The Day Prince Died

The Day Prince Died

The Day Prince Died 1080 720 Sean Enfield

starts cold and cloudy in the North Texas town of Denton, but like many days in your landlocked region of the country, the weather is moody and prone to dramatic changes. In the previous six months, you’ve totaled one car and blew the transmission on another, so you rise at the crisp, cold end of the morning—around 5am—to walk briskly to the train station. In two hours, you will transfer to a bus, shivering for thirty minutes before it arrives, and then ride it to a 7-11 gas station to wait for the principal of the little prep school, where you teach English, to pick you up. At the gas station, you loiter for ten or so minutes beside the day laborers seeking good, honest work. You look conspicuous in your shoulder-padded blazer and button-up shirt, and still, you’ve been asked more than a few times if you want to hop in the back of a truck to go paint a house/fix a deck/dig up some plumbing. In your half-black, light-skin ambiguity, you blend right in with the mostly Latinx day laborers around you, at least as far as the white folks with trucks are concerned. Eventually, your principal’s car whips into the lot. She motions you to hurry by waving her hand, though you’re both still thirty minutes early for school. Her kids, all students of yours, pester you with questions from the back, “Where’s your car?” You ignore them. Once you’ve arrived, around 8:30am, her second oldest son slips into your classroom—late—for his morning tutoring session, a cup of steaming tea in his hand, and about an hour later—in Chanhassen, Minnesota, almost a thousand miles away—Andrew Kornfield finds Prince’s body unresponsive in an elevator at his massive estate Paisley Park. You don’t know it yet, but this news will make this ordinary day impress upon your memory like the haunting refrain of an old spiritual. Both Minnesota and North Texas sit inside the Central Time Zone which stretches up the length of North America like a snake, its tail coiling at the tipped end of Central America, but Chanhassen, that day, sits comfortably in a cool seven-degree temperature range from a low 54 to a high 61. That afternoon, two hours after Prince is pronounced dead, it rains over Paisley Park. God’s crying over Minnesota for ya, Prince, you’ll think, when you learn of this fact, but you won’t be able to cry then—around noon—when you find out that he’s died. It was 55 degrees when you woke up that morning, but it’s hot and humid now. You’ve got your sleeves rolled up and your blazer draped over your office chair. You’re in another tutoring session, this time with the principal’s second youngest child, and he’s writing a timed essay. He’s a stubborn writer in that he hates the very idea of it. Once, he told you that he didn’t have to write your essay because he had a million dollars. You reminded him then, that at ten years old, he didn’t have a dime to his name, but he would soon have a zero in the grade book if he didn’t check his attitude. Afterwards, he sulked his way through the five paragraphs about what he wanted to be when he grew up. However, he’s motivated by competition and music, so you set your phone in front of him—“Eye of the Tiger,” his favorite writing anthem bumping from the little phone speakers that could—and let the time tick down before his eyes. He races against the clock, writing faster as the timer ticks closer to 00:00. You compare it to the ghost cars in Mario Kart time trials, but he doesn’t understand the reference. He doesn’t know who Prince is either which becomes clear when he looks up from his essay to tell you, “Somebody named Prince died.” You’re trying to catch up on grading during his writing time, but he often distracts you with digressive statements like, “If I could fly, I’d go to Mars,” so you’ve gotten used to tuning him out during these sessions. “Keep writing,” you say, but he repeats, “Some Prince guy died,” and finally, you hear the words and snatch up your phone and see the text from your friend that, yes, indeed, Prince has died and you fall back into your chair, Googling to confirm the news, and your face must turn pale because the student follows up with, “Was he a friend of yours?” You won’t be able to answer this question all day because, to your surprise, nobody else seems to care. The students you understand, but even at lunch, when you mention Prince’s passing to one of your middle-aged colleagues—who grew up when Purple Rain was new, for God’s sake! She can’t even name one of his songs. “Sad though,” she says. More like devastating, you think. You came to love music through Prince. Your parents didn’t keep much of their record collection from when they were young; they don’t consider themselves collectors the way you do now, but they had Prince’s self-titled album and, of course, Purple Rain. They played the songs for you the way your grandmother read you Bible stories—you had to shut up and listen—only you didn’t mind listening to Prince; in fact, you chose to shut up because the music absorbed you into its world. The light-skin black man on the covers looked like you with his thick, curly hair but also didn’t look like anyone else with his cool, detached gaze and his purple suit with the feathered collar. You drift through the day with his image in mind, and when the school day finally ends, at 3:30pm, your principal drops you off at the train station. You wait for her to say, “Sorry for your loss,” but like the other teachers, the principal wasn’t too familiar with his music either. She drives with either the radio off or tuned to talk radio, and when you broke the news to her earlier, she asked you, “the prince of where?” So, on the train, you read through Facebook posts and comments, looking for fellow mourners who understand the immensity of the loss. On one post you read that a radio station in Minnesota has transformed into a space for public mourning, playing only Prince music and allowing for listeners to call in with stories. You stream the station from your phone and you cry and you watch the city blur beside you as the train picks up speed. When a beloved celebrity dies, the event is both deeply personal and communal all at once. You drift, naturally, into concern for your own mortality, and yet you feel this connection to everyone who ever felt a connection to the deceased’s art. The radio tells you he’s dead at only fifty-seven. He had recently cut a tour short due to illness. Until today, though, you thought that someday still you would see him on a stage, shredding one of those custom-built guitars shaped like his trademark gender-bent symbol. Riding the train home, you think of you and your mom singing along with “Little Red Corvette” as you drive, windows down, on a warm Texas day. The song glimmers with such infectious joy that whenever the song came on, your mom—no matter her mood, no matter how tiresome her workday—would smile and belt out, “You need a love that’s gonna last.” And you think about mouthing the words to “Kiss” in your bedroom after your first kiss with your high school crush. With that fast-stuttering, disco-esque guitar break before Prince punctuates the chorus with the titular, “Kiss,” you already knew how your heart would feel before and after your lips touched hers. And you think of your college band trying to cover “When Doves Cry” in your best friend’s dorm room. It never sounded quite right on your instruments because you could never stop hearing the original even as it came tumbling densely from your own mouths. Prince’s was somehow both soulful and hollow, no wall of sound in the mix but an eerie space hovering over the track, heightening the song’s drama. Whenever you and your band tried to play it, however, the tune was too nosy, too busy. Eventually, y’all say, “fuck it! We’ll play punk rock,” so as not to butcher the music of any of your heroes. And, hell! Prince gave y’all the courage to be punks anyway because while his music is usually sonically palatable, it never fit easily into any category—just like he didn’t. “I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never understand,” he sang on “I Would Die 4 U, and you nodded along and knew then you’d always be an outsider and damn it, you’d be better off for it. All these moments collide into each other, and now you can’t distinguish between them. You’re no longer on the train listening to the radio, but instead are driving through Paisley Park, caught in a swirl of music and memory and mourning. A caller in their fifties says, “I’ve lost a dear friend,” though they, too, have never met Prince. Still, like you, they’ve been listening to his music their whole life. Was he a friend of yours? Yes, I’ve lost a dear friend. The DJ cues up, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” and for that moment you feel a little less alone.

Header photograph © Adrienne Christian.

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