The boy sat on the wooden crate that he had sidled over to the shelves in the basement. Reaching in, he pulled out the records. The sleeves of the albums were worn from the friction of once-frequent playing, and the pictures seemed to be almost antiqued. He looked at one in particular and sighed. It still had the cellophane wrap; good for the sleeve itself, but the contraction of the plastic had probably warped the record inside.
“What’s new?” He sighed.
“Story of my life…Not!” For him, it felt like nothing was new at all. He would have scaled the offending album across the basement floor, but it was probably a treasure of his grandmother’s in some way, even if it didn’t look like it would ever play music again. Still? He noticed that the seal had been broken, so maybe there was hope. He stood up and walked over to the dusty stereo system that sat on a shelf next to the clothes dryer, dragging the crate along. Sitting down, he noticed the name on the cover.
“Linda Ronstadt…..?” He stared at the picture on the cover and found himself growing frustrated; a temptation that reached out of the past to grab his heart once again like every other picture or movie or DVD.
He shook his head; the wonder and the pain of shame and guilt flooded over him as he let his mind wander into places that both soothed and abraded his soul. Biting his lip, he choked back a sob. He had the whole afternoon to himself, and there was no need whatsoever to hide how he felt, but frequent habits insert themselves even where they’re not required, and he fought back shameful tears to keep from even the remote possibility of being discovered. He hit the power button on the old stereo and it turned on; the dim glow of a yellowish light peeked from behind a dusty clear cover for the radio tuner.
Setting aside the dark plastic cover, he checked the needle; a loud scratch blared from the speakers and he turned down the volume. Reaching in carefully, he pulled the black vinyl disc from the paper sleeve inside the album cover. As far as he could see, there were no scratches. His grandmother had talked about how most of her records had long lost any clarity from constant use years ago, and she had duplicated most of them on CD. He even got her an MP3 player to bring her into the twenty-first century as she had joked, and the records became just one more set in a group of collections that had lost their use.
The record slid down the spindle and plopped on the rubber turntable. He switched the speed to LP and turned it on, carefully placing the stylus on the record as it spun around lazily. The song started with a rich orchestral tone.
“What’s new….how is the world treating you?” the girl…woman actually seemed to be sad and frustrated as she sang; as if the one she sang to was no longer around…a lament. He sighed as he stared at the woman’s picture on the cover once again. He recognized her voice from an old kid’s DVD about a mouse and America. That was sweet and playful and fun. This song was almost too tearful to continue listening. He found himself looking at her; wondering what hurt her so much and why she was so sad.
“You haven’t changed a bit….handsome as ever I must admit…” Even as she sang, he found himself crying. Never one to identify with the music he and friends listened to, he felt awkward and even embarrassed. He lifted the stylus and was going to turn off the stereo but instead started the song once again.
“What’s new? How is the world treating you?” At any given time, he would have felt that he had to identify with the man …the object of the woman’s affection. But he felt drawn instead to wonder what it was like for the singer; the woman who felt lonely and maybe a bit lost and hopeless — things that pulled at him on a daily basis. He stared at the picture.
“What’s new…?” He repeated even as the song continued. The picture beckoned to him in a way. The woman wore a purplish strapless gown with a full skirt. Her arms were covered by elbow-length white gloves and while her hair was shorter than most women’s styles, it still looked pretty. He shook his head in anger. Once again he was tempted to cast the album aside, but this time it wasn’t just because it was his grandmother’s record. This time he held it carefully because the picture meant too much to him, even if it cause him so much hurt inside. The shame and embarrassment was almost too much to bear.
“One of my favorites,” he heard the voice call from behind. On the stairs leading up to the kitchen, his grandmother stood with her arms folded. Not the pose of impatience or demand, but rather the arms that embrace in a comfort of a fond memory. He put the album face down on the plastic cover that lay on the basement floor.
“It’s okay…. I understand more than you know.” The woman was in her sixties; still very attractive if a wee bit rounder and grayer. She smiled a kind smile and stepped down the stairs and walked to him. He looked down at the album and looked back up at her and blinked back shameful tears.
“Come with me, honey.” She offered a hand and lifted him off the crate to his feet. He put his head down and stood motionless. A soft hand reached and lifted his chin slightly.
“I mean it, Billy…it’s okay.” She reached down and grabbed the album cover and led him upstairs. A minute or so later they stood in her bedroom in front of the double doors of her closet. Sliding one door open, she pulled some of the clothes aside to reveal a garment bag that was pushed against the far wall. She reached in and pulled it out and walked to her bed; laying the bag down.
“I don’t understand, Nana.” The boy shook his head in anxious shame, wondering how things fit together in the embarrassment of the moment. She smiled and pulled the zipper down; revealing a dress almost identical to the one in the picture on the cover she held, save for the soft blue green instead of the purple in the picture. She pulled out the gown and held it up to her body,
“Isn’t this the prettiest dress you’ve ever seen?” She laughed softly; not a teasing laugh but the laugh between two who share something no other could know or understand. The boy felt his face grow red and hot, and tears…as shameful as any he had ever shed…fell from his face. His grandmother once again lifted his chin.
“Billy….it’s okay. I understand.” She repeated herself and he shook his head; it wasn’t so much that he felt she couldn’t understand so much as it was that he felt he could never be understood.
“Hold this, okay?” She handed him the gown as she walked over to her dresser. Her back was turned and he found himself bringing the gown up against his body; almost reflexive. He realized what he had done and he began to cry even harder. A moment later she stood next to him once again.
“Now none of that, sweetheart. Okay? Here, let me take that from you.” He sighed through the tears; relieved that he wouldn’t have to hold the garment. But instead of empty hands, he found himself holding something…a few things in fact…soft and delicate things. He stared at the bundle in his hands until his grandmother touched his shoulder lightly. Guiding him toward her bathroom she kissed him lightly on the cheek.
“Go ahead. I’ll help you when you come out.” She smiled and blinked back some tears of her own; a special moment that went beyond any of the stories he had ever read about boys like himself. She wasn’t crying because it was precious even if it was. She was crying because she remembered another moment just like this one years ago; a moment that was wrought with just as much shame and guilt and sadness. She touched his face softly, guiding him through the bathroom door.
“Go ahead…it’s okay,” she repeated the words and he felt her gentle final nudge before the door closed behind him.
“Nana….” The boy stood before the mirror on one of the closet doors, staring at the image before him. Staring back was a girl of about thirteen. Her hair was short but pretty. She seemed to stand on a cloud instead of the kitten heels of white shoes. Her arms were covered with long white gloves, leaving her looking graceful. Her neck was almost swanlike; never as pretty as just then with a nice deep green jewel hanging from a teal choker. She covered the bodice of the gown with her arms in modesty before she turned and looked at the woman next to her and tried without much success to keep from crying. But these tears, as awkward as they seemed, were good, as joy and acceptance replaced shame and guilt.
“I know how it feels to be alone and feeling like no one knows. But when I was your age I felt exactly the same way. That I’d never fit in and that somehow there was something wrong with me.”
“I don’t understand, Nana.” He blinked back more tears and cocked his head to the side ever so slightly.
“I mean, my sweet Billy, that when I was your age I was exactly like you.” Her voice trailed off just a bit as she remembered a day long ago where her mother opened a closet door that led to a world of enchantment in a way that was filled with hope and acceptance. Billy looked at her and stared; his eyes darting back and forth between his body and hers.
“Ex….exactly?” He put his hand up to his mouth and bit the glove to stifle a sob; a gasp that dared not to believe but could not but hope he was right. Without a word, his grandmother kissed him on the forehead before grabbing both of his hands in hers. He stared into her eyes, and the glow quickly grew and lit up her face as she nodded and mouthed without sound at last,
“Yes, my sweet girl. Exactly!”
Words and music by
Johnny Burke and
as performed by
Miss Linda Rondstadt
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