Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Greatest Hits on Cassette

Here's a story I wrote for our local writers group about 5 years ago. Just found it again while searching for something else, and thought it was worth sharing...

"Greatest Hits On Cassette"
By Ellen JD Roberts c.2006

“keep feeling fascination, passion burning, love so strong” – human league 1983

It arrived in a box of detritus cast away from mother’s house in Milwaukee. Junk she’d left in the basement for many years and many miles past. Martha received the box on a Tuesday and by Wednesday morning the contents were spread all over her meager apartment. Martha was new to Seattle, starting fresh on a different coast. Mother had died the November before and her sisters and brother had finally gotten through the house, emptied it and sold it. This was all that was left of Martha’s in that house and though it seemingly had no rhyme or reason it was all linked by fragrant memory. Old yearbooks, square photos taken with 110 film, scuffed 45s records, tiny rubber figurines given by the dentist as rewards for good check ups, mash notes from grade school crushes. The smell of the box was initially the potently musty smell of mother’s basement, but once the box was discarded and the items stood on their own for a bit the smell of her childhood returned. There were several forgotten cassette tapes in the box, most had been left behind because she simply hadn’t wanted them anymore. One from an old boyfriend was sure to be sweet and she pushed it to the side for later. And tucked into the broken binding of an over-packed green diary was a white plastic cassette tape. Written on the white plastic in her 12 year old hand was “My Hits” on one side and “Tape of All Tapes!” on the other, in frayed magic marker.

Something about this made her laugh a little bit out loud, thinking of Iraq and the “Mother of All Wars” or “Mother of All Bombs” , some outrageous political hyperbole. She knew that this cassette tape in her hand was a fantastic time capsule that was going to transport her back 20 years the moment she played it. She held it a moment. Martha was certain she’d still know it by heart even though she hadn’t listened to it in decades. She closed her eyes and saw images of childhood changing behind a rolling foreground of the highlights in words, just like on the old k-Tel commercials…
Featuring these all time classics! ....

· The sounds of static and the spinning radio dial!
· Leftover bits of mother’s Simon & Garfunkel and Neil Diamond bleeding through between portions of Enrico Morricone’s “the Good the Bad and the Ugly” soundtrack on vinyl.
· Billy Preston and the Beatles on 45.
· 30 seconds of “Abracadabra” by the Steve Miller Band recorded by holding the tape recorder up to the speaker!
· The famous 1970s baby talk: “dank you fo’ letting me play wiff your toys” jibber jabber leftover from a recording made to send to Aunt, Uncle and cousins in rural Ohio
· Trashy 80s tunes! (Heady flashes of first kiss in Donny Griffin’s garage)
· Various interruptions by (now-retired) Wisconsin disk jockeys
· Commercials for cancelled TV shows and the auto-body repair shop
· Cackles, laughs, belches and the sound of breathing.
· Interview with Duran Duran and Def Leppard, acted out by you and your neighbor!
· The brief ill-advised fascination with reggae in high school
· An unabashed fondness for the Andrews Sisters that left all peers shaking their heads in disbelief.
· The disorder and cacophony that somehow became the soundtrack of your childhood.
· Order now and get the complete set of grainy snapshots of 8th grade!

She recalls having taken this particular tape with her on several school trips, and family vacations, tuned into the greatest hits via headphones while the world went by outside the window.

Wednesday night Martha lay on the floor for 45 minutes straight, in a trance, completely transported back to another time and place. The orangey red sculpted carpeting of her childhood living room, the basement full of records and the old shopping cart they used to collect the dirty laundry, the sound of the water cooler in the pantry gulped and belched big bubbles of air, her brother’s and sisters’ attempt to host a neighborhood circus one summer which mainly amounted to the brats of the block taking over and throwing the whipped-cream pies at everyone. “This tape is like a recording of my life,” she realized as she got up to flip it over to “Tape of All Tapes”, side B. Songs that were favorites were suddenly interrupted when they grew tiresome and smothered with a dose of some newer favorite. She listened to the entire cassette twice and realized it captured roughly a 20 year span, from 1975 through 1995. The next day en route to her job at the diner she popped into an electronics shop and asked for a portable cassette player, something with headset like the one she once had, but the greasy-faced boy shuffling on the carpet tried to persuade her towards an ipod or mp3 player.
“They quit making cassettes”, he said in a way that made her feel completely dumb, like a caveman awakening from a frozen block of ice. They quit making cassettes back in the stone age, you dumb lady! Stupid dumb-dumb head! She wandered away from the boy who she began calling “Pimples” in her mind, and did indeed find a cassette recorder, not one intended for playback of music really, but would do just fine—it was more for recording business meetings or a professor’s speeches.

On break from the diner Martha sat in the grass near the carwash fumbling with batteries for her new cassette player. She checked in on Boyfriend 1988. Listening to Echo & the Bunnymen, Love and Rockets, and John Lennon -- she could smell the nagchampa incense, clove cigarettes and the greasy engine of his ‘69 Buick, the sticky feel of the vinyl upholstery beneath her bare summer thighs. The sensation was nearly overwhelming, washing over her in waves, thinking of him hovering nearby with his shell necklace jangling. She had to turn it off. Turn it off. That f*cker, he was an a$$hole anyway. But, oh what a lover. Real hot stuff. Time was up, back to work. Standing at the coffee maker Martha felt her knees going weak. She couldn’t shake Zeppelin’s “Who Lotta Love”.

Boyfriend 1988 was shelved after that, but “the Tape of All Tapes” sat right with her, didn’t make her feel queasy or lonely—it was from an innocent time of optimism and hope—it was a comfort and she studied it in great detail. Rewinding to make note of background sounds and things she may have missed over the years listening to the surface noises--- Grandpa laughing at Christmas opens side A.
“What do you want for Christmas, Grandpa?,” asks Martha at age 9, clutching the new tape recorder that was under the tree for her that year.
“All I want for Christmas is my two front teeeeeth!”, sings Gramps, whistling as he pops his dentures out. The kids all squeal with delight. Quick cut into the Beach Boys recorded from WMLW, summer 1985.
Midway through side A and Kenny the annoying cousin butts into “Tears of a Clown” to do his best “Miss Piggy” impersonation. Lots of clicking and scuffling as young Martha tries to get the recorder back from him.
“Kermy!!! Ohhh I love you ! Kerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrmie!” Smooching sounds and laughter from the background. Cut into Mike and the Mechanics and Eddie Grant “Rock down to Electric Avenue”. Was that Aunt Lucy back there? Who was that murmuring low at the dining room table, Great Uncle Jack?
The Tape of All Tapes embraced Martha in cloak of tranquility, despite its jarring edit job and scrambled playlist. Long dead relatives, long lost friends, and forgotten favorites washed back up to shore.

She came across something at the end of side B she didn’t remember-- she rewound and listened again, turning up the volume. It was Manny at the diner asking if she’d heard anything from Bill, the new line cook. He was late for work and nobody had heard from him. “Has he already quit?,” asked Manny, somewhat frustrated. She heard it clear as a bell, the sizzle of the griddle, some old-timers at the counter griping about the relentless fog. It was last Tuesday. She rewound it and played it again. ”How in the hell?...,“she asked herself, and fussed with the tape player, and in scrutinizing it she realized how easy it would have been to mistakenly press “record” instead of “stop” when she returned from break on Tuesday. Sure enough. There were about 40 seconds of current-day diner time on top of some snippet of high school era dancehall reggae. Luckily the cassette was near the end, and soon clicked off with Manny getting the final word in, as usual, “Damn it to hell!”

Strangely, Martha was not upset by the mishap. Only briefly she considered breaking the tabs off of the old cassette, rendering the recording safe from future accidental interruptions. Thinking of the cold, painted concrete floor of her childhood basement, the double-paned windows frosting up in the winter, the annoying clamor of the Milwaukee DJ known as Petie “Super” Powers. Martha looked around her small but cleverly furnished apartment, out to the scenic view from her small kitchen window and then closed her eyes.

This is a continuing story, she thought to herself. That was not the past, it is the same as the now. It is all connected like the tape spooling in this cassette.

That night Martha got the best sleep she’d had in years.

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