PARADISE AND HIS SMOKIN’ SQUEEZEBOX
All it took to find Paradise was a five dollar bill and an ad in the Thrifty Nickel.
I was shocked, really, that the ad worked. For starters, cutting out all guitar players whittled the already-small field down to a nub. Most singers at some point in time had picked up a guitar. But Waylon, who considered himself anointed country-music royalty by right of his first name, never listened to reason. As a matter of fact, Waylon Slider didn’t care what I thought as long as I showed up after school with my drumsticks and opened up my uncle L. V.’s airplane hangar to rehearse.
We’d been playing to the Piper Cub and the Miss Molly Moonlight—painted on the nose of the old World War II bomber—for about an hour when Waylon put down his six-string and snatched up the want ads. His rusty, reddish brown hair mounded around his head in a tangled bird’s nest of coarse curls. Sitting on his stool with a fistful of the Thrifty Nickel, Waylon looked like a pouty little Tom Sawyer in a time-out. He raked his top teeth across his bottom lip and pinched his bushy eyebrows together. He just couldn’t make out why no one had answered the ad.
I twisted a bit on my stool, practicing a drumstick toss and backhanded catch. “You know, putting NO in all caps made us look like we had a bunch of insecure guitarists.”
“Shut up, Paisley!” He rolled the Thrifty Nickel into a club and reared up. If I’d been a boy, I think he would have hit me. But he mumbled, “Blondes!” instead and sat back down. “You don’t know anything about band management. Nobody cares what you think.”
That last part was truer than he knew. But with Texapalooza in less than two months, my shot at playing on the same stage as some of the best drummers in the state seemed to be slipping away. The Waylon Slider Band needed a lead singer. So far, Waylon Slider had managed to screw that up.
A gust of March wind blasted the metal siding of the hangar walls like an echoing gong. Cal unplugged his lead guitar. Levi cased his bass.
I had left the tall sliding doors slightly open on the west side, the pasture side of the hangar. The evening sun hung just above the pine thicket in the distance, sending a rectangle of orange light between the doors and glinting off the chrome on my snare.
“Waylon.” I stood up, tugging at the frayed edges of my cutoff shorts. “I’ve got to close up and be through the woods before it gets dark. There’s always tomorrow. We’ll find someone.”
I reached for the tarp to hide my drums when the sunlight went black. Afraid I might have misjudged the time, I spun around. Faced the doors.
Filling the gap was a tall figure in a wide-brimmed hat. He stood with his feet apart and something slung over his shoulder like a saddlebag. Eclipsing the light, he looked like a cowboy cutout etched onto the setting sun.
Waylon jumped to his feet. “You’re not here about the ad, are you?”
The boy didn’t say anything. He ambled across the concrete floor with a bronc-busting swagger like he’d just gone eight seconds on Boom-Shocka-Locka. He pulled up in front of Waylon, cocked his head at Cal and Levi. The boy caught me in his crosshairs, homing in first on my denim cutoffs, then my boots.
I reached into my back pocket. Pulled out my drumsticks. I tossed one into my left hand and twirled the other by my side. Just to let him know I was more than eye candy and the role of band badass was taken.
He grinned, and when he did, the smooth center of his left cheek dimpled.
I dropped my drumstick. Slipping from badass to dumb ass in a heartbeat.
The boy watched it bounce and spin onto the floor. Then he gave Waylon a fist bump and said, “I sing some.”
“Sweet. ’Cause we don’t.” Levi rolled the toothpick dangling off his lip from one corner of his mouth to the other. “Some will be an improvement.”
Waylon’s freckled face turned pink. It wrenched his gut that his voice slipped into a nasal honk when his nerves got the best of him. He grabbed his six-string by the neck. “You don’t play guitar, right?”
The boy in the cowboy hat rubbed his hand over the strap of his bag. “Naw, man. Guitar’s not my thing.”
The flesh tone came back to Waylon’s face. Since competition on guitar was all he seemed to care about, and Levi was willing to let a dog howl while we played as long as we got to play, it was up to me and Cal to check this guy out. I looked to Cal for some help, but he was bent over his spiral, hidden under his long hair, scribbling furiously.
I was going to have to ask the questions, and the light outside was growing dim. We were running out of time.
“Look,” I started. I had never seen him before, so he was either new or went to one of the surrounding county schools. “Not to be rude. But I’ve got to lock up. So, who are you and where are you from?”
His black hat shaded his eyes, but I noticed that he had small gold loops in each earlobe. He wore a pearl snap shirt with the sleeves rolled up and cinched around his biceps. And the hem of his faded jeans was slit at the seams, probably to make it easier to fit over his boots.
“I’m Gabe.” That dimple on his left cheek winked. “From Paradise.”
Cal glanced up, shaking the hair away from his face.
Levi laughed and slapped both hands on his knees. “Well, dude, you’re in for major disappointment, ’cause we ain’t seen a chick in a coconut bra and a grass skirt since Halloween.”
So much for professionalism.
“He means Texas,” Waylon blurted. “Paradise, Texas, right?”
“Sure.” The boy swung his bag from one shoulder to the other like he was toting a fifteen-pound sack of potatoes.
“Waylon.” I tucked my sticks back into my pocket and threw the tarp over my drums. The ting of the cymbals rang through the hangar like the starting bell for the water-gun race at the Prosper County Fair. “Paradise has three minutes to prove he can sing.”
“She’s not joking,” Waylon told him. “Sing something. Anything. Quick.”
The last sliver of sunlight slipped into the hangar, reaching across the black-tarped drum set and touching the silver ring on my left hand.
With one knee slightly bent, the boy from Paradise tapped the heel of his boot against the floor three times—counting himself in. Then he growled out a husky Johnny Cash version of “This Little Light of Mine.”
Before he could finish off the last “let it shine” and I could say, You’ve got to be kidding, Levi started clapping. He stopped long enough to take the toothpick out of his mouth and announce, “Good enough for me.”
Waylon’s face lit up. He raised his eyebrows at me and I gave in. The raspy, low tone of the boy’s voice could add an edge to our sound. And he could stay on pitch. Even if he couldn’t, Gabe from Paradise was our only hope.
Levi picked up his case and patted Waylon on the back on his way out. “If this whole band showcase thing doesn’t work out, there’s always Vacation Bible School down at the First Baptist Church.” Then he squeezed his big frame between the double doors, bumping his butt against one of them to open it a little wider.
Cal shoved his spiral between the books and the skateboard in his backpack. He heaved it over his shoulder, picked up his guitar case. He walked over to Gabe and shook his hand. Gabe’s smooth, tan forearm flexed, making Cal’s thin arm look as fragile as a sparrow’s leg.
“Later, Cal,” I called as he headed through the doors to catch his ride with Levi.
“Looks like you’re in, man,” Waylon said.
Gabe shook Waylon’s freckled hand. Then he reached out to me. The strap on his black shoulder bag slid down to his elbow.
“You’re losing your man purse.” I folded my arms at my waist and smiled. I’d never seen a big ol’ stud cowboy with a murse. “Most of the guys around here carry their books in a backpack.”
He grabbed the strap and eased the bag onto the floor, staring at the top of my blond spikes. “And do most girl drummers Marine-cut their hair and wear purity rings?”
I could’ve speared him with one of my drumsticks. My hair was not that short.
Waylon wedged between us.
“Don’t mind Paisley,” he said, glaring at me. “She gets antsy when it starts to get dark. She has to get home. Her uncle lets us use this place, but her mother doesn’t know she’s in the band.”
The band. I settled down and blew off his stripped-down assessment of my appearance. I deserved it. Uncle L. V. always warned me not to let my mouth get a jump on my judgment. Besides, I had to think about the band.
“So, Paradise,” I began.
His shirt hugged his broad shoulders as he knelt beside his bag, almost making a murse manly. He was a hot mess, probably used to girls wilting from the heat off his ego.
“You sing and you said guitar’s not your thing. What is? Fiddle? Keyboard?”
He pulled something from his bag.
His back was to me, but not to Waylon’s. A whitewash of horror covered Waylon as the blood drained from his face.
Gabe stood up, strapping himself into a red three-row button accordion.
Paradise played squeezebox.
Waylon all but slumped to his knees like some weary nomad finding a pool in the desert only to realize it was a mirage.
I went ahead and stated the obvious. “Well, that’s unexpected.”
“No way is that going to work.” Waylon shook his head. “We’re not a freakin’ polka band.”
Despite the fact that he struggled with singing and had a history of hyperventilating, Waylon Slider maintained a protective vision of the coolness of his own band. A vision built on his bluegrass bloodline and screaming twelve-year-olds at the county fair.
“This is what I play.” Paradise unstrapped the accordion and slipped it back into the bag. “And I don’t sing with people who don’t get it.”
I didn’t know of anything musically that Waylon didn’t get. And Paradise’s comment seemed to irk him; Waylon’s blood boiled back into his face. He could be a hot-tempered imp, holding his breath until he got his way.
But no amount of breath-holding was going to change the fact that if we wanted him to sing, Paradise was going to play squeezebox.
“It’s just an accordion, Waylon.” I tried to coax him as Paradise stood there in his snug jeans and smug attitude. “Think Charles Gillingham with the Counting Crows or Michael Stipe with R.E.M.”
Paradise raised his chin up and for the first time, I got a good look at his eyes—deep pine green with gold flecks that mirrored his earrings.
“Don’t look so surprised.” I strolled past him.
Through the hangar doors, I could see the gray twilight deepening to a dark purple. Rich sunsets were one of the few advantages to being stuck on the less prosperous end of Prosper County and isolated miles outside of the town of Big Wells. I headed out with Waylon and Paradise behind me. “We might be just a hick high school band”—I slid the heavy doors together and padlocked them—“but make no mistake, we know our music. Waylon’s great-granddaddy played bluegrass with Flatt and Scruggs, and he’s been backporch picking since he could walk. Be here next Monday,” I told Paradise. “And be sure you can play that thing.”
I threw my leg over the four-wheeler and turned it on. It sputtered and shook like an old truck on a cold morning. With my drumsticks in my back pocket, I zipped my hoodie and hit the throttle—tearing out across the pasture and into the woods. I didn’t care if he blew on a jug. Everybody has a gift, and if his was pumping an accordion, so be it. Finding Paradise meant we finally had a lead singer and could enter the amateur band contest at Texapalooza. All the bigwigs from Austin to Nashville would be there.
Racing through the piney woods on an old deer run, I leaned low over the handlebars—the damp wind chilling my face and legs. The four-wheeler stalled just as I broke through the thicket into the back pasture. I hit the starter twice and revved the motor. Gassy fumes hung in the dank night air. I squeezed the accelerator hard, speeding along the fence row to our gate. Just to the side of the cattle guard, a round hay bale that Mother had painted with the pink face of the Easter Bunny watched me like some sick funhouse clown.
I sped home. Down the driveway. To our yellow frame house at the end of the blacktop.
I was finally going to get my chance to drum my way out of Dripping Springs and far beyond Prosper County. Me. Running down my own dream. All I had left to do was keep my mother from setting up a roadblock.
CAL’S LYRIC JOURNAL
A HAT LIKE THAT
You can show up in boots, be shrink-wrapped in denim
Karaoke some with Willie and Hank
But you’ll need skills in the saddle, dude
If you’re gonna wear a hat like that.
Your Stetson’s blocking the sun, leavin’ me in the shadow
But I ain’t gonna stay here for long
This guitar’s my friend, the girls love real thunder
I’m no poser, I’m where it’s at
So you’d better own some land, stock some cattle
If you’re gonna wear a hat like that.
I can tell you like black, into symbols
Bet you jam to Jennings and Cash
But they kicked out the lights, shot up a finger
Ain’t nothin’ symbolic about that
So you’d better find a bull, beat eight seconds
If you’re gonna wear a hat like that.
I don’t begrudge you a lid, maybe you need one
Not everyone can grow rock star hair
But if you’re jackin’ an image to hide a weakness
You’re really not changin’ your stats
Wrestle a steer, dude, and get to ropin’
If you’re gonna wear a hat like that.
Copyright © 2011 by Jill S. Alexander