If it was a prank, someone went to a lot of trouble to make it look real, Randall thought. He gripped the ornate doorknob and turned… and everything turned to dust. He was suddenly grasping at air, caught in a swirling, dizzying tunnel that resembled what he imagined the inside of a tornado to be, only gentler, less violent. To his surprise, he wasn’t afraid, as he spun, weightless and, at last, landed on all fours with a soft thud. When he lifted his head, the dust had cleared. In fact, there wasn’t a single speck of it anywhere to be found–not on his clothes or in his hair–not a single granule on the boutique’s hardwood floor–a floor that was worn smooth from years of foot traffic. Feeling silly, Randall picked himself up and pretended he hadn’t simply tripped and fallen on his face while walking in.
As near as he could tell, he was the only customer. Perhaps the manager was in a backroom.
Randall was impressed by what he saw. It was indeed a freaks and weirdos boutique. There were counters and shelves and rotating floor racks, curved glass display cases and all manner of tables and trunks and trays filled with the curious and the bizarre. There was hardly room to walk. Every available wall space was covered in framed items, ornamental door knockers and face masks of every conceivable design. There were even items hanging from the ceiling. For such a small boutique, it held quite a lot of merchandise.
“Hello?” Randall said again, a little louder this time.
He moved deeper into the boutique. Some of the things he saw there was no name for. One item, in particular, was a bizarre looking contraption the size of a small ottoman that was part bagpipe, part egg beater, with three crooked legs and half a dozen tentacled arms. Was it a sculpture? A musical instrument? Something for the kitchen? When it moved beneath his touch, Randall jumped back. The thing scurried off into the far reaches of the store.
“What the hell?”
“Far from it,” said a voice from behind one of the many the display cases. The person belonging to the voice had just placed a new item behind the case’s glass front: a necklace made of purple butterflies. “That’s a preternatural ambulator.”
“A what?” said Randall. He wasn’t sure if the person was a man or a woman. The person had shoulder-length hair dyed platinum blonde, pinned behind their ears with two black alligator clips, and was dressed in a red satin 1940’s style cocktail dress. But the reason Randall wasn’t sure was that the person’s voice was a bit too low to be feminine.
“An extremely rare item. Originally listed by auctioneers during the settlement of H.P. Lovecraft’s estate. Some would say not of this world.”
“Oh,” said Randall. He tried not to stare at the man–he was now convinced the manager was a man in drag–and let his eyes fall on several other items in the immediate vicinity. “And what about that?” Randall pointed to a glass ball that appeared to float above a circular hardwood base beneath it. The ball itself appeared possessed by an ever-changing light, like those fiber optic Christmas trees only on a scale that was as intricate as a cityscape as seen from the clouds.
“That’s the Sphere of Antiquity.”
“Sure it is.” Like everything in his life, Randall didn’t trust what he was told. He’d been disappointed too many times in his life to care. If someone told him the sun would rise tomorrow, he’d say, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Besides, he thought, all this stuff can probably be found on eBay.
“Not convinced?” said the man.
“Go ahead. Try to touch it.”
Randall poked a finger at it, and the sphere immediately dodged his attempt, returning to center itself above the base. Randall tried again and it scooted in the opposite direction, spinning like a top. Randall gave up. “Nice trick.”
“Oh, it’s no trick at all. The Sphere of Antiquity cannot be touched by mere mortals. Makes packing it up for shipment a bit problematic.”
Randall didn’t laugh. He felt like he was being played. What was he doing there anyway? It’s not like he had enough money to buy anything.
But then something behind the counter caught his eye. On the wall hung a Flying V electric guitar with storm finish. “Now, that’s cool,” he said.
The manager lifted the guitar off its wall mounts and laid it on the counter. “This once belonged to the one and only Randall William Rhoads. Best known as Randy Rhoads.”
“I remember that name,” said Randall. “Wasn’t he the guy who tried to buzz Ozzie’s tour bus with a plane and crashed into a barn?”
“That’s the one. Only he was a passenger, not the pilot. And it was a garage, not a barn. But, yeah, that’s him.”
Randall shook his head. “Stupid.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t think Randy put much thought into consequences. In the moment–that was the mantra. Which is all fine and dandy when looking at a sunset or being with a woman. But, yeah, it was a stupid way to die. We lost a great one that day.”
Randall nodded. For the first time, they agreed on something. Randall remembered listening to one of his father’s old albums, Blizzard of Ozz. The guy could shred.
As Randall reminisced, the guitar’s storm finish began to move. Clouds darkened, lightning spiked.
“You were named after him, did you know that?”
Randall snapped out of his reverie. He stared at the man in the red dress and platinum hair and mentally peeled back the hair and replaced it with Peter Frampton’s flowing locks. “Dad?”
The man smiled. Randall remembered that smile. “That’s right, son. It’s me.”
Randall shook his head in disbelief. “But how?”
His father took a deep breath. “How’s a bit complicated. Why’s a little easier to explain.”
“No,” said Randall, still shaking his head. “I fell. I fell and hit my head and now I’m dreaming, right? Time to wake up!” Randall appealed to the ceiling for help. All he saw was a stuffed prehistoric-looking bird-of-prey suspended on wires above. At least, it appeared stuffed until the thing cocked its head and let out a loud squawk, as if to say What are you looking at?
“How’s Mom?” Randall’s father asked.
“How’s Mom?” Randall stared at his dad. This was really happening, wasn’t it? Again, he looked around for cameras. Any number of items he saw could contain a lens recording his every reaction. His brain hurt, but he went with it. “She’s okay, I guess. She hasn’t been the same since you died.”
“Me neither.” Randall’s dad smiled again.
“I mean, c’mon. Randall, look at me. Look around. Of course, it’s funny. Where’s your sense of humor?”
“It’s not funny that you were never around. It’s not funny that one day you just up and checked out, leaving us with the bill. The emotional bill, that is. One of Mom’s pet expressions.”
“I got the metaphor.”
“Well, what the hell, dad?”
“I know, I’m sorry. I’m sorry it went down that way, but you have to understand, people do what they do because they believe it’s the best choice at the time. They’re not thinking about consequences. Like Randy Rhoads. They’re in the moment. Sometimes those moments are carefree and fun and you’re not thinking what’s waiting for you on the other side. And sometimes that moment is so heavy and dark you can’t breathe, and it’s a choice between continuing on and putting up with the same old shit or just shrugging it, leaving it all behind. Because that’s the only light you see. It’s never about who’s going to get hurt afterward, or who’s going to miss your sorry ass once you’re gone.”
“That’s it? Okay?”
“Yeah, I get it. Life sucks and then you die. But why?”
“Why does life suck?”
“No, why did life suck for you? You were lead guitarist for the Hellraisers. Your song “Fire Down Below” reached number nine on the metal charts in 1996. You played Ozzfest that same year along with Slayer and Danzig. Like what the fuck, dad? You were living it. You had it. What the hell happened?”
“Wow. Did your mother tell you all that?”
“No, I did my research. There’s this thing called the Internet?”
“Wow, I’m sincerely touched. I did have it, didn’t I? That was the year you were born. Everything went great that year.” Randall’s father paused to reflect. Then he shrugged. “Oh, well. Okay. So you want to know what happened? This happened.” He gestured to his dress and hair. “I know this is going to sound silly but, besides you and your mother, this is what made me happy. Not that. Not all that macho angry metalhead bullshit. This. And this really didn’t fit with that. At least not in the public eye. My career would have been over. I was trapped. And I couldn’t see a way out. I couldn’t just accept who I was because I believed no one else would.”
“Well, you’re wrong.”
“Duh. I know that now. But now’s a little too late, don’t you think? And, believe me, I wasn’t the only one. There’s a reason why a lot of the boys like to dress up and grow their hair long. Just saying. To each his own, right?”
Randall’s father looked at him in the way someone with experience looks at someone who’s still in the stage of discovery. It made Randall feel slightly uncomfortable.
“So, what are you trying to say? I’m not gay, it that’s what you think.”
“Never said you were.”
“And, unlike you, I’ve never felt the need to dress up in Mom’s clothes.”
“Didn’t say that either.”
“Look, I know you’re struggling to find yourself. Sometimes it’s hard. Especially when you have no one to guide you. Let’s just say, if I had it to do over again, I’d stick around. But, as you know, in life, there are no do-overs. What I’m trying to say is go with your gut, son. Accept who you are. Not just who you want to be. But who you need to be. If you need to be a musician, then goddammit, be a musician. If you need to write poetry, then put that pen to paper. If you need to dance–”
“I think I got it, dad.”
“Then dance! Bottom line, if you need to do anything where that thing fills your soul and makes your heart sing–then, goddammit, do it! Accept who you are, the rest will follow.”
For Randall, what his father was saying, at last, made a certain kind of sense. Could it be that simple? thought Randall.
Randall’s dad nodded.
“What? You can hear my thoughts, too?”
Randall’s dad shrugged his shoulders and smiled. And for the first time, Randall smiled, too. It was a moment. One moment in a life that had too few of them. Randall wanted more, but he could see that this little show and tell was going to be it. Dust began to appear on the countertop, swirling in tiny eddies. Randall’s father’s dress began to turn fuzzy at the edges, disintegrating right before his eyes. Randall began to panic, searching for all the things he ever wanted to say to his father but never had the chance.
His father removed the guitar pick from the Flying V and gave it to him. “Here. Don’t say I never gave you anything.” He smiled one last time.
“It was good to see you again, Dad.” Randall surprised himself with his words, but he went with his gut.
“You too, Randall.”
“Mom still loves you, you know.”
“And I…” The words caught in Randall’s throat.
“I love you, too, son.”
The dust was picking up speed. Randall’s father was looking more and more like a fading photograph.
Randall’s father nodded, and what was left of him, at last, dissolved. What was left of the surrounding boutique was also swept up into the ever-growing cloud of swirling dust, until Randall had to shield his eyes? And just as suddenly as it began, it stopped. When Randall opened his eyes again, he was on his knees in the middle of the old weigh station’s abandoned lot. No dust. No Freaks and Weirdos Boutique. Amid the cracked pavement and weeds, the summer sun beamed down bright and warm.
Randall checked his phone. Not a minute had passed since he’d stepped out of his car. He was momentarily confused. His brain, in fact, did hurt. He had an odd feeling of deja vu, but couldn’t recall anything that would warrant such a feeling. It was like waking from a dream of something that never happened. He remembered pulling into the empty lot but couldn’t recall the reason why. All he knew was he had to get to work.
He wandered back to his car and fished for his keys. When he pulled them out of his pocket, something fell onto the pavement. A guitar pick. And not just any guitar pick. This one had a storm finish. He’d never seen it before. He picked it up.
The mere touch of it sent a rush of musical ideas through his brain. He could hear a flurry of notes layered together just aching to be played. It was quite the rush.
Randall pocketed the pick and got into his car. The fuzziness in his brain cleared. Before pulling out onto Route 2, he took his cap off and let his hair fall down around his shoulders. Maybe he’d skip work today, go home and work instead on those songs he’d been writing. While the ideas were fresh. While the creative electricity was flowing.
He searched through his stack of homemade CDs for one in particular, and let the player swallow it. The lead-in to “Fire Down Below” rose up out of the silence.
Randall bobbed his head and cranked it up, and smiled just like his father.