It was an overcast July day. Lawn mowers were buzzing outside; flies were fluttering shadowed against my north-facing window, the one with green floral curtains mother had made and kept and laundered and pressed and hung. I was in my room, hiding I suppose, because I was scared of a commitment I'd made for that evening. A local fair in my hometown. The place which had bred me, tore me, wielded me against my own sword of self-hatered and doubt. A scar sat on my wrist from a day when I'd tried to release the blood that kept me breathing in and out, it stared back at me like a glossy ribbon as I sat on the bed. A book of Tennyson sat on my knee, and my guitar, that cheap old guitar with cheap old strings, sat behind me, rested against a pillow.
I'd been listening to Bob Dylan all day, been drawing, been thinking. What did it mean to go back to this place I'd run from? Why was I gonna go play guitar for folks I only had regret for, that had made me feel ugly and scared my whole life; like a stranger, like a traveler, running, barely breathing? What is it I felt I had to show them, and why now, why now when I was still in the chrysalis, not yet formed?
It was time to go and so I flipped down the Tennyson and grabbed my guitar, put it in its case and looked at myself in the mirror. Long hair, skinny face, body dressed all in black. Good enough. We drove down to the town so small you could blink and miss it. But I wasn't blinking, I was shaking scared, gripped in that seat with my guitar case clutched tight. My mother and my brother were there with me, and brother made a joke, "Ah Spring Hill, where the men are the men, and so are the women." It made me laugh.
The crowd collected like a swarm with the smell of cologne and sweat and fires roasting. Women with coifed hair, men all slicked back, shirts buttoned tight. Even with the heat and the night they still wore slacks and loafers. And here I was, like death cutting through. My pale lips shivered, because I saw the stage and knew time was coming close. Someone grabbed me, "You performing? Well then, get on back behind the stage. The sun's about to set and we want all you performers ready. When they call your name, you get right up those steps and start your song, or whatever it is you do." I nodded stiffly, could handle all that, if I could move my legs, if I could make my voice work, if I could remember the words and the chords, and who I was, and where I was.
"Hey," a kind voice said. A man in his early forties put a gentle hand on my shoulder and showed me his guitar. "You singing too?"
"Ah, nice. Well, do you need to tune up your guitar?"
No, no. I shook my head. Too nervous to tune. You go on ahead, mister. I watched as he bent a knee up and made all those strings yield to perfect pitch. Up and down the pitches slid, I watched him bite his lip in concentration.
"You nervous?" he asked when done.
He smiled. "You'll be fine."
The sun was gone and I had to wait through a long set of dancers in sequins and red lipstick. Then I heard my name and I stumbled to the steps. I held that guitar and I walked, in a trance, I walked across that lonely stage. Eyes on me. I walked and I couldn't remember what it was I had come for, or what I needed to tell them. All those years of crying. What was it I come to tell them? Those days of my daddy's belt and his bible, hiding under the chair in the back yard 'cause someone had bought me ice cream without his permission, those days, Mama walking by the schoolyard and my hand stretched out, those days, of government cheese and peeling wallpaper, those days, of sitting in the ditch for hours and hours and no one came, those days, of records spinning and pretending I was gonna be the one to sing. Everyone was waiting so I hit a chord, but it didn't feel like the right chord. I hit it and hit more and sang and shook and the lights were on me bright and hot and mosquitoes gathered in the halogen halos. I sang all those words hoping someone out there knew why, but realized they couldn't ever really know why. When my song was done, I waited for the applause and it came. I grabbed my guitar and left the stage and slid back out to the dark, to the sidelines where I was used to living. Things were normal again.
It took a long time for the shaking to stop. I must have sweated out a lifetime of salt in one night. Must have shed a skin like a snake all in one sitting.
I stayed up that night and tried to read Tennyson. The sound of the train kept me company and when I finally turned off the lights, I laid there staring until all I could see was the moonlight and my guitar, set lonely against the wall.