James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater County series

Featured Short Story: FOREVER 27

My first short story publication, this tribute to the grinding life of the traveling merch vendor set me on my current path of authorial success—when ‘Vendor’ won the Pearl 2006 Fiction Award (the apropos title ‘Forever 27’ was suggested by the astute editor, Marilyn Johnson), I knew in my heart that I was on my way. Re-posted today in honor of the 35th annual St. Pat’s Festival in Five Points (Columbia, SC), where my wife and I make our living, not terribly unlike the characters in the story.

Side note: so the editor who published this first short story success is named Marilyn Johnson; my wonderful Inklings Literary agent with whom I signed in 2012 is named Michelle Johnson. Is there a pattern to my success?

Forever 27

Benj struggles with the ten-by-ten white lawn-tent while Marcy goes through the beads, box by box:  Disco Ball Throw Beads, Tumblin’ Dice Throw Beads, Heart Shaped Throw Beads, Oversize Mardi Gras Specials (they look like a necklace of round, green Christmas ornaments, and take up so much space that Marcy wants to scream), Peace Sign Throw Beads, Mystic Leaf Throw Beads (which are pot leaves, in about six colors, including bling-bling gold and silver), Spurting Penis Throw Beads (a new addition), Kiss Me I’m Irish Green Shamrock Throw Beads (leftover from the St. Pat’s Festival in Savannah), and a giant blue tub of just ordinary old Throw Beads, which at two for a dollar are a big money generator in spite of their comparative simplicity.  That tub is the one that both of them hate the most; seasoned festival vendors they might be, but it didn’t make the boxes and storage bins of colorful, plastic junk any lighter—especially after all these years on the road.

They’d gotten up at the crack of dawn and had a big breakfast at the Waffle House—or Awful House, as Benj calls it—next to the Highway Rest Express motel. Another lousy meal at another cruddy roadside diner, one of a thousand such breakfasts that all run together into a fatty stew of heavy omelets, greasy burgers, salty fries that taste of the old oil in which they’ve been scalded, Cobb salads of yellow, tasteless iceberg lettuce and mealy tomatoes, eggs on the side of steaks as tough as shoe leather, weak iced tea with a hair in it, burned, bitter restaurant coffee, half-thawed frozen meringue pie on a cracked plate, and then maybe a cig or two (even they’re both trying to cut back).  They’ve lived this way so long it just seems natural, somehow.

Benj finds himself belching his hashbrowns-smothered-with-onions as they make their way onto the festival grounds and all during the setup, but rushing through another crappy breakfast has paid off:  With a double sawbuck, they grease the palm of the sleepy-eyed festival intern who is assigning the spots, and she pencils them into a prime corner location near the end of the food vendors, only forty yards from the main music stage.  They’ll be deaf by the end of the day, but that is the price you pay in their line for having prime real estate in a high foot-traffic area.  If only his back didn’t hurt so much; if only the indigestion deigns to succumb to the Zantac 150’s that he will gobble off and on all day; if only her feet hold out; if only they can sell some stuff—not just cover the vendor fee, but make some money.  If only, if only.

The neighbors arrive—they are a couple of guys, Steve and Earl, who sell stickers (three bucks each or two for five) from wall-size Plexiglas displays that they set up in rows and hang from poles that they stick into the ground if it is dirt like the vendor areas thankfully are at this festival.  They are on a first name basis with Benj and Marcy from prior encounters, and since Benj and Marcy don’t sell stickers, Steve and Earl are always real friendly and cooperative.  The four vendors exchange pleasantries and then get back to work.

Suddenly Marcy and Benj find themselves more or less set up and ready for business, so he leaves for a few minutes—it’s barely ten in the morning, and the music doesn’t start until noon—to get in a quick potty-break before the early-bird customers start wandering onto the sprawling festival site.  Laid out over the state fairgrounds just outside of town, the festival area shares a huge parking lot with the local college football stadium, so there is plenty of room for thousands of would-be festival attendees.  Benj is optimistic.  The weather is beautiful, and for a minute, as he smells the food wagons getting ready and shuffles through the sawdust and the hay scattered around, he remembers how much he used to enjoy this work.

The porta-johns, a line of which stretches for fifty yards, stand in formation like a platoon of stolid, seafoam green soldiers at attention, ready for duty; at this early hour they are as fresh and pristine as they will be all day. Benj sits quietly and thumbs through a Tom Robbins paperback he’s already read while he waits for something to happen.  He has a wispy corona of long hair surrounding an expansive bald pate, the mostly-salt and pepper locks pulled back into a short ponytail.  His ass is getting as big as the side of a house, as his grandmother would have said; he is no spring chicken. His back hurts and his bad knee hurts and his hip—old man’s hip, Marcy calls it only half-jokingly—is really acting up today.  He knows this life is too hard on him, he knows he should lose some weight, he knows that sometimes he’s not sure how happy he is, he knows that his choices are limited.  This is some life I’ve carved out for myself, he thinks.  And the festival season, stretching on into the autumn, is only beginning.

But this is how we make our living—everybody’s gotta do something.

He’s mildly surprised that they’re even working this particular event again; last year, the struggling music festival had been declared by the city council to be all but moribund, until a last minute grassroots petition campaign convinced the municipality to underwrite the shortfall—again—and give the organizers one last shot to make it into the black.  The city had wanted the music festival in the first place as a badge of honor, as a prestige, tourist-attracting feather in its cap, but all it has turned out to be is a bit of a joke around town.

And so this year the organizers have done all they can to achieve success:  slightly reduced admission, a wide-ranging roster of acts, a kiddie-fair with rides, loads of advertising, even more vendors of both food and souvenirs. Benj has heard that advance ticket sales have apparently been brisk, but you know how people talk a good game. Still—the day should be good.

A number of musical genres are represented, with the two biggest acts being a goth-makeup-metal group called Outflank, who’ll be headlining the main stage just across from Benj and Marcy’s tent. At the other end of the long strip of tarmac is a stage featuring hip-hop trio Blingo, currently enjoying their fifteen seconds of fame on the pop charts after winning a television talent contest.  Side stages will feature other talent of varying stature. Benj hopes against hope that the two main crowds, as different in temperament and taste as night and day, won’t intermingle with unsettling results.  These festivals are always a challenge, especially as the day of beer drinking and carousing lengthens into evening; a mini-riot is the last thing anyone wants.  With kids today, though, you just don’t ever know.  Benj frets and rubs his bad knee and cleans himself and then struggles to squeeze his enormous backside out of the now-soiled porta-john, its pine-scented freshness irrevocably lost.  Benj feels tired already. And only fourteen hours of work ahead—that is, if the breakdown later tonight goes quickly.

Marcy is yawning and setting up the grid panels on which they will display the novelty shirts: the pothead and beer drinking joke-shirts, the tie-dyes (the sign spells it “tye-dyes” however), the leftover St Pat’s shirts from Savannah.  “I’ll get those, hon,” Benj offers good-naturedly; he knows Marcy’s back hurts too, and those seven-foot grids are unwieldy bastards.

“I’ll put out the jewelry, then.”

“And the hats,” Benj reminds gently.

“I know,” she says with a sad smile.  “Want some coffee?” She produces the thermos they filled up out of the complimentary decanters in the motel lobby.

“Not yet, babe” he mutters through an acid belch.

* * *

It’s a slow-starter, this festival, which isn’t all that unusual.  Benj listens to a ball game while Marcy reads. They’ve both smoked three cigarettes already, in direct violation of their pact to only smoke that many all day.

Two o’clock rolls around; the sun is no longer baking them. All the stages are live, now, at least, and there’s some traffic but nothing about which to write home. The supporting acts are a motley mix of local bands, the ones everyone sees all month long around town—every month!—and a couple of seventies warhorses—Kansas, with one original member, and Styx, with two—but that’s about it.  The fairgrounds are dotted only by a few hundred people milling around, most of whom look too much like Benj and Marcy to want much of what they sell, which is aimed at a younger, drunker crowd.  Sales are non-existent for hours, it seems; the first one of note is a “tye-dye” shirt to a fifty-something guy who regales them for fifteen minutes (after squinting and whining about the price of the shirt, begging for an “old timer’s discount, heh heh”) about the time he saw Janis Joplin and how he remembers the way he felt when he heard she’d died, and about Hendrix, and about how he didn’t get into the Doors at all until after Morrison died, but then he thought they were just, just, just the most profound of them all, the Doors.  “That shit’s like poetry, and shit, man. Y’know?  Dang.”

“I know,” Benj replies.  “Did you know they were all twenty-seven?”

“Who?”

“All of ‘em.  Jimi, Janis, Jim…Brian Jones.  Pigpen, from the Grateful Dead.  Even Kurt Cobain…” And then Marcy smiles as Benj produces the “Forever 27” t-shirt with a small flourish from a bin under the jewelry table. The artwork is of a ghostly Kurt Cobain entering a bar—a bar called heaven—as the other dead rock stars sit strumming instruments, all of them save Pigpen—a scowling, tough, blues-biker of a figure, as in life—sporting beatific, angelic expressions on their faces.  “Isn’t that something,” Benj says, more of a statement than a question. “Mm-mm,” he continues, reverent.

“Dude,” the so-called old timer asks, misty-eyed, “tell me you got one a them in a two-X.”  Benj turns and winks at Marcy as he digs one out of the bin.

***

Benj yawns.  Marcy sips the old coffee and wrinkles her nose.  They sell stuff here and there, two dollars, five dollars, ten dollars worth of throw beads to a drunken guy who already has twenty dollars’ worth around his neck.

“Stir fry?”  Marcy looks over at Benj and gives him an exaggerated I’m-hungry belly rub.

“I want a gyro, I think.”

“Ugh,” Marcy says.

“Nah,” Benj jokes, “that tzatziki sauce, it’s good for you.  Mmmmm.” And now he too does the belly rub.  If he’s made it once, he’s made the joke a thousand times.

* * *

Benj’s head is pounding as the opener for Outflank is tuning up—not playing, mind you, just tuning up—but at least sales have picked up, finally, in the last hour or so.   Marcy’s frowning as she eagle-eyes some kids pawing through the basket of hackey-sacks while an accomplice thinks he is discreetly fingering the display of Indian incense boxes (some of it so old that it probably just smells like a burning twig now). The incense comes in narrow, square ten-stick boxes that go for only a buck apiece, and she thinks why don’t you just fucking buy one, you cheap little bastard, instead of trying to wait me out and take one as her own headache begins slowly pulsing into existence behind her eyes.  Finally Benj waddles over and stands there with a sour expression, glowering down at the three little punks with their long bangs died different colors and their oily looking jeans and t-shirts for bands that were stars before the wearers were even born.  After a long frustrating minute for both the vendors and the would-be boosters, the boys give up and move on just as a longhair biker type starts asking if they have any glass pieces and his girlfriend engages Marcy about the toe rings and the throw beads and the scented oils.  Benj motions the guy over to the side of the tent, where he opens a padded case full of hand-blown, colorful glass “tobacco” pipes that are shown out of sight at this festival since it is a conservative town. Following a genial negotiation, he sells the guy a small bubbler for sixty bucks, after coming off the original price quote of seventy-five (which still makes Benj his keystone markup anyway).  He gives the biker a small packet of tobacco in case the guy’s a narc. He concludes the transaction with a grateful wink as he hands the three crisp twenties to Marcy, who stashes them in her hip pack, which functions as the cash register. The bubbler is the biggest sale of the day, other than the two t-shirts to the weepy nostalgia-suffused customer from earlier.

***

Sure enough, sometime around eight o’clock, a fight breaks out not too far from the tent, right in the middle of the sticker-guys’ setup next door.  And sure enough, it’s between some gangsta types there for Blingo and some greasy white redneck-metal looking kids.  The white kids sport a combination of wallet chains, black clothing, oversize pants, ball caps, and bad skin.  The black guys, in oversized athletic gear and huge t-shirts featuring icons such as Tupac and Marley, are trying to play it cool but the big fat redneck guy is shiny-eyed and yelling about someone pulling on his wallet chain and then he’s sticking his finger in one guy’s face, after which one of the black dudes starts yelling ain’t no motherfucker gon’ pull yo’ chain, niggah, and then the blows start flying and one of the acrylic sticker-boards, as tall as a man, falls over in a tangle of bodies but then the cops show, and it breaks up fast as the principals are hauled aside while their accomplices melt away into the gathering throng.

Marcy looks pained and stressed, her head pounding, and tells Benj it looks like someone has taken a display t-shirt while she had her back turned watching the fight but before he can respond the three little assholes are back fingering the hackey-sacks and incense again and someone walks up and asks how much the spurting-penis throw beads are just as Outflank kicks into their opening number AT A VOLUME THAT IS SO EAR-SPLITTINGLY DISTORTED that Benj bites his tongue hard enough to make it bleed and tears squirt out of his eyes when he tries to choke out, “three dollars, or two for five.”

* * *

Marcy has shoved cotton into her ears and is standing with her arms folded watching people stream by without so much as a glance at any of the merch.  People are pumping their fists in the air to the heavy beat and throwing beer at each other.  Benj has already packed some merch away into the bins even though it is only ten o’clock—beads have sold for shit, and it takes so long to put all that stuff away that he just can’t stand the thought of having to do it afterwards, even though he knows sometimes this is the time of the night when you can sell it by the handful to all the drunks.  But it’s the beginning of the season, after all, and they haven’t done too badly today.  The hip pack around Marcy’s ample waist is fairly bulging with bills—although most of them are ones, of course.  But it adds up, sometimes.  People would be surprised, Benj thinks.  Not with today’s take, but on a really good weekend . . .

But there haven’t been that many of those in the last year or two, and for all kinds of reasons: Competition, declining attendance—it all costs so much these days, from the tickets to the parking to the corndogs to the, yes, souvenirs, the tchotchkes and crap that Marcy and Benj sell.  Not to mention the difficulty in programming festivals in the first place, with the fractured, fragmented, compartmentalized, sub-genred-to-death music business such as it is—not to mention the overabundance of the festivals themselves, which they have these days for every reason from celebrating bluegrass to jam bands to nostalgia, to diversity or unity or a combination thereof, to okra or crawfish, or else to spring time or harvest time, to Chinese New Year’s and Arbor Day, to the fourth of July and Easter Sunday and Fat Tuesday, to ones like this one which just sort of are for their own sake.  And with all the choices that people have nowadays—hell, with five or six hundred TV channels who needs to leave the house anyway?—Benj is surprised that people like he and Marcy—his love, his sweet girl, always at his side—can still make a living doing what they do.  On the other hand, people will probably always need a reason to get outside and drink beer and congregate in cliques and groups and families, and hopefully in the process leave a little money behind.  Benj thinks sometimes that he’ll keel over at one of these damn festivals; “just step over me on the way out,” he always says.

“Why don’t we open a brick-and-mortar somewhere,” Marcy says, as she grunts a bin into the back of the van. The music’s over, the cops are pushing all the drunks out in the parking lot, the moon is up and the area in front of the stage is a sea of garbage.   “A college town.  Or at the beach.  Work the season, hang out in the winter time…”

“That’s what we do now.”

“But I mean stay in one place.  Think about it, baby.  Somewhere warm all winter, the Carolinas.  Myrtle Beach.  St. Simon’s Island.  Florida—Panama City or Lauderdale or the Keys, baby, the Keys—”

Benj goes over and puts his hands on her shoulders.  “That’d take some mad cash, girlfriend.  You got some I ain’t heard about?”  Benj says this half-wishing that she does.

“I know,” she replies as she turns around with a sad smile on her face. “I don’t, unfortunately.  Just this.” She fingers the hip-pack and shrugs.

“Lot of us there already,” he says, continuing to play devil’s advocate, thinking of all the established t-shirts shops and jewelry huts and airbrush guys and junk vendors and head shops in a place like Myrtle Beach.  “Tough to make a go of it.  Long hours.”  Benj had worked retail as a teenager and hated it.  “Lot of the same problems. Hard work,” he concludes.

“And this isn’t?”

Benj kisses her on top of the head.  “No one said it’d be easy.  Least not…”

“. . . to me, anyway,” she finishes one of Benj’s familiar bromides.  “We’re getting too old for this mess, hon,” she adds with one of her own.

His knee hurts and his hip flares and his back twinges.  “Don’t have to tell me.”

“So what are we going to do?”

Benj laughs and starts sliding the grid panels into their space inside of the van.  “Work the season, work the circuit, get through the year.  Who knows?  Maybe it’ll be an up year.  Maybe—maybe by the end of the summer we’ll be all set.”

“All set?”

Benj stops and looks at her.  “You know what I mean.”

“Yeah, right,” she scoffs sarcastically.  “Ah, well.”  Marcy turns and stoops over to drag a cardboard box of t-shirts over toward the van.  “Help me with this, hon.”

“You got it, babe.” In another few minutes the tent comes down and the van is loaded and they say goodbye to the sticker guys, who ask if they did all right.  Benj looks forward to a late night snack back to the motel; Marcy wants to smoke a joint and have a soak in the bath.  They don’t have to get up early in the morning, so why not, she thinks.

The morning brings the drive back home, where upon their arrival they will check their various E-bay auctions and get together whatever items need to be shipped out.  Then they will restock the road merch before heading out to work the Magnolia Music Fest next weekend, two hundred miles in the opposite direction, three days’ worth of the same-old routine.  Outflank is playing again one of the nights, unfortunately, but so is one of the Grateful Dead members who is still touring around, and Benj is kind of looking forward to that one, for once, along with Buddy Guy on another stage and Aretha Franklin on still another. Benj will not make it over to watch any of those legends though—but then again he’s not there for the music anyway.  Not really.

He thinks that, back home, he will go online and look at real estate and businesses for sale in resort towns like Marcy was talking about; he won’t say anything about it to her, though—they don’t have the money to do much of anything but buy some more merch to sell this season, so why get her hopes up?  Doesn’t hurt to dream, he thinks.  And she’s right about one thing—too old for this shit.  Besides—maybe some amazing deal is just waiting out there to be found.  Maybe they’ll fall ass-backwards into a stake of some undetermined amount. Maybe . . .

Maybe they’ll hit the Lotto.  You never know about things.  Just keep plugging away until it happens—that is what Benj thinks as he signals and changes lanes and then pulls off into the motel parking lot.

In the light of day again, the beads shake and the grids rattle as the van rumbles down the interstate.  Marcy reaches over and holds Benj’s hand, who smiles at her even though his hip is killing him.  We enjoy our freedom, she thinks.  We are beholden to no one but each other—and our customers, of course.  She counts the money from yesterday, writes some numbers in a ledger book that they keep, and looks out at the countryside rolling by while Benj sings along to an old song on the radio.

FOREVER 27 won the 2006 PEARL Magazine short fiction competition.

 

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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest book, a story collection called The Year They Canceled Christmas, releases in November 2017.

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