A version of this story also appears in Cosmo, available now from Coach House Books.
...the sentence itself is a man-made object, not the one we wanted of course, but still a construction of man, a structure to be treasured for its weakness, as opposed to the strength of stones
— From “The Sentence,” Donald Barthelme
In regard to my appeal of the sentence: yes, I am well aware of our “relationship” being, in plain language, nonexistent, and yes, I can admit to the accusations of infatuation and obsession, although in all honesty such allegations have been framed in a provocative and erroneous manner, laden with dangerous, predatorial [sic] connotations, suggesting that I possess some sort of skewed psycho-sexual mania; and yes, I admit to such accusations in full awareness and acknowledgment of the grave fact that we are indeed unacquainted, despite my numerous letters and telephone calls and e-mails to her agency, Cunningham Escott Slevin & Doherty (CESD), and her publicist, Meghan Prophet, and her music label Hollywood Records, and to the Disney Corporation (to wit I have not received any written or oral response but soldier on in the hope of expressing my deepest gratitude and my sincerest congratulations on her innumerable successes and innovations), even though thinking rationally I knew these efforts might be futile due to her immense responsibilities and extremely busy schedule, regarding which I could testify at length if only brevity were not a factor, if only you weren’t already so weary with listening …
… so for the sake of such direly required and oft-requested succinctness I shall plead with the court on this day that my interest in Ms. Cyrus is purely scholarly, and in good will, and that I have been cruelly maligned by certain lawyers and Cyrus family representatives as a “delinquent,” “stalker,” “predator,” or, though the literal words were not spoken, as some sort of “sexual deviant” — for I insist that my sexual preferences abide by the straight American medium, that my study of Ms. Cyrus’ life has been both consuming and enflaming but only in the strictest intellectual sense, for surely I would not bother to know the petty details of her birth and education, her conceptual circumstances, if not for intellectual fulfillment, because surely if these were merely masturbatory phantasms I could have simply downloaded some leaked cellular photograph, had my way with myself, so to speak, and forgotten the details of Miley Cyrus’ birth, that she was born on November 23, 1992: the same day that the last deadly tornado was seen in northeastern North Carolina, part of a late season outbreak that affected much of the southeastern part of the United States, ranging from Houston, Texas to portions of the Gulf Coast states, from the Ohio Valley to the Carolinas — a deadly maelstrom that narrowly skirted the edges of southern Tennessee in late November as if fated, destined, preternaturally aware of Miley Cyrus’ imminent arrival into the world, allowing Leticia “Tish” Cyrus (née Finley) to deliver through the harrowing pains of labour in peace, not having to worry or fret over cyclones or flying cows or cold-cellar emergency deliveries, but unfortunately due to the sequential workings of the world this miracle occurred in a place and time different from my own, leading to my recorded confessions of anguish and pained sobbing over my missed opportunity at cradling Leticia’s hand, kissing her wrist, or wiping the beads of sweat from her forehead, missing my chance to watch the wailing, mewling Miley emerge from the womb and into the light;
issues that have, as stated, embroiled me in irresolvable frustration, leaving me to feebly imagine that I was there to witness her headfirst slide into the charged, electric air of that great city, home of the Grand Ole Opry at the legendary Ryman Auditorium, the “Mother Church of Country Music,” and the state home to the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Belcourt Theatre, television shows like Hee Haw and Pop! Goes the Country, and, of course, legendary country singer William Ray Cyrus and Leticia Finley, who married secretly in Nashville on December 28, 1992 — over a month after Miley was born, although this says nothing of their marital commitment, their appropriate interpretation of the sanctity of marriage, for the young family lived on a 500-acre farm in Thompson’s Station, a bucolic Elysium, just a short drive outside of Nashville, where the grass is really green and the willow trees catch the sunlight red and yellow and holy and all things make music, and imbue even the simplest sentiments, the most casual words with the soul-buoying charge of choir-based anthems: words such as Destiny Hope Cyrus, written in indelible ink on a Tennessee birth certificate, now stored in a locked drawer in a sprawling mansion in Los Angeles, California, spelling out its secret message to anyone perceptive enough to read it: Destiny the inevitable fulfillment of a family’s dream; Hope the means by which the dream would be achieved; Destiny and Hope thus together representing a portentously American knot of dreams — Destiny being, of course, the softer sister of Fate (fate implying the cruel predetermination of Calvinist dogma, the Oedipal tear at the incestuous iris, the natural fall of leaves blown from cold autumnal branches: souls of the dead eager to line circles of a just and appropriate Hell); softer still in its insistence and encouragement of active participation on behalf of the subject, saying life is what you make it, saying reach for the stars, saying Destiny is my vague green light beyond the storm, always in the becoming, the manifesting, our boats borne ceaselessly back on waves of Hope —
and so I declare that Destiny Hope Cyrus is answered hope, the answered hope of a modern America: a nation of willing, striving, and gaining; of proud immigrants running millions of blunt needles through department store linens, raking through the sodden shit of dog parks, scrubbing bleach against porcelain urinals stained in the daily rub of living, and who amongst them, these proud brown-bodied working people, who amongst them would not gain or profit from the weight of such a name, a name so pregnant with purpose, a name like a tiny pilot light of great expectations, ensuring that destiny and hope were forever entangled and inextricable in Miley’s memory, forever a part of who she is, was, and would become, her past, present, and future, bound in one time, one memory, without even mentioning her public moniker, Miley, merely one of many milestones on a winding highway of love and support from William Ray, who would comment, in interview after smiling interview, that “[Miley] was always smiling, she was always letting you know she was happy — such a happy, smiling, laughing baby” (and who can’t help but smile, who can’t help but picture the tiny limbs and giggling, cherubic face of the dancing, playing child, innocent of all woe and sadness, loving with a sort of unrestrained golden-retriever sincerity that crushes the heart and makes one moan and beg for William to get to the point, and relate how they called her SMILEY, smiling himself as he says this, saying Smiley was her nickname around the house, but she had problems with the word — it just didn’t come out right, ’cause of the lisp and all — so she could only say ’Miley, right, and so this name sort of stuck — and though this may sound silly (the remnant of an affectionate nickname adorably debased by a toddler’s lisp) it tied Destiny Hope in a sort of electric, unspoken current to Ms. Cyrus’ first creative distortion, her first calculated move toward self-actualization and identification, her first mumbled gesture of authenticity:
somehow more American than Destiny or Hope; somehow more attuned to the shifting, sliding ideals of the end of the century, as if such a small baby could already ascertain that the ideal of personal authenticity was inexorably obliterating any ethical or moral insistence on the True, or the Good, or the Just, ascertained like one of Pound’s cultural antennae — invisible lightning rods of anticipatory wisdom who walk among us — our artists, our visionaries, our prophets; those who speak for and to us (us, of course, being the gibbering, howling masses who have not the radar for such subtle vibrations of change); and again, to make myself perfectly clear, this praise is made not to exclude William Ray from this conversation of prophets, not to ignore his own contributions to culture: becoming the successful singer-songwriter and actor he is, currently promoting songs like “Thrillbilly” and “Back to Tennessee” on his latest album of the same name, despite how many of his peers failed along the way, dragged down by drugs, or misplaced ideation, or a destructive desire for fame or wealth or the adoration of an asinine fan, or, most commonly, through a simple lack of natural talent, or talent squandered through a lack of repetitive labour and the sacrifice of all other comforts, through work, through an intense study of the history of pop music, which in truth is littered with these marginal, forgotten, tragic fossils, who burnt up too fast, or too soon, or who never had a break, who now play (if they play at all) in obscure cover bands or in the shadowed corner of a university or college bar, crying into their pints of lager, memory mingled with false projections from a foggy, denuded prime in which William Ray was always the better man, the more successful singer-songwriter who never crashed and burned, who found God and Family, who made wise investments with his millions and reared a child who would eventually eclipse his own tremendous fame — even though, let us not forget, he penned a cultural zeitgeist, lyrics and melody so indelible upon the contemporary psyche that I don’t have to repeat the refrain; you’re probably humming along now, remembering where you were when that all-too-human heart tore across America and made line-dancing a feverish act of rebellion
(not to insinuate that Miley’s home life was in any way dissolute or depraved, but rather evidence of her household’s harmonious surroundings; Miley’s first intimations of childhood being performative and lyrical, surrounded by the tenor twang of William Ray’s incredible ear for the melodious hook, Leticia’s graceful attempts at harmony, their first hound dog Butch baying and barking in the late haze of marshmallow campfires; the chaos of bullfrog and cricket chirping a chorus through the rural, moonlit nights; the sweet smell of corn bread and fried chicken and ribs wafting heavy from the truck-stop restaurant on the blacktop that bisects the highway, the large matronly server humming to her young acne-ridden employees, don’t cheat ’em on the sauce, give ’em what you’d want yo’self, and all the guitar towns dotting the roads and highways of Tennessee, dripping with gospel and country, blues and bluegrass: American music, miserable grace of working pain and lost love, salvation always out of reach, Faulknerian abnegations of time coruscating the worker’s cheek, oh Jesus oh Jesus give me rest, it been so long, such a long time now Jesus, and John Steinbeck a million miles west singing about the plucked guitar and the keening fiddle and the mournful, forlorn harmonica, a reminder to forget divisions of skin colour and class because according to the dream we all a’labour in the fields in the morning with the promise of the sun and then descend willing or not into the sorrowful vicissitudes of night, with Guthrie a dying dream in the Grand Canyon, and Dylan a wisp of a ghost on the road, and Miley’s musical inheritance thus mingled with AM Gold and Casey Kasem, porch-lit jam sessions with William Ray’s drier friends who didn’t end up snorting everything on mid-’90s bar-tops and who still enjoyed the night air and the way a guitar meets a voice, the way the first and third fingers of William’s left hand could spread confidently across the fret board of his trusty and worn acoustic, his right hand balled to a fist around a pick, a two-year-old Miley sitting at his feet playing with the reflected light of beer bottles and tuning pegs and the amber halo of a single bulb, where perhaps her first high-pitched song was sung, the first formative springboard, perhaps, leading to her choir practice and solo work at the Thompson’s Station’s People’s Church, her acting debut at age nine, her later acting classes at Armstrong Acting Studio in the wintry grey depressions of Toronto, Canada, her minor stumbling roles on her father’s incredible television series known as Doc (2001–2004) and the Oscar-nominated, Columbia Pictures blockbuster Big Fish (2003), all her persistence in pursuing the Disney character who would change our lives — convincing through dogged insistence those hard-hearted corporate executives and casting agents (who have treated me with august indifference or open hostility, it should again be noted) that she was the one, the true morning star, the future flagship of the company, the deal-maker of their top-secret series, later named Hannah Montana, to be released in early 2006 about a young girl bearing the unfortunate burden of being an immensely popular singer and entertainer with legions of fans and incredible wealth (though wealth tied intelligently to her wise and mature father, played in the sweetest of turns by Miley’s own father, William Ray, who was auditioned at Miley’s behest only after she was granted the role) but also determined to live a normal teenaged existence, with typical experiences (like studying for exams, flirting with young male specimens with contemptible hair, and gossiping with her loyal friends over the pink telephone), and to try to balance these two divergent and utterly conflicting lifestyles, and, most important, keep her pop-star celebrity identity secret and safe, so as not to endanger her normal adolescent existence — a show that connected with millions of young children not because of its intricate and unique plotlines or biting dialogue, but because of Miley, that zestful whirlwind of ambition and national pride, who was characterized by Disney Channel President Gary Marsh as possessing a “natural ebullience,” and the “everyday relatability [sic] of Hilary Duff and the stage presence of Shania Twain”;
and I could go on, the breath is full and moving, but these heads are nodding and shaking, and time has evaporated, made your faces turn sour, brought forth more beads of sweat to spread beneath your arms, has made your asses uncomfortable, and time is playing its game on me, and though brevity is the soul of wit I cannot in any eventuality be discerning, so why not Miley Cyrus, and why not everything there is to know about her, rather than halves and things made into partial rounds, the unfair impatience of quarters and divisions, on only the bottom line, on making some information the best information when there is no end to it, no end to its fullness, its baffling richness and generosity, no end to each storied detail, to what I can say before I’m dragged perhaps kicking and biting from the premises, leaving the sentence to remain on account of a half-strangled, half-finished appeal, dismissed and aborted in the eyes of the law like so many twisted discarded children, though I in no way have ever acknowledged or agreed to a single word of my sentence — a sentence that from the standpoint of reason cannot make sense (not that any substitution can make it sensible, sentences do not make sentences make sense, I was taught, it’s our punishment and a just one, living in a sad and decadent place that can willfully and systematically ignore that incorruptible beauty, the brief parting of clouds in a low and grey unrolling regiment, a girl who will never breathe or grow or cry those big crystal tears again in quite the same fashion, so here I am to receive them, proud to receive those tears and that recorded laughter, receive those one-in-a-million emotions, be witness to this once and only unfolding rose, the way all young girls are momentary parting petals leaving us lonely and rocking to the radio’s ambient whispers, knowing ourselves to be uncomfortable and sad and obscene, shaking in the hours of our starving nights, waiting for our sentence, hoping against formidable despair for the return of our shared horizon, the note and pitch met perfectly, all the jumbled naivety and fragility of youth transfigured into sense and communion by one song, one note, that forgives and heals the guilty chaos of our days, making sense of our loneliness, our perjured feelings, our sickness and our poverty, how we shall never be beautiful, how our heads will run over with unbearable secrets, and how we are sentenced to this, serving us right — when the song should end, be cut down, finished, and the singer not go on singing)).