The Graveyard of Stories and Songs
About the Writer
Ray Shea's writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Hobart, Phoebe, and elsewhere. A native of Boston and New Orleans, he lives in Austin.
The graveyard is full of music and movies, a field of dead grass scattered with headstones made from vinyl sleeves and DVD cases, but this is the first short story you’ve put in the ground. The first book to mark a tomb.
Yasunari Kawabata, The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket. The night you first read it, you called up Sara to read it to her over the phone. It's tragic and beautiful, the story of a young boy and girl who share a brief magical connection, who are oblivious to how closely they are linked, and who never meet again:
And finally, to your clouded, wounded heart, even a true bell cricket will seem like a grasshopper. Should that day come, when it seems to you that the world is only full of grasshoppers, I will think it a pity that you have no way to remember tonight's play of light, when your name was written in green by your beautiful lantern on a girl's breast.
You shared this with Sara after you’d betrayed her heart the first time and were trying so hard to be upright for her. And she agreed it was gorgeous and sad.
Those were hopeful days. Your dying father seemed like he was no longer dying quite so fast. He wheeled himself around his nursing home and talked about getting his legs fixed so he could get his own place again. Your kids were off becoming fine adults. You and Sara were planning a future together, a life together.
She trusted you again. It's what you believed. It's what you wanted to believe, like you wanted to believe your dad could someday get out of his wheelchair, not knowing that the problem with his legs was cancer, a cancer that had silently crawled out of his prostate and built cities in his femurs and new villages up and down his spine.
You slip back into your house. You need to move a few things to the garage apartment where you now live because you and Sara can’t stand the sight of each other, because you threw something, something heavy, not at her but in her presence, and it was scary and it was best if you took a break and lived apart for a few weeks.
You notice the Kawabata on the couch, open and face down. And you think, "Kawabata? That's a good sign. She's thinking about us. About the sadness and the beauty of us."
A few days later she ends it for good, after ten years ends it with an email, an email for fuck’s sake, saying she’s done and she’s moving back to the Midwest. And that’s when it occurs to you that the spot on the couch where the book lay was the same spot where she talked on the phone for hours every day with a new guy, someone she met on Tinder, and you realize that she read to him the horribly beautiful, sad, romantic story that you read to her years ago.
It kills the story dead. Like pouring kerosene into a beehive. Cement into a tree wound. Henbane into the ear of King Hamlet.
And a dead story, a story which brings only pain, must be buried in the Graveyard of Stories and Songs.
You don't know how old the cemetery is or when you first became aware of it, but you know the first music to be interred there, and you know why.
The summer between high school and college you had already made a sharp left into punk rock, but the album that never left your turntable, that autorepeated through your headphones late into the night, was Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here.
That was the summer you first went mad as an adult, because that was the summer you and your stepfather finally went at each other. With closed fists, with heavy objects. He flung the floor at your face, you swung a Radio Raheem-size boom box at his head.
You wanted him dead. You took the force of every beating he’d ever given your mom, every thrashing he gave your dog, every time you were awakened by yelps of pain, the entire combined explosive tonnage of three years of violence, and put it into one Hail Mary swing at his skull with an 8-D-cell motherfucker of a deadly weapon.
You missed. Caught him in the arm.
For the trouble you got twelve stitches in your lip and reconstructive dental work. You went to prom with a fat lip and a brace to hold your bottom teeth in place.
And he went to jail. With a radio-shaped bruise on his dislocated shoulder.
You didn't know then about the auditory evocation of trauma that burns into your psyche, that hides down in your nervous system like a virus. You didn’t know a song could bring back a painful moment the same way a scent, like a perfume or laundry detergent, could bring back the memory of a lost love.
You didn't know the music was a lockbox, that whenever you got the song out you opened the box again and the pain, the trauma, reappeared.
It took a few years to learn that Wish You Were Here, especially the title song, must be kept locked away. Whenever you heard it, you turned off the radio. Whenever it came on at a party, you left the room.
You listen to it now, intentionally, for the first time in three decades. Just to see what happens. To write about what it feels like.
Your heart races. You want to cry, you want to hide, you want to curl up in a ball in a dark closet.
You are perfectly safe. You are in your favorite coffee shop in Austin. It's almost empty. Your favorite barista is right there. You can see her.
Yet you are terrified. You don't know what is going to hurt you but you know it's coming, you're panicking, you’re hyperventilating, you need to run you need to run you need to run you need to break something...
And then it's over. Five and a half minutes of glorious, sad, terror-inducing music.
You are still shaking.
When you were twenty, you spent the summer couch-surfing after your girlfriend Julie dumped you, dumped you hard on your birthday by letting you catch her fucking your exact opposite, and then gave you the whole "I love you but I'm not in love with you" bit.
That was back when MTV still played music videos non-stop. Mostly pop shit: Scandal, Ratt, Billy Squier. And Cyndi Lauper’s sad ballad, Time after Time. The whole summer, with a piece of your chest missing and enough blue-label Taaka vodka to choke a Russian horse, there was nothing to do but stare at the TV with your broke-ass punk friends and wait to see if they’d play the Killing Joke video that was in the rotation once every 24 hours.
You didn't want to look away, in case you missed it. You always missed it. But you got your fill of Cyndi Lauper at least once an hour.
You and Julie used to fuck to New Order and Joy Division, and that was where you wanted to put your pain, so it'd make sense your suicide attempt should be to Joy Division but no, it was that damn Cyndi Lauper song drifting in from the living room while you broke open someone's leg razor and went at your wrists over the bathroom sink until there was enough blood somebody finally paid attention to you.
Ian Curtis of Joy Division listened to Iggy Pop's The Idiot the night he killed himself, and you sometimes wonder if that album would make it into his graveyard of dead songs. But the traumatic soundtrack to the real end of your life needs no burial. It's not like you're going to hear it again.
You think if a guy was intent on killing himself, the obvious soundtrack would be Joy Division, but Curtis couldn’t kill himself to his own music. You doubt you'd be capable of offing yourself if the last thing you read was one of your own damn poems, even one of the shitty ones.
But what do you know? You sliced up your wrists to Cyndi Lauper. Not even her good song. And you still can't listen to it. Some vodka, a crushed-open pink Daisy leg razor and a desperate need for attention imbued her weak sophomore effort with a fearsome power that you can no longer bear to hear.
When Sara emails that you’re through, you contemplate self-harm. You've been sober eleven years and you no longer have an appetite for food or sex so binging on any of that is out of the question. So you try cutting. Thirty years after Julie you think you might make some new marks, for Sara, just to see what it’s like.
But you lack commitment, because you only have one razor and you want to shave later, so you use your damn beard scissors. You press a few times but never even break skin, just leave some fierce red welts that disappear by morning.
The scars from your crazy homeless summer three decades ago still blaze shiny white, like bone, in little dashed lines along your blue veins.
The soundtrack to this pathetic scene of a middle-aged man trying and failing at something any depressed teenager knows how to do is the call of the mourning doves in the tree outside the kitchen. And you can't bury that sound. You just can't.
Everything you know about cutting you learned from Sara, during her slow meltdown of vodka, pills, and self-mutilation nine years ago in the face of you leaving her to move to post-Katrina New Orleans with your wife and kids, back when you still had a wife.
A week before your departure, your family went to the Fourth of July fireworks but you stayed home to watch Brokeback Mountain and to stay close to your email, because Sara was not doing well. Because it was bad. Because you had a feeling.
You grilled her about pills. How many? What kind? She lied, she evaded, she finally confessed: all the kinds. She didn’t even know. She went dark for a few hours. She woke up and said she might have had a seizure. She could barely type.
You couldn’t take her to the hospital because your wife and kids were due home any minute and you were a coward. You texted your friend Karl and you said she's dying, you don't know what to do, and all he could tell you was "it's not your fault, no matter what happens, you did not cause this."
You imagined what it would be like to lose a secret lover this way. You imagined it because you could feel her fading away, you knew she was dying and you couldn’t help but think you broke it, you bought it, she will be dead and nobody will ever know it was because of you because nobody in her family knew there was a you and nobody in your life knew there was a her.
You watched the movie, you watched Ennis tuck Jack's shirt into his own, button it up, his eyes wet, he said "Jack, I swear" and you swore, you swore, please, God, not like this, not like this, and you started to cry but there was the family home from the fireworks and you swallowed the pain and put your happy dad face back on.
You never watched Brokeback Mountain again, and to this day the soundtrack makes you want to vomit from fear. You buried them in the graveyard. You gave them a fancy headstone, black polished slate. Inscribed with the date she did not die.
Nine years later to the week, she discards you with an email. Nine years after you prayed not like this, not like this, you get your wish.
You walk the cemetery sometimes just to look at the headstones.
The Grateful Dead album from your last beautiful month of grad school with the girl you should have married instead of leaving her heartbroken and alone to move to California, to marry the woman you would divorce two decades later.
The Massive Attack song that was the favorite of the escort you befriended, who could not find a way to put sober days together and ended up a just a routine deceased person entry in the local police blotter.
O Holy Night and Joyce's Dubliners, the one-two punch that brings back the last wintry week you saw your dad before you left town to take a break from hospice for a few days. He died alone while you were snowbound in an airport trying to get back to him.
The Polyphonic Spree albums which were the joyous soundtrack to your kids’ pre-teen days, a brief happy period between sobriety and Hurricane Katrina when it seemed like you might find a way to live out a normal existence, before you met Sara, the love of your life.
The first movie you shared with Sara, the first one you loved together, in secret, was The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
She hated Wes Anderson and she thought it was twee bullshit until the end, when Zissou, played by Bill Murray, sees the jaguar shark that killed his friend and his son, and for a brief moment, to the soundtrack of Starálfur by Sigur Rós, she got to see grief, up close, through nothing more than the slump of Murray's shoulder and a brief crack in his stoic expression.
When she left the hospital against medical advice after her suicide attempt, you met her at her apartment, sat her on your lap and pulled out every bit of recovery wuju you could summon. You told her your story: your drinking, your meth, your pills, your own botched suicides. You told her what was in her head, you described her deepest secrets and she looked down at you, eyes welling with tears, and asked, "How do you know all that?"
You said it's because you were just like her. Because her thoughts were your thoughts. Her secrets were your secrets. You were both addicts, you were both alike, but you had found a way to survive that she had not yet learned, and you desperately wanted to teach her how.
Her first recovery meeting, she had to hold onto your arm to walk. You gave her your two year sobriety chip; you told her it had magic power and if she hung on to it even an atheist like her could get well.
When you moved to New Orleans a week later, she gave you a copy of the Sigur Rós CD, and it stayed in your car player for a month. You listened to it the whole nine hour drive. You listened to it as you explored your new city, the post-apocalyptic zombie offspring of your home town. You listened to it as you took your kids to your favorite po-boy shops and sno-ball stands, as you took them around to buy school supplies and see their new schools.
You got sober to be present for your children but your soul and your mind were five hundred miles west, trying to keep alive the dying woman you thought you would never see again, and the only thing you had to lean on was this damned Sigur Rós album full of lyrics in a language you couldn’t understand.
The weekend you move out of your house, you go back to get one more thing. She is on the couch, listening to Sigur Rós.
It gives you hope.
But she is in the same spot where she read the Kawabata to her new boyfriend.
You blew up so much of what was good about your relationship that you know she will give away any symbol of the two of you, because for her it symbolizes rot and betrayal and disregard, and fuck whatever you think it means.
But she’s alone. She’s listening to Sigur Rós, and she’s crying.
You can't listen. You buried that one a long time ago, and you don't need its ghost running around in your head. Not this week.
You get your shit and you leave.
You have a new friend, and she has a question. She's the only person who understands, a woman who will listen to your endless ranting and crying about your dying relationship.
She says, “Will you bury me in that cemetery with all those songs because I remind you too much of this time in your life?"
Of course not, you say.
You don’t think so.
You don’t know.
Sara is gone. You'll never see her again. She just needs to get her furniture out of your house.
She tries to be friends in email but you suspect she just needs you as a crutch until she can navigate her new life. You wonder whether you should cut her off, the way you'd wonder whether you'd be better off amputating a crippled, mangled, useless leg or whether you should keep it just because you don’t know what it’s like to live your life without your leg.
You love her but you hate her. You are still in love with the myth of her, the legend of your time together, but you begin to hate the person she is, and you wonder which one of you changed.
And you are careful with your music. You don’t know what new song the loss of her will send into the grave. You stick to music from before she existed, music already inoculated by earlier, happier times, or music spread across so many events of your life you know it cannot be tainted by this one.
Early in your relationship, when you were still married and you and Sara were fucking every day at lunchtime in the bed she still shared with her soon-to-be-ex-husband, she introduced you to Haruki Murakami, to On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning. The story was about two soul mates who met, then parted intentionally, planning to reunite one day, but fate and tragedy intervened and when they encountered each other a decade later they were strangers and did not even speak.
She is the 100% perfect girl for me.
He is the 100% perfect boy for me.
But the glow of their memories was far too weak, and their thoughts no longer had the clarity of fourteen years earlier. Without a word, they passed each other, disappearing into the crowd. Forever.
A sad story, don't you think?
That was before her suicide attempt and your desperate clinging to her over the phone lines. Before she got the courage to leave her last ex and you got the nerve to walk out on yours. In the first months when anything was possible and when it was clear she was the 100% perfect girl for you, but you didn't know if you could ever have her.
There is a freshly-dug open grave in the cemetery.
You get the Murakami off your shelf and put it in the pile of her things that you've covered with sheets so you won't have to look at them, while you wait for her to come back with some guy and some truck to haul it all away so you can learn to be single.
The sheets surround you like bodies in a morgue, like furniture coverings in a haunted house.
Well, what the hell. It's not like you didn't read that story to some other woman a few years ago. It's romantic as fuck. It makes an impression. It got you laid.
What goes around comes around.
You toss Murakami into the hole and start shoveling. You hope you dug the grave deep enough to bury it all. Cover up the perfect girl, the perfect boy, the book, Murakami, Sara, Tinder, the whole damn decade, with dirt. Leave it unmarked and let the weeds take it over.
You’re still shoveling.