The summer Tabby is nineteen and tired of being the girl whose college instructors forget her name, she spots an ad for mascot tryouts in the community college newspaper and finds herself at the audition doing cartwheels and strutting like Yosemite Sam in front of a scowling cheerleading coach and her squad. She gets the job, savors a rare instance of being handpicked, and prepares to become Valo the Vaquero—actually one of three Valos who rotate, costumed in chaps and giant cowboy hat, thick handlebar mustache, bushy unibrow and jutting cleft chin.
When her father finds out, he drags her to the shed and sifts through a box for spurs from his bull riding days.
“I don’t need those,” she says, batting at the swirling dust. “My costume came with spurs.”
“But mine will be authentic—I wore them to ride Maverick Mudslinger when I was your age. So, when can I come watch you?”
She rolls her eyes, her heart racing. “There’s nothing to see.” She hangs out the shed door to suck in slightly less stifling air and watches a dust devil whip through the neighbor’s field of creosote bush. “I’ll just be entertaining little kids. You don’t want to watch me babysit.”
He pulls a worn spur out of the box, flakes of ancient manure floating onto his shirt, and grins. “I want to see my little spitfire wowing the crowd.”
On the first day of practice, the cheerleading coach paces in front of the three Vaqueros and says, “The most important thing is never to break character.” She pauses in front of Tabby. “When you aren’t performing with the cheerleaders or setting up for a contest or entertaining crying babies, you don’t just sit on your chaps. You strut through the stands, or practice with your lasso, or rubberneck pretty ladies. You think cheerleaders get tired? You don’t know tired until you are the Vaquero.”
Tabby discovers, slipping into canvas pants and buttery chaps, that maybe she has always been a vaquero and didn’t know it—maybe she just needed a mask. She revels in the humid sweat trapped in her big plastic man-face, accepting the inevitable acne and sore shoulders as she lassoes child after child to reel them in for hugs and photos. Between innings, she sprints onto the field to host contests where women race to rope their partners and children hop to the finish line in gunnysacks. Someone tells her she is the liveliest mascot they’ve seen, and she tucks her thumbs into her belt loops and kicks the ground with a pointed boot.
Her father is relentless: he wants to see her perform. When can he see her perform?
“Fine,” she says, but she knows that if he is watching, this character who is not her but who is her and who can only be her when no one knows who she really is, will seem transparent, inconsistent, unbelievable. She sends her parents to a game on her night off, and while her plan is to hide in the library and meet them outside afterward, she can’t resist sneaking in to watch them watch her.
She sits near third base and spots them behind home plate, her mother curled like a shrimp against her father, her father looking chunky rather than burly, middle-aged. His teeth flash as Valo struts nearby—tonight a muscled, acrobatic girl named Holly. She doesn’t interact with spectators as much as Tabby, but she does great round offs and handsprings during the seventh-inning stretch, which Tabby now realizes may seem more than a little surprising to her parents.
As ballplayers take the field, her father catches the Vaquero’s attention and spins an imaginary rope above his head. She lets him reel her in, but after posing for a snapshot, she moves on, though he continues to wave and holler. It reminds Tabby of when she was little and would look out at the audience during school plays to see those beaming teeth, his sparkling eyes waiting for recognition. No matter how well she’d done in rehearsals, she’d inevitably break character to give him a smile or wave. This Valo, though, gives no nod or knowing signal, and instead starts to ignore the fanatic in the stands.
When, after the fifth inning, the Vaquero doesn’t launch a t-shirt his way, her father struts down the steps and snatches one from the bag at her side, smiling red-faced at the crowd. Holly storms to security with a confidence Tabby could never muster. It is then that Tabby sees him realize, as he buries his teeth behind his lips, grabs her mother by the arm and leaves.
After spending most of the night in the library, Tabby tiptoes home and waits for morning, which finds him splayed beneath his truck, banging on something with the head of a screwdriver and cussing over the wail of a country song. She twists her early shadow and clears her throat until he scoots out and flatly asks what she wants. When she opens her mouth to spill the truth, to reveal how deep her cowardice actually runs, their eyes meet and what comes out instead is, “Why do you always have to embarrass me?” and once it is in the air she realizes this is also true, and that no matter how things might have gone at the game, the night would have ended the same.
He says nothing and glides back under the truck, where he will pretty much remain for the rest of summer. In less than a year, he will be dead, his head smashed at work by a truck a lot like this one, and while their relationship will have been mostly patched up, for a long time this is the memory that will wake her: him flashing those little white teeth and waving, waving, waving at a girl he adored who neither could admit wasn’t her.