Molly saw him first…
The wind gusted into Ohio from Ontario, absorbing Lake Erie’s moisture and adding to the chill one expects in December. The days were shortening; all the light would be wrung from this one soon. Molly cinched the business end of her tie-dyed hoodie around her auburn hair, encircling her alabaster face. Desmond pulled his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame cap down over his gray mop, past due for a cut.
They sat in their Adirondacks; Des with two fingers of bourbon, Molly content with honeyed hot tea. The cats lazed about, alternating between their humans on the portico and the fire burning low in the hearth just inside the farmhouse door.
Desmond looked up, distracted from the Stephen King novel he had decided over Thanksgiving to re-read. A Beatles’ song? The a cappella intro to “Paperback Writer” came muffled through the trees that buffered them from the Vermillion River a hundred yards beyond.
What the hell! he wondered.
Silence returned; only wind now through the naked branches.
A second time, closer, a practiced harmony choired out the eponymous lyric, melded into the opening, distorted guitar riff… then stopped cold, as if someone had lifted the tonearm from a record.
Desmond knew this song, and ten thousand others, as if encoded in his own DNA. The young voices and raucous guitars repeated this abbreviated version three times, each time louder.
It sounded… live, pure. He knew live music. He and Molly hosted new bands and solo singer-songwriters almost every weekend in the barn and, this past year, the meadow beyond the farmhouse. The RIVERDOG Music Retreat had been the crucible for their passion over two decades.
Des ticked off and dismissed every possibility, all at once. The CD player in the farmhouse was silent. Their nearest neighbors were three miles up Gore Orphanage Road. They had shut down their concert venue and bed and breakfast weeks ago, once the weather had turned. No guests’ Bluetooth speakers were the source of the mystery performance.
(Before what, exactly? What was happening?)
…Max had been snoring, as suited an overweight hound dog of a certain age. Pru had been resting her snout on Molly’s Uggs, eyelids heavy. When the vocals to “Paperback Writer” began, both dogs had raised their heads a beat before Desmond had had his attention wrenched from King’s, Pet Sematary. Ordinarily, unusual noises would stir the younger Pru to sustained barking.
The musical apparition prompted in the dogs only a few semi-concerned, perfunctory harrumphs and low growls. They lowered their heads, returning to their day jobs. Max resumed snoring.
Desmond looked at the dogs, the trees; he couldn’t square their unruffled behavior with the rock ‘n roll playing for no one.
“They should be more agitated,” he puzzled.
Des double-checked the CD player, almost tripping over a cat. He stood in the open doorway, warmed by the fire for the entire second act.
The third time, the loudest; still no band in sight…
(…“Band? Of course, there was no band!”)
Molly’s mouth was agape. Desmond’s attention ping-ponged from the dogs, to his wife, then back to the woods.
There he stood, materialized out of the sugar maples and red oaks. He was not dressed for a day so close to the first of winter. Tousled, longish, dark hair; round, wire-framed glasses; jeans, and a white, sleeveless t-shirt with black, block letters: NEW YORK CITY.
He held a battered guitar case. He looked confused, as if working an arithmetic problem after waking from a long nap.
“F-fort-, yeah, forty years on been now.” he stammered.
Louder, gathering himself, “Always wanted to play a barn,” in a Northern English, Scouse accent. He locked eyes with Molly, a hopeful look on his face.
“Des? DESMOND!” Molly half-whispered, half-yelled.
“I’m John. Do you have a stage?” the visitor asked.
John’s question radiated mild impatience. He needed to get on with his assignment. Was this the year?
“H-hello… John. I’m Desmond and this is my wife, Molly.” Desmond conveyed a welcoming tone. He was an innkeeper, after all, and they had a guest. He shelved his disbelief.
“We have two; one in the meadow we used during the pandemic, but,” he said, managing a smile, “you want the barn. We haven’t used it all year—damned virus—but we left the sound equipment set up.”
John arched an eyebrow at the word, pandemic, but his face softened when he learned Desmond had a stage ready for the task at hand.
“Up with you then, Molly. Let’s go Desmond. To the barn!” barked John, with authority.
They turned the corner of the farmhouse, trudged over the cellar door, crunching the dried leaves Desmond had not yet raked away, and traversed the archway that had been festooned with flowering vines and hollyhocks all summer. They moved past the firepit and approached the weather-beaten red and white barn. John and Desmond each grabbed a large, splintering handle and pulled in opposite directions, sliding open the giant pocket doors.
The stage was against the back wall and crowned by a big neon sign that Desmond powered up as they entered. RIVERDOG glowed above John in bright blue and orange as he found a stool behind the amp and laid his case upon it.
Molly, still gobsmacked, needed two tries to grip a chair. Desmond began working the soundboard in the back corner. Pru, Max, and the cats had formed the rear of the peculiar parade and followed John onstage. They kept to the edges, a respectful distance. John undid the latches and removed his Gibson acoustic.
John had an audience. He sensed a need to explain. He spoke as he fondled the instrument, partly to Molly, mostly to himself. He was there but not there, present yet ethereal.
The sounds…(she knew these notes)
…the chords trilled out as he turned the tuning keys, beginning to work a song.
“Fuck all if I understand. I’m out, once a year, one chance to find a stage, an audience.”
Remembering, “Been to some beauties… Pine Knob outside Detroit, buried in snow; Café Vivaldi in the Village… a Monday when it was dark.”
His face contorts; he shrugs. He returns to tuning and talking.
“One year, an empty camp site… Yasgur’s Farm… nobody there.”
He laughed but there was no humor in it. “30 years late to that one, I was.”
He looked up at Molly.
More than a little pissed, “Nobody’s ever bloody there!”
He relaxed his tone. His face warmed and he spoke with some hope.
“Be my audience. I think I’m near journey’s end.”
He considered the animals on stage.
“You lads too,” he said with kindness.
“It ended… too damned fast. I need to play one more song… alive.”
The irony gripped him the moment he said it.
“Best not think about it too hard,” he shook his head.
“Will you choose?”
Molly turned to Desmond who was running sound checks. The situation was equal parts normalcy—they had sat in this barn a thousand times, watching rehearsals, entertaining friends, hosting shows—and unreserved absurdity.
John Winston Lennon sat on a stool on their RIVERDOG stage.
Molly spied the calendar on the wall; it was December 8th, 2020… 40 years to the day since the murder across the street from Central Park in New York City.
Desmond nodded; Molly’s choice was clear. John had been riffing bits of “Ticket to Ride” as Pru, Max, and the cats paid rapt attention.
“Choose,” Des whispered.
Her breath caught as part of her brain realized she was talking to a… what?… Englishman? Ghost? Beatle?
“Ticket to Ride,” she said in a voice she did not recognize.
John launched in.
Desmond had joined Molly at the small bistro table just left of center stage. He reached for her hand and they listened as John sang lyrics different from those that had ever been heard on AM radio.
I think I’m gonna be glad
I think it’s todaaaay, yeah
This thing been drivin’ me mad
Is goin’ awaaaay…
I’ve got a ticket to ri-ide
I’ve got a ticket to ri-i-ide
I got a ticket to ride
My ascension today
Myyyy ‘scension today
A slow-paced, mournful rhythm accompanied the lyrics as John Lennon cried the verse into the little theatre that had become a temple.
The guitar supported the song as it moved from slight sweetness with the opening words toward the dirge it became near the end. Discord overtook it. There was no melodic pitch from Paul, none of Ringo’s drums, or George’s background. This was a cathartic prayer from a dead man.
He finished; his last two words had been shouted and still pierced the air. Molly realized she hadn’t taken a breath in almost a minute and filled her lungs with three, short, staccato gasps. Desmond pulled his bandana from his pocket; his face was wet with tears.
The day had been overcast. As John finished the last, haunting chords of “Ticket to Ride,” the purpling clouds above RIVERDOG parted like Moses’s Red Sea. The sun should have set by now, but, as if it had been instructed to wait, there it glowed.
He loosened the grip on his guitar. It floated to the stage in slow-motion, stubborn to gravity’s pull.
He shot a tender look at Desmond and Molly Jones, hopped offstage, and walked toward the open pocket doors. The dogs and cats stood. They joined this rite to passage in silent ovation.
John reached the threshold and looked up. For the second time in the same minute, gravity defied its own law.
Karma was being restored to balance the seizure of a life that had been ripped away in an instant. The wound across the universe had taken 40 years in limbo to staunch, the unfair toll the cosmos had exacted. Now, he had played his last concert. The sacrament to the music was paid. Heaven need wait no longer.
Desmond and Molly watched him float upward. When it was over, the sun remembered the time and yielded to deep twilight. They looked at each other. They had no words.
Saint Peter greeted John.
“I was wondering if one of those blokes would choose your favorite.”
Back on the north bank of the eastern fork of the Vermillion River, they left the barn. They walked to the house, content to let Prudence, Maxwell, and the cats lead.
Desmond rummaged through their disc collection and found Rubber Soul. He placed the CD into the player and pressed the shuffle button as Molly tended to their pets’ supper.
Music filled the house:
He’s a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody…