As I was selecting the dozen tales for my debut story collection Last Rites, I imagined sequencing a record album, seeking both an overarching theme and a variety of style and perspective. The stories in the book have to do with fate, about the choices and circumstances that take us where we end up, and about the reckoning we face when we turn around and examine the path we walked to get there. That’s the theme, as I see it. The variety comes in length – one story is a page long, another runs to 30 – and perspective – a cancer cell tells its origin story, the ghost of a Confederate general walks his old stomping grounds in modern-day Richmond, VA, the First Lady deposes the President, and war veterans try to make sense of peace, among other tales.
Building a playlist has been fun. The songs here echo and speak to the moods of the stories, making up their own album on which one might ruminate and wander. Here’s the Spotify playlist: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/3EOJRUXOWARC9gJex5pJa9?si=GA0mNrTeTyG6YeZqXaVn_w.
Story: One of the Ways. Song: Fields of Gold (Eva Cassidy’s version). In real life, I tear up whenever this song comes on, remembering picking flowers in the yard and walking the field in front of our house with Mama. In the story, a farmer walks off his drunk in a field at night, and when he comes back in the house, his young son sneaks out to walk the field, too.
Story: Measured in Sips. Song: Hello in There (John Prine). To my mind, Mr. Prine is America’s great story teller. His poignant plea to converse with old folks fits my story, in which a war veteran widower lives his last days alone with his swarm of memories, each breath like the ticking of a clock.
Story: Confederate General A. P. Hill Opines. Song: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (The Band). In my story, the ghost of A. P. Hill climbs down off his monument to walk about modern-day Richmond. He could have written this song. By the way, Richmond literary journal Bottom Shelf Whiskey has posted this story online here: https://bottom-shelf-whiskey.com/confed-gen-a-p-hill-opines/.
Story: Cancer: A Bildungsroman. Song: We Are The Champions (Queen). The memoir of a cancer cell (hat tip to dear Italo Calvino) — imagined as an arrogant, rogue, relentless mogul — might be sound-tracked by this football anthem.
Story: The First Lady’s Confession. Song: You Know I’m No Good (Amy Winehouse). One journal rejected this story as too hot to handle, though no President or First Lady is mentioned by name. At one point I’d subtitled it “What it Might Take.” I can imagine my heroine humming this song, as she sees her husband off to jail when his bill comes due.
Story: Debbie Hamilton. Song: First Glimmer (Replacements). It’s a first kiss story, and it’s a first kiss song, maybe the best first kiss song ever.
Story: River of Dreams. Song: River of Dreams (Billy Joel). In my story, middle-aged Jersey twins sing this song at the start of an ill-fated canoe trip. New Jersey loves Billy Joel, and his quasi-religious doo-wop tune neatly complements a tale that is pretty close to what really happened on a river trip I was on a couple years ago, including that last part with the ghost.
Story: Forgetting. Song: I Forget (Carly Simon). A flash fiction, derived from some of the patients I saw as an occupational therapist at UVA Medical Center in Charlottesville some years ago. Simon’s song might have been written by the old self-lobotomized pharmacist in the tale. This one’s been published online, too: https://madswirl.com/short-stories/2019/03/forgetting/.
Story: The Jazzman’s Lament. Song: Miles Runs the Voodoo Down (Miles Davis). This story and the one that follows derive from patients I saw in my first OT job at the Manhattan VA Medical Center. Davis’ haunted, percolating, urban soundtrack neatly matches the nightmare my protagonist lives while awake.
Story: The Bird Man of Central Park. Song: Born in the USA (Bruce Springsteen). I had a patient at the VA who was this guy; hope he’s still alive and feeding the birds. A Vietnam veteran with a thousand yard stare, he was also the sweetest, most gentle person, but alone, so alone.
Story: Let it Snow. Song: Both Sides Now (Joni Mitchell). I’ll admit it here; this story is a deliberate homage to Joyce’s monumental Dublin tale The Dead, transferred to middle-class suburban America. A young woman at my Christmas party sings Mitchell’s tune, and it returns to haunt the hero at the end.
Story: Grandpa and the Bear. Song: Nothing Compares to U (Sinead O’Conner version (natch)). I titled the book Last Rites, because the stories negotiate life and death issues. This one considers the “highly individualized and unshareable derangement that is the mourning of a spouse.” O’Conner, reading Prince, understands.
If you haven’t picked up my book yet, it’s for sale on Amazon (https://amzn.to/2ATYsAA), or you can ask for it at your local bookstore. Hope you enjoy it. Now you can sing along!