When I started this final exam reflection/exit essay (which I wonder if you’re even reading) I dialed up the Brahms Alto Rhapsody you played early this semester which you said was so beautiful it made some suicidal writer change his mind, so I gave it another chance thinking I’d missed something, and guess what? It still sucks. So I changed it up and started listening to what my twin brother was playing when I found him, which I’m not even going to tell you what it was. You wouldn’t appreciate it. You’d probably have a spasm like you did that day when somebody asked what you thought of Lil’ Nas, who, you know what? was at least trying some new things unlike some professors who probably repeat the same boring-ass lecture for forty years, keeping to the script from two thousand years ago when the killer B’s as you called them (Brahms, Beethoven, and Bach—to which I would add Bon Iver) were making the crowds go wild. This is my final final exam/reflection/exit essay ever because after much reflection I’ve decided to exit this college, which is a decision you helped me solidify. I appreciate it.
What you really want to hear is how everything you played really opened our eyes, but the truth is I didn’t appreciate anything about your mix. Music without a drumbeat is impossible to tap your foot to. Maybe I missed something during those two weeks I was out, but I doubt it, not that you noticed my absence. Not that you even replied to my email where I said I’d be absent, which would have been nice, just to have that little bit of human interaction, but maybe you never reply to anyone’s email, which is par for the course here at this prestigiously mediocre state institution. Ha. Par for the course. Good one, Rylie. Thanks.
I was out two weeks because I got Covid on purpose so I could sell my plasma. My Dad’s idea. He said if I got it, I could make a lot more from the plasma. Which is funny because when I was a kid, he called me “Hypo,” short for Hypochondriac, because I was constantly worried about germs and also whether I’d get diabetes from having a sip of Diet Coke. And I figured if I got Covid, at least I’d have some excused absences under my belt.
The sad part is that I had a hard time getting it because I couldn’t get close enough to anyone. I never met people who knew people who threw parties. I’m not good at talking, and if I ever get out of my comfort zone to even try to talk to someone new, I like a friend beside me, like my roommate, but he lasted three weeks before he went home. My brother and I were supposed to be roommates, but then I got stuck with this guy who was the filthiest person on the planet, he never cared about reducing his body odor or doing any chores to help with cleanliness, so I’m the one who vacuumed, swiffered, and wiped down everything while he played Mortal Kombat and listened to Scream Metal, his favorite album being “You Can’t Spell Slaughter Without Laughter” by a band called I Set My Friends on Fire. My favorite track is “Reeses Pieces, I don’t know who John Cleese is?” which is more upbeat, and it doesn’t matter that I also don’t know who John Cleese is. His other favorite band was Sharks in Your Mouth, in particular the song “I Killed the Prom Queen” on the album “Music for the Recently Deceased (tour edition),” which you would last about one second with if you were accidentally exposed to this genre is my guess. He said it got him through his days, which I appreciated. Then he got Covid and went home and I missed him. Remember when you said nobody listens to albums anymore? My ex-roommate listened to albums and my brother was listening to an album in his car when I found him, an actual CD because the old car my dad got for him had a CD player in it, which you can’t find anymore. I’m not even going to mention what album it was.
That day you devoted to the 1960’s when you played Jimmy Hendricks doing his Star Spangled Banner thing was okay, but then you saw some people covering their ears and somebody asked what drugs he was on and you said maybe the problem was that we weren’t doing enough drugs. Which is where I think you could do some reflecting yourself and see whether you want to say things like that or not because that’s how my brother died, an overdose, so that was something else I didn’t appreciate. My parents want to believe it was an accident, but I knew him better and saw it coming. He hated school more than anyone in history, and here he was about to go to college, which he hated the thought of, but he didn’t want to stay home either, and then his girlfriend broke up with him and started trashing him on snapchat, and then he got kicked out of the band he’d been playing drums with which he took really hard because that’s all he wanted to do forever was to be a rocknroll drummer. Maybe he wasn’t good enough at that point or maybe the other guys didn’t like him much, I don’t know, he never said.
So I had a hard time getting Covid, but Dad said “be persistent.” I sat closer to people in the cafeteria, and bingo, fevers and chills for a couple days, then I was pretty sure I was going to die (even though my mom promised I wouldn’t), and then I recovered and started selling plasma and made $400 after just two donations which wasn’t enough to pay for college and I knew my Dad was taking out extra loans, which was a lot of money to pay for me to be so miserable, so I started thinking I should drop out and help Dad, which would help Mom too because she was exhausted and she’d been crying nonstop, but I didn’t want to go back to our tiny town either.
One of the things that killed my brother off was how Dad lost his right hand in a piece of farm machinery, which was my brother’s fault. He didn’t lock the combine header when Dad crawled underneath it to pull out a rock. It was almost dark and Dad couldn’t see the blades were still spinning, and Aaron never heard him, or he was daydreaming, I don’t know. I ran his hand back to the house and Mom dropped it in a bucket of ice and drove us all to the hospital, which is a period of time I wouldn’t mind forgetting. Dad took it surprisingly well, considering, but then another thing that killed Aaron off was how Dad went around the farm saying “Lend me a hand.” It was funny the first time, but not the next ten thousand times. Aaron wanted to forget about it too and move far away but he fell in love with drugs instead is my theory.
When I got to campus the first day, I felt like a sign was stuck to my face saying “Hick Alert” and I know some of that was my own imagination turning against me, but not all of it. I started thinking I smelled like cow shit. Our town is so small it’s not even a town, it’s a village. I didn’t meet anyone else who came from such a small place or whose parents had never gone to college and hearing my roommate who was from Milwaukee talk to his friends made me feel more alone. Even my freshman comp teacher made me feel bad after I wrote an essay about all the stereotypes I was hearing about farm kids and how I was tired of being pigeon-toed, which is where she put three laughing emojis in the margin. Here’s a confession: you know when you required us to attend the symphony? I didn’t go. Maybe if you had bought my ticket and also bought me some new clothes and a car I would’ve gone, but probably not even then.
Drake. That’s what he was listening to. I don’t know why I was scared to mention it. It’s not like you’ve even made it this far and it’s not like you’ve even heard of Drake. I won’t bother telling you what album it was.
I’m surprised I made it to the end of this first semester because I wanted to leave the moment my folks dropped me off. You know what was playing during move-in day? Whoever’s in charge of that mix needs to get fired asap. Because Journey? “Separate Ways?” Followed by “Who’s Crying Now?” While all the parents are losing their shit and the kids are about to be abandoned? Unless they were trying to be funny. But no one was laughing, and it felt like it was going out to all the grandparents in the crowd so they could recognize something from the previous century that would make them feel like everything was going to be okay.
So there’s Dad, blubbering away, wiping his nose with his stub, standing next to his truck with the door open after we’d made three trips up three flights of dorm stairs, though we got some help from volunteers wearing smiley-face shirts who were trying to help the mood by smiling and laughing and saying welcome, and after the last trip, my dad said, well, I guess that’s it then, which is more than he’d said over the previous three hours we’d been riding in his truck listening to his favorite CD of all time—his only CD, come to think of it—Hank Williams Sr.’s greatest hits, which, I have to admit, kind of grew on me. Hank had women-troubles, money-troubles, homesick troubles. His bucket had a hole in it. I looked up some other songs he did as Luke the Drifter, which I made the mistake of sampling for my roommate. He didn’t appreciate it. He laughed and started talking in a ridiculous southern accent, then made a big show of putting on his noise-canceling headphones so the screaming could be closer to his brain.
After I hugged Mom and Dad goodbye, I reached into the truck and hugged my dog, which was the hardest thing. He’d made the trip with us, of course—Hank, we’d named him, after Williams, because that’s who Dad was playing that Christmas morning ten years ago when he brought in this puppy through the back door who ran straight toward us and jumped all over us, but also after Hank Aaron because my brother’s name was Aaron and because Dad told us how Hank Aaron played in Milwaukee before going to Atlanta. Hank was supposed to be for both of us, but he stuck to Aaron from the get-go. Afterward, he slept with me. He raised his head every time he heard a noise like Aaron might be coming home, so I felt extra bad for him having to go home without me.
That Drake album is called “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late.” There was one song on there called “Used To,” featuring Lil’ Wayne, which I never want to hear again. He’d driven his car to the far side of the corn field next to our pond, this was early August, and the corn was already head-high and I found him there on a Sunday morning after my mom had made a big breakfast for us, pancakes and maple syrup, and when he didn’t come down, I went out and walked around and found him.
A month later, they dropped me off, and Mom was blubbering (she never really stopped), because she was going to be on her own with Dad, keeping the books and seeing about the loans and doing a lot of work she didn’t want to do, and all I could think about at the time was I couldn’t wait for them to leave, but as soon as they left, I wanted them to come back.
If there was one day of class that helped the most with my decision to drop out it was that day you devoted to funeral music. Next semester, in addition to the useless textbook you required us to buy for 50 bucks, I’d recommend you pass around some anti-depressants so everyone can supplement their supply. And you should retitle the course “Music Appreciation for Dead People.”
A week after my roommate left, someone started peeing outside my dorm room door. There was a nice little puddle in the hall I had to step over every time I went out. Maybe more than one person, I don’t know. Maybe word got out that I was a country-music-loving neat-freak everyone decided they should hate. So I spent more time in the library, camped out in a dark corner cubicle up on the sixth floor with my earbuds in and one night I saw this couple having sex up there which was depressing. They didn’t know I was there, I guess, or maybe they did and were doing it for my benefit so they could show me up close what I was missing out on during my college experience, and I was listening to Bon Ivers album “For Emma, Forever Go”, and about the time that couple started going at it is when “Skinny Love” came on, which now I can’t even listen to without thinking about that specific night in the library or that specific time in my life when Bon Iver kept me company. Justin Vernon, the singer, wrote that whole album while he secluded himself in his father’s hunting cabin which is about an hour from where I grew up, and he sings like he’s also suffering from severe isolation, so that’s an album I can appreciate.
One thing I got homesick for was my Dad’s terrible Mac & Cheese. He always put sliced up hotdogs in it, which I never appreciated at the time. I don’t mind the natural casing hotdogs that give you a little crunch, but the precooked squishy Oscar Mayer wieners were not my meat of choice growing up. Why contaminate perfectly good Mac & Cheese with an overly processed tube of meat with fillers and miscellaneous animal parts? I used to make fun of it, but then its funny what you start missing.
I ain’t felt the pressure in a little while
It’s gonna take some getting used to
Floatin’ all through the city with the windows down
Puttin’ on like I used to
They never told me when you get the crown
It’s gon’ take some getting used to
New friends all in their old feelings now
They don’t love you like they used to man
(Drake ft Wayne, Lil)
Dad made Aaron keep his drums in the hay barn, which is where he played every day after school (after chores) and then again after dinner for hours in the dark until Mom sent me out there to make him stop so we could go to bed, and it was around this time, in May of our senior year, when school was almost out, that he got more depressed and wouldn’t talk to me or anyone else, and no one knew what to do or what to say without him erupting like a lunatic, and we were all kind of afraid of him by then, and we thought, well, as long as we hear the drums coming from the hay barn, maybe he’s okay, and that summer they let him play out there all night in the dark if he wanted to, and by then, it was pretty amazing what he was doing—like he had eight arms and eight legs. He ran an extension cord out there and plugged in a stereo and started playing along with the greats like Bonham and Peart and Moon, but then he also played along with some jazz drummers like Art Blakey and Max Roach, which is when I thought, wow, my brother is strange. But if you could’ve heard him out there—could’ve heard what was coming out of that barn through the darkness, you would have stopped in your tracks to appreciate it. You would have wondered where does Bonham stop and my brother begin?
Remember that day in class you got way off the subject and started talking about the Governor and how dumb he was for cutting the arts, which I can actually agree with, especially because of my brother, who I would say was an artist, but that was the same day you played Hendricks doing his thing, and maybe you were having a bad day based on how you went off on us for hating it and then you said we should be doing more drugs and how the Governor himself should drop some acid with our Chancellor so they could wake up a little, well, that struck a nerve at the time based on my brother’s experience so if your wondering who slid that angry note/letter under your office door, guess who? Which reminds me: The Guess Who. That one song you played from that band was okay: “Lonely feeling, deep inside, find a corner, where I can hide. Silent footsteps crowding me. Sudden darkness, but I can see.” And no sugar in their coffee or tea? I also don’t like sugar, so I appreciated that song.
If you ever met my brother, the first thing you would notice is that he’s a douche bag. The second thing you’d notice is that there’s a big room behind his eyes full of nooks and crannies where a special kind of music is playing that’s like it was made for only him which made it hard for him to hear anyone else. Then it’s like his music got louder after the accident. Because an awkward situation everybody wants to avoid in their life is to have a hand cut off inside a piece of farm machinery, especially if it’s your own son’s fault. Dad tried to make the best of it, tried to shoot left handed, but that put more pressure on me and Aaron to kill a deer we could put in the freezer. We both wanted no part of our annual deer-hunting trips which Aaron made sure he was super-high for. High on hunting, he called it. I didn’t like hunting either. If I ever got a shot off, I made sure to miss. Aaron missed on purpose too and Dad cussed at us, said we’d have to go hungry, but we knew there was always a surplus of Mac & Cheese with cut up hotdogs. At the end of the first day of deer season, everybody meets in the only bar in town where the walls are over-populated with deer heads staring at you. Dad bought us beers which is legal if you’re a minor whose guardian is buying it for you (in case you don’t know about the state laws here, based on your accent I’m guessing your not from here), but I never liked the taste of beer. I didn’t like the gossip I heard there either. This one guy was always making fun of the Amish on the outskirts of town and he’d spread rumors about how they had sexual relations with their animals and he’d make it sound like you should feel sorry for the animals, but then I’d feel ashamed of myself for imagining such acts. These stories made me want to get away from there and go to college where I thought people wouldn’t spend so much time talking about other people, but I was wrong. I even had this one professor who liked to talk about his co-workers. It’s like he got bullied as a kid for being fat and had to return the favor for the rest of his life, which I don’t care how fat he is, but it showed me that even the most educated are no different than the least educated in their gossiping ways, and it was like I’m paying for this?
Mom would meet us at the bar, and she’d be drinking and trying to have fun too, and sometimes instead of making fun of me for not liking the beer dad ordered for me, she’d wait until he wasn’t looking and drink it for me. There was an old jukebox in there where people played the kind of country music I didn’t appreciate, but Mom played some classics I liked, her favorite being John Conley’s “Rose Colored Glasses” which made her sad, but she sang along with it too, which made her happy, along with it being around beer number three that put a certain look in her eyes like she wouldn’t mind having a different life. But there was something about his voice that got me too, something in there that felt more real than the other voices. You’d probably go off on a snob-filled lecture on what was wrong with it, but that song will always be a song that makes me think of those moments in the bar with my mom, who deserves some happiness.
If I’d had a date, I might’ve gone to the symphony. I never had a girlfriend and didn’t see any way I would ever get one. Being able to speak properly is a big quality to have in order to make someone fall in love with you. Some people can keep the conversation going by giving some weird facts or asking good questions. My brother was good at conversations so there aren’t those awkward silences, which is how he fooled us into thinking he was okay while he was really just fooling my parents into giving him drug money. But I never know what to say, and every single day in every class while people wait for the professors like you to start going blah, blah, blah, everyone’s looking at their phones and texting other people and never saying anything at all to the person who’s sitting right next to them and sometimes I would text my dead brother just to fit in. Some days I think I saw a look on your face like you could relate, but then class would start and the look got replaced with professor-face, which, if you want to do some reflecting, maybe you could think about too.
Being alone too long is bad for the brain. Some people are shy, so if you as a professor make someone feel bad after calling on them and asking them to say something and they never do, well, maybe that person needs more time to understand the question or maybe in addition to trying to stay awake they’re working a full-time job (which I’m guessing is something you didn’t have to do in college) and at that moment their brain is not available and they’ve already done a miraculous job of just getting out of bed and marching across campus in zero-degree weather while thinking about their dead brother and then they climb three flights of stairs to sit in a room around people staring at their phones and when they still don’t know what to say after the long pause you provide to enhance the embarrassment, you take it personally and enact some retribution along the lines of failing them when maybe you should reflect a little harder on how to say hello out there (and learn an actual name or two), are you okay?
Because maybe we’re not. Maybe we have things on our mind that you didn’t have on your mind when you were our age. When I was in Church one Sunday in 8th grade the priest decided to ask us what nightmares we’d been having lately and a four-year-old boy raised his hand and said “someone comes into church and kills us.” The whole congregation got silent. It’s like that kid’s childhood was dead at that point, and I think he killed mine too because that was the day I lost my faith. I don’t even remember what I was doing at the age of four, but it was most definitely not worrying about a church shooter. One nightmare I have is living at home for the rest of my life and coming home from a job I hate and seeing Mom in the kitchen where instead of saying “how was school” she says “how was work?” and me having even less to say.
I’m not a very social person, only having one close friend from home, Billy Preston, who I hardly talk to anymore because he says I’ve changed, which I guess is true, so I think he’s now a former friend which means I’m down to no friends. This semester, I’ve tried sticking my neck out in the realm of romance, and every time I get a feeling I might have found someone, I disappoint myself. I try to figure out what I do wrong, which leaves me feeling empty. There was never a day that passed over my entire first semester when I felt like, hey, I belong here, it’s such a cool place for people like me who have no fucking clue what they want to do and no interest in studying or going to a class to listen to some stale lecture or some terrible music I’m required to appreciate. Some say all first year students are on the same boat, but it doesn’t feel like it.
I have yet to see a final exam that measures the size of a human heart. Maybe Brahms had a brother who died on him, maybe he put his broken heart into his piano and said let’s see what comes out the other side that someone else might find some comfort in, I don’t know, but if it works for you, that’s great. People have different ways of dealing: screaming, coloring, running, taking drugs, drinking, listening to music, playing music. Writing? I’ve never thought about that one because I never thought I had much to say or that anyone would even want to listen, but I’ve been rambling here for awhile because it’s making me feel less depressed. So all in all, this is me expressing my appreciation to you for giving me my best failure ever. I hope you’re able to reflect upon your own present failures and imagine a future that’s better.
Somehow, I picture you doing just that while all the dead musicians you exposed us to gather around your bed or couch or swimming pool, which makes me feel slightly better for some strange reason, like you could use some of their good company. I hope they help you. Good luck. I’m going to the barn now. I’m going to take a notebook out there and I’m going to lay it on top of my brother’s snare drum, and then I’m going to write something just for him that I know he would appreciate.
Editor’s note: This piece contains a handful of misspellings and grammatical errors. Writer Matt Cashion’s intention was to portray the narrator “as someone who is inexperienced in writing but who, nonetheless, is smart and imaginative and compassionate in ways that aren’t as easily measured in the ways on which teachers too often rely.”