Authors: Jill S. Alexander
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Love & Romance, #Performing Arts, #Music, #Social Issues, #Friendship
In that instant, the combine’s roof lights switched on—putting a spotlight right on the band, right on us.
A loud moan broke through the barn as the tractor’s high beams shattered the comfortable darkness. I kept my head down until my eyes adjusted. When I finally looked back up, Levi had lowered the beams to dim. A softer light hung just above the heads of the crowd and broadened right as it reached us. It was the perfect spotlight, and Levi looked proud of himself.
He hopped back onto the trailer, still wearing his rubber boots, with a smile as wide as a barn door. “Can’t nobody say Tuckers ain’t re-sourceful.”
Now that I had some light, I realized the ride cymbal was too high for me to hit the center crown. I wouldn’t be able to get a full-enough sound for the choruses if I didn’t drop it. I checked each side of the stage. No sign of the previous band.
Paradise was strapped into his accordion and standing a few steps in front of the drums.
“Over here.” I pointed just above the ride cymbal.
He took a couple of back steps and blocked the light.
I glanced around one more time for the other band members or drummer. Then I lowered the ride.
Paradise started laughing. “Bad girl, Paisley. Isn’t there some kind of Jesus code or Jesus bracelet about honesty or doing the right thing?”
“Shut up.” I sat back down on the stool and laid the sticks on the snare. “If you want to know what Jesus says, go to church. I don’t think bracelet reminders would help you much.”
“Then why do you wear that ring?”
God, I hated it when he brought up my ring! Suddenly, I felt like I was in the nude trying to have a conversation with him. Like I wanted to openly discuss abstinence with His Royal Hotness on a stage before our first gig. I tried to ignore him.
Paradise took a sideways glance at Levi who hadn’t picked up the bass yet. Waylon and Cal were still tuning. “Seriously, Paisley,” he started picking at me again. “Aren’t you under some evangelical witness obligation to teach me about these things? I mean, I need some Jesus guidance.”
“Oh my gosh.” I hopped to my feet, mostly out of frustration, but I wanted to make sure he heard me loud and clear. He was just a little too interested in my purity ring. I yelled at him, “I do not want to talk about having sex with you!”
My voice rang out through the barn as I stood in the tractor spotlight. I heard myself in the echo—
having sex with you, sex with you …
I dropped the drumsticks.
A few whistles and some clapping rose from the crowd onto the stage.
“Hot microphone, sweetheart.” Paradise laughed.
I caught sight of Waylon out of the corner of my eye—his mouth gaped open. Even Cal stared at me.
“I didn’t mean that the way it came out.” I held my hand up to show Waylon, Levi, and Cal what I was talking about. “He asked about my ring. I was trying to explain that. Abstinence. Really!”
Suddenly, nothing felt right. My first instinct was to run off the stage and throw a chair.
Waylon stepped in front of the drums. “Paisley.” His shoulders were back; his guitar strap with
tooled into the leather hung across his chest. He was battle ready. “Keep your personal stuff personal. We need you to do a job. Just do it. Don’t get caught up with what the audience thinks. They think the band is done. Most of them are drunk anyway. Tonight is about us putting what we do out there and making sure our sound is solid.”
There was no point in my arguing my case anymore. Mother’s lectures to Lacey played over in my head.
Stuff goes wrong in a performance. That’s just the business.
And Waylon was right about the crowd. They weren’t really paying us much attention at all. I sat down in front of the snare and picked up the sticks. Nylon tips. I preferred wood. I tapped them together; the pitch matched. If my sound wasn’t even, I couldn’t blame the sticks. I slipped my right foot onto the bass drum pedal. I had this. I was good to go.
A sound like a howling wind raced around the barn. Paradise was warming up. Against his black T-shirt, the red accordion shined in the light. He held it between his muscular arms, pushing and pulling and sailing his fingers across the button keys.
“Let’s do this,” Waylon said. He gathered everyone in front of the drums. “We play like we practice. Nothing fancy. Solid. Cal, you open with ‘Sweet Child O’Mine.’ Then we move to our songs.” Waylon kept on, “We don’t have to be great, just good.” And he kept on, “This is just like the hangar.”
Sometimes I thought Waylon’s experience in performing got in the way of his actual performing. He analyzed everything down, shredding each minute detail. Being a Slider, he probably had more to lose from a bad performance than any of us, so I always tried to respect his lectures.
But Paradise was done with Waylon.
Paradise turned his back and snaked up to the center microphone. “Everybody put your hands in the air!” His voice boomed throughout the barn. Unlike Waylon, Paradise was all into the crowd.
I wasn’t sure what he was up to, but I gripped a stick in each hand. Cal and Levi scrambled to their places. Waylon’s face went scarlet. He looked as if he wanted more than anything to slap a five star on Paradise’s back and shove him face-first off the trailer.
Paradise started clapping his hands above his head until what sounded like a good many in the crowd joined in. “Give me a beat!”
OK, that was
job, and this was not at all what we had practiced. I had no idea what he’d pull next.
I watched Waylon with his guitar slung loosely across his body and his hands on his hips. I honestly thought he might self-combust. Just burst into a flame right there on the flatbed-trailer stage in the Tucker Barn.
Then Paradise did the unbelievable. He started singing. A cappela. No intro from Cal, no hint of anything we’d practiced. No nothing other than the steady, sloppy clapping of a bunch of drunk teenagers. He began flapping his arms in an upward motion, which was apparently our cue to start playing.
Cal caught up with him. Levi looked back at me, trying to lock in a beat for his bass. I went for it—hitting the bass drum and the snare and the hi-hats in regular time. I sounded like a lazy horse clopping along a brick street, but it was all I could do. So much for rocking out. No syncopations. No fancy fills. I was drumming myself to sleep.
Paradise sang his face off. I’ll give him that much. The crowd, seduced by his slow grooving cover of “Sweet Child O’Mine,” dipped and swayed. But he left no room for the rest of us. Even Cal, who could harmonize with bawling cattle, kept silent. This show belonged to Paradise. The Waylon Slider Band was just background.
Paradise rolled right out of Guns N’ Roses and straight into one of Waylon’s songs. He owned it like he’d written it himself. Had the words memorized, sang like the words meant something to him personally, and never once looked back. He never cocked his head to Cal or Waylon to transition. He just steamrolled his way through, confident that we would back him up. And when he keyed up his accordion, he became a one-man show. It didn’t matter to me how good he was. The whole thing sucked.
It was probably close to eleven thirty, and I yawned through my own boring beat. Levi shook his head at Waylon while Paradise blew into a fiery squeezebox solo. Really impressive. Even the first band crowded the side of the trailer and watched him in amazement.
The crowd, drunk or not, clapped louder as he played. Stomped their boots. A hard, steady pounding that rocked the barn. He had his own freaking mosh pit. Cal tried to weave his way into the spotlight, but every time he got near a corner of that fancy rug, Paradise just squeezed the accordion faster and harder. Like one of those ridiculous Chia pets that sprouts when drenched with water, Paradise seemed to grow bigger as the crowd poured on the encouragement.
Finally, Waylon held up his index finger. One more song and we were all done.
The Waylon Slider Band played it out. I finished it off with a soft flam, a rim shot, and a punch to the bass drum. Like the end of a bad joke.
Waylon took his guitar and jumped off the stage. Cal unplugged his Gibson from the amp, took a rubber band from his wrist, and pulled his hair back.
Paradise turned around as if he’d suddenly remembered he forgot something important and now it was nowhere to be found. “What’s the deal?” He put his hands on his hips. “That was only a few songs. We’re not done.”
“You may not be.” I hopped off the trailer; my boots slapped the concrete. “But the rest of us are.”
Paradise peeled the accordion off his chest. “What? You’re all quitting?”
I handed the sticks to the drummer from the first band.
“You did the right thing,” the drummer said to me, then looked up at Paradise. “Quit shit, man. She stayed in the pocket for you. I would’ve left your arrogant ass up there with no backbeat.”
I forced my way through the crowd. It was getting late. I just wanted to find Lacey and go home.
Pat Green’s “Carry On” ripped through the barn. Levi must’ve loaded up the sound system, looking to get loose and lost in his playlist of Texas country.
Fine with me. Carry on was just what I intended to do. I was done with Paradise.
I stopped and asked a couple of kids I knew were in my sister’s senior English class, “Have you seen Lacey?”
They shook their heads and went right back to singing along with Levi’s soundtrack.
I stood on one of the hay bales marking off the dance floor. Thought maybe I’d find her dancing. She was nowhere in the line of couples rounding.
As I stepped down from the hay bale, the fluorescent lights flickered on without warning and lit up the entire barn. Kids began to flood out through each of the side doors.
“Paisley!” Levi yelled as he, Waylon, and Cal ran toward me. “Get on home. Sheriff’s deputies are down at the gate handing out MIPs.”
I stared up at the roof of the barn. Fought back mad tears, scared tears. Minor in Possession. I was a pasture length away from getting slapped with a ticket for being a minor with alcohol. The fact that I hadn’t been drinking wasn’t going to get in the way of a fund-raising opportunity for the sheriff. I was in the vicinity. Close enough.
Maybe this was God’s way of saying,
Hey, Paisley. Listen to your mother. Drumming’s not for you. You’ll just get in with the wrong crowd and get in trouble.
How would I ever explain an MIP to my mother? How would I explain the band? Then I remembered Lacey.
“I can’t leave without my sister.”
Waylon jumped square in my face. “Get over it, Paisley. Get out,” he yelled, pointing toward the barn doors. “I’ve gotta have you on drums.”
Cal put his hand on Waylon’s shoulder. Waylon shrugged it off and stomped away, disappearing into the scrambling kids.
“I’m sorry, Paisley.” Levi looked down at his rubber boots. “Look, they’ll Breathalyze you, and you ain’t been drinkin’. Maybe your momma’ll cut you some slack.”
“Her mother won’t have to.” Paradise brushed against my back. “You’ve got that bootlegger road that cuts across the Jessup County line and hits the highway. Take the Bronco.”
He handed his keys to Levi, but Levi kept his hands behind the bib of his overalls. He’d had enough of Paradise too.
“Thanks but no thanks.” I had enough of choices being made for me at home. “Not your decision.” I wasn’t about to stand there and let a bunch of guys call the shots either. But the bootlegger road was a way out. “Levi, Lacey’s car is here. I can find her and drive us through.”
Levi shook his head. “That little Bug ain’t gonna make it over the trail, especially after this rain.”
The crowd inside the barn thinned. I looked past Levi. Cal was long gone, but Waylon was coming back. And he was coming back with my sister.
“Lacey!” My heart pounded. Shook my whole chest.
Barely able to sling one foot in front of the other, Lacey hung like a discarded rag doll against Waylon. Her blond curls exhausted into yarn-like mats. Her ruffled shirt buttoned awkwardly in only two places. All the rumors I’d heard about her, about my own sister, stared me in the face. Rumors are one thing. I’d blown them off because mostly they came from girls at school who looked down on us, on any rural kid who claimed a post office box instead of a street address. But there was no shirking off what I could reach out and touch.
“I found her on the bench outside.” Waylon shifted his eyes from Levi, got defensive. “She was just like this, I swear. I guess whoever she was with figured that she couldn’t run.”
I heard Levi mutter something that sounded an awful lot like “I’ll kill ’em.”
I brushed the matted hair away from Lacey’s face. A black mascara smudge darkened her cheekbone and temple. I wiped and wiped as much away as I could with my fingers. But I couldn’t wipe away the pain that someone had used her and tossed her like trash. I wanted to make her right.
No way could I let our folks see her like that.
“Paisley, take the Bronco.” Paradise put his hand on my shoulder. The muscles in his neck quivered. “I want to help.”