Southern Legitimacy Statement: I spent the first twenty-one years of my life in Baton Rouge. Like everyone else, I knew all about Billy Cannon, the LSU halfback who won the Heisman Trophy and was later arrested for counterfeiting and sent to the state prison farm in Angola. I finally got around to writing my poem about him.
I’m No the Person She Thinks You Are
Richard and I close a couple of local bars and head home,
and as I walk in, I hear the phone ringing, and it’s Richard,
who says, “Hey, man, can I crash with you tonight? I’ll tell you
why when I get there.” Turns out that when Richard
got to his place, the front door was plastered with tape
and a sign that said CRIME SCENE: DO NOT ENTER.
Since Richard roomed with his brother, he was certain
something awful had happened to him, but when he dialed
the 800 number for the FBI and gave them the case number,
the agent he spoke to said his brother had been arrested
for counterfeiting, which was a side of his brother’s life
that was news to Richard. Ever print funny money
and try to pass it off as the real thing? Me, neither.
Nor do I recall even handling a bogus bill, although there
is a statistical probability than I have, and the same can be said
of my brother, whose name is not Richard, as well as everyone
else in my family, though of course we have had the occasional
run-in with something that turned out to be other than what
it seemed, and here I think of the day when I still lived
at home, and one day this package arrives for my dad,
and it’s an electric carving knife, he announces with a little
more excitement in his voice than usual because all the dads
in the neighborhood had had one for months and were always
talking about how great they were when it came time to slice
that pot roast, pork roast, rib roast, Virginia ham, and now
my dad had an electric carving knife of his very own.
No wonder he was overjoyed—just plug it in and let
the power of modern energy do the hard work for you!
Turns out it wasn’t quite the miracle my dad thought it to be,
or, as he observed several months and not a few more or less
successfully carved chuck roasts, round roasts, tri-tip roasts,
and briskets later, “It works okay, but it’s about the same
whether you turn it on or not.” Then there’s friendship.
Who’s really your friend? Who isn’t? Let’s say you walk into
the room just as the person who thought was your friend
and has been in your house a million times is taking a piece
of gum out of her mouth and sticking it under your coffee table,
and for a minute you look at her in disbelief, but when you say,
“Did you just stick a piece of gum on the underside
of my coffee table?”she says, “I don’t know,” so you get down
on your hands and knees to look, and there is wad after
wad of gum stuck to the underside of your coffee table,
and you say, “Did you put all this gum under here?”
and the person who is now looking less and less like
the friend you thought she was and more and more
like an imitation of one says, “I. Don’t. Know!”
Then there’s music. Why, composers even counterfeit
their own compositions, don’t they, choosing to repeat
a single melody whose meaning changes as the work does,
as when the tenor sings “Nessun Dorma” at the beginning
of Act III Of Puccini’s Turandot as an expression of
his cocksure confidence that he will win the soprano’s hand
and then again at the end but this time with the entire chorus
and the soprano herself, seeing as how he has, indeed,
won that soft little hand of hers along with the delicious rest
of her, thus making “Nessun Dorma” not an idle boast at all
but an affirmation, a rock-solid certainty, done deal.
In music, the word for this kind of self-plagiarism
is contrafactum, which, like all word in languages other than
our own, sounds elegant and snootyand not at all unsavory
and vaguely criminal as plagiarism and counterfeit do,
although, in the case of Richard’s brother, the counterfeiting
was not vaguely but entirely so. Richard’s brother’s problem
was that he failed to observe the counterfeiter’s cardinal rule,
which, if I understand it correctly , is “Don’t get greedy—
just make twenties.” Instead, Richard’s brother made big bills.
What do you think a convenience-store owner is going to do
when you hand him a hundred for a pack of gum?
Say “Certainly, sir, and here’s precisely 99 dollars in change.
Ordinarily I’d charge sales tax, but I’m going to make
an exception for a gentleman of such towering distinction
as yourself. Now would you prefer paper or plastic?
Receipt in the bag or in your hand? And may I help you
out to your car with it? Please—it’s a privilege!”
While we’re at it, are you yourself? Are you the Marie
or Jamal or David you’ve always thought you were?
Maybe your parents made you into someone you really aren’t.
Some countries ban certain names for fear that the child
who bears one will be bullied in school; among the names
banned in Sweden are Metallica, Elvis, and Superman.
Yeah, but think how it’d cheer up the joint if you walked
in your local bar and someone shouted, “Superman! Hey, look,
it’s Superman!”Especially if you were a girl. The strangest
case of counterfeiting I know of involves 1959 Heisman Trophy
winner Billy Cannon, best known, at least at the start of his fame,
for fielding a kick at the 11-yard line and breaking six tackles
on the way to the other team’s end zone. You can hear the audio
of this 89-yard gallop on radio, see the video on YouTube.
Fans still paint murals of that run on the sides of their RVs.
The other team’s mascot was a horse; those who were there
that day say even the horse was looking at Billy Cannon.
He went on to spend 11 years in the pros and went to dental school
as well and became an orthodontist when he retired.
But on the morning of July 9, 1983, Secret Service agents
knocked on the door of Dr. Billy Cannon, who took them out
to his back yard and showed them the $6 million he
and his not-too-bright criminal counterparts had run off
on a printing press and buried in Igloo coolers.
It’s said that fathers kept news of the arrest from their sons.
Billy Cannon never offered an explanation. He was sentenced
to five years at the state farm in Angola, got out in two.
Time passed. Lawsuits piled up. Then, in 1995, he went back
to Angola and offered to take over the prison’s dental program.
What do I have to lose, thought the warden. But Billy turned out
to be just what the system needed. He scheduled an appointment
for every inmate, even those who didn’t want one. “Those inmates
love him,” said the warden, who ended up putting Billy
in charge of the entire prison hospital, “and because they do,
he won’t let them down.” Billy Cannon became Billy Cannon,
in other words, though he never said a word about the how or why
of his crime and remains as much a mystery as Richard’s brother.
Or Richard himself, for that matter. Experts say that
when the world of virtual reality is perfected, it’ll seem
every bit as real as real reality, and when that happens,
the reality we have now will be cast in doubt: if we can
invent reality, isn’t it possible that some other civilization
has already done so? How do we know we’re not
already part of its simulation, programmed by it
to make versions of ourselves that will make versions
of ourselves? Who is reading this poem? Who wrote it?
Still, whoever dreamed us up did a good job, don’t you think?
That’s what counts. Look at you sitting there with your pot
of Earl Grey tea, sandwich on one side of you,
remote on the other. You’ve got everything
you need, you’re an artist, you don’t look back.