Read by Hin Leung
The man was mostly naked.
Kiki had seen him at the Burrito Palace and then again as he walked along the main road outside of town. She drove a hundred yards past him then pulled over and waited. When he caught up Kiki leaned over and said, “Where’re you going?”
“Fairgrounds,” said the man. His voice was like a dump truck on an unpaved road.
“Okay,” Kiki said, “get in.”
“Thanks,” he said.
He was big and used the frame of the door to lever himself in to the cab of the truck. A wide swath of gauzy fabric draped and shifted loosely around his waist and did a bad job of keeping his secrets.
The rodeo was always bringing crazies to town. The cowboys ended up at the pizzeria or the Burrito Palace wearing fringe and rhinestones, trying to sneak their horses in to the movie theatre or kiss you when you weren’t wanting to be kissed. Then a week later they’re gone and all you’re left with are hoof prints in the linoleum and a well-worn lasso that’s supposed to be a promise, but never actually is.
“You with the rodeo?” Kiki asked.
“Nah,” the man said.
“Your car break down?”
“I don’t have a car,” he said, “just walking.”
He looked at her.
“I used to fly most places of any distance, but I gave that up. Now I walk. You meet more people walking.”
“I wouldn’t mind flying somewhere someday,” said Kiki, “but there’s never been a place I needed to get to that fast. I drove to Colorado once. That was a real once in a lifetime kind of thing though.”
“Everything is once in a lifetime,” he said “every moment of your life is once in a lifetime.”
Then with a lot of grunting the man manoeuvred his bare feet onto the dashboard and stretched his legs and pressed his toes against the windshield. His skirt flapped in the air conditioning. Kiki focused on the lines of the road rushing towards her.
“Even the mistakes,” he said “those are once in a lifetime too.”
“Sure,” said Kiki.
She dropped him off by the cattle card at the edge of the parking lot. He grunted and gasped and climbed out of the truck and turned to her and smiled.
“Come back tomorrow,” he said, “tell them you’re Ralph’s friend. They’ll let you in free.”
“What kind of show is it?” Kiki asked.
“A good show,” said Ralph, “a once in a lifetime show.”
Then he walked towards the low dusty arena on other side of the parking lot and Kiki saw he had two large glossy scars on his shoulder blades that puckered like huge mouths blowing kisses back to her.
She turned her truck around and drove home.
Four trailers from the end of the second row of mobile homes in the Rodeo Inn RV and Camping Park, Kiki stripped off her clothes and lay on her couch. In the cool darkness of her tiny living room she perched one Super Burrito, extra cheese, between her sweaty breasts. She read the front page of the newspaper and using only her lips she slowly fed the burrito in to her mouth. In the fading light of her living room Kiki read until her eyes no longer made sense of the printed shapes and her mind scrambled the sentences on the page.
The next morning Kiki carried her shower kit and the corpse of a terry cloth towel to the women’s shower. Her robe swayed in the lazy desert breeze and her flip-flops slapped at her heels. A dollar buys five minutes of uninterrupted hot water, then two minutes of cold. Last year the RV Park and the Truck Stop started offering a frequent bather perks card and for ten bucks a week you get six showers and one self-service car wash. It’s a pretty good deal actually, and if you’re skilled about it then the weekly car wash can do double duty.
Finally having a few days off, Kiki shaved her legs and installed a new radiator in her pickup. Then she put on a dress and her very best cowboy boots and she drove back out to the fairgrounds.
In the dusty, unpaved parking lot two stout, winged babies took turns misting each other with glitter spray. Three fauns stood away from them, talking intensely and pawing the dirt with their hooves. A cone of wind swirled around them and a tumbleweed rolled by. One of the babies pointed at an open gate a little further down and Kiki walked through it.
“What’s your name?” said tiny woman holding a clipboard.
“I’m Kiki,” said Kiki, “I’m Ralph’s friend.” The little woman had huge eyes and her ears pointed out from her hair like fleshy daggers. She wrote something down then handed Kiki a lanyard with a card on it that said, “Ralph’s Friend.”
“I’d keep that in your pocket, if I were you,” said the little woman, then she scurried away.
Kiki didn’t have any pockets so she tucked the card and lanyard in to the leg of her left boot.
There were big creatures and furry critters and something that had two heads and a bunch of legs and it was really enjoying three hotdogs and a corn on the cob. The beasts talked and clustered together and in one corner a group of them did yoga. Kiki had never seen yoga before, not in real life, and she tried not to stare. Winged things of all types flew by, flapping and gliding and beating the air around her. Kiki scanned the crowed and looked for Ralph and when she did not find him she bought a bottle of mead and cup of ambrosia salad and took a seat in the bleachers.
For the first time Kiki read the banner that waved across the arena, it said: “International Air Harp Championships.”
The lights went down and the competition began.
Kiki watched fauns and gnomes and ghosts air harp. It was like modern dance and air guitar and meditation all mixed together. A panel of divine creatures judged and awarded points on some unknown criteria and Kiki watched for hours as they took turns miming the instrument, feeling the music with their bodies, or with their lack of bodies.
Good air harping is the moment when fear becomes fight, or love becomes touch—when the wild instinct of emotion is caught and strummed for the length of a song and Kiki could feel the music reverberate through her body.
Ralph emerged from some dark corner and walked with his head bowed low. He climbed heavily on to the platform in the centre of the arena and when he lifted his face the music began. His arms rose in front of him and Kiki could see that there was something gentle and familiar in the way he moved. Ralph’s body shook and his great belly heaved and the swath of cloth fell from his hips. He stood there in the centre of the arena naked and glowing with sweat and magic.
A half-eaten corn on the cob SMACKED the middle of his chest.
“Traitor,” someone yelled.
Another voice called, “You’re a phony,” and someone else chanted, “Tray-tor, Tray-tor, Tray-tor…” and then whole arena vibrated with that word.
Kiki stared down at Ralph and he kept dancing—he was a fisherman lost at sea—then he was a grandfather holding a dying child.
A mead bottle flew and hit him the side of his head. Ralph swayed then caught himself. When the second bottle crashed against his face he stumbled and careened forward off of the platform, thumping face-first in to the dirt. Then he didn’t move.
The creatures cheered and stomped their feet and called for more.
Kiki ran down the bleachers, pulling at her clothes, and when she reached the bottom step she was naked—except for her favourite cowboy boots. The music still played and Kiki climbed on to the platform and reached in to her left boot and pulled out the lanyard. She hung it around her neck and the words, “Ralph's Friend,” bounced against her bare breasts.
Kiki turned her face to the mob and began to move. Her hands were caged birds trying to break free—and then they were the water of a fountain on the hottest day of the year. The instrument she played was not harp-shaped at all—it was polygons and spheres of sounds that she summoned with her fingers.
Half of a cup of ambrosia salad splatted across her right boot.
The creatures stomped so loud Kiki could no longer hear the music but she kept dancing. She moved her body like she was getting stabbed and had been for every moment of her life.