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“And So They are Ever Returning to Us, the Dead”

                                    Matthew Thorburn


                         —W. G. Sebald

For example, “String Bean Jean” is either a perfect song
or as close as it’s safe to get. First the drumsticks’
clack-clack-clack-clack, then that thrumming guitar

whooshes in like a kick to the heart and we’re off
with a guy who’s got two girl friends

who’ve got sleeping bags for beds and favor co-ed baths
as a cost-cutting measure. With me so far?
God, I love that all night/all right rhyme, its perfect

obviousness, and that leccy bill that’s got to get paid.
Dozens of AMs and PMs on the bus, backing

and forthing to work from anonymous Central Jersey
to downtown NYC, I listened to this half-a-story
of Jo and Phil’—Phyllis? Philomena? I’ll always

wonder—and our nameless music student narrator
and how they get the shopping, have a laugh and soon

head off to the cinema, all in their own language
(we’re in Scotland), that common one that divides us
and charms me. Jo worries—and who doesn’t?—

if she needs to lose a bit of weight and our guy
tells her, Don’t be stupid—I know, I know,

but wait for this—’cause you’re looking great. She’s his
String Bean Jean, a not-too-happy teen
in her girl’s-size jeans. Seven to eight years old,

the label says. Well, that’s pretty small. But I can’t
help wondering what happens next

in that possibly pivotal sixth minute after
the song fades away. What matters most is
what we don’t get to hear. I’m in the dark again

this morning. Between blasted scrubland
and gray highway, refineries light up like a fiery city

I couldn’t live in. How do these girls grow old?
Cars blur past and I’m half-dreaming of that house
that’s like a caravan,
and of Hilda and her rented-

by-the-room, just-for-foreigners flat in that
row house in Wood Green, the Northern New Jersey

of London, where she got by for a year—
her foreign venture when college didn’t work out—
rooming with Italian Rosie and Jacq’ from Canada.

Christ, this was fifteen years ago. With the cheapskate
change box on the hall phone. With wet laundry

strung up in the kitchen and the low bulb I broke
pulling off my T-shirt. With her dreams of seducing
a proper English gent and her job doing something

(I never knew what) on the phone. Her love of ice lollies
and the Northern Line, the way she’d say Ta

for Thanks, her dirty jeans and dirty laugh
and a car crash back home unimaginable up ahead.
For a few lost weeks I bummed around London

with Hilda before coming back to whatever
I could find to do: writing ads, commuting in and out

of Detroit, and now New York. Letting years slip by
quick as songs you keep replaying, as if next time
they’ll tell you more. Spacey synthesizers hum

and blip and whir and God, I’d give a lot
to be twenty-one again because it’d mean

I had my friend back. I didn’t really mind ’cause
I was fit for once,
he sings. Fit money-wise, he means,
and fit with a girl he loves, I hope, and maybe

even the tight fit of her faded jeans, all that and
anything else you can say before—seven to eight years

old, that’s pretty small
—it fades away. Those days
were quick and fun and then— and then—
and then this strange song is over, all over again.


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