I was in the checkout line at the Belmont Bi-Rite. In front of me, a famous person was paying for some ice cream. When I say he was famous, I don’t mean I recognized him from TV or the magazines. I didn’t. I knew he was famous because of the way he exchanged pleasantries with the cashier: not so much talking to her as engaging in stage patter. He pitched his voice about twice as loud as it needed to be, and he cut his eyes now toward me, now toward the thirteen-year-old bagboy to see how the act was playing to this little audience. His manner suggested that he thought we all knew who he was.
The bagboy gaped at the famous person as he handed him the bag. The famous person beamed a benevolent smile on the boy. “You recognize me from TV,” he ventured.
The boy’s eyes widened further, now with fright. He wasn’t up to the task of supporting such a hope. He froze where he was, the bag of ice cream still extended. “Randy McLeod,” the man said. “That name mean anything to you?” (I’ve changed his name, to protect his dignity).
The boy leaned back as Randy McLeod leaned in closer. Randy sang a few bars of a country hit from a few years earlier, but no light of recognition brightened the boy’s face or softened his anxiety. The man’s hope yearned across the terrible silence. But it was no use. He tousled the bagboy’s hair. “That’s all right, boy. You’re probably not a country fan.”
That name meant something to me; Randy McLeod had been half of a duo that enjoyed moderate success some years earlier. After the duo broke up, he had one solo hit on the radio and a music video that played about once an hour throughout the one summer I watched the Country Music Television station. That was years earlier; I don’t think he had been on the radio since. What’s more, I don’t think he’s been on the radio in the intervening decade either. I imagine him still wandering the countryside like some folktale character, peering into every face and asking, “Randy McLeod—that name mean anything to you?”
I don’t suppose this is news to anybody who has ever watched Behind the Music, but in fame there can be a yawning neediness that is terrible to behold. What I at first believed to be arrogance or entitlement was in fact need. It was only false hope, a frail protest against the sorrow of a world that doesn’t keep its promises.
I watched Randy walk out of the grocery store. But I wish I had put my arm around his shoulder and said, “Yes, Randy. Of course I remember you. You had that music video a few years back, with the girl in the cotton dress and the train depot.” I wish I had said, “I hear you’re a very talented songwriter. Thank God art doesn’t fly away as fast as fame.” I wish I had said, “You’re going to be all right, Randy, even if no stranger ever recognizes you again.”
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we’ve ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.