It was laying in an old box marked BILLY’S STUFF in a forgotten corner of the attic, near where the insulation had been bitten and chewed by a family of long-ago mice. The words were faded and the cardboard brittle. When I pulled the top off, both one corner and a cloud of dust flew.
Normally, I would have moved on. It was only one box among dozens in my parents’ attic and one that was not marked CHRISTMAS, and thus not of interest. Normally, I would have gone on to the wreaths wrapped in trash bags and the candles that have gone in their windows every year since I was a child and the other boxes of ornaments and decorations and pushed them to the door, into my father’s hands.
Normally. But I didn’t this time, not with that box. Because this one said BILLY’S STUFF.
There is a kind of magic in such situations, as though time is blurred such that the past and present become the same in one small tick of life. That’s what I felt right then, crouched down under the eaves. This was the Me I once was tapping the Me I am now on the shoulder, wanting to sit for a while. Wanting to talk. Given all that, I had to open the box. Even if Dad was hollering into the attic, wanting to know where I was.
So I reached down and folded back the remaining sides, feeling like I had just discovered some long lost tomb. Inside were memories long forgotten—notebooks and newspaper clippings, an old T shirt gifted to me by someone who must have been important but whom I’d forgotten, an old fountain pen. And buried beneath it all, a single cassette tape with the word LIFE written on the label.
Dad hollered again, telling me Christmas would be over by the time I got all the decorations down. I felt the stuff in the box. I took the tape. Partly because it was the only thing I could fit in my pocket. Mostly because it intrigued me. I had no idea what was on there, and I wanted to know what LIFE meant to a seventeen-year-old me who believed the world lay at his feet.
I got back home and dug out an old cassette player from the closet, amazed not only that I had one, but that it still worked and I’d remembered how to use one. I sat it at my desk, popped the tape in, and pushed Play. What came over the speaker wasn’t my own voice expounding upon my adolescent wants and dreams. It was music.
Of course it had to be music.
Back then, at that age, everything was music. I had so many of those cassettes back then my truck couldn’t hold them. Half were kept in the glovebox, half in my room. Mix tapes, we called them. I guess you can do the same with CDs now, but I don’t know what they’re called.
Honestly? I was a little disappointed. Was I really so shallow that long ago to think sixty minutes of spandex-pantsed, makeup wearing, hair metal music was the one thing of my past worth preserving for the future?
It wasn’t the first time the person I am shook my head at the person I was and called him an idiot.
But I kept the tape playing. One song melted into the next, and before long I wasn’t only playing air guitar and singing along, I was remembering. Where I first heard that song. Who I was with. What I was doing. What I felt.
Then I understood. And suddenly I realized it wasn’t the person I am cursing the person I was at all, it was the other way around. These weren’t songs at all. This was the background music to a former life.
I’ve just spent the last hour on iTunes, downloading every one of those songs. I miss cassette tapes (heck, I’m old enough to still miss vinyl records), but digital really is the way to go. Right now, I’m turning my past to my present and plan to enjoy the person I was while listening to those songs on my phone while I mow the yard. Listening and remembering.
Because you know what? I haven’t talked with that old me in a long while. Sometimes, I miss him.