Cowboy Man, Major Player

Tyler Barton

  • I’m not sure who I am, but I know who I’ve been.
  • —Modest Mouse (“Make Everybody Happy/Mechanical Birds”)

Cowboy Dan finds himself in a meme.

Summer is over and he’s on a Dell at the Texarkana Public Library, researching two things: a new place to live, and bass tabs for a song he heard on the radio, a song about crashing your car into the bridge, watching it burn, and not giving a shit. In the comment section of Ultimateguitartabs.com, he sees a square photograph of himself on stage at The Reservation, bass listing left on his hip, right leg atop the monitor in a power stance. The photographer caught him mid-wink, with one eye clamped shut and the other fluttering, like the lead up to a sneeze, but that’s not the embarrassing part. The embarrassing part is that he’s giving a big thumbs up, and his thumb is plugging the mouth of a Lone Star beer bottle. The beer slides down his arm, drips from his elbow, and puddles on the monitor. Heavy white text captions the image, half of it (“COWBOY MAN’S A”) placed above his stetson, the other half (“MAJOR PLAYER”) lining the bottom. He stands at the computer, staring at a photo he does not remember being taken. That club closed in 2011—isn’t it a clinic now? And that band broke up years ago.

“Excuse me, Sir,” a woman says. Cowboy Dan flinches, leans forward to block the image from the librarian’s view. “Computers are for research, not for making memes.”

*

“Something feels wrong about this,” Garrett says and turns off the microphone.

“Shaker’s too loud,” says Gina, dropping her sticks. “I’ve been saying it over and over.”

Cowboy Dan sets the shaker, large as an ostrich egg, on the windowsill. He got it at a Choctaw art fair out in Red Lick last May, just after he joined this jam band. Standard shakers are filled with sand, but this one’s all Mesquite seeds and screwbean pods. It sounds like wet nails, and he loves it. This song, “Orange Julius Caesar,” requires him to play the same two-measure bassline 78 times, so he steps on his sampler-pedal, plucks the riff once, kicks the button, and the computer loops it for him. He needs his hands free to do other things, like shake the shaker, or drink bottles of Diet Mountain Don’t, or put those bottles on his thumbs, but of course he doesn’t do shit like that anymore.

“What’s it mean,” Cowboy Dan says, “if something is a meme?” He tells them about the library, and each member of Bitter Buffalo grabs an iPhone. Swipe. Click. They find it quickly.

“Well,” Roberto says, giggling. “Aren’t you?”

“Aren’t I fucking what?”

“A player.”

“A player?” Cowboy Dan says. “In the scene? I’d say so. I’ve been in—”

“I heard you were kicked out of this band,” Gina says, pointing to her phone.

“I mean like a player-player,” Roberto says, and Garrett adds: “And a brawler.”

“Not anymore, man, you know me, the me now. And Gina—it fucking was amicable.”

“I get it, we were born in different eras,” Garrett says. “But I’ve heard some stories.”

The room is quiet save for someone’s amp sliding into feedback. Cowboy Dan grabs his bass. “You win, man. I’ll go fucking easy on the shaker.”

*

Cowboy Dan’s done Surf Rock, Garage, Folk Punk, Blues, Grindcore, and even, in a pinch, Polka. Same digs. Same clubs. Same results. As long as everyone in the band is playing an actual instrument, he can get along. Cowboy Dan’s analog. It took almost a decade for him to finally use the sampler pedal his pal Priscilla bought him for his 40th. He used to get so bored playing the same surf rock riff over and over—one time he fell asleep on stage. Plus, he’s off alcohol. And two summers back he flushed the last of his uppers, so he needs something to keep him busy, like the shaker, or like his favorite pastime: scanning the sea of people for a fan. Tonight it’s not so much a sea as a drizzle, a puddle, a dozen people on devices.

All Cowboy Dan thinks he wants is—just once—to turn from his amp, stroll to the front of the stage, peer out into the audience, and find some people singing back the lyrics. He loves that shit, to be in an audience, yelling along to a song, like he and the band and everyone around is infected with the same virus. Usually he’ll sing even if he doesn’t know the lyrics, just sing his own (“My heart is not a mime, my heart is not a mine, my heart is not mine”) to show his solidarity with the artists on stage. When you’re playing music to a crowd who isn’t singing back, who isn’t even there—it’s like you’re infected all alone. There’s no weirder feeling. And Cowboy Dan’s wasted enough of life feeling weird. He would love to just feel a little bit good.

*

Late September, Cowboy Dan opens his flip phone and calls his landlord to try one last time to convince him not to sell the spite house. The home is thin, unsafe, faded violet, stubborn, tucked between two office buildings downtown. For two decades he and his landlord have stood strong against the offers of developers. In that time, the whole downtown rebirthed itself, nearly every building save for this ugly house. But last month Gary gave in—insurance will pay for his wife’s double mastectomy, but they won’t pay for reconstruction. “I need to be cash un-poor,” he’d told Cowboy Dan over beers on the back porch, both of them gabbing and pacing, avoiding all the loose boards. “Need you out by December,” he said. Gary used to be a cable guy before they all started cutting the cord. He was big into stand-up and loved to be called Gary the Cable Guy.

“Knock, knock,” Cowboy Dan says.

“Who’s there?”

“What’s another café fucking going to do for this town?”

“Not certain they’re demo-ing the place—but if they do, I hear it might be a poke shop.”

“For the card game? I thought that died off.”

“You’re thinking Pokemon, which is back in a big way, actually. It’s on the phones now. I had a kid in my driveway yesterday trying to catch something called a Gengar. I told him, ‘Sounds like an STD to me.’ Kid didn’t laugh. Didn’t even look up. I swear that generation can’t connect for a second,” Gary says. “But no, Dan. This is food. Poke is some kind of raw fish.”

Cowboy Dan wants to argue with Gary, feels the tingle in his knuckles, the old vestiges of pugilism—but he stops himeself. He thinks of Dad, dying in that trailer park on the Texas side of town, how he always whined, The fucking city came to me! and wishes he could kiss the man.

“I saw you on the internet today,” Gary says.

“That’s not me.”

“That’s pretty funny,” Gary says. “I don’t care who you are.”

*

This is hurtful, is what Cowboy Dan lands on. On each site he registers as a new fake name. Take it down. His avatars remain a grey shape, or an egg, or a desert landscape. This man’s dead, it’s not right. Soon other avatars respond. They find more photos. I’ll fucking kill you punks.

“The computers are for research, sir,” the librarian says, “not starting wars.”

*

If you pay him eighty dollars, fifty on low days, Cowboy Dan will climb to your roof and remove your ugly, obsolete satellite dish. He’ll rip it out, toss it down to the lawn, and haul it away to the scrapyard. No matter he doesn’t like heights. He does it because it’s a service people will actually pay him to perform (unlike music), so he suffers the dizziness.

Today, on the roof of a Tudor just over the state line, inside a development called Minnow Brook, beside a development called Shady Space, Cowboy Dan sweats all over the wrench in his hand while a cadre of teenage girls goof around down by the pool. Their laughter should be affirming to him—some people out there still like other people, still communicate with their bodies. Humans can relate to one another yet. When he glances down, the three of them are perched along the diving board, feet submerged, their backs to him. The board bends low, almost touching the water. They’re on phones. How are they all holding on?

Cowboy Dan’s wrench slips out of his hand, slides down the shingles and ramps off, flipping through the air and into the pool. Not one of the three girls turns toward the sound.

“Sorry!” Cowboy Dan says, standing, squinting down at them. He’ll never forget the first job he did with his father, Cowboy Daniel, on a roof in the suburbs. The owner of the house had pointed up at them, saying to his wife, Look honey, they sold the ranch and bought a wrench. Cowboy Daniel kept spitting down on to the hood of their El Dorado. Cowboy Dan spit too.

“What?” says the middle girl on the diving board, pivoting her head but not her shoulders, lending him just one ear.

“About the wrench.”

All three girls turn around and give a thumbs up, except their thumbs are huge, brown, shining in the sunlight—topped with Lonestar bottles. They burst into laughter, fall into the pool.

“You’re all fakes!” he says.

“Fakes!” they parrot back.

Cowboy Dan finishes the job by kicking the dish, just keeps kicking until it snaps.

*

Cowboy Dan doesn’t drink anymore. Doesn’t fight, doesn’t fuck, hasn’t pointed his pistol at anyone in years. He rejects that Dan wholly. He does, however, still drive out into the desert and fire Dad’s rifle into the sky. He likes to stand still, waiting to see, hear, or feel the bullet fall.

*

Cowgirl Man does a dance down on Robison, by the college. She stands in the median, denim riding high, flannel shirt tied at the waist, ten-gallon hat slipping down over her eyes. The bass she wears is not plugged in. She marches, flipping batons and brown bottles high in the air and catching them. Cars honk, passersby laugh. She makes enough in tips the first week to pay her internet bill. The schtick gets old by week two, and the police ask for a permit.

The Youtube video (“Cowgirl Man’s a Majorette”) still hasn’t taken off, and it’s hot tonight, so her thumb gets stuck in the bottle. Her friend, filming, takes a hammer to it softly, tapping. It breaks. They scream. So much blood in her thumb, more than she ever knew. This clip becomes a .gif that grips the internet’s eyelids. A metal band called Crisco Disco takes a grainy still of it for an album cover. Cowgirl Man is not credited. The album is hit, but only in Australia. She cold-emails reporters in Austin, NYC, Sydney, begging them to tell her story.

*

Cowboy Dan was off-grid for the longest time, hiding from not only creditors, but also men who would want to exact revenge—You beat up my brother. You slept with my girlfriend. Now, with his face all over cyberspace and spilling out into the real world, he fully expects to have his door knocked down. The truth is that he almost wants it. The tension is one thing, but the solitude is another, so go ahead. Knock it down. Rip him out like a nail. Bring a fucking hammer.

*

It’s October and Cowboy Dan’s still writing ’15 instead of ‘16 on his checks, which all bounce anyway. He falls asleep each night to the sound of running water. Not a tchotchke fountain or the rain or an ambient album set to repeat, but his toilet tank. It is always running, trying to fill. He loves the sound, can’t sleep without the thin trickle through the wall. Best song he knows. He turns forty-nine on Christmas Eve.

“Don’t fix it,” Cowboy Dan tells Gary.

“I have to. I want to get every dollar I can out of this sale.”

“They’re just gonna level it, man. And I still don’t know where I’m fucking gonna go.”

“I’m shocked to hear it.” Gary affixes a fishing sinker to the float ball and the trickle stops. Cowboy Dan kicks his shaker around like a soccer ball, filling the silent house with rattle.

“Well, you’re goddamn famous,” Gary says, crossing his eyes and giving Cowboy Dan a thumbs up. “Go make some money off that.”

“Tell me, where does one fucking go to collect his internet cash?”

“You don’t feel any different? Any change at all? Now that everyone knows your face?”

“I feel the same as I did when I was six years old,” Cowboy Dan says, lying.

*

“Dan fancies himself somewhat like the dude from that bowling movie about the pissed-on rug, except he’s not a slob—no, this guy dresses to the western nines,” says Priscilla, who was Cowboy Dan’s closest friend until the night she told him he should give not-drinking a try, and his response was to try and kiss her, twice, and she kicked him out, kicked with her legs, her boots, but she doesn’t tell the reporter this. “The fucking nines,” she says, directly into the mic.

“Do you know the photographer too?”

“That’s no photographer. That’s a pronographer. And I’d love to shake their hand.”

*

Cowboy Dan leaves the Novocain Stain at nine P.M., his belly one big wave of Mountain Don’t. The engine of his ‘92 Silverado won’t turn over, so he heads home on foot, his shaker in hand. If he were the younger Dan, he would meander, swervingly, down the sidewalks until he caught the eye of some punk who could make him turn the shaker into a weapon. But he is not that Dan. He’s been to therapy, though not AA. Cold turkey was hard, but it took—he knows he’s lucky. He’s cried a lot. He gets the mechanics of meditation. He’s been reading the forewords to Buddhist books. He’s given up the hand on the knee in the dark of the bar. He hopes the people he’s hurt have given up remembering, but doubts it. Walking home to the soon-to-be-ghost house, his body feels grainy, pixelated, like he’s falling away to something not-him. Not-Dan.

A passing couple stares him down. The woman is dressed like a cockroach and the dude is him, is a Cowboy Man, down to the garnet bolo tie and the six pack of Lonestar.

It’s like the whole world is out there singing along to this song, his song, except the words were written by a stranger. Or by God. Or maybe he did write them.

“Heyo!” the passing man says, laughing, waving, giddy. “We’re Cowboy Men!”

*

It’s Halloween, and across the city, twenty nine people have dressed as Cowboy Dan. Plus a few dozen more are Cowgirl Man, batons in bloody hands. In NYC, there are hundreds. LA reaches a thousand. In the tiny town of Kanorado, squatting on the border of two western states, there is a trio of young boys all dressed like Cowboy Dan, pulling beer bottles out of a recycling bin, placing one on each of their fingers (the way Cowboy Daniel, stoned, used to do with Bugles) and chasing each other around the yard. Cowboy Dan does not know this. Nor does he want to. He wants to know that the world still has room for beauty, not just the echo of it.

“What’s that even mean?” he says to the streetlight that his forehead is pressed against, trying to convince his heart that he’s not drunk, his brain that he’s not spinning.

Beneath his head is a flyer reading: “Have you seen this meme? I made it. It’s mine,” and at the bottom: “Pay me and I’ll make you famous too. Nadine North—Ironic Photography.”

Cowboy Dan rips the flyer in half trying to pull it off the pole.

*

On The Daily Show, a correspondent of “The Contemporary West” is dressed like Cowboy Man. Trevor Noah sets up questions for him like T-ball. The actor playing Cowboy Man bunts all the jokes to the mound, yet the audience roars. Cowboy Dan doesn’t get cable anymore.

*

The toilet fix took, and Cowboy Dan can’t sleep with the silence. He rolls over and feels the flyer crinkle in his breast pocket. He reaches for the cordless phone, but he forgot to hang it up, so it’s dead. Soon he’s driving to the desert to take shots at the loud stars. Click, click. Out of ammo.

Back in his silent house, Cowboy Dan finds a 35mm picture of himself looking sober-ish at a party in 1999, tapes it to a piece of copy paper and writes in sharpie: “I saw it. It’s me,” and walks to the Kinkos. He pins one up beside every copy of the meme-maker’s flyer.

*

Cowboy Dab. Cowboy Damn Daniel. I don’t always play bass guitar, but when I do take a power stance. I can haz Lonestar? All your bass are belong to him. Is the dress blue, black, or…flannel?

“This will never end,” Cowboy Dan says, scrolling on Roberto’s phone.

“This will never end,” Roberto says to the rest of the band. They’ve been waiting and waiting to begin practice. They have a big New Year’s gig and very few basslines written.

“This will never stop.”

*

That night, Cowgirl Man makes a similar flyer, a sepia-toned photo of herself in The Pose—“But have you seen me? I’m more.” Now every light-pole along Hickory street is ringed with the three flyers. The edges of each one touches the other two, forming a circle. It’s mine. It’s me. I’m more. You’re mine. He’s more. I’m her. Cowboy Dan will find this tomorrow and admit to no one but himself that it is beautiful, the way each paper’s edge meets the next one flushly.

*

It’s December and Cowboy Dan fits everything he didn’t pitch into his truck and drives to practice. Not one amp is on before he’s asked to leave the band. It’s a walk he’s done before. It’s how he learned the meaning of ‘amicable’. He shakes Garrett’s hand, Gina’s hand, hugs Roberto. He tips his hat. The plane is definitely not crashing. He slings the bass over his shoulder, grabs his shaker, cocks back, and whips it at the window. The glass holds. The shaker cracks. What’s inside are not beans or seeds, but fluorescent plastic beads, like a child’s art project.

At the Novocain he unfolds the flyer in his pocket, asks to use the phone, and dials the meme-maker’s number.

*

“It’s you,” Cowboy Dan says. They sit at a table by the pool tables. She is half his age.

“It really is,” she says, holding out her hand. “I’m Nadi.”

He lets her hand hang there. “Make it stop.”

“I don’t have that power.”

“Listen, I’m not trying to shake you down for money.”

“Money?”

“Profiting off my likeness.”

Nadi hits her head on the wood wall behind her—that’s how hard she laughs.

“I posted that thing on my Tumblr six years ago, back when memes were funny, and art. Some bot account reposted it last May. Off it went. Sucked up into the tubes of the internet.”

“Tubes?”

“And then you go and feed the trolls with your little posts.”

“Trolls?”

“I haven’t made a red cent, is what I’m saying. You think there’s gold in the Web? People don’t pay for entertainment. Don’t you know that, mister musician?”

They watch the television in silence. It’s a commercial for a show about a community of people living in tiny houses, but it’s a contest, and each week one family loses, and their house is burned in front of them, while they watch. Cowboy Dan swears that one of the contestants is dressed as him. But maybe he’s just dressed like him. Fuck. He’s the problem. Him. Dan. Ego. He now sees every stetson, every bass guitar, every bolo tie, as a refraction of himself.

Nadi taps a breakbeat on the table with her thumbs.

“Do you play?”

“Yeah,” she says. “Well, a drum machine.”

“Oh…”

“Jesus, tell me this: who’s paying all the old men of the world to be luddites?”

“I’m not old.”

“Of a certain age.”

“Of a certain age, yes.”

“Listen,” Nadi says. “I know who my Dad was, so don’t worry, but my mom swore she slept with you, back in like ‘97.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

Nadi laughs, motions at the contestant on the TV show.

“I guess everyone has a piece of you.”

“Everyone but me,” Cowboy Dan says, shuddering at the gross poetry. Nadi pulls out her phone, types this down, a lyric she might use someday.

“Are you twittering about me?”

“Do you want me to?”

They take a selfie.

The spiral continues. A story appears in the New Yorker called “The Year in Internet Memes,” and soon the producers swarm to Arkansas. Nadi shakes hands with the first person to approach her. They find Cowboy Dan sleeping in the bed of his truck. The band will be manufactured. He decides not to care. His hand is so cold that when he signs whatever they put in front of him, the signature is not his name—it’s just marks, echoes of letters, lines, and lines.

*

Cowboy Dan and Nadi’s drum-and-bass act goes over like an engine in Austin. They dress to the western nines and play grooves that bring the neon out in everyone. Cowgirl Man dances centerstage, strutting, marching, tossing her baton far into the dark of the rafters. On the new song, “Come Down (Too Soon)” she strings together so many somersaults that when she lands back on her feet she’s a different person altogether, and it’s tomorrow, and then it’s tomorrow, and now it’s that lossy kind of tomorrow where all of this no longer matters to anyone.

This story is in debt to Modest Mouse.

Tyler Barton is a cofounder of Fear No Lit, the organization responsible for the Submerging Writer Fellowship. His chapbook of flash fiction, The Quiet Part Loud, won the Turnbuckle Chapbook Contest and was released this year by Split Lip Press. Find his stories soon in The Iowa Review, CRAFT, and cream city review. Find him at @goftyler or tsbarton.com.

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