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 sire...