I dreamed about him before I knew who he was. A big tall man in a cream colored suit with black shoes that glistened like an oil slick. He had a flat top cut – what my dad’s barber called a “flat earth cut.” “The cut I got in the Marines, it was so flat a ship could sail off the end of it,” he used to say, sniping away at my blonde locks while my dad sat behind me, chuckling at a joke he’s heard a hundred times before.
The Big Bopper was always holding a huge white phone in my dreams. Sometimes if I looked away the phone would turn into something else: a dead pelican, a pile of cold cuts, a wriggling baby boy. One time it was a giant green crab; it reached out with a scabbed claw and split The Big Bopper’s lips in half. He just kept smiling.
The dreams always ended the same way: The Bopper would walk up to me, smiling broadly the whole time, and press whatever he was holding against the side of my face. “It’s for you, baby!,” he’d shout and I’d wake up screaming. The sound of a phone faintly ringing would linger in my ears for hours afterwards.
When I was twelve I found out about The Big Bopper at school. Our music teacher Mr. Hershey played “American Pie” and told us about The Day The Music Died. We saw a documentary about Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the man from my dreams. The man whose shoes I’d sometimes see poking out from under the clothes hanging in my closet when I wasn’t sure if I was still awake or not.
The Big Bopper stopped appearing in my dreams after I found out who he was. Maybe hearing that he was dead was what did the trick. Sometimes we forget where we’re supposed to be; I suppose the dead are no different.
I didn’t tell anyone about my Big Bopper dreams until I met Jackie. We had been dating for three months when the story came out of me. I hadn’t planned on sharing it with her, but one night as we laid in bed we started talking about dreams and I couldn’t help myself. She looked at me with eyes as wide and bright as oncoming headlights.
“I saw him once, the Big Bopper,” Jackie said. “In 2012. He was in this red phone booth at a rest stop outside Crestone,” Jackie said. “One of those old booths – with, like, the curved dome on top? It even had telephone written on this white piece in black letters. Real old booth. And there he was, crammed in there, guitar hanging round his waist, talking into this big white telephone.”
I told her that was pretty tame, as far as dreams go. “It wasn’t a dream,” she said. “This actually happened. I was driving through Colorado and I saw him there.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. You know how a tiny pebble can crack a windshield and that will be the death of it? One tiny chip slowly blossoms into a web of splinters. That laugh was the chip that would shatter our relationship. It would take three more months, but the glass would come apart all the same.
“Ok, so you saw him,” I giggled, like an idiot. “What happened? Did you say anything to him?”
Jackie’s hands drifted off of my stomach. A cruel smile scratched itself across her face. “What the fuck was I supposed to say to him? Hey, asshole, you’re dead! Play ‘Chantilly Lace!’ When are you and Dead Elvis going to do a show together?”
We never talked about The Big Bopper after that night. And for most nights after that, we barely talked about anything else. That was the real reason Jackie and I broke up, in the end: neither of us could handle the silence that crawled between us, kicking us apart like a toddler having a bad dream.
I started wondering if other people had seen him, too. I dug around in my spare time, trolling message boards and combing through Bat Boy tabloids, looking to see if there were others like us. There were hundreds, thousands, of people who’ve claimed to see Elvis and Tupac alive and well all across the country. Surely there must be a few Bopper believers.
Turns out there was a lot more of them than I thought.
There was the Episcopalian minister who beheld the miracle of the Bopper’s face seared into his cheeseburger in 1995. A touring band who swear they saw The Big Bopper shouting at someone through a pay phone near Eugene, Oregon. A hitchhiker that I picked up en route to Flagstaff said he saw The Big Bopper appear in a cloud formation over Prescott. “He looked so happy,” the hitchhiker said, relishing the memory. “I guess I would be too if I was made out of clouds.”
I even met a Vietnam vet who claimed to have come across The Big Bopper in Ấp Bắc, tuning his guitar in a jungle thicket.
“The Bopper seemed pretty irritated that he couldn’t hear his guitar over all the gunfire,” the vet said, “but that big boy didn’t move a muscle. Must have sat on that log for half an hour, tuning and strumming, while all Hell broke out around us.”
A grandmother in Kentucky said that in 1975 she saw the Bopper fly down from the sky in a mint-green 1959 Ford Galaxie. He parked in her backyard and serenaded her with a handful of songs. He left with her a parting gift: a recipe for apple cinnamon waffles. She fixed me a plate of them; they were fantastic.
I gathered around two hundred eyewitness accounts of The Big Bopper. No matter how wildly the stories varied from person to person, there were a few details that were consistent in every scenario: Bopper always wore a cream suit and black shoes. He was always exactly the age he was when he died in 1959. And he always had a guitar with him.
You’d think that spending all this time researching a ghost would mean he’d have started haunting my dreams again, but The Big Bopper didn’t come back. I did see him one more time, though, but I was wide awake when it happened.
It was 2016. I was driving down to Taos in Deb’s Pontiac. She let me borrow it for a few days so I could swing down to New Mexico and pick up a safety deposit box my father left me. I pulled off from the 64 to cool my heels in a rest stop for a bit. Grab a smoke, use the john, stare up at the stars: that was my plan. And then I saw Jackie’s red phone booth.
It was planted square in the middle of the rest stop, half encased in dirt. It was tipped slightly on its side like it was a giant arrow shot down from the heavens. I could see The Big Bopper inside the booth, wearing the cream suit and void black shoes, talking into a huge white telephone.
For a long moment, I stared at him and wondered if this was all a dream. Not just this moment, seeing him outside Taos, but every moment of my life leading up to this moment. Mr. Hershey’s class, Jackie, my father’s death, every Big Bopper story I collected, those long years spent hopping from dead end job to dead end job in Northern Arizona: what if my entire teenage and adult life was just one long Big Bopper dream? What if I woke up any moment now and I was eleven again? And the worst thing of all was realizing how attractive that prospect was — getting a mulligan on the last twenty-three years of my life.
The Bopper’s voice cut through all the noise in my skull. I saw him leaning out of the booth, holding one giant hand out towards me.
“You got fifty cents, baby? I can’t lose this call now!”
He hadn’t aged a day. He was just as smooth faced now as he was in my dreams and in Mr. Hershey’s documentary. His hair still so flat the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria could tumble off the ends of his scalp.
“Don’t leave me hanging, pal.”
A hint of menace crept into his good natured voice. I nodded and rooted around my pocket, feeling around for a pair of quarters. Please, God, let me have change. Relief flooded through my body as I felt the telltale ridges of a pair of quarters wedged in the bottom of my jean pocket. I scooped up the coins and dropped them in his hands. My fingertips brushed his palm briefly and I jumped back with a yelp from the static charge that sparked off his skin.
He smiled and nodded at me. He looked so happy. You would be too if you were made out of clouds, the hitchhiker whispered to me from my memory.
I stood there for awhile, feeling the electric charge in my hand, thinking of questions to ask The Big Bopper. Why did you come to me when I didn’t know who you were, I wanted to shout. Who are you talking to you? Who have you been talking to all these years? Has been it the same person all this time? Is it your Chantilly baby? The one who knows what you like?
But I didn’t say anything. I turned around and walked back to my car. I put the key in the ignition and checked my rearview: the phone booth was gone. I knew it would be, just as how I knew I would never be eleven again. Phantasms and youth: they’re both things that slip away when your eyes start to wander.
Driving towards Taos, I fiddled with the radio. I found an oldies station on the AM. Something told me to flip the dial, but I ignored it. I turned up the volume and heard his booming voice crackling through the static, happy and eternal.
By Ashley Naftule