Note:  In case you’d like to watch the three-minute film version of this instead, I’m including it after the text.

45s I’ve kept wrapped in newspaper in the attic.These are all mine.Some doubling up in sleeves.Some pushing tears in the seams.Unwrapped, they slide against each other in my hands, collectively bigger than my grip.

Here is the evidence, my small thumbprints still sitting ghostly across the grooves, of the films a young me had tried to re-imagine as I went to sleep and the needle came to a stop with a click.

Here is the evidence of being a generation or two behind, of fitting in, of deep contradiction.

* * *

The sticker on the back, stamped with a date, reveals that this record had been checked out of the church school library of my youth one time before I stole it.Then the row where the dates should go is blank the rest of the way down.

Like a long, angry sigh.

Oh, the oxidized pages and pencil erasers and the sizzling filaments of a blinking bulb over the devotional aisle whispering take it, take it.

This isn’t a matter of wrong or right.This is a matter of saxophones and man chains.

* * *

We sat on folded legs on linoleum and rummaged through the milk crates shoved under a table strewn with second-hand pie plates and postcards and a macramé owl.

“Which one do you like?” I asked her, my grandmother, somewhat slumping in a pink plaid shirt she’d sewn herself.

“Well,” she began with a warm crackle of her voice as her fingers crawled to flip the albums in the crate one by one, “this one’s a good one.”

She handed me the soundtrack to South Pacific, a two-dollar sticker affixed to the corner.

My grandfather served in the Navy during WW II, stationed in the version of the Pacific without Mitzi Gainer.There was, however, a photograph of my grandmother taped on the inside cover of his pocket-sized Bible.

* * *

“You don’t want to listen to this one,” my then brother-in-law, a youth minister, said with a glass of Pepsi in one hand and a knob-jointed finger of the other trembling over the album cover.“See?Those are actual dead people sitting there.Victims of demonic ritual.It’s all in the song.”

I squinted at the placid, red-tinged faces near the back, arrayed like bloody fingerprints.

Ice clacked inside his glass as he turned away, whispering, “Every time you listen you let the devil in.”

* * *

When my grandfather opened the closet door in the back room that housed his organ (the musical sort, of course, with its double row of keyboards and an inviting assortment of switches and pedals and pipes), he shook something loose and then caught only one of five sleeveless 78 records slipping free to wobble on the wooden floor.He looked down at his feet.

“I don’t know why you’d want these,” he said, turning the one in his hands. “They’re in bad shape.”

The Bay Rum Boys.Ben Light.Jan August.

When I play them now, the needle scrabbling over the scratches, I can see my grandfather’s own shoulder blades shrugging with the beat as his sprawled fingers hold the organ’s quivering notes in place like some kind of shaman pinning a snake.



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TNB Arts and Culture Editor CYNTHIA HAWKINS teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Most of what she thinks she knows comes from movies, including how to tango, how to take someone down with a ballpoint pen, how to curse in French, and how to catch a moving train. Her work, on movies and otherwise, has appeared in literary journals and magazines such as ESPN the Magazine, Parent:Wise Magazine, The Good Men Project, New World Writing, Strange Horizons, and numerous alternative weeklies and anthologies. You can find Cynthia on Twitter and at cynthiahawkins.net.

54 responses to “Tales from the Indiscriminate 
Record Collection”

  1. Art Edwards says:

    “Every time you listen you let the devil in.” Well, duh.

    Lovely piece. So sparse, but so much there. Lots of room to ruminate.

    Thanks, Cynthia!

    • Thanks Art! I appreciate that, being that it comes from the music guru 😉

      I just realized it’s probably sparser than intended (some of the film images fill in a few blanks, like, which stolen-from-the-church-library album features “saxophones and man chains” — that’d be The Imperials Greatest Hits — and every time you listen an angel gets its wings). *However* I can’t change it, because I’ve been warned by the wondrous Megan DiLullo that if I mess with it anymore I will inadvertently make the embed video disappear (again).

  2. Matt says:

    Your final line here is phenomenal, and completely captures that arcane magic that vinyl records have. Much as I love my iPod & CDs, the vinyl albums in my collection hold a special – and irreplaceable – place in my heart. Alas, my record player is currently on it’s last legs.

    Wonderful little short film, too.

    • Thanks Matt! That means the world to me because I was completely unsure of how either incarnation was coming across.

      I love my iPod as well, but sometimes digital music is just too polished. I’m probably very different from the serious record collector in that I actually like the way beat-up records sound. I think the scratchiness of my grandfather’s records is the best part about them, for example. Maybe because it speaks of their long and varied lives. Or maybe I just have low standards, heh.

  3. Irene Zion says:


    I wish I had all my old records!
    I had 78s! They really turned fast!
    I had 45s!
    I still have my 33 1/3s, though. Long-dead cats scratched the edges of the sleeves.

    • I bet you had some great old records! I love the weight of the 78s as well. They’re just so much more substantial as if they’re determined to be important … even, as is the case with mine, they’re good candidates for the elevator music in “Mad Men.”

  4. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Oh, vinyl memories! I do appreciate the digital age, but there are things I pine for. Real album cover art to peruse in detail. The delicate pause, then drop, of the needle over the record. To this day, when I hear certain songs, I expect to hear a pop or scratch where it had been on my vinyl copy. That’s a groove in the brain that can’t be erased.

    And now I’m thinking of the 1980s obsession with backward masking. Ha. The devil was EVERYWHERE.

    Enjoyed this, Cynthia.

    • “A groove in the brain that can’t be erased” — I love that! In fact, it’s the likes of your poetic stylings on TNB that inspired me put my other writing on here occasionally instead of the yammering on about movies I usually do. Unless maybe this is just me yammering on about records 😉

      • Ronlyn Domingue says:

        Well, that’s a lovely nod. Thanks. If this is a sample of what else you have to share, keep sharing! Shine your star on new subjects. You do it so well.

  5. Joe Daly says:

    Very cool marriage of spoken word, video, and a warm, rolling narrative. Good stuff!

    LOVED seeing that Dokken album!

    • When I jokingly offered Megan DiLullo the Dokken 45, (my) Joe said, “No way! It’s probably the only one left in the world!” So I checked. It is one of many and available for three bucks on Musicstack.com. That sort of makes me sad that it’s not more revered!

  6. Wow, that’s a change of pace for you Cynthia. Like a Karen Finley piece. I liked it. Dokken, too! Ha.

    “Saxophones and man-chains is a killer line.” Reminded me immediately of the cover of this Josh White album (which I still have, somewhere…)


  7. D.R. Haney says:

    This is great. That clip — it’s much, much better than almost any short film you’ll see at any festival. I should know! I’ve sat through many.

    You sound like you’re reciting poetry, which I suppose you really are. Yes, this piece is kind of a prose poem.

    Your grandmother was gorgeous, by the way. She looks like a movie star. And whose Strat is that resting on a stand in the background?

    • Man, I’ve been so worried that it’s the equivalent of a kid showing up in a lavish school production of Camelot wearing a Hefty bag. In other words, not up to par compared to what someone with actual know-how could pull off. But it’s my obsessive little two-week effort nonetheless. Many thanks for your kind review!

      As for my grandmother, I noticed she’d even signed it like a movie star, “All my love, June,” in the top righthand corner. I think she would have loved to have been a movie star, or at least known with some certainty that she’d looked like one. She grew up in an impoverished little mining town, and I have these fabulous pictures of her looking her movie-star best standing in front of dilapidation.

      That’s my Strat, of course!

  8. This is beautiful, Cynthia. I read it first and then watched the video and something about having the story delivered both ways genuinely enhances the overall narrative. It’s no small feat to be able to blend the formats the way you have. I liked for instance, discovering the second time around that the record with the dead people was Hotel California. And I loved the line “stationed in the version of the Pacific without Mitzi Gainer,” read in my own voice in my head and than hearing you.

  9. As always, I enjoy the ways you frame memory and family, Cynthia. Melancholic and bemusing. (And it makes me grateful my mom bought me my first Stones and Elton John 45s.)

    • You’re too good to me, Litsa! I don’t know if you could spot it in the fast flipping 45s, but I had in that stack “Wrap Her Up” and “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues.” We had the better, older Elton John albums on eight-track, of course, ha!

  10. Gloria says:

    I’ll echo everyone else: the essay/video combination is divine. And listen! That’s what Cynthia sounds like! That’s you!

    The Dokken album coming just before Aha made me giggle. I envy your record collection.

    Sean’s right – this is a change of pace for you. I really love it.

  11. Zara Potts says:

    I agree with Duke – this sounds like poetry when recited.
    How amazing that reading it and listening to it seem like two different pieces!

    What a gorgeous, comforting voice you have Cynthia. Lovely. Lovely. Lovely.

  12. Lorna says:

    Loved the video. I was feeling lazy, so I actually did skip the reading and headed straight to the video to watch it.

    I can not remember the last time I actually held a record in my hand. That’s so incredible that you saved yours.

  13. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    Bay Rum Boys? Wow! Oh the names of bands that never made it. Love that piece. And you’re raising the bar with the movie. It seems TNB will soon go straight to DVD 🙂

    • Isn’t that name great? Of course that’s the name of a band a sailor would love. I tried to do some research on them, and all I could find was a Mercury Records’ ad placed in a 1950s Billboard magazine for this very song. That’s it. I can tell you they sound like a barber shop quartet.

      Yes, next time film the car show! And I’ll expect special effects (exploding Uggs!) and a snazzy soundtrack. 😉

  14. Simon Smithson says:

    This has a very different feel to what I’ve read of you before, Cynthia – and it’s nice to see another side to your writing, especially one that I like so much. This is one of the lines that dragged my eye back to the beginning for another reading of it:

    “Like a long, angry sigh.”

    I kind of miss those old date cards, too, as well as vinyl. They have a volume of memories for me.

  15. Richard Cox says:

    I really enjoyed this. Maybe my favorite post of yours. I like your prose style, the reflective and patient tone. And the accompanying video is wonderful.

    Great call on blending media. What a great idea. The brilliant stroke is how you aren’t just reading the post but adding complimentary material. For instance the tone of this had me imagining different musical acts. So to see the actual record sleeves was great. I’ve kept all of my 45s and LPs as well, and have several of the same ones.

    I love that you stole one from the church library. Super bonus score.

    The scratchy record sound is an aesthetic I like for certain situations and types of music, the retro feel of it. But if I had to pick one or the other, I’d take my iPod.

    Wonderful post, Cynthia.

    • I stole *two,* in fact, because I’m hardcore like that.

      Thanks Richard! You’re too kind! It was a lot of fun to put that video together — an obsessive, crazy, wild-eyed, no sleep kind of fun.

    • Erika Rae says:

      I totally agree with Richrob. Just the fact that you nicked this from the church library straight through the devotional aisle gives you massive street cred in my eyes.

      Not the devotional section, mind you – devotional *aisle*.

      I must know. What sort of church school did you go to? Based on that description alone I am convinced it was holier than mine. Worst I ever did in my church school library was to study sign language when I was supposed to be studying my German IV. My friend Andrew and I would sit next to each other on a ratty old couch and insult each other’s families with the 12 words we could sign with our hands.

      “Your parents are brothers.”

      Careful though, Cynthia. Those really are actual dead people sitting there. It’s totally in the song.

      • Southern Baptist. That’s all I’m divulging lest they find me out and come for their records. I will tell you, though, that their services were televised, and *I* took sign language classes so I could sit with the signing choir and thereby get on T.V. Isn’t that vain and awful? I must have been an awful child. Though I looked perfectly angelic. And really good on T.V.

        “Your parents are brothers.” Ha! Do you still know how to sign that? All I know is “Closer My God to Thee.”

        • Erika Rae says:

          Southern Baptists don’t talk about sex. It could lead to dancing.

          (Stole that from Judy Prince – heehee)

          We were Nazarene – but my school was non-denominational, so yeah, I think your school was definitely holier than mine. (Although maybe not my church – haha. We had that whole sanctification thing going for us, you know.)

          I love that you had ulterior motives beyond shirking a class to learn sign language. Evanga-TV, no less!!! I’ll bet you looked super angelic. Uber angelic. And I’m just positive that thing sticking out from your hand is a pretzel and not a *gasp* cigarette.

          And to answer your question, I can still sign…a little. As a matter of fact, I can still sign an entire half of that original statement.

          “You are brothers.”

          It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but it’ll work in a pinch. I fully intend to bust that out at my 20 year (Yes, 20) high school reunion this summer. Andrew won’t know what hit him.

        • That’s a great line! Also, that’s a pixie stick!

  16. Quenby Moone says:

    I love hearing you read this aloud. It’s got the perfect cadence and it really brings it into relief as you weave one record with another memory. It’s a great piece!

  17. […] she has a record collection that gives new meaning to the word […]

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