Wednesday, September 13, 2006

This Song Reminds Me, Part I: The Facts About Jimmy

The opening notes of Shawn Colvin's "The Facts About Jimmy" descend slowly onto my heart like a weight even now, ten years later. This song reminds me of waking up to my clock radio during the winter of my fifteenth year, lying under a heavy down comforter and quilt in a tiny drafty house my mom was housesitting for a math professor who'd gone on a 3 month sabbatical to Australia or Africa or some other A-country. More than anything else, it evokes the smells of that place: the handmade soap the math professor and his wife had stacked in the cabinet of the bathroom next to the frigid cubbyhole where I slept, the coconut shampoo I used in showers so long and hot my mother started scolding me before I'd even turned on the water, the musty smell of the cold blankets I slept under, the rich warm aroma of goose egg omelettes, the sharp citrus scent of the perfume I favored as a romantically-ambitious tenth-grader. This song was popular then, and it was on the radio several times a week at exactly the moment my alarm went off in the morning. I was taking an SAT prep class then, getting up at 5 a.m. in order to get to school by 6:30, and the combination of this song with the inky blackness of the sky, the thick white blanket of snow that obscured the landscape, the blinking traffic lights so early in the morning, sometimes draped my mind with a cloak of sadness so heavy and thick I had trouble breathing.

We were all sad then. My parents had separated for the first time, my mother first renting a tiny apartment on the top floor of the house of some people she'd met at the community college, then taking up this housesitting job on the other side of town. My brother and I would trade off spending nights with her-- one night with mom, one night with dad. Just to be fair. I don't remember seeing him much that year; I think it was the year we stopped fighting and became friends.

My mom cried a lot then, and my dad stopped speaking almost entirely. She seemed crippled by the enormity of what she'd undertaken, while he was just stunned into silence. He spent most nights in his recliner with a big plastic cup full of beer or wine, great purple circles under his eyes, staring blankly at the television or into the fire. She tried to stay busy, set a frantic pace, but every time she stopped moving, she would cry.

It was a cold winter in 1996. I remember fires. A fire in the pellet stove at my dad's house, our house, fighting valiantly to heat the family room against the chill of my father's pain. A fire in the woodstove at my mother's house, transforming the living room into the only room in the house with a tolerable temperature. She let me watch MTV on their satellite television-- my dad's cable package didn't carry the channel. I watched music videos and fell in love with Jakob Dylan.

And Shawn Colvin on the radio, singing my hurt on those cold, dark mornings.


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