We play a game. We call it the music game. I look up a song online and play it. Then Deb looks up a song and plays it. And then I look up a song and play it. It sounds like a dumb game. But it’s not. It breaks you away from the music you’d normally listen to. It requires you to give up control of where you thought you wanted to go. There is, however, a question of scoring. How do you win this game?
Mike loves music. He’s in the spare bedroom wiggling my broken jump rope. Deb and I are side-by-side on the couch.
“Okay,” I say, “if Mike comes out during my song, that’s one point for me.”
“What if he comes out and stays out for mine?” says Deb.
“Then you get a point too,” I say.
“What if he goes back in?”
“That’s minus one point. For whoever chose the song. But if he stays gone for the next one, that’s a push. No points for either of us.”
I start out with the Staple Singers. I’ll Take You There.
Diana Pemberley, probably the best singer in the AME choir, insists the Staple Singers are a gospel group. “They started out that way,” I say. “But they went another direction. I’ll Take You There?! Come on.”
“She wants to take us to church,” she says, laughing. “She’s talking about church!”
Mike remains in the spare bedroom for Mavis Staples. Before the song’s over, Deb’s scanning Youtube for the song she wants. She comes out with some Billie Holiday. Lover Come Back to Me. I think of high school. Wishing in some vague and unrealized way that some fantastic lover would come back to me even though she never came to me in the first place.
Staying on track with Lover Come Back to Me, I play Sam Cooke. Bring it on Home.
“If you ever change your mind about leaving me behind, bring it to me; bring your sweet love; bring it on home to me.”
It’s a classic move for me. I often come out with this tune because I love it. My musical choices are, to this point in the game, traveling down well-trodden paths, my neurons doing their familiar little calisthenics, and Michael remains in the spare bedroom.
Deb puts on some Ray LaMontagne, a song about someone who has left someone else. You might say it’s an emotional equivalent to the Sam Cooke tune but it’s not the same. Jewelry and money aren’t going to change anyone’s mind here. The song is new to me, and I start moving in a different musical direction. I’m holding Deb’s hand. I had been rude to her this afternoon. I was on the phone with someone else and she was talking through me the way she always does, finishing my sentences. Telling me what to tell the other person. Which, from my present, LaMontagne-softened perspective, is endearing. I cup her cheek in the palm of my free hand and say, “I’ll never leave you.”
Damien Rice is my next choice. The Blower’s Daughter. He can’t take his eyes off of someone. He can’t take his mind off of someone. And Mike appears. He has left his beloved section of jump rope in the spare bedroom. He takes a seat on the comfy chair which is positioned at a right angle to the couch where Deb and I are sitting. And we both look at him, both a bit stunned because he isn’t wiggling his arms or squealing. He looks like a normal teenage boy. A young man. Listening to a sad song. “And so it is,” sings Damien Rice. We don’t know what the title means. Who is the blower? Maybe a music instructor. Trumpet? Clarinet? Damien Rice was in love with the blower’s daughter? It was a desperate love. You can tell by the repetition of words. Mike is looking off beyond the front window. Beyond Deb and me. “And so it is…”
That’s one point for Deb.
Because we’re now in a teary mode, I choose 100 Years by Five for Fighting. Fifteen years old. Stuck between ten and twenty. Was there ever a time that glowed more brightly? Did you ever have more hope? And I still can’t take my eyes off of Mike. I think of the way I was for me then, at fifteen. On the heels of Jumping Frogs of Calaveras County and Houyhnhnms and Yahoos and hobbits and orcs, listening to Rock the Boat on the radio at night and wondering what might happen next. Might someone someday fall in love with me? I think of Michael’s twin sister Lucy, now at seventeen, with a boyfriend. And then, like a marble circling a funnel toward the vortex, my thoughts return to Michael, now closing his eyes and covering his face while listening to this song about the moments that make up a life.
My fear, which I’m coming to realize, is that Mike is fully aware of his situation. He doubts that anyone might fall in love with him, this boy who wiggles things and screams, this boy who can’t help himself. Mike is aware of his tremulous and repetitious thoughts. He is aware that his twin sister leaves the house and meets her boyfriend and they stop off somewhere before school for coffee. While his father dresses him, pulls on his pants and socks. Ties his shoes. I love him. Like his mother does. But it’s not what he wants.
The Days of Wine and Roses is next. Nancy Wilson. Mike stays. And then some Sinatra: It Was a Very Good Year. A parallel to the Five for Fighting song. Only years are like wine. In fine wooden kegs. From the brim to the dregs. Mike stays. Blinking. Looking far off. There will be no girls who live up the stairs with perfumed hair. And it won’t come undone for him. He will have no love. He will never turn to someone and say, as if he’s doing her a favor, “I will never leave you.”
Deb’s cheek isn’t the same as it was. Not so firm as it was. My hand isn’t so strong. We are aging. No longer young.
“You better not,” she said. “We’re two peas in a pod.”
It has taken many years for me to get over my resentment of the fact that I needed to give up control of where I thought I wanted to go. But that resentment is gone now. With no aftertaste at all.
“You remember that student I had when we first moved here?” says Deb. “Really autistic. I mean really autistic? You’d think he wasn’t paying any attention at all, and then he’d write some snide comment on his communication pad? Some sarcastic remark? Remember he could communicate with his pad?”
I remember feeling sorry for his mother is what I remember. If I ever had a kid like that, I thought, I’d kill myself right away. Deb wants to contact that kid.
“He was only seventeen then,” she says. “Isn’t that funny? He’d be forty years old now. He’s a man now. We should find him. Imagine the insight he’d be able to give us on Mike?”
It does no good to feel sorry for anyone. Not for yourself. Not for your son. Mike doesn’t want us feeling sorry for him. That doesn’t help him. But it appears that music does.
“He’s here for a reason, you know,” says Deb.
“What’s that?” I say.
“That’s what he needs to find out,” said Deb. “Just like the rest of us.”
Early in the morning, Deb leaves the house for yoga. I sit up in bed and read a bit about the German occupation of Paris during World War II. I don’t look forward to getting Mike out of bed. It’s always difficult because he never wants to get up. I need to whip the covers off him and reach down and grab him by the wrists. He won’t give me his hands. And he won’t stand. Sometimes he gets angry, trying to scratch my forearms. I need to use my most authoritative voice to get him to stand up. Then I brush his teeth and begin to dress him for the day. But this morning I delay. I stay in my bed a bit longer than usual. Thinking of our game, Michael looking like a normal kid, remembering a few songs from the night before. I open my computer and play a song. The Blower’s Daughter again. “And so it is…” Mike appears from his room. Walks down the hallway and into my bedroom. He lies down next to me and we listen to the music. One point for me.
It’s cold outside. Well below zero. Mike and I will venture forth in my old work van. Over the icy hills. Past the Village Community sign. When we arrive at West Branch High School, I will park in the horseshoe lot. Snowbanks all around. I’ll tell him I’m proud of him. And I’ll give him a high five. And remind him not to forget his backpack as he leaves the truck. And then remind him to close the passenger side door as he ignores me and slowly moves toward the front entrance to the school. And then, after a few moments, I’ll open my door and get out of the truck and watch him walk in his somnambulant manner, toward the glass doors. The other students will be streaming in with purpose. Mike will merge. The other students will make way for him. And then I’ll stand outside the building in that cold wind and watch him all the way down the hall. Past the office. Until he gets to his room. The one directly beneath the round, analogue clock. And then I’ll watch him make the turn. And disappear inside.