Hank and the Midnighters by Brian Reid

Editor Matty Byloos, Fiction, May 20th, 2015

"... the only way to get out of the maze was to keep on turning farther to the right."

igor moukhin photo nailed magazine
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This piece of fiction is an excerpt from the novel, Madonna and Buddy Holly Get Married.

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This ain’t one of them stories where the hero ends up damaged, lost, or broken. Everything works out in the end, more or less. So if you’re looking for a good cry, or want to finish a book so you can gaze into the fireplace, philosophizing over the inhumanity of man, best clear on out – this ain’t your kind of ride.

Still here? Good. Now everything I just said was truthful, even if it weren’t entirely factual. I did get a little damaged, lost, and broken, but that was mostly on the outside and I surely ain’t here to cry about it. You see, Buddy Holly and Madonna joined up in holy matrimony, I got to bury my Daddy — which gave me the comfort of knowing he was dead for sure, and I got to be a Daddy myself for a while, and who wouldn’t give up three fingers for that?

Y’all read the title of the book so you’re probably thinking I’m going to start with Madonna, her being the more famous of the two, but in actuality, the story starts with Buddy, some fifty years ago. Now before we go any further I suppose I’ll have to let you in on a secret, but you got to promise not to tell.

The thing is, we — that is me and Lelei, are the proud possessors of Buddy Holly. That’s right, the Rock and Roll one. We don’t actually own him of course, that kind of thing having fallen out of fashion a century or two back, but the fact is we got him. Not all of him, just the most important part — stop what you’re thinking, it ain’t that part.

Now sit yourself down and grab a drink because getting through how Buddy ended up holding my encyclopedias in place takes a little time. See, more than fifty years ago, Buddy Holly’s plane made an unscheduled landing in a cornfield six-point-zero-six miles northwest of Clear Lake, Iowa on February the third, nineteen and fifty-nine. Some call it The Day the Music Died.

Anyway, when it went down, it damn near decapitated my Uncle Clem Pandora who was tending his corn still and tasting the first of his New Year’s white lightning.

Now Clem was no stranger to Rock and Roll having, in nineteen and fifty-four, shared several bottles of his fully-aged, special select hooch with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters who had stopped by on their way from Minneapolis to Kansas City, promoting their new song Work With Me Annie.

While they were sitting and drinking, Hank explained to Clem how there were censors who took the words out of songs and to get a song to pass inspection, the words had to convey what was going on without coming out and actually saying what was going on and that the words to Work With Me Annie were about Annie working together with him in a particular way.

This got everybody thinking about working with Annie themselves, and once they all got set on that, everybody found a need to rearrange their working parts into a more comfortable position so the all got up to fetch another drink of Clem’s Special Select Hooch and so they all stood in line recollecting how long it had been since they had worked with anyone but themselves.

Ever the attentive host, Clem suggested to Hank that while the people of Clear Lake liked to impress the world with their righteousness and holiness, they was, deep down, every bit as excitable as ordinary folks were and that he personally knew that sporting women were to be found in the unlikeliest of places.

Hank considered this a spell and took another sip and shook his head trying to clear the spell that Clem’s hootch was having on his imagination and his nether parts and at last he said “No” on account of in the four-hundred and thirty-seven miles between Minneapolis, where they’d been, and Kansas City, which was where they was going, all people even the ones of the female persuasion, was entirely white and while he and the Midnighters had no problem with their women being any color at all – the Midnighters all nodded in agreement like Baptists at a preaching – and while there certainly were white women willing to work with them — the Midnighters nodded again, there may even have been a ‘Hallelujah’ and there may even have been one or two ‘Praise the Lord’s — there was a whole mess of white men who took strenuous objection to such notions.

This was a revelation to Clem, who figured everybody preferred some shade of brown since his White Lightning was mostly used for flushing car transmissions, while his Special Select being aged several years in oak, was brown and smooth and mellow and sweet.

The more he though about it the more unreasonable it seemed and the more it became a puzzle that needed to be solved. He walked around the oak casks and around Copper Still #1 and Copper Still #2 for a while, looking up at the sky for an answer, and when that did no good, he took to doing what he always did when he had a special problem, which was walk on over to Copper Still #1 and bounce his head lightly against it faster and faster, until all the little rings from drumming his noggin merged into a single tone that was appreciable close to that OM sound them people in the robes and the puffy pants used to do when they was meditating at the airport.

And it came to him – I’m tempted to say ‘clear as a bell’ but I won’t. What came to him was this: the problem facing the folks of Clear Lake Iowa was, they was all that farming in the summer sun and the fall sun had shriveled them up, they was just too parched to get to the touching and feeling and loving and working of each other on just a song- even if the song was ‘Work with me Annie’. What they needed was something to swell them up, to lubricate them, and the very lubrication they needed was inside what he was banging his noggin on, Still #1.

Clem ceased with his head banging and found his way back to Hank, who was on his fifth glass of hootch. Hank thought so much of the idea that he made Clem an honorary band member on the spot, which made the Midnighters the first truly integrated Rock and Roll band in history.

Now Clem’s idea of providing some fun for him and Hank and the Midnighters shows a couple of things about Clem, one of them being that he, Clem, was an unsung visionary of his age, what with promoting a joining of races, both black and white, in a town that, upon hearing of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, ceased with the planting of yellow corn in favor of the Snow White Supersweet variety. It also must be admitted that the right side of Clem’s brain — being the creative and imaginative side — was a mite more developed than the left side of the brain, that side being more concerned with logic and end results.

The festival was being held just outside of town, centering around a four foot high stage comprised of bales of corn stalks laid over with wooden planks. The stage was used to perform the annual corn-shucking competition, the children’s play Snow White and the Seven Niblets, and the highlight of the festival – the annual crowning of the high-school Corn King and Corn Queen.

Across the field from the stage was a cornfield with a corn maze that represented the outline and the inner workings of the head of Senator Joe (there’s-a-Communist-spy-ring-in-the-State-Department) McCarthy, that had been ingeniously constructed so that the only way to get out of the maze was to keep on turning farther to the right.

Clem’s plan was a four part plan, the fist part being to bribe the man at the refreshment stand to let him, Clem, take over the sales in return for a case of hootch. The second part of the plan was to spike the lemonade and to cut some holes in the watermelons and pour some Special Select in the holes and give the lemonade and the watermelon away for free – folks having no natural resistance to things they can get for free.

The forth part of the plan was to rush the stage and let the combination of Clem’s hootch and Hank’s Work With Me Annie, work magic on the ladies in the crowd.

Well, if you’re thinking had the genius of simplicity you’d be right but if you was thinking there might be too many parts in this plan, something was sure to go awry, you’d be right there too.

The problem was the man sitting at the watermelon and lemonade stand in a wooden rocking chair sitting on top of flat wood boards so he could rock rather than sink in the mud.

It wasn’t so much the man himself that was the problem, but how he was dressed, or rather how he wasn’t dressed. His best straw hat with it’s wide brim and just a couple of straws sticking up, shielded him from the noonday sun. His best coveralls so new they was still stiff, and his red and white short sleeved shirt, suited him fine, too what didn’t suit him he was his brand new boots which weren’t on his feet but laying on the ground, turned on their sides and all crusted in mud. He didn’t have no socks on either, which was entirely his usual state of affairs, but the socks was an important part. See, that farmer, Otis — that was his name, but you don’t need to remember that — had been hauling watermelons onto his truck, and then off of his truck, the entire morning. Now while a body can sit in a tractor all day with new leather boots and no socks on, it’s an entirely different matter to haul watermelons half the morning in new boots that’s got no give in them at all and is getting heavier each step with the mud and the corn stalks combining together to make something you could build houses out of.

The upshot was, Otis had developed a row of blisters that started at the big toe on each foot and worked themselves up the ridge of each big toe bone all the way to the ankle like a range of volcanoes. Them blisters pained him something terrible and made him reluctant, even hostile, to the idea of moving from his seat.

Well, Clem could sell overcast days in Portland, Oregon, so he eventually prevailed by borrowing Otis’ straw hat, in exchange for unlimited free samples of hootch, and letting the sun and the hooch work it’s way on Otis to the point that Clem could roll him out of his straight-back wood rocking chair, onto the flat wooden board, and under the watermelon display and sample table.

The problem was, that the time it took Clem to achieve independent control of the refreshments stand did not allow him to implement one of the most important steps in the plan, which was the lubrication of the crowd.

Now Hank was unaware of the hitch in the plan, him and the Midnighters hiding under the corn bale and wood slat stage, with nothing to do but sample Clem’s Special Select until the time was right.

The plan was for them to wait until the rest point between the children’s Snow White and the Seven Niblets play, and the culmination of the festivities, that being the crowning of the Corn King and Corn Queen and her court.

In hindsight, this only helped to fuel the ensuing conflagration on account of the children being perceived as innocent and all, and Corn Queen and the Corn King being traditionally selected for their sweetness, kindness, and, most of all, their virginity (virginity being viewed as a treasure to hold dear, rather than a sign of social retardation in those days), while Work with me Annie was not simply questioning the general unshuckedness of the Corn King and the Corn Queen but outright assaulting it.

Hank moaned and roared and gasped and wailed through the performance, the sweat from his brow showering the stage and the crowd which stood stock still with shock and amazement for the entire performance, not finding their voice until after the performance was done.

There was, as you may have guessed, no opportunity for an encore as the townsfolk, not being agreeable to the song’s message, proceeded to storm the stage and take after Hank and his band, intent on implementing a conservative rebuttal.

The only reason Hank and the Midnighters survived to die at a later date was that Clem recognized the mood of the crowd and abandoned the watermelon stand while Hank was still in the midst of his performance, showering the environs with hope and lust and sweat. Clem ran to the flatbed Ford, fired it up, and hit the gas, knocking down stalls and signs and colliding with the hood infused watermelon pile, spraying 100 proof watermelon pieces and newly pickled rind through the refreshment area, as the Ford charged the stage.

Meanwhile, the crowd was all broke up, there being the people who was carrying on an assault on the stage, the people who was gathered in confusion over the best way to thaw enough frozen rope to make it good for a hanging, and the folks when were searching for high ground so they could view the proceedings and make bet on the results.

Uncle Clem finish running through and over the watermelon, got some traction on the corncobs, tassels, and husks left over from the corn-shucking competition, and rammed the cornstalk stage with his nineteen forty-two flatbed Ford. The stage proceeded to teeter and fall, and the boards covering the stage flew every which-way at considerable speed, redirecting the thoughts of the folks who had been assaulting the stage from righteous intent to fear of prematurely meeting their maker.

Hank and the Midnighters leapt from the remains of the stage onto the flatbed Ford, all except for the guitarist, who, being encumbered by his instrument, found himself in the rear of the pack and was only partially, rather than fully, on the bed of the flatbed Ford truck when it began to accelerate. He screeched and he scrambled, and his nails clawed through the tar and the grease and the sheepshit that coated the wooden floor like a wax, while his legs ran faster than is entirely humanly possible, due to the speed of the truck and the shortness of his legs.

The remaining Midnighters, who were still under the influence of Uncle Clem’s corn squeezings, found their guitarist’s predicament (Arthur Porter was his name though you don’t need to remember him neither) to be a source of amusement, rather than one of alarm.

Arthur Porter would doubtless have preceded Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper in dying in Clear Lake, Iowa if Hank hadn’t leaned out the passenger window and told the Midnighters that if they lost the guitar strapped to Arthur Porter’s back, it would be deducted from their pay, it being community property.

So with Hank hollering Let’s Go, Let’s Go. The Midnighters took to hauling Arthur Porter onto the back of the flatbed Ford, all decorated with Arthur Porter’s fingernail gouges, a thing that, if justice was just, would be sitting today in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with them fingernail gouges bronzed.

By the time the rescuing of Arthur Porter had been accomplished, the townsfolk had organized themselves enough to rouse the sheriff from his slumbers behind the wheel of his police car, with his mouth open and a the drool trickling its way down the lines of disapproval surrounding his chin. Aroused and apprised of the situation, the Sheriff took off after the flatbed Ford with a face full of righteous indignation and encrusted spit.

Now for Uncle Clem, him being a moonshiner and all, pursuit by the police was not an uncommon occurrence. He knew his flatbed Ford was no match for the Sheriff’s vehicle, it being designed for catching hot-rodders, vacationing families bound for Minneapolis, and other felonious miscreants. So Uncle Clem turned from the road and proceed directly toward, and directly through, the corn field and through the corn-maze mowed through to resemble the outline, and the inner workings, of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s head. Clem cut a swath directly through the Senator’s brain-pan without hitting any vital parts, leaving the sheriff and his car sunk fender deep in the deep and suspicious furrow of Senator McCarthy’s eyebrow (there only being one eyebrow on account of it was a profile of the senator’s head, not a full on). The upshot was that Clem and Hank and the Midnighters’s escaped.

Now the point of this is that Hank, leaning out the passenger window to watch the Sheriff’s pursuit, continued to shout Let’s Go, Let’s Go, until Uncle Clem, and the Midnighters picked up on it and began hollering Let’s Go, Let’s Go right along with him. This later prompted Hank to write the song Let’s Go Let’s Go, even though he did change the meaning of the words some.

Let’s Go, Let’s Go became Hank’s biggest seller, peaking at number six on the Billboard charts (The Twist don’t count, even though he wrote it, since it was Chubby Checker that made it a hit). Not a word of credit for Let’s Go Let’s Go ever went to Uncle Clem, who saw himself as an honorary member of the band, and the inspiration for the song, and he nursed a grievance that his influence on Rock and Roll had gone unrecognized.

So when Clem investigated the scene of Buddy Holly’s plane crash, he held within him a notion that Rock and Roll owed him a small but significant debt. He recognized Buddy Holly’s body on sight, and formed a notion that Buddy, being of some value alive, might be worth something even after his spirit had departed. To make a long story short, Clem deposited the empty shell of what used to contain Buddy into his flatbed Ford and took off with him.

The final consequences of these actions were about as clear to Clem as they were to me back then — and I hadn’t even been born yet. But time tells it’s tale, and final consequences there were, and… well, that’s why you’re sitting here right now reading about it, isn’t it?

Anyway, Clem got home full of anticipation, but had not even settled on his estimated value of Buddy when the situation deteriorated. Due to some confusion, there were more people on Buddy’s plane than there was supposed to be, with the result being that Buddy’s body got claimed, even though it weren’t his.

Clem, figuring that the mistake might take time to be uncovered, and that Buddy would become less recognizable as each day passed, decided to preserve Buddy in what was best available, which was a rusted, but serviceable, eighty-five gallon drum filled with the New Year’s white lighting.

Uncle Clem admitted at some later date that he should have used his aged hooch, rather then the younger, more aggressive, lightning which was famously good for lifting floor wax and flushing car transmissions. The result was that in under a week there weren’t much left of Buddy but the basics.

Clem took the whole thing philosophically and saved the parts he figured were the most recognizable, which was Buddy’s glasses and Buddy’s head bone, hoping till the day he died that the mistake would be uncovered, and he would one-day profit from the fruit of his labors.

Clem died in nineteen and ninety-four, his dreams unfulfilled, willing me his entire fortune and his last request. His fortune consisting of a full set of Encyclopedia Brittanica, an unplayed copy of the 45 record Work with Me Annie — complete with a forged autographs of Hank and the Midnighters — a corn still, a rusted flatbed Ford, and the best parts of Buddy Holly. His sole request was that I preserve Buddy and the flatbed Ford until the day that Buddy could be recognized and the flatbed Ford be seen as proof of Clem’s contribution to Rock and Roll.

Now you may be thinking that Clem’s wheel alignment might have been a little off in those latter days, but a last wish is a last wish and need to be respected. I maintained that flatbed Ford and Buddy became my companion for the next few years, flashing me a happy grin whenever I needed one and holding the enyclopedias in place, and then me and Lelei got together. Lelei took a shine to Buddy right off and grieved for his obvious loneliness. She determined to relieve Buddy of his partnerless predicament, following the passing of female celebrities in the search for a suitable partner. All the deceased were found wanting in some respect, until the day that Madonna came to pass. I myself had been rooting for Jennifer Aniston, who seemed, to me, a more agreeable match, but Lelei knows more about these matters than I do — I even told her so once, which proved to be a mistake on account of her thinking I believed she’d done a better job of choosing me than I had choosing her.

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Header image courtesy of Igor Moukhin. To view a photo essay of his photography, go here.

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brian reid fiction nailed magazineBrian Reid is working on his second novel: Madonna and Buddy Holly Get Married while his first novel, The Kentucky Fried Curse, is being edited by people who actually understand syntax. Before writing fiction, he worked for a large company composing memos that were also mostly fiction but had less truth in them than what he’s writing now. He lives near Portland, Oregon.

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Matty Byloos

Matty Byloos is Co-Publisher and a Contributing Editor for NAILED. He was born 7 days after his older twin brother, Kevin Byloos. He is the author of 2 books, including the novel in stories, ROPE ('14 SDP), and the collection of short stories, Don't Smell the Floss ('09 Write Bloody Books).