This story is about a small-time rocker full of ambition and careful big plans. She lives for the day when she can come up like thunder on the rest of the herd, so she’s a little stunned to find herself fighting with her boyfriend on the night of the big gig, slamming out of his van and marching across a frosty prairie outside Madison, Wisconsin, her guitar in her hand and her hot, angry breath making her scarf all scummy with ice crumbs as she curses him and her stupidity at coming so far in his company. Why should she have to dump him tonight? Only a doofus breaks up with her boyfriend in a moving vehicle. She vows here and now to make a new start, while she is alone, nowhere, storming across the empty fields, suspended between her humble origins and her destiny. Under the colorless starlight, she looks to herself like a stick-drawing person, white parka, grey jeans, black stubble, drawn but not yet painted. The ground is parched for moisture, the loam frost-heaved, last summer’s daisies and black-eyed susans and sweet grass killed by frost and just now crisp with it, though tomorrow under a pale sun they will warm up enough to make her slip with every step, especially if she stays mad enough to stomp all night long the way she is doing now. That would mean spending the night in the fields, however, not, as she would prefer, finding a road to follow to a roadside bar, not, as she expects she must, sleeping in a barn next to some smelly cow. She swears and stomps and swings her ax in the frozen air, scattering sibilants (his name is Stassen, which is a good name for hissing angrily) and gouting steam without regard to the threat of the cold. Her name is Dawn.
Slip she does. She lands on her bottom, her wind knocked out, and lies back in her parka, feeling the heat bleed out of her into the throbbing ground. What a world of stars is up there, she thinks, fields and fields of them, sheep for days. She remembers sheep pouring over the Nebraska plains in galaxies, white on black. The land back home is much flatter than this boggy, lumpy prairie, yet the sheep eat these same stale grasses with their backs to the same stars. These stars. A wave of vertigo swamps her. She sees the heavens turn. This is how stars must feel, she imagines, opening her eyes deliberately as they spin. So big, so slow. Only we frenetic particles can’t see how they run hump-rumped over the vast prairie. We’re moving much too fast.
Her fingers tingle. Way too pissed off for my own good, she thinks, and calms instantly. She has that sensible streak that lets her suddenly take command of her emotions, letting go once they’ve done their work. She smiles. That bum Stassen will stay mad for a week. She is at peace. Still the ground throbs. She feels it through her whole body. Good grief, what have I done to my ass?
It’s slippery stone under her, and she crawls cautiously to her hands and knees.
A mitten appears before her face. She takes it without thinking and is hoisted upright.
“Hello?” A hearty, fat farm-wife, complete with red mittens and stocking cap, looks her up and down. Dawn looks around for the sensible car that goes with such biddies, or, hopeful thought, a farmhouse with yellow light. Ah. There’s the yellow light. She warms up again. “Lost?” says the farm-wife.
“Half,” says Dawn ruefully. She picks up her instrument. No damage to the case, good sign.
“On a night like this!” says the other, and waits. Jolly potato-faced type. Dawn likes her immediately. The stars light her with a strange clarity. It is the sort of night when chance-met faces look dear and familiar, and time plays tricks with memory. It’s a nice face, full of generosity. This dame is simply panting to do her a kindness.
Dawn looks at the sky again. The Pleiades totter and shiver like new lambs. She remembers the gig she is supposed to play, oh, miles away by now with the unforgivable Stassen, and is suddenly sad. “Darkest night of the year,” she says, checking her watch. “The longest, too.” Cold soaks into her again, chilling her bones.
The older woman beams. “Righty-rooty! Hey? Can you play that? Tune for your supper?” She beckons at the yellow light, as if it must come to Dawn and not she to it.
Dawn picks up her feet willingly. Her behind complains. “Well, if you don’t mind. I’m sort of stranded.” Snatches of many voices distract her. There’s a party going on in there, and how warm and wonderful the smells coming out! She shrugs apologetically. “I don’t have my amp with me.”
“Don’t fret. I’m sure we can scrape something together,” the old biddy says, and stumps to the doorway. The walls are thick limestone, one of those old hillside dairy barns, deep as a mine, done over inside with the maximum of modern luxury. She pauses, blocking the opening, her round face ashimmer now with candlelight, lamplight. “If it’s not imposing.” She means it. “I’m not dragging you into this.”
Dawn can now hear music ramping and stamping somewhere deeper, rockabilly with a coarse metal twang. She brightens.
“No prob. I should—I’m up for playing tonight anyway—”
All at once she cannot get out any words to tell. She holds up the guitar as if the story of her fight with Stassen is written on it. Down inside the house somewhere, a bass player is making the walls throb. She smiles.
Her hostess nods, again delighted. With a broad red hand, she yanks the door shut. It swings ponderously, made of stone as thick as the unhewn walls and floor. The foyer closes up like an egg. She leads the way toward the golden center.
Dawn walks into the party. She accepts a drink without thinking: glögg, hot and spicy, that stings her mouth and fills her head. Her parka sheds cool air like a chunk of dry ice. It’s the host’s birthday. Everyone is dressed for winter, layers and layers of velvet and padded satin and furs as for an Elizabethan snowball fight, although this chintzy Midwestern winter has offered no snow yet, Dawn thinks, remembering Decembers in Nebraska. She is introduced a few times, handed off, kissed, introduced again, and brought at arm’s length like a bride (Horrors, child, you are cold! with a giggle) to the great table, loaded and pouring forth welcoming smells.
The table stretches the dim length of the room. What amazing bounty. Ribs, roast beef, roast piglet, roast lamb, an astounding goose with a chicken in her cavity, and a grouse inside of her, and a quail inside of her, and, far in the fragrant center, a hard boiled egg with a gem in the middle like a pomegranate seed, perfectly divided just this minute by a grinning chef waving a whacking great cleaver. Glazed fish, their scales picked out in jelly. Fish in cream, fish in wine, red-fleshed fish shaved thin, smothered in capers and heaped with grainy caviar. Hot vats of noodles Swedish style, noodles with sauerbraten, noodles layered between pork chops, noodles tossed in sesame paste and ginger and red hot peppers. Fruits in and out of season: muskmelon, honeydew, pears and alligator pears, mangos, pineapple, a dozen kinds of apples: golden green orange crimson scarlet blue-black and white and their piebald miscegenations. Breads shaped like suns, breads studded with raisins. Doubled buns steaming indecently, with butter running in their crevices. Dawn isn’t hungry yet, but she clutches her mug of glögg, grinning mistily.
She’s looking for the music. She can hear it, but she can’t find it. There are candles everywhere. Some parts of the room are low-ceilinged and high-cushioned, just right for kissing and gossip and splitting a bottle. Some parts are ballroom-size. The floor slopes down, away from the stone ceiling. Dawn trips a little, blames the drink. The bass gongs through her blood, a fiddle skirls, the faraway downbeat (alone of a tinny fusillade) cracks two glasses touching, a false blow, ting! Not in this room. Nor the next.
Finally it occurs to her that the sound is in the floor, and she takes her hiking boots off and stands on the cold body of the stone, feeling the beat. She bounces. “Yep.” One step at a time, she feels her way to it—someone whirls by, pauses with a steaming pitcher, and she says “Yep” again, holding out her mug. She cocks her head to the faint lure. She is still zipped into her parka and warm all through by now, but it feels delicious to drink hot glögg, smell the icy breath of the night on her shoulders, take a pheasanty kiss on the fly from a stranger in spandex, and walk barefoot on the cold, cold stone floor, letting the music lead her by feel, one step at a time. She laughs, giddy.
The room where the dancing is going on is completely packed. She can barely see past the backs of standees at the door. This song ends and the millwheel of bodies turns, but there’s no room for them to let her pass, even if they were to notice her. Anxiety grips her. It’s not my party, she thinks, daunted, but. The drummer whacks into a noisy backbeat, the fiddler lays a guttural double-stopped drone over it, oh, so he’s electrified, no wonder it’s so darn loud, and the bass lifts her clean off her feet like a church bell. Dawn can’t help herself. She touches the shoulder in front of her.
“Here.” She smiles, handing over her mug as if awarding a prize, and then motions him aside, holding up her holstered guitar in the other hand. Magic musician’s password. It works. She thinks, Gotta play for my supper, my hostess wishes, and is jostled and squeezed (slower than a melon seed but with as much force) and finally carried the last twelve feet, barefoot and laughing, over plumed heads and winking jewels, to the stage.
The fiddler and bassist put their equipment down and the drummer flails with renewed frenzy, alone at last with three hundred merry-makers and a lot of things to pound on. Her hostess appears. Over the battle noise, she shouts introductions, Dawn, fiddler, Dawn, bass player, Dawn, host, which last is an incredibly thin man in yellow velvet, with butter-colored hair and an eyeglass that catches every candle in the room at once, so that Dawn can hardly stand to look at it.
He smiles at her as they shake hands, such a frail hand. She is reminded of her first pet rooster, just so chinless and gay, and awards him the chicken-love at once. He is a vigorous dancer, however, and with his lady puts up a hell of a fight, pursued foxhound-wise by the remorseless drummer with a flying beat through false casts, back-doublings, and sudden disappearances, which Dawn finds hysterically funny. Meanwhile the fiddler has rounded up some cable and the bass player shows her how to jack into the floor, good grief, the whole stage is the sound system. Then they turn their faces to the crowd and take up the cry.
Dawn touches her strings. They are warmer than she is, much warmer than the wooden stage floor. She bends her ear, trying to get a pitch, but it’s no use in this racket, may as well get a bang on. And she does.
They play oldies, things they can count on everybody knowing. The fiddler seems to be from another planet, all he can do is jam, but he’s got the gift, and nobody is more surprised than she when the bass signals the opening for “Proud Mary” and suddenly that fiddleboy is there. Dawn falls back and lets him do the lead guitar part. Different, goofier, like it could turn any moment into something weird. Two minutes later, it does. She shrieks to the bass player:
“What the hell is that he’s doing?”
“Corelli chains,” he shrieks back, and signals a break. Soon the two of them step down and reluctantly the drummer follows. The fiddler stands alone crooning out a swoony slow-dance to the swaying crowd.
Over white lightning on ice, the bass player tells Dawn, “Really, really glad you’re here. I love this party. Never have to worry what to do with my New Year’s Eve,” he says. He puts his tongue into her ear and then withdraws it with a thoughtful expression. “But God you need new tunes now and then. We get stuck.” His accent is funny, like a Welshman who’s been to Australia on a slow boat from Texas.
She puts one finger on his wrist, as if taking his pulse. It feels silky. “Don’t you guys play other gigs together?”
“Nope,” he says. His eyes are a light, speckled brown, like a wren’s egg. Stassen’s are blue. The jerk, she thinks, and forgets him again. The bass player says, “It’s just me and the fiddle, really, and you know what his tunes are like.”
“Wherever did you find him?”
“The missus finds,” he shrugs. “It’s staying power that counts. Shouldn’t you put some shoes on? This floor is freezing.”
“I like to feel the beat.”
He kisses her, slips a piece of ice between her lips. “You’re all right.”
Their host and hostess appear. She looks, if anything, fatter and jollier. The host has shrunk. Dawn can barely see him sideways. Curved at his wife’s ample side, he is an old moon to her fullness, a sliver of yellow velvet and butter-colored hair. She thinks with pain of her rooster in his dotage, gone too old to mount hens and too scrawny to eat.
The bass player shakes his hand cheerfully.
“Ready!” her host says gaily. The candles wink, dimmed, in his eyeglass. When he puts his hand in Dawn’s, she is afraid to squeeze. What bones, like a bird’s. This close she can now appreciate his wistfully sweet, pointy smile.
“I’m very glad you’re here. My wife tells me you’re going to play for me tonight,” the host says to her.
Moved she cannot say by what, Dawn covers his hand in both of hers. “Staying power,” she says, as for a toast.
He smiles tremulously, repeating, “Staying power.” Dawn’s heart fills, heated. The hostess leads him away.
The drummer whacks out a marching summons. The party, sunk in place as if the air is falling out of it, reinflates, bouncing. Dawn exchanges her grain alcohol for water and puts away a quart, quick.
“Got a feeling this one’s going to be the marathon,” she smiles at the bass player, and he nods agreement, though he’s still drinking booze. He seems down.
Then they’re back onstage. For a ragged minute, the four of them tussle over the next number: Is it to be one of the fiddler’s embroidered jigs, or something noisy and fast by the Spudboys voted in by the bass player, or will Dawn and the drummer have their way with “I’m So Glad”? They compromise, and in a few bars Dawn realizes she’s in that lucky, lucky place a musician rarely finds, where four strangers are making it up as they go along and it works. Her leg-bones begin to tremble. Can we keep it up?
Confidently they turn from one another as if hinged. They face the dancers. She feels their agreement at her back, one organism making a wave of sound. Floating in it, she concentrates on staying in that good place where she knows what each of them will do for the next sixteen bars. She finds that she has been watching the dance, which gradually loses its air of a beehive at rush hour and shapes into a beehive with something on its mind, look, there are the little circles, now a line dance, ooh, don’t they look like they’re fucking, no, now she’s going to kiss the next one, and around they go! Together she and the fiddler sweep the circles into the lap of the tireless drummer, who chops up the patterns so they can make new. The bass player signs for a key change, one thumb jerking up.
Their host and hostess sort themselves out in the center, close to the bandstand. A little clearing opens around them. They whirl and step, stamp and skank, she bouncing rounder and rounder, her nostrils snorting like a comic steam-engine in the cold air, he a mere sketch of himself, a dancing, flickering stick puppet. Dawn remembers how his frail, cheery voice says, “Staying power,” and an iron rod forms in her backbone. All night, she vows, all night. She can. She feels a change in the band, the others drop back, and she lets the voice of her guitar slide free and soar, clawing its way to the highest point of the ceiling, then juddering and hacking its way down again, a Jacob’s ladder of bright sound fracturing into splinters of one true thing.
On the dance floor at her feet, her host falters. He stops, turns, as if the music has disappeared suddenly and he cannot hear it. His eyeglass darkens. It springs from his face and falls. A look of great tenderness comes into his face. He topples into his wife’s arms.
Dawn feels her own heart falter, but her hands cannot stop. The iron rod in her backbone will not dissolve. The dancers likewise cannot stop. They clear the area round the motionless pair, but the mass of spangled velvet and feathers still shivers. They stamp, and all begin to clap, clap, clap. The drummer pounds on. The bass player and the fiddler have let their instruments down for Dawn’s solo. Everyone looks at her. Clap, clap, clap, clap, stamp, stamp, stamp, stamp. Her ax wails of its own accord.
She looks at the couple in the clearing. His face is half-sunk in his wife’s great cloven bosom. The old lady turns her face up, grief and pleading in her eyes. Dawn panics. Her hands still. The drummer slows. His foot twitches, thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Each beat sounds like the last. Thump.
The revelers clap and stamp. They know what they want.
Dawn can’t move.
The other musicians exchange glances. The bass player hoists his Fender sorrowfully and, stony-faced, hauls a slow minor chord out of it, one note at a time. The drummer picks up behind him, brushing silver rain out of his cymbals as if he is unconvinced that this tune has a pulse.
It has, barely. The clapping does not slow, but the bass can only seem to make half-speed. His severe little tune telegraphs its ending almost as soon as it has begun. He plunks his way across it like a mammoth, one-finger harpsichord, all weepy with vibrato and an occasional angry fuzz on the lowest notes, a drunk coming apart in the middle of a sad song. On the last lugubrious drone the drummer comes awake again, thump, pause, thump, while the fiddler looks at Dawn and she looks back blindly over the clap, clap, clap, stamp, stamp, stamp of the crowd swaying before them, all the eager faces lit with anticipation. Her host lies wilted over his wife’s huge body. Clap, clap, stamp, stamp. Dawn feels she has fallen among horrifying aliens. The fiddler nods and tucks his chin.
His music is formless, a whirling darkness full of flashing wings and sharp things you might cut your hand on. For a while it sounds Arabic, a repetitive ululating cry like widow-prayer or a harlot calling for a deeper thrust. The drummer makes up his own mind about that one. Definitely sex. They have at it, bump and grind, screwing the downbeat with the single-minded smack of a headboard against the wall. The fiddle double-stops, braids in threes, tangles, rejoins itself. “Turkey in the Straw” pokes its head through.
Dawn takes a deep breath, her first in hours it seems. Stamp, stamp, stamp, stamp, clap, clap, clap, clap.
She thinks she knows what she must do now. She leans over to the bass player and bellows “Zarathustra!”
The fiddler overhears, loses his course in that moment. His fiddle skids, ki-yi-ing like a stepped-on dog. Startled, the drummer halts.
And the bass player, at a glance from Dawn, lays down the bottom of the world’s biggest chord. It goes on and on, never louder, never fading. Dawn breathes a prayer of thanks. She realizes now that the dancers dare not stop. They clap and stomp over the bass drone, keeping their part of the faith. She’s pretty sure she remembers hers.
The fiddler sends his bow skittering over the strings, a flight of bats. Ah, he does know this. But the drum’s the important part. She gathers the eyes of the band, drummer, fiddler, bass. The bass note steps up suddenly, a loud, warning drone.
Dawn breaks in, one clear, trumpety crow-call rising tonic to dominant to octave. Gathers their eyes. Crash! a crack of stringed lightning falls off to a boding minor chord that fades, then swells hugely. The drummer rolls over the skins of his biggest toms and whacks the thunder out of them, boom-boom, boom-boom, boom, boom, boom, drawls it to an impressive halt, a pause only. Her heart flies, oh, thank god. The bass player steps up the volume a notch and the floor seems to rise under them, bearing them upward to the distant ceiling. Dawn’s guitar sings out again, and the answering lightning splits the other way, into a major chord. Again the drummer carries them across the bass drone, boom-boom, boom-boom, boom! Dawn can feel the hairs parting from the back of her neck, lifting off her forearms. The bass player doubles his string into octaves of solid power. The floor rises again. Dawn repeats her summons, this time as loud as the guitar will shout and, when the fiddle screams in at last, they jam that chord straight into the ceiling, through the floor, straight out the walls on every side. The drummer goes nuts on his cymbals, his set, the stage floor, his toms, the cymbals again, and when Dawn lifts her chin and points her guitar neck at the ceiling, the three of them roar out the last of that huge noise, and stop.
But the bass is hanging on, still giving them the whole chord. Dawn turns with a dirty look. He’s grinning. She sees movement on the dance floor below. The revelers set up a cheer and she looks down.
Her host is standing. His wife is holding his hands. He beams at her. The revelers close in around them, shouting and laughing, all their hands stretched to touch him, and the thin man with butter-colored hair turns with chicken steps, nodding to them all. Jauntily, he puts his glass in his eye and it catches a thousand candles, throwing yellow light everywhere at once.
Dawn blinks. The drummer smacks into a backbeat, and the bass player keeps pretending he’s an organist for two bars, and Dawn’s hands move over the strings of their own accord into a Santana number. The dance floor seethes. She can’t stop laughing, or crying.
She doesn’t remember the end of the party. They play at least two more sets, rest, play again. Out of the muzzy night, she remembers how the bass player helps find her hiking boots, remembers eating—god, eating everything, and the way the fiddler tries to tell her in some language certainly not English but not possibly anything else how wonderful she is and how they must do this again next year, and drinking eggnog “for the protein” the bass player says seriously, how he laces her boots on for her wrong-foot-about and makes her dance with him, and then a turn each with her host and hostess, how the drummer puts her guitar into its case for her and they all squeeze out the door together giggling and shoving to stand on the bare prairie looking east at a pale, overcast sky.
“Surely you want to see the results of your handiwork,” the bass player murmurs in her ear, his arms wrapped round her from behind. They watch the horizon redden, a thin line of color between the black earth and the leaden sky.
Dawn notices they are alone on the hillside. “Where’d everybody get to?”
The bass player nibbles her ear. “When, not where. Speaking of which, have you a watch?” She puts up her wrist, her eyes on the sunrise, clutching his arm to her waist, feeling absurdly pleased. He says, “Ah, digital, very good. The year and everything.” This is obviously the answer to a question that’s been eating him all night. He’s very happy about it.
She giggles. “What are you talking about?” She twists to look into his face.
He kisses her sideways. “What I’m talking about is, not only can you come back again next year, but,” another kiss, “and, I can take you home.”
She glances back at the barn door and finds instead an enormous boulder half-buried in the hillside. No door, no windows. No barn. She shakes her head. “God, am I drunk?”
The boulder reddens while she watches. Gooseflesh ripples over her. The whole prairie reddens. She shudders once, and looks back at the sunrise. “How do I find it again?” she says, wondering.
“The missus finds us.”
The sun flashes across the curve of the planet like a thousand candles, shooting yellow light everywhere at once. Then it disappears into the cloud ceiling.
She turns around in the bass player’s arms and kisses him properly. “Are you real?” she says, tangling her hands in the back of his coat.
“Of course I’m real,” he says indignantly. “What’s your name, anyway?”
She tells him.