Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Meet Buck and Jodie Cole!

by Nels Hanson

When I went into the hospital the day Johnny died, I told Dr. Westbrook that I’d remembered everything that had happened in Nevada, out of the blue with the crowd at the Donny Williams Show clapping wildly, whistling and holding up the jumping signs:
Someone yelled “Go Coles!” as the sound system played the lead stanza of our platinum hit—I explained to the doctor that I’d titled it “Eldon Carter,” before Jodie insisted that we change the name:
Travis Jackson was a friend of mine
Cowboy-bred but out of time.
The West is going, going, gone.
You can hear it fade when you hear his song.”
Half the people wore the Travis t-shirts that matched a couple million bumper stickers. It could have been any audience, any month or day, except for the murder of Johnny Black.
We stepped into the green spot as the house band started up and we tapped our boots, Jodie closing her eyes and humming at my side as we plugged the latest release:
Well, Blind Man’s Bluff
Is a tough game to play,
And it’s getting rough,
Because day by day—”
Jodie came in:
Every step we take
Dares a whole lot of shame
If we make a mistake—”
I sang:
I can’t trust you,”
Yes, I’ve been untrue,”
And I’m just the same,”
Jodie moved upstage, swinging her glittering skirt in the changing spotlight:
So who do we blame?”
I stepped from the dark and joined her:
Blind Man’s Bluff
Means a whole lot of pain,
If I thought at all,
I’d say we’re both insane—”
Jodie sang alone:
Ain’t we had enough
Of this crazy game?”
I looked out at the shadowed rows of men and women, grandparents and teenage girls and young boys, all of them leaning forward, intent and staring, a scattering of people brushing at their eyes. Again I saw Marlene Black rushing into the make-up room before we went on, reaching into the box and bringing out the cake instead of a gun.
You murdered us!”
The spot widened to take me in, and together we finished up:
Can’t we learn to love
Before it’s too late?”
I turned away but Jodie grabbed my hand and pulled me back, kissed me, and we bowed like puppets on one set of strings. The stage lights came up and they were chanting “Travis Jackson lives!” and Donny Williams was behind us, applauding and waving us over to chairs by the coffee table.
Johnny’s dead, I thought again, looking down at my fancy stitched boots. Shot to death with a musket ball.
The clapping died as Donny leaned forward from behind the desk. I readjusted my sunglasses and reached for the blue cup while Jodie flirted with the crowd, tossing her hair and crossing her legs.
So Johnny bit the dust?”
But Williams hadn’t said that, he’d joked, “So Barney bit Buck?” and Jodie said, “Oh no, their dog’s very presidential.”
(That was the first hint, what the doctor called “aural hallucination,” that something was up.)
I blinked and Williams asked about the President and his wife.
What beautiful people,” Jodie was saying. “I shouldn’t put my two cents in, Donny, but you know me—”
Yes we do, don’t we, fans?”
The howl came and went and Jodie nodded, pulling at her hem.
After what the poor country’s been through, I think we’re all glad we’ve got a loving couple in the White House.”
(The clapping started in waves and later I told Dr. Westbrook I caught myself nodding in time, like someone hypnotized.)
Travis Jackson lives!”
It stopped, from the sunken box a man held up the “Quiet” sign.
That’s just wonderful! Glad to see you two got here in one piece!” Donny grinned, looking with hungry eyes.
You know how Buck is.” Jodie winked at the audience. “One thing leads to another.”
They laughed and cheered and in the hot light I took another drink. The backstage technician’s silver flask had been Sunnybrook or I.W. Harpers but the cup was Daniels.
You’re still happy with your cowboy?” Donny asked.
I was a cattle broker,” I said before Jodie could answer. I felt a spark pop inside my chest. “My friend Travis—”
He’s a slow starter,” Jodie interrupted. She hardly glanced at me, rocking her leg. “But once he gets rolling he’s quick on his feet. You ought to see him dodge a wedding cake.”
A cake?” Donny swiveled toward me so his tall hair wobbled. “Is she throwing things again?”
I saw Marlene Black ten minutes ago, dressed in black, reaching into the pink box and letting it fly at Jodie. Funeral cake, I thought. I imagined a little chocolate coffin on top, with the groom inside and the bride leaning over him.
You’re like Travis,” she’d said as I held her, trying to calm her down, “like the song” and Jodie had screamed and gone after her.
Throw some water on him,” Jodie said. “That’ll wake him up.”
The audience hooted and Donny nodded. “Those rhinestones can bruise you.”
I don’t care,” I said, “as long as she’s throwing her clothes instead of mine.”
(“It had become automatic,” the doctor asked, “to play this false part?” when I told her how it happened.)
Go Buck!” they cheered.
I’ve been trying to get Buck to go heavy metal,” Jodie said.
How ’bout that, partner?” Donny asked.
Country’s safer. Boots and buckles are one thing.” I set down the cup carefully, a man in the desert careful not to spill. “Car chains another.”
Donny smiled through the laughs, then went suddenly serious and I tensed. I thought he was going to ask about Johnny and I wanted to get back to Travis Jackson.
But all joking aside, are Buck and Jodie still America’s second lovingest couple?”
Jodie stared over at me. I stared back and Jodie pouted.
I’m mad at Buck.”
Donny leaned toward Jodie. “What’d he do now?”
He lied to me,” Jodie said, the hurt twelve-year-old. I heard a ripple of hushed groans.
Lied to you? Buck?”
He promised to buy me a horse.”
A horse?” Donny said. “Or a house?”
A horse,” Jodie said. “To go with the saddle and bridle.”
Travis Jackson lives!”
Again the man held up the sign to stop.
Once a cowboy, always a cowboy,” Donny said. His hair looked green.
Cattle broker,” I said. Johnny was dead, nothing could bring him back. I felt geared up. “Now, Travis Jackson—”
That coffee good, Buck?”
It’s just a hair weak.”
A kid gave out a rebel yell.
Maybe Folgers will give you a contract,” Donny said.
Buck can’t do that,” Jodie said, swinging her leg. “He took an oath of allegiance.”
Did he?”
To Jim Beam.”
No, Daniels,” I said through the hearty laughs. “Jack.” (I explained to Dr. Westbrook that was my part in the skit, to play the wise-man, drunken fool.)
Yeah, Buck!” “Tell it like it is!” “Go, Nashville!”
Donny raised a palm, like a traffic cop. Again his ring caught the light. His white pompadour sparkled.
But kidding aside, tell us, would you Jodie, just one more time, for the people out there who haven’t heard your amazing story— How did you two meet and turn into such shining stars, have a number one hit with ‘Travis Jackson’ and become favorite guests of the President and First Lady?”
Whistles and claps and Jodie tossed her head, her hair gleaming.
You got a year or two, Donny?”
I wish we did. I’ve heard it’s quite a tale.” Donny leaned forward with a cap-toothed leer and I wanted to swing at him. Travis would have.
Something about an old boyfriend’s wandering hands?”
“That’s right! I guess you could call it involuntary hitchhiking.”
I’d stop for you any day. How ’bout it, folks?”
Shouts of “Yes!” as Jodie smiled modestly, then looked down and picked at a rhinestone on her dress. It glowed like Donny’s ring. (The doctor said I must have been mesmerized.)
I seem to remember it was a hot day.”
How hot?”
Plenty hot, Donny. Mr. Hands had just murdered my guitar—”
Wait a sec, Jodie— Murdered your what? Let’s take it from the top.”
You really want to hear?”
Don’t ask me. Ask them.”
Yeah! Tell us, Jodie! Please!”
Well, okay.” Jodie held her hair up off her neck with both hands. “Like I said, it was hot.”
In the Rose Garden she’d told it to the Bushes and their twin daughters, who’d listened wide-eyed.
One second I’m riding along in a spanking-new Porsche, like a queen, the next I’m jumping for my life, hunting through the loco weeds for my purse—”
Two nobodies from nowhere with nothing more than true love and a song called “Travis Jackson” flew like two angels straight to heaven where God placed matching jeweled crowns on their heads as they sat in two golden chairs, one on either side of the President and helped save others from the burning flames.
Don’t laugh now, but I swear a cactus was wearing my red bra. Well, when in Rome, as they say. I started picking them up and laying them down, straight across the desert toward the Utah line, singing to myself to keep from crying—”
Then a cowboy would stop and before you could say “Tammy and George” you’d fall in love and be famous and wealthy stars on TV with Donny Williams, who, to be frank—just look at his hair!—was really more fun and impressive than Moses.
“‘Do you need a ride?’ Buck says. ‘No,’ I say, ‘I need your truck—’”
I wondered if Jodie has been scheming to make a movie, if already she’d been working with a writer on a script where we’d play the leads in our own life she’d nearly finished rearranging. I had no idea what was coming next.
Right then I had a weird feeling, I don’t know how to explain it. It was like in daylight a shooting star was streaking across the sky and all I had to do was reach up and catch its tail—”
That was before we’d met Johnny Black and had the start of our success, before Jodie’d stung him and wrapped him quick in a muffled cocoon....
After I fried chicken, I asked to see his hand, his palm—sure enough, his and mine were a perfect match, cross my heart and hope to die—”
I stopped thinking about Johnny and Marlene and their child and Johnny’s death by flintlock at the hands of the rapper Eddie Rat who didn’t like his contract with Columbia. Johnny had become a “gofer” after Jodie let him go.
We stayed up all night in that two-room ranch house, in the wilds of Nevada, singing ‘Travis Jackson’”—
The lenses of my dark glasses seemed to turn to clear glass. Looking into the burning spotlight, half high on the whiskey, right then, right that second, I thought that if I could see our old selves clearly, remember the truth behind Jodie’s fairy tale, we could find the people we’d been before, we’d be happy again—
Two weeks later I was singing in Waverly, at the Branding Iron, with our good friend Johnny Black and his wife Marlene, bless her heart. Now there’s a heartbreak. And on their anniversary. We just heard. Let’s keep Marlene in our thoughts and prayers. It makes me go cold all over, when I think of something happening to Buck—”
(An hour later, I told Dr. Westbrook that was the moment I’d felt the first shiver and gripped the arms of my chair.)
I called Buck every night, from all over the country as I sang ‘Travis Jackson,’ until the tour was over and we made two wild mustangs a pair, on Columbus Day—”
Again I saw the black granite steps to the courthouse, the flash of her gold ring we’d had inscribed with our names.
Christmas Day the Coles were on their way in a blizzard, to Denver and the Cowboy Club and this little old studio where with Johnny Black we first cut ‘Travis Jackson’—”
I turned and through the back window of Jodie’s new Cadillac I thought I saw a stranger leaning against the barn through the slanting flakes but I still didn’t know what was wrong.
I heard Jodie say, “That’s the Lord’s truth, isn’t it, Buck?” as I kept staring at the spotlight, like a blind man staring at the sun, until it was the Nevada sun and I’d never met Jodie Cole before—
(“You remembered?” Dr. Westbrook asked me in the hospital after she’d given me a shot.
No,” I said. My hands were still shaking. “I was there—”)
I drove the blue ’56 Chevy pickup toward Waverly and could feel the hot light on my arm, smell the dust and oil and sweat from the cab.
(“What did you see?” the doctor asked.)
Looking into the afternoon sun, I saw a car stop in the distance, the passenger door open, somebody get out.
The car came toward me and then things began flying from the window.
A red two-seater, some foreign job, flashed by and I caught a blurred glimpse of the driver, a handsome, stylish man with long sideburns, wearing a white Stetson.
I slowed down as I passed an open suitcase and fancy dresses strewn along the opposite shoulder, then a broken guitar.
A woman in Levis walked along the pavement.
You all right?” I said.
What’s it look like?”
In the mirror I saw a semi way off down the road. I backed up, keeping pace with her.
You’re not in a good place.”
She looked straight ahead as her high heels clicked against the asphalt.
You’re headed for Utah.”
You don’t know where I’m headed.”
I heard the semi hit its horn and pulled off onto the shoulder. The red-haired girl turned her head from the storm of dust as the 18-wheeler blasted by. I made a U turn across the road and pulled up beside her—
(“Take some deep breaths,” said the doctor.)
Let me take you to a phone,” I said.
I’m supposed to trust you, right? Roy Rogers helping a lady in distress?” She didn’t miss a step.
Was it a cowboy who dropped you off?”
No, just an All-American, red-blooded, true-blue son of a bitch.”
She stopped and leaned down, picking up the guitar by its broken neck. I got out and started gathering up her clothes, stuffing them into the open suitcase.
What d’you think you’re doing?”
Saving you from yourself.”
I reached out and gripped the guitar. She held it for a second, then let it go and I tossed it into the weeds.
There’s a gas station just up the road,” I said.
She stepped by me and got in the pickup. She sat close to the door, ready if she had to jump out.
Things’ll look up,” I said.
How would you know?”
(My breathing got short again, my chest hurt and I didn’t want to go on, but Dr. Westbrook touched my wrist and said it was important to get it all out.)
I said I just drove and at Junior’s Gas and Grocery I pulled into the gravel lot. We got out and went in and I pointed toward the pay phone. I stepped to the cold case and brought the drinks to the counter.
Harlan, you don’t have to tell me. I get the picture— Of course I do—”
(“She was talking to her agent,” I told the doctor.)
She covered the mouthpiece with her hand. “Where is this place?”
Country Corners,” I said. “Ten miles north of Waverly.”
“Near Waverly. Listen Harlan, it wasn’t my fault— I didn’t sign on to— Who gives a shit? So he’s a rising star— That’s not all that’s rising. Are you going to do it? Harlan?— When?— You can’t be serious!”
I watched her start to interrupt, then bite her lip.
I know that. Believe me, I’m grateful. What do you want me to say?— I know Johnny’s good. Yes. Okay. Right. Yeah, I’ll see you.”
She slammed down the phone and came up to the counter.
Can you give me a ride to Waverly?”
That’s where I’m going. Grocery day.”
I handed her the Pepsi and we went out to the truck. I pulled out onto the road.
(“That was the second mistake I made,” I said. I lay flat in bed, looking up at Dr. Westbrook. “Did I try to choke Jodie on the Donny Williams Show?”
“It doesn’t matter now,” she said. “We’ve got to go on.”)
The girl slumped down in the seat, looking forward with her arms crossed and her lips in a pout.
We got to the city limits and I asked her, “Where to?”
You know the Branding Iron Lodge?”
(“That’s where I used to sing, on amateur night,’ I told the doctor.
Go ahead,” she said.)
I drove six blocks to the Branding Iron. The lot was nearly empty. A car and a pickup were parked outside the bar. The marquee said, Coming—Johnny Black Band.
Will you wait, till I’m checked in?”
She went into the motel office. Through the plate glass window I watched her talk to the day clerk. Terry Riley, the manager, entered and listened, shook his head. She said something back and turned on her heel, striding angrily for the truck.
She got in, slamming the door.
I can’t believe it! The bastard wouldn’t even let me run a tab, said he’s not hiring me to sit around the pool.”
What’s Terry hiring you for?”
You know that s.o.b.?”
A little. Why’d he hire you?”
To sing! What else?”
I nodded toward the marquee.
With Johnny Black?”
Listen—” She turned toward me. “Is there someplace cheap I can stay?”
Yeah, but I don’t think you’d like it. You know, Johnny Black is pretty good. I’ve heard him before.”
He is good. The only problem is he’s in Saginaw, Michigan. I’ve got to wait around for two weeks watching the dust blow.”
Where you from?”
Who was the guy in the sports car?”
She put a hand to her forehead.
Slim Frye.”
The singer?”
So they say. With those hands he oughta play pedal steel. Either that or run for president.”
I already knew what I was going to say. I heard it in my head as my lips moved.
I’ve got an extra room at the ranch.”
She turned toward me again, green eyes watching.
You don’t know me.”
No, and you don’t know me. As a boarder,” I said. “Nothing else.”
For the first time she grinned.
All right,” she said. “I will.”
I switched on the ignition and she reached over and flipped on the radio. Willie Nelson sang “Red-Headed Stranger” and we exchanged glances.
Not a good omen—”
I’ll risk it,” she said. I went down the street to Gene’s. I bought groceries for two while she waited in the truck.
It’s a few miles north of town,” I said, when I’d put the bags in back—
(“We’re almost done,” the doctor said.
It’s hard to talk about Johnny—”
Of course it is. It’s very difficult. You’re doing fine.”)
We drove back down the highway past Junior’s and at the windmill turned onto the gravel, then left the gravel at the cottonwood and climbed through the hills along the dry creek.
The girl looked out the windshield, glancing over at me a time or two as I wrestled the truck around a wash. She pulled her elbow in the window away from the scraping willow branches.
Where is this place? On the moon?”
We’re almost there.”
I need a shower.”
The road curved past the round hill and she saw the green floor and looked up at the pines like sentinels along the bowl’s high ridge. I watched her take in the brown and white cattle across the pastures and the wandering line of sycamore and willow that marked the creek. She sat up.
It’s beautiful. It’s so green!”
There’s an underground river.”
She looked off in the distance toward the barn and yellow ranch house.
How long have you lived here?”
I was born here.”
I drove down the hill and across the plank bridge and up the road. I parked the pickup in the cottonwood’s dusty shade.
I got out and took her suitcase from the truck bed and a bag of groceries.
Here, I can help.” She stepped down from the truck.
She took the bag from me and I grabbed the other one and crossed to the house and up the porch steps.
Where’s your dog?” she said. “Don’t farms always have dogs?”
He died,” I said.
(I told Dr. Westbrook that she stood in the living room, looking at the stone fireplace with the old rifle above the mantel, at the sofa with an Indian rug thrown over the back—that I realized now it was like having Lady Macbeth in your house and I never even knew.
I remembered I’d been carried off the Donny Williams Show strapped to a stretcher.
Continue,” Dr. Westbrook said. “Now we need to finish.”)
I set down the suitcase and took the grocery bag from my guest.
It’s real nice,” she said. She followed me into the kitchen.
On the table lay my guitar and scattered score sheets, the notes and words bright where the sun came in. I wrote a new song each week for open-mike night at the Branding Iron.
The girl picked up the guitar, strumming it as she looked down at my lyrics.
I was aware of her as I put the food away. Did she like them? What did she think of “Eldon Carter” or “100-Proof Memory”?
Evidently she was a pro. She ought to know if they were any good.
By the way—”
I was putting away a can of apricots. She turned suddenly, so she took me off guard.
I’m Jodie Johnson.”
She smiled and put out her hand.
And you’re?”
(“I don’t know if I can—”
Tell me,” said the doctor. “Just as it happened.”
It’s hard to say out loud.”
I’m right here,” Dr. Westbrook said, gripping my hand.)
“‘Travis,’ I told her.”
(“Go on.”)
My name is—my name is Travis Jackson—”
(“There,” said the doctor. “There. Now we can begin.”)

Nels Hanson has worked as a farmer, teacher, and contract writer/editor. He graduated from UC Santa Cruz and the U of Montana and his fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award. His stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, Montreal Review, Danse Macabre and other journals. "Now the River's in You," a 2010 story which appeared in Ruminate Magazine, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and "No One Can Find Us," which was published in Ray's Road Review, has been nominated for the 2012 Pushcart Prizes.

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