By Melissa Stephenson
In 1983 my older (and only) sibling took me to buy my first album. On vinyl, he insisted. It’s the only way. Our folks had a sprawling collection of their own, built mostly in the late 60s and early 70s when they were teenagers and young parents. Not yet ten, I held some rolled up bills in my damp right hand. My brother, three years older, had already seen Kiss in concert (twice). I asked him to help me find that “dancing” song I kept hearing on the radio. I sang a couple bars: Come dancing . . . . . Matthew smiled and pressed David Bowie’s Lets Dance into my arms. The cover wasn’t what I’d expected, but he assured me that was what I wanted. I bought it, took it home, and was heartbroken to find I’d wasted my only cash on the wrong dancing song. I let Matthew borrow it when he asked. His bedroom sat below mine, in the basement. The dark and sultry sounds of that album rose up through the heating vent that connected us as I lay in bed, listening, the music working its way into me like foxtail grass in a dog’s ear.
In August of 2000, I got that album back. My brother had grown up to be a star of sorts himself. Covered from knuckles to neck in tattoos, he moved to Athens, GA, attended every worthwhile rock show in proximity, then married a larger-than-life gal who played bass and breathed fire in a southern metal band. He worked crowd control on their tour, traveling the country, through Europe, and back for the Grammy’s. When the tour ended and his wife left him in the harshest possible way—by cheating on him with a childhood idol (Lemmy, from Motorhead)—my brother filled a cafeteria tray with Jello shots, downed them a whole Sunday long, and shot himself in the head before nightfall. I flew in to identify his body and clear out the trailer where he’d been living and inherited his fat blue heeler, his ’79 For F-150, and his the vinyl collection that had begun with my parents and snowballed in my brother’s hands. I flipped through the records in the brutal heat of an August day, pausing on the Bowie. The memory that it had been mine all along flew back to me, a gift.
On a Friday morning this January, as I fed my kids instant oatmeal, prepared lunches, and sipped coffee, “Space Oddity” came on the radio. My boyfriend cranked it and we sang along. My son, nine-years old, asked who in the samhill this David Bowie was, so I talked about his music. and shared the Let’s Dance story, something I hadn’t thought about in years. My boyfriend laughed, admiring Matthew’s stealth older-brother moves. My daughter, six-years-old with her spoon paused over cereal bowl, said, “You had a brother? He was our uncle? But he died?”
The next Monday, as we again readied ourselves for a day of school and work, the boyfriend came downstairs with phone in hand, face full of sadness and confusion, and said, “David Bowie died?”
That possibility had not occurred to me any more than my brother’s eventual suicide ever crossed my radar. The kids reminded us we’d just been talking about that guy. As my daughter put on her backpack and tucked mittens into coat sleeves in preparation for a ten degree walk to school, I heard her singing, This is ground control to Major Tom . . . , Her voice bound her somehow to an artist just gone and an uncle she never met, and I thought, that’s why you make art. Make art until you die. Because the art? It never stops being born.
Melissa Stephenson lives, parents, and writes in Missoula, Montana. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in journals such as The Chattahoochee Review, New South, Memoir (and), The Mid American Review, and Passages North. She’s currently hard at work completing a collection of poems and her first book—a memoir about cars and her brother.