in love and war all is fair, he’s got cards he ain’t showing.” My father had picked me up at the airport and was singing along to the Jonathan Edwards oldie as we sped home on Route 24. Due to the intended purpose of this visit, Dad wasn’t in very good spirits. He tried to fake it with some small talk and scattered impromptu song fragment sing-alongs, but I wasn’t so easily fooled. Since I had a slightly different plan for coming back east, my own mood was better, almost hopeful. Dad more than likely thought I was faking it too, and that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. “How’s the job search coming?” he asked, abruptly lowering the radio volume without taking his eyes off the road. “No offers, just a come on from the whores on seventh avenue.” “Don’t mock one of the greats,” Dad said without even a hint of a smile. People seldom catch on when I speak in song lyrics. I get a lot of strange looks based on my frequent non-sequiturs, but little recognition. I can’t even tell why I do it. They speak to me in riddles and they speak to me in rhyme. Oops, I did it again. Sometimes the fragments aren’t even from songs I like. It’s mostly just a word association game my brain plays that manifests itself via lyrical tourette’s. So stand up and fight, stand up for your rights, and dance to the music that nobody likes. Dad often understood the sources, though he never appreciated the concept. He considered it a sacrilege for me to pilfer words of wisdom like that, even though he never complained when my Mom spoke the same way. Maybe it was genetic. “How is my quoting any different than the cover songs you play on the guitar?” “My songs are a tribute. You speak as if the words are your 1
own. That’s the part that isn’t right. Now seriously, do you have any job leads?” In need of a better answer, I restated. “I’m almost happy to be on the dole and avoiding people for a while. Besides, only fools and horses work.” The “almost” was a lie. I was actually thrilled to be void of responsibility for the time being. And the way things turned out, it was perfect timing to have some freedom to do what I had to do here. The music critic career I alluded to earlier had imploded shortly after the turn of the millennium. It wasn’t so much that my talent was fading, but more so that I just didn’t feel the passion for it anymore. An early musical midlife crisis is probably the best way of describing it. I had passed my musical peak and done quite well for myself being in the right place at the right time. But as popular tastes evolved, no new music really moved me anymore. Most of my few and far between freelance pieces covered the solo careers, new projects, or even deaths of my earlier heroes. Fluff pieces saying “This new album is great not because it’s actually any good, but because it reminds me of the glory of my misspent youth.” Artist loyalty and nostalgia tours may be good for the performers and the fans, but not so much for a journalist who is supposed to stay relatively objective at all times. Solicitations for my articles and reviews kept coming, but I couldn’t bring myself to fake it. After being essentially blacklisted from most of the major publications for refusing assignments and not having anything inspire me enough to submit a review to the online and offline ‘zines, I turned to a string of personal assistant and call center jobs just to pay the bills. The most recent of these had ended in a massive layoff a few weeks back, and the downtime and unemployment pay were quite welcome. Not that I really needed a great deal of time per se anymore. The ability to time travel essentially gave me unlimited vacation days if and when I returned to the working world. Vacations would have to be all sightseeing tours, but that wasn’t too bad considering my antisocial nature. “Just make sure you do something practical with your time off,” Dad continued as he exited the highway. “I don’t want you just laying around drinking beer all day.” “I won’t just drink. I’ll drink and complain.” 2
Dad didn’t think that response was as funny as I did, so I politely thanked him for the advice. He looked like he was about to say something else, but changed his mind and responded by turning the volume back up on the stereo and air guitaring out the last few bars of “Sunshine” as he held the steering wheel with his knees. I tried to convince myself that he was actually jealous of the position I was in but didn’t want to show it. It probably wasn’t true, but I knew I’d certainly be jealous if things were reversed. Regardless, he seemed to be holding something back, but it wasn’t really my concern at this one moment in time.
! “It’s so good to see you. Let’s take a picture!” was the first thing my Mom said upon my arrival. It was always the first thing she said. “No flash photography, please,” was my reply, also the same as it ever was. It wasn’t so much photographs in general that I didn’t like, as I agree that they are a great way to capture a memory. It’s amazing how the image of one split second can set your mind whirling to remember an entire day, week, month, or even a year. But this was not true of the photos my Mom liked taking. She must have been a portrait photographer in a past life. Her compositions always had us sitting up straight with the living room fireplace as our backdrop. Mom on the right, me in the center, and Dad on the left when he eventually figured out the automatic timer on the camera. Then just me and Mom, and then me and Dad. Always the same poses, the same setting, and sometimes even the same clothing. (I admit I’d often try to wear the same outfit each time I visited just to prove my point about the lunacy of taking the same exact photo 8,000,000 times.) We had so many of these photos, if handed a pile and asked to put them in chronological order I’d be willing to bet that not a single one of us could do so. How could we? The slightly younger looking ones would go on one end and the slightly older ones on another, but month to month and even year to year not much changes without context clues. Late spring or early fall? Birthday or holiday? Prom, wedding, or funeral? If Mom could pull off the ordering feat without assistance I’d never complain about her picture taking again. Once upon a time my sister had her place in these photos as well. There was even a part of me deep deep down that thought the 3
only consolation prize to come of my sister’s death would be the end of my Mom’s staged photos and a move towards happier candid shots. In a candid shot of a group the event takes center stage. You may not even notice that a particular individual wasn’t present at any given time. But omissions become painfully obvious when everyone is assuming the assigned positions. I’m not saying that I want to forget, but why would you want a constant reminder? After the photo session my Dad wandered off to noodle with his guitar in the living room while my Mom predictably started grilling me about my love life. “Have you talked to…” “Don’t say her name.” “How did you know I’d ask about a girl?” “It’s always about a girl.” It was always about a girl, and I was always elusive, this particular time for three reasons. First (and most obviously): It wasn’t any of her damn business. Second: Without fail, the moment I utter the name of a girlfriend in my mother’s presence and she repeats it aloud, the relationship will immediately begin a downward spiral towards certain doom. It sounds crazy, but even my sister believed in this phenomenon and she was always the more levelheaded one. I’m not sure if it’s psychological witchcraft or if she’s some kind of hypnotist. Of course I don’t really think Mom does it on purpose if it is something more mystical, but if I can accidentally travel in time, why couldn’t my mother be a sort of accidental anti-cupid? (If this theory is true, I’ve got absolutely no one but myself to blame for not having her start chanting “Nelson, Nelson, Nelson, Nelson, Nelson, Nelson, Nelson” a long, long time ago.) Third: There really wasn’t much to talk about as of late. Mom was referring to the one that got away just before the sister situation played out, but I’ll get to her later. Since my sister’s death I had considered myself jinxed and avoided most social behavior, including proper dating. I didn’t want to feel the same guilt over causing a bad relationship for another of my friends or myself, so I kept away. Save a drunken one night stand here and there with minimal initial conversation, that was that. And that certainly wasn’t something you 4
brought up with your mother. I knew I’d get over it eventually, but the timing still wasn’t right. Mom continued. “Don’t you want to get yourself a good job and find a nice girl to settle down with?” “Don’t get me started on settling down.” Mom read my tone before I had time to restart my famous rant. “I know, I know. You just want to have fun, sow your wild oats and keep your freedom. And there’s nothing wrong with that. You’ll stop when you’ve found the right one just like your father did.” “Or like my sister didn’t.” I realized my poor judgment in bringing this up as soon as the words were out of my mouth. Mom’s eyes began to well up as the memory we were both avoiding rushed to the pinnacle of her consciousness. Needing to get the conversation resumed as distraction, I said the second thing that came to mind. “What do you know about Dad and his wild oats? I thought you always said ‘The past is still the past.’” Mom laughed. “That is what I say, but it doesn’t mean I don’t know what goes on.” She smiled a knowing grin as she wiped the tears from her eyes. “Your father was quite the smooth operator back then. He could seduce any girl he wanted to. But I was the only one who ever played hard to get. That’s why I won out. I was intriguing to him. He couldn’t have me unless he decided to settle down. Right, dear?” Dad had walked in with impeccable timing holding his acoustic guitar in one hand and two beers in the other. He just shrugged and handed me a bottle. “Whatever you say, sunshine. I’m trying to remember how to play the rest of this song. I’ve almost got it.” He kissed my mom on the head and winked at me as he left for the basement. She half followed, goosing him as he exited the room. I didn’t know if I should feel uncomfortable in this conversation or not, but since I had never heard this part of my parents’ origin story I was oddly intrigued. Awkward discomfort was certainly better than tears. I looked towards Mom to resume our conversation, but the moment had passed. That faraway look again overcame her. 5
“I guess what I’m saying is that you’ll just know when it’s right. And if you don’t, others might see it for you.” The tears came quickly this time. “I just wish that Nelson was able to see what was going on before it was too late. I mean, it’s not his fault, but...” More sobs abruptly ended the revelations. I gave my mother a hug because it was the right thing to do, although I was a little taken aback that she didn’t blame Nelson for this as I had. From my perspective he was clearly the responsible party. “It’s going to be fine, Mom. I’ll find a way to make it right.” “I know,” she sniffled. “I’m just glad you’re home.” With the embrace ended and the tears slowed, I thought it best to get away before my emotions caught up to me. “I feel like taking a walk now that I’m back in my old neighborhood. Want to come with me?” “No thanks. I have to be up early tomorrow. And you do too, so don’t stay out late. Did you write something to read at the service?” “Still working on it,” I lied. “That’s why I need a walk.” I had no intention of attending the service, but now didn’t seem to be the right time to get into that with Mom. Besides, I wouldn’t have to write anything if there wasn’t a service to attend. “Good luck. And put on a jacket!” Mom kissed me goodbye and left the kitchen to join my father downstairs. I grabbed my jacket as instructed and exited through the back door. As I walked outside, I could briefly hear Dad playing something that resembled the chords to “Sunshine” when Mom opened the door and released the sound to the world. “In this old world she’s gonna turn around, brand new bells will be ringing.”
Published on Feb 9, 2008