My wife and I were sitting in the living room reading and taking frequent breaks to check our phones to see what the recent news was with Covid-19. It was the beginning of the fourth week of the state-imposed lockdown and it already felt we’d been doing this for a year. We were gearing up for a long haul.
Suddenly Emily looked at me and frowned. I met her gaze, “What?”
“Bad news,” she said, grimacing.
It seemed like we were spending every minute of every day hearing about and talking about the pandemic. Bad news was becoming a way of life. “Someone, we know has the virus?” I asked, my heart rate speeding up.
“Sort of. John Prine died.”
“Damn it,” I spat out, “I thought he might make it.”
We’d read the week before that he’d been infected. He’d been in poor health recently, but still…he was only seventy-three, my age. I loved him as a singer-songwriter and was sad to hear he’d passed on.
Emily shook her head, “Me, too.” She was quiet for a minute before saying, “He’d been in the ICU for eight days.”
“Shit,” I said, angry at the circumstances causing his death.
But then a song of his came into my head, Paradise, and I started to mellow out, suddenly at a loss for words, remembering the first time I’d heard his music. It seemed like it was only yesterday…
The year was 1971. I had returned from Vietnam in January and was working that summer as a dishwasher at Ken’s Cafe on the University of Minnesota campus. I’d just gotten back to the apartment after a ten-hour shift and was sprawled on the couch smoking a joint when Tim walked in.
He held up a shopping bag, “Check this out.”
“What have you got?” I took a hit and offered it to him. He took a deep drag and held it in. “John Prine’s first album,” he said exhaling and coughing a little. “It just came out.”
He put it on the turntable and, given what we were doing at that very moment, we were hooked by the first song, Illegal Smile. We listened to the album about ten times that night, smoking and talking, digging the music and the words to his songs. We became immediate fans. So did our other two roommates, and it became a pattern that summer: coming home from work, smoking our dope and listening to John Prine. I even figured out the chords to the fifth song on the album, Paradise, and Tim and I sang it together sometimes while I played guitar. It was a memorable summer.
But then life got in the way. Early the next year Tim was convicted for resisting the draft and was sent to prison in Missouri. I drove down to visit him a few times but tapered off after I started going to college. We eventually lost touch. I heard later that he’d stayed in Missouri after he was released, met a woman named Sunshine and moved to a commune south of Eugene, Oregon.
I finished college with a degree in education and started teaching science in the Minneapolis school system. A few years later I met Emily while we were both working weekends at the North Country Coop. We married and built a life together, living in an older section of Minneapolis and raising three kids. I taught high school biology and Emily was a stay-at-home mom who also worked as a self-employed seamstress. It was a good life, and we had no reason to think we wouldn’t be able to live it out to the end of our days the way nature intended. But it turned out nature had other plans in the name of Covid-19.
That night, after we heard the news about John Prine’s death, we both went silent for a while. Emily had listened to his first album with her roommates when she’d gone to college and had wonderful memories of those times, much like me and Tim and our friends. The two of us listened to it when we first started dating, sharing a blossoming love for each other as well as John’s music, which became sort of a cornerstone for our relationship.
After a while, Emily got up, crossed the living room and hugged me. “We still have his album around here somewhere?”
That old album had long since bit the dust. “Remember? It was pretty beat up,” I told her. “I had to replace it with a CD. It’s downstairs.”
“Why don’t you try and find it?” she said and kissed me again.
I went down to my workroom and rifled through my stash of albums and CD’s. It didn’t take long to put my hands on what I was looking for and I hurried back upstairs, holding the scratched jewel case out for her to see, “Found it.”
Emily’s bright smile took away some of my sadness. She still made me happy just by being around her. “Let’s have a listen.”
“Sure. You bet.”
We had a little boom box under an end table in the far corner of the living room. I put the CD in, started it and joined Emily on the couch. We listened all the way through, both of us quiet, lost in our memories of way back then.
When it was over, she ran her fingers through my hair and asked, “Didn’t you used to play that song, Paradise?”
I grinned. “Yeah, but not very good.”
“Do you think you could play it now?”
I knew what she was asking. She was asking if we could go back to those earlier years when life was simpler and we were first falling in love and didn’t even begin to think about something like a pandemic and the possibility of people we knew dying.
“Sure, ” I said. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
I went downstairs and got out my old martin, tuned it and brought it back to her. I played the song while Emily listened and hummed along,
“Daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County, down by the Green River where Paradise lay.”
“I’m sorry my son but you’re too late in asking. Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”
Then I played it again.
“Thanks,” she said when I finished. “That was nice.”
I went downstairs and put my guitar away. When I came back she was on the phone. “Who are you talking to?” I asked.
She covered the mouthpiece, “Jason.” We talked to our kids every day, now that the pandemic was so prevalent.
“Let me talk to him when you’re done.” Jason was our oldest son.
And she did. In fact, we talked to all three of our kids that night, and our grandchildren, too, giving everyone in our family our love and best wishes for them to be safe and well. It seemed like the right thing to do.
There was a pandemic going on and people were dying. We were all trying to survive. I felt that if John Prine was alive he might have done the same thing, call his family and tell them he loved them, maybe even write a song about it. It might have been a little thing, but it made perfect sense. And coming from him, that song would have helped make things a little less crazy. In fact, I’m sure of it.
When we were doing talking on the phone I went back downstairs and got John’s CD, thinking that we might want to listen to it again. I grabbed my guitar, too, just in case. This pandemic wasn’t going away anytime soon. A little music might help.
DECEMBER 2019 AUTHOR OF THE MONTH at Spillwords.com
Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories have appeared online in CafeLit, The Writers' Cafe Magazine, Cabinet of Heed, Paragraph Planet, Nailpolish Stories, Ariel Chart, Potato Soup Journal, Literary Yard, Spillwords, The Drabble and World of Myth Magazine, and in print publications: A Million Ways, Mused Literary Journal, Gleam Flash Fiction Anthology #2, The Best of CafeLit8, Nativity Anthology by Bridge House Publishing and Gold Dust Magazine. You can also check out his blog to see more: THE VIEW FROM LONG LAKE.