by Melissa Stephenson
From Fall 2016
1. The Crime
I did it on a whim one Sunday morning while my brother, Matthew, was away at a friend’s house. I’d carefully packed every item in my candy-pink L.A. Gear duffel, using the typed list my teacher sent home. Raincoat, check. Spare shoes, check. Two changes of clothing, check. And so on. I wore the metallic gold Converse High Tops I’d special ordered from the ad in the back of Matthew’s Thrasher magazine after fishing it out of the trash, an act that enraged him.
“If I throw away a magazine,” he’d said, “it’s because I want it IN THE TRASH.”
But the mysterious source of my brother’s hatred for me was out of mind that day. The pinnacle event of elementary school had arrived (an event teachers had dangled like a carrot in front of us since kindergarten): our sixth grade graduation trip to Chicago, four hours north of our small town in Indiana. We’d stay two nights in a bonafide Holiday Inn, visit the Shedd Aquarium and Natural History Museum, eat lunch at The Hard Rock Café, and share pool time in rotations scheduled by class and gender.
While my mom warmed up the car that morning, I ran downstairs to retrieve my favorite pair of slouch socks from the dryer. I noticed then Matthew’s bedroom door cracked open, torn police tape he’d pilfered from god-knows-where dangling from the frame. I swear the room whispered to me, from the bowels of its rock and roll darkness.
Come in. Come in. Come ON.
It was the only room in our house almost always locked, a place I was never, ever allowed. I pushed the door open and slipped inside. My eyes took a moment to adjust to the darkness. The room had only one window, high up by the foundation, barely one foot by three, with a film of dirt tinting the glass from the outside. I stood on piles of dirty socks and notepaper scraps of my brother’s drawings and poems. Posters covered the wood paneling: Danzig, The Misfits, Joan Jett, Butthole Surfers, and a huge Wendy O Williams. Her outfit haunted me for days—a dog collar contraption and electrical tape over her nipples. I was twelve, and at seventy-two pounds, curvy as a lamppost. Not one sign of the thing our health teacher called womanhood had nicked my horizon.
Mom honked, idle in the alley. Adrenaline stood my arm hairs on end. I grabbed a single cassette tape from the coffin-sized shipping crate Matthew used as a table, shoved it in my backpack, and ran.
An hour later I inspected my loot while slumped in a rear seat of the flat-faced Bluebird bus with my best friend, Amy Purtlebaugh. I turned the tape over and read the words in my brother’s stylish printing—an Iron Maiden kind of font: Beastie Boys on the “A” side, AC/DC on the “B” side. It was music copied onto a blank tape. I took out my zippered cassette holder with space for ten cassettes, replacing Cats with my new find.
Our teacher, Mrs. Dolk, sat across the aisle from me. I’d spent the past two years riding the bus out to the country school to be part of her gifted and talented class. I loved her, though the only difference I could see between our class and the “regular” classes is that we got away with shit, suffered fewer rules, and performed well on standardized tests (more or less).
Mrs. Dolk spied the Cats tape I’d evicted from my collection before I could bury it in the nethers of my backpack.
“Oh, I love Cats,” Mrs. Dolk said, lifting from beside me the soundtrack with two yellow eyes on the cover. I closed my cassette holder, aware my brother’s tape might cause alarm, or confiscation.
“My favorite song is on this tape,” Mrs. Dolk said. I had spent two years pining for her attention and approval, but I suddenly wanted her to stop talking to me.
Mrs. Dolk stood up for a moment and waved her arms to get the attention of the entire Taylorsville Elementary sixth grade, saying, “Everyone—listen to this song! Missy Stephenson brought the tape for us.”
Blood flooded every capillary in my face, and if I’d had hackles they would have sprung up. I’d loved Cats when I was eight and my mother took me all the way to Indianapolis to see the musical. I’d performed every song in my bedroom, serenading my reflection while wearing a pair of white gloves from my choir ensemble. But everything I’d loved about Cats I now loathed.
Mrs. Dolk put the tape into her pink boom box deck, rewinding and fast-forwarding until she found the right spot.
Memory, all alone in the moonlight . . .
She performed the song for the lot of us, kneeling on the seat and singing along with a lighthearted pageantry I found offensive. The character behind the song is Grizabella, The Glamour Cat, a she-creature in her death days so steeped in longing and despair that the others scatter when she appears. It is not a victory tune, not an anthem. It’s the swan song of a lonely misfit, something Mrs. Dolk knew nothing about. I bet she didn’t even know the play was based on a book of poems by T.S. Eliot (Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats)—a book I’d readtwice, highlighting the sections that appeared as lyrics.
Mrs. Dolk kept on singing . . . if you find there the meaning of what happiness is . . . I wanted then and there to claw back from her paws this thing that was mine, love or hate, the way Matthew had defended his right to trash his own Thrasher.
The further down I sank, the louder my best friend Amy laughed. The song had never seemed long when Betty Buckley (the beloved mother from Eight is Enough) sang it. Mrs. Dolk’s over-the-top performance made the song feel like it was playing in a kind of slow motion common in my nightmares.
Afterwards, I hid Cats for good and holed up with Matthew’s tape. The music, if you could call it that, fascinated me. At one point during the Beastie Boys, I motioned for Amy to lean in close and widened my headphones as far as they would go. We sat cheek to check, one headphone on each of our ears, listening to sounds we’d never heard before. Sounds that felt important, dangerous, and cool.
We did it like this, we did it like that, we did it with a wiffle ball bat soooo . . .
That music felt foreign as a Peugot or a Citroen. It wasn’t me at all, and I loved it for that.
By the time we reached Chicago, I’d repressed the “Memory” episode, but my peers did their part to keep it alive. Throughout the three-day trip boys would sidle up to me and croon out, Memory! Blah blah blah blah blah moonlight!
The song scored each moment, whether I was adding catsup to my museum hot dog, coming eye-to-eye with a piranha at the aquarium, or walking to the swimming pool with a towel around my body to hide the saggy spots in my cross-back suit meant to accommodate hips and breasts.
Touch me! Blah blah blah blah blah blah memory!
I soothed myself with my stolen tape, my ears full of words half understood—a dark and elicit hope.
I’m on the highway to hell . . .
Back home, I made a point to act normal and aloof, especially around my brother, though my heart rate escalated each time he entered the room. So far, the signs were good. He ignored me like normal. I seized my first chance to sneak the cassette back into his lair, on a day his wrestling practice ran long and I found his door unlocked. I was in and out in seconds. I’d miss the tape, but I could save up and buy the real versions on my own—complete with cover art and lyrics.
A few days later, I was reading in bed when Matthew slid a folded piece of paper under my door. I froze—was he reaching out? Were we going to be friends after all? Had he noticed I’d started wearing black, sighing at random, and rolling my eyes at our mother, JUST LIKE HIM?
What I discovered on that single piece of paper burned deep into my brain as the scent of our mother’s hand lotion, or the sting of my first spanking. It is, to this day, the image I see when I think myself twelve again. My brother the artist had drawn my portrait in fine, black, felt-tipped ink, making me the subject of his own comic. He labeled each part of my wardrobe and body with little callout bubbles. My legs he peppered with black stubble. An arrow aimed at my knees connected to a bubble with the words fattest part of its legs. Another arrow pierced my chest with the words its green apples grow in backwards. My feet in white Keds looked large as water skis. It was true—my feet grew to their full adult size long before my weight and height caught up to them. He drew my head small, my headphones large, and accurately labeled my haircut and perm The Dirty Dancing. My Walkman rode too high on the waist of my pleated Bermuda shorts. My right hand held the evidence—an expert rendering of the cassette I’d stolen, down to the Iron Maiden lettering on the spine.
My brother hated me, through and through. It was an assertion not even my parents denied. The picture captured the reality of me I tried to hide every day. He was simply being honest, I decided, and I agreed with him. I hated me, too.
2. The Standoff
We lived after that like only children, perfunctory and practical when forced by circumstance to interact, voices flat, eyes disconnected.
Pass me the milk please, or The bathroom is all yours now, or Thanks for the present. (Our mother insisted we procure a Christmas gift for each member of the family, pets included.)
In ninth grade, I left on scholarship for a fine arts boarding school in the woods of Northern Michigan. There, among birches, lakes, pines, and an international student body, I began to find my own music. (If, in music acquisition, find is to steal as leave is to abandon.)
My freshman year roommate, Tami Jean Kidd, was a concert flautist from Natick, Massachusetts and her three favorite CDs, in this order, were the Lés Miserable soundtrack, Mahler’s Second Symphony, and Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. (I still can’t hear the last of these without experiencing a sonic form of claustrophobia.) By the end of our first year, somehow, we’d fallen in deep with the first three CDs I’d ever bought myself: Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell, Ten Thousand Maniac’s In My Tribe, and Guns-n-Roses Appetite for Destruction.
She’s got a smile it seems to me reminds me of childhood memories . . .
The next Christmas, I skimmed my brother’s gift list in search of some thing I could buy him and then picked up at our hometown’s only independent record store Nirvana’s Bleach. Curious about what sounds the black album might make, I bought a copy for me, too, on the sly.
I need an easy friend, I do with an ear to lend . . .
The basement of our boarding school dorms housed practice spaces for musicians. I’d wake up to Tuba scales or piano concertos vibrating up, through the floor, and I’d fall asleep to my neighbor’s Prince marathon.
Starfish and coffee, maple syrup and jam, butterscotch clouds, a tangerine, and a side order of ham…
My neighbor on the other side listened to Bob Dylan, De La Soul, and Public Enemy (a combination I attributed to her father being a French restaurateur living in Charleston, SC).
I got my dark sunglasses, I got for good luck my black tooth…
My second-year roommate, a big-banged Italian theater major from Florida, loved above all else Jane’s Addiction (and Perry Ferrell specifically). We went to sleep each night to the nearly full-scale poster image of Perry reclined on white sheets, shirtless, his arms open, Christ-like or come-hither, I was never sure.
Me and my girlfriend, we don’t wear no clothes you know . . .
There were more—each name paired with a soundtrack in my memory: Katherine from Illinois and her Grateful Dead, Laura from Boston and Deee-Lite, Rachel from across the lake with Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt. I took notes from all of them, writing down songs, albums, and lyrics. The more I collected, the more I came alive. Maybe my identity was something I could create using parts of everyone else—play Doctor Frankenstein to my own monster.
Around the dorms, mix tapes became a thing. We made them sometimes for boys we liked, but mostly we made them for each other. When I’d ask Celeste the name of that Dylan song I’d almost memorized, she’d yell back, “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream—I’ll put it on a mix for you.”
She did. So I made her a mix, too. And so on and so on.
The Christmas of my junior year, I bought Matthew another album off his gift list: Nirvana’s Nevermind. It was on my list, too. I’d seen Kurt Cobain in an MTV video wearing a dingy striped shirt that reminded me of Freddy Krueger from Nightmare on Elm Street and I knew I had to be alone with that album.
I was seventeen by then. My brother and I still barely spoke, but time had taken the hostility out of our distance. It was simply habit now. I scratched the album off my Christmas list, opened up Nevermind, and copied it onto a cassette for myself. Then I got out all my CDs and a blank tape, and I made my brother a mix. I wrote each song title in my best script and used a phrase from the first track as the title, which I wrote graffiti-style on the spine: From the North Country.
I wrapped it carefully along with a note explaining why I’d opened his new CD, and that I’d made a little music compilation to make it up to him. I tied the parcel together with ribbon, set it under our mother’s aggressively-lit tree, and waited.
On Christmas morning, Matthew opened the gift, complimenting my newspaper wrapping job. I watched him inspect the CD, read my note, and turn the cassette over in his hand. I wanted to snatch it back before he could reject it. Or, even worse, dismiss it. But a few beats later, he looked up at me for the first time in years (it couldn’t have been, but it felt like it).
“A mix tape,” he said. “Thanks.”
He smiled a real smile and I felt half-satisfied. But a part of me still waited. I wanted to hear that he liked even a single song. I wanted to hear that he’d made time to sit and listen, the way I had with him on my brain as I’d chosen each track.
Back in the North woods, I dragged my psyche through the gray muck of a Michigan February and discovered one afternoon a padded envelope in my mail cubby. There was my name and address, in my brother’s best heavy metal handwriting. No note, just a tape he’d made for me, built to speak for itself.
I don’t recall the title of that mix. I only recall the first song was a Dylan song (same as the tape I’d given him). And that’s how The Bob Dylan Rule began. For the rest of his life, we traded tapes like that, each one kicking off with Bob.
It all started with our parents. Though we didn’t know terms like bi-polar, mood disorder, or self-medicating then, we knew Mom was in a funk when she played on repeat the quarter of the Beatles 8-track with Yesterday, and our endorphins surged on days she sang along to Carole King’s Tapestry, or anything Beach Boys.
I feel the earth move under my feet. I feel the sky tumbling down . . .
When Dad brought home a case of Coors Light and holed up with Nighthawks at the Diner, we spoke softly or not at all, holding vigil over something unseen and unnamed. Other times he was Born in the USA and I knew it was ok to crawl in his lap, dance along, or make him laugh with my best Boss lip sync.
Born down in a dead man’s town, the first kick I took was when I hit the ground…
We were a family of big feelings and few words. Music became our emotional barometer. I still have a hard time saying how I feel instead of showing it with crossed arms and averted eyes. My own son comes up and hugs me if I play any version of Wonderwall twice in a row.
I don’t believe that anybody feels the way I do about you now…
Though we never again lived in the same state, Matthew and I spoke to each other through mix tapes—our native language. I moved west for college, to Missoula, Montana, and Matthew followed friends—all of them music hounds—to Athens, Georgia .
Matthew took a job at the front desk of Pain and Wonder, a tattoo shop started by two of his friends from Indiana, Mitchell and Watson, also known as “The Twins of Pain,” their tattoos the only non-identical part of their physicality. Matthew made appointments, greeted folks, and practiced tattooing on citrus fruit or his own legs.
Pain and Wonder sat next door to the iconic 40 Watt Club, where two of Matthew’s other friends from Indiana found work. Between the tattoo parlor and the 40 (as he called it), Matthew had little reason to go anywhere other than the house he shared with friends, and that single block in downtown Athens. At the 40, he saw Nirvana, Vic Chestnut, The V-Roys, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Melvins, and The Drive-By Truckers. He was a muse of sorts, befriending musicians he loved and showing up to every one of their shows.
How lucky, I thought, to be one of those he chose to admire.
Everything he loved he put on mix tapes for me. I’d reciprocate with my own, starting with Bob, next sharing some of “my” music (Mary’s Danish, PJ Harvey, Liz Phair) and anchoring it with a song or two dating back to the eight tracks and vinyl we grew up with. Maybe a Gram Parsons. Maybe Elton John. Often David Bowie. I’d also include another track off an album he’d introduced me to, so he knew I was listening. As if to say, You played me that, so how about this?
I’d send off my latest tape, forget about it, and a few weeks or a few months or (at times) a year later, he’d send one back. I’d open up the padded mailer, read the song list, and wait until night when I could ditch all plans, stay home with a sixer and a fresh pack of smokes, and sit in front of the stereo to devour the songs. Every note riveted me. I knew I’d find something old, something new, all the things borrowed. When I listened, I believed I knew how he felt (and I felt it, too).
A couple years into Montana I met Josh—a dark-eyed, guitar-playing, lyrics-writing frontman for a local band who by day studied Greek and Latin at my same college. We stared at each other from afar. We met. We had beers. We started hanging out. But then?
“I’m not a big Dylan fan,” Josh said.
I could have walked. Instead, I made him an all Dylan mix, choosing songs ranging in style from stripped down Bootleg Sessions to post-Newport, fully plugged in.
I gave him the tape. He fell in love with Dylan, and (I think) with me. He moved in.
Meanwhile, Matthew met Corey Parks, the bass player in Nashville Pussy, an Athens-based Southern Metal band. (I could barely bring myself to say the word pussy at that age, so I made Josh say the band name for me.) She stood well over six feet tall with no shoes on and was best known for breathing fire during the band’s live performances. She moved in a sequence of muscle twitches, and faked eye contact by looking at a spot just north of the eyes—traits of drug use, though I didn’t know it then.
My brother had raised himself on metal, punk, skateboarding, and WWF Wrestling. Corey was the rock goddess of his dreams. She brought him on tour with the band, working crowd control, and they eloped in Vegas in late ’98, the year I graduated from college. Matthew was on tour then, so he couldn’t come to my graduation, but he sent a gift in the mail.
The title of the “A” side: Congrats, Missy!
Title of the “B” side: I hear Shoney’s is hiring
I laughed. I listened. One song rolled into the next: Bob, Lucinda Williams, Johnny Cash, The V-Roys, none of them Nashville Pussy. I listened deeply, to all the layers. The last song stuck with me—Neil Young.
Shelter me from the powder and the finger.
In fall of ’99, I married Josh. Though our lives were parallel in many ways—we’d both left home, both married musicians—I worried Matthew’s new lifestyle would be a match in his gas can. But how in trouble could he be? I wondered. After all, we were still “talking.”
By the end of 2000, Matthew had gone to the Grammys, been mentioned by name in Spin Magazine, toured the U.S. and Europe, and landed back in Athens alone. His marriage survived only on paper. The stories about the split varied.
A.) She dumped him and he moved back to Athens.
B.) He dumped her and moved back to Athens.
C.) He got sick of the junk and wanted to get sober and she didn’t, which led to either A or B.
D.) They agreed to part ways temporarily but then she slept with one of his childhood idols—Lemmy, from Motorhead—and B happened.
E.) The junk made him paranoid so he fixated on the possibility of D, which made A happen.
F.) All of the above.
By August sixth of 2000, Matthew had made his last mix tape, and he shot himself in the head, home alone on a Georgia Sunday.
He lived in a trailer at the local landfill where he’d taken a job supervising the inmates from the nearby prison who had earned work detail with good behavior. Running the chain gang, you could say, a job he fell into only because his friend worked there too, a former member of a band Matthew admired—The Lee Harvey Oswald Project.
Still a newlywed myself, I’d just moved to Texas to attend graduate school when I got the news. The next morning, I flew to Georgia where my parents and I took care of Matthew’s remains and belongings. Our mother kept saying that it couldn’t be suicide if there wasn’t any note. We found my brother’s journal, a loaded Glock, a loaded shotgun, a tray of Jello shots in the fridge, a dozen cans of pork and beans, a handwritten letter from Lemmy, every word of my writing I’d ever shared with Matthew, and a record collection a thousand spines wide. But we found no note.
After a few days, we’d figured out what to do with everything but my brother’s overweight cattle dog and his cherry red Ford F-150. The only way for me to get the dog back to Texas was to drive the truck, so I did.
The truck had a tape deck and, below it, an after-market console full of cassettes. Many were mixes I’d sent. It comforted me to see them (as much as you can comfort a necrotic heart).
Some were pirated copies of full albums. But one—I knew it was something as soon as I saw the title etched on its spine in that heavy metal script of his.
It Ain’t Fun No More.
I slipped the tape in the deck and listened. Though I kept the Ford on the road, my brother’s last mix wrecked me. Every song the kind you play on repeat when you need company for your hurt.
Tattoos and memories and dead skin on trial. For what it’s worth it was worth the whole while…
I let it play all the way across Alabama, Lousiana, and East Texas, the truck with no air conditioning and the triple digit heat burning the lyrics into my brain.
Back in Texas, I inspected the tape case, hoping to see my name on it, but it was no more for me than the dog or the truck. I’d thieved all three, and there would be no retaliation, no reckoning, no mean illustration of me slipped under the door.
In the following weeks, I stayed up nights drinking and smoking and making draft after draft of a single mix tape. Stacks of CDs and cassettes surrounded the stereo, carefully arranged into Definitely, Maybe, Should-be, Could-be, and so on and so on. A pad of paper and a pen lived next to the whole mess, page after page of annotated playlists, trimmed, re-ordered, not quite right. (So on and so on.)
I had no words for what had happened, or how I felt, though people asked. How do you feel? Imagine asking Rocky Balboa in those final rounds against Apollo Creed. How do you feel? And it’s the dumbest question he’s ever heard. How do you think I feel? BAD. But he’s not saying, Coach, the bones of my eye socket are grinding together and I’m going to puke. And all he says is, I’m ok, which means, I am not going to die at this very moment, and finally Adrian. First word he finds. Adrian. Adrian.
So I told my husband and parents, I’m ok and I holed up with music, searching for songs to say what I could not. (Matthew. Matthew.)
I searched longest and hardest for the opener, the Bob. We’d used so many of the songs already, which brings me to the second (also unspoken) part of The Bob Dylan Rule: no repeats. When I exhausted my own Bob albums, I dug into the ones I’d taken from Matthew’s trailer. (It amazed me how vast our collections were, and how little they overlapped.) Until I laid eyes on the cover, I’d forgotten Dylan wrote the soundtrack for the garish Peckinpah western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but my opener I spied on the track list right away.
Mama put these guns in the ground. I can’t shoot them anymore . . .
After that, the rest of the songs came to me in a lyric flood, and I stayed up to record them when I should have been sleeping. Around the two o-clock hour, Josh woke to use the bathroom and paused when he saw me. He asked, matter-of-factly, “Who are you making that tape for?”
I knew the answer immediately but could not say the words. It reared up in my throat—an animal cornered. I was twenty-five, all alone with my memory, running on empty, still feeling blue, but I felt twelve again and busted, my delusion so obvious I couldn’t name it:
I am making a tape for a dead man.
I am making a tape for no one.
Wait—my shame deepens and breaks—I am making a tape for me.