A middle-aged man lives on your street, in your neighborhood, down the road. He listens away his days as if they sing to him. He has a little family, some money, and when he returns home each day, the garage doors closing, he seems swallowed whole by a house of pale stones and red brick.
When he was a young boy, far from this house in your neighborhood, he would slip from bed in the middle of night, find the dark living room, and kneel by his parents’ record cabinet. He ran his fingers against the album covers’ spines and, every so often, lingered over the seams especially worn. The boy’s breath quickened as he rubbed the crease that almost folded Bob Dylan’s name into the words Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. He fiddled with the cardboard, flowering and spread, which held the double-treasure of the White Album.
The man walks his little dog at night. The dog stops suddenly to listen to other dogs. The man looks up at the moon and tries to remember the lines of a poem he read once. In the moon, his eyes see the color of eggshell, fragility, a worn out album cover from years ago. He sees the halo of vinyl wearing through the cardboard like a circadian ring, the profile of moon.
During the last few years of his mother’s life, the fifty-eighth and fifty-ninth, the man noticed parts of her falling away. The spirit in her hugs melted, her smile snuffed out. She asked the nurses to shave her long hair because it had become so matted, and he never saw it again.
The man’s mother owned several hundred records before he was born. She told him, years later, half her records were stolen before she even met his father in a bar 1,124 miles from her home. The man’s parents moved almost twenty times in the eighties—between his birth and junior high—from shacks to trailers to duplexes to farmhouses.
The man appreciates beauty. The places he comes from were never magnificent. He learned to find the beauty. It’s a notion he read about a long time ago, and it feels right. The beauty is almost always behind the door, beneath skin, inside the cover.
After his mother met his father, she quit school, and for much of his childhood they didn’t have money. The boy watched her records disappear in yard sales. He even ripped the bits of masking tape off the roll for her to use as price tags. Sometimes he and his family would listen to an album the night before it was gone for good. The extra money kept the lights on, adding to his father’s pay for plumbing new homes. Goodbye, Gram Parsons, he might have mumbled as a car drove away from the sale. Goodbye, Boss.
The man fancies himself a writer. Sometimes, when he’s alone, he writes songs and plays them on a guitar. Sometimes, he drives down to the lonely jetty of the nearest river and listens to the random play of his music collection through dashboard speakers. Once he wondered if he should be listening to the trees or the birds or the water, but decided steel strings do just fine. He watches the water glide, understands he won’t see the same ripples and branches moving past again.
When the record collection thinned, the boy stopped visiting the record cabinet at night to touch the shabby covers. His own collection grew. He stopped listening on vinyl, and embraced the plastic sterility of tapes, discs, and mp3s. The old music still filled pits in him like sawdust and wood glue do a nail hole. The songs didn’t say anything new over the years, but they provided home when he missed it.
When the man’s mother told him she was dying, she said, It will be okay.
He sang to her. Minutes, months, two years. When he visited, the man sang or played his guitar for her. These moments gave his father some rest. His mother wanted to hear the standards, from her youth. Even on the worst days, when she couldn’t sit up and it hurt her to breathe, he heard her harmonize with him if he quieted enough.
Between visits the man thought about how he would remember her. He loved her too much to take her picture. She didn’t want to be remembered this way. He’d spent his life learning her face by heart. He didn’t want her to pass by him like water in a river. When he saw her, when they connected, it was through music.
The man tried to keep her on her toes.
“Who’s this, Mom?” he said, as he grabbed his father’s guitar and adlibbed a bad rendition of a barely known Lovin’ Spoonful song.
“John Sebastian,” she said, one eye open—the corner of her mouth traveling slowly into a smile. Like a church elder knows her hymns, she knew every word to every song he played. He strummed her to sleep. He sang her through her sleep.
The man’s mother died on a Thursday, twenty-one days before Christmas.
His father asked, a month or so later, if the man wanted anything that had been hers. Lurching from one day to the next, his father was drowning beneath their life’s worth of things.
The man knew what he wanted. Needed. The leftover bones of that pile he knew so well. They fit into one taped-up cardboard box. It smelled like petrichor, and its glorious heft strained the muscles in the man’s arms. The great vinyl collection’s remains were his.
The man understands what he’s about to do is resurrection. He runs lukewarm water from the tap in his basement. He squeezes Dawn dish soap into a soft sponge and, one by one, cleans every single groove, each inch of the records. He wipes them down with a soft cloth and lets them dry in the open air. He puts them back into their box.
His wife buys him a new turntable for Christmas. Dylan’s Desire tops the stack. The man has felt and studied that album cover—Dylan’s scarf, fur collar, and hat so many times. He’s heard Dylan’s voice from “Joey” so clearly in his mind: What made them want to come and blow you away? Remembers how the ABAB rhyme scheme of “Sara” sounds like poetry on a page. He thumbs through the albums, notes their blemishes.
Sgt. Pepper is there. Darkness on the Edge of Town, After the Gold Rush, Armed Forces, Grievous Angel—among others. The man flips through them again and again. Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, New Riders of the Purple Sage, John Lee Hooker and Canned Heat, Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Eagles, Dillard & Clark: these albums are used and abused—physically decayed.
The man has heard them so many times. Now each side, each pop and skip, lives again inside his house of brick and stone. But these records aren’t enough. He thinks about the ones missing. He wonders if they are sitting on shelves in small country houses, in musty attics, or sunken like treasure in landfills around the world.
He switches on the computer. He searches for replacements. He closes his eyes and remembers her playing Revolver and Rubber Soul. He types some things on a keyboard and buys them. The man could buy the recently remastered versions new, but instead finds used copies from the sixties. Even in “fair” shape, they cost about the same as the new pressings. These, too, will be well traveled, damaged.
The man now owns her copy of Grievous Angel, but not GP. He now has her After the Gold Rush, but Harvest is long gone. Desire lies in his hands, but not Blonde on Blonde. Day after day, the mail carrier delivers used albums to his stony doorstep. The man pulls them from their packaging and inspects the imperfections their previous owners listed in the online characterizations. Sometimes he finds himself disappointed in how much better the records look than their descriptions let on. He slips them into the collection like foster children.
The empty space continues to fill, the collection to swell. Still, so much is missing. One morning, as he leafs through the albums, he stops to wonder why she never owned Blood on the Tracks. She missed that one. Maybe she was out of her Dylan phase. She married his father the year it was released, and though it’s a breakup album, she would have loved it. Then he realizes: in their last days together, mother, son, and guitar, he neglected to play “If You See Her, Say Hello.” It destroys him she might never even have heard that song.
A few weeks ahead of her death, the man managed to get her into his car and drive all the old roads they knew. Days before, he had asked her if she felt like getting out of the house. Her bones hurt, aching from her chair, sore from her bed. His father helped the man walk her to the car, and held its silver door open as she dropped into the seat. The man reached across her, then pulled at the seatbelt and latched it.
The man played “Try Again” and “Give Me Another Chance.” She’d never heard them. He held her hand as he drove. Her hand felt smaller and drier. It had been a month since the grader had come through, so potholes were especially bad on the gravel roads. The man did his best to avoid the unfilled holes. Though she didn’t talk much on that last ride, she mentioned how much she liked those songs.
So, months after she was gone, the man buys Big Star for her, #1 Record. No doubt, if she’d paid closer attention in 1972, she would have bought it for herself. When it arrives, he is amazed at how it slides right into place—alphabetically—among her albums. It occurs to him she never had any Kinks records in her collection, so he fixes that inattention. While he’s at it, he gets Neil Young’s Zuma and Tonight’s the Night. He buys every missing Stones record, even Their Satanic Majesties Request, and then keeps going.
He does not hide the purchases from his wife. He can’t. The collection of old albums is expensive. She has watched him spend hours at a time scouring and scrolling through websites for these things he feels he needs. The man doesn’t know how to talk to her about what is happening. He watches the river and wonders about his mind.
One of his friends text-messages him. Her father died of cancer a few years before the man lost his mother. He cuts the engine, turns the music off. He rolls the window down for fresh air. He listens to the trees. The birds and the water. He looks at the phone’s screen.
“How are you?” it reads.
“I think I’m doing something destructive.”
The man feels the vibration of his phone when she calls the following day. She says she’s worried he might be drinking too much, using drugs—having an affair. He explains that, in fact, his problem involves spending a lot of money on a growing stack of vintage albums. There is a long pause. She says when her father died, she spent a lot of money on things—clothes, ski boots, jewelry. The man and the woman cannot explain.
The man sits on his back porch and listens to side one of Nebraska. The harmonica slowly clears out his mind. The man looks out at his perfectly manicured lawn. He watches the construction crew build another beautiful house up the way. “Maybe everything that dies someday comes back,” Bruce tells him. She’s not coming back, he tells Bruce aloud. He blinks into the sunlight.
She would have liked this album, the man thinks. He reaches for his phone. He puts it down.
He drives to Dallas to read from his new book of poems. The long drive down, through ice and snow that turns to hammering rain, gives him more time to meditate. He cannot get his mind right, so he turns to Exile on Main Street. The man finds it difficult to admit how far the obsession has gone, or that he is the man at its mercy. He imagines the albums closed up in their cabinet back home, awaiting turntable resurrection. There are more on the way, traveling through the postal system. The collection’s burgeoning presence is proof a spirit never ends. Isn’t it? Mick Jagger sings, “The sunshine bores the daylights out of me / chasing shadows moonlight mystery,” and the man thinks about how a moon can look like the worn cover of a white album.