“For the Sake of Rock & Roll”
by Josh Rountree
Tommy Floyd dropped his unlit cigarette into the armrest ashtray and checked his watch. One more hour left on the Detroit to Dallas flight and with any luck he might even survive. The ghost of Buddy Holly sang to him through his tiny headphones as the plane lurched amid some fairly severe turbulence. He flew more often than most, but this was by far the worst storm he’d ever had to endure as a passenger, and the unwelcome teeth of tension started to gnaw at the base of his spine.
He searched the pockets of his denim jacket for another cigarette and found only the crumpled remains of his last empty pack. It was a bad time to run out of smokes, he reflected, fidgeting in his seat, waiting to fall from the sky, and listing to a cassette of a dead rock star who just happened to die in a plane crash himself. Tommy pressed the stop button on his Walkman and tossed it into the empty seat next to his.
In the aisle seat, a man slept. He was seemingly unconcerned or unaware of the current state of affairs and his shaggy brown curls bounced to the beat of the rollicking plane. The man had an unkempt beard to match his hair, and he made a high frequency whistling noise each time he exhaled through his thin lips. Tommy noticed the man was wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert shirt and nearly dropped his complimentary beverage. Buddy Holly and now Skynyrd? If the cosmos have their say, this plane is going down.
The man snapped one eye open followed by the second. Tommy jerked his stare away and took an immediate interest in the magazine selection in front of him. People watching was one of his favorite pastimes, but getting caught looking always made him feel like he was doing something wrong. They guy probably hadn’t even seen him, but his face was starting to flush.
“How you doin’, brother?” The voice sounded like a hubcap being dragged across gravel. It was the voice of a lifelong smoker and then some. Tommy turned and found his fellow passenger to be very much awake and grinning like a toothpaste salesman. One steady hand was pointed in Tommy’s direction, so he took it and gave it a firm shake.
“Pretty decent,” said Tommy and he returned the man’s smile. He watched his eyes carefully for any sign of recognition. They were wide and friendly but betrayed nothing beyond that. Tommy relaxed a bit and then it came.
“I love your music. I’m a really big fan.” Tommy cringed when he heard it. If he had a nickel for every really big fan he’d encountered in the last four years, he wouldn’t be flying on a commercial airliner. He performed the obligatory humble head nod and started looking for a way to end the conversation.
“Thanks. That means a lot, really.” He made a show of shuffling the magazine and buried his nose into it as deeply as possible without causing insult.
“Your first album rocked,” the stranger continued. “Kiss of Life is a killer tune. Way better than most of the crap they play on the radio these days.”
Tommy said thanks again but refused to look away from his magazine. There were enough sycophants following him around on a daily basis that he had no desire to spend the rest of the flight exchanging platitudes with one. It never failed to amaze him how impressed people were with even moderate success. Kiss of Life was his biggest hit and it had only charted up to thirty-five on Billboard.
“I mean, I like your other albums too, but the first one is the best. I think that’s true of most bands because they have their whole lives to build up to the songs on that one album and then after that they sort of have to scramble to come up with something else that’s as good. But, like I say, I like your others too.”
Tommy kept quiet.
“Why were you smoking an unlit cigarette? Or would you even call that smoking?”
Tommy closed his magazine with a sigh and gave up. “‘Cause I can’t light one on the plane, but if I don’t have one I get the shakes. And, no, I don’t think that’s technically smoking.”
“Why’d you put one in the ashtray and look for another?”
“They get kind of chewy after awhile.”
That seemed to satisfy the man, and Tommy flagged down the flight attendant to get another Coke. He checked his watch again and was dismayed to find that he was only six minutes closer to his destination. His fingers started tapping a nervous beat on his knee.
“What song are you tapping?”
“Nothing, just a nervous habit.”
“Oh, ’cause the beat sounds sort of like Nirvana.”
Tommy stopped tapping and wondered what he’d done in a previous life to deserve such a travel companion. Days like this made him wish he’d gone into construction work. He started to get up and seek refuge in the bathroom for a few minutes, but he noticed the man’s shirt once more and fell back hard into his seat.
From the faded black cotton stared the brooding eyes of Kurt Cobain.
“Where’d you get that shirt?” Tommy asked.
“Got it in Portland in ’92. Man that was a killer show.” He spoke with his eyes closed like he was picturing it in his head. For the first time, Tommy realized that the man had an odor to him. It seemed strange, but he smelled like a rock concert. He had that cigarette smoke, new tee shirt and beer smell, with a whiff of marijuana thrown in almost as an afterthought. He smelled like Tommy would imagine the Portland show smelled in ’92.
“No,” said Tommy, “I mean where did you get that shirt just now? You had a Lynyrd Skynyrd shirt on a second ago.”
“Hell yeah!” he said. “Now Skynyrd, that’s a band. Saw them in Nashville, ’75.”
Tommy was losing his patience. “What I’m asking, is how’d you change shirts that fast. I’d have seen you.”
The man looked thoughtful for a second and scratched at his tangled beard. “Well, ’cause they just change when I feel like it, I guess. I never thought much about it. I’ve got ’em all, Skynyrd, Nirvana, Hendrix, Lennon. Look.”
Tommy stared at the man’s chest as image after image came and went from the surface of the tee shirt. It was like a magazine being blown open by a heavy wind, and it never settled on one page long enough for him to get a good look. He saw snippets of Joplin, Morrison, and what he was pretty sure was the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but every time he thought he recognized something, it was gone. The effect was making him nauseated, and he was relieved when it finally came to a stop. John Lennon stared at him with his arms crossed and underneath him, the shirt read “New York City.”
“Who the hell are you?” asked Tommy after taking a couple of seconds to search for his composure.
“My name is Freed,” he answered, and stuck out his hand again. This time, Tommy elected not to shake it and Freed dropped it back into his lap. “I’m kind of the world’s biggest rock and roll fan. Sort of the keeper of the flame.”
“Are you some kind of stalker? I’ll admit that you’re freaking me out a little, but don’t think I won’t kick your ass if the need arises.”
Freed fixed him with a conspiratorial stare and lowered his voice. “Nothing like that. Between you and me, I’m here to make you a star.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve done pretty good up to now without your help.” Tommy was feeling a bit more in control. It was obvious the guy was playing a little too deep in left field, but Tommy had a definite size advantage if he turned out to be dangerous. He still didn’t have a clue what the hell was going on with the guy’s shirt, but he was doing a pretty good job of convincing himself that he was seeing things. Things like that just didn’t happen. It was ridiculous.
“I agree,” said Freed. “You’ve become a hell of a one-hit wonder. But you and I know you’re better than that. You make some damn good music, and I think — hell, we all think — it’s time the world found out.”
Tommy glanced around the plane. We all think? Did this guy have friends with him? If so, this situation might become a bit more difficult. There wasn’t that much time left until they landed, and if he could just humor the guy, he could find a security guard at DFW and have him hauled off to jail. Or better yet, an asylum.
“So what’s your plan for making me a star then?” asked Tommy.
“All you have to do is die. You’ll be huge.” Freed said it like he was giving the weather forecast. Tommy’s heart lurched, and he suddenly felt very confined in his window seat. Time to move.
“Hey, I need to use the rest room,” said Tommy, and he started to rise. Except he didn’t. Something was holding him in place. Panic channeled through him like an electric charge as he realized he was unable to move. The flight attendant walked past and he shouted for her but she kept on going. The only part of his body that Tommy could still control was his head, and he turned it to face Freed. The man was wearing a new image on his concert shirt now. Tommy Floyd, Boston, ’99.
“That Boston show,” said Freed, “was when I really knew that you had what it takes. We see a lot of shows but I don’t mind telling you that that was the best we’ve seen in years.”
“What are you doing? Let me go.” Tommy tried to fight against whatever was holding him in place but it was a wasted effort.
“You don’t seem to understand what’s being given to you, so I just want to keep you still until I can convince you. This is really the best thing that could happen to your career.”
Tommy yelled at the top of his lungs but no one heard.
“They can’t hear you. You’re already becoming one of us. Man, you are gonna love this.”
“So what are you saying?” asked Tommy, trying to be calm. He needed to clear his head fast and figure a way out of this. “You’re going to kill me.”
“No. That’s not how it works. The plane’s going down. Here in just a few minutes.”
“So you’re killing all these people just to get to me?”
“Small price to pay to birth a legend, don’t you think? A plane crash really fits well into the whole fallen rock star mythology. It’s a classic, way better than dying from an overdose or totaling your car.”
Freed looked delighted at the prospect of a fiery death. His narrow brown eyes stared at Tommy with unashamed admiration. “Duane especially can’t wait for you to join us. He loves that cover you did of Black Hearted Woman on the last record. Takes a lot of personal conviction to cover a song like that these days. That stuff doesn’t sell like the boy band shit and all that. Damn, rock and roll needs you.”
For the first time since he’d begun his conversation with Freed, Tommy felt the plane being rocked by turbulence. Every few seconds the cabin was illuminated by brilliant blasts of lightning, and heavy drops of rain pelted the windows. From someplace that now seemed lost and distant, the pilot’s voice announced that everyone needed to take their seats and fasten their seatbelts. The storm was becoming more severe.
Tommy’s mind raced for a way out of the situation. The self-styled keeper of the rock and roll flame stared back at him, and Tommy took a shot.
“Fuck Duane Allman,” he said, “I just recorded that stupid-ass song so my manager would get off my back. He wants to hook the baby boomers with that oldies crap.” Tommy spoke through clenched teeth, and what he said was to him a form of blasphemy. The Allman Brothers had been his favorite band since he’d learned to crawl. While most of his friends in high school had bands that played Duran Duran or R.E.M. covers, he preferred the real deal. Stones, Clapton, and especially the Allman Brothers.
Freed looked as if he’d been kicked in the stomach. His mouth gaped and his lips quivered beneath his forest of beard. “What the hell, man? Duane is pissed now, and he ain’t the only one.”
“Who else doesn’t like it? Morrison? Buddy Holly? If those assholes have what it takes to be legends then I’m starting to agree with you. I can pull this off. Let’s do it.” He choked the words out and they tasted pretty bad but seemed to be achieving the desired effect. Freed was bouncing up and down in his seat and clutching the armrests with a crushing grip. The weak metal started to bend inward and the storm intensified.
“You don’t seem to understand.” Freed’s raspy voice was becoming blurred, like a crowd of people speaking the same words together. Hundreds of different voices screamed at Tommy. “I’m the fucking spirit of rock and roll. Where the hell would upstarts like you be without rock’s fallen heroes? I am the embodiment of everything that’s good about rock. Everything your generation killed with its rap and its corporate shit. We’re all here and you will show us respect.”
Tommy forced a giggle and then it grew into nervous laughter. Freed had lost his composure and Tommy found that he could move the fingers on his right hand. He focused on his left hand and those fingers began to move as well.
“Let’s do it now,” said Tommy. “Frankly, I think I’m lowering myself by associating with most of you. You’re then and I’m now, I’m fresh. It’s obvious that you guys need someone like me to keep you going. My death will keep the rock mystique thing happening for a while longer so you guys don’t fade from memory just yet.”
Lightning struck the left wing just outside of Tommy’s window, and he sprang to his feet. He hadn’t realized he’d been struggling so hard against whatever power Freed had over him, and when it disappeared, he was in motion. His head collided hard with the overhead compartment and he fell back to his seat, eyes temporarily blind save for a rapid pulse of warm blue and white light. White light, white heat, he laughed to himself and lost consciousness.
He awoke to a flight attendant giving him a gentle shake of the shoulder. It felt like someone had driven nails into the top of his head while he was out, but he was glad to notice that the plane was on the ground and that Freed was gone.
“Where’s the guy who was sitting there?” he asked the flight attendant. He motioned to the vacant aisle seat.
“I guess he got off with everyone else. You’re the only one who’s still aboard. I don’t know how you fell asleep the way the plane was rising and falling. That’s the worst storm I’ve ever flown in, and I’ve been flying for eight years.”
“Just a sound sleeper, I guess.” He gathered his carry-on bag from beneath the seat in front of him and rose to a hunched-over standing position to make his way to the aisle. He stopped midway and noticed that the plane still bore the mark of Freed’s presence. Both armrests were gnarled and bent and Tommy noticed the man’s singular odor still lingering in the stuffy cabin air.
“Hey, aren’t you Tommy Floyd?” asked the flight attendant. “I’m your biggest fan.”
“I was ’til today,” he said with his most winning smile. “Tell your friends I’m officially retired.” He started toward the exit and was almost there when the flight attendant tapped him on the shoulder.
“Is this yours?” she asked. She held his Walkman out, and he took it.
“Yeah, thanks,” he said, and shoved it into his jacket pocket. He left the plane and made the long walk down the tunnel to the terminal where he tossed the empty pack of cigarettes into a trash bin. He stood for a second, staring at the peanut wrappers and ticket stubs, then fished the Walkman out of his pocket.
The eject button made a snapping sound as he pressed it and the Buddy Holly cassette slid out and into his palm
“Damn, that’s some good music,” he said aloud to no one and he tossed the cassette into the trash.
Josh Rountree lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and two sons. His fiction has appeared in Realms of Fantasy and a number of small press publications. Visit his website at www.joshrountree.com for more information.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish