There once was a Velvet Underground & Nico CD, and it was splendid. It came wrapped in plastic, as a new CD should; its cover art the iconic Andy Warhol banana, its spine solid. Sunday morning it sat in the lip of a Boy's Christmas stocking, the effect charming, if phallic.
The stocking held gift cards, Sudoku puzzles, and the Playstation game Injustice, but the CD was the best of all, even if no one knew it at the time.
"Isn't that a little advanced for an 11 year old, John?" the Mother inquired sharply.
"He's gotta learn about this stuff some day Susan, why not from us?" the Father replied. He hoped to pass his musical taste on to his child, much as he did with nearsightedness.
The Boy loved the Playstation game most of all. The Father unwrapped the Velvet Underground CD, which he'd mostly bought for himself to appear "with it," and played it in the kitchen while preparing Christmas dinner with the Mother. The Boy quite enjoyed the background music once he'd tired of destroying Wayne Manor. Then they swapped out the music for some Holiday tunes ("The Very Best of the Eagles"), and in all the excitement the CD was forgotten.
For a long time It (the prefered pronoun of the CD) lived on the shelf, ignored. It was shy and felt snubbed by the more expensive media formats. The DVDs were superior and looked down on everyone; they were full of modern ideas like menu extras and commentaries, and liked to pretend they were Real, as if Ed Begley Jr. or Eric Roberts were really inside of them (Women who could legitimately make that claim would not even want to brag about it).
The heavyset Laserdisc family had been relegated to a back shelf once the only laserdisc player in the county had ceased working, and insisted that they were once a mighty dynasty along with the Betamaxes and the DATs.
The humble CD didn't think itself anything extraordinary. It gleaned that optical storage was quite passé technology that shouldn't be mentioned in modern circles. But at least they weren't books! The poor little CD was made to feel very insignificant, and the only kindness came from the vinyl LP.
The LP had lived in the house the longest, a worn copy of Dr. John's "Desitively Bonnaroo." His spine was worn and scratched up by a long-dead cat, and exposure to the sun had led to a tortilla-like wave warping. The Doctor was wise, for he had seen a long succession of media formats arrive boastful, like the cassette, and by-and-by break or loosen their spools.
"What does it mean to be REAL?" asked the CD one day, when they were lying prone, unalphabetized. "Does it mean live performers are pulled off the streets of New York in the 1960s and brought under the wing of an albino with Asperger?"
"Real isn't about how the albums are made or what the royalty advances were," said the LP. "It's a thing that happens when someone experiences you. When someone loves your content for a long, long time, not just as the backdrop of a car commercial, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
"Does it happen all at once, like a baby bird hatching out of an egg," the CD asked, "or bit by bit, like torrenting a whole HBO series?"
"Oh, not much happens all at once," chuckled the LP. "It takes years, and not for things that break easily, like a Zune. By the time you are Real, most of your UV coat has been rubbed off, there's water damage, your surfaces are scratched and may have trace amounts of cocaine on them. You were 'Near Mint' and got marked down to "'Poor.'"
"I suppose you are real?" said the CD. The LP approximated a smile, which was just a continued warping from the heat.
"The Boy's Father made me Real, for a time" he said. "That was a great many years ago, but once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It's a legacy thing. They have a festival named after me now." The CD sighed. Maybe one day, it hoped, there would be a festival named All Tomorrow's Parties, but it would probably go bankrupt before this magic called Real happened.
One evening the Boy was going to bed when the cable went out, and he couldn't watch Caillou, which was Canadian programming for a much younger demographic. The babysitter wouldn't let The Boy play video games as they agitated him greatly, but she needed to placate her ward and as she was not very creative, she reached for a CD.
"Here," she said, "this looks innocent enough! I'm pretty sure a lot of people have fallen asleep to this!" She slid it into the DVD player and a faintly female Teutonic voice creepily droned. "I may get fired for this," the babysitter whispered to herself as the Boy drifted off.
That night and for many moons after, the Velvet Underground & Nico CD chaperoned the Boy to slumberland. It grew uncomfortable when the Boy hit puberty and was fantasizing about other forms of media. Sometimes the boy would stare into the back of the CD, using it as a mirror to squeeze his newly formed zits. Wiping the pus and blood off the CD became a bonding experience for them both. The CD was very happy.
Years passed, and the CD grew very old. the Boy left him in the car to run errands. The car stereo would skip whenever they hit a bump, the lasers misfiring off its scraggly surface, which annoyed everyone in the car except for the Boy. "Why don't we try the news radio for a while honey?" The Mother chided. "No mom, this is one of the greatest albums of all time according to Pitchfork. You can listen to that gay-ass news after you drop me off." Well, that was a rude use of that term, everyone noted. But the CD just wanted to be cherished. It didn't mind that the boy had started to cover its songs very badly on a guitar in his bedroom.
The Boy began spending more and more time with the lit-up box on the desk, and was going through tissue boxes frequently. Perhaps a cold or other illness had befallen him?
One day the Boy picked up the CD from its shelf, and its little heart pounded with joy! "We're going to play," it thought as it was being fondled. The CD was inserted into a slot in the box and the Boy commenced "ripping" it. That was what he called it, and the pain of the "ripping"! It hurt more than regular spinning.
The Boy placed it back into its case and tossed it into a cardboard shoebox marked with a sharpie "to sell $2/each O.B.O." It lay there for Many a Night. It wondered what "O.B.O." might mean. Obviously Beautiful Objects? A school for oboe players?
One evening lying alone the CD encountered sounds that were remarkably familiar. They were emanating from the lit-up box. Perhaps they were a duplicate CD, a new friend? Or an album of live outtakes?
"We… we have the same songs now?!" the CD blurted.
"Why it would appear so," the light-box replied smugly, "but I contain soooo much more. Say… how many gigs can you hold?"
"Gigs? I… I don't hold anything, other than songs," said the CD sheepishly.
"And people probably listen to them in sequential order as the artist intended!" said the box. "Silly disc, you can compress your files and back them up to 'The Cloud.'"
"I… I can go to The Cloud also! The Cloud 9 of music appreciation!" the CD cried.
"Do you provide a revenue-generating user experience?" the box shot back.
"Not as such… I have liner notes in my booklet!" the CD offered weakly.
It would give anything in the world to be able to go to The Cloud like the Box did!
And then, one day, the Box caught a virus.
The naughty sites the boy was visiting, "FemmeFatale.ru" for example, brought other unexpected visitors to the Box, which sputtered and choked, its drives whirring asthmatically. The box grew too ill to play, and the little CD found itself thinking "Good! That'll show him. And maybe I'll get back in the rotation with that pest out of the way." But it was not to be the case.
One day the box went missing. The CD overheard the Boy and the Parents arguing over the cost of fixing it, and shouts to "Clear up that clutter while you're at it!" The Boy took the O.B.O. box out to the street corner. The CD did not like being in the sun, but handled it much better than the Dr. John LP.
"How you holding up boy?" the LP asked sweatily. "I'm fine," the CD replied, "but you shouldn't be out here! The sun is your enemy!"
"I've had a good life, little one, don't worry about me. Besides, the sun will go down soon." The little CD wanted to cry for its friend, but could not. "I'm Waiting For The Man," the CD hummed. By nighttime, the LP had melted into an unplayable floppy pancake.
While the CD held vigil over its friend's corpse, a figure scraped them both up into a shopping cart. There they sat amongst used soda cans, also cans of a very foul, pungent soda It had never experienced. The cart rattled in darkness towards an unknown destination. The CD tried to remember how happy they once were, and a great sadness came over him. He thought of the Dr. John LP, so wise and gentle. What use was it to be loved and lose one's beauty and become Real if it all ended like this? And then a tear, a real, viscuous tear of all the congealed sodas mixed together, trickled down his cracked jewel case and fell onto the LP. It looked as if Dr. John was covered in the fluids emitted from a very sickly banana.
"I'll give you $5 for all of it," the thin man said at the Record Shop.
"Aw c'mon man, it's good stuff," the cart man bartered.
"This thing…this isn't even playable. And it has this goop all over it."
"What about this CD here? That's gotta be worth something," the cart man said, scratching at his Hatchet Man tattoo.
"I can't even give away CDs anymore. We have this album on vinyl though."
The cartman acquiesced. "How about you just keep this, I'll find more stuff next time."
The thin man sighed. "Alright. But don't bring me garbage."
The little CD was frightened. Had it come all this way just to end up at the bottom of a dumpster?
At the bottom of the bin, the CD felt sorry for itself. Didn't it contain one of the all-time great albums according to Pitchfork? Now it just had the shame of making other computers sick and succumbing to disc rot. Even if someone fished it out of the garbage now, would It even play?
Then, magically, out of a rotting onion, a blossom opened and out stepped a fairy.
"Little CD," he said, "I am a magical Fairy." It looked very much like Bryan Ferry from Roxy Music. "I care over all the retired Media Formats that people have loved. When you are old and worn out then I come and take you away into the Cloud."
"Wasn't… I in the Cloud before?" asked the little CD.
"Well, maybe that term is too vague," the Fairy said. "You were in a personal data storage locker on a virtual server, because the Boy loved you. Now you shall be available to every one, on all devices – that regional licensing agreements allow."
And he held the little CD close and flew It into "The Cloud" while humming "Slave to Love." When the CD saw all the wild untethered data dancing around, it felt embarrassed. It did not know that the Bryan Fairy had changed it altogether. It wasn't just a CD anymore. It WAS the music.
Seasons passed and the Boy went off to school, then to work, and became an adult despite himself. One day at lunch, he heard a sound drifting out of a speaker that seemed strangely familiar. It was a tune that brought him back to a time before he was born, "There She Goes Again," and the Boy thought to himself "Why, that sounds just like my old CD i used to carry around. I haven't listened to this since I had to repair my hard drive." Hearing Lou Reed's voice over the public address system brought him back to that first Christmas, his parents still together, cooking happily in the kitchen, and he wondered where all that time went.
The song ended and was followed by a commercial for Chipotle.
This story was written for Give Me Fiction, a prose reading series hosted by Ivan Hernandez. You can follow GMF on Twitter, check out the podcast on iTunes, RSS, Soundcloud, and Stitcher, and buy tickets for the live show which takes place the first Sunday of every month at San Francisco's Lost Weekend Video. The next show is GMF XV: Masculinity on January 4th.