August 13, 2001 03:41 PM

The first time I heard Graceland I was researching war songs for an ill-fated production of Mother Courage (Let the Chaplain take the dregs, he's pious, she said) with an occasionally stereotypical sound designer named Paige. She was brash, she was fantastic. She was the fat woman I want to be. And quite younger than I am now. Funny that.

the mississippi delta
was shining like a national guitar
i am following the river, down the highway
through the cradle of the civil war

We sat in the listening room of the library. At the university where I learned to whistle while my mother studied counseling from an eclectic fiddle player who belonged to a band with my harp teacher from middle school.

This is a roundabout story.

I was transfixed. All these things happened at the same time. There was a boy. There was a crush. There was that ill-fated production of Mother Courage and an equally ill-fated chicken. There was a Slavic-American circus man.

No, that was a little earlier.

and sometimes when I'm falling, flying
or tumbling in turmoil i say
so this is what she means

Cut out of context, the story seems so bizarre. We weren't listening to Graceland to gather war songs. But because it was beautiful and I had not heard.

And I did learn to whistle waiting for my mother to finish her graduate classes. Sitting in a lobby, age fifteen. I wanted to whistle along with the schmaltz king and be part of his odd blues-rock-folk fusion life. To wear hats. I learned to play Moonlight Sonata with all the romance fifteen sees in Beethoven.

Those things are so embarrassing at five years' distance. At ten, they're hazy with sentiment.

and i may be obliged to defend
every love, every ending
or maybe there's no obligations now

A boy I met that year gave me a desk lamp for my sixteenth birthday (the light of sixteen candles, he said). I painted clouds inside and it became my sky, my microcosm. Saw him intent on a game of chess at a coffeehouse later and couldn't speak to him (five years). Thought later, another time (ten years). But have never seen him since.

Five years. Ten years. Without the awkward detail of emotions, memories are photographs painted on canvas. Softened, unblemished. Unreal.

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