The endless loop
It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty delta day I was out choppin’ cotton and my brother was balin’ hay The words arrest me in City Market, taking me back to when, as a 9-year-old playing cards on summer days, I wondered about the mystery within that Bobbie Gentry hit on the radio.I edge close to the ceiling speaker, seeking any understanding of the question of why, in the lyrics, “Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchee Bridge.”I hear a study in indifference: “Papa said to Mama as he passed around the black-eyed peas “Well, Billie Joe never had a lick o’ sense, pass the biscuits, please.” Yet the narrator is privately stricken, and eventually Mama says to her,”Oh, by the way [the preacher] said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge / And she and Billie Joe was throwin’ somethin’ off the Tallahatchee Bridge.” Throwing what? A friend whispered to my sister and me that it was a baby.Arriving home from the store Friday, I Google the song. A website puts forth the widespread baby theory, and one or two other ideas, and lays to rest one – whether Mama’s use of the word “Child” to address her daughter means that the family is black, Billie Joe white. A line about having been at church together undercuts the notion, given the setting in an era of separate services.The singer-songwriter Gentry, when asked to explain Billie Joe’s impetus, has always said she doesn’t know.Mysteries have power, and so does the simple beat, and my story does not end with the narrator moodily dropping flowers into the muddy waters of the Tallahatchee. (Never mind that the real-life bridge, now long collapsed, was only 20 feet high and the water just a few feet deep; and that the whole thing is made up.) The next night, the floating lyrics keep me awake. On Sunday, sleep-deprived, I climb at a local cliff with my friends Tracy and Heather. Tracy half-remembers the song, and while reeling in rope I fill her in on important details, such as how Papa’s dislike may have kept the lovers apart. From 25 feet up Heather calls in slightly vexed tones, “I have no idea what you two are talking about!”Heather is Canadian, though, and has never heard the song. I shout, unrepentant, “Well, Tracy does!”Gentry’s husky plaint remains in my mind, carving a deeply rutted path, line after line.By Wednesday morning, I tell Tracy, “I think I need professional help.” I think nervously of those people who get hiccups for months.My mind abbreviates the song to its beat, a constant Da da di di di dum da dum. Phrasing wafts in and out.I am at the office Wednesday afternoon when I realize in disbelief that a voice outside my head matches the one inside. At the Farmers Market nearby, a performer is singing “Ode to Billie Joe.” The voice inside my head surges anew: a triumphal dual tone.On Thursday evening I climb with Cassia. Roping up, the voice inside my head intones, “It was the third of June.” As I pull an overhang: “Mama hollered at the back door, ‘Ya’ll remember to wipe your fe-e-e-eet.'” When we hike out in fading light, my footsteps match the cadence.Driving home, though, I hear the INXS cover of “Mystified,” and it lingers. I exult. Friday morning, Billie Joe is back.Tracy tells me, “You have a sickness.” After 10 days, Billie Joe edges away. Like acute early pregnancy nausea, he isn’t gone all at once. But I have a pretty good day, and then another, and soon the good days outnumber the bad. I notice how many songs I routinely hear internally. And am left in wonderment at how much our minds spin out of control, and how many layers they contain at any second.Da da di di di dum da dum. Alison Osius lives in Carbondale and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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That sideline parent is me, parading to the field with a foldable chair, carrying an iced-coffee, armed with a bag of band-aids and a salty vocabulary ready to slay the referee or opponent that meddles…