by Gary Duehr
One night while Jake was slipping on a gold jacket behind a dumpster in a dank alley off 43rd in Times Square, getting ready for the second half of his street performance of Rod Stewart circa 1991, the metal stage door to the Imperial Theater banged open. Out poured a clutch of assistants hustling a sick actor to a BMW at the curb. He was sweating, barely able to walk, still in jeans and T-shirt. Jake recognized him as Massey, the pop star who was headlining “Rod Live,” a jukebox revue that had just opened—and which Jake was leveraging one block over in the green-cement pedestrian zone on Broadway.
The BMW sped off leaving a confused queue of ticket holders, mainly older blue-hairs and their slumping hubbies in tweed and bow ties.
One of the stage crew caught sight of Jake. “Hey you! You wanna be in a show?”
This was Jake’s dream. He’d had it, on and off, ever since quitting his long-haul gig for Eagle Express out of Orlando. He was 43, his spine had crumpled like wet cardboard, and he figured it was time to take his karaoke to the next level. His trucker pals and their wives loved his act, he already had the gold suit and blonde wig, and he’d just broken up with his long-time girlfriend over the long hours. So nothing was keeping him from taking a six-month sabbatical to make a new life for himself. That was seven years ago.
Why Rod Stewart? Jake never had a doubt. When he was 11, he’d first sighted Rod on a TV variety show, bumping his hips to “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” in a leopard tee and black leather jacket. Jake was mesmerized, like spotting an extraterrestrial who’d dropped into the scorched scrub of his Florida trailer park. He scoured record stores for used singles he could afford, kept a scrap of white shag rug hidden in his closet—using it as a wig to lip sync with when he was alone, and spent hours in the bathroom mimicking Rod’s brooding stare. He learned to layer a Brit accent over his syrupy drawl by listening to his mom’s LP of “My Fair Lady”: “Mar-ry Fred-dy! What an infantile idea.” He didn’t dare tell his older sister or classmates. They already pushed him around for being a little heavy. His full name was Jake Boeuffet, pronounced “Buf-fet” with a hard “t,” so of course on the playground they catcalled All You Can Eat Buffet or just Jake the Beef. His ears stung.
Fast forward 32 years, and Jake is sharing a basement apartment in Queens with four other impersonators, though they prefer the term tribute artists. When Sandy hit the place flooded, and they had to crawl out the bathroom window. The mattresses on the floor were ruined. His roomies are one Justin Timberlake, two Bonos, and one drag queen Beyonce. They ride in and out together on the R line to 42nd Street, and they share a disdain for cartoon posers like Minnie and Spongebob. “A latex mask and a Halloween costume,” says Jake, “with zero talent.” They don’t even talk, just wave their gloved hands and cover their mouths in embarrassment. I’d be ashamed too.
With his boombox, Jake feels like he gives the ring of tourists a real show, cycling through “Sexy,” “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” “I Don’t Want to Talk About It,” and “Tonight’s the Night.” A genuine feeling gets sparked. He imagines the gyrating LED screens of Times Square as a shimmering curtain, and the cacophony of car horns stuck at the light his orchestra warming up. Clasping the mic stand, glittering under the spotlight in front of the M&M store, he sways back and forth and pouts out the lyrics. When the strings crescendo, he runs one hand through his messy platinum locks then hangs his head in despair or longing.
“But if you want, I’ll try to love again.
I’ll try to love again, but I know.”
From a distance, with his thrust-out chin and mop of hair, he looks like a Muppet. But it works for the makeshift audience. If any drunk teens heckle, his Rod sneer shuts them up. Between songs, he’ll throw in a bit of Brit stage patter: “How ya doin’ tonight, love? Keep your knees together; there are some blokes here with big cameras.” He waves his hands in the air to conduct the spectators on singalongs of the refrains, some of them even waving their lit cellphones back and forth, and in the end, he folds to the sidewalk, as if emotionally spent. Usually he really is.
He has the rasp thanks to years of Winstons and 7-and-7s. His few extra pounds are disguised by the jackets. More than anything, he has the dimple in his chin, sculpted cheekbones, and hooded eyes thanks to a series of plastic surgeries. To pay for them, he scrimped together savings from his side gig as a dishwasher at Bubba Gump’s and from a share of the $50,000 life insurance when his dad passed. Once he’s sponged on a tan and mascaraed his eyes in the Starbucks bathroom, pulling the shag wig tight over the bristles of his crewcut, he blows a kiss to Rod in the mirror.
After the shows, he even gets hit on by moms for selfies. He’s tried dating some superfans through his Facebook page, IAmTheOneRod, but they’re always disappointed to meet him in person. Outside the bar, he can see their eyes shift, as if their soul has left their body. That’s ok with him, he understands that he has dedicated himself to the power of illusion. To him it’s not a job but a mission. “I am living the dream!” he’ll shout when the R train rattles homeward over the East River. Back in his civvies, he prizes his private life, melting into the crowd that shuffles down the subway’s metal steps.
Sunday nights he calls his mom and reports on the week. He knows she imagines a more glamorous life than his current status, but he doesn’t want to let her down. When she asks excitedly at the end of each call, “So what’s next?” he channels her energy and mumbles a few words about auditions, managers, you know. Keep the momentum going.
At the end of the night, after he’s passed the fedora around for the last time, he’ll join the other tribute artists at McDonald’s for a Big Mac and fries, to count tips spread out on the plastic tabletop.
“The rain killed us tonight,” Justin Timberlake might say, twisting his skinny black tie.
“Yeah, no shit, Sherlock,” the tall Bono chimes in, his Dublin accent gone to Brooklyn. “I wonder sometimes if it’s worth the train fare.”
Jake always sees each night as practice for the next step. A good night is over $200 in $5 selfies and $1 or $2 “Good jobs,” maybe a few tens for his CD, “Rod Always.” Once in a while, he’ll do a kid’s birthday party, but he never puts on Rod in club to show off. It’s sacred.
When he changes behind the dumpster off 43rd Street, he’d be lying if he didn’t listen for the clang of the stage door. Success is just on the other side of a thin brick wall. Down deep, he knows that’s not the way that things happen. It’s a big Broadway show, Massey has an understudy, this isn’t a Hollywood movie. But stranger things have happened. Seven years ago, he was a broke truck driver in Orlando. Now here he is, doing what he loves.
Later, at midnight, his stage outfits stuffed into a backpack on top of the rolling amp, Jake hums the first notes of “Tonight’s the Night”—“Stay away from my window/Stay away from my backdoor too”—and heads down to Mickey D’s to see the guys.
Gary Duehr has taught creative writing for institutions including Boston University, Lesley University, and Tufts University. His MFA is from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. In 2001 he received an NEA Fellowship, and he has also received grants and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the LEF Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation.
Journals in which his writing has appeared include Agni, American Literary Review, Chiron Review, Cottonwood, Hawaii Review, Hotel Amerika, Iowa Review, North American Review, and Southern Poetry Review. His books include Winter Light (Four Way Books) and Where Everyone Is Going To (St. Andrews College Press).
Til the Well Runs Dry
by Steve Cain
originally published in Of Rust and Glass’s Satisfaction, Fall 2021
I ain’t much for city folk. I’m just a country boy from Georgia displaced to Yankee Land, as some of my ex-friends would say. I say ex-friends because there are still some people (more than a few, I might add) that are still fighting the Civil War in their heads and hearts, and they will (and have) excommunicate people from their lives (like myself) because said people moved out of Dixie. I know it’s strange, but it’s true. I swear.
We all have misconceptions and biases, I guess. Maybe I’m generalizing. When people hear you’re from Georgia, they tend to think you’re a dumb redneck, you like country music and NASCAR, chew tobacco, own a bunch of hunting rifles, and say y’all a lot. We do. We chew tobacco 24/7. Women, too. When we come to some place like Cincinnati, we drive around 275 because it’s like a racetrack, only we’re doing it in our pickup trucks with the gun rack on the back window, blasting Merle Haggard and George Jones cassettes. See, we still have cassette players because we’re too dumb to master the technology of a CD player or USB.
By now, you know I’m pulling your leg. That’s my problem: sarcasm. We’re not all dumb rednecks, just the ones they interview on TV.
When I relocated to Ohio, I settled in a little river village outside of Cincinnati where I was close enough to the big city but far enough away, if you know what I mean. I like people from a distance. I’m not a mean person, not at all, I just like peace, quiet, and no drama.
I was sitting on the riverbank one morning in April, minding my own business, strumming and plucking on my acoustic guitar. If you’re from Georgia, it’s geetar. It was about eight in the morning, there was a slight fog drifting across the river, and a few ducks floated by, paying me no mind. I was playing a little Hendrix, “All Along the Watchtower.” I wasn’t playing it left-handed like Jimi because, well, I’m not lefthanded. I’m a righty by birth, Southern by the grace of God. Ha! When I finished with Hendrix, I started in on Charlie Daniels, “Long Haired Country Boy.” If there’s any three songs a country boy with a guitar has to know how to play, it’s “Long Haired Country Boy,” David Allen Coe’s “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” and Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It.” If you’ve never heard them, go get ya some, son!
So, I’m playing, minding my own business, and I feel this presence. I hadn’t heard anybody, but I got mad redneck ninja Spidey senses, so I whipped my head around and saw an elderly African American man standing about five feet behind me. I looked him up, and he looked me down.
“Easy, son. I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said in a voice that reminded me of that Morgan Freeman fella.
“S’alright,” I replied.
“You play pretty well,” the man said. “Singing’s not too great, but the playing’s good.”
I tittered, not knowing whether to be offended or not. “Thanks, I guess.”
“Mind if I sit down?”
“Not at all. Pop a squat. Ground’s a little dewy, though.”
“When you get to be my age, that don’t matter. People expect you to have wet pants.”
I laughed again. I liked this guy. I put my geetar pick in my left hand and offered my right to him. “Bo,” I said.
“Of course, it is.” I knew he was mocking me, but his voice was so pleasant and fatherly it sounded congenial (see, I know some four-syllable words). He took my hand with his dark, wrinkled hand. “Stone,” he added.
“Of course, it is,” I joked. We both laughed at that.
“Moses is my birth name, but everybody calls me Stone.”
“Why’s that?” I asked as he sat down next me.
“Because it’s my last name, and I’m more like a stone than a Moses.”
“Cold and hard?”
“Old and dark.” We both had another laugh.
“Don’t mind me,” he suggested. “Keep playing.”
“What do you like?”
“Know any Otis Redding?”
“Otis? Of course! He’s another Georgia boy, like me.”
“Yeah, I figured that.”
“Why, because the way I talk?” I asked.
“Well, that, and the fact you’re wearing a Georgia Bulldogs hat.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s a giveaway. You sing?”
“I’ve been known to, every now and then.”
“Try this one.” I strummed a G chord, followed by a B7. The tune was unmistakable, a classic, and I saw him smile and close his lips. His tongue flicked out of his mouth and licked his lips. His voice was sweet, youthful, almost angelic, not gravelly as I had expected. His tone was soulful, and it came from a long time ago, from a place far away from where we sat.
“Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun. I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ comes.”
I played. Stone sang. It was sad, lonely, and beautiful. When we came to that part, he even did the whistle. When the last notes ended, I expected Stone to get up and walk on water across the river, into Kentucky and beyond, but he just sat there, lost in thought.
“That was amazing.” Stone nodded in reply. “Did you used to perform?”
“Perhaps a bit. A different life ago.”
That was all he would say about that, no matter how much I questioned. I finally let it drop. The old man opened his eyes, and I swear I thought I saw them well with tears, but nothing ever flowed from them. He picked up a brown paper bag sitting next to him on the ground, unfolding the opening gently. His fingernails were short and clean. He reached into the bag and took out two lumps wrapped in aluminum foil (in Georgia, we call that tin foil) and offered me one.
I took the lump and asked, “What is it?”
“Biscuit,” he replied.
“Thank you.” I unwrapped the foil. The biscuit was still warm and smelled wonderful. I took a bite of what I thought was sausage, and I was immediately confused. It was sausage, but it had a grainy taste and texture.
Stone looked over at me and smiled. “What’s the matter?”
“What is this?”
“Goetta,” he replied. “I take it you’ve never tried it.”
“It tastes like sausage and…oatmeal?”
“That’s it,” he agreed. “What do you think?”
“It’s different,” I said. “Not bad, but not what I expected.”
“I can see that.”
“Who woke up one morning and said, ‘What’ll I have for breakfast this morning? I’m kinda in the mood for oatmeal, but I have a hankerin’ for sausage. Oh, I know! Boom, goetta!’”
Stone laughed. It was a hearty laugh, and pieces of biscuit flew out of his mouth. I finished and thanked him.
“You think you’ll try it again?”
“I prefer my sausage to be sausage, and my oatmeal to be oatmeal, in a bowl with brown sugar and a few raisins. If you’re bringing them around, though, I won’t turn ‘em down.”
Stone closed his eyes and nodded again. “Yep, it’s an acquired taste for sure, kind of like Cincinnati chili.”
“Oh, yeah, what’s up with that?” I asked. “Who puts chocolate and cinnamon in chili? Where I come from, chili is made with beef and beans. We put it in a bowl, not a plate on top of spaghetti! I mean, I’ve heard of Tex-Mex, but not Tex-Italian! You Midwesterners are a strange bunch!”
“Now, now,” Stone scolded. “Don’t knock what people like. I’m sure some people think grits are nasty.”
“Okay, them’s fightin’ words,” I half-joked.
“And,” he continued, “I wouldn’t be calling Ohio people Midwesterners. They don’t like being called Northerners or Yankees, either.”
“What should I call them, then? Northern Southerners? Not Quite Midwesterners? West of Easterners?”
Stone just shrugged. “How about just ‘Ohioans’?”
“Yeah, I guess that works.” I thought about it as we sat quietly. “Say, you said, ‘They.” Where are you from?”
Stone looked off down the river, towards the nuclear power plant. After a minute or two, he said, “A long way away. Been away for a long, long, time, but this has been my home for a while.”
I was interested in the man, but I didn’t want to press him too much. If he didn’t want to share, he didn’t want to share. He must have had his reasons.
“Don’t like to talk about yourself too much, do you?”
He turned back to me and looked tired. “Why talk about myself? I already know about myself. I’d rather talk about other things and learn more. Besides, the past is the past. Can’t go back there, can’t go home. Might as well move on. Home is in the heart. I take it wherever I go. Home is here.”
It was my turn to nod. Stone put his hand on the ground like he was feeling the earth. He pushed down and started to get up.
“Where ya going, Mr. Stone?”
“Time to go,” he answered. As he stood, I saw his pants were indeed wet from the ground.
“Looks like you wet your pants, old-timer.”
Stone turned to me one last time, smiling. “Yep, that’s what they’ll think. Now, play me something off.”
“I’ll be back down here tomorrow morning,” I told him.
Stone nodded and started toward the village. I strummed my six-string again, another Otis Redding ditty called, “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” I didn’t turn around, so I didn’t see him, but I could hear Stone’s sweet voice on the breeze: “You don’t miss your water ‘til your well runs dry.”
It’s been a few months now, and I think about Stone every time I come down to play my geetar. Sometimes I get a feeling like someone is behind me and expect to see him, but there’s never anyone there. I don’t know if he’s alive or if he’s still in Ohio. Maybe he found his way back home. Regardless, when I come down here, I always pack two goetta biscuits in a brown paper bag, just in case. There’s always one left, but I’ve got a taste for them now.
Farmer and the Dell by Pella Felton
Adam was wrong. That summer in 2003, when he suggested you work for him, on the old Hamlin Farm outside Ludington, on the Michigan side of the lake, near the Sauble Resort. He said you would like it. With its picturesque shores and bucolic pastures. At first you were resistant to spend your junior summer working on a shithole farm town. Away from your friends. And your Anime. And your Livejournal. And your Myspace. And reruns of the Dawson’s Creek and AOL Instant Messenger. And your collection of 21 mp3s. But I told you that farming is important. It’s part of your roots. You came from cow people (people who raise cows, not half-person half cows). But then you found out there was a beach, and I told you if you were good, I’d take you to see John Mayer at the Barrymore at the end of the summer.
In retrospect, I must admit, I thought John Mayer would be better live. And I was still overwhelmed by your curiosity towards boys, my divorce from your mother Lisa, and the fallout from the death of Dale Earnhardt and the September 11 terrorist attacks. You just seemed so sad. No matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t conceal the pain I saw in your eyes. Although, I’m not sure how hard you tried to conceal it, cause when you put on LiveJournal that your current mood is “catatonic fugue” people get concerned. Yes. Fine. I read your blog. I like to support independent journalism, and sure, lyrics to Jewel songs and pictures of Snape aren’t exactly journalism, but neither is Drudge. Because I wanted to know how you were doing. That’s why. And I didn’t know what to do. I just wanted you to be happy.
I remember the day when I picked you up that August, down the curvy dirt path off East Victory outside of Ludington, Wisconsin. The sky was full of birds, flying through open air like flying birds (what do you want from me? You’re the poet. I’m an actuary). Anyway, when I picked you up, I was not expecting the loss of a girl for a quieter, happier woman. Wearing lace up jeans under her JLO skirt, where once there was a girl in belly chains and jeweled fedora. I remember, you…you looked at a cow you had named “Eve,” and you looked at her with an intensity I’ve never since seen in your eyes. You said goodbye, knowing you would never see her again. You seemed calmer though. More worldly, even at peace, and the money you earned that summer paid for your first desktop computer. A Dell.
Then, we got to the ferry, and you described enthusiastically the process of milking a cow, in pornographic detail for almost two unbroken hours, as if you were reading from a Henry James novel for the first time. Or one of those Linda Howard books you see in the back of stores, that your mother kept on her bedside table. And I was “pleasantly” surprised. Pleasantly surprised when you invited me to a poetry reading held by the Forensics Club in which you described enthusiastically the process of milking a cow in pornographic detail. For four unbroken minutes.
And I will admit as far as cow milking poems go, it remains among the better ones I’ve heard. Eve (could probably give Janet Jackson a run for her money). You made that cow sound good. I was simply not ready to know that the sound Eve makes when a mother’s milk sprays into the yellow plastic bucket is exactly the same as the hot jets which jettison the buttocks upward on the new slide at Crawdaddy Cove Water Park, inside the Holiday Inn West.
I remember that in that cow poem, entitled “Flowers in the Meadow,” we learned the cow was called Eve Bunting, as you gave her our last name. Not just because you saw her as a sister, but because she was an innocent. Like you. And had been abandoned. Like you. On the edge of discovering her womanhood. Like you. But also because bunting reminds the mother to release milk.
But the poem went on. And on. And on and on. And the audience started to wonder: “How long till this nightmare is over?” And you told us about losing your virginity to a farmhand named Homer Pickles in a blueberry field to the sound of distant moos. It awakened something deep in you, and then something about the musical Rent, which was lost on me at the time.
But then you looked deep into the audience’s soul and locked eyes with me, as you asked every person in the room one by one if we would milk you the same way you milked Eve…And let me be clear: I respect your body and your right to choose. But what I never understood, in that moment of unbroken eye contact, was this central metaphor: Eve Bunting was a cow. And you. Sarah Bunting. You’re a beautiful young woman who likes watching 90210 reruns, true crime shows, and hates raisins. I still don’t know if you wanted us to milk you or not.
I switched to soy milk shortly thereafter.
And I didn’t think about it, until that summer when you came home, after Lisa died, and we ordered Papa Johns for dinner. I remember, we stopped by the Blockbuster in Sun Prairie, and we rented Even Cowgirls Get the Blues on VHS. We agreed that it wasn’t at all what we expected. But we still kind of liked it, and then we both got incredibly quiet before we walked into separate rooms and didn’t talk till the next day.
And I remember when you brought home Steve, who I assumed was your new boyfriend with frosted tips and a winning smile. But instead, Steve was just a heifer with considerable bulk and large black spots. You had raised it in the FFA, Future Farmers of America. Steve didn’t have a last name. I think he was just a rebound from Eve. But that autumn we sold Steve at the Mifflin Street Block Party to a drunk yuppie who was John Norquist, and we never talked about that again either. I assume he was delicious.
I just wanted you to be happy. That’s all I ever wanted.
But that Thanksgiving, you asked me to look at your Dell desktop computer so that you could play Diablo 2, and I saw a Deviant Art Page, on your Netscape Navigator window, with hundreds of pictures of cows. Being milked. And milked. And milked. Cartoons cows. Photos of cows. Cows with human faces. Humans with cow faces. A cow with the head of the cow and the body of a cow. Cows with tentacles. Cows with testicles, which I later learned are called bulls. Cows kissing Sonic the Hedgehog, from the popular video game series of the same name. A .MOV file titled: 2Heffs 1 bucket. And a cow forever seared into my memory, in a hot pink bodysuit with humanoid buttocks and breasts and the caption “Your Body Is a Wonderland. Enjoy the Dannon Difference.” I walked slowly away from the computer, saying nothing, gave you back your desktop, and threw out the yogurt in the house.
Through all of this I was confused and disturbed, but I did not judge, and I will not judge. I just want you to be happy.
So now, here we are on this Christmas, the great festival of lights. The celebration of the birth of our lord and savior Jesus Christ, in the year of the Lord 2023, we sit together in a dimly lit apartment, watching the Simpsons and eating blueberry pancakes, like so many Christmases before. I tell you that Adam has finally sold his farm in Ludington to the Lundberg brothers. You furrow your brow for a second, and I can almost smell Eve’s ghost dragging manure in from the afterlife, and you ask me If I’m okay with you being a lesbian.
And I think of all that has passed. In those 20 years. Of You and Eve. And Adam. And Steve. And Homer. And Lisa. And the Johns (Mayer, Papa, and Norquist respectively). And Rain Phoenix, from that Cowgirl film. And those other movies with Don Johnson’s daughter, The Marvelous 30 Shades of Mrs. Grays, or whatever they’re called. Or that show with Zendaya your cousin Bessie watches that keeps me up at night. Or that time I called you to explain “Kink Shaming” to me, when it showed up in the New York Times Crossword Puzzle. And those GODDAMN PICTURES, with their drooping cow nipples and asymmetrical cow teats, sliding around below their cow bellies, like cow butter in a cow skillet, and thrusts of a small cow head against cow udders, flapping around like goddamn cow pancakes. And how you turned those Dawson Creek reruns into a career in podcasting. And now your partner, Adele, who clearly loves you, and you clearly love her, and you want to bring into our family.
I look into your eyes, round like saucers of milk, and I think of all we’ve been through together…And I just…I know I’ve said this before, but I just want you to be happy. All this time. The years you weren’t talking to me. The years I was drinking. The years things got bad. The good times. All of it. I just want you to be happy. And I thought I knew what would make you happy, but I didn’t. Even as a baby, you wouldn’t drink formula no matter how much I tried; it had to come from Lisa. And some of those years, when I was gone, I felt ashamed that I didn’t do enough for you because I didn’t know how to be happy. How was I supposed to know that this was what you wanted all along? And sure, I was pretty fucked up on Yaeger for a lot of those years so maybe it didn’t happen EXACTLY how I remember it, but today in this apartment, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy. I am five years sober, finally at peace, and I want to start over.
“Daddy?” you ask.
I wait till the “shhh” at the end of the Simpsons credits, take a long sigh, look up from my recliner, and say with all my heart:
“Sweetie, I will ALWAYS love you for whoever you are. I want you to be happy.”
Then you look at me, laugh, and say with perfect timing:
“Jeez, Daddy. Don’t have a cow, man. Dude. You’re getting Adele.”
Merry Christmas, Buntsy. Who’s ready for eggnog?
Pella Felton is a PhD student in the Department of Theatre and Film at Bowling Green State University.