Not Fade Away
The bass player found God under a tent at the O'Farrell County Fair, the O'Fair!, as they billed it. Exclamation point and all. It was right after the pie eating contest. They were all pecan pies, donated by the Friends of Molly Albrecht Society, the town matriarch credited with bringing the smallpox vaccine into the county in 1899, at the height of the epidemic. A big grinning man in bib overalls won the contest. The huge red and yellow striped tent was sponsored by the Reverend A. Aaron Gildey and the Evangelical Church of Brown Springs and featured Bible readings and pamphlet dispersal and personal testimonies and free funnel cakes. And hey, it was A. Aaron Gildey, the regionally famous evangelist, healer of the sick, the infirm, and the morally, physically and spiritually bankrupt denizens of the Pre-Raptured Midwest. There was foot washing and symbolic anointing in the Spirit and three teenaged girls lip synching and doing a dance routine to a prerecorded contemporary Christian pop song. Church elder Cordell Tackett and his wife Corrine led a group of fairgoers in sermon and song. One guy testified and a lady fainted. What they told the bass player was this: Jesus was the ultimate conductor, see. He composed the soundtrack to our lives and He laid down His own life so that we could make beautiful music with ours. Will you use it to create a heavenly symphony or waste it on noise and disharmony?
Although he'd always considered himself a Christian and attended church on religious holidays and most weekends when the band wasn't working or touring, something struck a chord with him in that moment when the stars were perfectly aligned and just the right combination of words and sentiment came together to transform the life of the bass player. He was born again, as they called it. Born in the capital S Spirit. He took off his wire-rimmed glasses and cried. He grabbed the top of his bald head like his skull was trying to escape. The Tacketts hugged him and wept too, welcomed him into the fold, said he didn't have to play the part of Joe B. Mauldin any longer, didn't have to wear that fool wig. Now he was -- what was your name son? -- Now he was Brother Glenn Sumpter, Born Again Christian, Disciple of God. The pie eater in the overalls, his fingers still smelling of pecans, picked up the bass player and nearly squeezed the breath out of him.
While the bass player's conversion certainly signaled happiness and good fortune for him, it meant The Buddy Holly Experience, the tribute band honoring the memory of the late, legendary rock and roll pioneer, would be without the services of Cricket Joe B. Mauldin, bass guitar, played for the last two decades by Glenn Sumpter, who had just renounced all things worldly and non-God-honoring in the act of being born again.
Outside the elaborate tent the smell emanating from the livestock pens mingled with the aroma of cotton candy from the concessions trailer, creating something sweetly pungent in the northeast corner of the O'Farrell County Fair. Freckle-faced kids pulled their parents' arms to the lure of the cotton candy, kettle corn, hot pretzel sticks and corndogs. Men in filthy overalls and foam baseball caps lumbered over to the enclosed livestock pens to view the judging in the porcine, bovine and ovine categories. The farmers with poor posture and tractor ass from riding their fields for too long were there for the animals and to talk shop with others agriculturists. The kids wanted to see the three-legged Guernsey cow and that much hyped two-headed steer, but mostly they were bored by the livestock display and repelled by the stink. Pee-yoo-ee! They held their noses and giggled as they approached the entrance.
The line to see the two-headed steer stretched from the livestock entrance to the middle of the fairgrounds and south to the row of sixty aqua green Porta-Potties. A gentleman with an extravagant beer gut roiling beneath his green and black flannel shirt, stiff jeans, weathered boots and frayed straw hat walked the line, a kind of rural barker, bellowing out hyperbole and two-headed come-ons to entice the fairgoers to pay the extra two bucks -- a mere one fifth of a gen-u-wine American sawbuck, two score plug nickels, sixteen bits, a handful of dimes, mere pocket change -- to see this anomaly of nature, this awe-inspiring mistake of Mother Nature. See Bullseye, the Amazing Two-Headed Super Steer! Two heads are better than one! Words can't describe the Wonder and Mystery and Strange Psychic Power of this enigmatic creature! Connected physically to each other and super-psychically to you! The Chang and Eng of the zoological world! Your life will be forever changed after you see Bullseye, the Amazing Two-Headed Super Steer! People in line wrinkled up their noses and squinted. Chang and Eng?
The barker didn't elucidate as to how one's life would be forever changed by viewing the birth defects of this poor cow, or if the prescribed change was on par with those occurring over at the Evangelical church tent, but his spiel was working, and all proceeds were going to help fund the Future Farmers of America. Sure, kids wanted to ride the Himalaya and the Tip-Top, the Rock-O-Planes and the Round-Up, and kick off their tennies and bounce in the Moonwalk, and their mothers were mighty keen to take in that Pennsylvania Dutch quilt display, but first they were going to see that incredible two-headed steer for themselves. They say he can read your mind and tell your future!
Word hadn't reached the bass player's band mates yet. They had no idea they'd be without their Joe B. Mauldin that evening or how his absence onstage would affect the performance. The drummer, their Jerry Allison, was still in his underwear back at the motel masturbating to The Young and the Restless on a TV chained to the wall, and the lead guitarist, playing the part of Niki Sullivan, was in town scouring antique shops for new additions to his hand carved pipe collection.
Kirby Huckabee, following in the footsteps of his rock and roll idol, got dressed in a cinderblock storage facility behind the amphitheater, donning that smart black suit coat and tie, patting back his curly, dark-dyed hair and polishing the lenses in the trademark black frame eyeglasses to create the haunting illusion of the legendary Buddy Holly. Kirby's own hair hadn't been any color but gray for the last ten years, and the glasses were more than simply cosmetic. But he could sing 'Peggy Sue' is a long summer-in-Lubbock drawl that'd shame a legion of Elvis impersonators. My Peggy Sue-a-ew-ew. Kirby picked up a steel drip pan from beneath a rusting water heater and checked the image in the reflection. He sang, You say you're gonna leave -- you know it's a lie 'cause that'll be the day-ay-ay when I die and strolled out onto the fairgrounds with his black Stratocaster over his shoulder. Buddy Holly's back, baby. Just walking the grounds of the O'Farrell County Fair. No extra charge, Miss Talent Coordinator. 'Cause I love you gal -- yes, I love you Peggy Sue. Hey, how you doing there? Good to see you. Don't miss the big show this evening. Eight o'clock down at the amphitheater. The Buddy Holly Experience starring me, Buddy Holly. All of my love - all of my kissin', you don't know what you've been a-missin', oh boy!
It didn't yet bother Kirby Huckabee that this backwater county fair was the best engagement he could book for his tribute band. Or that this was their first gig since February. And that show had been a disaster. Two nights at a hotel bar in St. Joseph booked to accommodate the overflow from an insurance adjusters convention that was canceled last minute. All of my love, all of my kissin', booked in St. Joe with no one to listen, oh boy! They played to a drunk couple arguing over how to handle their wayward teenager and some rowdy guys heading home from a Jayhawks victory in Lawrence. They said, 'Play some Skynyrd!' and laughed their drunken heads off. One of the guys called Kirby Elvis Costello. Damn, that was a bad show. But ever since Big Chet Mayne at MayneStage Productions dropped the Buddy Holly Experience from its talent roster of wedding harpists, birthday clowns, cafeteria mentalists, celebrity look-alikes and tribute acts, Kirby had found it increasingly more difficult to secure gigs for the band. Ten years ago they played every weekend. All over the Midwest. Conventions in St. Louis, Chicago, Kansas City. Notable wedding receptions in Wichita, Lincoln, Columbus, Ohio. A managers meeting for the Arby's chain. Christmas parties in Minneapolis and Tulsa and Omaha. July 4th celebrations. Gigs were plentiful. Paying gigs. Buddy Holly Lives! See It To Believe It! Two weeks at a breakfast show in Branson. A couple hundred seniors every morning. A fully stocked waffle bar and a bunch of old people smiling and clapping off rhythm. Oh boy!
A kid with a bad haircut and grass stains on his face watched Kirby traipse across the field, strumming away on that black electronical gee-tar. Had a little speaker or something clipped onto his belt loop so you could hear the music he was playing. What a freak.
The kid walked up to Kirby, his hands in his pockets as if fishing for a rock to throw. He said, 'You look funny.'
Kirby said, 'Love is funny.'
The kid said, 'Love is gay.'
Kirby sang, 'Everyday, it's a gettin' closer, goin' faster than a roller coaster, love like yours will surely come my way.'
The kid said, 'That is so gay.'
Kirby said, 'Eight o'clock tonight down at the amphitheater. The Buddy Holly Experience starring me, Buddy Holly. Be there or be square.'
The kid found the rock he'd been groping for and whipped it at Kirby. It hit his guitar and produced a little twang as it struck the B string. The kid said, 'I'd rather be square.'
Nasty little inbred a-hole. Best hightail it outta these parts. Kirby sang and nodded to couples holding hands in line for the Ferris Wheel. Biggest one in O'Farrell County in fifteen years, they said. He strolled past the Molly Albrecht look-alikes in their lace bonnets and gingham dresses, past the fat man in the dirty brown suit electioneering for the local school board and past a row of game booths. The Balloon Pop. The Duck Pond. The Milk Bottle Toss -- three balls for a dollar. Games of chance. Put your four quarters on a color and spin the big wheel. Click click click click click. We have a winner: Magenta! Kirby crossed the fairgrounds like a wandering minstrel. Geez, check out the line for the Porta-Johns. No, wait. That line's moving away from the Porta-Johns. Weird. He encountered the huge red and yellow tent of an evangelist named A. Aaron Gildey, where girls in plaid ankle skirts handed out colorful brochures and religious tracts. Kirby sang, 'It's funny honey, you don't care, you never listen to my prayer, maybe baby you will love me someday.' The girls said, 'Come to the revival tonight. Eight o'clock. See the sick get healed. See the unsaved get saved. See Reverend Gildey chase the devil out the Garden with nothing more than a Weed Whacker and the Word o' God. A real devil. Not just a guy with a goatee and little plastic horns in red flannel long johns. Eight o'clock tonight. Right here.'
Kirby took off his glasses and focused on one of the young women. He said, 'Hey, little darling, did you say tonight?'
'Yes sir. Eight o'clock. A real devil.'
Kirby said, 'Well, fuck,' breaking character. 'That's when my show is. You mean I have to compete with some god damned phony faith healer? That's bullshit.'
One of the girls said, 'Come get saved. There's free funnel cakes too.'
When the bass player exited the tent he was both anxious and relieved to find Kirby, his boss. He said, 'Kirby. Glad I ran into you.'
Kirby said, 'Joe B. Did you know they scheduled a damn tent revival tonight, same time as our show?'
'That's kinda what I need to talk to you about. See, Kirby. I'm not Joe B. Mauldin anymore. I'm just Glenn Sumpter now and I've accepted Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior and musical conductor. I'm not gonna be able to play any more shows with you, Kirby. I'm sorry.'
Kirby said, 'Jesus Friggin' Christ.' It was bad enough having to play some podunk county fair, compromising your integrity and that of your hero, but now he was losing his bass player and getting pelted with rocks by shitty little hick kids. His favorite Strat.
'It's something I've wanted to do for a long time, Kirby. This was just the kick in the pants I needed.'
'Well, it's a kick in the pants, all right. What all they have going on in that tent, Glenn?'
'The Truth, Kirby. With a capital T. Come see it for yourself.'
'No thanks, Glenn. I'm driving. With a capital D.'
'Brother, someday you're gonna have to face the facts: you're Kirby Huckabee, a fifty year old guy pretending to be Buddy Holly, playing the same old songs day after day to fewer and fewer people. People who just don't care anymore.'
'Well, Glenn. I'm only forty-nine, and the day I face those facts, well, that'll be the day-ay-ay when I die. So adios, 'Joe.' Nice knowin' ya. Thanks for all the bottom end. See ya in Rock n' Roll Heaven.'
'I'm not going to Rock n' Roll Heaven, Kirby. I'm going to God's Heaven.'
'Okay. You do that, Glenn. Me, I'm going to the amphitheater. I got a show to do tonight.'
After checking in with the stage manager and the production guy with the long tapered sideburns, Kirby took his guitar and sneaked out the service gate to his car. It was time for a little afternoon siesta back at the motel before the show. The day clerk was eating a hoagie sandwich bigger than his head and had breadcrumbs and specks of mayonnaise in his salt and pepper beard. He stopped Kirby as he headed for the rickety metal stairs. 'Hey, buddy. You in room 29, right? They took your roommate out a little while ago.'
'Ambulance. Had hisself a heart attack or something.'
'I guess. Your room. They took him out of here buck naked. Just a big yellow bed sheet over him. Took him down to Calvary Baptist on Stubbins Road. By the mall. Tell him I'm gonna need that bed sheet back.'
Well, that scratched the siesta. At the hospital they allowed Kirby to see his drummer after an hour-long wait. An orderly told him he looked like that old rock and roll singer -- what was his name -- Jerry Lee Lewis. Kirby said thanks.
Ronny looked all right, a little pasty. Hospital gown blue wasn't quite his color. Had a lot of tubes and stuff stuck into the guy. Ronny said, 'It was a somewhat minor heart attack. They said I'd be able to go back home in a few days. Gotta take it easy.' Ronny's wife and teenaged sons were already on their way to town. They'd probably blame Kirby for this. Again.
The Buddy Holly Experience was to be a duo for tonight's performance. Where the hell was Tony? He'd better find him and have a little powwow as to how to do this show with just two guitars and no rhythm section. Crap. 'Not Fade Away' was so drum-dependent. Bomp-bomp-bomp-da-bomp-bomp. Okay. They could cut that number. Hopefully no one would be too disappointed. 'True Love Ways' could definitely work. 'Peggy Sue' could really benefit from bass and drums. Damn. Where the hell was Tony?
Tony called him as Kirby drove back to the fairgrounds. He said, 'Man, you're not even gonna believe this. I need you to bail me out of here.'
'Are you shitting me? You're in jail? Tell me you're putting me on, Tony. It's been a terrible day.'
'I found this awesome new pipe -- a vintage Thorneycroft, I shit you not --and I had to try it out. In my car. In the parking lot of some day care or something, I don't know. Anyway, my so-called court-appointed legal counsel won't be in till Monday. They're gonna hold me in here till then if I can't make bail.'
'Tony, I have a show to do in an hour. And I'm broke. You still owe me from the last time. Now I've gotta get my ass to the O-Fucking-Fair and give a rousing performance to the best of my natural ability and hope I don't have a nervous breakdown in the middle of 'It's So Easy.'
'That's cool,' Tony said. 'I'll catch you later, man.'
Okay. The Crickets may have been exterminated but Kirby wasn't about to let an audience down or compromise the memory of the late, great Buddy Holly who died in that doomed Beechcraft Bonanza with Ritchie Valens and J.R. (The Big Bopper) Richardson in Clear Lake, Iowa, that fateful morning of February 3rd, 1959. The day the music died. He slung the Strat around to his hands and tuned up, resolutely, determined to take a stand, with or without his backing band. His Joe B. Mauldin had given him up for God. His Jerry Allison lie in a hospital with tubes up his nose. And his Niki Sullivan stewed in some holding cell doing or having done to him whatever suspects in the O'Farrell County correctional system do for drug possession or have done to them. Kirby paced the backstage area of the amphitheater. He strummed his guitar. He sang, 'I'm a-gonna tell you how it's gonna be, I'm gonna do this show -- just me. I'm a-gonna plug it in and play, a love that's love -- not fade away, a well, a-love that's love -- not fade away.'
Within minutes of eight o'clock the stage manager found Kirby checking his appearance in a full-length mirror in a makeshift dressing room behind the amphitheater. He said to Kirby, 'Dude, it's almost eight but there's like no one out there. You want to wait a while longer?'
Kirby said, 'No one?'
'The stage manager said, 'Nope.'
'Maybe they're on their way. They'll come when they hear the music. Let's wait till ten after then I'll take the stage.' When Kirby took the stage at eight-fifteen he plugged his guitar into his amp and tapped on the microphone, check one, check one, and launched into a solo rendition of 'Peggy Sue' to a man in brown coveralls using a stick with a nail on the end of it to pick up trash. The groundskeeper adjusted his headphones and turned up the volume on his portable CD player clipped to his pocket. Oh Peggy Sue-a-ew-ew. It was the Buddy Holly Experience going solo. One Night Only. Kirby auto-piloted through the song he'd played seventeen thousand times before. If his hands were severed in some freak mishap they'd still be able to make the chord progressions on their own, they were that ingrained. Ten minutes after he had died, his advanced motor skills would yet recycle through the motions of playing and singing that song. 'Cause I love you gal -- yes, I love you Peggy Sue. Okay. Big finish now, Rock and roll pose. Even the groundskeeper had wandered up the next hillock in search of discarded popcorn boxes.
The lights from the carnival rides blinked on in the encroaching dusk of late summer. You could hear the whir of the Octopus and the metallic clank of the Green Dragon's drive chain heaving the cars up the steel incline.
A thousand micro-thoughts cruised across his mind as he sang. Ronny in the hospital. Tony in jail. A mortgage payment overdue. A yard that hadn't been mown since June. Broken lawn mower. An ex-wife. Fewer and fewer gigs. Smaller audiences. Lower pay. Okay. Hadn't planned on this but fuck 'em all. 'This one's for Buddy,' he announced and kicked into 'Not Fade Away' and once again Kirby was a-gonna tell us how it was gonna be.
He always wondered which show would be his Surf Ballroom, which town his Clear Lake, Iowa. When rock would hit rock bottom. The day his music died. Tonight was as good a night as any to crash and burn out a career in music. Bomp-bomp-bomp-da-bomp-bomp. He thought about Glenn getting saved inside the circus tent of some oily, toothy Bible thumper with a Weed Whacker. What the hell was that all about? And what the hell was the deal with the County Fair Planning Commission allowing a tent revival at the same time his show was scheduled? That was bullshit. Pure Bible belt bullshit. The lyrics spilled out of Kirby's mouth, into the microphone and through the speakers. He thought, if a singer sings in the woods and no one's around to hear him, does he make a sound? Well, this one was going to make a sound. And a stink. He was right here and now unplugging his Strat and marching over to that tent revival and that Reverend A. Aaron Gildey and taking back his audience, the audience he deserved. I'm a-gonna tell you how it's gonna be, you're gonna leave this tent with me. If you people are looking for the capital T Truth, you ain't gonna find it in this tent, in the mouth of some racketeer in gabardine, pimping the Bible and performing sleight-of-hand miracles for wads of cash and deeds to farms. The Truth lay in the words of Mr. Buddy Holly of Lubbock, Texas. Listen up, people. I'm a-gonna tell you how it's gonna be.
Outta my way, sister. No brochure for me. I'm going in, armed with only this here guitar and the Word o' Buddy. But the sprawling canvas tent was nearly as deserted as the amphitheater. Mr. And Mrs. Tackett sat looking dejectedly at the two hundred Dixie cups of lemonade they'd poured. A few teenage girls gathered around a boombox. A skinny guy with a goatee in red long johns and wearing plastic horns on his head bounced a rubber ball off a wooden post. A. Aaron Gildey lay on his back in his fine navy blue suit on the ornately decorated stage, adorned with yellow rose crosses and murals of the Ascension. He twirled a Weed Whacker around in the air, switching it on and off, on and off just to hear the electric drone of the motor.
Kirby passed row after row of empty metal folding chairs on his way up front. 'Am I in the right place?'
A. Aaron Gildey propped himself up. Huh? A visitor? Bout time. 'Come in, brother,' he said. 'You're in the right place. The right place for a miracle!'
'No,' Kirby said, 'I was doing a show down at the amphitheater. It was abandoned too. I thought everyone must be over here. Isn't there a revival here tonight? Where is everybody?'
'Good question. It's the damnedest thing.' Gildey pulled Kirby aside, talked to him businessman to businessman. 'I don't know about you but I'm losing a grand an hour here. My bottom line is taking a beating. Tent rental, electric, water line, free lemonade and treats. You know, a friend of mine told me not to bother with O'Farrell County but I didn't believe him. You worked here before?'
'No,' Kirby said. 'Why is it different from any other county?'
'That's what I wanted to figure out. Is there anything on my back?' Gildey turned around.
"I sent scouts out to poke around. It isn't like folks didn't know about the revival. It's up on the attractions boards and in the schedule of events and we've been advertising around town for a month. TV, radio and newspaper. And I do mass mailings. Fifty thousand homes in one swoop. Wham! Costs me a fortune but usually pays off. I have a thirty-two percent return rate, so nearly a third of all homes I target result in attendance. Have you looked into direct mail? I can hook you up with a good marketing firm. But this place… I don't know. I should have heeded the warnings. They tell me everyone's in line to see some damn two-headed cow or something.'
'A two-headed cow?'
'It's the damnedest thing.'
Kirby had to check this out for himself. A two-headed cow? That's the big attraction? He threw his guitar over his back and trod over to the livestock area. The line to enter snaked clear up over the rise as far he could see in the bulb-lit dusk. 'They giving out free money in there or something?' Kirby said to a group of fairgoers in line.
'No, this is the line to see Bullseye. It ends way back by the Porta-Potties, if you want to get in it,' said a woman holding a sleeping baby.
'What's the big attraction?'
'He's a two-headed steer,' said the woman.
'His second head looks into your soul and tells your future. He's psychic,' said another woman. 'End of the line's back by the Porta-Potties. No butting.'
This was ridiculous. Kirby had to see what he was being upstaged by. A psychic, two-headed steer. I'm not waiting in line for hours to see some hyped-up freak of livestock. I'll sneak in the exit.
The livestock tent was three times the size of the evangelist's tent. Flaps fluttered in the evening breeze and Kirby had to watch his step for the wooden stakes and guy wires moored to the ground around the perimeter. At the tent's exit way he found fairgoers trickling out, each with a mesmerized look on his or her ashen face. Grown men and women staring blankly, mutely, into the night air, no more aware of their surroundings than babies fresh from the womb. Kirby said, 'Excuse me. Is this the way to see the two-headed steer?' No one answered. A rugged man in a Caterpillar hat wept with abandon while his wife steadied him against her frail shoulder. 'Oh come on,' he said. 'This is a load of bull crap.' He prepared an excuse to tell the person in charge of guarding the exit -- he had just left and forgotten his jacket -- but there was no one there in that capacity. He walked right in the exit, right past the Exit Only sign. He followed the rows of caged sheep, rabbits and swine. Goats bleated their sorry laments. Cows with numbered plastic tags riveted to their ears swished their tales instinctively at invisible flies. The whole place smelled like a barnyard. What was with these country people? What's the fascination with farm animals? Most of them will just end up on a barbecue grill. It's not like they have much of a future. Then he was at the table where the line to see Bullseye began.
The barker in the green and black flannel shirt sat collecting two dollars from each entrant. Kirby stepped in front of a pair of nuns as they groped inside their purses for the two dollar admission. Mere pocket change.
'Excuse me, sisters,' Kirby said, 'but would you mind if I went ahead of you real quick? I think I just left my jacket in there.'
The nuns smiled weakly and nodded. Nice young man. Nice enough.
Before Kirby charged down the hallway to the viewing area the barker grabbed him by the arm, said, 'Whoa. Hold your horses a minute, son. You're about to experience the awesome super-psychic power of the amazing Bullseye. By signing this waiver you agree to hold Bullseye, O'Farrell County, the County Fair Commission and board of directors and the Future Farmers of America harmless for any emotional duress experienced from seeing Bullseye, the Amazing Two-Headed Super Steer who can see into your future with blinding accuracy. Sign here, print here, date here.'
'Is this a joke?'
'No sir. The power of Bullseye has been authenticated, validated and endorsed by the American Paranormal Society and the Food and Drug Administration, Paranormal Livestock Division. Law enforcement agencies have consulted Bullseye to uncover serious crimes before they happen. Thank you. Here's your copy. Now head down this hallway and wait for Mr. Carruthers to let you in. And watch where your step.'
The hallway was a reckless passageway of dirt and straw floor illuminated by a single yellow dangling bug light around which countless moths and gnats circumnavigated. The old wood paneling walls were riddled with feed company and defoliant stickers and handwritten posters made by FFA kids: THIS WAY TO SEE BULLSEYE -->. YOU WILL BE AMAZED! And JOIN THE FFA. The door at the end of the hallway was no more than a sheet of weathered plywood with a lousy painting of a bull surrounded by question marks on it. Kirby could hear muffled sobs and strange, swirling music emanating from behind the board. He thought, give me a break.
A minute later the board slid to the right and an old man in overalls and wire frame glasses ushered Kirby into the hay-strewn room, suspiciously lit with a single fluorescent blacklight. Kirby saw a young couple leaving through an adjacent door. They were crying of course. Give me a break.
'Come on in,' the old man said. 'Now don't touch, taunt or manipulate Bullseye in any way. Keep your hands clear of the pen and your visit down to five minutes or less, please.'
The room was dark and smelled of cow shit and urine-soaked hay, naturally. The stink made Kirby's eyes sting. And smack-dab in the middle of the room was a pen with a steer standing inside it. Ordinary pen, ordinary steer. Ordinary brown and white high grade Hereford. What was all this crap about a second head?
'Hold on a second,' the old man said. 'Gotta fix the tape. It keeps unwinding whiles it's playing.' He clutched his hip and limped over to a stepladder, climbed up to reach the tape deck on a plank board shelf and removed the cassette, spooling the ribbon-like tape back into its casing with his bony pinkie. He said, 'Soon as I get the music back playing you'll have five minutes alone with Bullseye. Ask him any question you like. Life, Love or lottery numbers. But don't hurt Bullseye or touch him in any way or try to kill him. You were lucky to get in before we close the fair down for the night.' The old man replaced the cassette and pressed the play button. Eerie swirling music squawked out of the tiny speakers, a real mood-setter. Then he hobbled to the door and the old man was gone.
Well, the first thing he had to kill was that obnoxious music. He strode right over and climbed up that stepladder and switched off the tape player. Cool it with the cheesy theremin already. Geez. But Kirby nearly fell off the last rung of the ladder when he saw the other side of Bullseye. There it was, sprouting from its bulky neck, a half-sized head and the hump of a misshapen shoulder. The remains of its unfortunate, underdeveloped twin. It looked like the smaller animal had taken a running start and tried to jump through Bullseye and got itself stuck coming out the other side. Pretty freaky.
While the primary head snorted and hunched over to grabble the hay with its ruddy maw and tongue, the secondary head looked back at Kirby, seemed to gaze into the man's very soul, if such a thing was possible of malformed livestock. Its obsidian black eyes stared into the darkness, dilated, glossy, like marbles in the rain.
'Okay, you psychic beef brisket, look into my eyes and tell me my future.' Kirby didn't expect much. What the hell was he doing here? This was stupid. He should be at the amphitheater strumming his Strat and singing 'Peggy Sue' for the seventeen thousandth and second time. Maybe some fairgoers had shown up by now. Maybe some fans were ready to hear some vintage Buddy Holly and wondered where the band was. It was on the Attractions boards. The Buddy Holly Experience. Actually, he should be home, fixing the lawn mower and figuring out how to make his house payment. Wondering what his ex-wife Lori was up to and if there was even the slightest of infinitesimally minute chances -- no, it wasn't even worth entertaining the thought for an instant. This whole Buddy Holly thing -- Lori called it a thing -- bordered on obsessive. No, it crossed the border. It was full-bore obsession. A grown man carrying on like that. And she was right. How long could he expect to go on eking out a meager living off the memory of a 1950s era pop singer? It was kind of pathetic. It was obsessive.
The void of those wet ebony eyes bore down on Kirby, impenetrable in their darkness, relentless in their sheer black agate stare. Kirby slumped his shoulders and felt his guitar fall to the hay behind him, the weight of the instrument suddenly unendurable. Was he really staring into the blind eyes of this freaky cow head? Was he really feeling the positive ions in his body drain away, leaving only the nubilous blackness of those impassable eyes to consume him? Felt that way.
My band has deserted me, he thought. My audience has abandoned me. I'm too old for this shit. Kirby closed his eyes and resisted the urge to cry. He was a grown man, for Christ's sake. Almost fifty. Completely gray by forty. With no marketable job skills. He knew a dozen or so guitar chords and could sing like Buddy Holly. Big fucking deal. A county fair. Some forgettable hotel in St. Joseph. Even the Arby's managers meeting wasn't as glamorous as he'd made it sound or convinced himself it was. He wanted to kill Bullseye the Super-Steer, wanted to ceremoniously skewer him with a banderilla like some Spanish picador -- Ole'! -- or just whack that atrophied head with the business end of his Stratocaster.
With his eyes still shut he saw wooden steps leading down to a cluttered basement, his basement at home. His old amp. A broken washing machine. He tried to resist the urge to look down at his hands holding loosely to a length of coarse-fibered rope. Then he watched himself fling the rope over a steel support beam. He tied a loop around one end of the rope. He felt dark and desperate. Kirby struggled against the image in his mind, the image this psycho-steer had implanted in his consciousness. No. It isn't going to be like this. I refuse to let it happen. And then he felt cold. Bone-numbing cold. A frozen Iowa plains gust buffeted his shins and rolled up his pant legs and through his spinal column, stinging Kirby's pores and chilling every one of his negatively charged particles. He shivered. Damn. It suddenly felt like February. And it was. It was February third, 1959. He was in Clear Lake, Iowa. And it was freezing. He was so tired. He looked for the rope but instead saw a duffel bag at his feet. It was full of dirty laundry. He hadn't had clean clothes since the start of the tour, the Winter Dance Party Tour. There was a voice, throaty and muffled. It said, 'Flying or driving?' Another voice said, 'Ain't got no heat in that bus yet, do they?' Someone else said, 'Damn it's late. Anybody have any food?' 'Jiles, you already destroyed the buffet table at The Surf.' Then Kirby heard a voice in his head say, 'It'll just be nice to get up there and have time to do some laundry in the morning. I've been sweating in these duds for three weeks.' And it was Kirby's voice. 'I just wanna get on to Moorhead, get my dang laundry washed.' Another voice said, 'I hear you, Buddy. Listen. There's a little Beechcraft can fly you, me and Ritchie on up to Minnesota. We'll meet up with the others in the afternoon.' They were leaving the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. It was brutally cold. He felt the numbing and deafening drone of a prop engine. And there he was, in the dark, in the freezing Iowa cold with a spattering of snow whipping down. He was in the Beechcraft Bonanza as it choked off the runway and teetered into the dark clouds. There was Ritchie, poor California kid shivering like a waif, and J.R., larger than life in any state in the union. And there was a wall of black sky, flocked with white, lighted specks flurrying through the prop. The plane's engine revved beneath the frigid Midwest gales and the flimsy metal fuselage rattled against the bitter black wind. Then there was the sensation of disorientation. Why was Ritchie upside-down? The clouds ahead looked more like a snow-blanketed field. He heard screaming and felt the sensation of falling. Falling through an endless Iowa night sky. It was the day the music died.
But this wasn't right. Kirby panted, exhausted, and his breath formed a vaporous cone before him, a clouded, wispy plume of anxiety that dissipated into the moist, dark eyes of Bullseye's second head. Bullseye snorted. Was he laughing at Kirby? The rank heat of August returned to the room but Kirby's gooseflesh remained, a phalanx of tiny bumps mobilized from the nape of his neck on down. This wasn't right. Bullseye had it all wrong. This wasn't Kirby's future. It was Buddy's past.
Kirby opened his eyes. The half-sized ancillary head was still watching him with its wet, dark chocolate eyes as Kirby picked up his guitar. He wanted to sing something, oh boy. Wanted to strum those six steel strings and let that big piece of beef know who was boss, Bossie. My future's my own, you walking hamburger. It was something of a minor victory for Kirby. This purportedly psychic cow had gazed into Kirby's soul and mistaken it for Buddy Holly's. Kirby had fooled Bullseye, maybe even confused his whole psychic mechanism. But what of his future? He was Kirby Huckabee, not Buddy Holly. He hadn't been killed in Iowa in 1959. What about his --
'Sorry. Time's up.' The old man hobbled back into the room, shuffling his shit-caked work boots through the straw. 'Darn tape stop again?'
'Wait,' Kirby said. 'Wait a second. I didn't really get my turn. He got it all wrong. Bullseye thought I was Buddy Holly.'
'Buddy Holly. The singer. Bullseye thought I was Buddy Holly.'
'Of course not. I just play Buddy Holly in the Buddy Holly Experience. I sing his songs and play guitar and dress like him.'
'Well,' the old man said, scaling the rickety stepladder once more, 'that sounds kind of obsessive to me. Ain't Bullseye's fault if you ain't being who you're supposed to be. I don't know. Good news is the tape looks okay.'
'I know who I am. And I won't be misjudged by you or any dumb farm animal.'
'Okey-doke. Listen, son, we gotta get a few more folks in to see Bullseye before we shut her down for the night.'
'But what about my future?'
'Sorry, Slick,' the old man said and clicked the play button on the tape deck again.
'That music's god-awful. Look. I play guitar. How about if I just stand over here out of the way and strum some minor chords for background music? That'd be way better than the crappy noise coming off that damned tape.'
'Well, here's the thing about that,' the old man said, stepping off the ladder with a cautious and deliberate tread, careful to not injure his frail, bony leg or step in cow shit, 'seeing Bullseye is a real personal experience. Folks want to be alone with this special animal, you know, to feel connected to him when he looks into their soul and reads their destiny. Strangers in the room just wouldn't be right. No distractions. It's real personal.'
'But what about my destiny? I fooled Bullseye. He's just a misshapen freak of nature. He can't read peoples' future.'
Bullseye snorted and a glistening cable of cow snot dripped to the straw floor of the enclosure.
'Well,' the old man said, 'you believe what you want to believe and let everyone else believe what they want to believe. The fair opens again at ten tomorrow morning if you want to come back and get in line for another turn. Watch your step on the way out.'
Kirby clutched onto his guitar like it was all he had left in the world. He shuffled past the old man and gave one glance to the inert form of Bullseye's withered second head. Damn, he wanted to punch that smug, drooping cow head, if not worse. But he didn't. Then he was out the door and back in the livestock arena where a pair of French-Alpine goats cackled at Kirby, nudging each other to check out the loser with the guitar. Oh brother. Probably just had his damnable future handed to him by that cow. They bleated in unison and Kirby wanted to kill them too. Fucking farm animals. He resisted the urge and found the exit and left the tent.
He trudged up the grassy hill of the quiet fairgrounds, already becoming dewy in the humid night air. From the top of the rise Kirby saw the lights of the Round-Up and Wild Mouse still glowing against the shuttered game booths and concession trailers. The groundskeepers had picked up every discarded drink cup, hot dog wrapper and deflated balloon from the grounds and gone home. The bulb lights from the giant Ferris Wheel flickered off as its cars gently swayed in the scant breeze. There was the amphitheater down in the ravine, dark and deserted. And there on the opposite end of the fairgrounds was the line to see Bullseye. Would they be there all night? Christ. Insane. Kirby thought about grabbing the guitar and strumming 'Maybe Baby' or 'Not Fade Away,' definitely thought about playing 'Not Fade Away,' from the top of the hill but then didn't feel like it. The calluses on his fingertips ached and his back was certainly sore from lugging amps and monitors around.
Behind the amphitheater Kirby packed his guitar away in the dark. Then he hiked across the O'Farrell County fairgrounds one last time to the service entrance and the grass lot where he'd parked his car. He was surprised to find a large man in bib overalls vomiting into a metal trash barrel. Wave after wave. Splat after splat. Geez. Does this guy need help or something? The man wiped his mouth on the back of his bare arm. Kirby said, 'Wow. What do you do for an encore?'
The large man said, 'Sorry. Too much pecan pie, I guess. I think that's all of it.'
Kirby said, 'You all right?'
'Oh yeah. Third straight year I won the pie-eating contest here. Always heads back up that evening.'
'I guess you gotta like pecan pie.'
'Used to. Too much of a good thing, I suppose. After that much of the same thing you sorta lose your taste for it.'
And maybe that was how Kirby felt. Maybe he wanted to purge his personal saviors and demons into that trash barrel on top of all that partially digested pecan pie and walk away from them for good. Maybe it was as good a place as any to let Buddy go. He set his guitar down and took off his suit jacket and tie and dropped them into the trash barrel. Then he did the same with the thick black framed glasses.
The large man said, 'What the?'
Kirby said, 'Too much of a good thing, you know?'
The man said, 'Okay. So what do you do for an encore?'
Kirby said, 'I go get dinner. I'm starving. Wanna come along?'
The man said, 'Okay. I think I'm ready for something new.'
'Me too,' Kirby said and picked up his guitar and strolled out the service gate, squinting in the dark to find his car.