Josh Russell ~ Two Essays from Commonplaces

For Robert F. Simon

When I pay $7.99 to down­load a 1966 driver’s ed scare film I was shown in the sum­mer of 1984—The Third Killer, pro­duced by the Ohio State Highway Patrol and some­how star­ring Robert F. Simon, a char­ac­ter actor who played Willie Loman on Broadway, Darrin’s dad on Bewitched, and a hun­dred-plus oth­er stage, movie, and TV roles—I am remind­ed once again that fact-check­ing dulls nostalgia’s plea­sures. I want instead of a dig­i­tal file, memory’s mon­tage: the stut­ter of the Super 8 pro­jec­tor, boys and girls sit­ting in the dark in dri­ving sim­u­la­tors with the dash­boards of cir­ca 1977 Dodge Darts snick­er­ing at bad act­ing and goofy sanc­ti­mo­ny while the pissed-off coach yells at us to take seri­ous­ly a movie about a sales­man named Rellik who eggs on men and women who look like our most uncool uncles and aunts to dri­ve too fast and die in inevitable crash­es, cough­ing to cov­er my laugh­ter when coach asks, “What did you learn?” and the girl with the dark pony­tail in my road skills group answers, “Don’t become the kind of per­son who takes advice from some­one whose name is ‘killer’ spelled back­ward.” When we turned right out of the high school’s park­ing lot, what street was it onto? Was the next right the Jamaican dri­ving instruc­tor told us to take Wisconsin Avenue or Connecticut? When we fol­lowed it and then got onto the Beltway, did we see atop a hill the Mormon Temple and spray-paint­ed across an over­pass SURRENDER DOROTHY? Was it Wisconsin or Connecticut onto which we exit­ed, then made anoth­er right, then anoth­er into the park­ing lot, where one of us got out of the back seat and switched with who­ev­er was behind the wheel? I refuse to do the research. Nostalgia shuf­fles memory’s under- and over­ex­posed snap­shots, a stack of prints from the one-hour pho­to pro­cess­ing place in the mall. A mix­tape plays in the car stereo, Madonna and Run-DMC and Bad Brains. One of us brakes for a yel­low and our instruc­tor yells, “You could’ve made that light!”


For Fugazi

After much dis­cus­sion in the last weeks of 1987, my girl­friend and I set about find­ing a place to lose what vir­gin­i­ty we had left. History ruled out the car: a month or so before we got bust­ed by the Park Police one night parked along Rock Creek below the glow­ing Mormon Temple. We end­ed up on dirty liv­ing room wall-to-wall in Wheaton when we went to feed a friend’s fam­i­ly cat because he and his broth­er and his mom were out of town for Thanksgiving. A few days lat­er I turned nine­teen. In my mem­o­ry of those days, we’re always naked and try­ing and fail­ing not to make noise while lis­ten­ing for a creak­ing stair or a slammed car door. In mid-December, we were walk­ing near the National Gallery and its qui­et rooms—so I’m wrong, my mem­o­ry holds more than beds and floors—when we came upon wheat-past­ed broad­sides that yelled MEESE is a PIG. A short man­i­festo below the foot-tall red block-let­ter PIG explained why he was. The posters, big and loud, seemed sud­den­ly every­where, and it felt like the rev­o­lu­tion I’d naive­ly wished for was afoot. Soon after my girl­friend and her fam­i­ly left for Christmas in Chile, from which they’d fled in the ear­ly ‘70s. It was safe now for them to vis­it, and they did every December, and I knew they were going, but the silence in their sta­tion wag­on was still star­tling after I dropped them off at Dulles and drove back to their house in Silver Spring where I was stay­ing while they were in Santiago. I let myself in with her father’s keys. After a din­ner of deliv­ery piz­za, I sat on the liv­ing room couch—where we’d made out many times—reading a book and feel­ing grown-up, when a timer clicked, the lamps turned off, and the qui­et room went dark. A few days after Christmas my friend Al called to ask me if I want­ed to go to a show at dc space. Maybe he knew I need­ed noise. Cover was $1.99 and the woman work­ing the door made every­one take a pen­ny when they gave her two sin­gles. When I was next in line, she put the roll of coins in her pock­et and showed me the num­ber on the tal­ly counter: 125. I didn’t under­stand. “Fire code,” she explained. Behind me Al groaned. I asked if I could watch from the door­way. “You are tall,” was her answer. I remem­ber it was loud and some­what slop­py and the vol­ume and messi­ness soothed me. They closed with “Waiting Room.” Twenty-one sec­onds in, the music abrupt­ly stops for four sec­onds of silence. And then the song restarts. Three decades lat­er, a lot of peo­ple know this; a YouTube video of an ear­ly live per­for­mance of “Waiting Room” has been viewed more than six mil­lion times; those four sec­onds are no longer a sur­prise. But in December of 1987 Fugazi had yet to record even a demo, had yet to play out even a dozen times, and when the music stopped, a woman screamed, as if fright­ened by the sud­den qui­et. I remem­ber her scream, and I remem­ber the heat of the crowd, and I remem­ber the shock of cold and qui­et when I stepped onto the street. People either whis­pered or yelled, sens­es skewed by tran­scen­dent noise.

Josh Russell’s King of the Animals (LSU Press, 2021) was longlist­ed for the Story Prize. His sto­ries and essays have appeared most recent­ly in Epoch, DIAGRAM, Subtropics, and Seneca Review.