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Kenny Rogers

Hugh Behm-Steinberg

“It’s been so long since we’ve seen your face,” my parents said during our weekly chat. “Why don’t we schedule a video call next time?”

I wasn’t so sure why they’d want to see my particular face: it’s not like I’d acquired any interesting scars since we all went into quarantine. I mean, there was this fad about two weeks ago for let’s pretend we’re still in high school and give ourselves Kool Aid dye jobs, which came after the grow your own mushrooms trend, but like most people I mostly watched too much TV, spent as little money as possible, and tried not to think about the future.

I set up a Zoom for the following week; when the time came, up popped the head of the late country singer Kenny Rogers, who weirdly looked a lot like my dad. His beard was white and crisp, and he wore that sort of early '80s, feathered but somehow also folded like a pair of wings, pile of hair that rested lightly on his head like a halo of newfound virility. “How do I look?” he asked.

“Like you’re going to start singing ‘The Gambler’ at me. Is this a new filter, Dad? How did you get so much hair?”

“No filter: it’s all real! There was an ad on the Facebook,” Mom piped in. “The Kenny Rogers Club for Men. Isn’t it incredible!”

“There are other benefits too,” Dad said. “Because with Kenny, you’re not just a customer, you’re a member of the club. There’s guitar lessons, rhinestone jackets, whatever Kenny you’d like to be, that’s who you get to be.”

“Don’t forget to tell him about Dolly,” Mom said.

“Once a year you get your own Dolly Parton duet partner. How cool is that?”

“I am so glad to see you two having fun.”

“You have no idea,” Mom said. “Day in, day out, death death death, and then you get an ad on the Facebook that changes everything, that gives you hope. You should spend more time on Facebook.”

“Okay,” I said.

“You look unhappy,” Dad said. “I know what can fix that.”

“You don’t have to sing for me, I’m good.”

“I have something even better,” he said. He typed something, then looked up at me. “Tell me more about what you’ve been up to, then after we’re done, check your email. You still use email, right?”

“Yes, Dad.”

It took me a while to figure out which email address he had used, but there it was: a gift membership to Kenny Rogers. I let it sit there for a day, weighing the tradeoffs it implied. Would you give up who you are for the promise of not just feeling better, but of happiness itself? Would you surrender that last little shred of coolness, that tiny sliver you’ve clung to since you were a goth kid in high school? Or would you get with the Kenny Rogers’ of the world, and just let go, if only to not feel so miserable all the time?

I went back and forth, but then it occurred to me: who said I couldn’t just try it on for a little while, see if I liked being a Kenny? If Kenny wasn’t a fit, I could just let the thirty-day offer expire and go back to being my miserable, very slightly cool self.

I clicked on the membership button, and scrolled through the different Kenny Rogers’ to choose from. There was '60s First Edition Kenny, Countrypolitan Kenny, the silver fox Kenny of the '80s, the Kenny Rogers near the end of his life, gaunt with wisdom and a crazed look in his eye. I had trouble deciding, but there was a “let us choose for you” option. It came with an extra thirty days, so that was the one I picked.

The box arrived three days later. It contained a copy of Kenny Rogers’ autobiography Luck or Something Like It, clothes that I would never, ever, wear in the real world, and a silver finely meshed bag. I followed the instructions, got dressed and put the bag over my head. Then I waited, breathing carefully, not sure when or how membership in this club was supposed to work, but hoping anyway, even if it couldn’t make a difference in anything.

I must have looked ridiculous, standing there with a bag over my head, wearing a polyester blend suit with giant lapels and a string tie. I didn’t need to look in a mirror, or touch my face, or run fingers through my hair to know.

But then I felt something else besides shame come over me, warm as bourbon. I decided to accept what I was feeling, lean into it. I thought, “Oh, finally, this is what it’s like,” and I just filled up with music. Even if it was for just a couple of hours until I turned back into myself, it finally felt good to be who I was, even if who I was was someone my teenage self would have loathed with all his heart.

I sent my folks a video postcard of me singing “Daytime Friends,” then reposted it on various social media feeds. A mix of laughing and barfing emojis followed, but I no longer cared what people thought about me—I felt a warmth towards the world that I think the actual Kenny Rogers would have appreciated.

A couple nights later I received a Zoom invite from Mom and Dad. It must have been 1:00 in the morning when they sent the request, and for a moment I wondered if there was a '70s party setting for members of the Kenny Rogers Club for Men, and if so, that would have been so awesome.

I put on my Kenny, grabbed a drink, leaned back in my chair, and clicked on the invite. Up popped early '80s Kenny, grinning at me. “Hi Dad,” I said. “What are you doing up so late?”

“It’s me, Mom,” Kenny said. His eyes were twinkling. “Don’t tell your dad, but when he goes to sleep I put on his Kenny Rogers clothes, put that bag over my head, and I let myself be Kenny for a while. I don’t care if it voids the warranty.”

As Kenny Rogers, I understood. “It feels really good, doesn’t it?’

Kenny just grinned. “You want to sing a duet with me?”

“I’d love to.”

About the Author

Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s prose can be found in X-Ray, Grimoire, Joyland, Jellyfish Review, Atticus Review, and Pank. His short story "Taylor Swift" won the 2015 Barthelme Prize from Gulf Coast, and his story "Goodwill" was picked as one of the Wigleaf Top Fifty Very Short Fictions of 2018. A collection of prose poems and microfiction, Animal Children, was published by Nomadic Press in January, 2020. He teaches writing and literature at California College of the Arts.

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