Ann and I are sitting outside a little pizza place waiting for our son, Liam, to join us. He is getting his hair cut before going to the local fair. The sun is low, the sky a pale mottled blue, on the horizon smudges of mauve and yellow. After a while, Liam ambles up to us, hair very short, three stripes cut into one side. The barber charges a dollar each for those.
At home he carries his radio into the bathroom and blasts rap music while he showers. This a recent annoyance for us—he cranks up the volume without concern for what we might be doing. When he is finished showering, we can smell cologne wafting down the stairs. He comes down in baggy shorts and a tight black tee, a heavy silver chain with crucifix around his neck. His present for his fourteenth birthday, the one he bothered us about for months prior.
I drop him off at the CVS parking lot, a group of girls and boys waiting. ‘Hello Mr. Gredler’ some of them call out, bouncing, excited at being who they are.
I don’t go home right away. I keep driving because the music is good on the radio. Neil Young singing ‘After the Gold Rush’. I’m not sure why, but the song always gets to me, something beyond the lyrics, his plaintive voice, a sadness embodied there.
Patches of kids are walking to the fair, a group of four boys all wearing short sleeve plaid shirts in various colors and patterns. A clutch of long-hairs dressed in black on skateboards. Three tall skinny guys walking awkwardly in white tees and gym shorts. Behind them a group of girls in short shorts and snug shirts, all holding cell phones with different colored cases.
The sky is now pastel pink, then purplish gray as it turns to dusk. A bruise.
Later, when Liam returns from the fair he asks me if I want to go sit in Ann’s new car and listen to music. He is surprised when I say yes. He ramps up the volume as we listen to Eminem’s ‘Sing for the Moment.’ I am moved by the song and wonder if it is Liam’s way to say he wants to understand something of who I am, how my father leaving when I was a boy affected me.
What bothers him all comes out, when he talks about
His fuckin’ dad walkin’ out
I cringe at some of the harsh language, and wonder if I am remiss to even allow Liam to listen, but I am struck by Eminem’s honesty, and by how he mixed Aerosmith’s ‘Dream On’ into his poem. His words feel raw and true to me.
As we listen I think about how I never wanted to punch my own father as in Eminem’s lyrics:
Cause he just hates him so bad that he blocks him out
If he ever saw him again he’d probably knock him out
My anger wasn’t like that. Yet perhaps it would have been better if I had hit him, rather then to hold onto the pain of betrayal and turn it back on him for so many years. The guitar riff at the end of the song lifts me.
Next, Liam plays ‘Mockingbird’ for me. He sings along. Again, he knows every word. It is clear that the song resonates with him, and listening along this time, I realize it is about a father’s deep love for his child.
…but I’m trying to give you the life that I never had
I can see you’re sad, even when you smile, even when you laugh
I can see it in your eyes, deep inside you want to cry
I remember sitting like this next to my father as a boy and later as a young man. The smell of his cologne mixed with leather and cigarette smoke, the way we were so physically near each other in that closed space, both of us looking ahead through the windshield. I felt closest to him when I was sitting there next to him, not looking at him, just feeling his presence.
In that moment, I am stunned to be sitting in the car next to my own son, listening to the music he loves. We watch the moon in front of us setting into clouds above the trees, a pale white stain.
This piece is part of an ongoing series called Superunknown: Stories About Songs.