BUDDY HOLLY'S BRAINS
BY HARVEY SUTLIVE
When Maya and I lived together, our sophomore year in
college, we bought this car -- a Volvo 120 station wagon. They made that
model in the 1960s.
It was a solid, elegant little car. The original
owner was a British guy with heavy black eyebrows. He taught geography
at Harris College. He had a stroke, so he stopped driving.
the car up on a Friday afternoon. We drove straight home and packed our
stuff for a camping trip. Maya wanted to show me a place she knew in the
It was dark when we got up there. Maya was driving. We
were on a narrow highway in the top of the mountains -- we turned down
some fire road and drove through the woods. Limbs brushed the car. The
headlights splashed off trees. Maya said she knew exactly where we were.
A stream crossed the road, and we bumped through rocks and a lot of
water. This is going to be good she told me.
We climbed uphill after
that, and Maya spotted the place. We turned into a break in the trees
We had the square boxy kind of sleeping bags that zip
together. It was late, and we made a little fire. We talked and drank
tea, then we slept together.
I woke up early. It was quiet. The sky
was white. Trees made a circle around us. Maya was still sleeping. Our
new car was beside our little campfire.
Below us I could hear the
stream we crossed the night before. Later that day when we were hiking,
we found the spring where the stream started. We collected water for the
rest of the day.
You keep the car, it's the least I can do, Maya
told me after we broke up. I don't need it anyway, right, she said. We
were speaking to each other, but we weren't really making eye contact.
I should have said No Thanks because really -- I prefer riding a
bicycle anyway. But it was such a great little car. The old geography
teacher maintained it very well. I thought it would probably last
But I lost it the year after Maya left. I was driving down
to Charlotte to look for a job, and my tag was expired, and I got pulled
over. I didn't have insurance, and I got a dui.
I went before a
judge. He stared at my paperwork. He started talking, and jail was the
fourth word that came out of his mouth.
I had a lot of probation
already, which is a huge hassle by itself. I told the judge you know
I'm doing this probation thing. Now you want me to Go to Jail? For not
having insurance? For not having a tag on my car?
And the dui he
said sternly. He was looking at the paperwork.
OK the dui I said.
I'm looking at your record he said.
I should have had a lawyer.
I'm looking he said heavily. And I do want you to go to jail he said.
After that he gave me a lot of advice.
I wasn't in close touch
with my mom that year. I let her know what happened later. I waited
until I was more or less in jail before I called her.
God Mathew she
I know Mom I said. We both felt terrible.
jail. So what. It's embarrassing. But you get a chance to read. You have
plenty of free time. I wrote an article about the fifties rock and roll
singer Buddy Holly while I was in jail. It was accepted by a British
They sent me to Alabama near the ocean to what some
people call a country club prison. That means minimum security, on a
military base. Even so it was nerve wracking at first. I took the bus to
get there. At the end of the ride I sat in front and talked to the
driver. He was a fat old man.
You look like shit he said. Relax.
am relaxed I said.
How long is your sentence.
Two years at the
most as far as I know I told him.
Two years he said. You should be
thinking -- where do I want to be, in two years.
OK I said. I was
blinking and biting my lips.
Relax he said. A hundred guys went to
prison on this bus.
I am relaxed I said.
Set some goals he said. In
two years, where do you want to be? Think about what I'm telling
Later I did think about it. And that bus driver made a big
difference in my life, because I think that way all the time now -- where
do I want to be, in two years? I always think that.
In jail I made
friends with a redneck named Warren. Rednecks usually feel terrible
about themselves, but Warren went to college. He was a business major.
He learned to fit in. He became a financial services provider in the
suburbs of Atlanta. He showed his clients ways to avoid paying taxes.
Warren couldn't resist showing off when he got extra money. He called
money Cake. I got Cake right here, he would brag. Got a little Cake in
We weren't supposed to have actual cash except for coins
under the amount of a dollar. If somebody mailed you money, you turned
it over to the cashier at the PX. You got credit, then you drew on that.
Warren was always playing cards and wheeling and dealing and
accumulating Cake. It was change mostly, and a few one dollar bills,
which he hid in a flat cardboard case in the springs under his bed.
He had maybe twenty dollars under there and a couple of cheap
wristwatches. Eventually they found out. He went to a more secure prison
to serve the rest of his sentence.
I'm not a Buddy Holly fan.
But a filling fell out of one of my wisdom teeth while I was in college,
and I chewed on something, and the whole tooth cracked. It hurt like
crazy. I went to an older dentist. He suggested we extract it instead of
spending money on a crown. He said he could do that in his office.
Most of these guys send you to an oral surgeon when you have a tooth
pulled. You get anesthetic and stitches in the gum afterwards. It takes
your whole day. I had two other wisdom teeth pulled later, in jail in
fact (we never said Jail we used the term Camp, because we were inside
a military base) by an oral surgeon, and he did that job with anesthetic
and stitches afterwards -- the whole modern standard technique.
old guy only charged forty dollars. Afterwards instead of stitches he
put cotton in the socket in my jaw. He was a decent person. He said I
should clench my teeth lightly for a few hours, and replace the cotton
twice a day, and my jaw would eventually heal by itself.
He gave me
novocain. I waited in the chair while he checked another patient. Then
he came back and pulled the tooth. Actually they put a thin lever
between your tooth and the jawbone. They install a tiny crank, which
operates the lever, and your tooth is pried out of the socket. So it's a
leverage thing not a pulling thing.
Music was coming in the room while
I was waiting on the novocain. A Buddy Holly song was playing.
don't remember which song it was -- they're all the same basically. But
after the dentist, I went home and repeated some lyrics to Maya. She was
working on a paper for sociology. She said a quote from those lyrics
would make a good complement to her sociology topic. I was happy I
helped her a little.
In jail, I thought about that day, and the
Buddy Holly song, whichever one it was, and I decided to write about
him. The little library at camp wasn't too great, but they did have
interlibrary loan, and I was able to go online sometimes and get
Buddy Holly died -- in a plane crash. Everybody knows
that. It was nighttime, plus it was snowing. The pilot couldn't read
instruments very well, so he flew the plane in the incorrect direction,
down, going 170 miles an hour. I had to change that number to kilometers
for the British magazine.
Everybody on the plane was killed,
including definitely Buddy Holly -- his head was split wide open. On the
death certificate the coroner actually mentioned that half Buddy's
brains were not inside his head anymore.
Warren and I were on the
grass--cutting crew when I got the details on Buddy Holly's plane crash.
The army base around us was a regular infinity of grass plus humidity
plus too much sun. But, as grass--cutters, at least we got out. We rode
around. In that way it was enjoyable. One day we were cutting grass and
I let Warren know what happened to Buddy Holly.
Half your brains is
all you need anyway said Warren.
Maya was a happy, skinny girl,
with curly black hair, and her eyes bulged slightly in a cute sexy way.
She liked shoplifting -- that was her only negative quality. She believed
in me, and I really loved her.
She got married right after she
finished college. Her husband works on hydraulic equipment inside
construction machinery and airplanes. They travel a lot together because
of his job.
"You're a fuckup Mathew," my mom told me recently. "We
have to accept that, and work around it."
We were driving to
Charlotte to the airport to pick up her boyfriend. They're buying a
house together. You could see the whole piedmont spread out before us.
"No Mom it's going to be good," I told her. I patted her arm. I was
driving, because recently I got my drivers' license back. Just for the
heck of it since I use a bicycle for basic transportation. Mom's a great
person. We wrote each other every single week the whole time I was in
So there we were in Charlotte, inside the airport, waiting for
Mom's boyfriend, and... Maya walks through with her husband! I think it
was Maya. This was from a distance but I'm almost positive it was her. I
didn't say anything to Mom.
Maya looked great. I was staring at her,
watching her, remembering her. At least I think it was her.
I'm glad I attended Harris College, even if I didn't graduate. My
freshman year I was the domino champion of our dorm. We had a tournament
at the beginning of fall semester.
Second year, Maya and I lived
together. We rented a room in an old house off campus. Her grandparents
gave her this practically new car to use at school.
Since we already
had the little Volvo wagon, we decided we should pretend her
grandparents' car was stolen. We could collect the insurance money. We
could go to the Bahamas for spring break. My job would be to actually
get rid of the car. After that, Maya would report it and do the
I screwed up and took the grandparents' car to Florida
first and bought some pot from a guy I knew down there. I didn't have
the dates straight. Maya called the police while I was still in Florida.
On the way back, I was speeding and I got pulled over by the police.
There was the dope, in the back seat, which I crossed a state line to
buy. They checked the tag, and Maya's theft report popped up on the
computer. They charged me with car theft and possession and I got a
Harris College kicked me out of course. The police
talked to Maya three or four times. Her grandparents showed up with a
lawyer. My mom got involved. You could say we formed an extended family
for a few days, based on worry.
To protect herself, Maya stayed with
our original plan. She insisted that her grandparents' car had actually
been stolen. To help her out, I went along with that.
I got a huge
fine, which my mom helped me pay, and a lot of probation. The
grandparents were relieved. Maya got their car back. She and I broke up.
You could say everything worked out.
One goal I have right now
is: to get a better job, in less than two years. I'm doing lawn
maintenance, and that's not very profitable in the winter months.
Another car... is not necessarily a huge goal. A bicycle is all you need
anyway. For basic transportation you can't beat a bicycle, because it's
Goals work for me. I've been writing articles for
music magazines. Another goal I have is: to get more music articles
published. I've nearly finished one article called Yards and Lawns of
The little Volvo car was beautiful. But in two years, I
will not be driving it. So if I think of the Volvo, I stop. Goals move
you forward. The little Volvo is a regret, not a goal. I see myself
striding forward, from goal to goal, from now on. Two years at a time.
Or riding forward, on a bicycle. Anyway I prefer riding a bicycle.