Alone Again (Naturally)

11 Jul


Cigarettes and beer on a warm summer breeze. 

To this day, walking the streets of New York, I’ll turn a corner and bam!  There it will be: that essence of summer 1972.  And I have to stop, because, for a moment, I am nine years old, sitting on the porch of our Lake Michigan cottage, holding my little Sears & Roebuck 9 volt transistor radio, listening to Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again, Naturally.”

It’s an odd song for a kid to fall in love with.  A father dies, a mother dies, a young man’s abandoned at the altar.  I believe suicide may be contemplated.  But none of this really matters.  Because it’s not the words so much as the gently loping beat, like the saunter of a sun-kissed girl walking along the sand, a melody with the quiet insistence of waves on a shore,  and that distinctly English melancholy of something beautiful coming to an end.

Cigarettes and beer.

It was a crazy summer.  My cousin Joni, sixteen and wild, had run away to California, only to turn up several weeks later, with a copy of Joni Mitchell’s Blue tucked beneath her newly unshaven armpits.  She would play “California” and then solemnly intone to whoever would listen, “It was just like that.”  She was so cool.

But even cooler was her friend Memphis.

First of all she was from Memphis.  Second of all she would take driftwood  and turn it into art, painting it with a big letter “M”, and clouds, and seagulls and stuff.

But mostly, she would talk to me.

We’d sit on the porch as the sun went down and the beachgoers across the street packed up for the day, and in her exotic southern accent she’d tell me stories.  Like how her sister had been home sick one time when she heard that her boyfriend, whose Camaro Z28 was the baddest car in all of Memphis, was stepping out on her.  How her sister had pulled on her bathrobe, tied a scarf over her rollers, and headed out in search of that Z28, and how, finding it parked outside a local burger joint, she had stopped the car, walked inside, and dropped her boyfriend’s date with a single punch.

And we would talk about girls.  She tried to get me to believe that the prettiest weren’t always the nicest, and that I should always give the less attractive girls a chance.  I didn’t really believe her, but I lied and told her that I had a crush on a girl who wasn’t very pretty at all.  She smiled.

And as the night settled in, and the rangers locked the gates and began their patrols, we watched the spotlight on their pickup sweep across the darkness, while the adults inside the cottage gathered around the big table, talking and laughing, playing cards.  The breeze lifted the hair from Memphis’ face and I stole a glance as she looked out across the water.  It was 80 miles to Milwaukee.  Too far to see.


Heath came to me last night as we were getting ready for bed.  Having mistakenly tried to eat ice cream from a frozen scoop, I am holding a bloody washcloth to my lips.

“Dad, can we go out on the porch and talk for a while?”  There’s an urgency in his face.  He’s afraid I’ll say no.

“Sure.” I mumble, getting some ice for my lip, which is beginning to swell.  “Go on out on the porch.  I’ll be right there.”

The fireflies have finally arrived, and as I join him they glimmer up and down the block.

“There’s one!” he shouts, jumping up and following it around the porch.  Fascinated by this little piece of light, he is every inch the nine-year old.  But soon he will be ten.  He borrowed my sandals for the first time this week.  Still puppyish, he is growing into his feet.

We talk about his first day at summer school, his new teacher, his friends.  When things go quiet he pushes for more.

“Is there anything else you want to tell me or anything you think I should know?”

Struggling to maintain the conversation, he leans on the professorial cadences he finds so comfortable.

“Dad.  Is there anything else you want to tell me or anything you think I should know?”

I laugh, because of course there’s too much.  And then, gently, I say “You know Heath, we don’t always have to talk.  We can just sit together and enjoy the evening.”

“I know, but I like to talk.”

So we do.


In a few weeks we will return to Lake Michigan, and a town that is in many ways unchanged.  But it won’t smell the same.  Most of my family are gone now, and sadly, they took their packets of Kools and their Pabst Blue Ribbon with them.

But, for my kids, there are two houses, a grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins galore, as well as porches, sunsets and the breeze off the water.

I heard years ago that Memphis had become a nurse.  I’m not sure where.  But I like to think she’s still out there, telling stories, painting driftwood, and giving sage advice to precocious lovelorn little boys.

Her hair was auburn.  She was sixteen.  I think of her every time I hear that song.





9 Responses to “Alone Again (Naturally)”

  1. bulldogbillboards July 11, 2014 at 12:23 pm #

    Wow, a PBR shout out. You likely don’t know this but it was Mr. C’s go to beer back in the day.  I was thinking of him this morning. Some time about my freshman year in high school he and I were having a meal. On the table I set the cap on top of the ketchup bottle. When he tried to pick up the bottle by the loose cap it tipped over and he asked me “who just sets the cap on the bottle?” to which I immediately responded “who tries to pick up a bottle just by the cap?”….I should have caught a good one on the side of the head for that.

    Sent from my T-Mobile 4G LTE Device

  2. Lucille July 11, 2014 at 10:22 pm #

    Derek, Alone Again is one of my favorites. My kids were 9 in 1972, this song and most of the 70’s music is what I mostly listen to bringing back great memories for me. You are a wonderful writer. I am waiting for your great book. Lucille Pirri

    • dtoddbell July 12, 2014 at 8:56 am #

      So good to hear from you, Lucille. Amy and I were just talking about you yesterday.
      I hope you are well. As for the book, I’m working on it. Thanks for reading my stuff.

  3. Lucille Pirri July 12, 2014 at 3:12 pm #

    I love reading your blog. I pass it along to my kids. You are both a wonderful inspiration to me….And I take all the credit for your love of each other. Only kidding. Please send me an email to my home email as I would like to share sonething with you. My computer died along with my email address book.

  4. Sue Heath July 12, 2014 at 10:24 pm #

    Did Heath have a jar, with holes punched in the lid, to put the Fire Flys in?

    • dtoddbell July 14, 2014 at 12:50 pm #

      No. We’ve never done that, Sue. Next time.

  5. Petey Z July 25, 2014 at 8:59 am #

    Derek that’s a beautiful post.

  6. dtoddbell April 22, 2015 at 7:39 pm #

    It is a wonderful thing to hear your side of story’s that I sort of remember. Miss you!

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