Following the decline of his band’s popularity, Link Ouray’s family started asking him why he kept playing solo shows to unappreciative drunks in such grimy, good-for-nothing clubs, and Link always told them the same thing: “I wasn’t born to shovel slop for The Man at some fried chicken stand.” He was a man of few words. That’s why he played instrumental music. And he refused to believe that he could have spent the last decade making a name for himself as one of rock’s golden boys only to fall back into the bleak 9-to-5 cooking jobs of his blue collar adolescence. Yet here he was, hunched over a vat of roiling peanut oil, flipping birds at The One and Only Lloyd’s Fried Chicken Shack in deep eastern Arkansas.
“Order up!” In addition to the pink Formica counter and walls covered with autographed celebrity photos, Lloyd’s was home to the “hollered out order.” Over the clamor of customer chatter Lloyd howled, “Three piece bird, one biscuit, two sides!” Lloyd was the manager. He and his wife Shelly co-owned the place.
In rapid succession, Link dunked a breast, wing and thigh into the cast-iron skillet, piled two perfectly shaped cones of collard greens and mashed potatoes on a plate then, seconds shy of overcooking, flipped the chicken in time to seal all its juices in the crisp, seasoned skin that made Lloyd’s famous. If the otherworldly batter had built The Shack’s reputation, then Link was the custodian of its standing. Without a skilled cook, no batter mattered. Frying chicken was an art. Like playing loud rock guitar, it was all heat and timing.
With a twist of the tongs, Link yanked the steaming meat from the oil and nestled it on a plate. “Order up!”
He was born Jensen Remington Snodgrass, but he so idolized the musician Link Wray that he legally changed his name to Link at age sixteen when he and three friends formed their cover band The Missing Links. They were kids. But their ages and matching leather biker jackets won them enough local notoriety that the Los Angeles tiki bar Vicious Vick’s soon offered them a regular weekly spot. So they moved from Colorado to LA, and after a few years the band rebranded themselves The Jack Rippers and started writing their own material. They jumped from an indie label to the majors. Recorded album after album. Made cable TV appearances and toured the country opening for everyone from Willy Nelson to T-Bone Burnett. But eventually the kitschy novelty of rock instrumentals wore off, and fans started complaining that a lot of surf songs sounded the same. Twangy riffs, reverby effects, using the so-called “whammy bar”—where was the variety? At concerts audience members scratched their heads and asked each other: didn’t they just play this one? Link told journalists they weren’t a surf band. “We play rock and roll,” he said. “Listen closer.” But that was the problem: by then, people had quit listening.
When the band finally broke up, Link performed solo around LA. He set up a website, lost weight, drank too much. Years passed. His family called to check on him. The tour page of his website listed venues with names like “Lo Sum Dumpling House” and “The Filthy Flutist Lounge.” He told his family that he was fine, that he was on his way “back up,” but he was so broke he could no longer afford cigarettes and barely made rent. Drunks yelled at him at gigs and spilled beer on his equipment. One stole his effects pedal right off the stage. At age thirty-four, after an especially grueling gig at a dump in West Covina, he finally admitted that music no longer seemed a viable career option. So, just as he always had, he ran away. Split. And hid down in Oxbow, Arkansas at Lloyd’s Fried Chicken to escape his troubles and try to stage a comeback.
Along with countless other traveling musicians, Link had been a Lloyd’s regular during the years when he toured. Thanks to frequent visits, Lloyd knew Link by name, had occasionally mailed him Ziploc bags full of batter to cook with, even had an autographed band photo hanging on the wall among the hundreds of band photos. So after Link made one pitiful phone call asking for work, Lloyd hired him to cook. Lloyd’s wife Shelly was tired and needed a break anyway. The couple worked seven days a week. Now, with Link at the skillet, Shelly could focus on baking the biscuits, doing paperwork, and enjoy some time off.
On this Thursday evening, Lloyd grabbed the plates of food from the cooking station and rushed them to hungry diners. “Hey hey,” he told the crowd waiting by the door. “We’ve got birds with your names on ’em.”
People came from miles around to indulge in that chicken. Memphis tourists made special detours to visit Lloyd’s. Cross-country travelers followed windy country roads south of I-40 to reach the restaurant. Other folks drove from as far away as Oxford, Mississippi and Fort Smith, Arkansas to savor Lloyd’s batter. That recipe had put his two kids through college, afforded him and Shelly a small historic house and a cabin in the Ouachitas, which was why Lloyd guarded the recipe with more care than most people guarded their debit card pin numbers.
A sweet smelling fog of atomized grease slicked the inside of the building and everyone in it. Dense with the nutty aroma of flour and oil, the interior echoed with the din of thirty-plus patrons smacking and chatting, of silverware clinking and ice rattling in glasses.
A herd of antsy patrons huddled by the register and spilled out the door. Children, truckers and soybean farmers, a van’s worth of elderly residents from the Helena Acres Nursing Facility—all cramped at the entrance, staring at other diners. Lloyd handed them glasses of water and sweet tea, assuring them he’d have them seated shortly. No one complained. The building was tiny, the lunch counter small. Combined with its legendarily limited table space, the fact that the restaurant didn’t take reservations meant that the thirty-minute wait was as central to the Lloyd’s experience as the chicken. Lloyd called the delay “gastronomic foreplay,” the salivation before gratification, which made the release of grease that much more satisfying. His brother Buck saw it differently.
“It’s called throwin’ money away, is what it is.” Buck worked weekends when Link had off, but he was always hanging around eating free food. The brothers weren’t close. After prison released Buck for his last larceny conviction, Lloyd hired him to get him back on his feet. With his record discolored by thirty-plus years of petty crime, the local thrift store was the only other business that would risk employing Buck, and they barely assigned him twenty hours per week. Being a sucker for the bruised and battered, Lloyd took his brother under his wing, letting him mop floors, bus tables, clean the greasy ceiling vents and empty the trash. If Link was the custodian of The Shack’s reputation, then Buck was just the custodian. Sometimes he also filled drink orders and set silverware and placemats, but mostly, he cleaned. And like Link, once he got hired, Buck had never left.
“Order up!” Link set down three fresh plates of food, and Lloyd whisked them away.
Having been the black sheep of the family his whole life, Buck was now trying to remake his image. Lately he fancied himself an idea man and was always urging Lloyd: get a bigger building. Provide outside seating. Knock down a wall to build an addition. Convert the scruffy office into a dining area. Anything to increase profitability. “You got this enormous demand that you choose to ignore,” Buck recently said. “You’re like some hot and horny housewife that won’t give nobody the time of day.”
Lloyd had his own philosophy. “Desire fuels demand. It’s like comedians say about standup routines: you should exit the stage while you’re still ahead to leave the audience wanting.” Thanks to Lloyd’s secret batter, folks were always wanting.
Only Shelly, Lloyd and Link knew the exact recipe, but everyone had a theory about what ingredients were in it. The owner of Mickey’s Machine Rental attributed the unique flavor to a combination of honey, rosemary and a hint of lemon rind. Crystal over at the Sinclair station swore Lloyd put chocolate and ginger in the mix. Lulu at Dollar General insisted the key component was saffron: “Not a doubt in my mind,” she said, “saffron. Stuff’s expensive.” The Ladies of the Holy Mother of Christ Wednesday Bingo Group thought the unusual taste resulted from a mix of cornmeal, oat and graham flour, though the church pastor claimed those lighter flours burned at high temperatures. Nobody denied that the batter was heavy on black and cayenne pepper, but until Link came along, only Lloyd and Shelly were informed enough to greet this guestimation with a knowing smirk.
Lloyd’s devotees described the chicken in various ways: “It has a slight oniony perfume.” “Meat’s almost pork-like.” “It’s an orgy on your tongue.” Restaurant reviews from The New York Times to Switzerland’s leading culinary magazine characterized the flavor as arriving in “distinct orchestral movements.” The forward flavors were a bold spicy warmth mixed with a subtle sweet tang. After a moment’s chewing, bright citrusy top-notes appeared, followed by a heady mid-range porcine element, and a low, gravy-like roux richness that lingered on the back end alongside a second round of pepper. Even those who didn’t know what a top-note was agreed that the chicken was the best on earth.
People thinking they were clever called all the time trying to get the recipe. They lied and said they were with the E.P.A. investigating contaminants from a leaky dumpster. They posed as scientists doing cholesterol research, or claimed to be in the hospital suffering an allergic reaction after eating at Lloyd’s. “The doctor needs to know the ingredients,” they’d say, “so they can prescribe medication.”
“I wasn’t born yesterday,” Lloyd told them all. “Come down and I’ll feed you a breast and you can guess for yourself.”
When an elderly woman vacated a seat at the counter, Lloyd ushered a tall man over and wiped the surface with a rag. “Hidy, Frank. Know what you want?” The man nodded and, without looking at the menu, asked, “Could I do it?” Lloyd agreed and the man hollered: “Four piece bird, all breast, three collards!” As Lloyd fetched silverware and refilled drinks, Link lowered more meat into the grease.
Despite the way his wrist popped from an old guitar injury, Link worked quickly. He kept multiple birds frying in three separate skillets. He simultaneously decorated several plates with heaps of grits, green beans, potatoes and slaw. The Shack offered six side dishes daily, seven on Sundays for the church crowd. Lloyd wasn’t a religious man, but Sunday was a family day. It was also Sunday Salad Day.
Even though he’d personally given up the habit fifteen years ago, Lloyd let customers smoke at the lunch counter, but only the counter. Occasionally they’d get some uppity diner from out of state—a doctor traveling home to Connecticut, say, or a school teacher from an affluent section of Atlanta—who’d cough and wave their hands in a dramatic gesture. But the vents above the stove sucked the smoke straight up, and everyone was so absorbed in their food that most people didn’t mind.
“Order up!” Link wiped the sweat from his forehead and positioned the plates so Lloyd could reach them.
The bell above the door rang and in walked Buck. On break from the thrift store, he sauntered past the line of customers and slipped into the supply room so he could eat without having to wait for a seat. He wore brown uniform pants and a maroon Crimson Tide t-shirt. Leaning around the corner, he whispered, “Pssst, Link. Three piece all white, mac, collards, beans. And a two-piece box to go, three biscuits.” Link nodded his acknowledgement, trying not to scowl. Like his boss, he was wary of Buck.
Buck’s first words to Link upon meeting had been: “You some kind of greaser?” Buck had come in for a free lunch that day and was startled to find a stranger in the back room rolling chickens in the bus tub.
“Why,” Link said, “can you smell it on me?” Buck said that wasn’t what he meant. He pointed to Link’s outfit: cuffed black Levi’s, black leather shoes, a white button-up collared shirt framing slicked back hair and tattooed forearms. It was the same outfit he’d worn since his twenties. Ignoring Buck’s hostile tone, Link explained in as few words as possible who he was, where he came from, and how he’d played straight Link Wray tunes, no frills, at the beginning of his career: “Ace of Spades,” “Jack the Ripper,” “Run Chicken Run,” “Raw-Hide.”
Buck shook his head. “Never heard of ’em.” Link said most people hadn’t. Buck said, “Play something for me, maestro.”
Link held up his flour-covered hands. “No guitar.”
“I mean sing somethin’ then.”
“My tunes are instrumental.”
“What? No lyrics? What kind of song don’t have words?”
Link dredged a drumstick in batter. “You tell me.”
Buck looked him up and down, as if writing songs without lyrics was even more of a reason to question Link’s character than his clothes. “Well, you look like a greaser,” Buck said. “I’m from an era when those boys were the ones in town not to be messed with, and I sure as shit don’t trust no one who looks like they popped out of some old movie, thinkin’ they’re tough. Know what I mean?” He stared at Link for a moment, trying to establish the pecking order with his squirrely brown eyes. Link stared into the bucket. The coiled green tail of a serpent wound up Link’s left arm. Getting no response, Buck said, “But if you say you’re not one, then you’re fine by me.” He leaned close to Link, showering him in his acrid coffee and cigarette breath. “During my stints in the joint, I bunked with some real mean SOBs.”
Repressing a snicker, Link whispered back, “During a show in Houston, I once jumped off stage to punch a man in the face for putting his hands on a lady. My old roadie also showed me how to make a tattoo gun from a pen, if you ever need ink.” When Buck recoiled, Link extended his palm. “Now pass me those tongs, would you?”
The men disliked each other from the start. Once Buck learned that Link knew the recipe, he hated him even more.
On this day, as on so many busy days, Buck ate in the office. He ate like a starving pig at the trough: head down, face in his food, shoveling as if someone were about to come take it away. Link came to loath the unsavory whistling noises Buck made through his nose. After he’d trailed crumbs across his brother’s desk and left the store computer keyboard greasy, Buck cornered Lloyd by the register to lecture him about his newest bumpersticker ideas. He handed Lloyd a drawing sketched on college-ruled notebook paper. Lloyd studied the sheet. The first sticker said: “Lloyd’s will have you clickin’ when you’re pickin’ on our chicken.” The other said: “Breasts are best, if wings aren’t your thing.” Buck had once designed a t-shirt. It featured a smiling yellow bird character set atop a red backdrop, beneath the words “Lucky Mother Clucker.”
As always, Lloyd listened to his brother’s pitch, staring him in the eyes and nodding his head. Then he politely declined. “Not quite right,” Lloyd said, “but maybe next time.” Buck loathed him for this. It made him feel stupid. Why couldn’t Lloyd see all his buried potential? Lloyd wasn’t the only talented one in the family, or Buck figured he wouldn’t be if he would only give him a chance.
“I’m working on another shirt,” Buck said. “It says ‘Lloyd’s, one of the world’s great unsolved mysteries.’” He winked. “Could make a store slogan.”
“We already have a slogan,” said Lloyd, “‘The One and Only.’ Plus, I’m afraid selling stuff cheapens things. You’ve seen those poor saps at Waffle House in those grey and yellow getups with those little bowties? We don’t want that.”
“You sell the shirts to customers,” Buck said. “We don’t wear them.”
A regular customer named Clyde called out from the counter, “Buck, is that a Crimson Tide shirt?”
Buck pinched the front of the fabric to get a look at the logo. Without looking up he mumbled, “I got it from the thrift store.” Clyde shook his head and sprinkled more hot sauce on his beans. This was Razorbacks territory.
Lloyd raced to refill diners’ glasses then returned to find Buck still lingering at the register beside a crowd of patient onlookers. “How about franchising,” Buck said. “You thought about that? Not in any fast food type way aimed at global domination, but maybe a store in Little Rock, and in Memphis, Texarkana—strategic placement.”
“You can’t be ‘The One and Only’ if you have four shops. It’s simple math.” Math wasn’t Buck’s problem. He was only trying to factor himself into the equation. When he thought about franchises, he imagined himself as manager of a Lloyd’s in Memphis, then later pictured himself becoming a part-time owner of it and another franchise, and then ultimately changing the name of both to “Buck’s Fried Chicken: The Cluck Stops Here.”
Lloyd rang up a group of local high school kids and shoved bills in the drawer. “We’re a one-in-a-million enterprise,” he said. “You want it, we got it, drive down to see us or stay home hungry.”
Buck turned his head away from the crowd and whispered, “I don’t understand you. People drive all the way from beyond forever to eat here. Let’s give ’em what they want. Wouldn’t you think someone was crazy for turning down money that was being waved in their face?”
“We don’t need more than we’ve got. If anything, we’ve got too much already.” Besides working every day, he and Shelly didn’t get to use their mountain cabin except on a few holidays. The water-skies they bought five Christmases ago still sat in boxes in the garage, unused, beside some dusty bass fishing equipment and a flat-bottom boat that black widows had colonized. Vacation was a word they never uttered. While he had never complained to Shelly, Lloyd knew he couldn’t keep working seven days a week at his age. Yet he didn’t know how he was supposed to retire in three years on the measly savings they’d amassed. Their two kids lived far away and wanted nothing to do with the restaurant business. Link still seemed determined to get back into music. Who was left to manage The Shack, Buck? Please. Buck rented a tiny apartment in a drab building in the quiet center of town. He drove a beat up, beige 1970 Dodge Dart whose right front wheel-well flapped when he turned. When the Dart wouldn’t start, he rode his bike. There wasn’t a bus system in Oxbow, but it was a small enough town that you could walk everywhere. Having to walk just made Buck feel destitute. But he was sharp enough to sense that he’d been left out of Lloyd’s long-term plans, and he felt determined to claim what in the absence of other inheritance, he now considered his birthright.
Buck motioned to a man with long brown hair flowing from under a Peterbilt mesh cap. “Sir, where’re you from?”
“St. Louis,” the man said. “But I’m long haul, so I’m from all over.”
Buck turned to his brother. “See? We could have one in St. Louis, too.”
Lloyd squeezed his brother’s shoulder. “Let’s talk about this later, alright?” At the warmth of his brother’s touch, Buck’s lips puckered and his fists clenched. Lloyd noticed. Customers did too.
While Buck was tying the plastic to-go bag, preparing to leave, Lloyd told him, “You’re wound too tight. When was the last time you went on a date?”
Buck slipped between customers and flung open the door. “About the same time you had a day off.”
Unlike his lusty, rambunctious, twenty-something self, Link now spent most nights on his couch alone, playing guitar. He’d become a recluse. He completely didn’t mind. Just as country music had taken on a greater appeal to him over the years, the older he got, the quieter he liked his surroundings to be. It was just the way of life, he figured, the nature of things. Or that was what he told himself when he was feeling dull on a Saturday night.
Link drove straight from The Shack to his apartment Thursday evening, excited to try to write some new songs. He eased his red 1960 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz into the driveway and carried three containers of leftover biscuits and sides to his front door. He lived in a refurbished guest house on an elderly couple’s property. They were homebodies yet he rarely saw them. As he fished for his keys, a figure stepped from the shadows. Decked in a black sport coat and black slacks, the man edged into the dim porch light, his hands sunk in his pockets.
“Mr. Ouray,” the man said. It wasn’t a question.
“And you are?”
“Mr. Anderson. Good to meet you. I’m a big fan from way back, love your music. Can I borrow a minute of your time?”
“Depends why you’re hiding in my bushes.”
“I have a business proposition for you.”
Link turned his head to study the man’s features in case he needed to file a police report. He’d never had a stalker before, but he sometimes wondered how easy it would be for an obsessed fan to find him here. Not that he had any obsessed fans anymore. “Sorry man. Haven’t played gigs in years, not even bar mitzvahs.”
A booming laugh escaped from the man’s dry lips before he could repress it. “No no,” he said, “not about music. My partner and I were interested in acquiring Lloyd’s batter recipe for a sizeable amount of money. We thought, seeing as who you are and that you’re a smart, savvy man, you’d like to hear more about our offer.”
Link released the key and spun forty-five degrees on his heels, causing the man to yank his hands from his pockets in defense. “Take it easy,” Anderson said, holding out his palms. “We only want to put the batter in grocery stores. Make a dry mix available to people outside of Arkansas, to bring the batter to the people.”
“Not a chance,” Link said.
Anderson shifted his weight to one leg and nodded as if expecting this. “You might hear me out, Mr. Ouray. Our offer is handsome.”
Link turned the key in his lock. “You have the wrong guy, buddy, and I suggest you leave quickly before I get upset about it.”
“No need for hostilities. We aren’t trying to put you or the owners out of business. Even if someone were to sell packaged batter, ‘The Shack,’ as it were, would still be the only place in the country where customers could find the chicken hot and cooked for them, by the creator himself. As we see it, this is a value-added development, nothing drastic, nothing that you and your party’s interests could not coexist with.”
Link pushed his door open and peered into the darkness. “For your sake I’ll act like this all never happened.” He stared at Anderson. Anderson stared back. A smile crossed the stranger’s face but Link wouldn’t shift his expression one way or the other.
Anderson said, “You don’t talk much, do you?”
Before Link could slip indoors, the man slid a business card into Link’s mailbox. It listed no name, no title, no email address, only a phone number printed in black atop cheap white paper. He said, “If you change your mind.”
“Suit yourself.” Anderson shuffled toward a blue sedan parked on the street. He sunk his hands back in his pockets, jingled his keys.
Link got his mail, and inside his apartment he tossed it and the card on the kitchen counter. He looked at his hands. They were trembling. His heart raced and his mouth was dry. He thought, What a baby I’ve become. A tubby dude getting to me like that? He stuck the food in the fridge and opened a cold can of Coke and tried to forget about the incident. It wasn’t hard. The window air conditioning unit had broken again, as it had once the previous month, and the air inside was as thick and muggy as the August air outside. Link loathed the idea of spending another night sprawled atop the sheets, his naked body draped with wet towels. He couldn’t tell his landlords Mr. and Mrs. Delray about the problem. They were old and asleep, and no one would fix it now anyway, so it would have to wait until morning. Besides, Mr. Delray took so long to fix things it was more efficient for Link to do repairs himself. It drove him nuts. Worse, it was another expense he couldn’t afford.
After a major transmission repair charge last month and some X-ray bills for that popping wrist that never healed, his checking account was nearly empty. He didn’t have the money to buy another AC unit. He’d have to charge it, which he didn’t like doing since he’d come to Arkansas partly to save money, not incur debt. Lloyd’s paid well, but the upkeep on his beloved classic car precluded the kind of savings he once imagined having by now. Easy money was looking pretty good. Writing songs used to be a way to get some.
As his body gathered sweat, Link stripped to his boxers, piled his grease-scented clothes on the living room floor, and set his guitar on his lap. It was a vintage Gibson. Wray recorded “Rumble” on a Gibson Les Paul, but he later played other models such as a Danelectro Longhorn and a Gibson SG. Link called his axe Wolverina, in honor of a feisty, energetic Colorado ex-girlfriend who had a nervous habit of shredding paper and howled during all of his shows. Wolverina’s edges were chipped from years of stage antics, her shiny red body worn around the black pickboard from frantic strumming. But when she was plugged into his classic Premier amp, run through the right effects pedal and loaded with tremelo, she produced the perfect sound.
Link turned up his amp and hit his favorite chord, an open D. With one strum it sent a powerful wave of filthy, otherworldly distortion rumbling through the sweltering living room. Blood flowed to his chest. His mind cleared as if fueled by a pot of coffee, and his face went flush. The dark note trailed off into the atmosphere, floating on a bed of reverb and delay, and Link sat grinning thinking, Oh, that sound. This was why he played music.
Just as he had in the old days, he kept a notepad beside him when he wrote new songs, in order to jot down ideas. Unlike the old days, now he was hoping to jot lyrics rather than melodies. So far he’d had little success.
Besides saving up money and taking a break from performing, Link had hoped that by moving to eastern Arkansas he could tap into some of the region’s deep creative energy, maybe break his writer’s block and get back on the scene with a whole new routine. Even though the surf music genre had technically originated in southern California, the South was where three of his four favorite musical styles were born—Blues, rockabilly, and rock and roll. Link thought that by moving there he could tap into some of that deep creative energy. That had yet to happen.
After the kitschy novelty of instrumentals wore off and fans started abandoning Link, Link buckled under the pressure and developed a case of writer’s block. He couldn’t create new material; he could only wallow in the genre’s formal limitations, producing instrumentals that sounded the way leftovers tasted three days after they were first cooked.
The band recorded Christmas albums to fill gaps in their catalog, rerecorded their earlier hits in Blues and country styles on albums featuring famous guest musicians and All-Star lineups—total fluff, and poor sellers at that. Americans got bored. They always do. There was always someone newer, younger and better looking waiting in the wings to replace you. Link’s replacement was a fifteen-year-old blonde Swedish pop star with two umlauts in his name.
Panicked by this sea-change, Link’s record label demanded he write songs people could sing to. “Give them anthems,” his manager said. “Give them sob stories, sing-alongs, heart-wrenching ballads about lost love and summer days on country roads in a big Ford truck. Drugs, murder, anything. Just give them words.” Link resented this advice. There were too many songs with insincere words already. Too much melodramatic blabbering and throw-away stanzas about boo-hoo breakups and love changing everything, all that Nashville factory-farmed crap featuring sweethearts kissing on porch swings and urban cowboy ballads about hard-drinking daddies abandoning their children, never mind the dime-a-dozen pop stars with glittery pants and hard-as-steel asses, or the Frank Sinatra copycats crooning about highballs and being young at heart for some mysterious male demographic. Is that what Link was supposed to do? Engineer melodrama in order to pull money from honest working peoples’ wallets? That didn’t seem right. Some of the musician friends he’d confided in told him to forget about consumers; write from the heart. “Music is art” they said from their mangy rented apartments. But even if he did write from the heart, what did he uniquely have to say? Besides having played with people like Patti Smith and Jimmy Page, his life wasn’t so interesting. Not interesting enough to sing about at least.
Just as his manager predicted, when Link failed to produce lyrics, fans moved on. The adoring articles quit coming. Session work dried up. His record label dropped him. Link called his publicist for one last bit of advice after she canceled their contract, and all she would say was, “People are fickle. Think two steps ahead. And sing.”
First of all, he didn’t know like the sound of his voice. When he heard it in any form other than a secret whispering consciousness inside his own mind, his voice made him recoil. It was rough and off-key, scratchy in a feral way. Granted, scratchy could sound cool—that whole smoky female crooner thing—but that affect was due more to artful vocal control than to smoking too many cigarettes. Link didn’t have any control. Worse yet, he didn’t know what to sing about.
Listening to other musicians chant, “Welcome to the jungle, we’ve got fun and games” and “Squeeze my lemon till the juice runs down my leg” made him wonder where people came up with this stuff. He took a sip of Coke and sang a few George Jones lyrics to ready himself: “Just because I’m not the happy guy I used to be, she thinks I still care.” What sounded like the howl of a cat in heat filled the room. Man, Link thought, I sound awful.
Trying not to feel defeated, he flipped through his notebook in search of some original lyrics. Reading a couple Keats or Robinson Jeffers poems sometimes helped conjure words, though poetry didn’t make those words any good. He couldn’t figure out how to do that yet. He remembered another musician once telling him: “Sing what you know.” When he tried to do that, the most dismal songs resulted. In a recent composition entitled “Fry Me a River,” the chorus went: “Pour me, pour me, pour me another drink.” Another, tentatively titled “Where Have All My Good Things Gone?” featured the bridge “I suck. What the fuck. I’m living in a place defined by river muck.” The chorus was: “Talent in, talent out. This dry spell feels more like a drought.” Last week he feared his song-writing abilities had permanently plateaued when he wrote a surfy variation of Jimmy Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel” that included the line, “Why oh why-oh, can’t I just die-oh?” That last one had a catchy guitar melody, but the words were certainly not the sort his old manager had suggested he pen.
Writing what you knew was tough when what you knew was depressing. Admittedly, he’d been listening to a lot of classic country lately—hard times called for Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings—and all the genre’s downer themes of cheating, heartbreak, poverty and drunkenness had started creeping into his art. It reminded him of a joke a man at a bar in New Mexico once told him: “What do you get when you play a country song backwards? You get your wife back, you get your job back, get your horse and house and kids back and you sober up.”
Link took another sip of Coke.
Other musicians had suggested alternate creative strategies: “Write whatever comes to you, anything that pops in your head. It doesn’t have to be personal.” His old roadie with the homemade tattoo gun once advised he “Make stuff up, tell stories about imagined events.” That’s how the roadie created his tattoo designs and how he enticed groupies in his tiny lumpy bed. And a famous female songwriter who’d once made love to Link in her dressing room and who shall remain nameless told him flat out: “Write what people want to buy.” Alone in his living room, that was the most dispiriting advice of all.
If he was ever going to earn money professionally as a musician again, Link knew he had to write songs people could sing to. His old manager was right. But another part of him no longer cared about making a comeback. This was the deeper him, the part closer to what many corny song lyrics called “the heart.” It was the part of Link’s conscious that, before it lay down in its grave, and before it went to walk “the Streets of Glory with the fallen and the Lord” as the local pastor preached, hallelujah, wanted to write at least one more tune that stirred his insides the way his old songs used to. To write just one more tune that made him shiver when he strummed it, the way that distorted D chord did. The way Wray’s song “Golden Strings” did. To sit on that mangy couch and feel the ancient magic of composition—that was mostly what Link wanted now, that and a little respect as an artist. And a little bit of money to fix things like the AC. The way his mind had opened up when he used to compose songs, the mysterious way that new melodies flowed out, it was as if his mind were a towering radio antenna, receiving signals from unknown sources. Many musicians lived to perform—Ernest Tubb for instance. One guitarist told him that music gained meaning only when you shared it. Yet these solitary creative epiphanies were some of the best moments in Link’s life. They made live performance pale in comparison.
Link’s sweat-slicked skin made it difficult to hold the guitar steady. Heat always made his injured wrist ache, which for some reason made his temples throb. Maybe that was a song. Link strummed some chords and sang, “My AC is dead, my wrist is achin’. Strangers hiding by my door have got me quakin’.”
He set down his guitar and opened another soda. As morally reprehensible as it was for this Anderson person to try to coerce Link into selling Lloyd and Shelly out behind their backs, a part of him kind of wished the man had asked for an autograph. Or asked why Link no longer played, or at least named his favorite Jack Rippers songs—something. If you say you’re fan, act like a fan. Link sometimes fantasized that there still were fans in the world obsessed enough to come to his house, unannounced, and try to book him to play a party, or throw their underwear at him. Creepy fans were better than no fans at all. At least those creepy ones send you letters—or sent, in Link’s case—although he had heard stories that some also picked through your trash in search of wadded tissues, used condoms, bills and fingernail clippings. The super creeps paid hotel maids to collect your hair samples from the shower and toilet seat. He’d never had that sort of fan, and he didn’t want to deal with a potentially violent stalker now, but he couldn’t deny that the idea of one was flattering. He needed someone to flatter him, not only about his chicken, but about how he’d spent his life. Why couldn’t the world give him some sign that there was a demand for a comeback at all?
He emptied his soda and returned his attention to a nameless song he’d been tinkering with for a few weeks. It had a promising chord progression and catchy melody. He only needed lyrics.
As people had advised all those years ago, he strummed and sang the first words that came to mind: “Chicken up, chicken down, chicken all around.” No way, he thought, too corny. He tried again. “Thigh, wing, drumstick, breast. Lloyd’s chicken is the best.” Ugh, please. He sounded like a Hollywood jingle-writer, no artist. There had to be more interesting things to write about than his life.
Link abandoned his dispiriting lyrics to eat some leftovers. When he stepped outside to throw away the take-out box so it wouldn’t stink up the house, he spotted what looked like Anderson’s blue sedan parked down the street. He lifted the trash can lid and the porch light clicked on. Link squinted to make sure he was seeing things correctly, that it was the same sedan and was in fact blue. And as he walked toward the street to get a better look, the car drove away without its headlights on.