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How I let Daddy and Granddaddy Lukeman talk me into singing a "couple" of my songs at the Spring Sing, again, is beyond me. I can't do it. I can barely breathe, let alone sing.
Blood thumps from my heart up to my ears, over my scalp, and down to my toes. Cold sweat beads on the back of my neck and under my arms. My feet burn as if I'm standing on Florida sand in mid-July.
"Gonna chicken out again, Robin?" Smiley Canyon nudges me with his pointy elbow.
"Nooo," I lie, gripping my old Taylor guitar for security.
Smiley laughs at me. "Let's see--last year you broke out in hives the night before the show, didn't ya?"
"I had a rash from stem to stern. You saw me the next morning."
"And the year before that you couldn't find the keys to your truck . . ." He plucks the strings of his beat-up Gibson, trying to tune. Smart aleck. No wonder Nashville kicked him back home to Alabama.
"And didn't you get lost driving across town once?"
I ball my fist. One pop, right in the kisser. Come on, Lord, look the other way, just for a second.
But when I look Smiley in the eye, I see what I don't care to see: the truth. I relax my fingers and attempt to deflect attention. "Your song was real good. Was it a new one?"
"Naw, wrote it a few years back."
I nod. "Good for you."
He tips the brim of his cowboy hat my way. "Better go get my seat. Don't want to miss your debut." He says debut like "de-butt"--as if I'm going to fall flat on mine--and walks off snickering.
With a tiny step forward, I peer around the stage curtain. Freedom Music Hall is packed. An electric twinge constricts my middle, and I take two giant steps back. Let Smiley be right. Let him laugh at me again. It's better than public humiliation.
Turning to flee, I bump smack dab into Jeeter Perkins, the Hall's emcee.
"Get ready, Robin Rae. You're up next." He grins and adjusts his bolo tie.
Hello, Robin. What'll it be? Anxiety attack in front of a thousand of your closest friends and family? Yes? Right this way.
"Jeeter, I changed my mind. I'm not singing."
He rolls his eyes. "Now, Robin Rae--"
"How about you let old Paul Whitestone go on with his Dixie Dos?" Behind Jeeter, the former bluegrass icon waits with his round-faced, rosy-cheeked granddaughters--Elvira, Elmira, and Eldora. (Identical triplets. Tall, big girls.)
"Listen, girl, I've heard your songs a hundred times on your granddaddy's porch. You got a gift. A gift." Jeeter pinches my arms in his bony grip and bugs out his eyes. "Sometimes you have to face your fears."
I squint. "And sometimes ya don't."
This isn't like the first day of school or one of Momma's Saturday night dinners. Nope. Singing in the Hall is optional. And I'm opting out.
Jeeter shakes his head and brushes past me as the Blues Street Boys finish and exit stage left to mild applause. "Thank you, boys," he says into the mike. "I don't think I've ever heard such unique, ahem, harmonies." He glances over at me and raises one bushy brow.
Shaking my head, I step backward and poke Paul Whitestone, who's nodded off. "You and the girls are on, Paul."
The old man sputters to life. "Huh? Oh, we're on?" He waves his long arm at the triplets. "Girls, come on. We're up."
Jeeter rouses the crowd with a big call into the microphone, waving his hat in the air. "How y'all doing?" They give Jeeter what he wants--hoots and hollers, whistles and cheers.
"The hills are alive with the sound of music!" Jeeter cuts a glance at me. "We got a real treat for you folks tonight . . ."
Hand on my guitar, I tip my head in the direction of the ladies' room and mouth, "Got to go."
"Next up," Jeeter's voice trails after me, "Paul Whitestone and the Dixie Dos."
Ducking into the ladies' room, I push the lock and fall against the door. My stomach feels like a firecracker just exploded in it. My heart is racing at top NASCAR speed, and my legs are trembling like Granddaddy's old hound, Bruno, when it thunders.
Go out there . . . Sing in front of folks . . . Who'm I kidding? Freedom, Alabama, and their Nashville tradition have haunted me for the last time.
I shift my guitar so it hangs down my back and dampen a wad of paper towels. Patting the sweat beads from my forehead, I wonder if I'll make it out of the Hall alive. Blue spots flicker before my eyes.
"Should've stayed home where you belong," I scold my reflection in the mirror. "At twenty-five, you should know better."
Grandpa McAfee is right: if you can't run with the big dogs, stay on the porch. Drawing a shaky breath, I adjust my guitar strap so that it's not cutting into my shoulder and unlock the door. But before I can jerk on the knob, the door flies open, bonking me on the head.
"Ouch!" My hand goes to my forehead as Arizona Parish shoves her way inside.
"What're you doing?" She tilts her soft blond head to one side and props her hands on her skinny waist.
I pop her on the shoulder. "What are you doing? There's only room for one in here."
"I came to find out what you're doing." She looks down at me with her eyebrows pinched and her lips tight. "So, what are you doing?"
"Hiding. My palms are sweating, my heart's racing, and my stomach feels like the finale of the Fourth of July show."
"Robin, it's just performance anxiety. Stage fright." She grabs me by the arms. "Take a deep breath, say 'Help me, Jesus,' and get on out there." She gives me a quick shove toward the stage entrance. "Wow 'em."
"Your sympathy is overwhelming."
"I'm not here to be sympathetic, Robin. I'm here to tell you the time has come to face your fears. You sing like an angel, and your sappy lyrics have ruined my mascara more times than I can count."
"Well, hot diggity dog for me. I don't care what my lyrics have done to your mascara, I'm not going out there." I jab my finger toward the stage door. "I'm going home."
My boot heels thud across Freedom Music Hall's ancient wood floor. The floor that has borne the soles of Garth Brooks, Tammy Wynette, Lionel Richie, and the great Billy Graham. Center stage, old Paul is plunking his banjo while the triplets clog on top of a three-tiered platform, shaking their ruffled skirts, shaking the entire Hall.
Arizona follows me to my guitar case. "How three pudgy girls move their feet so fast is beyond me."
"They've been clogging and eating since they were born." I settle my guitar in its case.
She sighs. "Got to admit, they have the best legs in Freedom."
This makes me laugh. "Can't argue there."
"Robin, don't lock up your guitar. Get out there. Beat this stage fright. If those triplets have the best legs in Freedom, you have the best voice and the best songs. Please. For me." Arizona clasps her hands under her chin and bats her eyes.
I stop buckling up my guitar case. Arizona Parish has a way of getting under my skin, forcing me to dig deep and dream big. She introduced herself to me a few years ago as "the girl from Miami." Her journey to Freedom is still a mystery.
"There was a situation," she said.
"Promise me the law ain't after you."
"Promise." She crossed her heart and flashed the Girl Scout salute.
Now, backstage at the Hall, Arizona kneels beside me. "Please. Go out there."
Standing, I look toward the stage with a shake of my head. "Why I let Daddy and Granddaddy talk me into this every year is crazy. Plumb crazy."
"You know why." She pokes me in the chest with her bony finger. "Deep inside, you know."
Before I can rouse up a crushing reply, a loud crack comes from center stage. Followed by three very distinct thuds.
"What in the world . . ." My first glimpse of three white-ruffled bottoms shaking in the spotlight takes my breath away. It's followed by a sppptt as I choke back a laugh. "Holy clogging platform, Batman."
The girls' three-tiered clogging platform has broken clean through.
For about ten seconds, there's a heavy hush over the auditorium and a collective holding of breaths. Are they all right? Then, a snort. A muffled guffaw. A fading tee-hee behind someone's hand.
But when Elvira--or is it Elmira--sticks her round hand in the air and says in a high-pitched voice, "We're all right, Papa," it's over. Laughter explodes like water balloons and douses every one of us.
Arizona hides her face behind her hand. "This is terrible. Oh, the humiliation." She ducks behind the stage curtain, pressing her face against the cold wall, honking and gasping for air.
"See?" I say, pointing. "This is what I'm talking about. What if that happens to me?"
She just shakes her head. Can't even get it together enough to chew me out or give me ten reasons why I'm wrong.
Paul is trying to pull the triplets out of the rubble. He's so shaken he forgets to set down his banjo. His weathered hand grasps one of the girls', but his grip breaks, and he stumbles backward.
His look of panic sobers me. "Somebody help them," I mutter.
Jeeter strides into view from stage left and, without making a big to-do of it, motions for a couple of the stagehands to hop up and help out.
This isn't right. Poor Elvira, Elmira, and Eldora. I can't just let them be embarrassed like this. I can't.
Something in me snaps. Jumping back to my case, I grab my guitar and strap it on. "Okay, Lord, here I go. Guess it's time to cowgirl up." And if He doesn't go with me, I'm done for.
Against their will, my legs carry me out to center stage. The lights are bright. And hot. More cold sweat beads up under my arms. Shivering and half praying for the tornado siren to go off--that'd get me out of this pickle while saving face--I pull my pick from my hip pocket, squinting in the light, and step up to the mike.
"Hi, everybody. I'm Robin McAfee." My voice is weak and squeaky. "I'm, uh, gonna, er . . ." I tune my guitar for the hundredth time, distracting myself from the fact my feet are telling my brain to ruunnnn. "I'm gonna, ahem, uh, sing a few songs. No, a song. One song."
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. I'm sitting on Granddaddy's back porch singing "Jesus Loves Me." I'm on Granddaddy's porch . . .
But when I finally strum my first chord, I realize there's no sound coming out of the monitor. I'm playing to myself. My heart starts jitterbugging, and my brain tells my feet to run. Run now! No. Steady, Robin. Steady. Can't let the girls' tragedy, as funny as it is, be the highlight of the evening. Let it be my humiliation instead. I take a step back to gather myself and calm down.
"Yow! Watch it, Robin." Joe Boynton looks up at me, shaking his hand. It's red with my boot print.
"Sorry." Heat creeps across my cheeks. "What're you doing down there?"
Joe holds up a cable. "Plugging you in."
"Oh. I've never . . . well . . . never done this before."
"Yep, I know." He hands me the cable, which I hastily plug into my guitar hookup, then taps my leg. "You're good to go. Knock 'em into next week." He winks and clicks his tongue.
Yeah, knock 'em into next week. That's my secret plan. All this quaking in my boots is to throw 'em off. I close my eyes and step back up to the mike. Since I'm not looking, I bonk my chin and send a loud thunk reverberating into the auditorium, followed by a very high-pitched squeal. Snickers ripple from the crowd.
Run, Robin, run!
Joe pssts me from the wings. "Don't point your guitar at the monitor," he mouths, motioning with his hands.
Every cell of my five-four frame is trembling. Are the triplets upright yet? I glance back. They are but look rather stunned. Two of the men move broken boards from the stage. I hope Jude Perry from Freedom Rings! isn't here. He prides himself in displaying other people's tragedies on page one of our local paper, above the fold.
"Go on, Robin," Jeeter urges from the wings.
Cough, clear throat, bonk my chin on the mike, again. Dern it all. All this stalling is only dragging out the nightmare.
"I wrote this song about a friend of mine." My voice sounds like a cassette tape on fast forward. I try to slow it down. "She was born with a cleft palate and hated to smile or have people see her face. But, uh--" I strum a chord and a little bit of courage creeps in. "My friend is beautiful. I hope someday she sees herself as others do. This is for you, Rosalie."
As I start the song, my heart thumps to the rhythm as if it's the bass drum. It's hard to sing when I can't breathe. But somehow, by the time I finally hit the chorus, the words are flowing from some deep place where the music dwells. I feel like I did when I was ten, swinging on the old tire swing, stretching my toes to touch the fallen leaves.
Smile for me, Rosalie, Let your heart dance, let it be free.
Then it washes over me as if I were standing under a mountain waterfall on a hot day: God's pleasure. My insides go all mushy.
I sing through the chorus two or three times, feeling the moment, and then realize I'm not sure how to end and exit. Except for my voice and guitar, the auditorium is silent. I wonder if everyone figured the show was over once the triplets were upright and went home. I open one eye.
The crowd is staring at me. In an instant, my knees buckle like weak wood, and I lose the peaceful sensation of God's pleasure. Shoot. I play the last chord and let my vocal fade away as chills replace the warmth. Will there be a snort, a muffled guffaw, and fading tee-hee just like with the triplets?
Coming up behind me, Jeeter catches me around my shoulders so I can't leave. He grabs the microphone, wearing a big cheesy grin on his leathery face. "Freedom, Alabama's own Robin Rae McAfee, everyone. Let's hear it!"
The auditorium explodes with applause. Whistles. Cheering. Some people even jump to their feet.
Bumbling a bow, I whisper to Jeeter, "Can I go now?"
"I told you, Robin Rae," he slaps my back. "They love you. Sing another song."
He can't be serious? "Isn't one enough?"
His face crinkles into an even wider grin. "If you're a coward, I suppose so." He sweeps his arm toward the crowd. They're settling down as if waiting for more. "You have them eating out of your hand. Might as well go for it."
My sweaty little hand?
Jeeter shoves me toward the mike and heads off, calling over his shoulder, "Sing."
My smile feels rather shaky as I stand there, rubbing my hands down the sides of my jeans, riffling through my mental song catalog.
"Sing something fun," Jeeter hollers from the wings, his hands cupped around his mouth.
"Okay, this is a song I wrote a few weeks ago. 'Your Country Princess.'"
The beat is chompy and fast as I hit the E string then belt out the lyrics with a strong and clear voice.
You say you're working late, again. To earn an extra fifty bucks. You say we're gonna have a better life. Buy me a diamond ring and you a big Ford truck.
As the song builds to the chorus, the energy of the crowd gets me going, and I stomp out the rhythm with the heel of my boot.
Ooo, let me be your Country Princess. Plain and beautiful, that's what life is . . . Merry-go-rounds and Christmas lights . . .
Rocking through the chorus and into the second verse, I relax a little, bravely peeking at the crowd beyond the first row. They're clapping and swaying, and when I loop back into the chorus, a choir of female voices raises the rafters.
Ooo, let me be your Country Princess . . .
A banjo starts plucking, and Paul Whitestone saunters up beside me. Next, a fiddle whines as Granddaddy Lukeman walks my way, his blue eyes snapping as he does a little Pa Ingalls jig. Behind him, Jeeter comes out with his steel guitar, and the triplets, fully recovered, stomp and swirl across the stage.
We let the music go a round without the words, the players circling and leaning together. My heart soars with the music, rising above the thousand pairs of eyes watching.
Now this I could do the rest of my life.