Monday, December 14, 2020

The Ballad of John Rider, fiction by Jeff Esterholm

The flight was under four minutes, a trick of levitation at eleven at night, up Market Street and then Portola Drive to Diamond Heights. Jefferson Airplane’s “Have You Seen the Saucers.” With the opening notes, the cabdriver reached over to the dashboard and turned up the FM station’s volume. When the song concluded on its sci-fi buzz and fade, he glanced at me in the rearview mirror and said, “Welcome to San Francisco.”

It was 1974 and I was eighteen. I’d arrived in the city via a Greyhound Ameripass, and while that cross-country trip had its own disparate misadventures—a collection of stories connected by only, I admit now, a naïve young man from Wisconsin set loose on the modern American West—it was San Francisco that I aimed for all along, and my aim was true. I thought I might even remain in the city, blow off my freshman year of college that fall. I would get a job and stay.

“Pete?” My Uncle Eric expected me at his apartment. But not that night. His eyes were bloodshot and fractured, and I knew that familiar funk of weed, recognized the artist who created the music chiming from his living room. “Pete”—stepping aside, welcoming me in—“ Jethro, I didn’t think you’d arrive until, what, next week.”

I walked in, shrugged the rucksack from my shoulder Jack Kerouac style, and ignored the “Jethro” nickname Eric tagged me with years before because whining would have been pointless. Bullheaded. He was a Strom and I was a Strom. If he was going to call me by The Beverly Hillbillies’ nephew’s name, so be it.

We stepped down into the hexagonal living room, lights turned low, sticks of sandalwood incense smoldering on the fireplace mantle. A jeans and chambray shirt-clad young man with unruly hair and beard reclined on one of the two Victorian sofas, a Hindenburg-size joint in his hand, the zeppelin’s tip smoking.

“This is Duncan,” Eric said. “Duncan, this is Jethro.”

“Pete,” I corrected, and Duncan nodded, offering me the burning airship.

“He’s my nephew, Duncan. Verstehen sie?” Eric spent the Korean War in Germany and phrases he had picked up remained over twenty years later. “He’s just out of high school.”

Duncan said, “Sorry, man,” diverting the joint midflight to Eric. I recalled the disaster newsreel’s sobbing reporter: Oh, the humanity.

I did manage to suck in a deep breath of the quality smoke that floated across the room. In my small hometown, low-quality pot was the expectation. Whatever Eric and Duncan were indulging in was a treat. And the music. That was too. The reel-to-reel tape rolled on playback. “Is this who I think it is?”

Duncan’s face lit up, bowled over at the possibility a kid from a little Midwestern town might know, but before he could say anything, Eric forestalled him, a lift of his hand. “Who do you think it is?”

“John Rider.” No confirmation necessary. It was John Rider, I knew it. I’d been buying his albums for five years at that point, my older brother even longer. Rider released his debut LP, the psychedelic Colors in My Garden, in sixty-seven, after Lennon and McCartney, Brian Jones, and Syd Barrett applied their wash of aural color. “John Rider,” I repeated, adding, “Recluse Rider,” because that’s what the music rags had dubbed him.

Eric winced at “Recluse,” shook his head, while Duncan’s weed-enhanced titter budded through the room.

“Anyway, that’s what Lester Bangs calls him in Creem. But this is great, Eric. I’ve never heard it before.”

My uncle said, “That’s because, I shit you not, it’s John Rider’s latest.” He glanced at Duncan, then back at me. “Keep it under your hat.”

I never thought to ask that night if I could see the tape reel’s box, the artwork and photography, the lyric sheet, the list of musicians playing on each song. Music is magic, and this was musical mesmerization: ringing twelve-string guitars, Baroque noodling with harpsichord, hill country dulcimer, juke joint piano, rumbling electric bass, spare drum work, and spacey synthesizer.

“Sonic harmonics.” That’s what Duncan called the mix. Leaving at sunrise, he shook my hand. “You’ve heard John’s new nickname, right?”


“Reckless. Not Recluse. Reckless. Remember that, okay?”

I nodded as Eric took Duncan by the shoulders and pointed him out the door.


The Ameripass was a great deal for an eighteen-year-old off on his own, although stuck at the Sioux Falls YMCA my first night out—the depot closed, no departures till morning—I wanted to turn back, be homeward bound. But I continued on the next morning. The pass was a wide-open, ninety-nine-day ticket to ride anywhere Greyhound rolled in the lower forty-eight. You could disappear in America. The company’s TV spokesman was Fred MacMurray in the guise of the My Three Sons dad, a gosh-by-golly barker encouraging people to see America from a relaxing seat on the bus. The price was low. How could I say no?

After that first night in San Francisco, listening to John Rider’s new music and cracking Eric and Duncan up with stories of my antics on the road, I was ready to ball up the paper ticket and chuck it and my freshman year at Barron County out the window. But I didn’t. Instead, I sat on the guest room davenport and considered the Ameripass. I ended up tucking the flimsy ticket away, between the pages of my paperback copy of On the Road.


Eric, two nights later: “I have to run over to my boss’s place. Want to come along?”

I jumped at the offer. It would have to beat the previous night. I’d wandered into the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood looking for the studio where the Airplane, the Dead, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had recorded. I’d stopped to gawk in the window of a closed leather goods shop, and a reflection in the window materialized beside me, a young woman in a flowing cape. She passed me a handbill for Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple— But that’s a different story.

When I first met him, Eric’s employer consisted of instruments: a Blüthner grand piano—McCartney played one on Let It Be; two Martin guitars, six- and twelve-string; and an Epiphone bass, all these in a room overlooking a silent, rolling Pacific.

“Don’t touch anything—especially the instruments. In fact, just stand where you are,” Eric directed, then he left. I couldn’t hear him though he worked his way through other parts of the house. Moonlight flooding in through a curved window wall lit the music room. The ocean’s breakers rolled in silence.

Tell me not to do something. I glanced back. Stepping to the grand piano, I lifted the keyboard lid and played the first nine notes of “Imagine.”

“Stop. Just stop.” Eric came from behind and moved me away from the Blüthner. He wiped down the keyboard and then, after closing it, the lid.

“Peter”—no Jethro—“It’s important that if you want to come with me when I have to work here, that you listen. When I tell you not to do something, not touch something, a book, an instrument, a gimcrack, follow my instruction. Verstehen sie? I’m not trying to be an asshole. It’s just—it’s just, this is his home. Not hermetically sealed, but damn close. So, please. Touch nothing.”

“Who is he?” The family back in Wisconsin didn’t know what Eric did for a living in San Francisco. Yes, they knew what he did when he lived in the Midwest. After serving in the U.S. Army, he’d worked for a while as a steward on a Great Lakes freighter, drove a delivery truck with a Teamster card tucked in his wallet, and at one point, he was a laborer, assembling industrial bakery equipment. When he moved to the Bay Area in the early sixties, it was, for the family, out of sight, out of mind. “Who is your mystery employer? Howard Hughes?”

Eric crossed his arms and stared at me, then said, “John Rider.”

“What? No, wait. What?”

“John Rider is my, as you have said, mystery employer. I’m his— I don’t know: righthand man, gofer. I make things run smoothly for him and his organization.”

I grinned, color me dumbfounded. All I could think to ask? “Can you turn on a light in here?” I wanted to see the music room’s instruments under the bright lights.

“No.” He sized up the room. “So, now I’ve gotten the place ready for his return. We should get going.”

Backpedaling to Eric’s Fiat, I took in John Rider’s home, call it a mansion, snapping it for my mental photo album, like I would Abbey Road Studios, Wally Heider Studios in the Tenderloin, or the Jefferson Airplane House on Fulton Street.

As he drove us back to Diamond Heights, I apologized for touching the piano. Some might say it was over the top, but the apology led to another question. “How about Duncan? Does he do what you do?”

I caught the swell of a laugh on Eric’s face, but he didn’t let it break. “Oh, not Duncan. No.”

“You’re his boss? I mean, you kind of marched him out of your apartment the other night.”

Eric let that slide. “Let’s listen to that new Rider tape when we get back to my place. I’ll probably give you what’s left of my weed too. It’s been playing hell with my allergies. Just”—zipping his lips—“no word to your mom and dad.”


The next day I pretty much obliterated by smoking a grass zeppelin on my own, then letting a wild hair spring me out of my vegetative sofa state and out the apartment door. I trekked, no, floated up and down the hills of San Francisco in that stoned condition. By midafternoon, I was on Mount Sutro and I couldn’t find my way back to the apartment.

A man in a red Jaguar convertible picked me up on Crestmont, I think it was Crestmont. He offered me a beer from the cooler stash tucked between the Jag’s bucket seats. I whined like a twelve-year-old: “Thanks, but I just need a ride to my uncle’s place.” There was the sudden braking action at the curb, and he reached over and popped open my door.

I was still on Mount Sutro, thinking I could see the Diamond Heights neighborhood, its curving rows of fifties shoebox duplexes, from whatever street I was walking on. A Karmann Ghia painted British racing green pulled up. I didn’t have high hopes.

“Give you a lift?” It was Duncan, looking over the lenses of his mirrored aviators. “Peter? Not Jethro, right?” he asked as he pulled out into traffic.

“What the hell are you doing up here? Getting a better view of Sutro Tower? It’s not even up here.” He laughed, took us on a few hairpin turns. “I heard you were with Eric at the house the other night.”

All my coiled astonishment sprang out. “Holy crap, man! Yes. Like, was I stoked, absolutely—”

Duncan nodded, signaled with the cigarette in his hand that we could move on from the initial blown away perspective. “Did Eric mention me?”

I thought back. “No. Yes. I’d asked him if you did what he did. What your role was.”


“He ignored me.”

Duncan laughed joylessly. “Nothing—oh, why should I ask you— Okay, nothing about me, about what I do? What I’ve done?”


He pulled into a Safeway parking lot, a spot tight against the public sidewalk. We weren’t going grocery shopping.

“I came back from L.A. that night with John Rider. Later. The same night you were there with Eric. He didn’t mention we were coming in?”


“Reckless, man. He’s a mess.”

Reckless. Not Recluse. Reckless. Remember that, okay? “Yeah?”

Duncan glanced over at me, then back at the grocery store and the people walking in, walking out, going about their everyday lives. “Yes. Reckless John Rider’s burned to a crisp. That cereal? Crispy Critters? He’s a bowlful.”

My mouth hung open. Duncan smiled, chucked me under the chin to close it. “Okay. But with all the music, the albums— How long?”

He blew a Marlboro stream. “I don’t really know, Pete. I was late to the Reckless Rider party. His mind, it’s pretty much like I said, man, crunchy cereal. He still has those terrific vocal chops. The cat truly does. But that’s it.”

A swipe at the dust on the dashboard allowed Duncan time to consider his next words. “The last tape, the one you heard, the new LP? Reckless sang lead, and damn well. Session players played the music, and they did amazing work. Me? I wrote the music and lyrics.”

I looked at him and sputtered, “No way.”

“Ah, yes.”


He didn’t have much money, but Duncan bought us dinner at a Doggie Diner, even treated me to a T-shirt featuring the restaurant’s iconic dog, the smiling, bow-tied, red-hot dachshund wearing a chef’s hat. He was a worried man, he didn’t have to say so and didn’t, I could tell that much at eighteen. How long Rider had been the way he was, that was an open question.

Duncan was hired over a year before via a nondescript ad in the back of Rolling Stone and a lengthy, puzzling audition: Do some John Rider for us. Do something John Rider could have composed. He’d blown away the interview panel that included my uncle. Now, here he was. The record company was releasing the new LP, it could be any day, but Duncan felt at loose ends.

“I haven’t been told the release date. Reckless doesn’t know. He doesn’t really know me, though we’ve been traveling buddies up and down the coast a number of times. But here’s what really puzzles the hell out of me, man: Who wrote and recorded the earlier albums? Where are these talented cats now? Rider’s the cash cow, but where have all the old hired hands gone, man? I’d like to know that.”


The next day, Eric left for L.A. He told me he’d be gone for at least three days for meetings with record company execs, working out the logistics for Rider’s upcoming release.

I felt him out. “Will there be a tour?” I already knew from Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, Creem, and Duncan that a tour was not in the cards. Reckless Rider hadn’t performed live, anywhere, in over three years. The rock magazines, Rider was their cash cow as well, wiped the sweat from their collective brow: At least John Rider continues to produce music that we can review.

“Enjoy the city while I’m gone,” Eric said. “And stay out of trouble. Verstehen sie?”

The first time I’d gone to John Rider’s ocean view home, I checked the house number and cross street when my uncle and I left. The second time I went there, I was able to give the cab driver the approximate address.

At Rider’s front door, I wondered if I was the reckless one. What did I expect to gain by showing up and ringing the doorbell that played the first seven notes of Groucho Marx’s “Hello, I Must Be Going”? The next steps were easy since no one answered the musical chimes. I could have walked away. Instead, I tried the door. It was unlocked.

It seemed every San Francisco abode I stepped into that summer of seventy-four was socked in with the fog of pot and incense. On this second visit to John Rider’s home, I just followed my nose.

The piano bench had been knocked over, a junk drawer’s worth of material tumbled from its storage compartment and scattered on the floor. An antique wing chair replaced the bench in front of the piano’s keyboard. I recognized John Rider. He sat in the chair, staring at the black and white keys as if they were a curiosity. His elbow rested on an arm of the chair, his hand cradling the side of his head, mouth gaping, his now doughy face frozen in wonder.

“Mr. Rider?”

After a few minutes, his head swiveled to take me in, the dazed look of his face unchanged. “John,” he said. “Mr. Rider is my father. And my grandad.” He took a deep breath from the effort. “John.”

“John,” I was bummed by his burned-out aspect.

He managed to point a bent finger at me, the fingers of his other hand caught in the long, ratted tangle of his prematurely gray hair. He pointed, tapped in my direction, and finally, with effort, yanked his other hand out of his hair, three fingers encircled with the gray matting, pulled from his scalp, apparently, with no pain. He continued to point at me.

“I’m Peter Strom, Eric’s nephew.”

He took a breath, a clotted gurgling through his sinuses. “You? In L.A. with me? Last time?”

“No. That must’ve been Duncan. You know? Duncan?”

He touched his chin. “Beard? Right, man?” He smiled when I nodded. “At least you won’t have to worry about that.” Rider laughed and, as Uncle Eric would say, I shit you not, I got goosebumps from the musicality of the man’s laughter. He did. He still had something.

But still: “What won’t I have to worry about?”

He waved me off in slow motion. “The big change out, man. The cosmic disappearance.” His hands orchestrated a poof, and whatever may have been there was gone.

“Duncan will—you’re saying Duncan will disappear.”

Rider’s hands repeated the poof, slowly, very slowly.


Rider was fascinated by the movements of his hands.

“How will Duncan disappear, John?”

“Just gone, baby. Gone, gone, gone”—his knees were crossed and his hands landed there, one atop the other—“like the coda of the song.”


Duncan and I got high listening to the Rider LP on Eric’s reel-to-reel. I should say we tried getting high, smoking one of his outsized joints. It didn’t work. I’d told him about my visit with John Rider.

The tape ran out, the tail flapping round and round until Duncan flipped the lever, turning off the machine. As he put the tape in its box, he sang the old Animals’ hit “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”

“You’re right, man.”

He looked at me. “I’ve got no bread, Pete. I’m stuck inside of San Francisco with those Reckless John Rider you don’t work for me no more blues again. I’m stuck, brother. Stuck. And I’ve got no idea who I should be on the lookout for—you know? Is it Eric? Reckless Rider? Some hit man”—hit man, the musical kind, made him chuckle—“I’m, I don’t know. I’m in trouble, and I can’t get away from it.”

That’s when I told him about The Cosmic Disappearance. The Poof.


When Eric returned to San Francisco, he brought back intensity in spades, a hip ferocity, a skull session with Duncan was in order. He phoned the few numbers he could normally reach him at. Nothing.

“Did Duncan stop by at all when I was in L.A.?” His cool a thin layer masking something like anxiety.

I shook my head, playing at youthful dumbass which Eric had no trouble buying.

“Idiot kid,” my uncle muttered, walking away. From down the hall, he called out, “Aw, sorry. Not you. Duncan.”


The police located the green Karmann Ghia within a week. He’d abandoned the car, a note on the driver’s seat, in the parking lot of an observation area on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The suicide, the note Duncan had written to his family, none of it directed attention to my uncle and Reckless John Rider’s use-them-and-lose-them operation. With the suicide, Eric’s mood lightened, an item off his Rider plate.

Eric did think it was well past time for me to return home. One problem with that? “I tossed my Ameripass my first night in the city,” I said sheepishly. “My plan was to stay here.”

That didn’t fit Eric’s plans. He bought me an airline ticket. I flew out of San Francisco International, arriving home for school with time to spare.

Flying over America, back to the Midwest, I looked down through the breaks in the clouds at the interstates, the traffic, when I could make it out, rolling predominantly to the west. Yet some, no, many rolled to all points east. And that made me think of Duncan. I wondered where he was, rolling away on a Greyhound bus.

I shit you not.

Verstehen sie?

Jeff Esterholm is delighted to let everyone know that this is his second appearance in Tough. His short stories have also appeared in the Akashic Books online flash fiction series Mondays Are Murder, Beat to a Pulp, Crime Factory, Mystery Tribune, Shotgun Honey, and Yellow Mama, as well as in Cheap Pop, Midwestern Gothic, Regarding Arts & Letters, and Wisconsin People & Ideas. He and his wife live at the head of the Great Lakes.

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