First appeared in The Woolf
Tales from the Pit no. 11
Dispatch: Summer Concert Series, Anytown, USA
On a muggy evening, at the edge of the town green, I have just claimed my spot at a picnic table when three women in sequins storm the stage, or rather, the gazebo. The beloved landmark is adorned with what Walmart would call a ‘USA Pleated Fan Flag’ even though it’s more of a banner and couldn’t drape a casket or fly at half-mast. Still, it adds a festive touch, and when the MC asks us to make some noise for the sponsoring restaurant, we do – and they’re off.
Less than a verse into Donna Summer’s ‘Bad Girls’, three fire trucks roar out of the station across the street. I count the seconds before one of the singers delivers a mock warning about things sure heating up, and don’t have to wait long. But my psychic powers fail to prepare me for the pause between ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Turn the Beat Around’. A man takes the mic to explain, unprompted, why some of the faces on stage might be new. “Girls get pregnant and like to have families,” he says, in earnest, “plus, it’s always good to keep things fresh.”
‘Fresh’ apparently means that a whopping four songs of the set’s 22 were released after 1980, and the Michael Jackson tunes, damn it, stay. And though less than 24 hours have passed since the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, “Everyone deserves ice cream!” is the most political statement heard all night. But better to be here, surrounded by thinning hair and mosquitos, than raging online, gaping at another empty storefront or staring, down at the beach, at the WATER IS CLOSED sign – posted this morning after a sewage leak – until it almost makes sense.
A burst of swearing from the street breaks through the hellbent cheer of ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered’. I first notice the offender’s Jaws t-shirt, what with it being Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, and then his gait. As he zigzags onto the lawn, it occurs to me that, come the telltale popping sound, I could throw myself under this very table. The wood seems thick enough. Time permitting, I could crawl commando-like to the giant pine tree and flatten myself under its boughs, burrowing deeper into the bed of dried needles or out, through the undergrowth, and into the light of the street.
This thought, like the lift of the breeze, takes all of four seconds. The ladies are still leaping from Aretha and Tina to Whitney and back, just like they or their stand-ins did last year, and the year before that. It takes a lot of talent to belt out one key-changing, bowel-clutching final refrain after another and pretend all the other stuff never happened. In my experience of staggering light shows, pyrotechnics and razzle-dazzle – of blistering solos, stage dives and plummets from speaker stacks – I suspect I may be witnessing the greatest performance yet.
After the sponsoring restaurant is thanked again, it’s time to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to a woman celebrating her 101st. The ladies ham it up until they’re silenced by the birthday girl’s request for an instrumental. In the jaunty introduction to ‘In the Mood’, the woman rises from her folding chair with the help of a dance partner she may or may not know. It takes a full 16-count for him to lead her in a turn, her hat drooping over half of her face, but she keeps going until the guy on keys plays the final note. The secret to a long life, she says, is to think positively. Minutes later, during the throaty singalong of closer ‘I Will Survive’, I try to recall a time, maybe imagined, when that alone seemed like enough.