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"True Original"

 by Wayne Faust  

© 2011 by Wayne Faust
All rights reserved

 

Otto Kleinsbarger was the most famous Rock Star in the World. He had gotten where he was through an amazing twist of fate. But after fifteen years at the top, his improbable luck was about to end. He wasn’t going to overdose on drugs or crash his sports car like other doomed rock stars had done. He was simply going to run away with his tail between his legs.

            Otto gathered some silk shirts from the hotel closet, along with a couple pairs of bell-bottom pants, and stuffed them into a knapsack. He tossed in some toiletries from the cabinet above the bathroom sink. He paused a moment in the cavernous suite to admire the antique paintings, the Ming Dynasty vases, and the huge picture window with its magnificent view of Lake Erie, shimmering blue in the morning sun. Few had ever seen the inside of the Premier’s Suite at the Woodhull Hotel in Cleveland but Otto had been a guest here on a regular basis.

            A woman in the bed stirred. He watched her turn over and settle back to sleep. Swimsuit Model. He’d had lots in his time. Movie Stars too. Otto sighed because he knew those days were over. He hoped he’d have time to drive down to his country estate in Hinckley and grab some of his memorabilia. He’d hate to leave without at least a few of his gold records. ‘Great Balls of Fire’ had been his first hit, he’d want that one for sure, and ‘Yesterday’ had been the biggest of them all. He would have to be choosy, though, because there were so many.

            For a brief moment, Otto heard his mother’s voice in his head. In heavily-accented Dutch it said, “You’re a simple boy, Otto. Never try to be more than you are.”

            Otto had been fighting that kind of thinking all his life, ever since his childhood in the Amish country of Ohio. He was still fighting it. The government behaved like his mother in so many ways, stern and disapproving of anything that might make somebody smile. But he had overcome all of that. At least until now.

****           

On a Wednesday night at Oscar’s Place in Canton, Ohio, Otto Kleinsbarger shielded his eyes against the stage lights, looking out through the smoky din towards the bar.

            “Freebird!” yelled a drunken voice for the third time that night. Otto actually ground his teeth. It was that idiot Lewis again.

            Otto punched up the rhythm sequence and started the song. Once upon a time he’d practiced for hours to get it exactly right - the half-stoned lead vocal, the screaming guitar solo, the tempo changes, everything.  The song had been old even then but customers still tormented lounge singers with that request. Most times they were trying to be funny because they knew the song was over nine minutes long. But Otto had learned it all the way through, exactly like the record, just to shut them up. But Lewis kept on asking for it over and over, shoving a five dollar bill into his tip jar each time, as if to show the whole bar he owned the entertainer. And then he would stand there in front of the stage and play gyrating air-guitar for the whole nine minutes. Five bucks was five bucks, but three times in one set? Lewis had made Otto into a whore and a cheap one at that.

            As he dragged his way through the endless song, Otto’s mind drifted.  He wondered what he was doing there, still plugging away at Oscar’s. He had some talent, he was pretty sure about that, but he’d been spinning his wheels for four years, five nights a week at the same place. It was a steady gig but it was leading exactly nowhere. No one really seemed to care that Otto could play all the guitar and keyboard parts just like the original hits, that he could change his voice to sound like the big stars. Did they think he was simply a human jukebox with a big repertoire? Well, sometimes he wondered if he was.

            After the end of his last set, even that small measure of success was taken from him. As he was shutting down, Stuckey gave him the news.

            “Sorry, Otto, we’re going with Karaoke. We gotta let you go as of tonight.”

            Otto felt knots in his stomach. This wasn’t fair. He had spent so many years polishing his craft. He had left the Amish life to pursue his dream of stardom in the music business. Now they were going to give his gig to somebody who played music recorded by somebody else and stood around watching the customers sing. How much talent did that take? None.

            A few of the regulars patted him on the back and helped him haul his stuff out to his car. They mumbled something about Stuckey being crazy to get rid of somebody as good as Otto, but Otto just wanted to get out of there before he started crying. When he got home to his tiny apartment and dragged his beer-stained speakers through the door he felt about as small as he’d ever felt in his life.

            If Otto had known then what would happen next, he would have gone back to Oscar’s and kissed Stuckey’s feet for letting him go.

            **** 

            The phone on the bedside stand rang. Otto grabbed it quickly, but not before it woke up Swimsuit Model. She sat up in bed. Otto smiled at her and waved.

            “Otto Kleinsbarger,” he said with authority into the mouthpiece.            

“Otto!” The voice on the other end was breathless. It was Perkir, his manager.

            “What is it, Perk?” answered Otto.

            “Did I wake you up?”

            “No.”

            “Good. I just got off the phone with Deb’s Field. We’re on for the 12th.”

            “Perk...”

            Swimsuit Model was drifting back to sleep.

            “This is how I see it,” Perk continued.

            Otto shuffled his feet and looked up at the ceiling. It would be several minutes before he could get a word in. He didn’t have several minutes.

            “Let’s hit ‘em with something new,” continued Perk. “It’s the biggest show of the year and we need to create a buzz, especially with everything going on in town. I can’t believe that old guy just appeared out of thin air next to the Premier during her speech. Didn’t you see the news clip? They’ve been playing it non-stop on PNN. I guess it’s too big of a story for even the Government to squash.”

            “Perk...”

            “Everyone’s been talking about it. Nobody interrupts the Premier, not for anything. But this guy did. The word on the street is that he’s an alien or something. They’ve got him sequestered in the Red House. Half of Cleveland is hanging around Lakeside Avenue, hoping for a glimpse. Sooner or later they gotta let the guy out. And that’s where we come in.”

            “Perk...”

            “We tie the show in with his appearance - maybe call it the ‘Welcome To Our World Show’ or something. You’re already the biggest Rock Star in the World. Now you’re gonna be the biggest in the Universe!

            “One thought, though. Let’s dump the Disco thing. Sales are slumping. All the imitators have beaten it to death and let’s be honest here - the rhythm is the same on every song. I know it was revolutionary when you recorded ‘Night Fever’ two years ago but we had to know it would get old fast. What have you got up your sleeve next?”

            An involuntary smile crossed Otto’s lips. Perk had boundless faith in him and why wouldn’t he? Otto had put together a string of hits stretching back fifteen years. He’d started eight major music genres, along with several hit movies and who knows how many fashion trends. Best of all, he still had more than enough material in him to last the rest of his life. He had been about to introduce country dance music. There would have been a movie about a wannabe cowboy in the city, going to a dance club every night. There would have been a mechanical bull. And Otto would have done the soundtrack.

            “I gotta go,” said Otto as he hung up the phone.  

****

            Otto Kleinsbarger was reduced to playing for rats.

            It was 4 AM, exactly halfway through his shift as night watchman at Harris Lab. Like he had done often in the past six months, he’d brought his guitar to work. Old man Harris would fire him if he ever found out, but this job was just a way to make some money until another gig came along. Besides, the upstairs lab was soundproofed so it was perfect. He practiced in-between his hourly rounds and no one knew the difference.

            The only creepy thing was the rats. Cages sat on shelves against the walls and when Otto played loud the rats would sit up and bare their teeth. “Well,” mumbled Otto, “at least they don’t yell ‘Freebird.’”

            As Otto was reaching for his guitar, he looked up. He thought he had heard a sound. When you’re the only human in a building late at night you can get spooked. He went to the door.

            “Hello?” he called down the hallway. He heard nothing except the soft hum of the overhead fluorescent lights.

            He closed the door and looked at his watch. He was due to check the lobby in ten minutes. He still had some time.

             A high metal table sat in the center of the room. Above it was a large shroud that appeared to be some sort of exhaust fan. Otto gingerly boosted himself up on the table and strapped on his guitar. Now he could watch the hallway as he played, just in case. He leaned back against a panel that was welded to the table, making himself comfortable. He threw his head back.

            Otto started playing ‘Break On Through’ by the Doors, a real oldie but one he’d gotten down perfectly, especially Jim Morrison’s stony vocal.  He reached down deep and blasted out the song.

            “Break on through, break on through to the other side...

            Otto was in his favorite spot, the place all musicians know, where time stops and outside distractions melt away as the music takes over. His mind was far away from the shabby little lab. His back inadvertently brushed against a lever on the panel behind him. There was a low, dissonant hum which Otto never heard. He was so involved with his music that he didn’t even notice that the table had started to vibrate softly. Improbably, by the end of the instrumental solo, the metal table had changed into tarnished wood.   

Otto had broken through to the other side for real.

 ****               

            “Where are you going?”

            Otto pulled up short of the door. He thought Swimsuit Model had gone back to sleep but she was sitting up in bed.

            “Just out for a walk,” he answered, turning back.

            “With a full knapsack? You must be planning on a long walk.”

            “Umm, yeah...” Otto stammered.

            “You’re leaving aren’t you?” she asked.

            Otto looked up at the ceiling. This was why he usually got up early and hustled out the door before they woke up. He was a Rock Star after all and he wasn’t looking for a relationship.

            “Look, uh...” Otto stopped and his face reddened. He couldn’t remember her name.

            “Grace,” said the woman.

            “That’s nice…”

            “Grace Harris,” she continued. “Old man Harris is my grandfather.”

            Otto’s knapsack fell to the floor.

****

            The rats were gone.

            The table Otto had been sitting on was no longer shiny metal, but wood. The room was empty except for a mop and bucket leaning against the far wall. Instead of the bright lab lights and the fan shroud over his head there was simply a 60 watt bulb in the ceiling. The air smelled like plastic and Otto looked down to see an ugly, forest green linoleum floor. Had the floor been like that before? Otto didn’t think so.

            Otto stood up. Was he freaking out? Somehow, the air itself felt different.

            He wandered into the hallway, loosely carrying his guitar. A vending machine sat in the corner by the stairs. It was filled with cans of soda but something was different. There was no Coca Cola or Sprite in the usual, brightly colored cans. These cans were dull and subdued, not quite generic, but looking like they had been designed by bureaucrats.

Down the stairs and into the lobby and then out the front door, Otto entered another world. He thought he might be dreaming but it felt completely real. The sidewalk beneath his feet looked like some sort of rough blue plastic. The cars parked along the street looked like something from a sci-fi movie. The night air smelled of autumn leaves, even though Otto knew it was April.

            The sign on the Harris Lab building now read “People’s Office Supply.” Disoriented, Otto staggered down the middle of the street like a drunk. He reached the corner store where he always went for coffee this time of night.

Inside, the grocery aisles were laid out in neat rows like he was used to, but, just like in the vending machine, the labels on cans were plain and there were no brand names he could recognize. There was no Starbuck’s counter in the corner either. Instead, a huge banner with a woman’s picture on it hung from the wall, surrounded by red flags emblazoned with hammer and sickle.

            “What happened to the Starbuck’s?” said Otto to a bored-looking checkout girl.

            “Starbuck? What is Starbuck?” she asked in an accent that sounded like the Dutch of Otto’s parents.

            Otto ran his tongue over his lips. No Starbuck’s here. Communist flag. Well, at least they spoke English.

“This might sound strange,” said Otto, “but what town is this?”

            The clerk was evidently used to people asking stupid questions in the middle of the night. “Canton,” she answered smoothly.

             “What state?”

            “Ohio.”

            “What country?” he asked, nodding towards the flags.

            “You don’t know what country you’re in?”

            “Please,” said Otto. “Brain’s fried from driving all night.”

            The clerk looked at Otto sideways. “The People’s Republic of America,” she said. “Ever since the Revolution eighty years ago.”

            Otto mumbled his thanks and staggered out the door.
 

**** 

            “Grace Harris?” asked Otto. “But I thought...”

            “I know, you thought you were the only one here. You were. For fifteen years. When you disappeared, there was a minor story in the newspaper about it. The police asked a few questions, and my grandfather told them you never came to work that night. Your family assumed you had just run off to California to try and be a rock star and that was the end of that. My grandfather knew that something large went through the Portal that night, and he figured it must have been you, but in those days, there was no way to trace you. For all he knew, your atoms had been scattered across the cosmos someplace. So he decided it was just too dangerous to keep the lab open and he shut it down.

            “So how did you get here?” asked Otto.

            “Cleveland State gave my grandfather some grant money and he built a new lab up here by the Lake, with better safeguards. He didn’t hire any more musicians to do security. But he did hire me right after I got my Physics degree. It was only a matter of time until I was working closely with him. I am his granddaughter after all.

            “Six months ago, I decided to send myself through. We’d been sending rats and bringing them back successfully, so I figured it was safe. The technology is good enough now to trace me, and I figured my grandfather would come after me. Then we could both go back in triumph and tell the world where we’d been. But I didn’t think it would take six months for him to get here.”

            “So how did you find me?”

            Grace chuckled. “That was the easy part. You’re everywhere. When I first heard the music here I knew something was fishy. The songs were all familiar but they sounded like those albums where somebody re-records the hits and tries to make them sound as much like the original as they can. But there’s no soul.”

            Otto grimaced. He’d gotten so used to his own versions of the songs that he thought they were actually better than the originals.

            “Then I saw you on TV. You were doing one of your hits, ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ I think. I recognized your name because my grandfather told me about your disappearance when I first went to work for him. I was able to put two and two together and figured out what you’d done. And then I found out you have a thing for Swimsuit Models. That was something I have a certain talent for, if I don’t say so myself, so here I am.”

            The room seemed to be getting smaller. Otto just wanted to leave before they came looking for him.

            “Look,” said Otto. “It’s been nice meeting you but...”

            “I’m not finished,” said Grace.

**** 

            When Otto left the grocery store that first night after finding out that he was in a whole different country – maybe even a whole different universe, his brain might have simply shut down. But Otto was used to adapting. His change from Amish farm boy to lounge singer had been scarier than this. It didn’t take him long to figure out his new surroundings because, after all, things weren’t really that different. It took a while to get used to some things, of course, like the fact that the capitol of the country was in Cleveland. That turned out to be a stroke of luck, however, because it was less than an hour from where he came through at Canton, and once his music made it to Cleveland it spread quickly around the whole country and then the world.

            He quickly figured out that his money was no good, since the bills here had Heroes of the Revolution on them, people like Eugene V. Debs and Victoria Woodhull. He needed to do something fast if he was going to keep from starving. He could simply panhandle of course, but something told him that that could be dangerous here.

In his early days, he had sung on street corners to make money. He could do it again. Outside the corner market the sky was just beginning to get light. He unslung his guitar, put his hat in front of him on the sidewalk, and began to sing, softly at first, and then with more confidence. A few people going to the market stopped to listen, and then a few more.

            And just like that, Otto Kleinsbarger became a phenomenon. Rock and roll was by nature anti-authority, so nothing like it had ever been allowed to take seed here. They had folk music, classical music, and lots of military marches, but not much else. Within an hour, hundreds of people were gathered around him and his hat was overflowing with coins and bills.

Within a week he no longer needed to sing on the street, because nightclubs were clamoring for him. By the time Perkir, who had been managing wedding bands, stumbled into his show at People’s Theater #48, he was well on his way. Within two months Perkir had gotten Otto a record deal, a dream come true at last.      

The Government was suspicious at first, and some bureaucrats suggested that Otto might be a counter-revolutionary, but Perkir pointed out to them all the tax revenue that Otto’s songs were generating. When the Premier said publicly that she liked the music, he was home free. She even pinned a medal on Otto, making him an Artist of the People. Otto was careful about which songs he recorded after that, of course, because official approval could disappear as quickly as it had come. But that was easy, since Otto had so many songs to draw from.

Otto felt guilty for awhile for claiming the songs as his own, but who would believe him if he told them the truth? It was far easier to say the songs were his. And the benefits were huge.

            “Where does the music come from?” Otto was asked for the thousandth time as he was interviewed on PMTV for the fifteenth anniversary of his first hit, “Great Balls Of Fire.”

            “Well,” answered Otto, “often when I wake up in the morning there’s a song rattling around in my head. It’s like I must have dreamed it into being. I always have a keyboard or guitar and tape recorder near my bed so I can get the song down before it gets away. Sometimes it’s almost spooky. It’s like I’m not even writing it.”

            The host smiled and raised his water glass. “Well, here’s to a true original.”

****

            “I’m out of time,” said Otto.  “Your grandfather has been here for almost two days. Other people will come through soon. Every one of them will know I’m a fraud. The PROA isn’t as lenient as the good old USA. They have the death penalty for plagiarism. I checked.”

            “You’re right about that,” said Grace. “And my grandfather’s setting up a mass conduit. It’ll be like a superhighway soon. And it will go both directions.”

            “So what am I standing around here for?” said Otto. He picked up his knapsack. He hoped to make it out of Ohio alive. He couldn’t go back to the old world. Even without the death penalty he would be nothing there. He planned to drive west to the Rockies. There were places there where he could disappear. He turned for the door.

            “Did you like being a rock star?” asked Grace.

            Otto stopped. “What?” he said over his shoulder.

            “Was it what you thought it would be?” Her voice had a yearning in it that Otto hadn’t heard before.

            Otto sighed, still facing the door. “Yeah, it was. Maybe even better. I was bigger than Elvis.”

            “But Elvis wasn’t happy.”

            Otto turned back towards Grace. “I was. I got to be what I always wanted.”

            “There are more universes,” said Grace.

The words hung in the air. Otto set down his knapsack.

            “Lots more,” she continued. “I can take us there.”

            “Us?”

            “Yes. Us. You and me. I can sing, you know. Can you play Streisand?”

            Otto nearly laughed, but the look in Grace’s eyes stopped him.  It was a hungry look, probably the same one that had been in his own eyes when he first came to this world and saw the possibilities. And now she was saying there was a chance to do it all over again. And again.

            “What if the others follow?” he asked.

            “Then we move on. There are enough universes out there to last us more than a lifetime.”

                        Otto wondered if Grace had a good voice. She was a lot prettier than Barbara Streisand. And Otto knew the songs.

                        “This is crazy,” he said.

                        “Isn’t rock and roll supposed to be crazy?” she asked.

                         Otto smiled at that. He had been thinking lately that it might be nice to be more in the background for a change, to let someone else soak up a little glory. And now this woman had come along to bail him out at the ideal moment. This just might work. And after that? Maybe he could step into the foreground again. He’d always wanted to try doing Sinatra...

                        Otto walked over to the bed. He sat down next to Grace and slid closer until their hips were touching. “What about my gold records?” he asked.

                        “We can get more,” she said.

 THE END

 

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