by M.C. Schmidt
I’m small-statured with a prominent nose, and from a distance I make a passable Ringo Starr. Keyboards are my instrument—eleven years of piano lessons, and an adolescence spent noodling in my bedroom with Moog synthesizers and portable Casios, and an ongoing self- education with Midi technology—but Ringo only ever played percussion, so that’s all our audiences get to hear me play. I’m not a great drummer, but I don’t have to be. That’s no jab at Ringo. He was fine. Fans might say great. The thing of it is, he already did all the work. My job is just to listen to how he did it then do it that same way.
Our group is called Golden Numbers, a kind of in-the-weeds reference to the Beatles’ song, Golden Slumbers, which is one we don’t even do. I get how it works as a tribute band name, but that doesn’t make it good. Our John chose it. He thinks he’s the leader just because the real John was.
We do about forty-five shows a year, so a lot of travel, but the extra cash is nice. If I were frugal and single, I could maybe even live on just the gig money. But I like having things. Owning them, I mean. And I’m not single. Though the way Nan’s looking at me now, it’s possible that could change.
“What’s up, babe?” I say, casual, like I don’t know anything’s wrong. This approach, because I’m not sure what I’ve done. But it wouldn’t take a seer to know she’s pissed.
“We can smell that in the living room,” she says of my cigarette. Her words come out all separated from each other, which is what she does when she’s mad, like the words are laying posts to buttress her argument when she builds this into a fight. It’s a habit I’ve somehow connected to Aldert, a Dutch exchange student I used to hang out with in high school who, when he smiled, showed a row of gapped square teeth, each one distinct and separate, rather than the white, nuzzled-up smile that’s the American way. His teeth made you want to flick them with your fingernail to hear the different tones they’d sound, find out what song they played. The Dutch national anthem, I always assumed.
“Sorry, babe,” I say. “You should probably close that door though, on account of you’re only letting more smoke in.” I’m in the garage, in my dead mother’s rocking chair, fiddling with a Midi I just got off eBay. It’s a model I saw Johnny Greenwood use in a Radiohead video, though the video was a few years old when I saw it and that was a few months back. Nan’s in the interior doorway, letting all that second-hand smoke roll around her into the house.
“You shouldn’t smoke in here. We’re trying to watch a movie.” ‘We,’ are Nan and Peg and Amy Jo, two-thirds of whose boyfriends’ stock is probably rising right now, in light of the ass it appears I’m making of myself.
“Well,” I say, laying the Midi on the seat of my disused exercise bench to demonstrate my commitment to her concerns, “you told me not to smoke out front because your coworkers might drive by. And not to smoke in the back because you didn’t want the butts in the yard. So, I figured if I came out here and cracked the garage door. . . .”
“You shouldn’t smoke at all.” She whispers this.
“Right,” I say, rubbing my eyes with my palms to indicate we’ve already been through this, haven’t we? “But the thing is, Ringo smoked. Just like everyone did then. It’s authentic to character.”
She tightens her arms across her chest and says, “Ringo quit smoking.”
I feel perversely embarrassed for Nan that she followed me down this absurd line of argument. Like it’s good enough for me when cornered, but below the standards of someone I’m expected to love. “Yes, but I don’t play him in his post-smoking eras,” I explain. “I’m Ringo- classic.” As if to demonstrate this point, I hold up a hand replete with gaudy prop rings that I still have on from yesterday’s show.
In the silent standoff that follows, I see a new grief in Nan’s face, or new intensity in a grief that’s familiar but only at a lower wattage. I should ask what’s really on her mind, but my timing’s off and she turns and slams the door.
Alone in the garage, I study that door like its woodgrain is a map of my future wilderness outside of this relationship.
Fridays and Saturdays are our band days. Golden Numbers does the occasional show through the week or on a rare Sunday morning, so long as the venue is close enough to not interfere with our real jobs. Our touring bus is our George’s Chrysler Town and Country minivan which is a princely ride for four men, three guitar cases and a drum kit. We’re just a regional group, modest even for the cover circuit, playing four or five states within a reasonable distance from our Cincinnati home base. Our John and Paul are always fighting for the front passenger seat, but I gravitate to the back, which is where I imagine Ringo sat too.
Our Paul is up there now, bragging about his youngest: “She comes out of the bedroom yesterday and says, ‘my laptop died and I saw my reflection on the black screen, and then I realized: I’m really pretty.’” Our Paul and his wife procreate like Western pioneers in need of farm labor, or hippies trying to swell the ranks of their religious cult. Over the years, whenever we’re all together, it’s become hard for him to shake the bad Liverpool accent he wears onstage.
“It’s good to see that you’ve passed down your vanity,” our John says beside me.
“Get bent, Malcolm,” says our Paul. Malcolm is our John’s real name. Our John has gotten fat, which the real John did too, sort of, around the Help! days, but our John’s taken it a few belt notches to the extreme.
“Enough kiddie talk,” our George says from behind the wheel, “you’re boring Ringo.”
Of the four of us, I’m the only one without children.
It’s silly, I know, to be in your late thirties, role-playing someone who, over the course of our set list, ages from twenty-four to twenty-seven. I make my own music, too, though: long, looping ambient instrumental pieces—dark shit, some of it—complicated and layered with track over track, filling up every stereo channel in a way that feels like world-building, the complete construction of a place that only exists because I took the time to carve every bird and beast, every girder of every church, the varying sounds of that world’s oceans and seasons and frustrations and loves. I post them to Band Camp under my real name. Mungo Jimi, some Eno freak who lives in Gainesville, I think, and who’s my only long-term fan, posts that my digital oeuvre is beastly.
I can say this about our silly Beatle band though: we’re tight. Our Paul can hit the high notes. Our John’s voice can be honey or razor blades, whatever the material requires. Old men dance when we trigger memories of their bygone golden days and little kids jump around as if in practice for golden days yet to come. We make people happy. I like that about us, I really do. I’m always sure to tell that part, the old men dancing, when I talk to people in my real life about the band. It seems to take the edge off, a preemptive abortion for the pitying eye roll.
Tonight’s show is in Owensboro Kentucky. An event for some classic rock station’s fiftieth anniversary. It’s summer, so it doesn’t get dark until the end of the set. Old men dance, little kids jump, etcetera.
After the show, I buy a spiked water from a booth, a trending brand that’s sponsoring this thing, and I drink it while having a smoke at the side of the stage. Usually, we have to break down my drums and carry them back to the Town and Country ourselves, but this show has a stage crew. Whole Lotta Lovers, a Midwest Led Zeppelin tribute band begins at nine, and they need our gear off stage ASAP. The guys are around somewhere, either in the van or, more likely, flirting with older women who are tittering on alcoholic water and confessing their girlhood Beatle fantasies to their preferred proxy. Our George is a particular recipient of these stories, sucking in his cheeks while he listens to affect the proper narrow face.
I check my phone. There’s one new text from Nan: I watched the rest of season two. Sorry. Nothing else to do. Home alone again.
The reason we don’t work is this: Nan’s comfortable. The house, a life partner, our decent combined income, a gym that’s up on the latest fitness fads to keep her adductor muscles aching at the same frequency as her girlfriends’—straight out-of-the-box contentment. If she can be understood to have ambition at all, it’s the simple ambition to stay in that drift of age-appropriate pleasure and security, to move gracefully through her life’s stages toward a coffin that’s comparable with those of her peers. Which I get. There’s nothing wrong with it. Except that it keeps her from understanding why I don’t want to settle for only those things. In Nan’s eyes, I’m that sad, middle-aged man who still thinks he can be a rock star. But I’m not that sad man. To state it simply: I know I’ll never be a rock star. What she doesn’t get, though, is that, in playing Ringo, I’ve found something adjacent to the dreams I had back when I thought it might actually happen for me, and I seized the opportunity as a compromise. Willingness to compromise is a sign of maturity, right? She can’t see that growing up doesn’t have to be an abandonment of who you expected to become when you still believed that someday you’d grow into your ideal self.
I re-read her text.
I was really into that Netflix series, and she knows it.
My response is blunt but cute: Ur way of saying u want to breakup? U can’t break it off when I’m in KY. ‘United We Stand’ . . . it’s the state motto.
KY be damned, that’s my motto.
Nan. . . .
Are u alone? Can u call??
It’s here, while I’m thinking through logical excuses not to call, that the woman approaches me.
“Ringo?” she says. She’s an older woman, thin and slight and grandmotherly.
“How’s it going?” I say in my own voice. I don’t have lines on stage. My acting amounts to Ringo’s goofy, top-of-the-pops grin and his good-time head shake as he drives the beat.
“Oh, Ringo. Do you have any idea how long I’ve been trying to reach you? You don’t respond to any of my letters.” Her manner is curt.
“I’m sorry,” I say and smile to show that I recognize we’re playing a game, but that I’m unsure of its rules.
“You’re a bastard!” she says, emphasizing this last word, invoking it, really, as if it’s uncommon for her to use, and therefore uncommonly powerful in her usage.
“Hey, now,” I say, “listen.”
But she continues, undeterred: “You think that because you’re a star, because you’re the cutest boy in the world, that you can use me? I am not just some backwater tramp from Kentucky. I’m no groupie you can have your way with then toss aside like a piece of garbage. I am not trash, Ringo Starr, and I will not be discarded.” Here, she stops, visibly tremoring, awaiting my response.
As I think through what to say, one thing is clear to me: this woman means every word of what she’s saying, and it’s genuinely heartbreaking. It’s also true, though, that disturbed people can be dangerous people, even when they’re skinny, older, grandmotherly people. So, I take a step back from her before speaking. “Look,” I say, slow and careful, a hostage who’s negotiating his own release, “I think you’ve made a mistake.”
“Oh,” she scoffs and begins loudly riffling through her purse, “I most definitely made a mistake.” From the purse, she produces an android phone. “Not that you’re interest but take a look here.” She lights the screen and pushes it out for me to see. The photo on the home screen is of a middle-aged man, several years’ my senior, bald on top, the direction of his side hair suggesting an unfortunate ponytail, his earring glinting in the camera flash. He’s sitting at the far side of a birthday cake, its lit candles shaped in the numerals ‘5’ and ‘0.’
“So, who’s this?” I say in the common etiquette of one who has a stranger’s family photos thrust upon him.
“Take a good look at his face,” she says with a sneer. “The cheeks, the nose. He’s our son, Ringo. Yours and mine, though I’ve had to raise him on my own. A single woman teaching a boy to be man.” She shakes her head at the scandal of this. “Hopefully not the type to take advantage of an innocent girl then leave her in a delicate condition, though I suppose that’s in his DNA. I’ve brought him up on a school administrator’s salary—I want you to think about that, Mr. Rock Star—while you lived high on the hog, married to your Bond Girl.
“Naomi warned me. She told me, ‘Linda, don’t go backstage.’ But I told her it wasn’t like it was the Stones or The Animals. It’s the Fab Four. It’s Ringo. Where’s the harm? Do you know, I spent a week in advance of that show crocheting drumstick holders for you? I wanted to give them to you myself, not mail them off with a fan letter. God was I dumb! You certainly talked your way into getting your drumstick held, I’ll give you that.”
“Ma’am,” I begin, and like I’m doffing my cap in deference, it’s here I think to pull off my mop top.
“Eep,” she says—literally, that cartoon sound—when from beneath the wig I reveal my prodigiously receded hairline. “You’re not him.” And from that response I think it’s done, that I’ve broken through to her that she’s made a mistake. “How old are you, thirty-five?”
“Thirty-seven,” I say.
“Thirty-seven,” she marvels. “And willing to take advantage of an inexperienced nineteen-year-old girl.”
In the silence that follows, I notice a disturbing tangle of veins that gird her flickering corneas. I wonder if they’re the work of age or of illness or if they’re a manifestation of her hatred for me, a sign of stress-induced cranial pressure that I’ve played a role in inducing. Unhelpfully, a man with an ample belly strolls past us with a festive swagger and yells,
“You the man, Ringo!”
Before I can return my attention to the woman, my phone buzzes. I shove my hand into my pocket to retrieve it, plotting an extricating move where I bring the phone to my ear and give the woman a this-will-only-take-a-second pass of my hand, then glide away before she recognizes it as an escape.
But, as I raise the phone, she stops my arm. Her own small hand is noticeably soft and warm. “Let me guess,” she says, “your wife?” Ringo’s wife, she means. Barbara Bach. The Bond girl from The Spy Who Loved Me.
“My girlfriend,” I say.
She makes an expression like I’ve just flung my own waste at her, an act she finds disgusting yet unsurprising, exactly the sort of thing she’d expect of me. “Poor Barbara,” she says. She steps forward and clasps the front of my dumb, collar-less dress shirt and pulls me close. Her breath is a sour wintergreen. “Ringo,” she says, “I haven’t tried to reach you because I want anything from you. I wouldn’t take from you if you offered. Our son is grown, I saw to that. He got himself clean, and he’s doing fine now. I just wanted to look you in the eye and tell you what none of your sycophants is willing to say: you’re a fraud. A selfish coward. You take for granted the people who love you. And, because of that, it doesn’t matter how far you get in this world, how many things you buy, how many fake smiles you get pretending to be that nice young man on the album covers. You will always be poor. You’ll be poor and lonely and pathetic.”
It’s at this point that our Paul appears behind me like the Lord’s own deus ex machina.
Actually, it’s possible his arrival wasn’t so timely, that she and I have stood nose to nose longer than I realize, and I’m just too stunned to notice. He puts a hand on my shoulder, which draws the woman’s hand away. “Hey-ho, Ringo,” he says, his half-accent topped with a note of alarm, “time to polish you up and put you in your drawer for the night.”
He steers me away from the woman and toward the van, his arm across my shoulders. I feel spooked and have only a tangential awareness of Nan’s call going unanswered in my hand.
When I’m not being fab, I write code for a start-up. We make social apps that get just enough downloads to keep us employed. It’s not a bad job when you consider how bad jobs can be, but management’s determination to foster a culture like we’re the Midwest’s own tiny Google makes me uncomfortable. I enjoy the Nerf gun battles between the frontend and backend teams, and the bosses’ tolerance for ping-pong tournaments or our thunderous, disruptive games of foosball that erupt throughout the day, but in every freedom they allow us I can’t help but sense I’m making some more valuable concession. One I’m not quite smart enough to identify, like I’m taking candy in exchange for some intimate currency I’m only dimly aware of possessing, but that I’ll miss once it’s gone.
Like magic, my thought of Nerf battles causes the siren on the ceiling to turn and whine, and the projectiles begin to fly. I have a plastic crossbow, but I don’t pick it up. I’m still too weirded out by the Kentucky woman to have the proper presence of mind. Standing down, I take my laptop off its port and slip into one of the meeting rooms, the one with the bean bag chairs, and I close the door to the calamity.
“How’s the Beatles thing going?” Nick says to me later. It’s lunchtime. I’ve made it to the kitchenette ahead of him.
I look at the microwave’s display, judging the time I’ll have to engage with him before responding. “Cool,” I say. “Good.”
Nick plays bass. Objectively, I’m a more accomplished musician than him, but he survived three rounds of cancer by the age of thirty and, between the two of us, that somehow makes him the alpha. “Do you have a show this weekend?”
“No,” I say, “The weekend after. Grove City, I think.”
“Awesome. I’ve got to come see you sometime. I mean, I’m not one of those guys who’s all, ‘the Beatles are elemental.’ For me, that’s Rush and Steely Dan. Still though, I could hang.”
The microwave signals that my chiles rellenos, along with this conversation, are done.
“Yeah,” I say, “you should. Let me know.” We both know he won’t, and neither of us care.
While I eat, I search online for bastard children of the Fab Four. There are remarkably few hits. I’ve never thought of it before, but it’s actually incredible. All those girls. All that fame. Not one doe-eyed daughter of Kansas with Paul McCartney’s face? Not one Asiatic boy with George’s sharp cheekbones? Those handlers must have been next level. And that old woman in Kentucky must have been off her gourd.
Still, during my weekend home, a spidery dread begins to crawl up my throat whenever I think of the road. She’s gotten in my head, that old girl. I try to distract myself with the English cooking show Nan is bingeing, but the contestants’ accents won’t stop mocking me.
“Dinner?” Nan says, eyeing the artisanal bread that Hamish, some Essex construction worker somehow had up his sleeve. Do American truck drivers and crane operators have these same secret skills? Or are the English just trained as children in the artistry of French buttercream and Genoese sponge?
Nan’s been looking pale and piqued lately, a version of herself that gives me pause. When I’ve asked what’s wrong, though, she only shakes her head. I haven’t told her about my encounter with the woman because I have the strange sense that I can’t be sure whose side she’ll take.
“We have that frozen chicken thing,” I say. I’m on the love seat. She’s propped up by pillows on the sofa.
Her eye roll is a dramatic performance. “Don’t you ever get tired of eating shit?” she says. “I mean, we’re not exactly young anymore. How much longer do we really have before our bodies start to punish us?”
“A little longer,” I say, vainly. “And I don’t think chicken is so bad. It’ll be good. With the gravy packet?”
Her response is a derisive snort.
“I don’t think you’re really upset about chicken, Nan. Why don’t you just tell me?”
“I’m fine,” she says, becoming the second woman in a week to hiss at me.
“We could order something. The Chinese place with the eggplant. Or Thai bowls.” We both know, though, that I’ve spent this paycheck’s ordering-out money on the Midi. I let the online auction go too far, which is a predictable hazard. I do feel bad about it, for whatever that’s worth.
She rises abruptly from the sofa. “I’ll just have a peanut butter sandwich.” She hustles to the kitchen without even a glance for my reaction. Those same old wrinkled pajama pants ripple as they walk away from me. “Do you want one?”
“No,” I say. It’s childish, I know, but I’d rather not eat at all than play these games with her. She won’t notice my quiet hunger strike, so it’s to no one’s benefit. Still, I settle into it like I’m Gandhi or something.
It’s Wednesday when I tell Nan I’m thinking of quitting the band. She’s in the bath, an island apart from me, nude and slumped, curled into the tub, all glistening creases and bulges and real-life-body oddities. I want to join her, but I haven’t been invited. The water’s running, so our voices are raised. She sounds skeptical when she asks, “I don’t understand why you don’t want to do it anymore.”
“I don’t know,” I say, though I do know. It isn’t logical, but my feeling is that the Kentucky woman is going to be at every show now, waiting to spring herself on me. I should just laugh her off or be sympathetic to her condition, but all I actually feel is judged, the strange discomfort of being seen. She said I’d always be a loser. It wasn’t exactly me she was talking about, but still. “Something just feels off,” is how I communicate this to Nan.
To make all of this more confusing, she almost seems angry that I’m offering her what she’s wanted for years. “But, I mean, off how?”
“I don’t know,” I lie, “maybe I’m just tired. It’s not just fun and games, you know. It’s hard work drumming a whole show.”
She turns off the faucet with an articulation of her toes. The new quiet feels consequential. “So, you’re tired, that’s it?” She tucks her knees under her chin as if to hide herself from me.
I feel awkward, standing fully clothed in the steamy bathroom, like I’ve bullied my way into a scene that wasn’t written to include me. “I guess so,” I say.
“Tired of pretending to be someone you’re not?” There’s the telltale overlong space between her words that suggest she’s preparing for a fight. Before I can respond, though, Nan’s features contort, and she erupts into tears and turns her face toward the wall.
“Jesus, Nan, what is it?” I say, startled. My concern drives me to reach for her, but she shrinks away, sloshing water over the rim of the tub. “What?” I say again, this time as a demand.
When she screams at me, there’s a warm reverb from the bathroom tile: “This isn’t like you! Why are you doing this now?”
“I mean . . . I told you why. What’s so important about it happening now?”
Nan slides her legs forward and hugs her belly with her arms.
“Nan?” I say, when she doesn’t respond.
“All I ever wanted was for you to be happy here.” She’s staring past her knees, her eyes moving like they’re watching events from some different version of our lives, some other way we might have been.
“I’m happy here. I mean, I will be now that I’m home more.”
“That’s all I wanted. I waited and waited. And you made me feel selfish for wanting you here with me.”
“I wouldn’t say I did that exactly,” I say.
“You did.” Her voice is calm when she says this, matter of fact. “It wasn’t me who was being selfish, though. Or maybe I was selfish too, I don’t know. But it was you who could only get by playing out someone else’s life. Do you know what that feels like for me, after years of it? Years of not being good enough?”
“What are you talking about?” I say, frustrated but not meaning to sound as much like I’m yelling at her as I probably do. “That’s not what it was about. You are good enough.”
“Then why are you only acting like it now,” she screams. “Why couldn’t you have decided this before?”
“Before what?” I say, but she’s crying hard again.
Maybe it’s fanciful—like dressing up and pretending to be a rock star, or hiding from the specter of a deranged and pathetic old woman—but when I look down now at how Nan is holding her belly, cradling it, I imagine I know what’s wrong. It occurs to me how I’ve never thought about how she spends all that time alone when I’m on the road, who she talks to in my absence or invites over to pass the time. I’ve never thought about how those lonely nights could stack up and where they might lead a person, even a good person like Nan.
“Nan,” I say, shaken, hoping that I’m wrong, knowing that I have to be. “What did you do?”
She doesn’t answer me though. She only holds herself and weeps.
M.C. Schmidt‘s recent fiction has appeared in X-R-A-Y, Quarter(ly) Journal, New World Writing, BULL, and elsewhere. His novel, The Decadents, was released in May of 2022 by Library Tales Publishing.
(Photos on this page are from the July 14th performance of Toppermost in Southgate, Michigan.The above story was not based on them or on any actual Beatles tribute band.)