by Branson Reese
Billy Corgan woke with a start. Was this heaven? The dull pain in his legs assured him he was still very much alive. Good, Billy thought. Promised myself the first thing I’d do in Heaven was find Jim Morrison and beat him up. Prison rules. Even in death. But if this wasn’t heaven, where was it?
Billy felt the warm dry dirt around him, searching dumbly– for what?– for clues? There was nothing to be found. Just the dead earth, and a stray root. Mockingbirds twittered amiably in the treetop canopy above. The fresh, honest stink of manure hung distantly in the air. Somewhere nearby, a brook babbled merrily as a toddler.
“Wait just a second,” Billy commanded nobody in particular. “Where am I?”
That’s when it all came flooding back to him. The last thing Billy remembered was cruising up I-294, blowing off steam after his latest fight with Gavin.
Billy had first eyed Gavin when he snuck into his local Hot Topic dressed in his “normal guy” disguise: jet black toupee, spirit gum mustache, bowler hat, Real-D glasses with the lenses poked out, and London Fog trench coat. You could never be too careful with fans, always clamoring for autographs. Billy owed his fans nothing, but they wanted everything from him. Why? What has he ever denied them? Was his heart, smeared across the sleeve of album after album not enough? These days Billy rarely went out without a disguise of some sort. Regular Guy was a favorite, as was Chef Billy, Billy Millionaire, and Cilly Borgan (who’s habit of speaking his sentences backwards made him a less practical choice, as he was mostly relegated to a few choice phrases Billy had learned by heart.)
Billy had entered the Hot Topic that day dressed as Regular Guy to demand that they stock more Smashing Pumpkins albums and posters. And why not Zwan while they were at it? Billy had memorized the shifts of the various employees and wanted to complain to each of them twice. Billy had already been hard at work thinking about the new Pumpkins album, but wanted to get some grassroots support going before he ventured back into the studio. It’ll be just like 1992, he had told himself. Only this time I won’t have to clean up after James and D’Arcy’s little messes. The American Dream is built on second acts. I’m priming myself for the big one, here.
Of course, the hands of fate had once again thrown a monkey wrench into Billy’s plans on that day in the mall. He had spied a round-faced teen sifting through the posters (Nirvana? Green Day? Sublime? Bah!) with a look that struck Billy as all too familiar. He knew that expression and knew it well. He’d faced it day after day in his own bathroom mirror. A look that said “I get it. I understand that people are dumb but I am not. I’m good and everybody is mostly bad.” It wasn’t a look you’d ever spy in a Disney movie or a lullaby told by your mommy and daddy to keep the bad thoughts away. No, it was a cool look. And what was that?! A Van Halen shirt? They hadn’t been popular in decades! This kid GOT IT!
Billy had stumbled over himself introducing himself to the sullen teen. The lad had failed to meet his handshake and responded to his introduction with a “Cool story, bro.” But Billy saw through that right away! I didn’t even tell a story! Oh, but I’ll need to keep my wits about me with this one!
That, of course, was then. This was now. Over the next year, as Gavin had made his way into the studio, Billy had feared that he had seen too much of himself in Gav. Gavin had proven to be a wolf in cool clothing. He was dismissive, domineering, and uncompromising. He had only agreed to join Smashing Pumpkins on the condition that his girlfriend Christina be allowed to play bass. “The instrument the girl plays, sure” Billy had conceded to the arrangement without hesitation. Anything to get in that studio with Gavin and just jam. Just get back to basics. But these were no basics they had gotten back to. Christina had led to Trevor, their old friend who said little and drummed less. He had taken to wearing a bucket hat in rehearsals, a practice which confused Billy to no end. Fearing himself outnumbered and losing influence each day, Billy had instituted a “no hats” policy. This seemed to solve things for a day or two until Trevor had written “lame” in between “no” and “hats” on the sign. Incensed, Billy had snatched the bucket hat from his head and worn it on his own head. The wave of hate and resistance he had expected never came. The teens seemed to agree that the hat was “cool” and fit Billy “like a dang glove.” Billy noticed that Gavin, in particular, seemed to approve of the changing of the hat guards, insisting that Billy wear the hat at all times. His insistence was unbending. It scared Billy. And behind his smiling eyes he felt the same barbed sarcasm he had heard in Gavin’s initial “Cool story, bro”– but how could that be? How could one teen be so sarcastic? And he had liked the hat on Trevor, besides. No, it must be cool. Billy had won this.
Still, he heard the snickers.
But that fight felt like a lifetime ago to Billy now, as he lay here on the sun-speckled earth. Where was his car? He had been driving, trying to clear his head when it happened. But what? What had happened to him? He remembered a figure. And the smell of hot rubber in the air. Like a Gap on fire. And then nothing.
Was this some forest by the interstate? Had he gotten that far north already? Impossible. Some vast median he had landed on? Never. There were trees as far as the eye could see in all directions. And what about his car? Had that just vanished into thin air?
“And what do we have here? Some motley fool, lost his caravan?”
Billy jumped to his sore feet. He was no fool. “I’m no fool!” He said to the wind. Where had that voice come from?
A tall, gaunt man stepped out from behind a tree, unsheathing a steel blade from his belt. “You’ve yet to convince me of that. You gave me quite the laugh as you soiled yourself in the dirt, not ten minutes past. If you be no fool, what are you then? A knight, in search of his lost vows? Or are you a deserter? Is that it? If I have the truth of it, I name you craven.”
Billy could feel his face getting hot with rage. “You’re too late, pal. My dad already named me Billy. I’m Billy Corgan. And you don’t make fun of me, I make fun of you.”
“Then a fool it is! I must confess I’ve never heard tell of House Corgan. Tell me, fool, to whom are you sworn? I should think there must be a marvelous fat reward for the return of this bald-pated fool.”
“I belong to no man! I’m Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins! Haven’t you heard of me? I wrote Ava Adore, you nitwit! Did you steal my car?”
The thin man, pulled his blade. “I know not why you’ve shorted the word for caravan, but I can assure you I’m no thief. As for your assertion that you created Her Majesty Ava, well you have claimed yourself as a long dead king! Your words write you as fool even as they speak otherwise! But I’ve a more vulgar name for you. You who would smash the harvest gourds during the famine decade, I name you Waster of Food. There be no man lower.”
“Shut up!” Billy charged at the thin man. “You’re dressed like you’re at a stupid Renaissance Faire!” He was running full force at the man. Billy had no plan at this moment, other than to unleash some of the anger he’d been saving for Gavin, Christina, and Trevor. Somewhere in his brain he had cataloged the man’s tunic and medieval garb as unusual. Maybe he was one of those Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness fanboys who got real into the album art. There had been a brief resurgence of medieval lore and mysticism in the mid ’90’s, which Billy had always traced back to the release of MCATIS.
But there was no love at the end of this blade. Only steel, unforgiving. As quick as lightning, Billy felt a hot lightness. Blood sprayed hot from the side of his head. His ear landed on a rock.
“Ah! My ear!” Billy squealed, “you cut it off! But I use that to listen to Prog Rock!”
The gaunt man laughed mirthlessly. “I know not the rock you speak of, but if it’s your ear you’ll be wanting back, perhaps the rock upon which it has landed may be of some interest to you.”
Billy grabbed at his bleeding ear with one hand, covering his hot wound with the other. “You’ll pay for this! I’ll… I’ll sue you! This ear is worth millions! This was the first ear to hear Machina! You fool! You’ve kicked a hornet’s nest you can’t unkick!”
The gaunt man considered this, briefly. He kicked at the dry dirt, thoughtfully. “You’re a queer sort of fellow, that much is plain to man and God. But you’ve tasted steel. And you’ve not faltered from your path,” he sheathed his sword perfectly, “I suspect there’s more to you than meets the eye. Come. I know of a barber nearby who can make mend of your ear, lest the Black Shivers takes a hold and turns your head into a maker of pus. Let me lead the way. You’ll find worse terrors behind these trees than myself, mark my words. Or else this isn’t the year 1379.”
“Hold the phone,” Billy commanded. “Did you just say 1379? Did you mean to say 1979? Are you making… a reference to me?”
The gaunt man began walking. “I know not of ‘phones’ and shan’t debase myself to speak of the holding of them, but as to the year, I spoke it truly. It has been thirteen hundred nine and seventy years since the birth of Christ. I took you for a mongrel, but perhaps I overestimated you. Even a whelming babe knows the year.”
Billy couldn’t say what was making him dizzier, the blood loss or the news that he had somehow been transported back in time. “I need to sit down,” he finally managed, weakly.
“Go ahead, but you’re not like to stand up again if you do,” the gaunt ear-cutter warned. “If it’s death you seek, rest. But if you want to live, come with me.”
Billy weighed his options. Should I soldier on? Or should I stay here and die? I don’t belong here, in some forest. I belong on the top of the charts. Maybe it would be easier to die here, before I was ever even born. But, no. If I die here now then I’ll never be able to get back to 2015 and record the album that will put the Smashing Pumpkins back on the charts!
That settled it.
“Take me to this barber of yours!” Billy demanded. He didn’t know what lay in store, but he knew one thing:
It was going to take a whole lot of rocking to get home.