Songs, Stories, and Spirits: Homesick

Welcome to Songs, Stories, and Spirits. We’ll be jamming unwanted opinions on good music, good stories, and good booze down your ears, eyes, and throats on a weekly basis. We hope you enjoy. And if you don’t, there is a comment section below that we more than welcome you to ignore! Cheers!

Song: “Washington Square” by Counting Crows

Robert Masiello: Okay, so Counting Crows may not have been the most important band spawned in the 1990s, but they certainly weren't the worst. Their 2008 release “Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings” was a somewhat bizarre piece, with the album's brawny Gil Norton-produced first half ("Saturday Nights") segueing into a more subdued, folkier second half ("Sunday Mornings"). The record's latter side kicks off with "Washington Square," a delicately plucked lament with rather thoughtful lyrical details. Frontman Adam Duritz's weary vocals were tailor-made for this kind of thing. He ruminates on the passage of time and feeling lost in a new city. There's nothing groundbreaking going on here, but it's just all so goddamn lovely, right down to the requisite harmonica solo. And if you've ever felt a feeling ever, good luck not getting emotionally clobbered by the chorus:

"I love like a fountain / and it left me with nothing / just memories of walking through Washington Square"

Story: “The Guesthouse” by Kirsten Valdez Quade

Daniel Ford: This past April I devoured Kirsten Valdez Quade’s “Night at the Fiestas” in nearly one sitting. Publisher’s Weekly called the short story collection “an emotional tour de force,” and it couldn’t be more on the nose. Packed with family drama, characters at the end of their ropes, and set in the rugged, literary fertile Southwest, “Night at the Fiestas” is an essential read for anyone who loves a well-crafted short story.

In my interview with the author, I asked what themes she wanted to tackle. She answered,

“I find myself writing about family and the little betrayals that can occur between parents and children, brothers and sisters. The family is such fertile terrain for fiction, because there’s shared history there, such intimacy and love, and yet our families are forced on us. No one knows quite how to push our buttons like our family members, and small gestures can take on huge resonances.”

The idea of “home” is rarely uncomplicated and stirs emotions in all of us that can boil over given the right circumstances. Jeff, the main character in “The Guesthouse,” is pained by the death of his grandmother, but can’t simply bask in the nostalgia of her home because his degenerate father has taken up residence in her guesthouse. While Jeff toggles between sadness and anger, there is also a far amount of humor in the story. It goes to show you that even when home isn’t what you remembered it to be, there are still stories you can find worth telling.   

The Guesthouse

Jeff stands with his sister in their grandmother’s kitchen, still in his funeral clothes, but barefoot now. He heard the stroke had been painless and decisive, yet, judging from the state of the house, his grandmother had clearly been in decline even before the clot wedged itself into that tight corridor in her brain. She was always tidy, but the place looks awful: the floor is sticky and grainy, the sink full and on the stove smelly water stagnates in an egg pan. In the cupboard beneath the sink, there is a leak. The wood is buckled and soft, stinking of spores and damp garbage. He thought his grandmother was doing fine, and his obliviousness pains him.

“Why didn’t you tell me things had gotten this bad? Didn’t you ever check up on her?”

“Excuse me?” says Brooke. “Are you blaming me for Grandma dying?”

“Of course not,” Jeff says, although he is.

Pick up a copy of “Night of the Fiestas” to read the rest!

Spirit: Sombrero

Daniel: Alabama’s Christmas album played from a beat up CD player. Every Christmas light in the room glowed soft white against the dark night outside. I lounged on my parent’s couch awaiting orders from my mother, who was cutting, folding, and taping wrapping paper onto awkwardly boxy presents. Our cat Whitey (#RIP) meandered happily around the scraps of colored paper and curlicue ribbons littering the floor.

Everything felt like Christmas, but, goddamn, my mother and I were freakin’ glum.

The gift wrapping had seemed like drudgery from the moment I hauled her supplies up from the cellar. I had fought with the aging card table’s stiff leg joints. My two other brothers were nowhere to be found. My mother and I had barely said two words to each other. There had been more holiday spirit on the Metro North train I took to get home.

Finally, my mother, being the smart woman that she is, ordered me to the kitchen.

“Go make me a fucking drink,” she said.

(Editor’s note: She probably didn’t use “fucking,” but she’ll appreciate my artistic license).

Booze. Of course that’s what was missing. I walked into the kitchen and surveyed my parent’s liquor cabinet. My mother isn’t much of a drinker, so I wasn’t sure what I could make her that wouldn’t cause her to end up on the floor.

“What’s in a Sombrero?” I asked, sticking my head back into the living room.

“Just dump some eggnog and Kahlua into a glass,” she replied as her shears vociferously sliced through another large sheet of paper.

“You got it.”

That’s precisely what I did. No measuring cups. No mercy.

Roughly 15 minutes later, the booze washed away all remnants of our Scrooge-like selves. We laughed heartily over family memories, cracked jokes about each other back and forth (lovingly, of course), and we finished the gift wrapping done in half the time it usually took us.

Whenever I think of “home for the holidays,” I think about getting my mother drunk on Sombreros. According to my father, she only has them now if I make them. She claims his are too weak.

I’m rarely home for the wrapping festivities now, but I’m sure my mother would have a drink waiting for me if I showed up to help. More likely, she’ll be hand me a bottle of Kahlua and tell me to get to work. Like the good son I am, I’d oblige.

No measuring cups. No mercy.