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The Chautauqua Sessions

From: The Missouri Review
Volume 37, Number 1, 2014
pp. 58-86 | 10.1353/mis.2014.0002

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Photo by Sam Beebe, Ecotrust

My son, the drug addict, is about to tell a story. I know this because he’s closed his eyes and lifted his chin. I can tell because he’s laid his hands palms down on the table, like a shaman feeling the energy of the tree spirit still in the wood. I can tell because he’s drawing a shuddering breath, as if what he has to say will take all he’s got. He’s putting on the full show because he has a new audience—he’d streamline the theatrics if it were only me. We’re having dinner in Levi Lambright’s recording compound, Chautauqua, in remote Appalachian Tennessee. I’m a song-writer—a lyricist—and I’m here to work on a new album with Levi, our first in fifteen years. Dee was not invited. The only other person who should be here is Lucinda, Levi’s cook. But Dee just showed up, the way drug-addicted sons sometimes do.

Right as he’s about to speak, I reach for the wine bottle and refill my glass, placing the bottle back down in front of me, providing a bit of a visual shield between us. He’s sitting across from me, next to Levi. The kid looks good, I’ll give him that. He’s clean shaven, and his dun-colored hair appears professionally cut. His eyes, where the cresting chaos can most often be seen, are clear and still. They still don’t track exactly right, though. Like his mother, he looks at you out of one eye at a time, like a quizzical parrot. If you look at him straight on, his thin face seems to wobble and shake like a coin spun on end before it flips back into profile, his mother’s aquiline nose and sharp chin etched in the center of his round boy’s head. On his forearm, his old self-mutilation scars have been scribbled over, I see, with a new homemade tattoo: Trust. I don’t see myself in him at all.

“Okay? Are you sure you want to hear this? It’s kind of a long story,” Dee asks, though he doesn’t pause before going on.

“This happened last week. I was downtown, on some crazy uppers. I think I took some MDMA that night. Maybe just amphetamines. I don’t remember. All I know is I was high, really high, and I’d been dancing and couldn’t find who I came with. So I decide I should go home. But when I leave the club, I can’t figure out where I am. I mean, I only live a block from there. I’m walking down the street and I feel like I’m in a foreign country or something. Nothing is familiar. Somehow I ended up three miles away, in the worst part of town. . . .”

I try not to listen. I’ve heard all this before, and I’m pretty sure it will end with him confronting the godhead. I’ve gotten enough midnight calls about his drug-fueled encounters with an encyclopedic list of spiritual figures: Jesus, Buddha, Allah, the Spirit in the Sky and Mother Nature herself, who held out long arms made of saplings and drew him to her leafy bosom while nibbling a Morse code of secret truth on his earlobe. As much as I knew the source of these visions, it was hard not to be swept along by his telling. Because Dee got one thing from me: my ability to spin a story.

Sometimes Dee’s language was so striking during these soliloquies that I would find myself jotting down phrases without thinking. I can’t believe you mined your drugged son for a good turn of phrase, I’d think, looking down at the pad the next morning. Then, a preposterous jealousy: Why can’t I think of phrases like that? I’d want to use the words in my work, but that seemed somehow wrong, given what they sprang from. But to let that language, no matter how destructive its origin, simply be forgotten...

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