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The Lonesome Cowboy’s Lost Lament

by Rudi Dornemann

His grandfather had sung this song, late at night, in his workshop, when he was too absorbed in his work to know that Thomas was there, too focused even to know he was singing. The lyrics had to do with the moon, a heart (broken or breaking), and a cowboy.

Thomas forgot the song for decades, until he heard a noisy near-punk cover version late at night on a college radio station while driving cross-country. Just half the last refrain before the music descended into squeals and static which was either the station slipping out of range or some kind of Sonic Youthy outro. Enough to hook him, put the song back in his head -- or the hole of forgetting where the song would have been.

He tried hypnotism, hours in sensory deprivation tanks; nothing helped. A friend of friend with a knack for finding things shared some advice.

"In the old days," she said, "there was a memory-art where you imagined a mansion and arranged what you wanted to remember by the rooms and the objects in them. These days, memory is collective and external -- libraries, the internet... like that. Memories are still places, but they're real and they’re out there. If you're willing to drive far enough, you can remember anything."

She had a car he could borrow, and he left that night, phoning in to work from a truck stop the next morning to request a leave of absence. The car, a Ford Galaxie with shot shocks, ran on words. Thomas had to pull over every so often, flip through the one-volume Oxford English Dictionary on the passenger seat to a random word, and read the tiny print aloud. The word faded from the page and the memories of everyone within 50 miles. In a couple miles, the word would be back and the needle back on E, and he'd have to do it again.

He drove: a month, two. He did find it, eventually, spotting it out the corner of his eye as he turned into yet another motel parking lot. Congealed moonlight shapes spiraled in the air over a pile of roadside gravel. Thomas could remember every verse, every quaver of his grandfather's hum-yodeled refrains, and his heart unbroke.

He got back in the car, found the flashlight and magnifying glass, and fueled up to begin the drive home.

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