Freddie Mercury helped us fertilize Christmas trees a few years ago. I swear he did. It was around Easter, and we had a two-acre field needed going over. We went down to the hardware store for fertilizer, and dad asked the owner if he knew anyone who might help, and up stepped this guy in stonewashed jeans and a white tank top. Dad didn’t know it was Freddie, of course. He says there ain’t been a good song written since George Jones’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
I recognized Freddie right away. Gap-toothed, big ol’ moustache. He didn’t talk, but I imagined I could hear his skull-piercing voice like when he sings “We Are the Champions.”
In the field it was just us three. Me and Freddie carried buckets of fertilizer and would sling handfuls under the trees while dad worked to keep our buckets full. It’s dull, but Freddie had this rhythm—dum dum cha, dum dum cha—the first beat from the bucket knocking his thigh, the second from his hand diving in the bucket, and the “cha” of tiny grains of fertilizer pattering under the trees.
I wished he’d talk, but the rhythm, the music—I had to keep up, to listen. I thought I could hear him hum a little. He might start to sing any moment, I thought.
Soon we’d be at the end of a row. Dad could hardly keep up, driving up and down the field, hauling 50-pound bags in a wheelbarrow. Before long, dad’s shirt was soaked, his gray hair matted, dripping from under his cap. The job was halfway done when he yelled from the truck, “Take a break; y’all running me to death.” We dropped the buckets, and walked to the truck.
Dad said, “Hop in. Let’s get a drink.”
I rode between Freddie and dad, glad to sit down. I was slouching low in the seat when my legs fell open, and I accidentally bumped knees with Freddie. I shot straight up like a drum major called, Attention!
“Boy, what in the world?” dad asked, breathing all startled.
“Thought I saw a deerin the woods,” I said.
Freddie never flinched, just looked out the window.
I like Queen as much as the next guy, but something about Freddie always seemed a bit weird to me. The guys at school say he’s fruity. I don’t know. All them rock stars look that way to me.
When we got to the store, dad handed me a ten and said, “Get y’all a drink and some nabs. I’m gonna sit here. I don’t feel quite right.”
I said, “What you want?”
He said, “Moon pie and Coke. Few aspirin if you see any.”
We got some drinks and snacks, and I found a few packs of aspirin. Dad took them right away. Freddie had a Diet Dr. Pepper and a Ho Ho. When dad finished the Moon Pie, we headed back.
Dad filled our buckets, and we began again. We fertilized, dad refilled. Fertilized, refilled, fertilized. Dum, dum, cha. Dum, dum, cha. It was getting hot for spring in the mountains. Dad was grunting and groaning often, pausing to wipe sweat from his face. Me and Freddie were keeping a steady pace, but dad was starting to drag.
When our buckets gave out mid-row, Freddie stopped the rhythm, looked at me, and turned his bucket upside down. “Me too,” I said. “I’ll bring back enough to finish the rows.”
When I got to the truck, there was dad, slumped in the shadow of the pickup, drenched in sweat, clutching his chest, grimacing, breathing all constricted like he was in an iron maiden, like if he exhaled he’d be pricked in a hundred places.
“Freddie!” I yelled across the trees. “Help!” He came running.
“Heart.” Dad croaked the word.
“Take the truck. Call an ambulance,” Freddie said in a foreign indistinct voice.
I called an ambulance from the convenience store, drove back, and waited by the path to direct the paramedics. When they arrived, I took off. Once I neared the field, I saw this single shape in the grass where I’d left dad. And there was Freddie, supporting my father, letting him lean against his chest. His arms were around my dad, and the two were gently rocking. Freddie’s eyes were closed, and his lips were moving.
The paramedics whisked dad into the truck and told me to hop in. The last I saw Freddie, he was standing in a cloud of dust with his hands in his pockets.
Months later, we drove all over the mountain searching for him. Dad never got his name. I thought of suggesting “Freddie Mercury,” but who would believe that? We never found him, so he never got paid. Dad felt bad about that. When we gave up looking, dad said, “Must’ve been my angel,” and laughed, but he said it sorta sarcastic, like he wasn’t sure whether or not it was a joke.
This kid at school was telling me there’s some secret to rock n’ roll, and when people get too close to figuring it out, something happens, and they get knocked off, somehow. Another kid blamed the FBI. I’m not sure why the government would want to take out guys like Elvis or Buddy Holly. Jim Morrison, John Lennon, maybe, but not those guys. Then I heard Freddie had AIDS, and next thing you know, he was dead.
But he must’ve done something in all that time between then and his last concerts in Budapest and England?
All I know is, when I hear “Somebody to Love,” I smell pine and Fraser Fir. I can feel grains of nitrogen wedged under my fingernails. I can see moustached Freddie cradling my dad in his arms, and dad looking not so scared as you might think. And I get a chill—like when you been working, sweating in the heat, and a late afternoon breeze hits you all over.