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Searching for Spider Lee - by Deborah M. Nigro

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     Heather O'Neill wasn't prepared for the sultry heat of a South Carolina August. She was thirsty, sweating and lost. The needle on the fuel gauge of her rented compact car was nudging 'empty.'
     On a whim, she'd headed for this remote county, searching for a country music legend known only as 'Spider Lee.' His songs had been recorded by rock bands from Los Angeles to London, but the reclusive artist himself hadn't been seen for years.
     Heather slowed her car to a crawl. The leaves on the moss-covered trees barely rustled in the dead, humid air. Was that a crossroads up ahead? She glanced nervously at the fuel gauge. A crossroads meant a gas station - maybe. And, just maybe, somebody there would know about Spider Lee.
     She stopped at a gleaming gas pump beside a rambling wooden building. No attendant appeared. She hopped out of the car to peer into the open door. Inside was a general store packed with everything from candy bars to motor oil to whisk brooms, but not a soul was in sight.
     Then she heard the soft strumming of a guitar coming from some- where behind the store. A fine male baritone began singing a bitter- sweet country tune. Heather paused, listening intently. With his intricate guitar work and poignant voice, the invisible performer might almost have been Spider Lee himself.
     Feeling strangely breathless, she followed a neat flagstone path to the rear of the building. Hunched over a guitar on a wicker porch swing was a young man with unruly chestnut hair. Without thinking, Heather burst into applause.
     Startled, his head snapped toward her, his pale blue eyes narrowing. "Excuse me, I didn't mean to sneak up on you," she said. "I-I just needed some gas."
     He laid his guitar down on the swing and rose to his feet. He was taller than he'd looked sitting down, his body solid and strong. "Sorry, I didn't hear anyone drive up," he said.
     "That's okay. It gave me a chance to hear you play. There's some- thing familiar about your song"...
     "Familiar? It's only down-home music, you know. I'll pump that gas for you now."
     A few minutes later, Heather joined him inside the stuffy general store to pay for the fuel. Was it only her imagination, or did he hold onto her hand a moment longer than necessary when she handed him her credit card?
     "Hot, isn't it?" he said, reaching into a cooler for a can of orange soda. He popped the top before handing it to Heather. "Have a soft drink. It's on the house. Where are you from, anyway?"
     "Providence, Rhode Island. I'm attending a music educators' conference in Charleston."
     "So you teach music?"
     She took a grateful swallow of the icy cold soda. "I'm a music therapy specialist. My students have learning disabilities."
     He crossed his arms over his broad chest. "I'll bet you're looking for a character called 'Spider Lee'," he said.
     She gaped at him. "How did?"...
     He shrugged. "It's easy enough to figure out. When visitors come through here, chances are they're looking for old Spider. Trouble is, there is no Spider Lee."
     "No?...but that's impossible! The whole world sings his songs!"
     "You mean those freak bands leaping around in tattoos and nose rings? If there ever were a Spider Lee, he'd be heartbroken if he knew what those trash acts have done to his music."
     The young man's resentment didn't surprise Heather. "I know how you feel. I grew up on Spider's original songs, not the punk versions. My students love Spider. Of course, it's far-fetched, but I was hoping to find him."
     His expression softened. "Look, you've come a long way on this wild goose chase and it's getting late. I'll close up and take you to the county courthouse. You'll see for yourself there's no Spider Lee." He fished a set of keys from the pocket of his jeans, took her arm, and led her toward the door. "By the way, my name's Joe Brogan."
     "And I'm"...
     "Heather O'Neill. It's on your credit card." He smiled. "Okay, Heather, let's go."
     Joe Brogan was as good as his word. Speeding into town in his handsome silver SUV, she told him what little she'd learned about Spider's life and career. The clerks at the white clapboard court- house were polite and helpful, but they could supply only one clue.
     At a cozy barbecue restaurant, Joe bought her a supper of succulent pork ribs and sweet corn drenched in butter. The court- house clerks had given her a blurry snapshot of an elderly man in a rumpled baseball cap. She sipped a tall glass of iced tea while staring at the picture. "What do you think, Joe? Could this be Spider?"
     He wiped his buttery hands on a paper napkin. Their fingertips touched as he took the snapshot from her, sending a pleasant tingle down her spine. "It's not much to go on," he said, shaking his head. "Why are you so eager to find Spider, anyway?"
     For an instant, her hazel eyes met his. He smiled. Taken aback, she looked quickly away. "They say Spider loved working with young people," she said. "I hoped he might be willing to perform for our school's music festival. My disabled students really opened up when I started teaching them Spider's songs. Now they're performing for senior centers, civic groups and even on local radio. Spider has changed their lives."
     "Sounds like you're the one who changed their lives," Joe said.
     Heather was touched by his compliment. "Thank you, Joe. What a nice thing to say. But I do owe a lot to Spider Lee."
     Joe nodded his understanding, but remained quiet during the rest of the meal and hardly spoke in the SUV on the way back to his store. Heather studied his thoughtful profile as they rode along. He didn't believe in the legend of Spider Lee, yet he'd gone out of his way to help in her search. No, she didn't find the fabled songwriter, but it had been a memorable afternoon all the same, and Joe Brogan was the reason for it.
     "You know something, Joe, you sound so much like Spider Lee when you sing. You're a heck of a musician," she blurted out as he turned into the gravel driveway of the general store.
     He braked to a stop and grinned. "I'm sorry you didn't find the old guy," Joe said, "but you did discover that beat-up snapshot. It could be he came from this county, after all. He certainly played guitar and sang in our local style."
     "I let my students down. I shouldn't have told them I was coming here to ask him to sing at our festival. Talk about getting carried away, huh?"
     Joe turned in his seat and looked at her. "Heather, maybe it's time I took my own music on the road," he said. "You say my songs are a lot like Spider's. Why don't I come to Providence to play for your festival? The kids would hear our real local music, not that phoney punk stuff."
     Heather grabbed his big, sunburned hand, her face glowing with excitement. "Could you do that, Joe? The kids would love it and I'd be so grateful! We can't pay you anything except your travel expenses"...
     "Oh, I'm not looking for money," Joe whispered, leaning close enough for Heather to feel his breath feathering her cheek and smell the faint musky scent that clung to his skin.
     Still holding Joe's hand, Heather's eyes met his as they'd done in the restaurant a hour before. Only this time, she didn't look away.

Deborah M. Nigro