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!”
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.