The Song

For Ross, more than just the music would stop if he let the songs play to the end.

Close up of a cracked compact disc

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There were certain songs that Ross Edwards listened to over and over without letting them end. A lot of them were jazz. During his final semester of college, Ross would stand in the middle of his apartment living room with a melody playing on repeat from his battered stereo. He’d bend his head, close his eyes, sometimes tapping his foot, but most of the time not, just using his energy to listen to the piece. Then, before the final chords, he’d leap forward and slam the skip button to go to the next song.

He was in the midst of applying to and interviewing with companies with which he could start his career in civil engineering. He’d polished his resumé, and his roommate grilled him with practice questions. Ross bought a new suit. He tucked his resumés into a leather messenger bag his parents had given to him as a high school graduation gift.

The first interview came and went.

So did the next one.

And the next one.

And the next one.

He didn’t understand why he couldn’t land a job in engineering. His grades were decent. There was only one semester in which they’d slipped so badly he’d retaken most of the classes the following semester, but there was a reason for that.

After he graduated in December, seven months after he’d expected to, he still hadn’t nailed down a job. His parents let him move home while his job search continued. They knew why he needed more time than most, and they let him sleep as he needed to, which was a lot. Thankfully, he had earned enough scholarships and grants to pay for three years of his schooling, and the payment period for the student loans that paid for the other year and a half didn’t kick in until six months after graduation. He had some time before desperation set in.

One morning at breakfast, his mother said, “Alicia wanted me to tell you that she’s hiring a new clerk for the music store.”

“Ellie’s leaving? She’s been there forever.”

“She sure has. Are you interested?”

Ross took a deep breath.

He needed an excuse — any excuse — not to apply. There had to be another job he could take. Anything else.

But he knew.

There wasn’t going to be anything else.

He had to work there.

So he applied. On the way to the interview, he thought, Please let me trip and break my ankle. He didn’t.

Ross was hired.

 

Slowly, he saved enough money to make his student loan payments and then rent an apartment near the music store. The day after he moved in, Ross was kneeling on the brown kitchen linoleum, unpacking pots and pans his parents had passed along to him, portable stereo quietly offering piano classics, when voices entered the living room.

“Hello?” called a soprano. “Are you our new neighbor?”

“No, actually, my son — ” Martin, who had been straightening furniture, began.

But Ross didn’t hear the rest of what his father said because when he heard the woman’s voice, he jumped, banged his head on the edge of the counter overhead, yelped, and covered his head with both arms while falling back onto the floor. He moaned.

He heard his father’s footsteps.

“What happened? Are you okay?”

Ross slowly brought his arms down, pointed to the counter and his head and nodded. Tears swarmed at the edge of his eyes.

“It’s okay. It’s okay.” Martin felt the tender spot on Ross’ head. “No blood. Let’s get you in a chair.” He offered his hand, and Ross took it, easing into the kitchen chair.

Ross leaned his elbows on the table as he cradled the side of his head. He closed his eyes for a minute, and when he opened them again, he found a white-haired man with a red flannel shirt and suspenders holding up his slacks and a petite woman in a green blouse and flowing khaki pants staring at him.

They look like Christmas, Ross thought.

“Are you all right?” the woman asked. Ross nodded, despite the headache threatening to overtake him. “Let me know if you need anything for your head.”

The man smiled. “Sounded like you took quite a hit there,” he noted in a warm bass. Ross nodded again. The visitor waited for him to say something, but upon hearing nothing, he continued, “My name’s Ben, and this is my wife, Jess.” He wrapped his arm around Jess and squeezed her shoulder as he introduced her. Ross’s stomach lurched. “We live next door. Want some cookies?”

Jess held a plastic gallon bag toward Ross. “I made them yesterday.” She smiled as she set the sack on the table.

Ross’s mind finally worked at the sight of the cookies.

“Thanks,” he said as he pulled one out.

“Here, would you like a seat?” Martin asked as he pulled out the second kitchen chair.

Ben waved him away. “No, no, we won’t be here long. You can sit, though.”

Martin’s lips tightened as he tried not to laugh. He sat. Ross offered him a cookie.

Ben spotted the stereo sitting on the counter. “Piano, huh? You play anything else?”

“Ben!” Jess swatted at her husband’s arm with the back of her hand. “What kind of a question is that?”

“What?” The man raised his hands, palms upward, toward Ross. “I just want to know what we’re going to have to listen to all day!”

“I’m sure whatever he plays, it will be wonderful.” Jess smiled and nodded at Ross, who had strategically shoved a second cookie in his mouth.

“Well?” Ben said. “You play anything else?”

Through crumbs, Ross gave him the first band name he could think of: “Aerosmith.”

“What? You’re too young to listen to them!”

“I work at a music store.”

“Better tell us which one so we don’t go there.”

Jess swatted at him again.

“Aerosmith. Back in my day, it was Charley Pride and Etta James, and you don’t need no one else.”

Ross swallowed, took his hand down, and grinned. “Yeah, I listen to them, too.”

Ben opened his mouth in surprise. “Well. We may be able to live next to this man after all, Jess.”

She shook her head. “Yes, honey, I’m sure we will. Well, dear,” she said to Ross, “it was lovely meeting you, and stop by anytime.” She grabbed Ben’s hand and led him shuffling out of the kitchen, through the living room, and out the apartment door.

Ross looked over at his father and finally allowed himself to laugh.

“Well, son,” Martin said, grinning, “I think you’re in the right place.”

Ben turned out to be only half as cantankerous as he had seemed that first day, inviting Ross over to help him with his weekly puzzle, or maybe a chess game. Ross ate supper with Ben and Jess every week, sometimes twice, and they would ask him about his work day and the music from the stereo they could hear through the walls. They would send him home with leftovers so he could have a hot lunch for the next couple of days at work. Ross steeled himself before each visit to hear Jess’s voice, her words a wind chime in a gentle breeze, reminding him.

Her wind chime, mixed with Ben’s bass, wove songs about their universe around him. She had met Ben while working as a nurse in a hospital serving soldiers returning from the Korean War.

“I served as a nurse in the same ward where Ben was sent,” she said.

“Yes, I woke up one morning after I’d returned home freezing, and there she was, gettin’ ready to listen to my heart beat. Well, she heard it beat pretty hard and fast all right, ’cause I ain’t never seen no one as pretty as her.” Ben’s eyes softened.

She blushed. “It didn’t quite happen like that …”

“That’s how I remember it!”

Ross breathed in and out slowly before he could ask the question. “How did it happen?”

“Well,” Jess said, “he was in the hospital, but I was just going about my business, and he sits up in his bed, bold as brass, and he says, ‘When I get out of here, I’d like to treat you to a coffee.’ I say, ‘I don’t drink coffee, sir,’ and he says, ‘Well, what do you drink?’ And I walk away because I have to tend to other patients, but I do remember thinking that those were the kindest eyes I’d ever seen. So he keeps asking me what I drink, and finally, since I decided I might want to keep him around, I say, ‘Perhaps you’ll have to figure it out.’ And he’s never left. Too curious, I suppose.”

“About what?”

“About what I drink.”

“You never told him?”

“No. He figured it out!”

“What was it?”

“A hot apple cider with a shot of vodka.”

Ross started in surprise. “Vodka?”

Her deep brown eyes shone. “Just the perfect thing for a snowy day.”

Ross raised his eyebrows at Ben. “And you figured that out?”

“Yep! Sure did.” He leaned back, fingers laced over his stomach, satisfaction settling over his face as he stared across the table at his wife.

Ross looked over to Jess, who still smiled, and he saw traces of the girl she had been when she saw her husband for the first time.

And he saw traces of Sara and how she had smiled when she saw him from across the university dining court.

His stomach plummeted. He fumbled with his fork and spoon, tossing them into the small bowl of unfinished apple pie and ice cream. The utensils clattered. Ben and Jess looked at him as he stood.

“I have to go,” Ross said. “Thanks for the pie.” Without meeting their eyes, he turned from the table, strode through the living room, picked his shoes up from the front mat, and walked sock-footed next door. He tore a CD out of the stereo, threw it across the kitchen, slammed in another album, and blasted Aerosmith for the rest of the evening.

Ross left for work the next day without a packed lunch. He bought a coffee, something he rarely drank, from a stand next to the bus stop, and then he walked in through the store’s sliding doors, late.

“Where have you been?” his supervisor, Alicia, said as she hurried over from the aisles of albums. “I was worried about you. You’re never late.”

“Couldn’t sleep.” Ross shrugged off his coat. “I’m sorry.”

Alicia tilted her head. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah. Fine.”

She looked skeptical. “If you need anything, let me know, okay?”

He nodded. She strode away, clipboard in hand. As he walked through the store to hang his coat in the back, he heard the strains of string quartets playing Christmas carols from the speakers near the ceiling.

Good. No jazz.

He started out checking and stocking inventory, then stood at the cash register for a while, staring at the posters along the front windows. Rain had begun shortly after he walked in. Drops splattered across the glass. He pulled out a piece of copy paper from the cabinet behind the cash register desk, then his pen from his pocket and began sketching bridges.

Reams of bridge drawings filled his filing cabinet at home, nestled behind his engineering course notes. He sketched them while waiting for people to enter the store and while customers browsed drowsily, before he was needed to ring up the merchandise. If he didn’t have the bridges, he would go crazy, especially when it rained.

He’d been there for nearly a year. Every day he walked in there, he wanted to leave. But Sara wouldn’t let him. She was in every aisle, every album, every song that played over the speakers. The cup of coffee he’d bought that morning was the first one he’d drunk since he’d killed her.

One Friday during fall semester of senior year, a weekend without a football game, he took Sara to her parents’ home a couple of hours from the city. It’d been a stressful week with too many exams, and he hadn’t had a chance to visit the barber’s in the midst of studying for and taking the tests. Just like she had for the past week, Sara gave him a hard time about his long hair when he picked her up. “You could be a hippie!” she declared when she opened the door before he could knock.

“What? It’s not that long.” He pulled her to him. “You have no room to talk, Frizzy.” He kissed her and handed her the coffee she’d requested he pick up.

“It’s this stupid humidity.” She took the cup and kissed him back. “Thanks. The air conditioner in this stupid apartment broke again this morning.”

“They just fixed it!”

“I know. I submitted a repair request between classes.”

“Good. Let’s get your stuff.”

She led him into the living room, where a duffel bag and a full laundry basket sat on the couch. “How did your exam go today?” she asked as she tied her wavy auburn locks away from her freckled face.

Ross slung the bag around his shoulders and picked up the laundry basket. “I studied so hard my brain fried — ”

“I know you did!”

“ — yet I got to the test and still felt like I knew nothing.”

She rubbed his arm. “You’ll be all right. Your grades are fine so far, and I don’t think you really did as badly as you think. You’ll pass your classes, anyway.”

Ross gave a half-smile.

“Let’s go!” she said. “Dad’s grilling steaks tonight. It’s gonna be good.”

They drove west, stopping for fuel in the suburbs. The clouds had been gathering throughout the day, and now it started raining. Ross ran inside for his own cup of coffee, as the smell of Sara’s had made him decide he wanted one, too. When he came back out, she was leaning against the car, watching him with her intense green eyes. He gave her another hug, and she held him tightly.

“Hey there, hey,” he soothed. “The sooner we get going, the sooner we can eat those steaks.”

She whispered in his ear, and he hugged her tightly back. When finally she let go, Ross opened the door for her, then slid into the driver’s seat and flipped on the headlights and windshield wipers. He flipped the air on, adjusting the vents, and settled into his seat in contentment as he drove, right arm perched on the armrest in the center console. Sara tucked her feet up underneath her and wrapped her arms around his, leaning her head on his shoulder. Ross gently smiled down at her. They rode in quiet for a while.

Then Sara said from his shoulder, “You know our music store downtown?”

“Yeah.”

“We should buy it and run it someday.”

Ross raised his eyebrows. “I’ve never heard you talk about that before. What brought that up?”

“Something from my econ course. Dr. Richardson said that people who have good ideas should dig into the community, engage with it. We should use what we like to make places better. And I think we can do that with the music store. We know that place inside and out. We could start having live music in there, expand the offerings, maybe put a little coffee shop inside …”

“You would drink us out of the inventory every day!”

She laughed. “Touché. But I think it’d be fun.”

“Yeah.” Ross smiled shyly. “It could be fun to run a music store. Especially that one.”

“It’s such a special place.”

“Mm-hmm. And, you know, anything we do together is fun.”

She beamed in the glow of the dashboard light.

Rain pounded.

Windshield wipers started to panic … frantic movement not fast enough … Ross couldn’t slow down fast enough … tires slid … the car flew … greeted a telephone pole … on the passenger side.

Screams.

Blood.

Frizzy head still.

And Sara

was Sara

never again.

It took him two weeks to return to school. He missed major assignments and didn’t have the heart to make them up, even though the professors said he could. Sara had been wrong about Ross passing his classes, even though he had earned A’s on every one of his exams.

He jumped when the sliding doors crashed open just as chamber music faded into Bing Crosby’s Christmas Album, straightening hurriedly.

“Hello, welcome to Meinrad’s, let me know if you need anything.”

“Thank you!” a couple said in unison as they strolled to the rock section. Ross stayed at his full height, watching the couple. He’d meant to propose to Sara that weekend. The engagement ring box was still hidden underneath the bridge drawings in his filing cabinet. He’d buried it like he’d buried the memories. He survived the last three semesters of school that way, ignoring the pulsing of the memories that wanted out of their coffin. He lived with his parents that way, started work at the music store that way, became friends with Ben and Jess that way. Ignore it. Leave it. Don’t talk about it.

But he’d finally broken. Last night’s supper had been too much. He didn’t know when he could see his friends again, not when they reminded him so much of what could have been. He’d grown used to the music store’s whispers of “could have been,” which grew louder in the evenings as he secured the doors. He drowned out Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, and Nat King Cole when they sang over the speakers, and Alicia knew not to play Louis Armstrong. At least not yet.

He’d left his umbrella at his apartment, so Ross turned up his coat collar and trudged sullenly to the bus stop.

 

Two days later, as he opened the door to leave for work, he found a small cooler with an ice pack and a Tupperware container of mashed potatoes, green beans, and meatloaf.

He knocked on their door, but Ben and Jess had probably already left for their morning walk. Ben liked to see the sunrise, so each day, they would amble along the streets to see orange peeking over the apartment complexes and watch from a park bench as yellow and gold spread across the sky. Then, they’d head back to their home for breakfast.

Ross glanced down at his watch. He had a little bit of time. He knew where the bench was — past the bus stop, but he could double back. He had time.

He loped down the stairs across from his door and jogged awkwardly with the cooler and his leather messenger bag down the sidewalk. Puddles on the concrete glowed orange, and mist rose from the pavement. He dodged umbrellas, small dogs and their leashes, and cups of coffee encircled by cold fingers. “Sorry, so sorry,” he gasped as he splashed a bus stop puddle on the back of a man’s pants.

The park was across the street from a corner drug store, and as soon as he reached the storefront, he could see Ben and Jess at their spot, Ben sitting with arm across Jess’s shoulder, watching her as she animatedly told a story. Her hands paused in mid-air as Ross came walking toward them, unable to take his eyes away from the sight of his friends on the bench. It felt like a long time since he’d seen them.

“Ross!” she called out, arms opened wide. “You’re going to be late for work!”

“Hi,” he said.

“Have a seat, Ross,” Ben said, and he and Jess made room for him. He joined them on the bench, setting the cooler in front of him and pulling his bag onto his lap.

“Thanks for lunch,” he said.

Jess patted him on the arm. “You need it, honey. You left quickly Tuesday night.”

“I’m sorry.”

Ben clapped him on the back. “It’s nice to see you.”

Ross looked down at his bag.

“Ross, dear,” Jess said, “if you don’t want to talk about it, you don’t have to.”

Ross nodded. He studied the silver zipper on a side pocket of his messenger bag. “Um.” He analyzed a weed growing through a sidewalk crack. “So.” He shook his head to clear it. He looked up at Jess. She didn’t look like Sara, with her small stature, dark skin, and silver-streaked hair, but her brown eyes glimmered like Sara’s green eyes did. Her soprano voice carried the same music Sara’s alto did. She fiercely loved Ben, just like Sara had loved him.

“You remind me of Sara.”

Jess nodded, her eyes deepening in quiet understanding.

“What?” Ben said. “Who’s this Sara?”

“She was going to be my fiancée. I hadn’t asked her yet, but she was going to say yes — we talked about it constantly. But then we were in a car crash … and … yeah.”

Silence settled over the bench.

Ross looked at his watch. “I need to go.”

He stood and broke into a run.

 

“What’s your most favorite song in the world?” Ross had asked Sara during a date junior year.

She looked up from sipping her Coke. Then she drew back and said with a sly grin, “I can’t tell you that.”

Ross furrowed his brow, confused.

“Oh, don’t give me that look,” she said. “When people ask me that, I don’t like to answer. It’s too personal.”

“Um … okay … ” To Ross, it was a simple question.

“There are only certain people I want to tell, and I haven’t decided if I want to tell you yet.”

“Aw, come on! I’m charming. I’m musical. What’s not to like about me?”

She just smiled and took another drink.

The day of the crash, when she’d hugged him at the gas station, she’d whispered, “What a Wonderful World.”

 

Ross sketched bridges at the cash register all day. Then he rode the bus back to his apartment building, climbed the stairs, and raised his hand and knocked on his neighbors’ door. It opened quickly. Jess welcomed him in and handed him a cookie. Ben sat at the couch. Jess joined him. Ross dropped his messenger bag and the cooler on the floor, coat draped over the top.

“It was my fault.”

The words rained from Ross before he realized it.

Ben leaned forward, elbows on his knees. And then, Ross told the entire story, even the part about Sara’s desire to run the music store.

Jess held her husband’s hand tightly by the end, not saying a word.

“Is that why you’re working there?” Ben asked. “Penance?”

Ross nodded.

Ben rose and clapped Ross on the shoulder. “You don’t have to do that, you know.” Ross looked hard at his friend. No one had ever told him that.

Jess embraced him. “Come have some dinner.”

They sat together at the table, Ben warming up three plates of leftovers and depositing them at each place mat.

Then, Ross went home. He picked up the Louis Armstrong CD he’d flung across the kitchen two nights before. It was the album that he played without letting the songs end. He gazed at it for a while and then clicked open the top of the CD player. He hesitated.

This is it. If you play it … if that song ends … she’ll be gone.

Unbidden, the words began to flow through his head.

I see trees of green, red roses, too,

I see them bloom for me and you…

He couldn’t cry. He stood at the counter, staring at the stereo.

I see skies of blue, and clouds of white,

The bright blessed day, and the dark sacred night…

She was in every word, every line, every note, every chord.

I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do.

They’re really saying, I love you.

He smiled.

“I love you, too.”

He lowered the CD into the stereo and shut the lid.

And then he pressed play.

Featured image: Fekete Tibor / Shutterstock

Featured image: Fekete Tibor / Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. Thank you for this engaging and engrossing story, Ms. Koning. You take us into the psyche and soul of this young man haunted by guilt and sadness over his girlfriend’s death. His interactions with the new neighbor couple seem to be helping him out of some bleak dark shadows, into a new light with some assistance from Louis Armstrong.

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