanded on multiple ocassions to know exactly why in the fuck she actively still chooses to employ a land line, she to this day has never articulated a satisfactory response.  Apparently, she is an innocent victim of a police state.  What a whore.

The District Attorney, in my opinion, has far better things to do than spy on Maggie.  But her narcissism makes it virtually impossible for her to accept this.  Let’s put her paranoia aside - people with jobs have better things to do than track this junkie slag. 

“My phone was fucking weird in May!”

Part of the problem at hand is that John’s girlfriend is twooged on uppers.  Naturally, I’m feeling a necessity to tip-toe around anything that she says for fear of being implicated myself should her paranoid delusions actually turn out to be true.  As aforementioned, it’s highly likely that NOTHING is going on in terms of any kind of investigation into Maggie’s drug habits by a figure of authority, but better to play it safe. Be the fly on the wall.  The mouse on the dresser.  The fucker on the sidewalk. 

In a kind of reverse-Pez dispenser move, Maggie’s wolfing down pills and trying to communicate something about occupying Wall Street, except that she was doing it in Portland in solidarity for the east coast, and all of these police showed up and started blasting her and all her Widespread Panic-listening friends into oblivion with a fire hose. 

This makes me laugh. 

Occupy your life, idiot.  She’s shrieking and whispering at the same time.  “Shit will tear your skin off!” she barks.  Maggie claims she ran like a fucking gazelle across the Burnside Bridge back to the Southeast and some plain-clothes officer tailed her the entire way.  This, apparently, is why she thinks that everything’s been tapped and the heat’s fingering her reality. 

“Maggie,” I respond attempting to calm her down, “You are being relatively worthless right now.  First of all, I can’t comprehend half of what you’re saying and it really seems like maybe you’re being a tad dramatic.  Please, tone it down before you go in to talk to John.  We’re both tripping quite hard presently and it wouldn’t be productive to freak him out in his current state.”

Crying and trying to sob out an answer, the only thing from her mouth that I can understand is gibberish claiming that she doesn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

“Go inside immediately,” I command.  “And please do not repeat this waterfall of retardation to your fucking boyfriend.” 

[Exit Maggie]

Every day like this.  Up and down, good for six hours and then I’m sick-ish.  Got to take another whatever to get a body erection.  You ever pick up a pen that didn’t work the moment that you’ve got to take down an important number and the thing is dry?  That’s what trying to be anywhere near Maggie or John is.  They fancy themselves to be amateur philosophers of contemporary culture, but I’d liken them more to the street cleaning crew in Shit Butt City.  Really, they’re two Bic pens that’ve been gnawed through and dried up. 

What they are good at:

 1. Cooking up shit.

2. Telling idiots that they’ve cooked up shit.

3. Doing half of the shit before the idiots come to buy it.

4. Talking about only cooking enough shit again to make a bunch of money so that they never have to

    cook shit again.

Stupid.  Selling drugs is about the dumbest fucking job in the world (if you actually do drugs, that is).  You literally have to sell SO MUCH to make real money and make it worth the risk.  Taking drugs is worth the risk, because you get to take drugs.  Selling them in an expert fashion though is much less fun, because you pretty much can’t take drugs.  What’s dumber though is joining the army, because then you just die but you don’t even get stoned necessarily.  Literally, dumb people join the army.  Dumb people also abuse drugs, but usually the people who join the army are categorically dumber. 

The people who buy John’s drugs include these chumps down by the Bagdad Theater and several whores near Skidmore Fountain.  It’s a rotating cast of degenerates, as they’re continuously picked up and tossed in jail for a few days, emerging as a kind of a staggered routine back into the mix.  A bunch of losers, cheaters and six-time users in my opinion.  I’m above them, generally speaking.  I don’t follow any leaders and NEVER leave my car parked in the same spot for too long. 

And at this point (drum roll, please), our favorite undercover narc comes sauntering back by - his head is doing that moon-gravity dip, so I know he got hooked up.  As he passes by on his way to who the fuck knows wherever, it appears that his cough has subsided.  Further, he’s got that stupid grin on his face that only babies can do without drugs.


I remember being little.  Not like being born, but that kind of elated and warm retardation that sedates you as a child.  I used to spend every waking hour of the summer running around in shorts trying to learn how to finger girls.  When you’re young, you don’t know how fucking screedling the world at large truly is.  As a result, you live as a stiegler.  Ignorant but chubby.  Scruffed up but not roughed up. 

Then I went to college and learned how to fist a girl, graduated, bought myself a three-piece suit, did a bunch of job interviews with people whiter than me and I found out that after twenty years of education, I’m qualified to work the day shift answering phones at Netflix.  Oh, and I found out yesterday that they’re splitting the business up into two companies now and I have no idea if I’ll still have a job next week.  Bummer.  I owe $85,000 and increasing interest for the pleasure of walking rednecks through the proper way to organize an online queue of DVDs. 

Back to that day though, I can hear Maggie and John inside (probably down in the basement) screaming at one another.  It’s entirely possible that Maggie is tearing the entire set-up to shreds and in about a minute, this place is going to be lit up from the clit up. 

If I were a more intelligent individual, I’d pull myself back up off of this sidewalk and hightail it out of here.  Were I able to actually feel my posterior limbs at present, I’d go so far as to crawl down that manhole staring at me from the street with nothing but a candle to light my way if it meant that I never had to see these assholes again.  Dirtbags who wear sandals and pretend like they’ve got the world figured out make me want to put my eyeballs in Strom Thurmond’s asshole, just to have a look see.  Listening to seventy-six tapes of the same band recorded over a three-day marathon jam in Vermont does not constitute being what Chuck Klosterman would call “advanced.” 

Political scandals!  Wall Street is mean!  The spirit of the ‘60s! 

Go fuck yourselves.

While I’m unarguably bummed, I decide at that very moment that I will not longer be A bum.  I start to chew this inspiration over like a piece of Winterfresh and realize immediately that this is it:

I have to go. 

No goodbyes to Maggie or John or this shitty excuse for a house.  I’m still more or less psychedelically fucked at this point but peel myself up off of the concrete and stumble around the side of the house to splash my face with some water from the hose - a kind of ceremonial baptism that will be a marker for my new life.  I reach to turn it on, and don’t you know it, somebody in this shitfaced neighborhood has ripped off the motherfucking handle.  

Original lyrics:

Johnny's in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I'm on the pavement
Thinking about the government
The man in the trench coat
Badge out, laid off
Says he's got a bad cough
Wants to get it paid off
Look out, kid
It's somethin' you did
God knows when
But you're doin' it again
You better duck down the alley way
Lookin' for a new friend
The man in the coon-skip cap
In the big pen
Wants eleven dollar bills
You only got ten.

Maggie comes fleet foot
Face full of black soot
Talkin' that the heat put
Plants in the bed but
The phone's tapped anyway
Maggie says that many say
They must bust in early May
Orders from the DA
Look out kid
Don't matter what you did
Walk on your tip toes
Don't try, 'No Doz'
Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose
Keep a clean nose
Watch the plain clothes
You don't need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows.

Get sick, get well
Hang around an ink well
Ring bell, hard to tell
If anything is goin' to sell
Try hard, get barred
Get back, write Braille
Get jailed, jump bail Join the army, if you failed
Look out kid
You're gonna get hit
But users, cheaters
Six-time losers
Hang around the theaters
Girl by the whirlpool
Lookin' for a new fool
Don't follow leaders
Watch the parkin' meters. 

Ah get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed
Try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don't steal, don't lift
Twenty years of schoolin'
And they put you on the day shift
Look out kid
They keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle
Don't wear sandals
Try to avoid the scandals
Don't wanna be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don't work
'Cause the vandals took the handles.