After some coercion, Slow takes her very first stage.
“Why on earth do you want to bring the guitar?” Mildly confused, I put the instrument in the trunk.
Elle, bless her heart, didn’t seem near as irritated with me as she probably felt. Stifling a sigh, she gazed at me a moment before grinning. “Because I might want to hear you play, Slow. Isn’t that reason enough?”
Considering she could hear me play any time, I still didn’t understand the need to bring a guitar to the county fair. Women, I swear! Do they ever make sense? After closing the trunk I looked up to see her still waiting for an answer. “Um, yeah, I expect that’s a good enough reason.”
Her hazel eyes sparkled impishly, and I wondered if I’d spoken my thoughts aloud. I did that sometimes, and it got me in more hot water than I ever wanted. Elle pushed away from where she was leaning against the car and sidled toward me. She brushed dangerously close, our breasts touching as she held up the keys. “You drive.”
I swallowed hard, glancing at my house, desperately hoping Mama wasn’t watching. Elle’s going to be the death of me yet! Her chuckle brought my attention back as she jingled the keys before me.
“You’re adorable when you blush, Slow.”
I groaned, her laughter pleasing and embarrassing me further. I snagged the keys as I shook my head. Sometimes I think I should apply for the position of fire engine. Or maybe Rudolph the Red-Faced Reindeer. “Let’s go, woman, before I make an idiot out of myself.”
Elle followed me to the passenger door and said, “Absolutely adorable.” My grumble must have tickled her fancy because she laughed again as she climbed into the car.
I closed her door and circled around the front to the driver’s side. The car was a graduation present from her daddy, a cherry red convertible. Every time we went anywhere this summer, Elle let me drive. She handled like a sweet machine. The car, I mean, not Elle. Well. Come to think of it, Elle handled pretty sweet, too.
Once I got the seat adjusted for my longer legs, I shut the door and buckled up. I was really glad that my family couldn’t see inside because Elle’s hand was on my thigh, fingers tracing gently. Flushing again, I started the engine and pulled away from the curb.
Sometimes I think Elle does this stuff on purpose, trying to get a rise out of me. She constantly flirts with getting caught, says it adds flavor to the gravy. That may be true, but I’ve got to say that the gravy doesn’t need much more flavor in it, if you know what I mean. I don’t know why she does what she does. Still, it makes things mighty interesting.
This summer was the best one yet. No threat of school in the fall, full time hours at the garage and Elle. In only a few short weeks, however, I’d be alone again — Elle was going to college in another state. I wasn’t looking forward to it, though she insisted she’d still love me. Rather than totally ruin my mood and the afternoon, I reached down and squeezed Elle’s wandering hand. Not surprisingly, it had drifted upward, her fingers following the inner seam of my jeans.
As we pulled onto the highway, Elle left off, leaning back in a luxurious stretch and fluffing her hair so the wind could catch it better. “I love this car!” Her grin was infectious, and I laughed with her as we left our small town life behind.
We drove for over half an hour, heading north as the smells of late summer washed over us — onions and mint in the fields, diesel exhaust from the occasional eighteen-wheeler barreling along, a blissfully short whiff of the dog food plant in the distance. We came over a rise, and the fairgrounds lay before us. Though still early, we weren’t the only people taking advantage of the afternoon. The parking lot was about half full, and the Ferris wheel on the midway was already rotating. In no time we were being directed to a space in the lot.
Before shutting down the vehicle, I put the roof up. Elle combed out her hair and applied fresh lipstick. Pocketing the keys, I got out and trotted around to open her door. Silly, I know, but she likes it when I treat her special. Daddy always says chivalry isn’t dead unless we kill it. I paid the entry fee at the gate. Regardless of my discomfort, Elle hung on my arm, flirting with the ticket handler. He was so enamored by her it never occurred to him I was a girl. We entered the fairgrounds with him telling me to have a good time, “son.”
First thing we did was get lunch. I ended up with a corn dog and Elle ordered nachos. We shared curly fries, sitting in the sun and watching people pass. After dumping our trash, Elle wanted to go to the midway. No Exposition Center for her — she said she’d had enough of baking, country crafts and putting up jam to last a lifetime. One thing I learned early on is what Elle wants, Elle gets. I figured I’d have to come back later in the week. I doubted Elle’d have much to do with the livestock displays, and I always found the animals fascinating.
As I expected, Elle wanted to go on every ride that required a sense of adventure. When I suggested the roller coaster, however, she stuck her pretty nose in the air and proclaimed the rickety thing too small. Afternoon faded into evening. The crowd around us grew and changed. Screaming kids and families gave way to teenagers and adults. Elle insisted we go to the fun house, which seemed silly to me. I mean, if the roller coaster was too “juvenile” as she put it, wouldn’t the fun house be, too?
Still, I let her drag me into the mirror maze. Giggling, she dashed ahead. Damned near bloodied my nose trying to keep up, but I finally found my way to the other side. I was treated to a nice view of Elle’s behind as she tried to negotiate steps that split down the middle. Both sides were moving back and forth independently, and she was having a rough time walking. Her hips were swinging mighty fine, though, and I was looking forward to getting inside her tight jeans later.
“Dare you to catch me, Slow!” she called back with a laugh just as she reached the top.
It was the devilish look in her eye that interested me. I wondered what I’d get if I caught her, and my body tingled. With a wink and a grin, I tried to bounce up the steps. Elle waited until I was almost there before dashing away. Stumbling to the top, I about skinned my knees but remained standing. I was too intent on my flirting girlfriend to care.
The platform was small and opened to the left. I ducked around the corner into a room full of crazy mirrors. One of the lights was busted, making half the room dark. Elle stood before one of the mirrors and waved me over.
“Look, Slow, I’m as skinny as you!”
I noted we were alone as I came up behind Elle, putting my arms around her waist and looking over her shoulder. Our reflection made us look seven feet tall and ten pounds if we were an ounce. “I think we need to eat more.”
Elle giggled and put her arms over mine, sinking back against me. “Eat more what?” She craned her neck so I could see her wicked grin.
Of course, I blushed. About the same time, another couple arrived and began laughing at themselves. Self-conscious, I tried to pull away, but Elle wasn’t having it. She tightened down on my arms. Trapped, I could make a scene and get really embarrassed or let it go. They’d no doubt think I was a boy, anyhow. I frowned at Elle and set my chin on her shoulder. In the mirror I saw her tiny smile soften, and she hugged me close until the couple moved on.
“Does this mean you’re caught?”
Elle turned in my arms and pinched my cheek. “Nope!” She ducked out of my grasp and ran off.
Rolling my eyes in feigned exasperation, I sighed and dutifully followed.
There was a wood and rope bridge that spanned about eight feet. One side was safety netting and I looked out on the midway and people entering the mirror maze. The walk was awkward enough without Elle jumping up and down on the other side. “You are gonna get it, girl.”
My threat falling on deaf ears, Elle stayed put until I lunged for her. I grinned at her excited laugh as she hared off. Another little passage led to more stairs. These were pneumatically operated, each step moving up, down or sideways. Elle was still laughing as she made her way down. Not about to let her get away, I nearly sprained an ankle as I galloped down the moving steps. I reached the bottom right behind her and grabbed her waist, loving the joyful shriek she gave in response.
A little off balance, I let myself fall against the wall to one side, taking my captive with me. She gave a halfhearted struggle, but I knew it was for show. “Caught you,” I said as she relaxed. “What do I get?”
Elle’s chuckle was husky. “What do you want?”
All moisture went south on me as a half dozen memorable occasions filtered through my mind. She turned in my arms again, this time pressing against me. I don’t know if it was her eyes or smile or what that signaled my brain, but sometimes it felt like her whole body was fire and I was the fuel. Before I could protest, Elle’s lips were on mine, and I was lost in a passionate kiss.
Who knew how much time passed? Eventually I was aware of laughter above and wolf whistles from outside. A couple of teenagers were at the top of the stairs, yucking it up, and the only thing between the exterior and us was a big rolling barrel.
I groaned and buried my face in Elle’s blonde hair. She giggled and gave me a hug as the teenagers went past, still laughing. When it was safe, I pulled back. “You’re evil.” I took a chance and kissed the tip of her nose.
Elle grinned. “Yes, I am. Haven’t heard you complain yet.” She squeezed me again and broke away. “C’mon. I’ll buy dinner.” Giving me a final pinch on my behind, she sidled through the rolling barrel, walking sideways to get to the other side.
She had a point. I hadn’t complained yet. Don’t think I’ll start now, either. I pushed away from the wall and glanced back up the steps. Nobody there. Out on the midway, whoever had been hooting at us had wandered off. I stepped into the barrel and stood with my hands bracing against the top and my feet on the bottom. Slowly, the thing trundled around and my world twirled with it. Elle turned to regard me with an upside down grin that was half exasperation and half enjoyment. I mean, if you can’t make a fool of yourself for your girlfriend then who else can you? Smiling as I completed the circle, I finally stumbled forward when my center of gravity was upright.
Dinner was more junk food. We found teriyaki chicken at one shack and loaded up with marinated sticks and sodas. It was hard finding someplace to sit, the midway was getting so crowded. We ended up on an out-of-the-way patch of grass near one of the rides. Once our bellies were full, Elle pulled me to my feet. “Come on. Let’s get your guitar.”
I rolled my eyes, reluctantly letting her tug me along down the crowded midway. It was getting on dark and lights were flashing all over the place, illuminating the excitement. “Aw, Elle,” I groaned. “Let’s go on the Spider again instead.”
“No. I want to get your guitar.”
I knew that complaining wouldn’t change her mind. Pitching a fit wouldn’t do it, either. She’d just pout and give me those hazel eyes that said I was a jerk for resisting her, and I’d cave anyway. I sighed and at least kept up with her insistent steps rather than have her pull me along like a stubborn sheep dog. At the gate, we got a stamp on our hand so we could come back inside. It didn’t take long before we got to the car, retrieved my guitar case and returned.
Was it my imagination or did Elle seem to be even more excited as she guided me through the mess of Saturday night fun seekers? The guitar case kept cracking my knees and poking other people, so I held it in front of me like a shield. Just my luck, I’d thump the wrong person and lose my teeth in a brawl. Elle, intent on her destination, rarely gave me a glance; she just kept her hand on my wrist so as not to lose me. We weren’t headed for the midway, and I frowned.
The crowd funneled through a gate and I realized we were at the band shell. Our fairgrounds had a place for horse races and concerts. There was a large placard listing things that were going on inside, but I didn’t have time to glance at it as we passed. The bleachers were filling, and someone was playing a record on stage. My stomach got a little queasy. There’s no way Elle was thinking what I thought she was thinking. Was there?
I came to a stop, people cursing as they shuffled past. Elle got two steps away before she realized her hand was no longer on my wrist. Puzzled, she turned back. “Slow? Come on. We’ll be late.”
I swallowed, feeling sweaty though the night was cooling mighty fine. “Late for what?” I asked, my voice cracking. I’m sure it could barely be heard over the seated crowd hooting and hollering. Tall enough to catch a glimpse of the action over the passing pedestrians, I noted a pair of twins dancing around on the stage.
Elle studied me for a long moment before she slumped a little, realizing she wasn’t going to get closer to her goal without cluing me in. Considering how dense I can be upon occasion, I’m actually kind of surprised I figured out something was fishy before it got any further. She stepped closer to me, laying a gentling hand on my arm. “It’s the talent contest, Slow. I entered you.”
“WHAT?” That got a bit of attention, not just from those walking by but also from folks seated in the bleachers just over our heads.
“You’re in the talent contest! I want you to go up there and play! There’s a five-hundred dollar prize for the winner!”
I was already back stepping, ignoring a complaint as I stepped on someone’s foot. “No way, Elle,” I vowed, shaking my head. “I…I can’t!”
“Sure you can, baby.” Elle smiled encouragingly. “You play for me all the time so it’s not like you’ve never had an audience.”
My head was still shaking and my feet still shuffling as I backed away. There was a sharp bite of pain in her eyes, and it hurt me knowing I was the cause. But there was no way in hell I was going to get up there and play. Nope. Not me. Cold day in Hell, Daddy would say.
Elle’s mouth became a thin line and she marched toward me, easily sidestepping folks until she reached my side. I half expected her to drag me forward, but she didn’t. Instead, she shuffled me sideways until we were out of the foot traffic and against the barricade beneath the bleachers. “Slow,” she began.
“No, Elle!” I really hated how my voice cracked, but it seemed impossible to speak normally. My heart was pounding and the guitar case wanted to slip through my sweaty hands. Good God Almighty! If I was this terrified at the very thought, what would happen if I actually went through with what she wanted? “I can’t do it!”
“Shhh, Slow.” She forced the guitar case from my grip, pinning it between the metal bars and our legs. Before I could slip shaking hands into my pockets, Elle slipped into my arms, forcing me to hold her.
It was odd. While her comfort didn’t ease any of my fear, at least I wasn’t shaking as much. My world had narrowed from the shock to just her and me. Now I began hearing music from the midway again, people chattering and cheering, and a saxophone being played onstage. The thudding in my chest was no less intense, but at least it wasn’t going a mile a minute anymore. I thought it would burst there for a minute. It was like I was a sponge and Elle was nothing but water as I sucked up every bit of strength I could from her.
I don’t know how long we stood there. The saxophonist was still playing when she pulled away enough to look up into my face. “Better?” she asked.
Swallowing, I nodded.
Elle’s smile was sweet and sorrowful. “Oh, Slow.” She reached up to caress my cheek. “You’re so pale. Are you sure you’re okay?”
I opened my mouth and nothing but a squeak came out. Flushing red, I hastily cleared my throat. “Yeah. I’m okay.”
“Good.” Tiptoeing, Elle pressed a gentle kiss along my jaw. “I know it’s scary, Slow, but if you want to have your dream, you have to start somewhere.”
My dream? I swallowed, flashes of familiar scenes wandering through my head. Playing guitar on stage — sometimes with a band, sometimes not — a small crowd of people weaving in time with my music, maybe Elle in the audience smiling. Afterwards there was always applause. Not thunderous, of course, but I’d know that everyone there enjoyed the show, the music. Enjoyed me.
There was a smattering of applause and whistles around us as the saxophonist finished. There were also a handful of rude comments from some who’d had too much beer. I looked into Elle’s eyes and shied from the hope there, the misplaced confidence. I didn’t know which was worse, seeing the absolute faith she had in me or feeling the rising tide of self-disgust at the thought of crushing her image.
“Elle, I…” My eyes stung and I closed them, unable to voice my fears.
She hugged me close, one hand behind my neck to bring my head down until our foreheads were touching. We remained like that for a long time, letting people wash past us.
When I finally opened my eyes, I could see only hers, hazel burning into mine. I hadn’t quite started crying, but she was for both of us, though she still held an expression of confidence. She squeezed my neck, her gaze boring into mine. “You will get up there, Slow, and you will play my song for these bozos. And when it’s over, whatever happens, I’ll be there to take you to the river, okay?”
Take me to the river. Our river. We’d been back to my fishing hole many times throughout the summer. It was welcome and safe and private, something I would need if I went through with what she wanted.
“Okay?” she asked.
Inhaling deeply, I stared at her for several moments. “Okay.”
The brilliance of her smile nearly took my breath away and a tremor ran through my bones. How did she get so much power over me? And what would happen to me if she ever abused it? Her lips brushed mine, a promise given and received, before she pulled away. My guitar was back in my hands and Elle pulled me toward the stage. My stomach in knots, I felt all hot and sweaty. I wished I hadn’t eaten, but Mama said that an empty stomach is worse for the butterflies. I don’t know how, though. These bugs had feasted well on teriyaki chicken and were the size of basketballs, I was sure of it.
At the stage, Elle tugged me to the stairs and an old woman with a clipboard. Up above, some joker was trying to whistle through his nose and I watched with horrified fascination as he did the trick.
“Slow Phillips,” Elle told the woman.
The lady drew a nicotine-stained finger down the list. Tapping the clipboard, she said, ”Yep. Gotcha.” She looked me over. “You’re late, but the next act cancelled. You’re next.”
I’m sure those butterflies were really pterodactyls. The lights were suddenly a lot brighter and things sounded distant. One thing I did hear was Elle calling my name. Seemed a silly thing to do since I was standing right next to her. But I wasn’t standing exactly. Slumping would be more the word. I felt the wooden stage against one arm as I leaned on it heavily.
Behind Elle, the old woman was peering at me. “He gonna be okay? He looks mighty green.”
Swallowing hard, I forced myself to balance. “I’m fine. I’m all right.” Not sure who I was trying to convince, but I breathed a sigh of relief as the dismay in Elle’s eyes faded.
“Come on, Slow.” She pulled me to the base of the stairs and fumbled with my guitar case.
While my girlfriend got my instrument out, I concentrated on not hyperventilating. Soon, cool wood filled my hands. I automatically reached for the strap, throwing it over my shoulder and attaching it to the base. The nose whistler clattered past us, hoots of derision following him. Somebody else took a slip of paper from the clipboard lady and went onstage to announce me. Warm hands cradled my face, and I was forced to look at Elle.
“No matter what, Slow, I’m proud of you. Okay?” I nodded in numb understanding. “Just go up there and close your eyes. If you concentrate really hard, it’s only you and me. Nobody else.”
She seemed to need a response so I repeated dully, “You and me, nobody else.”
Elle smiled. “Yes! And when this is over, we’ll go to the river.”
I nodded again, hearing a man’s voice call my name from the speakers. There was a sudden spike of terror in my soul. The only thing keeping me from bolting was that aura of confidence in Elle’s eyes. Swallowing hard, I trudged up the steps.
I don’t remember much of the first couple of minutes. The stage was huge and some guy was waving me toward the mic stand with a smile. He must have seen how terrified I was because he said something. It went clean out of mind as soon as he spoke, I only recall the tone of reassurance. The lights were really hot. Or else I was really sweaty. Thankfully, I couldn’t see much. I supposed it would be easier once my eyes adjusted, but I didn’t want that to happen. As soon as I was in place, I closed my eyes.
My imagination’s always been good. Mama says I’m a dreamer, not a doer. Of course, she’s not meaning it in a good way, but that’s okay. I’ve been a disappointment to her for so long, it hardly bothers me anymore. At this instant, my imagination was a godsend. With a bit focus, the crowd noises faded and I was at the river with Elle. I played the refrain, wincing as feedback interrupted my daydream. Pulling back a little helped. Again I was in my fantasy, seeing hazel eyes as they sparkled.
I sang Elle’s song, the one I wrote for her a couple of months ago. I told of how much I cared for her. Of the way I felt when she looked at me, touched me, loved me. Of the way her skin and hands and hair felt when I touched her. Yeah, it was a mushy love song, no doubt about it. But Elle loved to hear the thing and I could never resist her request. When I finished, I had a smile on my face. My dream Elle was rewarding me with a kiss. Applause startled me and I opened my eyes as reality thumped me upside the head.
They liked it!
Oh, not everyone, of course. There were hoots of derision and I know lots of people were only clapping politely. But there was real applause and whistles out past the lights. Looking to the side of the stage, I saw Elle clapping fit to bust and the old lady waving me toward them. I trotted off stage, knowing I had a really stupid grin on my face but unable to stop. Elle leapt into my arms at the bottom of the stairs.
“You were fantastic, Slow! I knew you could do it!”
One hand held the guitar out of the way while I hugged her fiercely. “Only because of you, Elle.” I buried my face in her hair. Her body and scent grounded my giddy panic, and we stood together for several minutes as I gathered my wits.
With a sigh, we finally released each other. “Come on, Slow. Let’s get out of here.”
Hazel eyes were filled with pride and confidence. In me! In my music! The luckiest thing to ever happen to me was Elle.
Nodding slowly, I agreed. “To the river.”