For our readers’ pleasure, we present a RETRO short story of love, music, and mail. “Inspiration is hard to come by. You have to take it where you find it.” – Bob Dylan
It started during the week of Thanksgiving 1983, precisely one year and three months after she’d cut off her evolving situation with Frederick J.
He found a way to stay in touch that worked in a style she found just as appealing as his occasional voice-mail poetry readings. Those had diminished to a once-per-month pattern in the spring and summer of 1983 . . . and then there was silence in the fall. She didn’t hear from him in any way for months. By then her assumption was that he’d grown tired of his own yearning, and moved on. She wondered if he had a girlfriend.
Her own lack of any significant other didn’t bother her much; she was waging a battle to shed a few pounds and drink much less and swearing off marijuana as well. Yet it did surprise her that her 44th birthday, in September ’83, went unacknowledged by him.
Then he caught up with her. Two days before Thanksgiving ’83, a large envelope awaited her on the table in the mailroom where oversized items were sorted out by the department’s secretary. Carole knew it had to be an album, and there it was: the newly released Bob Dylan LP—Infidels. A note was attached, and she recognized Fred’s lousy penmanship: “The critics are wrong. He’s still the best wordsmith in the biz. Check out ‘Jokerman.’ ~~ Love, FJ . . .”
This became their conduit. His annual offering; her perennial treat. As long as Dylan put out a new work, it worked. At least that much did. And her gesture in reply was to be sure that a regularly updated Letter of Recommendation was in the files on his behalf at the department’s main office. The secretary would send a note on university stationery to his latest address, confirming that such a document could be copied and sent out at any time. But never did he ask such a favor from Professor Carole (as most students called her). Carole felt, however, that she had to do something. If Fred ever applied to graduate school or had a job interview, such a letter might be useful.
It annoyed her that university stationery had such clout.
She was always amazed by Frederick’s reliability: also his restraint. He’d never hovered around her office; he didn’t ever say anything untoward on her answering machine. And again, like clockwork in the fall of ’84 and again in ’85, always during Thanksgiving week (when Fred knew she’d be puttering around her office; emptying her mailbox in anticipation of the semester’s last hurrah), right on schedule there they were: A newly released LP of concert recordings entitled Bob Dylan: Real Live in ’84, and the tremendously well-reviewed Empire Burlesque at the end of November ’85. Her TIME subscription had alerted her to that one: they ran a review of it in October that made it sound like Empire Burlesque was the best thing to come down the pike since 1965.
She didn’t think so.
But that wasn’t the point. Always there was a note Scotch-taped to the album’s cover, and on those notes Frederick would tip her off to his own favorite track. “’Girl From the North Country,’” he wrote in ’84 — “as good as the 1963 master track on Freewheelin’.” And in 1985, he was blunt: “’Dark Eyes’—it’ll last; the rest is so-so. Love to you—FJ.”
Now in the quiet hours of a late November day in 1986, she entered Lincoln Hall, knowing full well that the mailroom would only be open for one more hour; and if this lyrical protocol was about to be perpetuated, she had to get up there. The problem was her left leg. She couldn’t lift it. Not even to place it on the first step of the staircase.
This hadn’t happened before. She had sore joints and bad aches and the periodic flare-up of what she assumed was arthritis or a harbinger of osteoporosis. All that ran in the family: both her parents had helped two orthopedic surgeons make fortunes.
But this was different. She knew she had to use the elevator. Walking the four flights up to her main office was out of the question. Even one flight or one lousy step? No.
She managed, in and out of the elevator, although the dragging heaviness of her left leg was apparent to her. But she could at least pull it along. Lifting it was a problem.
Nobody else was around. Even the secretary had gone for the day. But the mailroom was open; the janitors had to sweep and mop in there, so they’d lock the door later in the evening. She saw that an oversized envelope awaited her. Again. On time.
She knew he’d graduated. (Finally!) Now the return address indicated he was back in Chicago. For the first time she considered writing him a long letter, trying to update him on things.
But her immediate need was to sit: standing next to her desk, she had felt a spasm of lightheadedness. A really troubling wooziness, like she was going to keel over. She felt—in every way—much like the title she saw on the 1986 Bob Dylan album cover: Knocked Out Loaded. And she wondered: How does ol’ Bobcat go on, year after year?
Carole had no choice but to go on. There’d been maybe a dozen incidents of numbness up here or semi-paralysis down there; episodes of pain followed by frightening interludes of nothing quite specific but omnipresent feelings of unwellness. Later in 1989 she agreed with several doctors that maybe–just maybe–a spinal tap would be the best way to diagnose this.
This was diagnosed as multiple sclerosis, and her infinite questions were met with a finite medical response. Quite frankly, nobody knew anything. It was all a ghastly mystery. How bad could it get? So bad that she might devolve into a quadriplegic. But maybe not. Maybe she’d plateau at a certain level, and still walk in a limited way for another thirty years. Nothing was for sure. It could wreck her. Or she could live with it.
Some people had MS for decades and lived reasonably normal lives. Others were reduced to a shell of their former selves. No guarantees; no predictions.
It was maddening to her. The only thing she knew for sure was that as the weeks and months and years went by, she lost more and more of her strength, control, and power.
But the one single reliable thing remaining constant in her life was that every Thanksgiving, Fredrick J. sent her a new album. When Dylan had no new record in the fall of ’87, something still arrived. In 1987, he sent her George Harrison’s Cloud Nine, her favorite ex-Beatle’s first new work in five years.
That was the last time Fred Jones sent Carole a Bob Dylan album on vinyl. In 1990, he sent her a cassette version of Dylan’s Under the Red Sky. There must have been a traditional release on vinyl, but he couldn’t find it. All over Chicago, and throughout the country, compact discs had overrun the music industry and in the space of five years transformed the formats. Fred didn’t know if Carole even had a CD player. But she had brought her small cassette player to a few classes, so Fred and the others could hear poetry readings she had recorded. He remembered that with sadness.
CD boxed-sets were the rage all of a sudden, everyone getting in on the act. RCA recycled all the Elvis assets they could; another label reincarnated the careers of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Barbra Streisand’s 4-CD collection was hot and dozens of special anthologies and retrospectives were inaugurated: Sinatra, James Brown, the Stones—you name it. Untold numbers of Beatles fans repurchased all their albums on CD. Happily.
Fred Jones was one of those fans, and the reissue of the Beatles’ recordings, with their original playlists restored, added up to one of the few pleasures in his life. The latter half of the Eighties struck him as a time of cultural punishment. How could it not? He’d read the papers, see most movies, try MTV, stay tuned, try again – and then vomit.
When he’d graduated from ESU late in the summer of 1985, he had no immediate plans. Moving back in with his parents, in a suburb of Chicago, was the no-brainer of a choice he faced. He had no savings and a B.A. in history didn’t create a profile making him a hot property.
He knew then his misfit status was about to be extended. Indefinitely. And he knew it again after Thanksgiving ‘90, when her new cassette, still carefully packaged, came back in the mail. Two stickers: Undeliverable. No Forwarding Address.
(M. J. Moore is Honeysuckle Magazine’s RETRO columnist. His novel, For Paris ~ with Love & Squalor, was published in 2017. In April 2019, Heliotrope Books will publish his new book – the first-ever biography of author Mario Puzo. It’s called Mario Puzo ~ An American Writer’s Quest.)