The calliope crashed to the ground. The cowboys gaped.
The calliope was smoldering and shuddering and making a faint whizzing or wheezing or maybe it was a whining sound. The pipes were bent and cracked, the steam boiler badly dented. Its painted panels caved in on themselves, perverting the circus scenes once so delicately depicted into something much more sinister. A disaster, yes, but it did make a beautiful ruin.
“I didn’t see that coming,” said One, “did you?”
“No way I did,” Two answered. He adjusted his hat and spat on the ground. “What should we do now, do you think?”
“Keep riding, I think.” They kept riding.
The cowboys were performance artists. They believed themselves to be the first true men of the west to attempt the genre. The frontier was good and closed, it was heartbreaking but true, and thus they resolved to seek adventure in sonic and aesthetic realms. They met through mutual friends, who, recognizing the deep affinities they shared, put them in touch, their partnership all but a foregone conclusion. Thus did they leave wives and children at home on the ragged remnants of the range to devote themselves to creation. That some judged them harshly for having done so only served to bond them further.
The calamity was ill-timed, as calamities often are. Their schedule held no room for error; if they rode their horses as hard as they dared, they would reach Dallas mere hours before their most important happening yet. They were booked to play an important sock hop there for an audience of some 500 souls. (The choice of Dallas wasn’t made to avenge the Kennedys, or not entirely so, though the cowboys did take considerable exception to the embrace the city once gave the John Birch Society, and suspected its complicity, however unwitting, in the deadly events at Dealey Plaza).
They mourned the calliope quietly, each to himself, as they rode. The instrument had been the centerpiece of their collaboration, its creation thoroughly documented, its transport considered fundamental to their project. Some of the better blogs took note, precocious fans had appeared alongside their path to catch a glimpse. At the moment of the crash, no fans were in evidence. Could the crash signify without being observed? Should they reverse course, and document it? But that was for others to do, and yet there were no others now. The cowboys were utterly, irredeemably, alone. They had sent their guitars on ahead, by the post.
They discussed ways the calliope might have been holding them back, how reliance on spectacle might diminish their artistry. They discussed the potential for the use of other machines.
“Maybe we should not have abandoned it,” One said. “Maybe no other machines are in the offing.”
“Maybe machines just aren’t the thing for us,” said Two. “Maybe they’re limiting us, after all. From what we can do on our own steam, so to speak.” They shared a rueful chuckle.
Or perhaps they should have dragged it, maybe that would have been edifying, would have proved after all to be the work itself. What had previously seemed to be sanguinity was perhaps instead a colossal failure of nerve. Had cowboys’ stoicism failed them? It was true that they communicated best through music, which has, in point of fact, been the way of things on the range for a very long time.
But as bodies in motion tend to so remain, they rode on, adjusting their plans, their set lists, and their expectations. They sang to each other, trading new melodies and suggesting new sonic structures, and marveling at the landscape as they passed through it.
On the last night of their ride the cowboys found a town to ride into around sunset. They hitched the horses, not being picky as to where, beat it for the nearest bar and drank one bourbon and one beer each. Then they rode to the far side of town and made camp, the better to get a head start on the next day’s ride.
Each dreamed of the destroyed calliope through the night, recursive, looping affairs, the machine ablaze in sunlight so pure as to make you cry, images that shape-shifted and slipped between their two brains. The next morning they were out with the sun, moving confidently through the final leg of their journey while the warm tones of the sunrise enlivened the mesquite.
When day’s end came, they were at the appointed place, and they were more than ready. News of the calliope disaster had reached Dallas via Twitter, and ratcheted expectations for their performance to a fever pitch. The horses were outside, cared for by experienced minders. Handlers and Yes Men fluttered about the cowboys, saying this and that, and then finally saying, “It’s time,” and so it was.
They took the stage. Dallas was going crazy for them.
Jenny Staff Johnson’s fiction, essays, and journalism have appeared in New Dead Families, Literary Mothers, and Houstonia Magazine, among others. She lives in Houston, where she’s working on a novel and tweeting @htownjenny.