The tour bus groaned to a halt; the troubadour kicked back in his seat and looked out the window. Cars passed by in the southern heat; the air conditioner kept blowing against a few loose papers. He opened the fridge and poured another cup of lemonade.
“This damned heat,” he said. His tour manager nodded and returned to his phone.
The troubadour sighed. The guitar from last night still rung in his ears. It was true: he was old. Even worse, he was famous: he couldn’t get a straight answer whenever he asked about his voice. He knew it was hoarser than a wolf’s growl; his bandmates lied, said it was as colorful as it’d ever been. His bandmates, almost half his age, stiffly swaying on stage, unable to get their own bands together. And he, the old man, still touring at, what, seventy-eight, now? And still audiences clap for him, applaud his piano-hitting, his raspy voice, the new songs and especially the old. Except for a few of the young faces, the ones who seemed transfixed, who were stuck as if in amber, no emotion. But he’d heard the others, generally older fans, scream at the top of their lungs. Their wild swaying. Entranced, pulled in, even if his voice was no longer…
Wolf’s growl. Wolf’s howl; he wished he were Howlin’ Wolf, he wished he hadn’t lived so long, that his name had faded like The Wolf’s. That old generation, the true trailblazers, lost now to his own, he, one of the prophets of profit. You can’t find someone to tell you a story of Howlin’ Wolf. The Wolf, facing away, pulling the mic through his pants, crawling, growling into the audience wild, untamed. Alive.
He’d had those years. He’d taken fifteen people, tambourines, glockenspiel, harmonica all on stage. They’d performed for a dozen people once; the band was bigger than the crowd. He’d remember running around, from place to place, up talking all hours of the night: music music music. And each time they spoke about music, it was politics, it was the world, it was life, aching to be lived, to be thrust through with Truth and Vengeance and Youth. It was true, once he’d exchanged his cheap suit for a hobo’s rags, and then performed on stage. It said something, he didn’t know what then, that stench, that filth, that people could hardly recognize him. He played on the streets, pure joy, people gathering around – “Hey, it’s him, isn’t it?” “That looks like…” – he knew he was something, he knew there was something special about him. Now when they looked at him, all the old, gray-haired fans, they saw this young version of him, they didn’t see him as he is now: old and decrepit, sagging, hoarse. Tired and ragged. Old. Simply just-
The tour manager mentioned something. “I said we can open another date in Georgia. We’re already doing Atlanta, you want to do Savannah?”
He nodded. There were few things he liked to do more than tour and write, and he was glad for the extra date. There was an urgency to his performing, that he knew time was nearing an end. Yet, when he was young, twenty-one, he knew death intimately, he knew it was just around the corner. It would pluck him in the middle of the night, he was convinced, and he would show Him how. There was a familiarity between the two. He’d often thought about death, when he was imprisoned. Black riots, civil rights, The War, he’d only been one in a crowd and was arrested as just another demonstrator. He knew he was special, he knew it then. He was fighting for something, he was working toward something meaningful.
“Where’s it going to be,” he asked.
“We’re thinking the Martin Luther King Arena.”
Martin Luther King, Junior. He remembered Martin Luther King, Jr., even met the man, he talked unceasingly about his father, the old preacher. He performed for him once, perhaps the most important concert of his life. It was special. Last night, with those stand-up props of musicians, hammering against his songs, that would just pass away; all the old fans, the gray-hairs would tell their old gray-hair friends how incredible he was. But that was not true. They would lie about him and not know any better.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was regal, majestic. He was in the presence of someone greater than he could ever be; it was humbling. A deep, rumbling voice. His own, a wolf’s angry growl.
The bus door opened. The bus driver stuck his head in. “We’re going to get this show on the road again. Looks like a nail. Sorry about that.”
“No problem,” he said. The driver left again.
He even had to apologize about a flat tire. Where was he now? He remembered stepping on a nail, once, barefoot to Washington, in the hopes of changing the world; he just pulled it out. And he had changed the world, they all had. He wondered if that’s where they went wrong; there was nothing left to do now. All the fights had been fought. Maybe that’s what’s missing from these new musicians; none of them had impressed him. They keep sending him their songs; actually, that was not true. There was one boy who’d made him weep; it was painful to hear such poetry on his lips.
His songs no longer held that poetry. Had he switched places with that boy, just birthdates, would he-
“We got it. We should be all set; any hotel you prefer?”
He shook his head. He’d been in Savannah a dozen times before; he knew all the hotels. He’d preferred the prison there, bunked with a black protester, the guards wanted to insult him. They talked about the future, about freedom and lovers and the country they loved. The country that was in madness. His name was Byron, like the poet, he’d had a wife and a daughter, Samantha and Shelly. Also like the poet, he’d said.
He wondered where Shelly was now. Whether she and her generation were sitting fat, enjoying the fruits of his labors. He didn’t mind that, no, but he wondered where a person would get without that kind of fight. What kind of person you would be without that. Maybe the kind of person he was now, the person who fought and won, a shell.
He’d thought his job was to promote the new generation, some time ago. There were bands he’d felt excited about, whose albums provoked deep thought and admiration in him. But as soon as he’d shined the light of his fame upon them, they withered up again; each time he’d been left feeling embarrassed.
“You remember those kids, the Painful Flight?”
“No.” His manager was off the phone now. “Oh, back in eighty-four?”
“Yeah. Just thinking about them.”
His manager was almost sixty, had been with him for twenty years. Didn’t know what was on his mind still. He hadn’t seen the worst of him, hadn’t seen the college girls, the girls barely old enough for college, the late nights, the parties, the sadness. He couldn’t see his old manager afterward, couldn’t lay his eyes on him after he’d decided to reform himself. He ignored his question; the tour manager would take this as just another quirk of a Great Man.
He hadn’t thought to promote this new kid, to lavish praise upon his poorly-mastered hard-scrabble tracks. He was supposed to make it on his own, like he had, abandoning the old generation, forging a whole new language and future. He couldn’t see how anyone could do it now, though. The new mores were in effect, the new rules would reign for some time, until what he’d fought for grew old and moldy and then they’d need another revolution. But in the meantime, there would be no greatness, no champions or heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., no one to die before the great land would open before them. Perhaps that’s where he should have been, perhaps he missed the dead more than he missed his three ex-wives, than his two children, he missed the dead’s company and their music and their jokes, crude and divine. He was an aberration, he should not have lasted as long as he had. He needed to go now, he needed death, that is why death is, to carry one back to where one belongs.
“It’s a long day,” he said.
“They’ll fix the tire soon,” his manager said.
Tonight he would be in the hotel, four star, he could afford better, but he didn’t want to live too high. He wanted to keep that part of himself intact. No mints on the pillows, please. He would stagger stiffly into the room, and there would always be someone with him: the manager, the lead guitarist. Always someone would be near him; he’s frail, he might break, we must watch him. He was a relic, that much he knew, and more than anything, he wanted to see the day of his death. Twain was lucky that way – he knew his fame, the way the world would capture him – but more than that, he wanted to see the world without him. He wanted to pronounce those holy words.
He wanted to breathe them, “Bob Dylan is dead.” He wanted to see the world move on to greater things.
But that was the cruelest thing life would withhold from him. Not a family, not time away from his children, or true, deep friends, but his own death. He wanted to see people at the funeral, a simple affair, walk away and forget him, pitch a few quaint stories about him, and go on with their lives. But he knew it would be too much, it would be all blown-up and crazy, and that would make him sad. He wished he believed in the afterlife again, just so he could look down and see the world when it had forgotten him.
A gypsy woman told his fortune, once. They wished for fame and success and they made love that night. She was older, she was wise. Only she did not know the wish would be fulfilled; that he would come to be a Great Man and wish only to be small and nothing again.
A boy with great admiration came beside a general in his parade. He slowed his horse and told the boy, Only be not great…
The bus started up and roared. “Looks like we’re on our way again,” the bus driver said.
“See,” his manager said, “back on the road.”
His manager turned back to his phone, putting in a few more frantic calls. Tonight he would be in the hotel. He wondered what kind of movies would be on. Nothing of note, he knew. If only they’d left one thing, if only there was one dragon left to fight, left to multiply, if only there was that fight left in the world which he desperately needed. He failed in success. He should have fought for evil. He could take his own life. The bus started moving.
“Back on the road,” he said, and took another unending sip of lemonade.