Authors: Jill S. Alexander
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Love & Romance, #Performing Arts, #Music, #Social Issues, #Friendship
I pulled the tarp off my drums, listening as Waylon instructed Paradise on our playlist and plans.
“We open with Guns N’ Roses.” Waylon handed Paradise one of his homemade band handbooks and pointed to a list on the first page. “Cal can play the intro and solo to ‘Sweet Child O’Mine’ as good as Slash and everyone recognizes the song. It’ll get the crowd warmed up. Then we speed up the tempo, probably with Brooks and Dunn or something Texas like Pat Green.” He chewed on his bottom lip for a minute and said, “You’re only going to sing at first. No accordion.”
I dropped my head.
Here we go again,
Waylon with his controlling ways is going to screw up and lose another lead singer.
Paradise hung his thumbs in his front pockets and raised his chin, glaring at Waylon.
“Just listen.” Waylon flipped a couple pages in the notebook. From where I stood, I could see some musical notes drawn among song lyrics. “This is our stuff. Cal’s written some. I’ve written some. I added the notes for your accordion.” Waylon glanced up at Paradise. “If you’re any good on it.”
Cal and Levi didn’t flinch when Waylon brought up the accordion. He must’ve given them a heads-up over the weekend.
I sat down on my stool and started pumping the bass drum.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Waylon would yap on about the band and skill and musical history. At some point, we had to shut up and play. For me, that point had come.
Cal, in his checkered Vans, weaved in front of me rocking some psychedelic guitar riff. I drummed the snare then rolled from crash to ride, and we were on. Full tilt.
Levi pulled his bass strap over his shoulder.
Waylon grabbed his guitar. “On two, Paisley.”
I crossed my drumsticks above my head and hit them twice. Cal plowed into the intro for “Sweet Child O’Mine.”
Dropping Waylon’s homemade band manual on the floor, Paradise took his place in front of the four of us. He hit his vocal. Right on cue. Almost like a serenade. “She’s got a smile…”
I slowed the backbeat, bringing the song down to a rocking lullaby that suited his deep voice. Levi hitched his bass to the beat. With Waylon strumming his acoustic guitar and Cal improvising on lead, the country-rock sound of the Waylon Slider Band took off.
Sometimes when I played, I got the urge to tear it up, just pound away like I was running across the pasture racing for home. But at the moment, like a kid swinging on a summer afternoon, I closed my eyes and rode the rhythm.
Paradise all but cooed the last “sweet love of mine.”
“Dude, that was sexy,” Levi blurted. He had his trucker hat on backward. “You gonna get some digits with that joint.”
Paradise leaned down and pulled his accordion from his murse. “I sang.” He stared at Waylon. “Now I play.”
He never gave Waylon a chance to argue. Paradise strapped himself into his red accordion and ran his fingers over the buttons as if each one were as white-hot as the tip end of a lit match. He drew the center bellows apart, drawing out a sweeping organlike sound.
“Well, if you don’t kill ’em with the accordion”—Levi stared at the cinched sleeves hugging Paradise’s biceps—“you can always bring out the guns.”
Waylon put down his guitar and huffed. “We’re not a circus act.”
“You see somebody clowning?” Paradise dared Waylon to utter a negative word about the accordion.
Levi knew when to shut up. Cal fidgeted with his amp.
“Can we play, please?” I never got up from my stool. Stroking Waylon’s temperamental side was a task I’d grown accustomed to. A happy, unstressed Waylon meant a definite trip to Texapalooza. A happy Paradise meant we actually could be in the band competition once we got there. I wasn’t about to let either of their egos ruin my chance at getting on that stage.
I counted us in on four. Cal hit the opening melody to one of Waylon’s songs. He understood that the way to work Waylon was to prop up Waylon’s music.
Levi linked up his bass. Waylon grabbed the neck of his blues guitar, drawing out a moaning underwater sound, showing off like he was freakin’ B. B. King or something.
Paradise flicked Waylon’s notebook open with the toe of his boot. His back was to me, and I couldn’t help but notice how he filled out his jeans. Paradise couldn’t have slipped a greased ruler in either back pocket. I stumbled over a beat. Levi kept it going with his bass and smiled at me.
At first, Paradise pulled and pushed the accordion just on the downbeats—almost like an accent. Then he seemed to settle into the bluesy groove of Waylon’s song. He shifted sideways slightly and I could see that his eyes were closed. His fingers began to race across the buttons as he pumped the accordion like a giant red lung, panting with the music.
Waylon and Cal backed off their runs and gave Paradise a solo, a chance to prove what he could do. His knees were slightly bent and Paradise threw his whole body into the work of playing the accordion. Fanning the accordion open. Pushing the bellows together. Making it wave in and out. Swaying like a cowboy version of a New Orleans jazz star.
Paradise could play. That was for sure.
Waylon glanced at me with the look of a surprised little boy who’d just been given the keys to a shiny new pickup. I knew what he was thinking. No other band would have a stud accordion player. With Paradise and his smoking squeezebox, the Waylon Slider Band had just become unique.
And he could sing. He made Waylon’s lyrics his own and threw a couple vocal hiccups in on the chorus, bouncing his shoulders and teasing with every hip-hip.
When we finished, Levi took his trucker hat off and rubbed his closely shaved head. “Dude, you’re like Buddy Holly or something. That hip-hip hiccup stuff is crazy.”
Crazy didn’t begin to describe it. Girls were going to go nuts.
Levi kept rubbing his head like he had something on his mind.
“I wasn’t going to say anything ’cause we didn’t have a singer.” Levi didn’t look at Waylon. “But, I think I’ve got us a gig.”
Paradise spun around on the heels of his boots. I gripped my sticks. Our first gig.
“Where might that be?” Waylon had his hands on his hips, acting half offended that he didn’t know about it.
“Well.” Levi patted his thick overalled belly. “The Tucker Barn.”
“One of your barn parties?” I fell onto my stool. Tucker Barn parties were notorious for such activities as Everclear-soaked watermelons, cow tipping, and snipe hunting. “We’d have to play behind chicken wire to keep from getting assaulted.”
“You wouldn’t know that from experience now, would ya?” Levi pressed his lips together and swallowed like he’d just eaten a roach. He took no pleasure in chiding me.
But he was right. I’d never even been in the Tucker Barn. Mother would homeschool me sure as daylight if I even asked to go.
“My big brother’s got a band coming from over in Jessup County.” Levi looked around at each of us. “I checked. They said we could use their equipment for a few songs while they take a break.”
Cal nodded and Paradise agreed. “I’ll bring my own equipment,” he said with his arm resting on his accordion.
Waylon shifted his weight, locking eyes with Levi.
Levi looked away, staring at the frets on his bass guitar.
Paradise’s jaw tightened and twitched. He seemed to take Waylon’s and Levi’s sudden silence personally. He put his hands on his hips—the accordion strapped to him like a bullet bandolier. “You people don’t really want to play in a band.” Paradise reached for his murse. “You only want to say you’re in one.”
But this time, Paradise had it all wrong.
“Not true,” I said. “They’re not worried about you or your accordion.” I rolled my sticks back and forth across the tops of my legs until they felt hot. “It’s me, isn’t it?”
Waylon almost looked apologetic. “We’ve got to have a drummer.”
“The Waylon Slider Band has a drummer. The same one it’s had from the start.” I stood up with my sticks in my fist.
“Paisley, your mother’s not going to let you within ten miles of the Tucker Barn.”
“That’s not your problem, Waylon.” I stepped out from behind my drums, my boots clapping across the concrete. If Waylon Slider was going to tell me I couldn’t play, he’d have to tell it within punching range. “Where the band plays, I play. I’m not just your rehearsal drummer.”
Levi started laughing. “God, Paisley. No one’s gonna confuse you with a rehearsal drummer. But if we’re gonna do this thing, you gotta promise to be there.” Then Levi drew in a deep breath as if he knew what kind of underhanded maneuvering it would take. “Regardless.”
“And if you blow this and get caught,” Waylon kicked in, “you’ll sure enough be out for Austin. And”—he rolled his mouth around and finally mumbled out—“we need you the most at Texapalooza.”
Levi reached his big arm around my waist and pulled me away from Waylon. “You’re the best drummer in these parts.”
Like Lacey, Levi was a senior and had treated me like his baby sister ever since I joined the school band in junior high. “If you say you’ll be there, we know you’ll show.” Then he added, “Good Lord knows your sister always manages to show up.”
“Done deal, then,” Paradise said.
Cal sat in a lawn chair, his long hair falling like a curtain over the spiral in his lap. But he held his pencil up for a quick second, just long enough to let us know he was in.
“Saturday night. After the rodeo.” Levi hit me with a soft fist bump.
“No problem,” I lied. Truth was—I had no earthly idea how I was going to pull off getting to and from Levi Tucker’s barn party, but that was just logistics.
CAL’S LYRIC JOURNAL
BAPTIZED BY FIRE
I kissed her in first grade
Gave her my lemonade
Said, “Girl, will you marry me?”
But she kicked dirt on my new Vans
Laughed at my big plans
Forced me to learn the hard way
She left me baptized by fire reaching out for a dream.
Her momma tried hard to keep her home
Set up some orange cones
Said, “Girl, keep it between the lines”
But she hung a left off the straight and narrow
All wing, no halo
Nothing to slow the pace
She’ll be baptized by fire on the road to her dream.
Someday this trip will end
She’ll really need a friend
I’ll say, “Girl, it’s been a long time.”
Since you’ve come around to notice me
I’ve been here all along
We’ve both been baptized by fire chasing down a dream.
A cloud of red dirt dusted the Prosper County Rodeo Arena like a soft sifting of chili powder. Gusts of wind picked up the grassy smell of manure in the pens and the greasy scent of fried food from the concession stands—carrying both into the crowded arena. My spot on the eighth row in the bleachers was a little like standing behind a horse while eating a corny dog.
Dad stuck his bag of popcorn under my nose. “Want some?”
I shook my head, hoping Lacey would sing soon and get this show on the road. I didn’t want to go to the Tucker Barn smelling like a feedlot. But more than that, Lacey’s performing set me on edge. She didn’t want to sing. She wanted to be a hairstylist and makeup artist. That lack of interest in singing had become all too apparent lately in her lackluster delivery. I glanced around the arena. Denim and boots everywhere. A lot of old-time veterans with military pins on their caps. This was definitely not the place to blow the national anthem.
“Your mother said you and Lacey were headed out after her performance,” Dad said, picking around in his popcorn sack.
“Yep.” I looked away, tapping my fingertips against the metal bleacher seat.
Lacey had laughed when I asked if I could ride with her to the Tucker Barn, but she didn’t say no. She walked straight into the kitchen and told Mother we were going to the late movie after the rodeo and wouldn’t be home until after midnight. Mother bought the lie. No questions asked. When it came to Lacey, she just believed what she wanted to believe.