The wind had been blowing hard all week which was unusual for that time of year. The insistent breeze lifted veil after veil of coal dust from Massy’s open pits on North Hill, depositing them around town as layers of grime everyone felt between their fingers, tasted with every breath, and had to shake out of clothes on the line. No one complained about Massy’s mine being too close to town, instead they blamed the wind. Around noon on Thursday the wind finally stopped. Massy’s dust settled one last time. The sun was bright but not warm. The air was cold enough to show your breath but not enough to call for gloves or a cap.
Windows around town were opened wide to bring in the day. Everything was brushed off. Miners pulled their trucks and CATs into their yards to work on them. A few tractors headed into the fields. A growing cluster of aggressive children played tag in the gravel lot behind the Mercantile, intent upon shoving each other into the dirt and dented trash cans by Melbourne’s. The smallest child sat in the center of the lot, crying while picking clods of dirt from his hair. The lights on the football field switched on with a static hum and the five o’clock whistle blew.
Mr. Gilson was cooking a steak on the oil-can grill he had assembled outside his pink bubble trailer. His New Orleans music played, blooming from the trailer’s small doorway as he came and went. He had just set out a plate, a bottle of beer, and an opened can of beans on a metal TV tray when Donna appeared on the dirt path, heading his direction. She was balancing a large wooden crate on her shoulder, walking with the cockeyed care and determination of someone too small struggling to control something too large which was much too valuable to drop. Donna was obviously bringing this box for him and seemed on the verge of stumbling with every step, so Mr. Gilson rushed over to help.
“What is all this?” He lifted the crate from Donna with one hand. She rubbed her shoulder as they continued toward his trailer.
“Records. They’re records,” she said.
“I can see that.”
“My mother’s records.”
“That’s nice. How many you have here?”
“You carried these all the way from your house?”
Donna nodded. Mr. Gilson unfolded a lawn chair, clearing cobwebs with his hand, then invited her to sit. She noticed his steak, TV tray, and open can of beans.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bother you.”
He was already paging through the albums as he settled into his chair. “No bother. Truly. I could use the company. You hungry? I can get you a plate.”
“My father is making dinner. I just thought…”
Mr. Gilson lifted an album from the box, tilting it for better light to read the notes.
“That’s the Swan Silvertones. My mother played them all the time, when building her figures in the yard. People complained.”
“I don’t know. She played them anyway. Loud.”
Mr. Gilson nodded, realizing Donna was watching carefully. These weren’t just records. He made a brief show of admiring the album a moment longer then returned it in place with the others.
“I hear some of her music playing when I walk by here, sometimes.”
“You do? Any one in particular?”
“You’ll never walk alone.”
Mr. Gilson thought for a moment, then went inside, switched records, and returned as the song began to play with opening applause from a live concert.
“Mahalia Jackson. Beautiful, in every way. I agree with your mother. How could anyone complain about this?”
They listened to Mahalia sing from inside the trailer. Donna thought the clapping and chattering crowd was floating behind Mahalia in the trees. Mr. Gilson turned his steak over.
“You sure you’re not hungry?”
“No, I’m fine.” Donna looked away. “My father is making dinner, he said not to ruin my appetite.”
This wasn’t true. Her father was in Denver by now, having left before dawn. She was supposed to be staying with the Andersons in their collapsing ranch house with their six awful kids, three smelly dogs, two frightened horses, and ever-shifting herd of cattle out by the highway. She had stopped at the drug store that afternoon to tell Mrs. Anderson the trip was canceled. She said her father thanked the Andersons for their hospitality and said she would go straight home after school instead. Donna had done this a few times already, giving made-up excuses to different families, knowing her father wouldn’t check. He didn’t understand that she was old enough to take care of herself. He kept asking other families to step in. She liked being alone in the house when he was away on mining business, which happened more and more lately.
Donna also lied about something else: she was not fine, she was starving. She skipped breakfast since she was running late for school and had forgotten to make a lunch the night before. She had nothing to eat all day and was trying to not stare at Mr. Gilson’s sputtering steak.
“My father said you might want to borrow some of these, because you’re so interested in music.”
Her mother’s records had never left home, until this afternoon. Her father knew almost nothing about Mr. Gilson, other than overhearing others talk about the school’s new business teacher—that he was frighteningly large, strict, from New Orleans, and odd.
“That was thoughtful. Thank you. This is an excellent collection your mother put together. Music from all over. Your father a music lover as well?”
Donna nodded emphatically, lying again. Her father did listen when Donna put on an album, never playing one on his own, and occasionally tuned in news on the radio. But mostly he kept their house quiet, running sums and making notes late into the night from the mining reports stacked on the kitchen table and their left-over chairs.
“We have five boxes in the living room, more in back. Like this one.”
“That is a lot of music.”
Donna nodded. “We are musical, my family.”
“Really? What do y’all play?”
Donna thought for a second. “Drums. I play drums. My mother played the piano and organ. My father plays the trumpet.” Donna had never played anything, not even the piano with her mother. A drum seemed easy. You just had to hit it. She saw herself playing drums in a band, on stage, with people chattering and clapping to keep beat as they did for Mahalia. Her father liked wearing sunglasses so a trumpet made sense for him.
“A regular band, your family,” Mr. Gilson said, admiring another album.
“We played all the time. At dances. For contests. In Grand Junction. Colorado Springs. Even Kansas City, once.”
Mr. Gilson put the record back. “That’s impressive.”
“Not any more. Not since my mother…”
Mr. Gilson stood to put his steak on his plate then fiddled with a few things around the grill, giving Donna time to change the subject.
“You should eat your dinner. It’s getting cold. I should head home.” Donna stood quickly, ready to leave.
“My father said to keep them, for a while. He thought you’d enjoy listening to them.”
“Thirty-two is a lot, I really couldn’t…” Mr. Gilson held the box toward her and saw Donna’s face drop so he drew the collection back, laying his hand across the top, tapping the records lightly.
“Tell your father thank you. I appreciate this. It’s quite a gift. Reminds me of home, all this music. I’ll return them next week.”
Donna straightened, smiling for the first time in weeks. “Don’t rush. Take your time.” She was unsure what to do with her hands so she pointed them together in the direction of her house like a compass, aligning herself behind them. “I need to get going. So…”
Mr. Gilson set the box of records just inside his trailer door.
“You know, before you leave…do you mind if I ask a favor?”
Donna turned back, eager.
“I could use some help. Principal Timmons asked me to take over the spring play for this year. No one will do it, apparently. It’s supposed to be The Tempest. I need someone to help us with sound effects and musical things. A drummer would be ideal. Would you be interested in helping? It will be Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for the next two months. Then a few late nights before the show.” He moved his steak back on the grill to warm it up. Mahalia started a second song from the album inside the trailer, her audience shouting her name in-between hallelujah. “If your father approves, of course.”
Donna had heard Juliet—the new girl—say she was going to audition for the spring play. Donna only knew the play was old, was hard to understand, and was about a storm, monsters, and a magician. She knew Juliet would be perfect for it. The spring show always brought in the entire town, even more than football sometimes. Juliet would be lit up on the gym stage for everyone to admire. Donna could be right alongside, accompanying her.
“Yes. Yes. That would be great. Yes.”
“I could also use someone who’s good with machines. Good with fixing and making things. We have a lot to build. A boat, ocean waves, a magic cave, and a disappearing table. You interested?”
“Yes, I would be. I am. I’m interested. Thank you for asking.” Again, she didn’t know what to do with her hands, or with the rest of herself. She found that she was turning completely around, for no reason. “So…I should go. And you need to eat.”
“I need to eat, and you need to get home to your father. Thank you for the music. I’ll start listening to some of the records tonight. We’ll talk about the play later this week. Thank you for agreeing to help out.”
Donna clasped her hands together, again like a compass pointer that she aimed in Mr. Gilson’s direction now that she had turned back his way. She knew this made her look like a complete idiot but couldn’t stop.
“You’re welcome.” She finally dropped her hands, turned with deliberation and walked quickly away. When she was around the corner, certain she was out of sight, Donna ran the rest of the way home. She was thinking about Juliet, music concerts, dances, people clapping and singing, and then started wondering how she would get her hands on a drum.
On weekends the Founders Club smelled to Donna like adulthood with the rhythmic release of liquor bottles being opened and poured, making the air taste cocktail-sweet and inviting. Donna liked it a good deal more than the stank desperation of Melbourne’s where men mostly drank alone and urinated at the back door. The Founders Club was about being together, not standing apart. The glass-smooth dance floor was a menthol wash of Barbasol and the steamy sulfur of ironed blouses and damp dress shirts. The stage in the corner reeked of cigarettes and some kind of skunk. And the kitchen, regardless of what was on the stove, always smelled of chili, yellow government cheese, and saltine crackers.
Her father was a member with a title and liked to bring her to planning meetings, so on Monday nights Donna sat outside on the front bench, watching people come and go, listening to wind in the tall pines that surrounded the place. During longer meetings she eventually fell asleep as the frogs chatted beside the ditch, leaving her dreaming about wide rivers, log rafts, and spider webs big as houses.
Saturday nights were for dancing and showing off. Those nights always began in celebration but usually collapsed into trouble after all the drinking and rubbing together close to dawn. Someone was always itching to take offense and satisfy a grudge. But early on, before the kids were sent home, it was the place to be. Taking part in a Founders Club Saturday night was like living in a magazine. It allowed everyone in Nucla to become more than they were for a few hours in the dark with the music, the movement, and sophisticated aroma swirling them together, dressing them in glamor and greatness.
Best of all were nights when the Butlers took the stage.
That Saturday began with Sissy Butler emerging from her sparkling green Lincoln Continental wearing a thick mink coat. She had a wicked smile slapped across her face and was swinging a wicker basket filled with blood-stained handsaws and a stick of lit dynamite.
Don Butler followed close behind in a doctor’s white coat and stethoscope, taking swigs from a whisky bottle and shouting, “Make way. Doctor DoMore has arrived! Where’s my patient? Need to cut me some bone and juicy muscle! Make way, little people. The solution to all your problems is here!”
This was going to be the drunk doctor skit, a town favorite. The saws were a big part of the performance. The dynamite, however, was new.
Sissy winked at Donna as she went through the door, stopping just long enough to hand over the dynamite which Donna grasped with both hands.
“Don’t worry, kid, it’s mostly sand in there.”
Sissy winked again and headed inside.
Donna just stared at that coiled fuse burning its way toward her fingers. What was she supposed to do with this thing?
The crowd followed the Butlers, pushing through the doorway to get a good place. Feeling clever and amused, more than a few of them informed Donna that she was holding a burning stick of dynamite, as if she hadn’t noticed.
“Might give that a good toss,” they said, unconcerned, figuring it was a prop.
Donna wasn’t so sure. She’d held dynamite before and that waxy red paper in her hands sure felt real. The fuse certainly was.
“Oh, come on now…” Mr. Gilson placed his hands lightly on Donna’s shoulders and moved her to the side of the front door, making room for the crowd to flood in behind him.
“This town never ceases to surprise me.”
She held the dynamite as far from herself as possible, her eyes locked on the fuse. Everyone shifted around Mr. Gilson and Donna, giving them space. Donna was no longer a side-show attraction, which was Mr. Gilson’s intention for stepping in.
“Sissy Butler give you this lit stick of dynamite?”
“You want to keep holding that?”
“No. Not really.”
“You want some help?”
Mr. Gilson removed the stick from her hands, plucked out the fuse, and tossed the stick into the weeds. His large pocket-knife appeared, already open. He sliced the fuse at the flame, dropped the burning stub to the floor, and ground it with his foot. He handed the disarmed coil back to Donna.
“I would feel much safer knowing this is in your care tonight, instead of lying around. You should return it to the Butlers once their show is over.”
“Thank you.” Donna’s hands were shaking, her palms sweaty. She still felt the heat of the burning fuse against her skin.
“Not the best thing to give a young lady, ‘specially without warning.”
“I agree,” Donna said, trying to dry her hands on her skirt, then wrapped the fuse tighter as her father taught her once, making it easier to hold.
“I want to assure you, there will be no dynamite in our play. Not much call for explosions in Shakespeare.”
“You want some more time out here? To recollect your nerves?”
She nodded, realizing they were alone. Even the little ones who had been chasing each other through the bushes had gone in. The band started to play.
“I will be.”
“See you inside. Should be a good show.”
Mr. Gilson went through the door, dipping slightly as he did for most doorways in town, more from habit than necessity. Donna peered over the edge of the porch, wondering where the dynamite stick had got to. Not a good thing to leave around, even if it was mostly sand.
The drummer started in hard and fast. It was like rock and roll, from a record, but this was live. Usually all the Founders Club could afford was some young guy with a snare and someone with a guitar. This was more than one drum—it took a lot to make that beat, tumbling out of the club like the spray of hard rapids against big boulders. She spotted the dynamite stuck in the reeds, drained the sand, then folded the wrapper as she ran inside to see what those drums looked like.
Clumps of people were dancing, swaying, clapping. Her father was wearing a filthy green apron and stood behind the kitchen counter, serving chili. Don and Sissy Butler waltzed like pros at the center of the floor with others trying to copy them or slowing down to watch. Mr. Gilson stood by the band, beer in hand, nodding and tapping his toes. A few of the musicians acknowledged him with a tip of their heads. Of course he already knew them, Donna thought. Why wouldn’t he?
The Butlers had brought the band from Moab where they had been playing at the Atomic Dream Palace for the last month. They were in high demand and must have cost a pretty penny. This was something the Butlers did all the time for Nucla, bringing people together through music and expense. Parties at their house always had ranchers and miners mixing together without conflict. Most decisions about how to do things for Nucla were settled at the Butler house; it was the only neutral space in town.
Sissy and Don met in high school as a tap-dancing duo. They married immediately to no one’s surprise and approached their lives as a form of performance. During the war, Don walked from Normandy to Czechoslovakia as a slightly older sergeant leading many younger men through death and desecration. He returned without a scratch and half the boys still alive. The guilt from still being around made him want to build things, to do better for Sissy’s sake. Uranium was paying well in the post-war rush so he staked a claim and set to work with a crew of six miners. This led to a large house, a new car for Sissy every year, and more elaborate shows for the Founders Club.
Sissy was the town’s bon vivant with a knack for making things go. She gave piano lessons, ran fundraisers and metal drives during the war, and assembled women from every social group into a relentless machine for celebration, mourning, debate, and gossip. Her gatherings began with highballs while exchanging gory stories of recent accidents. Mining and ranching ensured there was plenty to share. When those stories ran dry the women turned to planning the next event and deciding what they would arrange for music.
The band kicked into high gear, bringing everyone to their feet.
Donna dodged her way across the packed dance floor to a spot beside Mr. Gilson, directly in front of the stage. The musicians were having a blast. She saw they were playing for themselves, impressing one another measure to measure, completely unaware there was a crowd. Big Ted and the Thunderlights were originally from Los Angeles and looked the part with shiny black suits, silver ties, and fedoras. They brought their own amplifiers, microphones, and even their own theatrical lights which were red, blue, and yellow pointed just past them, onto the walls. Donna had never seen anything like this. Nucla hadn’t either.
The drummer and piano player were two young men with long thin faces, bowl cuts, and large dark eyes. They appeared to be identical twins. Donna noticed that they moved in tandem, even while playing different instruments. The girl with the accordion was about Donna’s age. She was tall and wore bright red glasses, with a black suit, silver tie, and fedora like the others. Her straight black hair swung from her waist as she played. The man standing behind his bass in the corner had dark, pockmarked skin and a black and white mustache that swept down and along his chin in a thin line back to his ears. Thick sunglasses hid his eyes and most of his face. Tattooed on his neck, peeking above his collar, were a few curvy words in a language that wasn’t English. He looked at the ceiling while playing then stared at his feet when he wasn’t.
The lead guitar was an old white man with a bushy beard and was so fat he had to rest on a stool upfront that appeared too weak to hold him. He had two long, sharp fingernails on one hand for picking, and yellow stains on all the others. He did most of the singing with his eyes shut, in a deep, raspy voice as he barely leaned in to the microphone. Unless you stood right in front of him and watched carefully, you’d swear the old man was asleep, or dead.
The band played country songs Donna knew from the radio. They also played many other songs that sounded like church music but didn’t mention Jesus or Heaven. Instead, they were songs about fighting, crying, and losing out. They were sad in a way that made you want to stomp your feet and hold someone close.
On lonelier afternoons, Donna often lay on her bed, staring at the row of magazine clippings she had pinned to her ceiling. She would half close her eyes and float, circling the globe, peering out from the windows of her teacup spaceship at the people and places far beyond Nucla. As she drifted above those red-carpet movie openings in California and Gemini rocket launches in Florida, police dogs attacking children in Georgia and mushroom clouds blossoming around gunships on the equator, she wondered what it all sounded like, what kind of music was playing in the background. Now she knew what was out there: it was Big Ted and the Thunderlights with this loud, somewhat-churchy country stomp.
This was the real thing. Right here. In front of her. Hot, thumping, and alive.
She wanted to step in between them and spread her arms through the slick fabric of their suits, cutting her fingers on their sharp silver ties, nestling her hands between their bones. She wanted to grab hold and not let go.
It couldn’t get any better.
And then it did.
Appearing right beside her, in a pink chiffon dress like a puff of cotton candy, was Juliet. She wore shiny blue high heels, glossy red fingernail polish, and deep red lipstick. Donna could smell her hairspray. Juliet looked over at Donna and smiled.
“Aren’t they just great?”
“I love this. Don’t you?”
Donna nodded again.
The old fat man finished his song with a grunt, then abruptly came to life. He opened his eyes, stood up, and began adjusting the microphone.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to slow things down for a moment. We have a guest coming to the stage. Many of you may know her, my niece, Miss Juliet Larson. She’s going to sing for you tonight, something sweet and memorable.” He stepped back from the microphone, moving his chair aside.
“It’s all yours darling.”
Juliet swept onto the small stage, adjusted the mic a bit more, and looked back at the bass player who plucked out a beat. The drummer followed with a brush on the snare. Juliet turned Donna’s way and started singing about love.
The songs told of thrills and agonies she’d never known, of lonesome times gazing at photos and records across an empty room where hope lingered, lost and lonely on the air. She sang about lovers waiting outside windows and walking around corners after midnight, lonesome couples wrapped together in the dark, waiting to take each other home.
All the way through, Juliet stared directly into Donna’s eyes. She moved closer to the stage to breathe in Juliet’s voice, sending it beneath her skin, into her fingers, through her arms, down her chest, legs, and toes, sharp particles pulsing and alight, drifting Donna and Juliet forward on the evening’s tide.
They shared this longing between them like sipping warm honey from a cold spoon.
She was glowing with sweat, shaking yet unable to move, unable to turn away—but why would she?
Nothing had reached into her like this, moving through her so swiftly, so complete and direct.
It was painful to stay. But she would not leave.
Then, it was over.
Juliet left the stage with the audience clapping. There were a few whistles and shouts for more. She performed a slight, embarrassed bow and slipped out the side door, followed by the band. Someone put on a Frank Sinatra record. A few couples continued dancing while the rest moved into line for drinks or bowls of chili and cornbread. Donna’s father stood a bit taller to find his daughter across the crowd. He tipped his head to the side, encouraging her to come over and help. She started his way, then abruptly turned and went through the side door to find Juliet and the band.
Big Ted and the Thunderlights were gathered around the picnic table under the trees. They were all smoking, including Juliet who was just handing a lighter back to the drummer. The old man was telling a story about Chicago and a theater called the Gladstone where he had seen a friend of his perform. He talked about the audience and the night like they were wild animals, feeding on one another. His voice was smooth and instructive as he told his story, completely different from his singing voice.
Donna stood there with nothing to say, realizing she hadn’t been invited. She was certain they wanted this awkward girl to leave. She went cold all over.
“This is my friend, Donna.”
“Hey girl,” they said, “Welcome, Miss Donna.”
Donna didn’t acknowledge them. She just kept hearing Juliet say: This is my friend, Donna—repeating again and again.
“What did you think about my niece?” the old man asked. “Quite a voice, way out here on the edge of nowhere.”
Donna didn’t know what to say, even though she wanted to say so much. All she managed was, “Yep.”
There was an embarrassed pause. The bass player took a long drink from his beer. Juliet walked over and rubbed Donna’s arm, then turned back to the group.
“We’re in a play together. Shakespeare,” Juliet said.
“Oh, Shakespeare,” the others said, making fun by dragging out the name.
“Ooh la la,” said the tall girl. “You doing the bloody one? Where they chop that man’s head off with a sword? I like that one.”
“Macbeth,” said the bass player. “Witches. Mad wife. Moving forest. Good story.”
The piano player laughed. “They cut heads off in all those plays.”
The drummer flicked his brother’s shoulder with his finger. “What do you know about Shakespeare? You haven’t seen a play in your whole goddamned life.”
“I know plenty. Far more than you. I do a lot of things you don’t know about. Have so been to a play. Plenty of ‘em.”
“That a fact?”
“That’s a fact. Shakespeare is all about people killing each other. Talking their heads off the entire time in a way no one understands. Everyone knows that.”
“It’s The Tempest,” Juliet explained. “We’re on an island. There are fairies and songs. No one dies.”
“Who you playing, darling?” asked the old man.
“Miranda! She’s Miranda,” Donna said, much too excited. “She’s the star of the show.”
“Well, that makes sense,” the old man said.
“Star of the show,” said the tall girl, looking Juliet up and down.
“She’s very good,” Donna said. “Everyone says so.”
“That’s true. Miss Larson is talented. As are all the others, especially our stage manager, Donna.” It was Mr. Gilson, walking in from the trees. “They have the gift, much like y’all. Nucla should be grateful. Thank you for coming all the way here.”
Donna watched Mr. Gilson step into the light from the porch. How long had he been standing over there, at the edge of the dark?
Juliet dropped her cigarette, flattening it with the tip of her shoe.
“Well, Ted, finally found yourself a new accordion?” Mr. Gilson pointed where it was sitting on the picnic table.
The tall girl picked it up and played a few notes. “Yes, sir, I have. A nice change, this one. I love the coral inlay. Buttons of whale bone and smooth pearl swimming beneath my fingers. Practically plays itself.”
“You’re Big Ted?” Donna asked, confused.
“Yep,” Ted said. “This is my band.”
Juliet moved her hand beside Donna’s, wrapping their pinkie fingers together with a squeeze, then she let go.
“Want some chili? I’m hungry. Aren’t you?”
Juliet took off, heading around the side of the Founders into the trees. Donna followed, no idea where they were going.
Big Ted handed Mr. Gilson the accordion and he played something fast and sloppy. The wheezing notes receded behind Donna and Juliet as they made their way toward the ditch. There was laughter, some shouting and applause from inside the Founders. The show had begun.
Donna and Juliet came to the edge of the ditch. Juliet slipped off her shoes, knocking dirt from the heels.
How could she walk in those things? On this ground, in the dark? Donna never understood heels, but admired women who wore them with such command.
Everything was glistening under the full moon. Donna saw how Juliet’s shoes lit her hand a dim blue. They leaned over the weedy ditch side, peering together at the water slithering past them as a thick, nonchalant snake. They stood there for a while, listening.
“Frogs,” Juliet said, as the colony resumed chattering once it was clear the two girls were no threat.
“Frogs,” Donna agreed.
More muffled laughter then Sissy shouting, “Oh no, doctor! You certain that’s the right one? It’s so big!”
“You ever kissed someone?” Juliet asked. “Like really kissed them?”
Donna froze. Her heart started beating so loud she was sure it would frighten everything away.
“Loads,” Donna said, finally. “Loads of them. Why?”
“Just curious. I’ve never kissed anyone. Not really kissed them.”
“Really? You’ve never kissed anybody?”
“No one. No one I liked.”
“I just thought. You would’ve…never?”
“Never. But you have?”
“Oh yeah, loads.” Why was she stuck on that word? “Bunches and bunches.”
“What’s it like?”
Donna stared deeply into the ditch. “Wet,” she said. “Mostly wet.”
“I have to kiss Eddie Wagner tomorrow. For rehearsal.”
“Oh yeah. That’s tomorrow.”
“He smells like closet cheese when he’s up close. You know that?”
“I didn’t know that. His dad’s the butcher for the Mercantile.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Oh, doctor! Can you please do that again?” Laughter and a cheer.
Someone started a chainsaw. More laughter. More clapping.
“Mr. Gilson said we could fake it. If kissing makes us uncomfortable.”
“I would do that,” Donna said quickly.
Juliet looked away from the ditch, over at Donna who was still staring into the water.
“I would, if it was my first time really kissing someone.”
“You’d fake it?”
“First time shouldn’t be out there for everyone to see. It should be private. I’d fake it. Especially if he smells funny.”
Juliet picked up a small, mossy stone she had been caressing beneath her toe and tossed it into the ditch. All croaking stopped, along with other insects nearby.
Juliet grabbed Donna’s pinky again within hers, her grip slightly damp and cold from the stone. She held Donna’s finger softer than before, rubbing up and down, a kind of acknowledgement.
“Want some chili? See the rest of the show?”
Donna nodded, aware of how warm and comfortable her finger had become, nested inside Juliet’s. While also pretending to herself and to Juliet that she wasn’t concentrating at all.
Just as they stepped back from the ditch and Juliet let go, the insect and amphibian chatter resumed.
“Frogs,” Donna said.
“Frogs,” Juliet agreed, slipping into her high heels with a turn and a few quick steps forward. If Juliet had just performed a triple flip from a trapeze, she could have not impressed Donna any further. Everything Juliet did was astounding; her simplest actions, most of all.
Donna and Juliet came in the front door and found some space on a bench along the back wall. They stepped up onto the bench, leaning slightly against the wall for balance, giving them a clear view of the stage. Big Ted and the Thunderlights were clustered in the kitchen, watching the show.
The skit was about drunken Dr. DoMore and Nurse Delight, who had come to Nucla offering free medical care. Patients would be volunteered from the audience, given a piece of paper with a few ailments listed on it, and led behind a backlit screen where the doctor examined them. It was a shadow play, for the most part. No matter what the patient claimed was wrong—runny nose, broken finger, bad haircut—Dr. DoMore would eventually say, “Well, that’s got to come out!”
The doctor and Nurse Delight would forcefully lie the patient on the table and begin cutting with long saws, knives, a tomahawk, and eventually, a chainsaw. Using cardboard shapes and small objects that Sissy strategically held before the light, Dr. DoMore appeared to be removing forks, dinner plates, bicycle horns, and potted plants while operating on his patient. Each object had its own funny line. Don and Sissy encouraged their volunteers to shout, scream, and move around on the table. For additional effect, Sissy occasionally tossed a small cup of milk against the screen which appeared to be splattered blood in silhouette.
Sissy and Don performed this show often and had their timing down pat. Everyone in town enjoyed it. The band, however, appeared horrified. They had put down their food and drinks and were just staring, occasionally checking with one another, then looking back to the stage.
At this point in the show, Phil Bunting was on the table, kicking his legs, waving his thick arms in the air, and shouting while Dr. DoMore tugged miles of intestine from Phil’s overly large stomach, dumping it into a huge, sloppy pile at the end of the table.
“Doctor, have you found what you’re looking for? You’re digging so deep in there! Oh my! The patient is…changing. What’s happening?”
“Well, that’s unusual,” said the doctor.
Don and Sissy converged on the patient, arms and legs flailing. One thing after another shot out the sides. Phil’s shouting got louder, and higher, until it abruptly became a woman’s voice.
The curtain dropped. Don and Sissy stepped to the side revealing a young woman in a bright red dress lying between them. She sat up, slid off the table and glanced down at herself, feeling her sides, her hips, her rear.
“Oh my gosh, that feels so much better. Thank you, doctor. What a marvelous job.”
“Just what I was looking for,” Dr. DoMore said, pulling the woman over, wrapping his arm around her waist.
Nurse Delight pouted, hands on her hips, tapping her foot with objection.
“However can I repay you?” the woman asked as she walked off the stage, arm and arm with the doctor.
“Don’t you worry about that, honey. I’m sure we can come to some kind of arrangement.”
Nurse Delight turned to the audience, smirked and said, “Men.”
The lights dipped. Don and the woman ran back onto the stage, everyone applauding, shouting their names. Phil Bunting stood up from where he was hiding behind the table. They all took a bow.
The band reclaimed the stage for a second set. The larger families headed home. Couples took the floor, holding one another closer than before. Juliet and Donna joined her father in the kitchen to serve the last of the chili, then they cleaned up.
“You have a lovely voice,” Donna’s father told Juliet as they sorted pans, deciding what belonged where. “You thinking of becoming a singer someday? Professionally?”
“Me? No sir, not someone like me. That won’t happen. But I do enjoy being on stage. You too? I hear your family played all over the place, in your band.”
Donna shifted further down the counter, putting things away loudly, pretending she was in another room, out of earshot.
“Yes,” Donna’s father said, “I’ve heard that too.”
“You played the trumpet?”
“Apparently, yes. Yes I did.”
“Played the drums. But that was a long while back. For fun.”
“Maybe you’ll play again someday,” Juliet said, looking at Donna who was on her hands and knees, banging big pots on the lowest counter, seemingly oblivious.
Donna popped up, wiping her hands. “Done!”
Donna’s father grabbed his keys.
“I’m finished. Been a long day. Donna, why don’t you stay with your friends. Listen to the band. Dance with someone. Walk home with Juliet, she’s just down the way. I know her parents would appreciate that.”
“They would,” Juliet said, “If that’s alright with you, Donna.”
Donna didn’t know how to respond. In a way, she felt her father and Juliet were ganging up on her, asking her to make a sudden commitment. And what was her father talking about? What friends? Dance with someone? Did he even know her? Apparently not.
No one would dance with her or talk with her. She had no friends.
But then she saw Juliet waiting for her to respond. Donna realized she did actually have one friend, now. All new and fresh and waiting for her to say something.
Donna said, “Yep. Okay. I’ll stay.”
The twins started a piece with the drum and piano talking to one another, bringing Juliet and Donna back to the main room. Of course everyone came over to see Juliet. They complimented her singing. They took her arm and led her around to other groups where they complimented her some more.
Donna followed a few times but was tired of being ignored. She knew she was just getting in the way so she took a seat by the band and watched Big Ted. Donna had never seen an accordion played before, except in a circus movie that one time in Grand Junction. This was so much better.
For the last two songs of the night Juliet sat next to Donna, close enough to knock knees a few times on beat.
“What’s that?” Donna pointed to the cocktail glass in Juliet’s hand.
“A martini. The bartender gave it to me. Said I was part of the band tonight so it was okay.”
“How’s it taste?”
Juliet took a sip and made a face.
“Awful. But it looks great. Want to try?”
Juliet fished out the olive, sucked it from the pick, then handed Donna the glass.
Donna took a gulp, which she choked down. It tasted just as strong and unpleasant as it smelled. She did her best to appear as though she was savoring it.
“Adequate,” Donna said. “I’ve had better.” She returned the glass to Juliet who sat it on the floor. “My mother ordered martinis for us in Kansas City once. Big ones. Blue and sparkling. After one of our shows. Those were real martinis.”
“I’ll have to try that someday. Kansas City?”
“Kansas City,” Donna said.
The band finished. The crowd spread. A fight started in the corner. A glass shattered. One of the shouting men stumbled and fell through the back door after being punched. More men followed him outside.
It was time to leave.
Juliet and Donna walked for a while without talking, accompanied by the scuffle and click of their feet on the empty pavement. Donna noticed they were walking close enough to easily hold hands, but didn’t, which was fine too. Juliet asked if she could practice her lines for tomorrow, with Donna taking the part of Ferdinand. Donna had the entire play memorized and called out lines during rehearsal when she wasn’t building or fixing something. But she had never shared lines like this, playing a part. She was nervous at first, then got the hang of it.
As they walked home Donna became the enchanted young man, besotted with love for Miranda, willing to fight any battle, suffer any chore just to remain in her presence. This also gave Donna the chance to take Juliet’s hand a few times as she said Ferdinand’s most passionate lines. Each time Donna held on a moment longer, which Juliet didn’t seem to mind.
They arrived at Juliet’s home at the bottom of the hill with Donna’s house waiting at the top. All the houses were dark. Everyone was asleep, although a radio played from somewhere nearby with Patsy Cline and Buck Owens singing in between a DJ talking from a station in Utah.
At the side gate to her yard Juliet turned to face Donna and took her other hand.
“Thank you,” Juliet said, swinging their hands like a breeze.
“For being my friend tonight. For listening to me. You’re so smart.”
“I’m not smart. Where’d you get that idea?”
“Are so. Don’t disagree with me. It’s a compliment.”
“Okay. Thank you,” Donna said, concentrating on how their fingers shifted and reconnected as their palms pressed together.
Juliet stepped in, kissed Donna on the forehead, dropped their hands, and went inside.
Donna stood there, listening to the DJ, wondering how far away he was, trying to figure out how that worked: a lonely man in a tiny room stuffed with electrical devices, sending his voice in waves across the desert toward anyone still listening this time of night. At the same time Donna focused on how the night air was slowly cooling the spot on her forehead where her friend—her real friend—had just kissed her.
Donna took her time walking home as she began picking through questions that would keep her wide awake until the sun and regular life finally swung back around.
David Gillette lives in Arroyo Grande, California. He has spent most of his life in small towns that often serve as the basis for his fiction. One of his short stories was recently included in the collection, This Side of the Divide: Contemporary Stories of the American West. His stories have also appeared in the Raleigh Review, The Valparaiso Fiction Review, The High Desert Journal, The Summerset Review, and other venues in the USA and abroad.