Everything Sounds Better on Vinyl

There was so much more I could have done. I fucking hate hindsight, even if I was just a young dumbass back then. Of course what my brother Seth did was awful, no matter how you slice it. It was a twisted, predatory failing, a moral failing, but if you’re cold and more law-minded, it was a legal failing as well. When I think about the night he was taken away, I don’t think about it in terms of justice, our family being irrevocably changed, or, most importantly, the shit Jodi had to recover from, if she ever really did. I look her up on Facebook now and then. Her profile pictures change, but they’re always happy scenes. In her latest one, she’s holding a pitbull puppy, and the picture is her in mid-laugh, her hands under the pup’s armpits, its belly all round and fuzzy. Maybe she’s at peace now, or maybe she’s still broken and hiding it. It ain’t my place to assume, but I can hope.

It was just after midnight, and I’d clocked out from my shift at Rite Aid. I was a cashier then, ringing up gallons of milk, diapers, packs of cigarettes and gum. When I stepped outside, I was hit by the humidity, which was nastier than usual. As I walked to my car, I stripped off my golf shirt. I’d be sweaty and nasty no matter what, but my car’s A/C was broken, and I preferred to drive home shirtless, rather than feeling the sweat cling to my armpits and chest. As soon as I pulled into the driveway at home, I saw Momma and Pop sitting on the porch swing, and I knew something was wrong. They never sat outside after sunset. My stomach tightened, and I’d forgotten I was half-naked. This didn’t even make them pause, me drenched and shirtless, looking like I was tripping on ecstasy. The whole scene was fucking awful. Me, sweaty and shaky, their faces pale and weepy, but their bodies looked happy and playful like they were separated from their heads as the swing creaked slightly as they moved back and forth.

I knew what the problem was, but I asked anyway before they could tell me.

Seth had been arrested.

I’m not saying it’s right, not even close, but I bet a lot of guys in their twenties sleep with high school girls. When you get caught, there’s no way to sugarcoat it. Seth didn’t love Jodi, but I sure as hell thought I did.

***

I was seventeen at the time; Seth was twenty-four. During high school, he took it upon himself to fill in the gaps on how to be a man. Pop taught me how to drive; Seth taught me how to flip someone off. Pop pinned me against the wall when he found out I’d been cutting classes; Seth laughed at this later, squeezed my neck, and explained how to evade the chubby, middle-aged high school security guards. So when it came to girls, I eliminated the middleman and went straight downstairs to Seth; or, rather, I followed his rules. I sent him a message on AIM and waited for his reply, his permission to enter his basement apartment downstairs.

I thought he was so cool, so damn grown up, as if he had his own bachelor pad, not a dank bedroom one level below our folks with barely enough space for his toilet and shower stall. But whenever I was allowed in there, I was in awe. The massive waterbed, the lava lamp, the fucking Confederate flag pinned over his bed, the empty McDonald’s bags on the counters. He can get in his car and go to McDonald’s any time he wants, I thought. It’s funny how a place associated with childhood becomes a barometer for perceived adulthood.

Of course, I didn’t realize how nasty it was—he never vacuumed or dusted, and there were dirty clothes all over. But there were unmistakable signs of a world I had no idea existed, but knew I wanted desperately: the occasional lipstick stained cigarette in the ashtray by his bed; an empty condom wrapper on the floor. Cologne bottles.

But his prized possessions, lining the wall underneath the ground-level window, were milk crates full of vinyl records. He called them his “sex sounds,” and he actually had them alphabetized. David Bowie. John Coltrane. Etta James. Prince. Frank Sinatra. When I was a freshman, he let me hang out in the apartment one evening, and he drunkenly explained how you could get any woman into bed with the right music.

“All depends on her personality,” he said then. “If you already know she wants to fuck, you put on something hot, like Marvin Gaye. If she’s hesitant, you put on Perry Como or Nat ‘King’ Cole, something that makes her feel classy. And don’t be playing any shit on your iPod. Everything sounds better on vinyl.”

This had been after he caught me in his room earlier in the week. He left the door unlocked one afternoon, and I just had to see how it looked and felt by myself, tinged with the air of wrongdoing. It was like being in a new city, miles away from my twin bed and LSU sheets just down the hall from Momma and Pop’s room. I ran my fingers along the lighters on his blanket, and had an instinctual understanding that broke through my painful naivety, that he smoked more than just cigarettes. I kneeled below the window and flipped through the records. I’d only gotten through the C’s when I heard the door swing open. One second, I was staring at Eric Clapton, the next moment I felt a ringing in my ears. Seth had hit me in the back of the head, grabbed my collar, and flung me on the bed. I didn’t cry, I didn’t yell, I didn’t fight back. He put his knee on my chest and slowly applied pressure.

“Colin,” he said, so calmly it was terrifying. He enunciated every word like he was giving a lecture. “If I ever catch you in here again, I’ll hit you again. If I ever catch you touching my records, I’ll knock your fucking teeth out. Now get your ass out of here, right now.”

***

That day though, I confided about Jodi, the girl in my American Literature class.

“Shit takes time, man,” Seth said. “First, you have to ask a lot of questions.”

“About what?”

“Anything. Open to a page in your textbook and ask her what it means. Ask her what’s she’s listening to when she takes out her headphones. Just ask and she’ll probably talk. Chicks love a guy who shuts up and nods.”

I nodded in return. It would have been pathetic as hell to take notes on these pointers, so I did the best I could to remember everything.

“Also, check her out when she’s talking.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, but don’t be obvious about it. Don’t stare at her chest for ten minutes. Just look her up and down quickly every so often. Don’t get caught, but make sure she knows you’re doing it.”

“This is good stuff.” I leaned back on the floor, looking up at him. In my mind, these were equations that just had to be plugged in, then boom, Jodi and I would be a thing.

“Take it easy, dude. It might take time. And when you get her number, don’t call her for three days.”

It felt like I was getting an injection of capital-W Wisdom. It wasn’t until years later that I realized I’d been instructed to follow an outdated, overrated movie.

I wanted to keep going, to ask for actual sex advice, but I planned to follow up once I’d gone out with Jodi once. For as much as I thought about sex, for as much as I closed pop-up windows just as quickly as I stroked to grainy videos, my fantasies about Jodi were almost too old-fashioned. I wanted to hold her hand at the movies. I wanted her to bury her face in my shoulder as she laughed at my jokes. I wanted goodnight kisses as I held her shoulders. I figured Seth would give me the biggest advice first, and then I could piece together the little things I needed to do in the meantime.

Seth shook his head and opened a beer, even though he had to leave within the hour for his shift at the gas station. “Shit, you’ll never keep all of this in your head. How about I pick you up from school tomorrow? Point her out to me. I’ll make you look good, little brother.”

***

Jodi was so intelligent, a junior in a senior-level class. She sat next to me, and I was always fascinated by how she always shrugged when she gave a brilliant answer, as if she wasn’t allowed to be beautiful and smart at the same time. She’d show off this half-smile, sink in her seat a little, and give this air of “I don’t know what I’m talking about” as she went off on these examinations of how the pearl was beauty that brought out the exact opposite of beauty in humanity. She was so polite. Maybe she did want me to ask her out, but I never could; that’s where Seth was supposed to come in. That day, we walked out together, and we must’ve looked like a cute photograph: me blushing, Jodi with her thumbs hooked into her backpack straps.

What made me nervous was that she clearly had a future. She was an Honors student, came to school in clothes that looked ironed, and was always helping stack boxes when we had food drives during the holidays. Me, I was in a fragile middle place. It would have been better if I was a great, involved student like her, or even a complete dumbass on the verge of failing out. She seemed like the kind of girl who’d take pity, maybe try to reach out and help a fuckup mend his ways. I had two incomplete community college applications at home. My manager at Rite Aid promised to make me full time after I graduated. So while I hadn’t settled into a sad existence like Seth, I was on the way.

I heard Seth before I saw him; we were barely out the front doors of the main entrance.

“Colin! Look alive, man. You’re talking with a beautiful young lady. Stand up straight.” I blushed even more as he walked over to us, chewing on a toothpick, his eyes locked on Jodi.

“Jodi, this is my brother—”

“Seth,” he finished for me. He took her hand and kissed it. Kissed it.

“I’ve heard so much about you.” He almost whispered this; her eyes grew wide. Seth had his ways. He still kept in shape even when his buddies sprouted beer guts, their post-football muscle turned to fat.

“Colin didn’t tell me he had a brother,” she said. We formed a very incomplete triangle: Seth and Jodi stood face to face, and I was at a point between them, looking back and forth.

“What are you doing this afternoon?”

“Homework. I have a biology exam next week that I haven’t studied for.”

“Shit, I’m sure you’ll get an A without even thinking about it.”

She giggled. They made more polite conversation. By that point, I’d mentally checked out, embarrassed, helpless, unable to steer the attention back on myself. As much as I wanted to run away, I stood there, watching them stare each other down, wanting to scream that she’d just get fucked a couple times and then left on the side of the road, either literally or figuratively.

I didn’t get her number. He didn’t tell her my qualities, real or imagined. Before I knew it, I was waiting for the bus after he offered to drive her home.

And now, I can’t blame Jodi, either, even if nothing was her fault to begin with. If I’d been a sixteen year-old girl with an older guy, just old enough to be enticing and worldly rather than creepy, I’d have been smitten, too. I put myself in her shoes so many times. We can all be swayed in ways we refuse to accept.

***

Having a crush blow up in your face is wrenching, especially when you’re still a kid, dominated by hormones. It was an entirely new plane, a week later, when I heard Seth’s car pull into the driveway. I watched from my bedroom window as he got out, opened the passenger door, and took Jodi’s hand. They disappeared in the side door that led to his apartment. I paced and swallowed, and I couldn’t help myself. I crept down the back stairwell. I stood outside the basement window of the house, trying not to cry, and listened. I listened in vain for any muffled gasps or groans, knowing they’d further wreck me, but it was such a necessary curiosity; I knew what they were doing, but I wanted proof. “Mysterious Ways” thumped loudly from Seth’s turntable, masking any other noises that might’ve escaped. Jesus, who fucks to U2? Seth had curtains blocking the windows, not that I’d want to see what was going on. If he caught me out there, he would’ve hit me and called me a pervert. Him of all people.

I crept back inside, locked the door, and turned to head to my bedroom. As I walked down the hallway, I passed Momma.

“What are you doing up, sweetie?”

Momma and Pop gave Seth free reign, both out of respect and a fear that they couldn’t control him; whatever went on in the basement apartment was his business, plus it helped that he had his own entrance on the side of the house. Until he was taken away, they had been willfully ignorant about a lot of his qualities, from his haphazard work ethic to his pot smoking to his sexual inclinations. Now, it’s obvious. Boys will be boys was their philosophy with him, even though he was an adult.

I didn’t know what to say to Momma. Would she really believe he was fucking one of my classmates just one floor below? And if she did, would she do anything about it? The last thing I wanted was for her to storm down there.

“Nothing, Momma. Just going to bed. Goodnight.”

***

For the rest of the semester, Jodi never sat next to me during class, when she showed up at all. She was lucky in that regard, having met him so late in the school year; she’d built up her grades enough that it was impossible for her to fail any classes. But I looked at her constantly, trying to examine the changes that were either real or imagined: bags under her eyes, the pallor and aches of a body unused to hangovers, a glow of someone new to sex, unaware of the accumulating mistakes. She refused eye contact whenever she felt me staring.

During the last week of class, before graduation, I caught up to her at her locker. I simply couldn’t let the chance pass to talk to her. In my mind, she knew she’d made a huge mistake, and I imagined offering words of comfort, insisting that I’d still love to take her out.

“Hey.”

“What do you want, Colin?” She looked depressed and frustrated, and stood impatiently, hugging her books.

“How have you been?”

She slammed her locker closed.

“Everything’s fine.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“What do you want?” she repeated.

“I just, how’s everything going with Seth, I haven’t seen-”

“LEAVE ME THE FUCK ALONE!” she screamed. The hallway traffic stopped momentarily, the other kids went quiet, then picked up again as Jodi stormed off to her next class.

***

Even though this all went down a couple years ago, it was a different time; most people would’ve said what Seth did was wrong, or creepy, but “rape” wouldn’t have been the first word. I’m older and hope I understand the world better now than I did then.

I still don’t know what brought him down. Did Jodi bring up moving in together and skipping college, only to get her heart broken? Did she leave her email or instant messenger open where her parents could see? All I know is that he was carrying on one day, happy to do his thing day in and day out, and the next, he was in the county jail.

***

The morning after he’d been taken away, my parents got ready to go visit him, to see if he needed anything, to figure out what the next steps would be, if any. I shuffled into the kitchen and poured a cup of coffee.

“Do you want to come with us?” Momma asked.

I stared at her and sipped. “Would it do any good, really?”

“He’s your brother. I’m sure he’d be happy to see you.”

“Look, I’ll go by myself when you get back. I’d like to talk to him privately if I can.” I shook my head and looked away, feigning sadness. This appeased her.

The house was quiet after they left. I walked through the halls, drinking my coffee, trying to stave off the panic and unease, wondering if I’d have to say anything in his defense, but also worried that everything was my fault somehow. I stood at the top of the stairs that led to his apartment. The desire to go down there, the deviant magic I’d felt years before, was gone.

***

I thought I couldn’t take all the records, so I started out by carrying the biggest stack I could to the trunk of my car. I went back four times, straining up the stairs, out into the humid morning, dumping the sleeves and discs in scattered stacks in the back, until the milk crates in Seth’s basement were empty.

I drove to the pond where I’d planned to take Jodi on our first date. There were comfortable wooden benches by the water’s edge, quaintly romantic, not the worst place to imagine your first kiss or confession of feelings.

The drive should’ve taken no more than five minutes, but I took side streets, drove slowly, wanting to think about nothing. I passed the ranch-style houses, saw people mowing their lawns, sitting outside, most likely not having their families or worlds ripped apart. But maybe they were; after all, my parents had been on the swing the night before. If you drove by from a distance, you wouldn’t have thought twice about it.

I pulled into the dirt next to the water and popped the trunk. The record on top was The Queen Is Dead. This made me feel guilty, because it’s such a great album. I grabbed a stack and walked down. It was still fairly early. I’d barely slept, worried about Seth, worried about Jodi, worried about my folks. Would he get locked up right away? Would there be a trial?

I didn’t look at what I did as destroying evidence, but rather destroying his tools. I took the first record, reared back, and tossed it into the water. It went pretty far out, floated on the surface, then slowly sunk under. The next record didn’t go as far; the album flew out of the sleeve upon release, which limited its distance.

I took Johnny Cash’s Greatest Hits out of the sleeve and flipped it like a Frisbee. It sailed out much farther and felt much more satisfying. If anyone was watching me, I didn’t notice, not that I would’ve cared. I imagined Seth getting out of jail, whether it was that week or in the next five years, coming home to find his treasures gone. This made me happy yet guilty, taking joy in something so inconsequential when various lives crumbled around me, doing something that, deep down, I knew wouldn’t make a fucking difference whatsoever.

But I smiled. I laughed. I whooped and hollered as I ran back up to the car to grab another stack. By the time I was done, I was a sweaty mess, sitting on the hood of my car, laughing and crying and trying to get used to the new weight that’s still on my shoulders.

By James Yates

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