In the last hours of a late July day in 1976, Alexander Selkirk walked two miles down the descriptively named Long Hill Road until he came to the town green, a two-acre triangle of land with a scattering of old shade trees.
Passing the small black canon, anchored to a block of cement, commemorating the Connecticut town’s founding in 1663, he went to the narrow corner of the green, farthest from the Boston Post Road, where a dozen high school kids sat in a circle on the plush mown grass, the leaves of a thick oak tree filtering the fading sunlight, its trunk partly screening them from view. Some drank bottles of soda, most had tall cans or quart bottles of beer snugged inside their crossed legs. Some smoked cigarettes. Almost everyone toked from sloppy joints being handed around the circle.
Alexander stood outside the circle, mixing with the older kids who had graduated high school with him the year before. He noticed a girl he did not know sitting in the circle. Thick brown hair parted in the middle, cut sharply just above her shoulders. When she stood and stepped back from the circle, he realized she was short. Maybe her face would be level with his chest. He liked how her yellow tank-top, cut-off jeans, and flat sandals showed off the smooth-hard contours of her tan arms, thighs, and calves, and how the thin strap of the leather purse slung over her shoulder crossed between her full breasts.
“Alex, we’re driving to the Muster.”
He turned to face his friend, Rick, and Shelly, Rick’s current girlfriend, draped over his shoulder like a jacket.
“The Muster?” Alex smirked. “Well, you crazy kids have fun. Don’t stay out too late.”
“Come with us, Alex!” Shelly simpered. “It’ll be fun!”
Even as Alex answered with a shrug, she called to someone behind him.
“Rachel, come with us to the Muster, okay?”
It was the new girl. “I haven’t been to the Muster since I was a kid!” She had a raspy laugh, maybe from the cigarettes and pot.
“So come with us, Rachel! And make Alex come, too!”
Eight of them squeezed in the car, three younger guys and one girl in the back. Rick drove, Shelley perched in the space between the front bucket seats, straddling the floor gear shift, sipping from a can of beer then holding it up to Rick’s mouth so he could take quick gulps. Alex sat in the front passenger seat, Rachel on his lap, his arms loosely encircling her to keep her from falling. With their faces cinematically close, Alex and Rachel talked in fragments timed to slip around Hotel California, pulsing from the dashboard speaker, the wind pushing through every open window, the shouts from the back seat, and pauses to take drags from a passing joint. Rachel grew up here. A corporate transfer moved her family to Wisconsin. A layoff brought them back. She graduated high school a month ago.
It was all backroads to Deep River, an inland town much smaller than their shoreline town. The third week of every July, fife and drum corps from throughout New England “mustered” to march down the town’s main street and into the acres of a treeless field, sweating inside home-sewn tan and blue colonial-period costumes, while banging heavy wooden drums slung over their shoulders or blowing into shrill wooden fifes cupped in their hands.
They wound along narrow roads through inter-connected forests of leaf-heavy, third-growth trees, two-hundred-year-old stone walls, forgotten family graveyards, and thousand-year-old streams. Rick did not drive fast, but he swayed the car wide to amplify the curves in the road. Soon everyone in the car sang out, “Whoa-OOOhhhh” as the lazy drifting through switchback corners forced them against one side of the car and then pushed them against the other side of the car.
Alex tightened his arms around Rachel, as she countered the car’s movement by leaning into him. There was a light scent of rose in her clean hair. He strained to not get an erection, focusing on the music, thinking “Nobody cares you’re a mediocre drummer when you can sing like that”—but then it was there, pushing hard out from his underwear and along his right thigh, straining against his jeans.
She knows. She’s got to know. How could she not feel that?
He worked to keep Rachel perched on his left thigh.
Rick miscalculated a corner, being too far on the wrong side of the road just as a car approached from the opposite direction. He jerked the car sharply back to the right. Rachel braced herself by pushing her hand down on Alex’s right thigh. Alex grunted. Her brown eyes widened, a smile started and her hand squeezed him.
Shelly bleated, “Rick! Watch out!”
There was a jolt as the car’s tires dropped off the edge of the road and hit two hard bumps as it crossed ten yards of leaf-covered dirt.
In the stopped car, the music amplified. After a sharp intake of breath, all four in the back seat whooped and laughed and yelled.
Rick slowly exhaled the word, “Fuuuuck.”
Alex looked at Rachel, but she did not look at him.
When they got out and stood alongside the car, Alex squatted and pointed to the crease of a dent, not easy to see in the twilight, on the lowest part of the back passenger door. “Must have hit a rock under the leaves.”
Rick sighed. “I’m fucked.”
Rachel patted his shoulder.
Shelley shrugged. “Just tell your parents someone must’ve backed into the car in the parking lot at the Muster.”
When they arrived, the quarter moon was just above the treeline, bright enough that Alex could see the edges of the gravel stones covering the parking area. The four from the backseat went off together. Rick, Shelly, Alex, and Rachel, cut through thick crowds of people milling under large brown canvas canopies set up under tall shade trees. Small white lights were strung along the rectangle perimeter of each canopy and down the ten-foot-high supporting poles. A succession of inebriated men and women unerringly found and tripped over the tethering ropes staked into the ground, laughing when they stumbled and spilled their drink, swearing if they hit the ground.
There was a large restaurant with all its doors and windows opened wide. One current of people pushed onto the wraparound porch and into the restaurant doors as another current pushed out the side doors and flowed into the crowd under the canopies.
“Let’s hit the bar!” Rachel yelled.
“That’s okay for Rick and Alex, but we’ll get carded.”
“The hell we will, Shelly,” Rachel countered. “This is the Muster!”
She plowed into the crowd, looking like a kid pushing through a forest of grownups’ legs, calling out, “Excuse me! Excuse me! Watch your step, buster.” They followed in her wake, reaching the bar just as an elderly man and woman in colonial costume stepped away.
A bald bartender wiped a stained rag on the cleared wood of the bar.
“Four drafts,” Alex called, cash in his hand. “Please.”
The sweating, middle-aged man glanced at Alex and then at Rachel. She leaned far over the bar toward him. “But I, kind sir, would like a Jack and Coke instead of a beer.”
The bartender’s glance took in her happy smile, browned shoulders, and the swell of breasts against her yellow tank top. He said, “One Jack and Coke. Three drafts,” and turned to pour their drinks.
Shelly stage-whispered, “Score!”
Rachel scoffed. “These aren’t real bartenders. They volunteer for the Muster. They get to keep the tips. What do they care if we have a few drinks?”
“My second wife was just about your height.” A baritone voice came from a guy standing behind them. As Rick and Shelly turned toward him, he pushed between them. He was near forty, thin inside a starched, heavily embroidered shirt, and creased blue jeans with pointy-toed boots. He leaned against the bar, with his back to Alex, grinning down at Rachel as he tipped his pristine cowboy hat back and sighed. “And she loved her Jack ‘n Coke, too. Swear to God.”
Their drinks landed on the bar, Alex paid, tipped, and handed each a wet glass.
“Look-look-look!” Shelly pointed to several open seats at one end of a long table.
Three of them sat down. From the table they watched Rachel, in animated conversation with the cowboy more than twice her age. They snorted when he put two cigarettes in his mouth, flicked open a silver lighter, then hand one lit cigarette to Rachel.
“He’s the fucking Marlboro Man,” Rick said.
“Yup.” Alex stood and downed his beer. “I’m going to explore.”
Shelly said, “We’ll come with you.”
Rick stood, chugged his beer, and belched in agreement.
The marching and drumming and fifing had gone on through the hot day. The cooler night was for drinking and eating and reveling. They sauntered on the sidewalks or swung out into the closed-off street to avoid knots of people or clouds of smoke from charcoal-fired grills, their grates covered with sizzling sausages and onions, hamburgers and hotdogs. The moon, higher now, cast light brighter than the scattered yellow street lamps. On a corner they stopped to listen as a revolving series of men and women, teenage boys and girls, all of their faces flushed from alcohol or sunburn, banged drums and blew into fifes, bringing to life strident martial music from two centuries ago.
Alex, who played drums in school marching bands since he was eleven, and now played with a jazz-blues band of college-aged musicians in dive bars in New Haven and Hartford, named the rudiments the drummers banged and rolled. Shelly and Rick, giddy from marijuana and beer and youth, found the strange words charmingly ridiculous.
Shelly yelled, “Paradiddle!”
Rick answered, “Flam! Ruff!”
She countered, “Buzz-roll! Boom boom boom!”
They held onto each other jumping up and down and shouting, “The double paradiddles are coming! The double paradiddles are coming!” until they crumpled to the pavement, wiping tears from their eyes and gasping for air.
Even as Alex ruminated, imaging that by now Rachel was getting into the Marlboro Man’s pickup truck, the hilarity of his friends was contagious, and lifted his mood.
They bought cans of beer from a man sitting in a lawn chair on the crowded sidewalk beside two white Styrofoam coolers. He smiled and nodded at the passersby while chanting, “Buck a beer! Cold beer for a warm dollar! Buck a beer!”
When they saw the three guys and girl they knew, Rick called out, “It’s the Back Seat Gang!”
Later, when Shelly clung to Rick’s neck and whispered, “I want to double paradiddle,” Rick announced it was time to leave.
On the walk to the car, Shelly, Rick, and Alex stopped in the doorway of the crowded restaurant. Rachel was still there, at the bar. The Marlboro Man casually rested his hand on her tan shoulder, plucking the strap of her yellow tank top. Shelly called out and waved, catching Rachel’s glance, mouthing, “We’re going!” and pointed toward the parking lot.
Rachel nodded condescendingly, then turned back to Marlboro Man.
As Rick was carefully backing up in the crowded parking lot, the gravel slowly crunching under the tires, Rachel appeared beside the car. She pulled open Alex’s door, threw her purse onto the floor, and clambered onto his lap. “Let’s go before Marlboro Man gets on his horse and comes after me!”
“That’s what we called him!” Shelly shrieked. “Marlboro Man!”
“Yes!” Rachel shrieked back. “And he smokes Marlboros. Red pack!”
The ride back was even louder than the ride there, with everyone except Alex competing to be heard, talking over each other’s stories of what they saw and did.
Rachel leaned close to Shelly, or twisted in Alex’s lap to address the Back Seat Gang, loudly presenting mocking highlights of the “horny cowboy” she had played for all her drinks, while he chain-lit her cigarettes, insisting she come see the “big house on ten acres” he had built himself.
Long before they reached their town, the car became quiet. Two of the guys in the back were either sleeping or silently envying the third guy, who made out with the lone girl.
Shelly turned down the music with one hand, her other hand massaging Rick’s thigh. Rick, concentrating, keeping both hands on the steering wheel, said, “No. Wait. Later.”
Rachel fell asleep, slumped against Alex. He felt obligated to protect her within the ring of his arms, but he pushed her hair off his face. The odors of bar and cigarettes smothered the fresh rose scent of earlier. When she shifted, snuggling into him, her mouth popped open and she softly snored.
He had no erection to worry about this time.
“You can drop me at the green,” Alex said.
“I’ll take you home. Not a problem,” Rick said.
“Thanks, but I want to walk.”
When Rick stopped the car under a streetlamp alongside the green, Alex tried to slide Rachel onto the seat without waking her.
She lifted her head. “What…what’s going on?”
Outside the car, Alex closed the door.
“Wait!” She pushed against the door. “You’re leaving?”
“Yeah. Good night.”
She reached back to the floor of the car, lifted her purse, and took out a pen. Standing close to Alex, she pulled his hand to her, and on the back above his knuckles, wrote her phone number. Standing on her toes, almost jumping up at him, she kissed him on the mouth.
“Call me. Tomorrow. Let’s do something.” She dropped back onto the front seat of the car.
Alex hesitated, looking down at her, then closed the door, and the car’s interior light blinked off.
He crossed the green, the night darker, the moon having set sometime during the drive back. His sneakers slid on the wet grass. When his foot hit against something, knocking it over, he stopped. Looking down, he saw a circle formed by bottles and cans, upright or laying on their sides, a Lilliputian Stonehenge.
A half mile up Long Hill Road, he stepped off the tar road, clambered over a low stone wall, stood by a red maple tree in a small clearing, and urinated for a very long time. Even as he urinated, he became erect. Closing his eyes, he immediately saw Rachel in the front seat, smiling up at him as he closed the car door, the spread of her tan thighs below her cutoff shorts imprinted on his memory.
He ejaculated with such force, he lost his balance, falling back against the tree.
Staring into the blue-black ocean of sky sprayed with stars, he felt the earth spinning under him and the sky spinning above him.