That night, after dinner on one of those days when the cold and snow had kept us inside for what seemed too long a time, we found ourselves sitting around the dining room table listening to some old songs. (We were still living in the Shenandoah Valley, then, in our hundred year old house. Maggie, our daughter was only ten; our son Julien, three—Heather and I were a little younger, too, of course.) Normally, my obsessive compulsive mind requires that we clear the table, put the food away, and wash the dishes before we do these things, but there we were with the rice and roast pork, the squash, the pitcher of water, and our plates and silverware all still in front of us, and in the middle of this, the laptop set to YouTube on which we took turns picking songs to play.
Heather had remembered the old Bauhaus song, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” which Maggie found too spooky (she was beginning to move away from her fascination with ghosts and such and on to other things) But she still hadn’t lost her affection for more dramatic songs, and when it was her turn she chose the Pet Shop Boys—with special guest Dusty Springfield—singing “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” a song I first played for her several years earlier and which Julien had grown to like as well. When it was my turn, I chose the Raincoats’ “No Side to Fall In”—a quick, beautiful song from 1979 that’s part cacophony and part harmony and goes,
I… I hear the music outside
And I am the music inside
Inside… inside… inside
No side to fall in
No fall to live until
My mind… my mind…
Is still… is still…
My mind, my life
I don’t mind… today
Today… today… today…
We all listened closely, but Julien was particularly entranced, and as soon as it was over he said, “More Side! More Side!” So, given that it was Julien’s turn to pick a song, we played it again. I imagine that first time I put the Raincoats first album (on which this is the first song) onto the turntable, that I may have done the same thing and immediately played this song again—though with a turntable what I had to do was pick up the tone arm then lower back it down at the outer edge of the LP. Now all we need to do is press replay or rewind, though on occasion, when I’m not in a rush, I’ll pull out the old LP and lay it down on the turntable to get that full recorded sound you can only get from the relatively primitive technology of a needle winding its way through the groove on a vinyl record.
When it was my turn again, I picked “Geno” from Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ wonderful first LP, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels. Whenever I heard something from this record, I couldn’t help seeing in my mind the image that adorns the album’s cover—a photograph of a young Irish Catholic boy carrying his suitcase after being forced to leave his home during the British army’s Operation Demetrius in Northern Ireland. What Maggie thought of when she heard this song was a much happier thing, because this time when I played the song she explained how she remembered the first time I played it for her.
“It was before school one morning,” she said. “You were sitting with Julien at the dining room table. I was sitting on the other side of the table, eating some leftover barbeque chicken tenders, when you put this song on!”
As always, I was amazed by the details Maggie remembered. And though I, too, retain details like this, I don’t think I do it as to the degree she does. Over the years, I know there are so many things I’ve lost—all that science I once knew, the mathematics I once understood, as well all the images and particulars, the names and faces that are now gone.
Still, I remember more than a lot of people. Talking to friends, I’ll sometimes mention people we both knew, and they’ll be completely gone from their memory. I’ll say how we did this or that with them, but they don’t even register as ghosts—which makes these seem like instances of what I sometimes call tiny deaths. That chipping away at our existence, and a continual diminishing of our presence in the world that continues until the big one comes along.
And though I may speak from time to time about the possible existence of the soul or something like it, I’m not at all confident about these things and I’m not about to blindly partake of some religious vision of an afterlife. But neither am I about to completely shut the door as to the possibilities of such things. All of which is to say that this is part of why I am obsessed with telling these stories and putting down as many of the details as I can manage to drag up from the depths of my memory. That I seem to be even more obsessed with memory and the defiance of death right now is because February was once a month I associated only with the ending of things. That changed when, on Valentine’s Day in 1996, Heather and I became a couple. That’s why now, during the month of February, I try to think, as much as I can, about today.
The photograph above was taken in the late afternoon on Valentine’s day, 2014. We were driving down Route 522 north of Front Royal on a stretch of highway which, depending on where you are, is called either Winchester Road, Front Royal Pike, or Stonewall Jackson Highway. Suddenly, on that drive, Maggie said, “Look at those clouds—they sort of look like UFOs!”
“Where? WHERE?” I asked.
“There,” Maggie answered. Of course, I didn’t know where “there” was, so I just kept looking until I spotted them. Then, to satisfy my obsessions, I had to find a place to stop. Heather and Julien, by now, have learned to make accommodations for them, while Maggie seems to be partaking and, now, even surpassing me in accumulating one obsession after another.
I stepped out of the car, looked over to the west, then took a photograph. And then another and another. Until, finally, I felt that I’d taken enough. That there were plenty of images in my camera and in my mind. Then I got into the car and—with my family beside me—we headed back home.
Photograph by Jose Padua