The Ballads of Frankie Ballard
by Nate Ealy
Let me tell you about the time my girlfriend Ashlie died. Actually, murdered might be the better word. We were both twenty years old and it happened right beside me at the Butler County Fair in 2015. Now that it’s been thirty years later, and I’m happily married to another beautiful woman, I feel that I can tell it. It’s time for me to tell the story. I promised myself I wouldn’t cry when I wrote this out, but I don’t know if I can keep that promise. Every year around late June and early July I get to thinking about her. Maybe it’s because her birthday is coming up, but mainly it’s because it’s almost July 11th. That was the day she died in my arms to the music of Frankie Ballard.
It was all her idea to go to the fair. I wasn’t much of a fair guy, and I’m still not. I haven’t been back in thirty years. I’ve never been one for the food there, or all the farm animals and smells. If I wanted that atmosphere I could go to a real farm for free.
But we went that day. Ashlie wanted to. The Y108 Freedom Fest was going on that night and Frankie Ballard was the main act. Now, I listen to Pittsburgh’s #1 country station, but I had no idea who Frankie Ballard was. Ashlie said I’d know his songs once he started singing, and she was right about that. So we went to the fair not for the fair itself but for Frankie.
She had a friend who was able to get us in for free. To this day I still don’t know how it worked. Something about getting family passes from the inside and then smuggling them out for us to use. All I know is that I saved enough money to be able to eat at the fair (not that that was a highlight, mind you). Admission to the concert was free with admission to the fair, and for us that meant it was all free except for the food.
Ashlie wore her short, little denim shorts and a flannel shirt that she rolled the sleeves of. I just wore a Steelers shirt with a skull on it. Together we looked like a typical fair couple and blended right in. All I needed was a pair of boots and we would have been spot on. We ate funnel cakes and food with so much grease on it that I didn’t have to chew it all. It slid down my throat all on its own, and if it wouldn’t have been for the death of my girlfriend, I’d have spent the next day on the toilet as it slid out the other end.
The show didn’t start until nine, so to fill the time we walked around the fair hand in hand. There was so many food trucks parked in there, and there was even a tent for an indie movie too. None of that really interested Ashlie though. She wanted to see the rabbits and so we saw the rabbits. I didn’t care much for them, but she liked them. I kicked up the dust while she oogled over their floppy ears.
We walked past the rides and I felt that warm, fuzzy feeling for them that I felt for the food. I’ve never trusted the rides at places like the fair. They just don’t seem sturdy enough to me. They go up and go down so often that they can’t be, and yet they are everywhere all the time with people filling the seats.
We walked over to the stage around 8:40ish to try and get a close spot to the stage. The ground was soggy and muddy in most places. Had I worn my boots that wouldn’t have been a problem, but since I was in my tennies it made things difficult. I carried Ashlie for the middle portion where I sank an inch into the mud and had to fight the power of suction with every step. I was glad we went early though. At least we weren’t standing in that crap for the show.
I didn’t know who Frankie Ballard was, but Ashlie wanted to get as close as possible to see him. So me being a good boyfriend I followed her right up to the front. We weren’t early enough to get the exact front, but if there would have been rows we would have been in the sixth row. Not bad for a free concert.
It was about 8:55ish when she turned to me and said, “Look! Oh my god, I can’t believe it’s her!”
I followed her outstretched finger pointing to a blonde head in the crowd mere feet from the bottom of the stage. I didn’t have to see the face or the attached body to know who that head of hair belonged to.
“Brittany,” I sighed.
“Brittany!” Ashlie smiled. “I’m sending her a snapchat. Maybe she can get us closer.”
I didn’t have any time to protest. Ashlie had taken a photo of me and sent it to Brittany before I could even think of a protest. Seconds later there was a reply filled with exclamation points and smiley faces. I could never understand how Ashlie could be so indifferent to Brittany’s extreme interest me. So much so that she’d put me in her presence just to get closer to Frankie Ballard.
“I think she’s coming to get us,” Ashlie said. She gave me a hug. “Thanks for taking one for the team, baby.”
If there was one person who could get us to the front of the crowd it was Brittany. Her love for me was stronger than her sense of awkwardness, which that night certainly was full of after that point. I saw that short, blonde girl squirm in between the two guys standing in front of us. She was smiling ear to ear and grabbed my hand.
“It’s so cool that you guys are here! Come with me. I’ll take you to my spot!” The whole time Brittany talked she only looked at me. Not once did her eyes drift over to Ashlie. You can’t blame her either. To her, Ashlie was the bitch that stole her man.
Hand in hand, Brittany led me to the front of the crowd. In her absence a drunk couple had taken her spot, but most of it was still open. There was room for three twenty year olds left. On my right side was Brittany, who was dancing up on me before the music had even started to play, and on my left was my girlfriend Ashlie, the one person I wanted to dance with. Like I said, it was an awkward night for me.
The drunk couple in front of us was swaying back and forth. The man stood about as tall as One World Trade Center and had a red ball cap featuring a Confederate flag flying on it. His lady friend was in a white sundress and had a blue cowboy hat on. Every now and then they’d raise their cups up, and the contents would slosh around, kissing the rim before falling back to the bottom.
There were more drunk people behind us too, but they weren’t a distraction. We couldn’t see them. What we could see was the smoke from the people to our right. Brittany didn’t seem affected, but every so often a cloud of gray death would float over us from our friends to the right. I remember Ashlie would cough extra loud just so they could hear it.
People would come onto the stage to check the mics and the instruments, so I let Ashlie take in the moment. Which meant letting Brittany talk my ear off. She talked about everything and anything, because we were talking in real life and not over a faceless text message. This was the real deal.
“I love Frankie Ballard! I didn’t know you liked him too!” she said tugging on my arm.
“I’m just here because Ashlie wanted to come,” I told her. “I’m missing the Pirates game for this.”
That killed Brittany’s mood, but not her drive. She didn’t let go of my arm, but began to shake it violently because the band had just walked on stage. The bassist picked up his guitar and started to strum a few chords. The drums started to beat. Everyone was there except Frankie, and the only way I knew that was because Brittany told me.
The music was loud this close to the stage, very loud. I don’t think I could have heard a gunshot. I’d never been this close to a performance before in my short life before that night, and I’ve never been that close since. I have to admit though, that when Frankie Ballard finally came running onto stage a minute later, it was beyond amazing. We were so close I could literally feel his energy radiating from his skinny jeans and black button up. He ran his hand through his slicked back hair and the drunks in front of us lifted their cups again, and again the beer was close to spending the night on my shirt.
Brittany had me in a full embrace when Frankie picked up his guitar and started to play. He jumped right into the first song of the show, and when I looked over at Ashlie, she was dancing beside me smiling. That’s what made standing beside Brittany worth it. I loved Ashlie’s smile.
I had no idea what Frankie Ballard’s first song was. It was something I’ve never heard again in my life, so I’m assuming it was one of the duds off the album. Ashlie was right though, and the next song he played I did know.
Every time Frankie would say How are we doing tonight, Butler? the drunk girl in front of us would throw her hands up in the air and scream. In her hand was her cup of Coors Light, and I watched that beer swish around in the cup. One time, right as Frankie started to sing Young and Crazy, she threw her hand up in the air and the beer sloshed out and onto Ashlie’s flannel shirt. The drunk lady kept her hand in the air, oblivious to what had just happened, so I reached up and plucked the plastic cup out of her hand before more could spill out.
The drunk lady turned around as if I had just stolen her virginity. She mouthed a few words but nothing rose above the level of the music. I wouldn’t have heard her even if she put a bullhorn to my ear. I thought I was going to go deaf that night.
Instead of trying to tell me what the problem was, she tapped the shoulder of the hulk she was drinking with. The man in the red Confederate hat turned to face me and scrunched his face up tight. Then it turned a dark red color and he yelled a simple word: WHAT!?!
Now that one I could hear. I bet even Frankie up on the stage could have heard it too. The man in the Confederate hat threw his cup to the ground and it splashed all over our feet. Mine, Ashlie’s, and even Brittany’s shoes were wet. I gave the man a light shove for that, and he shoved me back hard. I stumbled a few steps and saw him draw his knife out of his pocket. It wasn’t a long machete, but instead a little guy that fit snug in his front pocket when closed.
Regardless, it was foolish of me to shove him back. I should have known that every good country boy has a knife on him, and this rebel was a good country boy. He was a good, drunk country boy.
He took a step to stab me in the gut but planted his foot on the plastic cup on the ground. He lost his footing and fell to the ground in a drunken fit. I was paying attention so I stepped back, but Ashlie must have turned to catch another look at Frankie, because when the hulking man in the Confederate hat fell down, he plunged his knife into her leg. The knife was sticking out of her inner thigh at a funny angle. She immediately pulled the knife out and screamed. I could barely hear her scream over the music.
We locked eyes. I don’t know what the drunk man was doing at that moment, or his date, or Brittany, or even Frankie Ballard. I just know what Ashlie did. She fell into my arms. I held her as she slid down my body. I tried to keep her up, but her face was turning so white, and there was so much blood running out of her leg. She couldn’t stay standing and dropped to her knees.
I yelled for help. I nudged people’s legs that were near me. Nothing I did got any attention. It was Brittany that did that. She punched the man in the face which knocked off his hat, and then threw the rebel apparel onstage at Frankie. The hat hit Frankie Ballard and that stopped him from finishing Young and Crazy, which gave us the silence to yell for help.
But it was too late. When the medics arrived they told me what I already knew. That she was dead, bled out in my arms at the fair. The knife had cut into her femoral artery. I felt her leave me as her blood gushed out of her leg. I could see it in her eyes. I was the last thing she saw on this earth, and the last thing she heard was Frankie Ballard’s voice over the sound system. I cried in public for the first time that night.
I’ve never really gotten over Ashlie’s death. It’s hard when you feel a person’s heart stop beating. The guy that stabbed her, we found out through the legal process, was Thomas Sterie and he didn’t spend as much time prison as I wanted him too. If I’d have had my way he’d still be in there right now. Brittany was really nice during the whole thing, and we’ve stayed in touch. Actually, that other beautiful woman I mentioned at the beginning of all this is her.
But there it is, at last. I’ve kept this in my head for years now, and finally, finally, it’s on paper. It’s all out. I just hope I’ve done you justice Ashlie by writing it down.
And just so you know, I haven’t listened to good old Frankie Ballard ever since.