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Fiction / Kavan Stafford

Tribute Act

Issue 1. February 01, 2021

I thought he was another tribute. You get a lot of them around here. Elvis, Johnny Cash, Tom Jones. You even still get the odd MJ one although there’s a lot less of those now than there used to be obviously. I can’t imagine why you still get any to be honest. You see them moonwalking on the street, wearing the sequenced jacket and the hats pulled low over their eyes and all you can think of is all the allegations. I don’t know how you could continue to be someone after all that.

   Because being is what it is when you’re up on those tiny bar stages – sometimes just a half-circle of sticky linoleum floor hastily cleared of tables for the night – singing your heart out. You aren’t acting like them. It isn’t a character you slip in and out of depending on what you’re doing. When you’ve been a tribute long enough you can’t separate yourself from them and you wouldn’t have it any other way. You change your hair, your clothes, your skin tone, your whole look just because they do. Once they’re dead – God forbid – you have a bit more flexibility. The Elvises like to pick a favourite time period and stick with that a lot of the time. But as long as your tribute is alive, you have to be like them. People don’t come to see me. They come to see Daddy Carraway.

   Of course they know it’s not really Carraway on the stage (the tickets cost a tenth of the price for a start) but it’s my job to make the illusion as complete as possible. So when Carraway shaved his head last year and started hitting the weights I had to do the same. When he ditched the more traditional shirt and string-tie look for a simple black t-shirt for the Is it Still Over? tour in 2005 I had to throw out half my damn wardrobe. When he gained all that pork on his gut in ‘96 I did that too despite the fact that my mom, who was still alive at the time, practically begged me on her knees not to risk my health for ‘that silly karaoke thing’.

   She never understood what all other tributes do – it’s not fucking karaoke. That’s the worst thing you can say. When someone’s Cyndi Lauper three nights a week in a dive bar off the strip, she doesn’t just stop being Cyndi when she goes back to her day job of answering phones or entering numbers into a fucking computer or whatever. She’s Cyndi the whole time. She has to be if she’s any good at all.

   I met this ventriloquist one of the times I auditioned for America’s Got Talent and he told me that one of the unwritten rules was that you never let the audience see a ‘dead’ puppet. As long as someone can see it, it should always be at least animated if not talking. Being a tribute is like that. You should never let someone see a ‘dead’ singer – never give the impression that you’re simply doing an impression. Even when I’m not on stage I’m still Carraway. I even talk like him. I’m from Maine but you wouldn’t know it by my Southern accent. I’m always him.

   And so when Carraway walked into the bar that night I just assumed it was another tribute. There’s only four or five of us on the strip and he wasn’t one I recognised but that didn’t mean anything. There was a lot of turnover of all the tribute acts. You have the odd stalwart like me but most only last a year or two unless they get really big.

   You see, you get someone who’s an okay singer and he realises that he looks like Elvis or at least that he could look like Elvis if he puts a little bit of effort in and turns the lights down low. So he comes out to the strip  because he managed to make a little money on the side singing at the old folks homes in his home-town but once he’s here he realises that he’s one of about a million Elvises and almost all of them are better than him. He sticks it out for a few years just to avoid the end for as long as possible and then gives in and goes back to Nowhere, Mississippi to be the butt of his family’s jokes for the rest of his life. It’s a hard gig.

   I looked this new guy up and down as he strutted into the bar and concluded that he looked pretty good. Almost perfect in fact. He had the newly trim waist, the t-shirt tucked into the wrangler jeans, the scuffed boots. Even the way he walked was right – Carraway always walked as if he were contemptuous of the very ground he stood on, with one thick thumb tucked through the belt loop above his crotch. He paused, glancing over the place with a distant gaze. Even his eyes were the right colour.

   In 1990 Carraway starred in his one and only film. Even I don’t know what he was thinking doing it. Maybe he thought he could be like Elvis and cash in while the going was hot. Carraway plays a farmer fresh back from Vietnam, who overhears some deadbeats talking about robbing the bank the next town over and decides he’s going to do something about it. It was basically a classic cowboy flick with some of the worst acting ever committed to film. Carraway has the voice of an angel, God knows, but an actor he is not.

   The reason I mention it is because the film has a lot of shots of his sharp blue eyes, shielded from the light of the Southern sun by his heavy brow and, as this tribute looked around the bar, I saw that his eyes were almost eerily similar.

   I raised my glass as he looked around and caught those blue eyes. I was drinking a Glenfiddich, neat. Not my favourite drink – I’m more of a European lager kind of man – but, in public at least, I always have to be Carraway and Carraway drinks Glenfiddich neat so I do too. He clapped his hands and laughed, throwing back his head. God, even his laugh sounded like Carraway.

   See, a lot of people think it’s really important that you look exactly like the person you tribute but that’s not true. Obviously you have to look a little like them but, like I said earlier, low lighting can work wonders. This guy, though, he really looked like Carraway. It was uncanny actually. To the point of being creepy. Looking at him gave my eyes a curious doubling effect as if I were really drunk. I could see the man standing in front of me and badly layered over his form I could see that of Carraway himself as I had seen in pictures and films and album covers and even on stage.

   I had never actually met Carraway, in case you’re wondering. I guess there’s a few reasons why. For a start I was never going to be one of those people who hang about outside stage doors hoping for a half-hearted autograph or a wink from one of those blue eyes. President Trump would call people like that SAD, and in that, as in almost everything else, he would be right. I love Carraway with all my heart, I really do, but I’m not going to be some groupie hanging about in the cold hoping for a glimpse of him. My apartment is full of Carraway merchandise; I have every album he ever made on vinyl, tape and CD, I have the DVD of his film. I have lighters, belts, t-shirts, all sorts but that’s as far as I’ll go. I haven’t even seen him on stage more than three times – ironically, I’m too busy being him to follow him around on tour.

   The guy approached the bar and perched himself on the stool beside me, giving the surface of the bar a good-natured slap.

   “My friend,” he said to the silent barman who had been cleaning the taps with grim-faced intensity since I had sat down two drinks ago, seemingly more for something to do than because they actually needed cleaning. “Get me a Glenfiddich, neat, and whatever my friend here would like,”

   The barman looked at me and I nodded, “The same,” I said.

   The man beside me hooted as if I had just told a particularly good joke, “The same! Yes, get him exactly the same. Why am I not surprised? Make ‘em doubles too.”

   The barman turned away for a second and returned to us only a second later with two glasses containing quite a bit more than a double measure. This was one of the reasons I drank in here. He set them down in front of us without a sound and, if he was at all surprised to see the fact that we both looked so similar, he gave no sign at all. I suppose you must see all kinds of things working in a bar like this, in any bar really, and things stop having the ability to surprise you after a while.

   “Thank you very much,” I said, lifting my fresh drink in a half-toast to my new companion.

   He clapped me on the back, beaming, “No problem at all, my friend. Hey – least I could do, right?”

   I took a sip from my drink, trying to suppress my usual grimace at the taste, “Yep. We gotta stick together, guys like us. So,” I put the drink back down to avoid having to take another sip, “What do I call you, neighbour?” Neighbour is one of Carraway’s words. I hate using it actually. It makes me sound like a Southern Ned Flanders.

   My new friend, anyone who buys me a drink is a friend in my books, laughed again, “Well my friends just call me Don,”

   “Right,” I said, smiling thinly. Donald was Carraway’s real first name though people usually referred to him as Daddy or just plain Carraway. This was a common problem with newbies – they didn’t know where to stop and they took all the advice about staying in character a bit too far. We can use our own names – most of us do even on our concert posters. The fact is that doing an Elvis accent all the time is quirky but insisting you be called Elvis on your down time is just obnoxious. Still, I didn’t want to be the one to burst the guy’s bubble so I let it go, “Don it is,” I said.

   “And you?”

   “Alan,” I said, offering my hand. He shook it in a dry, firm grip that seemed to linger just a bit longer than it needed to.

   “Well it sure is nice to meet you Alan,” Don said, grinning wide enough to show almost two full rows of neat, straight white teeth.

   “Nice to meet you too,” I said, half-meaning it and hoping I wasn’t reading too much into the handshake. Sure, it’s not like it used to be – there’s not even a fraction of the same dangers there were when I was younger – but making a move is still a tense thing. You never know how someone’s going to react. “So are you new to this game or what?” I asked, taking another sip for the courage.

   Don looked puzzled, the skin crinkling up around those blue eyes of his, “Game?” he repeated.

   “The entertainment gig,” I said, “Are you new in town?”

   He laughed again, “Oh no,” he said, “Not new at all. I’ve been at this for a long time now,”

   “Really?” I found that hard to believe. Nobody who’d been doing this any length of time would still be going around calling themselves Don to strangers. Still, maybe he hadn’t been at it that long. It’s all relative. When I had been a tribute act for six months I considered myself an old hand, hard as that is to believe now. “Well here’s to a life in showbiz,” I raised my drink and he clinked his glass against mine, smiling slightly. I caught his eye and then jumped as I felt the firm weight of his other hand on my thigh. So I hadn’t been wrong about the handshake after all.

   Don’t get me wrong – I wasn’t sitting at the bar trying to score or anything like that. This was a gay bar though it didn’t advertise itself as such but I really was just in for a drink. It gets dreary sitting up in your apartment all alone, you know? I’ve never really had any sort of long term “thing” to keep me company on all those proverbial lonely nights. I think of being a tribute as a bit like being a long-distance trucker. It’s a job that doesn’t give you a lot of chance for romance. How could it when the whole point of the job is to spend your whole life being someone else?

   I did have a boyfriend that I could have seen becoming serious once about ten years ago. Tony was a nice guy with a normal job – he was a manager for a company which sold air conditioning units – and he seemed, at least initially, to get my job in a way that previous lovers hadn’t. One of his previous boyfriends had been involved in the drag scene so he at least sort of understood the desire to go up on stage and be what you weren’t. What he didn’t understand is that, when it comes to being Carraway, I’m not pretending. I am him in some fundamental and profound way. You don’t spend so long copying someone’s every move without taking a bit of his soul. Tony understood a lot but he didn’t understand that.

   In the end we were together for only three or four months. When the end came it didn’t feel entirely unexpected but it stung just the same. I came through to his tiny kitchen/living area one morning for breakfast. I was already dressed, wearing a Carraway classic – black rhinestone covered shirt with a string tie and tight jeans. Tony was sitting at the kitchen counter on a stool. He was wearing only a pair of boxer shorts and the way he was hunched over his cereal bowl made his stomach bunch above them, making him look more overweight than he actually was.

   He looked up as I came in, a smile already on his face and fading fast, “Al,” he said. I hate being called that. It makes me sound like I’m running a deep-fry place in Hell’s Kitchen. “I thought we talked about this.”

   We had talked about it a lot. That day we were supposed to be going to meet his parents in Bakersfield, California for the weekend. I had cancelled a show the next night to make the trip. And, after much discussion, I had agreed that I would consider wearing normal street clothes. I had planned to keep that agreement but when I woke up that morning and looked in my closet, the idea of putting on something else, the idea of changing my accent back to my natural one if I even could, seemed perverse. I couldn’t do it.

   I looked at him, his face somewhere between confusion (had I simply forgotten?) and anger (did I not care about him at all?) and felt a flip towards the bottom of my stomach. I didn’t want to fight him on this but I didn’t want to do as he asked either.

   In the end the fight was brief and particularly nasty. It was one of those times where nobody actually says the relationship is over but both parties know that there’s no way to come back from what was said. I think everyone has a thin vein of venom running through their brain. That vein contains all of the things they have ever thought about their friend or wife or mother that they have wisely kept inside where all such venom belongs. Sometimes, though, that vein is punctured and it all oozes out. When that happens, there’s no going back.

   I don’t know if I meant everything I said about Tony that day and I hope he didn’t mean all he said to me but I’ll never know for sure. I left his apartment that morning and I never came back. Since then I haven’t had a boyfriend at all. I’ve fucked a couple of guys but fucking is all. I’ve found them on Grindr, met them somewhere and two hours later I’m on my way home, itch scratched but still alone. Of course, alone isn’t the same as lonely. I always have Carraway. That’s the thing with being a tribute. You always have them.

   I looked into the gently smiling face of Don beside me and considered the weight of his hand on my thigh. Did he feel the same as I did? Was there some boyfriend in his past who had asked him to do the same thing Tony had asked me? It was tempting to think so though I had no way of knowing for sure. I licked my lips a little nervously and took another drink to calm my jittering leg.

   ‘Don’ drained his in a single gulp and raised a single sculpted – Carraway kept himself in good condition for a man his age so we all had to do the same – eyebrow at me. I felt my heart flutter a little bit and the hairs on my arms stood on end. It wasn’t like me to react so physically to something so small but I felt like a schoolgirl face-to-face with her boyband idol. In a way, that’s exactly what was happening. Don was sexy in an older man sort of way and, the fact was, he looked a whole lot like Carraway.

   Before I go on I just want to make one last thing clear. I am not in the tribute game because of some sort of sick masturbatory sexual attraction. There are no more gay tributes than there are gay people in the rest of the world. I’ve never went for men who looked like Carraway, and by extension me, at all. Carraway is, like I said, sculpted, muscled, wholesome looking. I’ve never been someone who was into bears, not exactly, but I like a bit of a tyre around the middle. Guys with six packs just make me feel like I should have one too and that’s never going to happen.

   So it wasn’t like there was some sort of immediate sexual attraction on my part. There was just something in the way he looked at me. That raised eyebrow and the little curl of a smile at the corner of his lips. That and the heavy, hot weight of his hand on my thigh convinced me to say yes when he pulled a twenty from a silver money clip, put it on the bar, and asked me if I wanted to come over to his hotel room. When I agreed, he curled his lips into a little smile again, hopped off of the bar stool and began to trot from the bar without a backwards glance.

   Half-amused and half-turned on by his attitude, I slid off of my own stool, offering the still silent barman a smile of goodbye. His face remained as expressionless as ever and I headed out after Don. I wondered what the barman thought of me. It can’t have been the first or even the thousandth time he had seen somebody get picked up by a stranger at his bar and yet I wondered if he somehow disapproved. Running a gay bar in the middle of Vegas wasn’t the usual occupation for a homophobe but you never know.

   Don held the door open for me and I ducked under his arm, giving him a small little smile. I decided I didn’t care what the barman thought – I wasn’t going home with a stranger at all. I was going home with somebody I knew as well as I knew myself. In a way I was going home with myself.

   As we stepped out into the cool night of the desert I stopped Don with a hand against his firm chest.

   “Is your name really Don?” I asked him.

   He smiled at me, his face cast into shadows by the streetlight. Surprising me, he ducked down and brushed his lips against mine, a kiss as sweet as it was quick, “Sure,” he said, “But my fans call me Daddy Carraway.”

   I laughed and touched his face, then my own, “That’s funny,” I said, “So do mine.”

Kavan P. Stafford is a 26 year old author and poet based in Glasgow, Scotland. He has had work published in ‘Unpublishable’, ‘The Common Breath’, 'The Sock Drawer' and ‘Writers Forum’. Most of his work is set in and around his home city. For a day job he works in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library

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