Nels Hanson

Posted on March 19, 2012


The Day the Trouble Started

The change came in Nashville, with news of the murder of a friend.

A week ago, here in this house on a hill on the island of Hawaii—the same week the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib broke with all the awful pictures, the naked hooded man standing on the chair, his outstretched hands tied with wires—I had a dream about Johnny Black, a nightmare that got my attention like a rifle shot.

It set my mind tumbling backward until to keep my balance Dr. Westbrook insisted that as a writer I had to set down the whole story once and for all, as I experienced it, drunk and less drunk, second by hour-long second, so I could stand back and see the entire evil web and trace back to where it started, where the first pretty silk threads were spun and I’d lost myself—

When Jodie made me Buck Cole, after she’d changed the title of the song to “Travis Jackson”:

“Harlan says we can’t sing about ourselves. That would ruin everything—”

“It’s time to open the windows and let the tornado blow through the house, don’t you think?” the doctor asked me over the phone and I thought of Judy Garland’s Dorothy in Kansas, alone and unconscious in the rocking bedroom as the others hid in the cellar.

In my dream this is what happened:

Outside the NTN studio complex a bakery van drives up to the security gate and the driver speaks to the guard, who waves him through. The van parks and the driver, a man in a white uniform like a milkman’s, hurries with a square pink box to the rear delivery entrance.

He looks around, confused, runs down the main hall to the lobby, asks directions from the pretty receptionist, steps to the elevator. He rides to the third floor, rushes out, scans a map on the wall, then starts down a corridor as an office boy sprints toward him waving an arm.

The boy grabs the box and turns left, up a stairway, through a side door and across the empty stage of a darkened theater, out and down a wide hall where a woman in a black dress and high heels paces back and forth outside a pair of swinging doors with round windows. She sees the boy and strides up to him.

“For the Coles,” he says, holding out the box.

The woman in black hands the boy $20.

“Thanks,” she says. Her mouth curls at the edges in a mysterious, Mona Lisa smile. “It’s their anniversary.”

She turns and moves toward the doors, standing back so she can see in both portholes at once, as if she looks down the open breech of a double-barreled shotgun.

In one porthole is me, Buck Cole, just my head.

I’ve got a white vinyl cape around my neck and a woman sponges my face with make-up while a man combs and sprays my black hair. It falls into permanent, perfect place, like a statue’s. The dark circles under my eyes disappear, the green stain of fatigue and dissipation is buried by dark tan from a jar.

Now the woman in black shifts her gaze to the next window, where Jodie’s red hair spreads across her shoulders in a bright waterfall. A second make-up man circles hair spray across it.

The rest is real, not my dream. It was written up in all the tabloids and mentioned on the TV news. Laura Bush’s personal secretary, then Laura herself—Jodie’s new confidant—called to see if Jodie was all right.

Inside the dressing room, the red light blinked twice on the wall, a buzzer went off, and both attendants whisked off the white sheets.

I slipped on my dark glasses, as dark as Ray Charles’, and put on my black hat with its band of linked, hollow silver dollars.

Jodie wore a strapless sequined dress redder than her hair. She lifted a large hand mirror, licked at a spot of lipstick at the corner of her mouth, and dropped the mirror against the washstand.

“Let’s hit it!” she said.

A security guard pushed open the double doors.

In a blur, a woman in black rushed past him with a bakery box.

She ran toward Jodie, who was halfway out of her chair before she saw the intruder.

The woman stopped, opened the box and reached in, just as I recognized her.

It was Marlene Black, Johnny Black’s wife. Everything slowed down, like on television when Jack Ruby shot Oswald in Dallas.

“This is for Johnny. You killed him! You killed me!”

Jodie’s face went blank and I stumbled from my chair, raising an arm as the make-up people started to duck and scatter and the guard by the door reached for his gun.

“Happy Anniversary!”

I dove toward Jodie and pushed her from the chair as Marlene lifted a white cake and aimed it.

The wedding cake skimmed my sleeve and hit Beau Briggs, Jodie’s bodyguard, who was rushing up from behind Jodie, going into a crouch with his .357 Magnum cocked and held with both hands in firing position.

The security man grabbed Marlene by the arm as she struggled to get loose.

“You murdered us!” Marlene shrieked at Jodie.

She looked like a trapped panther, all teeth and eyes.

“You pulled the trigger!”

“Get that bitch out of here!” Jodie pushed me away and got to her feet, reaching for a bottle off the make-up cart.

“Wait,” I said, “it’s Marlene.”

I grabbed Jodie’s wrist as the guard pulled Marlene back through the swinging doors.

I ran out where he held Marlene around the waist, pinning her arms to her sides.

“It’s okay,” I said. “Turn her loose.”

“You sure, Mr. Cole?”

“Let her go.”

Marlene looked down, rubbing her arms.

“What the hell is this? What’s this about Johnny?”

Marlene stared up at me.


“Eddie Rat—”


“In Phoenix. With a flintlock.”

“Flintlock?” I watched Marlene’s face.

“He was dressed up— Like Davy Crockett.”

“Who?” I wasn’t getting it.

“Rat! The rapper! I can hardly say his name—”

“I just saw Johnny.”

His face flashed like a white death mask through the afternoon darkness of a bar as he grinned and said, “Hell, tell old Travis hello if you ever see him again.” I couldn’t remember the city or the month or year but I could almost reach out and touch his cheek.

“I thought things had straightened out—”

Marlene started to sob, putting her face in her hands. “After what Jodie did—”

She said “Jodie” the way she’d said “Eddie Rat.” I put my arms around her.

“It’s okay,” I said as she wept and shook.

The swinging doors swung wide and Jodie flew out with staff people and Beau Briggs behind her. Beau had white frosting in his hair.

“You’re like him,” Marlene said against my shoulder. “Travis Jackson. Like the song—”

“You’re the one’s been calling and writing letters!”

Jodie jumped forward as Beau stepped in front of her. He put his arms out to cut her off.

“You got money?” I said to Marlene.

“Buck!” Jodie said.

“Yeah—” Marlene looked away. “I better go.”

“She tried to kill me!” Jodie stepped around Beau.

“With a cake?” I said.

“No! With a telephone!”

“You think Marlene is Travis Jackson?”

“She put Johnny up to it.”

“Johnny’s dead,” I said.

The word “dead” fell down through me, cold and heavy as mercury. I wanted another drink.

“Two minutes to air.”

A man in a sports coat came up to Jodie, tapping her shoulder so she jumped, whirling around and shouting, “Don’t touch me!”

Things were happening too fast. I turned and touched Marlene’s shoulder.

“If there’s anything—”

As I said it, I knew I’d never see her again. A part of me had got used to lying, I saw Marlene see it in my eyes.

Marlene moved away. She shook her head sadly.

“You better watch your back—”

“Get her out—”

Jodie started forward but Beau took her arm as the guard shadowed Marlene back down the corridor.

A man held up a fresh black coat with sleeves like spread buzzard’s wings as I slipped off the one smeared with sweet-smelling cake for a bride.

“You ready?” he said.

I lifted my arms and slipped the coat on, like a new skin.

“Never felt better.”

Jodie frowned at me, then tossed her hair and turned.

“If you mention you-know-who I’ll walk off the set—”

I followed her and the others down the hall toward a door with a red light above it, past backstage people.

A man held out a piece of paper, but Jodie brushed it aside and went by him.

I stopped and took the pen and on a whim wrote Travis Jackson’s name like John Hancock, then handed it back.

The man said, “Thanks, Buck,” and smiled.

We stood backstage, waiting to go on.

I stared at my boots, not wanting to meet Jodie’s eyes, feeling her like a red vibrating blur at my shoulder. I kept seeing Marlene in black running toward her, reaching into the pink box for the white cake.

“You’re like him,” Marlene had said. “Travis Jackson. Like the song—”

I looked at the silver, engraved toe plates on my boots. Were they really mine or someone else’s? Travis Jackson’s?

If Marlene had cut the cake and served it, I thought crazily, Marlene laughing with Jodie and handing out plastic forks and paper napkins, Eddie Rat’s musket ball would miss, Johnny would be all right.

I imagined Marlene grabbing a silver gun instead of the cake, pulling the trigger as Jodie sat in her red dress with a shocked look on her face. I wondered if Marlene had thought about that first.

Suddenly, I was in the dark bar, carrying a whiskey to an empty booth. A man pushed back a chair, bumping my leg and making me spill part of my drink.

“Oh Jesus, I’m sorry—” The man turned, looking into my face.

“No harm done,” I mumbled, and started to step away before he could recognize me.

“Let me buy you another.”

He leaned his head toward mine.


“Yeah, well, let’s not worry about this—” I started to push past him, but he grabbed my arm.

“No, man, it’s me.”

Through my dark glasses I looked closely at his face.

“Johnny Black,” he said.

I couldn’t see him clearly but now I recognized the voice.

“Johnny? How long’s it been? Five years?”

“I left the band a year and a half ago.”

He stared hard at me, trying to make out my eyes.

“What the hell— I never held it against you,” he said. “Let me buy you a drink.”

“Take this one.” I held it toward him. “It hardly spilled.”

“Better booze than blood, huh, Buck?”

“Right,” I said over my shoulder. I picked my way to the bar, bought another bourbon and took a good slug, then made my way back to Johnny.

“What’re you doing in Phoenix?”

“Scouting new talent. For Columbia.”

I took a long pull at the whiskey. “No kidding.”

“The band fell apart. Maybe you heard.”

He waited, looking at me, but when I didn’t answer he went on.

“I guess they got spoiled being on top. I did repossession, clerked in a music store. Remember Harlan Smith?”

“Harlan?” The name sounded familiar. I reached in my shirt pocket for my cigarettes.

“Your old mentor. He cut ‘Travis Jackson.’”

“Was he?”

“He saved my ass.”

I offered him a cigarette. He shook his head.

“You know, Marlene had a baby.”

“Did she?”

“Marlene was an accident waiting to happen. Besides, I was afraid she’d lose patience, once and for all.”

He grinned.

“She’s no Tammy Wynette, staying home waiting for her man.”

“Once and for all.” I looked down into my glass.

“You and Jodie okay? I’m getting too old to stay up for the ‘Tonight Show.’ I only see you on magazine covers. I saw Jodie singing at the Republican Convention.”

“So I heard.”

“You didn’t go?”

“Naw, I missed it.” I pulled a smoke from the box and lit it. “Jodie’s okay.”

“And you?”

I looked up. “You trying to get me to jump labels?”

Johnny laughed, shaking his head.

“Naw, I wish I were. Buck Cole’s quite a name. My projects are rap.”

It was like hearing that a Pentecostal had converted to Scientology. I noticed Johnny had cut his long sideburns. His hair looked spiky but maybe it was the dim light.

“You ever see any of the other guys?”

Johnny played with his paper napkin. “Hank, once in a while. He dropped out of sight, then resurfaced in Vegas. He’s doing real good there.”

“Playing casinos?”

“Real estate.” Johnny began folding the napkin in quarters.

“What about Red?”

Johnny shook his head.

“What happened?”

“He’s in the hospital.”


“Flipped. Called us day and night. I guess now he thinks he’s General Patton.” Johnny took a drink. “That and Roy Rogers and a dozen other people. What about you?”

“I’m all right.” I stubbed out my cigarette. “I guess Travis isn’t.”


“He and his wife split up.”

“He told you?”

“Talked to him on the phone. He’s still on the ranch, outside Waverly.”

Johnny looked at me without speaking, studying my face.

“Let me get you another drink— The service here is lousy.” I didn’t want to talk about Travis anymore.

“No, Buck, thanks.”

Johnny unfolded the napkin, then pushed it away. “Got to get up early, to meet Eddie Rat.”

“Who’s that?” For a second I wondered if it was his nickname for a connection.

“Some kid with a shaved head and a ring in his nose.” He got up from his seat. “Ten thousand acres up in the hills. Pissed off about his contract. Weird scene. Antique guns, bows and arrows.”

“You’re a brave man,” I said.

Johnny laughed but again he looked at me closely, with his head cocked, as if I were a statue and he was sizing up my face, judging if the sculptor had done me justice or made a slip or two with his hammer and chisel. I had the feeling he thought it was a good likeness of the fabulous star who had pulled the rug from under his boots and broken his neck. It made me nervous.

“I’ll catch you on ‘Good Morning America,’” he said. “Tell Jodie hello.”

“I will.”

He started off, then turned, grinning.

“Hell, tell old Travis hello if you ever see him again.”

I stood up and followed him to the door.

“Good to see you, Johnny.”

“Yeah, you too.”

We shook hands, then I stood in the open doorway, watching him head into the late afternoon light. He was the last of the Nevada gang I’d started with, in the days when I’d lived in Travis Jackson country. He strode quickly across the parking lot to his car.

A rifle cracked and I jumped, not then but six months later, and it was too late to call, “Johnny, come on back, I’ll fix it up with Jodie!”

I tasted a chill drink, heard the clink of the ice cubes against the glass’ lip as I drank, felt the gun’s old-fashioned report echoing from the future as Eddie Rat in his coonskin cap fired the flintlock point blank at Johnny.

I knew that the last thing Johnny saw was the ring in the kid’s nose—

The whole thing took ten or fifteen seconds. Alcohol can make time stretch or contract, the way marijuana or LSD or any other drug can isolate a scene, transport you back in the flesh to some shadowed theater where you watch yourself say your lines, unable to stop the action or change the script.

The President told me it was that way for him before he quit—he’d remember suddenly, see himself drunk and challenging his dad to a fist fight on the lawn at Kennebunkport with the Secret Service looking on. It was like it happened to some other person.

Someone touched my sleeve.

A technician winked and handed me a small silver flask.

Jodie turned, her lips starting to form a word, then looked back at the monitor.

I drank. It tasted like a chaser to the ghost whiskey I’d just swallowed in memory to Johnny.

Immediately, I felt better.

“Thanks,” I said, handing it back.

“Blue coffee cup,” he whispered.

“Okay,” I said. “Great. Appreciate it.”

I heard “Travis Jackson” come through the sound system and I remembered the first night in the kitchen, after famous Slim Frye put Jodie out on the desert road and I’d come along in the pickup and taken her to the ranch and with a pencil she’d started through my stack of songs, found a favorite and changed the name from Eldon Carter—

Travis Jackson was a friend of mine,

Cowboy-bred but out of time.

On the monitor Donny Williams, wearing a purple tuxedo with velvet trim, his platinum hair piled higher than Porter Wagoner’s, stood at center stage in front of the audience. He lifted a hand and the big stone in his ring flashed.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please—help me—welcome—two of our brightest—shining stars! They’re winners of two Grammies and a Country—Music Award!”

He talked like a preacher or an auctioneer, picking up speed and slowing down, then racing toward the punch line.

“They’re America’s favorite—sweethearts! And the special friends—of President—George—Bush—and—Laura! And here they arrrrrrre—please give them a very generous—hand!”

His arm came down hard, as if he gave the checkered flag to the winning car at Daytona.


It sounded like he’d said “Sold!”


For a second, I didn’t recognize the name.


Jodie tugged at my sleeve, then pasted on a bright smile, gripping my hand tight as we ran onstage together, waving, and with a pang I wondered when I’d hear from Travis Jackson again.


Nels Hanson earned degrees from UC Santa Cruz and the U of Montana and has worked as a farmer, teacher, and contract writer/editor. His fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award and his stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, Long Story, Short Story, The Montreal Review, and other journals. “Now the River’s in You,” a 2010 story which appeared in Ruminate Magazine, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

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