Songs that are yours and no one elses

by Liam Strong

i.

“Foreplay / Long Time” - Boston

 

            Obviously, this isn’t true. You can’t own them, but I wanted to make you a playlist that you’ll find yourself singing without recognizing it. When I worked landscaping on Mrs. Mitchell’s cherry orchard with you the summer I struggled to hold a job, the garden heard us. The turkeys grazing the back field of the farm downloaded Spotify Premium instead of clawing up the garden beds. The deer lounged to listen to the podcasts I showed you. Three days a week, we were Calvin and Hobbes kicking up dust with the John Deere Gator. I dirtied every white shirt in my drawers. I enjoyed our silences, our nothings, our complaints of the claustrophobic heat.

            After we lingered over the Farmer’s Almanac for ten minutes, finding a cool summer to look forward to, we believed that we wouldn’t have any dog days to sweat through. We would hide from the scrutiny of the sun under the encumbered arms of cherry trees and spew pits into the underbrush. Quail scattered as we rumbled by, grasshoppers pouncing into our faces. You would make me drive the Gator, usually timidly, but it allowed you to sit back and tell stories of the fifteen years you had worked on the property. Your stories were mine. To use, to recount, to hold close like flannel. Because mom was tired of your stories, and you often forget the ones you’ve already told, I took mental notes.

            To think that the Michigan summer hadn’t yet ended by the time I went back to school. To think that every morning your coffee hissed of impending divorce with mom, to think that for 25 years, you drank that. To think that I wanted time to be longer when, in actuality, you are still young. You haven’t grayed yet. I always wondered what you thought having a long time meant. Retirement, maybe. Building a retirement fund, longer. Have you ever been scared of being unable to measure something like that? Time implies that we need to count.

            When I hear you talk about the things you wish you could have if you weren’t still married to mom, all I hear are stories proto-me, before my time, before you even took the sous chef job that led you to meet mom. Eventually, you took on construction jobs, hated those, became a general contractor. I grew up believing you were comfortable with your age exceeding your tools of measurement, your business as a general contractor, your craft. I believed death didn’t exist to you until someone spoke its name aloud.  

 

            ii.

“99 Luftballons” - Nena

 

            When you were eighteen, fresh out of high school, you joined the army. You saw the Berlin Wall days before it fell, and engaged in a smaller war with the Czechs across the border from Kissingen, a war of mooning each other in the twilight. You told me once that the night you drunkenly got a tattoo on your bicep was the night you found yourself. Sometimes, I don’t believe your facetiousness. In bruise-blue bold, your name, centered like a memento on your arm. I’ve always known you, more than mom, probably more than myself. You might not ever know that I’ve come out of a closet that I never had.

            There’s a story of shame and pride and shame again that you regularly told me and my sister. You tell the story half as a joke, because you want to believe you ended the Cold War with your drunken fist alone. Amidst drinking at a local tavern on the weekend, you got into a fight with an angry Czechoslovakian man who had disdain for Americans. At some point, he yelled profanities at Claudia, your German fiancé at the time. Then, as if made of copper wire, you conducted a bottle across his temple. Wimples of arms vined around you, a swathe of American soldiers shielding barstools against the Czech’s seething posse. Intoxicated, you burrowed into your puke. Claudia walked out on you, with you, as the polizei dragged you out in cuffs. You could have started an actual war. But the soldier you cracked open was the figurative kind. After spending the night in a local police cell, you woke the next day with half a shaker of salt in your coffee, Czechs across the border mooning you during your shift at the lookout. A few hours later, the U.S.S.R. collapsed.

            So you can’t kill. So what? The pockets of your BDU were filled with burnt honey of beer glass. Little cockroaches clinked as you walked. In the event of procuring dignity, even worms tickle their own feet. You prepared MREs and wondered where the time you never had walked to. Not Kissingen, not Stuttgart, not Switzerland where you once skiied. If we were the same people when we kill, would anyone die by our hands?

            You left for Michigan again, but there was a living man’s blood on your gnawed cuticles. The flight home made a hangnail of you, like itches against the prayers you would bury in the mornings after.

            Months later, you spent your final years before marrying mom with your brothers. Hunting, fishing, foraging gooseberries, bowling. Once, while sipping flasks in uncle Tracy’s deer blind, you saw a buck, doe, and fawn wander into the clearing. Twelve point, mother, child.

            After you lost Claudia to your own temperamental problems from constant bar fights, you knew you couldn’t kill. Not just men. But anything. You wouldn’t hit the heads of bass against your old dock. A deer was like a person. When I was a child, you only ever hinted at the idea of skinning fish, or draining the blood from a body. Everything around us was so perfectly alive. 

The fawn stared at the blind, as if waiting. Your brothers, tense against the wood, idled for you to take the shot. You loosened your grip of the rifle, climbed down the ladder. The buck and doe had already wandered off. The fawn, though, stood curiously.

And you walked toward me.

 

            iii.

“Walk on the Ocean” - Toad the Wet Sprocket

           

            On our family vacations to Vero Beach, Florida, we had an annual tradition to become the Conch King. Or Queen, if mom or my sister ever won, which was rare. I think it was expected that I ought to beat you. To attain the ornament of the title, you had to be the first to discover a full conch shell on the beach.

            You usually won. It wasn’t until years later that I grappled with the forceful masculinity of having to take something from you, who was my father. A competition of giving myself and taking away from you—all for a piece of barnacle encrusted gold. I remember giving myself headaches for this. Coupled with the heavy light of sun clashing with the open ocean, I was normally blinded, squinting, attempting to decipher lumps of seaweed from conchs. You could see them from a hundred yards away, and jogged with plastic Publix bags tied to your belt loops, more often than not just to find a broken hunk of breakwall.

Mom, who was painfully Presbytarian, made the remark that even hurricane season couldn’t prevent Jesus from walking on water. I always thought this was an unnecessary hyper-masculine flex on Jesus’ part. Jesus, a man through and through, by definition, could do anything. I hated the idea that I had to be another man, like any other man, that there were so many men held aloft above me to comply with the fact that they practically blocked out the sun. You were up there, too, in the sky of gender expectations. Until I took you down.

            You probably know by now that I don’t ever want to go back to Vero. Even the car rides, which to me was the best part, can’t be brought back. We have the songs, but not the right bodies to sing them. At least I don’t. A body that isn’t my own, a voice that I keep exercising my damnedest to sweeten the lilt of. But, again, you don’t know that. You don’t see the woman under my skin, or the genderless way in which I try to act or dress. You still see me, and when you do, it’s just me. No one else.

 

            iv.

“Yesterday, Today” - The Fixx

 

            You have my voice. My eyes, shitty lower back problems, smile. Our dimples and teeth form the same crinkled crescents. You’ll notice I’m saying you have these things. Please, take them, own them, put them to greater use. I refuse to believe they’re mine. Surely, what makes something whole isn’t the glue of skin putting us together, or the marrow that binds us. Surely, the body I had yesterday will change into tomorrow's body.

            If you could change how you looked, what would you become? Would you want the same mind? Pose, for a moment, to implore the graphs and details of your bones. You once told me that you had curly bleach blonde hair as a kid, just like I had. We both darkened, but your hair became black, and mine the sludgy orange like mom’s hair. If you put two pictures of us as children parallel, would you know yourself?

            Perhaps, tomorrow, you’ll think of yesterday. We tend to only speak that way as father and son. Not what we are doing now or later, but revisiting a day, a week before. I often wonder if you’re jealous, but maybe it’s my fault for bragging, of the accomplishments I’ve made. Publications, conferences, bizarre food I’ve eaten, places I’ve travelled—but you haven’t moved from yourself. I think it is too late to want. I can’t blame you for having been stuck on the precipice of divorce for almost as long as I’ve been alive. I have your gullibility, your indecision, your ability to be too tolerant of abuse. There are too many things we want that the things we don’t want follow us in the same haunting way.

            When your mind wanders, it frequents the same pit stops: you forget you told me about Hannah’s art show, but you had just texted me yesterday. This happens consistently, but I won't tell you. Your memory, when you strain it, bears purpose, even if you’re wrong. It doesn’t matter if the memories we had together get slightly revised, tweaked, by the flaws of our human minds. If we still remember them fondly, despite the differences, then we never have to say anything.

 

            v.

“Holding Back the Years” - Simply Red

 

            Typically, when we’re asked about how much we think about our own lives, you don’t answer with how much you think of your father’s life. I must concede that I often do this. The countless times you slept in a musty garage or basement of a client’s house, because mom was screaming at you or had already slashed her nails across your cheek. All the times you would take Hannah and I to friends’ houses so we could evade the both of you. There’s the common knowledge that a large percentage of your lives are taken up by sleep. For you, a percentage is needed for how much you drove. I wouldn’t call your truck shitty, but it’s beyond the lifespan it deserved economically. A white 2002 Dodge Ram 1500 with stubble of rust growing all around the edges, broken CD player, dead air conditioning, a rainbow-colored cross dangling from the rearview. You still have it. I told you over the summer it might be time for something new. You’ve poured thousands into a vehicle that has, for the better part of a decade, been preserved for respite and escape rather than just a vessel for power tools and building materials.

            There’s a certain disdain I have toward legacy, and the roots it commonly fails to stretch. If I’m to be honest, I fear that you won’t be remembered, but I also don’t know if you entirely want to be anyway. “A fat man with only so many words in his body,” you would say. You have so, so many words. You’re the only thing that makes me cry, thinking that your life has been a waste, because you were forced under the headlights of religious narcissism, spousal abuse, children who were just as afraid to speak up. Because, against all else, you weren’t a star, or anything bigger or more abstract than you were. To be down to earth was the embodiment of everything your mother, my grandmother, taught you. Words are too easily sacrificed without supplication. As your mother told us both at the same ages, “If you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything at all.” I wonder, then, what good remains in us if we are to be so disconsolate in the face of our poor upbringings. I wonder what happens to all those words, all that goodness, badness. I wonder what your God does with it all.

            Sometimes, I tease myself to forget your age. You’re 51—you’re 52—you’re 51. Your birthday is right before Halloween, so you must be 53 soon. I think I’m wrong. I hope I am.

 

            vi.

“Carefree Highway” - Gordon Lightfoot

 

            At the end of summer, we would usually make our rounds of Mrs. Mitchell’s property to prepare for autumn, then winter. The seeds from the Norwegian poppies need to be gathered. The volunteer plants sprouting from the ornamental shrubs need to be clipped. Bird tape needs replaced. The barn windows cleaned. Fascia outside the guest bedroom nailed secure. One last thorough weeding. But I won’t be there.

            Because even though we have made for ourselves this freedom to be, we haven’t fulfilled ourselves. I’m a queer boy who isn’t a boy and you are not just a man who is a man, but you’ve had too much taken from you. I never had anything to be taken away. If having a child is testament to them surviving and succeeding without doing the things their parents have done, then perhaps, to this extent, I’m nowhere near aimless. Granted, I think this discredits the life you have so painfully, albeit submissively fought for. Our abuse is not a mold caste over our bodies. My years, yet fully intact, are only trudging forward. To hold back my life would be to deprive you of the pride you carry aloft for me. Pride, in a way, is a method of praise. A photo of just you and I after a poetry reading where I won a first place audience award spoke to that pride. We have so few photos together, one of my biggest regrets, of a multitude we probably inherently share.

            With some concern for belatedness, I showed you the playlist on our last day of work in the garden. The cherries had all but dried, the discarded piles from the shakers now a fermenting, amputated tongue. The plums were still waiting. But the blackberries had just bloodied to their fullest, and we brought our waders for the occasion. We were prepared for it to rain, but it never came.

            As we strapped our knee-pads on to weed the garden, I put the playlist on. Once, you told me that when you were in the 6th grade, you had played a song for a talent show and won first place. Regretfully, you never played guitar again from that point on, for some minute reason or another. I tried to recall the song, and just picked the one that was my favorite. When it bounded from my phone’s speaker perfectly from shuffle, your deep voice veered off on some sort of tangent, a side road, and I was there with you in your Kingsley, Michigan, elementary school.

            When the song slipped into the next, you looked up, not knowing you were hearing anything but wind, chattering rose beetles, our trowels shaping the earth.

            “I thought I was just singing that to myself,” you said. “I thought that was just me, remembering.”

            It was, dad. It was.

Liam Strong

 

Liam Strong is a Pushcart Prize nominated queer writer and studies writing at University of Wisconsin-Superior. They are the former editor of NMC Magazine and currently the Chapbook Editor for Michigan Writers Cooperative Press (MWCP). Their music and literature criticism can be found at The Promethean and White Pine Press (Northwestern Michigan College). You can find their essays and poetry in Impossible Archetype, Rathalla Review, Glass Mountain, Lunch Ticket, Chiron Review, Panoply, Prairie Margins, and The 3288 Review. They live in Traverse City, Michigan.

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— Jacob Collins-Wilson

“We parked in front and I heard the music, felt the bass and my dad got out and told me and my mom to wait and I knew those kids were in trouble because that music was too loud and they better hope there aren’t any cuss words because my dad barged in when I was taking a shower and took my Slipknot CD because it cussed.”

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