Imagine having a chance to visit any deceased rock star! I first presented this post in 2017.
In my comedy/science fiction novel, Bicycling through Space and Time and its three sequels, I occasionally offset the outrageous humor with chapters of a more serious—and personal—nature. Chapter twenty-four is titled, “The Afterward” and is a strong example of that. I’ll let my character, Jack Miller, tell you all about it.
But first, to set the scene: Jack’s twenty-one speed mountain bike has a twenty-second gear implanted by an alien study group called the Old Guys. Shifting into this gear at high speed enables Jack to access the Ultimate Bike Path, where oddly shaped “gates” lead him into some strange worlds. Jack has just entered a gate shaped like Bart Simpson’s head, and here is what he discovers:
Jeez, was this place unreal! I shifted down from the Vurdabrok Gear as a natural action or something, because I sure don’t remember doing it. First off, it didn’t look like there was anything solid under my tires, which was enough to freak me out by itself. But I wasn’t falling, and when I pedaled it felt like the Nishiki was going…forward, I guess, although I really couldn’t be sure of that, either. It reminded me of an old Star Trek episode where the Enterprise is inside a black void, being pulled toward this huge amoeba-thing. When Kirk asks Scotty for reverse thrust, they go forward, and vice versa. Kind of made them crazy.
There was this gray haze all around me, like being in some factory town’s record-breaking day on the air pollution index. Only this stuff didn’t have any smell, or feel, and so far wasn’t causing any adverse effects. I could make out nothing substantial through it, no buildings, no mountains. And because it wasn’t solid—despite my tires grabbing hold of something—I couldn’t even swear to you that I wasn’t riding upside down, or sideways, or whatever.
And all the time, that creepy feeling from outside the gate persisted. At least it wasn’t any stronger, but it was still unnerving. The sooner I understood what was going on, the better…
Wait a minute, did I say it wasn’t getting stronger? All of a sudden my angst was in overdrive. There was this devastating need to escape, as though I’d been tied in a chair for ten straight hours watching Mister Rogers changing his shoes and singing, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.” For a moment I was afraid of hyperventilating.
The gray haze seemed to pull back or something, and I was in a wider area; a “room,” for want of a better description. It was lighter, almost white, though nothing like the place where I’d first met the Old Guy. Along most of its circular perimeter was—I swear—a bench. Something told me this was the place where I was supposed to be, and while it freaked me out no end, I got off the bike. No, I didn’t plummet down into some infinite oblivion, but I’ll tell you, the pumping action of my heart could’ve raised enough Alaskan crude to fuel all the cars in southern California for a week.
Remember I said most of the room’s perimeter? There was one area, totally black, about four feet across and twice that in height. A “door,” I suppose, though in reality (not a good word) it was more like the mouth of a cave. Staring at it, I thought my eyes were going to do a jack-in-the-box out of their sockets. Whatever anxiety I felt outside the Bart Simpson gate was enhanced a thousand times here. Still, something was drawing me. Laying the bike down on its side (I think), I started toward the maw.
Until now there had been absolute silence in wherever-this-was; I don’t even think my derailleur made any noise. But I could hear something, and with each hesitant step toward the opening, it grew louder.
It was…music. An old rock-and-roll song: “Chantilly Lace,” by the Big Bopper. I heard one line clearly, but then it became garbled as something else first mixed with it, then took its place: “Summertime Blues,” the original one by Eddie Cochran. The same thing happened again, and this time I caught a piece of “Dream a Little Dream of Me” by Mama Cass, the same song they used to advertise the California state lottery.
What in hell was going on here?
Somehow I knew the “door” was open, but as yet I could see nothing on the other side. Mama Cass’s smooth song became Ricky Nelson’s “Hello Mary Lou,” which became Frankie Lymon’s “I Want You to be My Girl,” which even more quickly became Buddy Holly’s “Oh Boy.” Now they were changing really fast; you know, like the snippets disk jockeys on the oldies stations play, and if you guess the song you win a dozen Winchell’s donuts or something?
I was within an arm’s length of the opening; my angst was crawling around in my throat.
A figure took shape in the blackness of the other side. Ethereal at first, then less so, but never what you could call solid. He turned and looked at me.
It was Elvis.
Not older and heavier and dressed in a Wayne Newton hand-me-down, but young and slim and boyish from the fifties and early sixties, looking like he just stepped off the set of Love Me Tender. He glanced at me, smiled the smile that millions of girls would have died for, threw me a two-fingered salute.
Then he sort of faded away.
No, I wasn’t counting in my head all the money the National Enquirer would pay me when I got back. Seeing the King, hearing all the songs I’d heard, I was beginning to figure it out.
You’ve probably done that already, right? All those songs were by rockers who had died way before their time.
The blackness beyond this “door” was some kind of rock-and-roll heaven.
I took another step toward it.
“You got it almost exactly right, Jack.”
The figure appeared suddenly in the doorway, growing like an out-of-control weed. I stumbled backward and would have jumped out of my skin, as the saying goes, were such a thing possible. The guy was tall, funereal-looking, sort of like one of the living dead in the Romero movies, except that he had a nice, reassuring smile.
“Who are you?” I asked, hoping my voice didn’t sound like I was passing through puberty.
“You can call me the Doorkeeper. Sorry if I startled you, but you were about to step through here, and I don’t think you really want to do that yet.”
“Why, because this is rock-and-roll heaven? And by the way, did you read my mind or something?”
“Yes, something. And no, we never refer to this as heaven. What you see behind me, Jack, is Rock-and-Roll Afterward. There are many different Afterwards, as you can imagine.”
The music again. Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” becoming Ritchie Valens’s “Oh Donna” (I loved that song) becoming Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.”
“All of these Afterwards, they’re located behind the Bart Simpson gates, right?”
The Doorkeeper pondered this for a moment. “Bart Simpson…oh, yes, precisely. You were uncomfortable passing them, weren’t you?”
“Yeah, I suppose. But this one sort of…”
“Pulled you in, it did?”
“There’s someone here who wanted to meet you.”
“Yes; it had to do with your thoughts as you rode the Ultimate Bike Path.”
“Say what?” Now I was totally confused, and the Doorkeeper saw this.
“You’ll understand, shortly. Please stay where you are; sit down on the bench, if you will. Our, ah, residents can enter the waiting area for a brief period of time.”
So why is Jack in the Rock-and-Roll Afterward, and who wants to meet him? That will be the aforementioned “serious/personal” part of the scene, which will be continued in next Thursday’s post.