The Jukebox

When I was 12 years old, my father sat me down on the edge of the pool table in the basement and said, “If I never teach you anything in this life, I’ll give you this.” Then he played the Cowsills’ “The Rain, the Park, and Other Things,” #46 on his 1951 AMI Inc. jukebox. I watched him lip-sync the song, his mustache bobbing up and down as he quietly sang. “These songs aren’t like your music,” he said, tapping the beat on his knee. “These songs tell stories.” His eyes were blue and very serious, but the song he played was almost comical: men lamenting in high falsetto about a strange woman they just met at the park. It was cold in the basement, and I was still wet from the swimming pool. Shivering, I wrapped a damp towel around myself and waited for my dad to stop singing. He was happy, the tip of his nose sunburned after a day in the yard. I wanted to like the music as much as he did.

~ ~ ~

The basement of our house has always been Dad’s lair, “Barn’s Barn,” the only place that my mother gives him free rein to decorate. It’s a cool, dark place with wooden paneling that always smells like stale cigarette smoke and beer. On the wall behind the bar is the sign that gave the place its name — three jagged slabs of wood chained together engraved with the words, “Barn’s Barn — Ann and Bernie Laskowski — May 25, 1975.”

Barn’s Barn is the storeroom of my father’s most prized possessions—a kind of shrine to nostalgia, a tribute to time past. Everything from the pool table and dartboard, the martini glass he took from his honeymoon hotel, to the rug airbrushed with Farrah Fawcett’s image, has its own separate story. He has a Coke bottle with the Penn State logo from 1982 when he saw the football team win the national title. Next to the jukebox sits a four foot tall purple stuffed bear named “Frankie” who is covered in pins and buttons Dad’s collected over the years, with slogans such as, “You can’t have Acme without ME!” and “Where’s the beef?” The walls are lined with beer signs and baseball pennants and autographed NASCAR memorabilia. Behind the bar you can find drink stirrers shaped like scantily-dressed women that my brother Mike and I used to dip in cold water so their clothes would disappear. He’s got the parking sticker from the time our family went to Ocean City, Maryland, for vacation; Mike’s first pay stub; and a Father’s Day card I made him in fourth grade complete with an illustration of a bloated, chirping bird.

At the center of all this stuff, even though it sits in the corner, is the jukebox. Dad acquired it in 1989 for his 40th birthday when my Uncles Stan and Joe saved it from a distant relative’s basement and made it work again. On countless days that year and beyond, my brother and I would drag barstools up to the glass and watch the mechanical arm of the machine glide the records to their proper place on the turntable. We loved the hum of the motor, the first notes of a song, the way the speakers picked up the scratchiness of the needle touching vinyl.

The jukebox has two plastic grids on its face with multicolored cylinders hidden behind them. When the songs play, the cylinders turn, causing the plastic grids to change from a sick green to a sugary pink to a pasty yellow. We liked to open the grids from time to time and peek in at the cylinders; it was like discovering a secret. The rest of the machine is red and white with chrome trimming, like an old car, a Cadillac or Chevy, the kind I imagine my father driving when he was younger, one arm propped up against the open window, smoking a cigarette and listening to these very songs on the radio.

“Listen to the story,” Dad said again and again when the music was on. As he stood by the pool table, snapping his fingers or chalking up his pool stick for the next shot, he had a habit of singing the lyrics to the songs a beat before the singer did. The stories we heard were about teenage boys and girls singing of heartbreak and the kind of melodramatic loss that usually ends in death. A woman runs back to a car stalled on a railroad track to get her boyfriend’s high school ring; a leather-clad tough guy dies in a motorcycle accident; a car crash results in a lovestruck couple’s last kiss. And for every song on the jukebox, my father has another story of his own—”You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling” (#102) reminds him of his first kiss; “Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me” (#21) was his senior prom theme. The jukebox was like a photo album that he wanted us to absorb.

He played “Eve of Destruction” (#85) one night and opened the cigar box he kept behind his bar. Inside, among the newspaper clippings of my brother in Little League and me in Sunday School class, he kept the Purple Heart he received. He’d been wounded while stationed in Korea during the Vietnam War.

He didn’t like to talk very much about his time in Korea, but Dad told me lots of stories about boot camp. One night he told a story of how he and a buddy had mouthed off to one of their sergeants during basic training. The sergeant gave them both shovels and instructed them to dig a hole “four feet by six feet by four feet.” It took my dad and his friend hours, the sweat dripping off their necks as they worked. When they finally finished, the sergeant came to inspect the hole, smoking a cigarette almost down to the filter. He flicked it in the hole. “Cover it up,” he told them. They obliged.

“Now, do you remember which direction the filter was facing when it landed?” The sergeant asked when they were done, his face so close that Dad could smell the stale smoke on his teeth.


“Well, then dig it back up and find it.”

My dad let me touch his Purple Heart as he told me those stories. I liked to run my finger along its cool glassy curves. It signified something, a heaviness, something swirling above the smell of smoke from Dad’s cigarette and the gritty sounds of the man’s voice on the record, the angry guy singing about peace and the uselessness of war.

~ ~ ~

Dad grew up about a block from where he lives now. We could throw rocks from our house and hit his old house if we wanted to. When he and my mother were dating, they drove around listening to Abbey Road or Rubber Soul, drinking beer from sweaty bottles they hid on the passenger side floor. Mom ironed her hair and wore skinny belts. She was a size two and she made her sisters take her picture as she modeled bikinis in her room. My dad had lots of hair that stuck up all over the place and curled in humidity. They both loved to dance.

The two of them frequented a bar within another stone’s throw of my Mom’s home, a small converted house called The Dramshop that had no windows, one bathroom, and a bartender who lived upstairs. My parents drank at The Dramshop after the Agnes Flood of 1972, when bones from the cemetery across the street floated into my grandmother’s backyard. The water seeped everywhere that summer, including the bar, and filled the stockroom with three feet of water. Eventually the water receded and the bottles of beer settled back to the ground. People were supposed to throw away anything contaminated by floodwater, but my parents and their friends didn’t care. They washed the sealed bottles with Clorox and drank the contents by candlelight in The Dramshop, listening to music on a battery-powered radio. They drove to Moosic to buy ice for their coolers, and when the beer ran out, they dug the mud and dirt out of their basements and rode in the back of Salvation Army trucks to deliver food and blankets to people whose houses were no longer standing.

In the summer of 1972, Dad sat on the hood of his car in his front lawn, high on the hill in Swoyersville, and listened to The Looking Glass sing, “Brandy You’re a Fine Girl” (#65) while below in the valley the lights of emergency vehicles dotted on and off like fireflies as they tried to repair the damage of the river.

~ ~ ~

“If we are drunk, then this will be funny,” my brother says and bangs a glass bottle of juice against his forehead. The collision makes a horrible sound and we both dissolve into laughter, my side muscles already hurting. I am sixteen and my brother is thirteen and we are in his bedroom, having just finished off a bottle of Sambuca stolen from behind the bar.

The music from the jukebox downstairs leaks through the floorboards, Frankie Valli’s voice watered down as he sings, “Stay,” (#49) for the seventh time that night. In the basement, my dad and my uncles are playing poker. When we were younger, Mike and I would lower our boom box down the laundry chute to record them cursing on tape. Now we aren’t interested in what they are doing; we are interested in what the Sambuca is doing to our fingertips and toes.

Too lazy to walk all the way upstairs, through the kitchen, and down the hallway to the bathroom, my uncles go out through the cellar door to our backyard to piss. “We’re watering Annie’s plants,” they joke as they always do, burping. The jukebox plays the Rolling Stones, Donovan, Elvis Presley. Later our uncles will stumble home, take their chances driving a few blocks, or pass out on the couch, the skin on their faces marked the next morning with the thread of the buttoned cushions as the television flickers on mute.

Mike and I get some Saltines from the kitchen. “This will soak up the alcohol,” I whisper, giggling. We turn on the television and find David Letterman much more amusing than usual. I don’t feel all that different, really, but I don’t tell Mike. We huddle under blankets and crunch ice cubes between our teeth and forget that the empty bottle lies in the middle of Mike’s rug.

~ ~ ~

I became obsessed with Bobby Darin around the same time I learned how to play pool. My dad taught me to hold a cue stick when I was barely old enough to see over the top of the pool table, but it wasn’t until a few years later that I was able to learn how to shoot. At first I wasn’t interested in the mathematics behind the game. I didn’t care about “English” or “bank shots.” Instead, I liked the sensual way the felt of the table rubbed against my palm as I leaned forward to take a shot. I loved rubbing the chalk over the tip of the stick. It gave me chills, chalk, whether it was on the top of a pool stick or on a blackboard. It wasn’t until I was able to sink shots, until I started listening to the advice my father gave me as he beat me time and time again at eight ball, that we both realized I played with my left hand. It’s the only thing I do left-handed.

We played for hours in the basement, listening to “Beyond the Sea” (#7) or “Mack the Knife.” (#14) Bobby Darin was unpredictable—like my aim—and the notes often came when I didn’t think they would. Later I would learn the term, “syncopation,” but his jazzy voice stood out from the rest of the crooners on the jukebox and I kept coming back to it, repeating the song as though memorizing it would help me with my game.

“Beyond the Sea” had a purple label on the record, so to me the song is purple. The sea is purple. The ship he’s sailing back on is purple, and his lover’s dress is purple, a bright plum like the color of the 4 ball. “Mack the Knife” is black (the 8 ball) and smells like smoke. I’ve never seen my father listen to that song without smoking. He likes to flick his ashes in time with the beat of the song. He tilts his head back and lip-syncs the last long note. The first time he did it in front of my friends I was embarrassed.

More than any other song in the jukebox, my brother and I loved “Splish, Splash,” (#9) a song that Bobby Darin released in 1958. For some reason, our obsession with that song outstripped any feeling we had for other tunes on the jukebox. The record had a bright yellow label, like the color of a rubber duck, and the song had a funny introduction that sounded like water bubbling. We played it so much we would’ve eventually worn the grooves down.

One night we played “Splish, Splash” and the record jammed in the machinery, sticking up halfway in its groove a few inches above the other records. As the mechanical arm came around to grab another song, we could see what was going to happen. We watched in horror as the arm swept mercilessly by and smashed “Splish, Splash” to pieces. Black bits of record littered the inside of the machine. My brother, 10 years old, started to cry.

My dad just shrugged and cleaned out the machine. He replaced Bobby D. with some other record, something I never played. He didn’t yell at us or even seem to really care that we broke one of his records. He seemed almost proud at my brother’s tears, as though he’d gotten through to us.

~ ~ ~

When my uncles came over, they played a game with my brother. Sitting on the pool table in his red pajamas with the rubber soled feet, Mike waited for a number.


“Teen Angel, Mark Dinning,” he answered without hesitation, a smirk on his face.


“Spooky by Classics Eye Vee.”

Mike knew all of the songs when he was a kid, even the B-sides. He sang them in his high, squeaky voice that hadn’t yet been pulled into puberty. He learned their numbers more quickly than I did and he picked up the game of pool faster, too. My father taught him how to use a jig saw and how to wire an electric current. He took him out driving before he took me driving, letting Mike sit on his lap at 10 years old. Three years later, my dad and Uncle Joe called Mike from a bar a few blocks away where they’d gotten drunk off their asses celebrating Uncle Joe’s birthday. Mike, just 13, took my father’s 1985 Chevy Spectrum around the block without hesitating, his chin just grazing the top of the steering wheel.

My father quit drinking around the time Mike and I started. He sipped O’Doul’s out of tall pint glasses. He still kicked our asses at pool.

“So you’ve taught us gambling, drinking, and sin,” I joke.

“Only the good die young,” he answers.

~ ~ ~

As I got older, I listened more to “my” music. I discovered new bands: Bryan Adams, Def Leppard, Dave Matthews Band, Sarah McLaughlin. In middle school, I got a 45 of Bryan Adams’ “Cuts Like a Knife” and tried to get my dad to put it on the jukebox; he refused. In high school, I went through a grunge phase and wore flannel shirts and boots and listened to Pearl Jam and Candlebox and Stone Temple Pilots on the tape player in my car. Later, I collected CDs of Elton John and Billy Joel; I fell in love with folk music and acoustic guitar. I loved Magic 93’s Late Night Love radio show and listened to sappy love songs while playing solitaire in my room alone. My musical tastes broadened, expanded, circled back and forward as I grew up and moved away from home. I found myself lingering on the Oldies stations, amazed that I knew all the words to songs I hadn’t heard in years. A guitar strum from one of those songs brings the memory of the sound of pool balls crashing into each other and scattering, or a poker chip clicking on the formica of the bar.

I tell my friends stories about my dad’s bar. His memories became my memories, circles endlessly expanding from the songs on the jukebox. They don’t make 45s anymore; the jukebox is stuck in the past. Dad’s basement is, too—barely changed over the past thirty years. New signs are added; improvements are made. The stools have been reupholstered, the orange shag rug ripped up and linoleum set down in its place. But the atmosphere is the same and the music is the same.

Now the jukebox has become what my father wanted it to become to me, what it is to him: a big box of nostalgia. Now when Gladys Knight sings, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” (#111), I’ve got my own stories to tell about the memories of Barn’s Barn.

~ ~ ~

I live in Northern Virginia now. I’m in my second apartment already and the place I used to go to for great coffee has already been taken over by new management, its sign unrecognizable when I drive by on Route 7. The city is a maze of chain stores and shopping centers; I get lost, confused about which concrete mall I’m circling. There are more job opportunities here, but the traffic is dense, the cars new. The people are strange, unfriendly, distant.

I have yet to find a decent bar here. There is no place to go with a good dartboard or pool table. I have given up on finding a jukebox. Driving home to my parents’ house now is luxury—a swimming pool, cheap drinks, personality. It’s unchanging and familiar. The streets fit like a glove. My boyfriend and I come home for a wedding and we pose in the same place in the backyard where my mom took my pictures for proms. I take him to The Dramshop where the decorations have been the same since Frank Sinatra was big. In the bar, as big as a living room, we toast to the Philadelphia Eagles. The men throw coins in the urinals and piss on them. Every few weeks or so the bartender will clean the change off and donate it to charity.

My brother goes there now. He knows the bartender, he knows all the names of the people walking in. I sit on a bar stool and hum the theme song to “Cheers” while he beats a guy in a pool tournament he’s in, banking the 8 ball perfectly into a corner pocket. My brother has brought his own pool stick; his opponent uses one from the bar. The smoke swirls below the light over the pool table, making both of them squint as they take their shots.

Mike is on his seventh or eighth beer when I get up to leave. His voice slurs slightly like I remember my dad’s doing back when. He wears a baseball cap to hide where his hair begins to thin on top. He gives me a hug when I stand to leave. “Drive carefully,” he tells me.

Outside in the parking lot, I wonder if I should wait, if I should give him a ride home. The cold air makes my own head dizzy, makes the four or five beers I had swirl in my stomach. I should walk, but I’ve forgotten a sweater and already goosebumps scatter across my forearms. Mike will drive, or he’ll go home with someone else. It’s only a few blocks, he’d say if I asked him to call me to come get him. He’d sound confident and easy, the smart, practical man he’s grown up to be. He’d sound exactly like my dad, like one of my uncles, like my grandfather, their voices mixed in harmony like a song remade a thousand times.

—> First published in The Rambler

© 2004-2010 Tara Laskowski

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