“Can you get this thing off him?” The blonde EMT is shouting over the roar of the LifeFlight’s rotors and pointing to his chest, encased in steel.
“It means squeezing his chest – is that okay?” I don’t want to be helped by someone who isn’t one of us.
“Better do it now, we can get a tube in if we need to!”
She signals the other two paramedics to stop, and the hot afternoon wind fights the air currents from the helicopter blades. I remember the mean doctor on ‘ER’ getting his arm chopped off by a tail rotor and how he later got crushed by a helicopter plummeting to the hospital rooftop landing pad, and I hope that this is not an omen.
“Is it okay if I get up on him? I’m going to have to press down to get it to release.” I show her the catch where the breastplate overlaps the backplate, and she nods. Her fingers, even smaller than mine, are ready, my skirt already tucked up. One of the men gives me his hands to step into, and boosts me onto the stretcher. I’m kneeling over him, straddling him, and I press both hands on his chest with all my weight behind them to ease the plates together so the blonde can flip the catch. He sees me, and for a moment it’s the last time I knelt over him, in his narrow bed, no blonde, no armor, no helicopter, no wind. No splintered lance point, strangely bloodless, buried in his left eye.
* * *
“We will begin our afternoon tourney, in the English fashion, with the Basden Course!”
Kirk is a great king. Booming voice that everyone can hear. We use mikes at some of the bigger Renaissance Festivals, but I hate them, they always sound like the county fair. My first year I was a princess and sat up on the dais with the court, but I’d rather watch the joust from the end of the hundred and fifty-foot rectangular list. It’s dirtier and the view isn’t as good, but I prefer handing off lances and fixing armor on the fly to sitting under a parasol and making pretend Renaissance small talk. At first I was just horse-crazy but now I like being part of the team. Three years, and I can be trusted to do the job without Abby checking my work or Kelly standing over me.
I hand off the sword, battered and un-edged, burrs of metal up and down the blade where Michael was supposed to file them off this morning, instead of messing around for a joke. He’s always planning something funny and elaborate and slacking off his jobs, so the squires pick up the loose ends. Abby sees the blade and frowns, she’s working Michael’s end with me today. Kelly’s down at the other end, doing Jeff’s lances and sword and armor by herself. That’s what Michael’s counting on, that Kelly will be too busy to catch the change.
Jeff and Michael make the three picture-passes, as we disparagingly call them. It’s not even really choreographed, just ride to the middle, bash-bash-bash, chase each other to the end of the list, bash-bash, ride to the other end, bash-bash, and both back to the middle where it’s Jeff’s turn to get nailed in the side of the helmet with the sword hilt, since Michael’s playing the bad guy today. Cameras are clicking everywhere. This is the brochure shot, Enjoy Ye Olde Medieval Faire, two knights grappling with swords, the horses head to tail and patient in the routine. Jeff hits the ground—you never see that one in the brochure—and Kelly’s already there to help him up. Her red hair flies down the list again, heading for Jeff’s end to pick up the French plate even while Jeff is making his speech about perfidy (Michael’s) and chivalry (his).
Abby takes the reins while Michael dismounts so I can bolt his French plate to his chest. She pats the horse. “Remember, Mike, it’s your turn to dive.”
“Whatever.” Michael hates taking a dive. But you could go eight, ten passes before blowing someone out for real and the show is only thirty minutes long, so they do four real passes and if no-one’s down, one more ride and someone takes a dive. Eighty pounds of armor on a tall, built guy, slamming into the Florida sand and dirt from the back of the Belgian geldings.
“It’s your turn,” Abby nags. She’s the senior squire, the one officially working for the company, getting a real check and shoveling shit for it.
“I hear Roy’s boys never take a dive.” Michael pops his visor and spits, and I tell him to hold still while I tighten the wingnuts.
“Yeah, well, Roy’s joust is fucking boring,” she hisses. We’re within six feet of the crowd, and I nudge Abby to keep her voice down. She tags on, “Milord,” in her sweetest I-work-here-voice and we both burst out laughing.
“Am I ready? Am I bolted? Are you two done?”
I guide Michael’s foot to the stirrup and shove while he hoists himself onto the saddle.
Abby hands off the reins and turns to signal to Kelly that we’re ready to turn. Michael leans over to me, the knight on his horse bending down like the painting, except that knight is a title and jouster is a job. “Which one?”
I’m hoping it doesn’t get that far. I’m hoping he’ll blow Jeff out fair and square, or one of them will overbalance and dive accidentally on the second pass. But he’s waiting for my answer, leaning as if to kiss me, and it’s not like I changed it, right?
“Fourth slot,” I say into his ear, and at that he does kiss me, disappointing the trailer park women behind us who are barely keeping their beers upright while cheering for him.
“Good. We’ll give them a show.” It’s not we, it’s him, but he’s upright in the saddle sliding his visor down and I’m already on autopilot, pulling the first lance from the rack, setting the base on his foot, the pennant end in the air, his hand below the guard.
“At your pleasure!” calls Kirk, the gold lamé on his costume sparkling in the sun as he brings down his arm, and both horses wheel at the same time and charge. They meet in the middle, the lances hitting the raised grid on the French plates and splintering, balsa tips shattering satisfactorily into the air, minimum impact and maximum flash, the pine poles below them staying intact. Jeff hangs onto his lance before passing it into my hands at the end of the list, but Michael drops his in the middle, knowing that Abby will have to run for it before the next pass. Three passes to go, unless someone blows out. Unless.
Another pass. Kirk calls out points that the audience thinks mean something, and Jeff calls for a halt. His gauntlet strap has broken. Abby realizes it on our end as fast as Kelly sees it on hers, and runs for the pavilion. She’s back with a new gauntlet at Jeff’s end of the list before Kelly’s even finished unbuckling the old one, and while Kelly straps the new one on, Abby pulls out the lance for the next pass, hands it to Jeff, no time to waste. I’m standing on the mounting box, tightening Michael’s left pauldron, it’s flapping on his shoulder and I know it’s leaving a welt under his padded jacket. His black hair catches in the buckle and he winces. I pull it out and keep working, never apologize, it wastes time.
“You should tie it back,” I say, jumping down to hand off the lance, knowing he’ll suffer pulled hair every time rather than lose the moment at the end of the show where he lifts off his helm and his hair falls down around his shoulders, sucking in as many phone numbers as dollar bills in the hat-pass at the end of the show.
Kirk has reached the end of how much he can stall with further discourse on chivalry and knighthood, and asks, “Be the noble knights prepar-ed?”.
Michael raises his lance. “Is that fucker ready?”
“Watch your mouth and yes,” I say, seeing Jeff’s lance point in the air. They turn. They charge. The horses lumber into a canter, a word too light for the movement of an eighteen-hand draft horse born for plowing and beer wagons. Cameras point for the impact. I am waiting to see if the lances break or if they will miss, which is one less lance to re-tip and repaint tomorrow. They hit. And as one lance splinters and the other one does not, I see the empty slot in the rack at the other end. The fourth slot.
* * *
I come to his trailer with a peace offering, two coffees, two cinnamon buns from the food booth that sells turkey legs to patrons the rest of the day but is Bernie’s Breakfast in the morning. Michael is setting out lances, newly spray-painted with barbershop stripes, two sets, red-and-blue and yellow-and-green.
“Here. Two sugars.” I pass him a cup and a bun. He sets them down and pulls out a spray can to do another lance. Never say sorry, never say thank you.
I only see ten lances. “Is that enough for two shows?” Abby always makes me ask, like I’m the deputy nag. I hate starting the day checking up on the guys. I hate checking up on Michael. He knows it.
“We’ll re-tip them in between. It’s not like we’re going to shatter more than two, right? Do the tape, ok?” Michael tosses a roll of wide masking tape at me, but my reflexes are slow and it hits me in the stomach, bouncing off my bodice. He makes a sound that might be a laugh except it’s not. “Rough night, huh?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I already know part one, so why not fill me in on the ending?” Anyone who wasn’t watching the paint can tremble would think he was joking, two friends teasing about what happened after the bar.
“Abby doesn’t want to have to re-tip. She wants you to make sixteen.”
“We’re not gonna use sixteen.”
“Then you won’t have to make as many tomorrow. Why don’t you do this shit during the week? You hate it so much, get it out of the way.”
He is not distracted. “What happened last night?”
“It’s none of your business, ok?”
“You’re always my business.”
I turn away and start taping off the spiral on an unpainted lance. “Anyone would think you were my boyfriend.”
“Don’t you want me to be?”
“You know, Michael,” and here I pause for effect or maybe because my brain is checking to see if I am actually going to say what I think I am going to say, “if you weren’t so fucking conceited, maybe you wouldn’t have to ask what happened last night. Maybe you would already know.”
He’s silent for a moment. I have gone too far, lost whatever is left. The next four weeks will be miserable, and I will have to ask Kelly to trade with me so I can do Jeff. Squire for Jeff.
But then Michael grins. “Okay, Okay, I probably deserved that.”
I am so relieved that things will not be awkward that I burst out laughing.
“Hey, smiling girl, I just got an idea,” and his grin is the up-to-something look that means someone will step in manure or lose their cool or have to hunt for their pants. “Help me get Jeff, okay?”
“I’m not messing with the show.”
He starts painting again, his eyes on the stripes. “If I get him good today, we’ll be tight again. C’mon, that’s how guys work. He’s all scared of me ‘cause he thinks I’m mad at him. I get him, he’ll know it’s over.”
“What are you going to do?”
Michael grabs a new lance and pulls on the balsa wood tip until it comes out of the metal sleeve that joins the tip to the pine body. “Hand me that short length of pine.”
I pick up the foot-long piece and give it to him.
He screws it tightly into the sleeve and the lance looks like all the others. “Gimme the tape.”
I pass it over and watch while he puts a little piece of tape under the cone-shaped steel handguard where it can’t be seen by anyone but a squire.
“Make sure this ends up in my fourth slot, ok?” Michael grins again, and I have visions of the PA system spouting Led Zeppelin, the stack of dollar bills at the end of the day vanishing and only being found after midnight in Abby’s left boot, the pennants unfurling to reveal ‘I SURRENDER’ written on Jeff’s. Michael sets the lance in the pile with the others. “Jeff won’t know what hit him. He bites the dust, I laugh, everything’s good.”
I look at him and want to believe. I already believe he’ll blow Jeff out with the rigged lance, Michael’s aim is good and the pine will deliver ten times the force of the balsa wood Jeff’s expecting.
“And then you and I are cool again, too.” He always knows the button to push.
“Okay. Fourth slot.”
Michael grins again, and I’m glad to be in on the joke. He takes up an armful of the now-dry lances for me, saving me a trip. We head for the pavilion, and he winks. “Don’t tell.”
* * *
The bar is hot and smoky and crowded and I have to work in six hours. That’s the shitty part of the fantasy. Sure, I get to wear a bodice that gives me boobs and a waist, and I hang out with knights in shining (or at least metal) armor, but I work at seven AM on weekends, so my only social life is with guys who are more interested in telling girls what they do for a living than they are in me.
“Jouster, buddy, you’re a jouster,” Michael hollers at Jeff over the band. “You see,” he confides to the girl they are both hitting on, “Knight is a title.” I’m tuning out. Jeff has been outflanked three times tonight, and keeping score no longer entertains me. As honorary baby sister, my main job is to make it clear I’m not ‘with’ them when the women arrive.
I realize Jeff is talking to me, Michael and the girl are nowhere to be seen, I mentally chalk up another one, more sad than annoyed.
“Do you want to go home?” Jeff actually looks concerned. They make good opponents, Jeff playing the blond, sweet hero, Michael with his angry handsomeness, black hair showing a black heart on the field.
I do want to go home. But I am under-aged, in by the grace of the cashier who’s sweet on Jeff, so I’m also the driver. “We’ll strand Michael.”
“Come on – give him another few minutes.” I’m tired and I can’t resist. “After all, that’s all it’ll take.”
“Whoaaa!” And Jeff laughs hard enough that I know he’s going to rag Michael about it, and I’m sleepy enough not to care.
By the time we extract Michael from the tiny unisex bathroom, where he was mercifully alone, and pile him into the backseat, he has become Two-Minute-Michael, and when he finally tells Jeff to shut up, Jeff sticks me right in the middle of it, saying, “Hey man, she came up with it, and she’d know, right?” Even then, I think it would have been forgotten in the wake of the morning hangover if Michael hadn’t come to Jeff’s trailer for some toilet paper at six AM, me curled in the sheets, semi-conscious of his look, realizing later that my skirt was on the steps and my panties on the floor.
“Never mind,” he said, and left fast enough to be gone by the time Jeff came back down the six-foot hallway with an extra roll.
* * *
My car can’t keep pace with the helicopter, of course, and he is in surgery when I arrive at the hospital. I sit in the waiting room and drink lukewarm coffee while the patients change around me. Broken arm, jellyfish sting, dog bite. Chin busted open on sidewalk while roller-blading. Black eye and cut lip on a woman whom the desk nurse has seen before. Broken ankle. They stagger or are wheeled past me in varying degrees of wrecked until someone in white scrubs with a pattern of fruit on them takes pity on me and puts me in an empty room.
Eventually, the sun woke me to a room bathed in light, and for a moment I thought, sixteen more lances, coffee and buns, seven AM call, first show at noon. And then the hard arm of the chair reminded me where I was, and he was lying on his back on the bed in front of me. I called his name, and he sat up and turned his face to me, the terrible jagged piece staring from one eye, and said, “You should have told.”
The nurse touches my arm to wake me, and I realize that I am alone.
“What time is it?”
“It’s three AM, honey.” The nurse is calm. She asks if I am a relative, and I say that I am his sister so that I can see him. “Your parents are on their way,” she says, and for a moment I am deeply confused even though I have only just claimed them as mine, too. “Would you like to see him?”
“No, he’s not.”
“Is he—” Just like the cliché, I cannot complete the question.
“He has a heartbeat. He does not have brain function.” Her voice is coming from a great distance. I am back at the pavilion this morning, wondering why, if this is a joke, the pine is already painted and already the right length and sitting right there, waiting for its chance. I am wondering why it mattered, why a moment of name-calling would make him risk breaking Jeff’s collarbone yet again. I am back at the helicopter, kneeling over him. I am back in his trailer, kneeling over him, hearing him tell me that he loves me, hearing him tell me that he wants me to stay. I am getting up and putting on my skirt to go to the bar, I am telling him, I don’t believe you, tell me again when we come home, come home with me, and then I will. I am seeing him drunk and asleep in the back of the car. Jeff is telling me, ‘you don’t want to sleep with vomit, right?’ I am in Jeff’s trailer, I am in Jeff’s bed. I am tired, too tired to resist what doesn’t really matter, too tired to remember how glad I am to love Michael.
The nurse shuts the door behind me, to “give you some privacy, if you want.”
He lies on his back on the bed, IVs in his arms, ventilator tube taped to his mouth, head swathed in white gauze, only the smooth skin of his cheeks and chin and his right eye visible. His eyelashes are long and dark, like his hair. I stand by the bed and place my hand on his shoulder, the welt where the pauldron bit him still red and warm under my hand. There is a red burn line on the side of his neck, they had to cut the helm off him, I think.
I want to tell him something that makes the story come out okay. Something that will show how much I’ve learned, that I’ve become a better person, that the joke has a cosmic punchline. But there is nothing left in my head, nothing clever or even sincere. So I hold Michael’s hand the way I always wanted to, and I imagine that he’s holding mine.
* * *
whipchick squired for three years; this fiction is based on a true story.