by Jill McCorkle
From Fall 2018
I’ll never forget the day Betts moved in. How could I? Open the apartment door, and there she is, with two suitcases, a purple futon, and two milk crates full of albums.
It was 1984, the day after Marvin Gaye died. That’s how I remember so well. I had just gotten home from my job at Any Old Way You Choose It Music, where the Marvin Gaye bin had emptied within a couple of hours. I’d spent the afternoon marveling at what happens when somebody kicks. Marvin’s bin, other than for the Motown faithfuls and a brief flurry after The Big Chill, was long neglected; I had even dusted it back when everybody was BeeGee Disco Crap berserk. Now Marvin is dead, and there’s a run on his music. I had watched the same thing happen with Elvis and John Lennon, always good sellers, but incredibly so when they died.
You want me here don’t you? Betts asked. Her thick, dark hair was to her shoulders, and her eyes were wide open, always as if she were seeing the world for the first time, like every object caught her attention. She stared at me; I was the object of her attention for the moment. “I mean I’ve been staying here every night, so I might as well have my things, right? And by the way,” she was saying, “I could use some help.” The purple futon was unrolled and already halfway inside the apartment. “We don’t need this, but Helen said she didn’t want it.” Helen, the roommate, was a physics major who liked to test all the physical properties during sex. Betts had said (before she started coming to my place) that it was driving her crazy (the shaking plaster and peculiar sounds). I didn’t tell her, but it was driving me crazy, for different reasons, the main one being that I was a wee bit curious about what took place on the other side of the wall that separated Bett’s room from Helen’s. Bett’s side was pretty tame: a bulletin board covered in little notes and photos and ticket stubs, a huge poster of a skeleton. She was majoring in physical therapy and was taking it all seriously (too seriously if you ask me), or depending, not seriously enough. “I am not a masseuse,” she said often enough with no smile whatsoever. Short on sense of humor but long on legs. Sometimes you buy an album for just one song, thinking that the others will start to grow on you. When she finally got the futon in, she dug out her Duran Duran album, and that’s when I drew the line. We were from different time zones. She had whole list of favorite good old songs: “Afternoon Delight” and “Muskrat Love” were two.
I played Marvin: “Stubborn Kind of Fella,” “It Takes Two,” “Mercy Mercy Me.” She just shrugged and went back in my room to arrange her little junk on the top of my dresser and the back of the commode. I sat there with Marvin, tried to imagine what it must feel like to know that your old man is about to kill you like Marvin did.
“Why did he wear that hat all the time?” Betts asked looking the same way she did when she asked me why I still wore my hair long enough to pull back in a ponytail. “Is he the guy who sings that ‘Sexual Healing’ song?” She was standing in the kitchen with a two-liter Diet Coke in one hand a handful of Chee-tos in the other. She’s a healthy one. She bitches about an occasional joint. It’s okay for her to go downtown and pound down beer with her girlfriends, but for God’s sakes don’t do anything illegal in moderation. “We’ve got to fix this place,” she was saying. “And did you say you were going back to graduate school in the fall?”
“No.” I shook my head. She was peeking under a dishcloth like she expected a six-foot snake under there. She sounded like my mother, asking me if I said what she knows I never in the hell did. Those were her words, graduate school. When my mom does it, the secret words are electrical appliance store. My old man owns one in a town so big it actually has two gas stations, and he’d rather pull his nose off of his face with a wrench or beat up a new Maytag washer than to have me in his employment. Mom says things like, “Didn’t you say you were looking for a job where you can advance in the business?” that’s when I always click the phone up and down or flip on the blender and plead bad connection. It’s a real bad connection, Mom.
And there stood Betts, swigging her Nutrasweet, eating her fluorescent cheese, waiting for an answer.
“You know that night we first met, you said you had been in law school and were thinking about going back.”
“I said that?” I asked.
“Did I tell you I quit law school and joined VISTA? Spent a year in the Appalachian mountains with diarrhea?”
She nodded a bored affirmative.
“Did I tell you I loved it?”
“Well, that’s because I didn’t. But what I learned in that year is that I could do anything I wanted to do, you know?”
“So?” She took a big swallow of her nutrasyrup, then wiped her mouth and hands with enough paper towels to equal a small redwood. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m doing it.” I lifted the stylus off of Marvin and cleaned the album, my hand steady as I watched the Motown label spin. She was still staring in disbelief. A real bad connection. As good looking as she was, it was a real bad connection. I left for five minutes, long enough to go pee and see her little ceramic eggs filled with perfumed cedar shavings on the back of the john, and in that five minutes, she put on Boy George. What we prided ourselves on most at Any Old Way You Choose It Music then was that we did just that, chose it without regard to what sells and top tens and who’s who. Like if I was in one mood, I might play the Beatles all day long, might play Rubber Soul two times in a row. I had whole weekends where all I played were the Stones, Dylan, or the Doors and then followed it with a Motown Monday, a Woodstock Wednesday. Some days I just went for somebody like Buffy St. Marie or Joan Baez, which surprised the younger clientele, people like Betts, people who might say, who’s that? Screw them.
“You mean you’re going to work there forever?” Betts asked. Boy George stared up at me from the floor. Bett’s fingers were tapping along to “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?”
“I’m buying in,” I told her, which was not entirely a lie. The owner, a guy my age who had already made it big in the local business scene, was considering it. He graduated with a D average from a second-rate junior college and received a small empire already carved out by his old man. I graduated from the university with a 3.7 in English and philosophy, highest honors for some old paper I wrote about Samuel Coleridge, and what I got was one of those leather kits for your toiletries. What toiletries? I had wanted to ask my mom, who told me she remembered me saying I needed one of those. Yeah, right. I need a toiletries kit.
“I’m doing okay,” I said and lifted the stylus from Boy George, searched in earnest for the Kinks so Betts could ask some more dumb questions. She came over and knelt beside me, put her head close to mine, little orange Chee-to sparkles above her lip.
“I know you’re doing okay,” she whispered and pressed her mouth against my neck. “You’re better than okay,” she said. “My friends all think you’re interesting in a kind of weird way, you know, mysterious.”
Her own anatomy was doing quite nicely. Too nicely really, because it was making me a dishonest person. I was thinking bad connection, bad connection, while I let her play her albums and pull me to the floor.
“Isn’t it great I’ve moved in?” she asked ten minutes later as the needle hugged the wide smooth grooves of the last song, a long and silent begging to be lifted.
“Isn’t it going to be wonderful?” she asked.
But all I could think about when I closed my eyes was Marvin standing there in his hat, his old man with pistol aimed.
Betts moved in the day after he died. He hadn’t been dead three months when she moved out. She pled guilty to not truly loving me, and I turned on the somber broken-hearted look long enough to pack up her books and hand them out to the squat-bodied pathology resident she’d taken up with and who was waiting for her. “Here’s a live one for you,” I told him and patted her on the back.
I didn’t miss her so much as I just missed. The jerky young store owner was still dangling his carrot about maybe letting me buy in. I told him he was getting too far away from the old stuff, the good stuff, but he insisted that we go with the flow. He didn’t want me monopolizing the sound system with too much of the old stuff; he said Neil Young made his skin crawl. He was sick over the fact that he hadn’t kept the Rick Nelson stock up to date. I figured what the hell, did I really want to be in business with such a sleaze? I took a little vacation to get myself feeling up, to get Betts out of my bones, and then I was back full force, nothing on the back of my john, no album that never should have been on my shelves in the first place. But before too long, there I was hanging up T-shirts of the Butthole Surfers. Things were getting bad.
I thought they couldn’t get any worse, but I let a couple of years spin by and they did. There were prepubescent girls with jewelry store names running around shopping malls singing songs they didn’t deserve to sing. It was plagiarism; it was distasteful. Where were the real women? Where was Grace Slick? Then there was a run on Roy Orbison’s music, and once again my jerk of a boss was in a state of panic that he’d missed yet another good-time oldie postmortem sale. He was eating cocaine for breakfast by then and had a bad case of the DBCs (Dead Brain Cells). I might sleep around now and then; I might even end up with somebody who was born after 1968, but at least I’m moral about it. He gets them tanked and snorted and then goes for the prize. One step above being a necro if you ask me. And what really pisses me off is that society sees me as the loser, the social misfit who’s living in the past. The guy drives a BMW and owns a condo and a business, stuffs all his money up his nose, pokes teenage coeds who don’t remember that he did it. And he’s successful.
I was about to the point where I couldn’t tune it all out, when I wound up with a bad hangover that turned into the flu and landed me in one of those fast-food medicine places. You know, a Doc in the Box, planted right beside Revco so you can rush over and fill your prescriptions. I felt like hell, and I was about to stretch out on their green vinyl couch and snooze, when I saw someone familiar. It was Marlene Adams, a girl from home, a woman of my time, no ring on her hand, good-looking as ever. I sat straight up and was about to say something when she turned calmly and called my name. “I was wondering when you’d recognize me,” she said and laughed, her eyes as blue as the crisp autumn sky. “I had heard you were still living around here. Who told me that? Somebody I saw at a wedding not too long ago.” For a split second I was feeling better, like grabbing a bucket of chicken and sitting in the park, throwing a Frisbee, going to some open-air concert.
“You haven’t changed a bit,” she said, and I felt her gaze from head to toe. It was the first time in years that I was worried about how I looked. “Neither have you.” I sat up straight, smoothed back my hair. God, why hadn’t I taken a shower? “Why’re you here?” I asked and glanced to the side where there was a cloudy aquarium with one goldfish swimming around. “I thought you were some place like California or Colorado or North Dakota. I thought you were married.” I thought that fish must feel like the only son of a bitch on the planet, thirty gallons of water and nobody to swim over and talk to.
“Divorced. I’m back in graduate school, psychology,” she said and laughed. “And I’m in this office because I fell down some steps.” I turned back from the dismal fish to see her holding out her right foot. Her ankle was blue and swollen. She had on a little white sock, the kind my mother always wore with her tennis shoes, with little colored pop-pop balls hanging off the backs.
“Can you believe it?” She shook her head back and forth. “It was really embarrassing. There were loads of people in the library when it happened.” She leaned back, her thick hair fanning behind her as she stared up at the ceiling. I kept expecting her to say something really stupid and mundane and patronizing like So, you say that you’re living here but not in graduate school, you sell albums and tapes to coeds you occasionally sleep with, you say that you have a hangover, what I’m hearing from you is that you are in search of a sex partner who has possibly heard some songs from your youth.
“I’m just as clumsy as I was the time we went camping,” she said, her voice light and far removed from the monotone I’d just imagined. “Remember? You swore you’d never take me again?”
“And I didn’t,” I said. “I never got the chance.” I turned back to the fish. It was an awkward moment. You don’t often get to discuss breaking up years after the fact, but we were doing it. She dumped me, and now that I had reminded her of that fact, she was talking in high gear to cover the tracks. Why does it take so long to get seen in this place? and Do you ever get home? Does your dad still have the refrigerator store and is you mom well?
I was relieved when the door opened and the nurse called me in. “See you around,” I said politely, half hoping that she’d disappear while I was gone. Marlene and I were the same age, from the same small town, the same neighborhood, even. I had known her since my family moved there when I was in the fifth grade and we had all run around screaming the words to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” while making faces and crossing our eyes like Ringo did. Our common ground and memories was what had brought us together that month in college to begin with.
I thought about it while they stuck a thermometer in my mouth and instructed me to undress. Marlene had been pretty goofy as a kid, and though I considered her a friend, I never would have ridden my bike over to her house to visit. She had this dog named Alfie who smelled like crap, which left Marlene and her wet-dog-smelling jeans rather undesirable. In junior high, Matt Walker and I had suggested we put Alfie in front of a firing squad, and Marlene didn’t speak to me for weeks after. No big deal, but then in high school we got to be pals just sort of hanging outside in the breezeway where you were allowed to smoke in between classes. Can you believe they let us smoke at school? That they, the administrators, those lopsided adults had designated an area? I spent a lot of time there, and so did Marlene. She was on the Student Council, which most of us thought was a bunch of crap. She was forever circulating some kind of petition. She was really into womanhood, which I found kind of titillating in a strange way, don’t ask me why, though I never did anything about it at the time. She was a hard worker, a smart girl. That’s the kind of shit people wrote in her yearbook if they wrote anything at all. Nineteen seventy was not a big year for yearbook signing. But then, get the girl off to college, and there is major metamorphosis. It was lie I could watch it happening there in a poli sci lecture, blond streaks in her hair that hung to her waist, little shortie T-shirts and cutoff jeans, her tinted wire-rim glasses (aviator style, like Gloria Steinem) always pushed up on her head. Guys waited to see where she was going to sit and then clustered around her. God, she was beautiful, and then I had to take a turn just sitting and listening to all that was going on in her life, just as she had listened to me there in the smoking area. I had a girlfriend here and there along the way, but I guess I was really waiting for Marlene to come around. Her boyfriend had been drafted, and though she told me how lucky I was not to have been taken (lucky break, legal blindness; my brother winged me with a sharp rock when I was seven), I could tell that I was weakened in her eyes. There would have been much more admiration had I had twenty-twenty vision and fled to Canada. It was a brief affair, the consummation of any likes we’d had for each other since adolescence, and then it was over, one fiasco of a camping trip, pouring down rain, Marlene spraining her thumb when she tripped over a tree limb and landed face down in the mud. It amazed me the things that dumb thumb hindered her from doing. It was a loss of a weekend.
“You have the flu,” the nurse told me after I’d waited forever in my underwear, and I made my way back out to the lone-fish lobby to find her still there, though now her ankle was neatly bound in an Ace bandage.
“You don’t look so great,” she said. “Why don’t I go home with you and fix you something for lunch.” I shrugged, thinking about what was in my kitchen cabinet, a moldy loaf of bread, a couple of cans of tomato soup, one can of tuna. If she could turn it into something, I’d beg her never to leave me.
“What about your car?” I asked. Again she pointed to her ankle.
“I can’t drive. My ankle.” For a minute she sounded just like she had years before, I can’t do that, my thumb, and I should have listened to the warning, but I was too taken by her features, a face that needed no makeup of any kind, a girl who looked like she ought to be a perfect camper.
“I rode the bus here,” she said and extended her hand for me to help her up. “It’ll be fun to catch up on things.”
Marlene and I picked up with each other like we’d never been apart. It was like we could reach each other’s mind, and so we carefully avoided talking about the time we broke up. Instead we focused on all the good times, things we had in common just by being the same age and from the same town. Like I might say, “Remember when Tim Oates cut off the tip of his finger in shop?” and she’d say, “Yeah, he was making a TV table for his mama.” Things like that. We had things in common that might seem absolutely stupid to an outsider. After three glorious months—triple our first time together—Marlene and I finally got around to talking about all the things that ruined us before. She was starting to kind of hint about how she was going to be a professional, and how maybe I would want to be a professional, too. I sang her that song, “I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy, you see by my outfit that I’m a cowboy too.”
“C’mon,” she said and wrapped her arms around my neck, “I don’t mean to give you a hard time, it’s just I’ve heard you say how you really want…”
Bad connection, bad connection. “So get you an outfit and let’s all be cowboys.” I finished the song, and she went to take her exam in a huff. I did what I always do when I’m feeling lousy, which is to sort through my albums and play all of my favorite cuts. I should have been a deejay, the lone jockey on the late-night waves, rather than employee to a squat coked-to-the-gills little rich shit. I though of Marlene writing some spiel about composure: heal thyself. I was playing Ten Years After full blast, Sly and the Family Stone on deck. And then all in one second I felt mad as hell, as mad as I’d been on that pouring-rain camping trip when Marlene told me that it was hard for her to think of me as anything except a friend. She actually said that. It all came back to me when I saw that old Black Sabbath album, which is what she had left behind that other time she moved out. Thanks a whole helluva lot. Warms my heart to see a green-faced chick draped in scarves wandering around what looks like a mausoleum. She had said all the routine things you can think of to say. “I know you don’t really care about me,” she had said. “I could be anybody.”
“Yeah, right,” I had told her. “I could cuddle up with Pat Paulsen and not care. I’m just that kind of insensitive jerk.”
“But you don’t care about me,” she had said and pounded her chest with her hand, which was wrapped in a bath towel to protect the sprained thumb that had left her an absolute invalid. “I need to be my own person, have my own life.”
I found out a day later that she already had all the info on those schools in the West; she had been looking for a good time to bail out, and it seemed camping out in a monsoon was perfect. It was hard to remember, but it seemed I said something like, “And I don’t need to have my own life?” and then the insults got thicker until before long I was told that I was apathetic and chauvinistic and my brain was stuck between my legs.
“So that’s why you’re always asking what I’m thinking,” I said in response. By that time we were soaking wet and driving back down the rest of this mountain in the piece-of-crap car I had at the time, an orange Pinto, with a Jimi Hendrix tape playing full blast (eight-track of course). “And what kind of stupid question is that anyway, but you always ask it. What are you thinking?” Yeah, any time I had a good line, any time I scored, she got to cry and say what an ass I was.
By the time she got home from her lousy test, I was as mad as if I were still there in the pouring rain, jacking that screwed-up Pinto to change a flat which she sat in the passenger side and stared straight ahead at the long stretch of road we had to travel before I could put her out. Apparently, she had been thinking it through as well, because she walked into my apartment looking just as she had when I dumped her out in front of her dorm years before. We had both played over the old stuff enough that we had independently been furious and now were simply exhausted and ready to have it all end, admit the truth. Nothing in common other than walking the planet at the same time. She was barely over her divorce, she rationalized (he had dumped her I was delighted to find). I handed her that Black Sabbath album on her way out for the second time, and we made polite promises about keeping in touch.
And now I’ve come to this: Final Vinyl Days, the end of an era. Perfectly round black vinyl discs sit inside their faded jackets on the small table in front of my checkout and await extinction. I stare across the street, the black asphalt made shiny by the drizzling rain, the traffic light blinking red and green puddles in the gray light where a mammoth parking deck is under construction. There I see the lights in the store we compete with, Record City, and I can’t help but wonder when they’ll change their name; CD Metropolis. But what can I say about names? Any Old Way You Choose It ain’t exactly true either.
“Record City doesn’t have these,” my boss had said just last week and began sticking this crap up all over the place. You know, life-size cutouts of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis, miniature replicas of the old tabletop jukeboxes that are really CD houses, piñatas, and big plastic blow-up dinosaurs. I work nights now, not as much business, and I don’t have to argue with the owner about what I play overhead. As far as I’m concerned, the new kids on the block are still Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne. My boss said it was a promotion, but I know better. Janis Joplin’s singing now, “Me and Bobby McGee.” And the Stones are on deck with “Jumping Jack Flash.” The Stones are the cockroaches of rock. They’ll be around when civilization starts over, and I cling to this bit of optimism.
I had not choice but to give in to CDs. And yeah, they sound great, that’s true. It’s just the principle of the thing, your hand forced to change. Not to even mention the dreaded task of replacing. It’s impossible. Think of what’s not available. I’m just taking my time is all. I figure if I just go from the year of my birth to the year I graduated from college, it’ll take the rest of my life. I’m going alphabetically so that I don’t miss anything and it’s a bored calculated way to approach life. I mean, what if that’s how I dealt with women. Imagine it: Betts, Erica, Gail, Marlene, Nancy, that one who always wore black—either Pat or Pam—Susie, Xanadu. Yeah, right, Xanadu. I thought it was kinda cute that she had gone and renamed herself. Then I learned that she had never even heard of Coleridge. Hers was some vivid childhood memory of Olivia Newton John. Scary. We were in a bar, and was very very late so what could I expect? “Let’s get physical,” I suggested, and she raised her pencil-thin eyebrows as if trying to remember where she’d heard that line before. “Can I call you Xan?”
“Oh, sure,” she said, “everybody does.” And when she walked ahead of me to the door, I noticed her spiderweb stockings complete with rhinestone spider. She wore a very tight black miniskirt, and I realized that my knowledge of women’s fashions had come full circle. I looked at myself in the beer-can-lined mirror to affirm that, yes, I had hit bottom. Xan I had nothing in common except cotton mouth and body.
Now Del Shannon has gone and shot himself, and no one has even asked about his music. I hear the song “Runaway” and I see myself, a typical nine-year-old slouch, stretched out on my bed with a stack of comic books and the plug of my transistor radio wedged in my ear. My mom made me a bedspread that looked like a race car. The headlights down at the end faced into the hallway where my dad was standing in his undershirt, his face coated in lather. “C’mon, honey,” my mom said. “We’ve got to get down to the store,” and then there we all were in front of this little cinder-block store at the edge of town, our last name painted in big red letters on the window. There must have been at least ten people gathered for the opening, an event my dad later said (while we waited for our foot-long hot dogs to be delivered to the window of the car) was just about the proudest moment of his life. He said it was second only to marrying my mother (she had vanilla shake on her lips as she smiled back at him) and having my younger brother and me. My brother was in a French-fry frenzy, bathing the fries in the pool of catsup he’d poured into the cardboard container, but he stopped to take in the seriousness of my dad’s announcement. I remember wondering how you know when it’s the happiest moment and being dumbfounded that anyone could build a life on refrigerators and stoves and be happy about it. It amazes me to think that I ever sat in the backseat of that old Chevrolet and looked at my parents (younger then than I am now) and thought how ridiculously outdated they were.
Now this coed comes in. Tie-dye is back, torn jeans, leather sandals. If her hair wasn’t purple and aimed at the ceiling, I could just about console my grief. “Can I help?” I ask, totally unprepared for the high squeak of a voice that comes out. She sounds like she just inhaled a balloon full of helium.
“I want The Little Mermaid,” she says. She is wearing a high school ring on her finger. “You know, the video? It’s for my little brother.”
“Yeah, right. Over there.” I point to the far wall, the latest addition to any record/CD/video store, a menagerie of colorful piñatas swinging overhead. “We got ‘em all.”
Oh yeah. We’ve got a two-foot table boasting the end of my youth, leftover albums, the bottom of the barrel. It’s all that’s left and nobody stops to look, to mourn, to pay respect. I arranged them such that Joni Mitchell is the one looking out on the dreary day. I imagine someone coming in from the street and saying, “Oh, I get it, paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” but not such luck; there is no joy in Mudville.
I try to make myself feel better. I think of the positive factors in my life. I recycle my cans and glass and paper. I ride a bike instead of driving a car. Though my old man and I don’t see eye to eye, I know that I’ll never turn to find him with a gun pointed my way like Mr. Gaye did to Marvin. I sleep peacefully, all bills paid, no TV blasting MTV like the one across the street in the cinder-block house where a couple of girls come and go. One of them is nice-looking in a kind of Marlene way, wears gym clothes all the time, no makeup, hair long and loose. Though I know sure as hell if I slept with her she’d get up and put on lipstick and control-top pantyhose and ask me why I don’t cut my hair and get a real job. It’s the luck of the draw, and my luck is lousy. “Give up the Diet Coke,” I had told Betts. “Give up the fluorescent foods.” I had told Marlene to give up the self-pity; if she wanted to be somebody, then stop talking about it and be it. I had suggested to Xan that she give up the body hair. I told the boss to be different, not to cave in to all this new crap. The bottom line? Nobody likes suggestions. So why am I supposed to be different?
“What can you tell me about the Byrds?”
My heart leaps up and I turn to face the purple-haired squeaky-voiced girl who has placed The Little Mermaid on the counter and has a twenty clutched in her fist.
“Yeah? The Byrds? Like ‘turn, turn, turn?’”
She looks around, first one way then the other. Then she looks back at me, face young and smooth and absolutely blank. “The pink ones,” she squeaks and points upward where flaming piñatas swing on an invisible cord. “How much?”
I watch her walk off now, her pilgrim shoes mud splattered as she heads through the construction area, her pink bird clutched to her chest along with The Little Mermaid. It’s times like this when I start thinking I might give my dad a call and say, “I know you’ve been saying how you want me to take over your business some day…” It’s times like this when I start thinking about Marlene, when I start forgetting how bad it all got. I do crazy things like start to imagine us meeting again, one more try at this perfect 1970 romance. Like maybe I will go to work for my dad, and in my off-hours maybe I’ll get out the old power saw and make my mom a TV table (just like you’ve been saying you wanted, Mom), and maybe I’ll circumcise the old index finger and end up in the emergency room, and I’ll look down a row of plastic chairs and there she’ll be. It’s not the perfect fantasy, but it’s one I have. It’s one that more and more starts looking good after I watch Marvin’s music revived by a bunch of fat raisins dancing around on the tube, or after I see a series of younger and younger women arriving at my door in their spider hose and stiff neon hair, their arms filled with little plastic squares, a mountain of CD covers dumped on my floor.