This week's Random Read is a chapter from my first book, Dream in Color.
The diner was a single building in the middle of an abandoned cornfield. A rusty bell jangled as they pushed the creaky door open. Somewhere an air conditioner rattled in protest.
“Evenin’ folks,” a waitress with a complexion that matched that of the scarred Formica tables greeted them from her post at the counter. “Just sit any place.”
“Thanks.” Jesse slid into a booth seat facing away from the door. “I’ve been here a couple of times since we got to town. It’s nice because that waitress doesn’t care if you’re a prince or a beggar as long as you don’t make any noise and your money is good.”
“What, no star treatment here?”
“Get ready for a little image shattering.” He flashed a weary smile before lifting a menu.
“What’ll it be?” The waitress didn’t stir from her seat, but she did stub out her cigarette.
“I’ll have a root beer.” Jesse folded the menu and pushed it to the end of the table.
The waitress lit another cigarette before glaring at Ramona. “And you?”
“Oh, um, a root beer sounds good.” Ramona, in spite of the fact that she still felt resentment at his rude behavior, stifled a giggle behind her hand.
“What’s so funny?”
She pursed her lips and tried to hold the giddy tone out of her voice. “Root beer is my favorite.”
Jesse rolled his eyes. “This isn’t going to be one of those deals where everything I like is your favorite, is it? I hope not.”
Considering what an ass you’re being right now, I’d have to say no. Ramona gave him a forced half smile. “I don’t think so. Why?”
This time his smile was warm and utterly disarming. “Because you seem like a much more interesting person. I would hate to find out we’re clones. I mean, I already know about me.”
Ramona swallowed hard and tried to ignore the fact that her face was very warm. “I-uh, thank you. Or, I mean, I don’t think I’m your clone.”
Jesse’s smile widened to a full out grin. “Yep, you’re way more interesting than most.”
The waitress waddled to their table and set two yellow plastic glasses overflowing with foamy root beer in front of them. “Anything else?”
“No, we’re good.” Jesse’s eye twitched in something like a wink. The simple act melted the last of Ramona’s resentment but did little to change the older woman’s countenance.
Ramona took a look at him in the blue white light of the diner. There were dark shadows under his eyes and gray in his hair she never noticed before. There was something comforting, and comfortable, about the weary lines in his relaxed face. He looks like a real person.
“Ramona Simms from Cobia. How’s your backstage experience so far?” He handed her a paper wrapped straw.
“We started off a bit rocky, but it’s looking up.” She took the straw.
“Good to know. Now, about that whole web site thing. I think I should explain something.”
“Look, if you’re going to tell me that you didn’t actually send all those emails, I’ve figured that out already.” She stopped short and lowered her head. “Maybe you shouldn’t let just anyone use your name. People’s feelings can get hurt, you know.”
His smile warmed her. “I know that. I didn’t want the blasted thing in the first place. My manager, Stan, decided a year ago that I needed to come out of retirement. He’s the one who set up the site. There were a lot of hits on it, and everyone got all excited. Started telling me that people wanted a greatest hits album. I agreed to do it, but that wasn’t enough. They started putting together this tour.” He looked at her and smiled again. “You don’t seem at all mentally deficient.”
Ramona stopped stirring her root beer and stared at him. “For the record, that’s not what we Midwestern girls consider a compliment. Not even the slow ones.”
“I deserved that, didn’t I? Okay, I’ll behave now. But you have to admit something about the internet. There are a lot of people out there who are really scary. You wouldn’t believe some of the messages these women send me. It’s like once they’re at their computers, all sense of etiquette goes right out the window.” He stretched his arms over his head. “Although I’m not much better face to face, am I?”
The mischievous twinkle in his eye made her heart flutter, as she gave him a shy smile. “You weren’t so bad.” She reached for a napkin the same time he did, and their hands brushed against each other.
“Are you cold?” He closed his hand over hers.
Ramona couldn’t jerk her hand away fast enough. “No.”
“Your hand is shaking.”
“Maybe I’m a little nervous.” She unfolded the napkin in her lap, unwilling to let him see the blush warming her face. “I know it’s silly, but I’ve waited a long time to meet you, Mr. Alexander.”
“I always insist that anyone I’ve kidnapped and forced into drinking root beer with me calls me Jesse.”
“Okay. Jesse.” She swallowed hard, trying to gulp down an unattractive case of the giggles.
“So you’re nervous. At least you’re not starry-eyed, which is refreshing. There are an awful lot of starry-eyed women out there. You have no idea.”
“Oh, I think I might.” She looked up at him and let out a small laugh. “I think I was pretty starry-eyed when I first started out on this tour.”
“We were all younger then.” Jesse drained the last of his root beer and leaned back against the plastic booth. “You’ve been at all the concerts?”
“So you’re stalking me.” The corners of his mouth turned upward. “Why’d you lose your job?”
“The part about going to all the concerts? Yeah, my boss sort of looked down on the idea.” Feeling comfortable under a cover of humor, Ramona leaned forward and studied his eyes. All the pictures, all the posters she had, all the record covers didn’t quite capture the look she saw. There were miles in those eyes, years of weary miles.
“There’s more to it than that, isn’t there? Come on; tell me there’s a good story.”
She laughed and leaned away from him, against the sticky vinyl seat. “I’d rather not say. There’s no way I can tell you the story without sounding pathetic.”
He reached out and took her hand in his, the small pressure electrifying her fingers. “Why don’t you let me be the judge of that?”
His touch gave her courage, and she told him everything. She watched his face as she spoke, searching for traces of contempt, but she saw none. She finished the tale and waited for his response.
He seemed to ponder his thoughts carefully, toying with his straw a bit before speaking. “You named your dog Leo?”
“Promise you won’t laugh at me?”
“I haven’t yet.”
“Yeah, that’s the only place you could get ‘Leo’.”
“I must’ve listened to it a hundred times that night. You know how you hear something, a phrase or a note or something, and it changes your life?”
“I’m familiar with that concept.” Jesse shifted in his seat so the waitress could refill his glass.
Ramona waited until the woman moved away. “Well, that’s how it was for me. I heard that song and all of a sudden I thought that you were talking to me.” She covered her face with her hands. “I sound insane.”
He took her hands in his and looked into her face. “Keep talking.”
“Well, that was what, ten years ago? Then my parents got this butt ugly puppy they insisted on calling Buster. I moved back home for a while, and when I moved out I felt sorry for him, so I took him with me. I sort of just started calling him Leo. I don’t think a week has gone by that I haven’t listened to that song.”
Jesse sat back in the booth. Gone was the warm look, the smiling eyes. His jaw was set and he looked angry. He tapped his fingers on the cracked Formica and said nothing.
Ramona didn’t miss the change in his demeanor. “I’m sorry. I tend to talk too much sometimes.”
Jesse rubbed his hands over his face. His countenance changed again. Now he looked more worn, wearier than Ramona believed possible. “It’s not your fault. You have no way of knowing how much I hate that song.”
She couldn’t help herself. “But it’s your best song. Why would you hate it?” She wanted to swallow the words the second they came out of her mouth.
Jesse twirled the melting ice in his glass with a straw. “I hate it because I wrote it for my wife.”
His wife. The words silenced everything around them. Gone were the whine of the air conditioner and the waitress’s asthmatic cough. His last two words echoed over and over in her mind like a record stuck in a groove. Her vision blurred and white noise filled her head.
“Hey, wait. Are you okay?” His voice sounded far away, but his hand was firm on her shoulder. Ramona blinked away the fuzzy lights and focused on his concerned face. “Ramona? Are you okay?”
“Your wife?” Her voice was raspy and faint.
“Good, you’re focused on the high points.” He gave her quick pat on the shoulder and an ironic grin. “Yeah, wife. Little woman, ball and chain. Take your pick.”
“So you’re married.” She reached shaky hand toward her glass and held the straw between her lips like a lifeline.
“No. Well, not anymore. We didn’t last too long after ‘Leo’ was written. Oddly enough, the little woman didn’t take it well when she heard it, you know? Funny how that worked out.”
Ramona let go of her death grip on the straw. “Were you married long?”
“Pretty long. Long enough to tear each other apart. I guess about six, maybe seven years. We hooked up the year ‘Open Windows’ hit.”
Ramona leaned back and did the math in her head. “You got married when you were eighteen?”
“Not exactly.” He shifted; something akin to discomfort crossed his face. “This may call for another round.” He waved at the waitress who brought two more sticky glasses of root beer without comment. “It’s like this, the music business, especially when I got started, well, it’s like this other universe where everything is smoke and mirrors and illusion. I’d been making music for years, and then all of a sudden I get this one song, this insane hit and my whole world goes upside down. I was almost thirty when ‘Open Window’ came out.”
“But, but the magazines said-”
“They said I was a barely legal wonder right? And you were what, like fifteen?”
He shook his head. “Got you young, didn’t I? So, when you were twelve and reading those teen magazines, is there any chance you’d get all dreamy about some guy who was more than double your age?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “The record guys didn’t think so. I looked young, I appealed to young ladies like you, so they chopped a bunch of years off my age.”
“So you’re not forty-two?”
“Try adding another decade, give or take a few months.”
“Okay. Wow.” Ramona kept her eyes frozen on the melting ice in her root beer. Fifty-two is almost my parents’ age. She blinked and stayed zeroed in on the ice. Fifty-two. But...she stole a glance at him. But does it really matter after all?
Jesse rubbed his face in his hands again and nodded at her reaction. “Yeah, I get that a lot. But think about it. Here I was, this guy with a wife posing as a kid star. The wife got pushed way, way back in a corner. I mean way back.”
“Is that why you got divorced?”
“No.” Jesse took a long draw on the root beer and stretched his long legs out on the booth seat, resting his feet next to her hip. “What broke us up was the fact that she would never be, could never be first in my life. Music was too important. Check that. Being big was too important. I was so busy being Jesse Alexander, superstar, everything else went out the window.”
“She didn’t like the superstar part?”
“You want the truth?” He stared at the ceiling.
Ramona looked around the room. She seriously doubted that anything he could say to her in these surroundings would surprise her. “Of course.”
“She didn’t like that I liked it. I mean, the fan worship, the girls.” He closed his eyes. “The girls.” A slight shudder ran through him and he looked back at her. “It wasn’t just the wife. The industry, the real musicians, turned on me. It was all part of being in the machine; others would try to discredit me. My whole life I’m this really well respected, but totally unknown studio musician. And then ‘Open Windows’ hits and people I thought were my friends won’t touch me because I’m making teenybopper music. And slime balls that shouldn’t be my friends are crawling all over me to get a piece of the pie. For a while I couldn’t stop believing my own press, and the marriage died. And then I killed my career.”
Ramona tried to digest the information he gave her, but there was too much of a contrast between the youthful, wild rocker she’d worshipped her whole life and the earnest, soft-spoken older man sharing a root beer with her. “You never wanted to be famous?”
“Everyone wants to be famous. But those years I was this big name, I lost everything that meant anything. At the end, when things started to slow down, I realized it was too late to fix any of it.”
“I retired. When ‘Closer to Earth’ barely made gold status, I told my manager that I was done. I’d gone through too many years of the insanity. I was cooked. So I dropped out of the spotlight.”
“Until the web site showed up a few months ago.”
“That stupid web site. It all started when some low budget movie used ‘Open Windows’ on their soundtrack. I had to do a red carpet thing at the premier of the movie. Okay, that was fun.” He grinned and gave his root beer a stir. “Then there’s this revival of my music and all of a sudden I’m doing a forty-city tour in the Midwest during the hottest summer on record.” He set his glass down on the sticky table. “And now I feel like a total jerk because I’m sitting here, telling you the whole dirty truth. Have I succeeded in shattering your world?”
Ramona swirled her straw in the watery remnants of the root beer and melted ice. “Three months ago, I’d have said yes.”
“Now, oddly enough, it’s fine.” She let the straw rest in her glass and realized that every word she spoke was true. His real life didn’t affect how she felt one iota.
“So the fact that I’m divorced, old, and grumpy, that’s not ruining your impression of me?”
“Actually, it makes you better. You’re a real person now. Not just some rock god on a stage.”
“Egads, woman, don’t let that get out!” He drained the last swallow from his glass. “You know, I just always was afraid that a lot of my fans, you know the ones that hung on all these years, that they’d be really obsessed and-”
“Yeah, freaks. That internet thing, it’s a haven for an awful lot of bizarre behavior. I mean, I knew this one actor who was married, but kept it a secret, until it came out on a web site dedicated to him. And then his management company started getting these really wild letters and death threats for his wife. Who needs that?”
Ramona leaned forward, eager to defend herself and her fellow fans. “Yeah, a lot of us seem to fit this profile. We’re single, past thirty, and dealing with a raft of problems of our own, but you know what? We’re all, well, most of us, deep down, just good-hearted people who are interested in someone we grew up with and still haven’t forgotten. I mean, the music business might be fickle. Hollywood might be fickle. But those of us who are real fans, we aren’t fickle at all. We never forget our first love or our first heartbreak. Your music takes us back to all the good times and the bad times and all the nights we sat up listening to you sing about love and loneliness and how we said, ‘That’s exactly how I feel about it!’ Just because we’re older, just because we maybe have kids and jobs and a real life, hey, we still feel all those same feelings. We still feel lost, lonely. Probably more often than we did when we were kids. So we come back to what got us through when we were younger. And that’s your music, Jesse. That’s your poetry that keeps going on no matter what you do in your real life. Those songs are frozen in time.” She stopped and realized she’d been talking without stopping for several minutes. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to prattle on like that.”
“No, it’s okay. It‘s stuff I need to know.”
“Really.” His dark eyes warmed in a smile and he put his hand on hers again. “For the last ten years I’ve been hiding in myself. I’ve been writing, wondering what the point is because no one will ever want what I’m writing. And then I go out on this ridiculous tour, and there’s all these people going crazy, and not just older fans, but kids, and I think, ‘Wow, this can’t just be for me, right?’ It gives me a little hope that maybe I’ll get out there again for real.”
“Then you meet the fans one on one and it all falls apart, right?”
“Up and down. The one at the last show was the capper. She was this huge woman, had like six kids, and informed me that she was going to marry me and rock my world. I mean, who in their right mind believes that crap is going to happen?”
“Well…” Ramona hid her face behind her hands.
Jesse looked at her, surprised. “No. Not you! Ramona Simms, say it ain’t so!”
She blushed and studied the scars on the table closely. “Well, it’s not like I have six kids or anything.”
He cocked his head to one side, much like Leo always did when she said something particularly stupid. “But you were hoping...”
She tried to laugh and lighten the mood. “It’s not like I’m going to stalk you in the night or anything. It was more...I don’t know, more like we’d meet and you’d tell me you’d been waiting for me your whole life.”
“Like some fairy tale. The Princess and Prince Charming ride off into the sunset.”
Cynthiella with no fella...“Sure, why not?” She met his gaze and dropped her eyes immediately. “I’m really hoping you don’t think I’m a freak at this point.”
“On the contrary.” He leaned back and tapped his fingers on the table. “I have to say, this is a most enlightening conversation.” He pulled a straw out of the dispenser and played with it for a moment. “Ramona Simms. You have a middle name?”
Ramona braced herself. “Ramona is my middle name.”
“I’m guessing you aren’t crazy about your first name?”
She grimaced. “You could say that.”
“My sympathies. See, I’m working on a theory about middle names. Middle names are where parents begin screwing up their kids. In your case, your parents are obviously a bit more…theatrical.”
“Theatrical, no. Really not well read, yes.” She swirled her glass. “And we can leave it at that.”
He nodded, seemingly satisfied. “So, Miss Ramona Simms from Cobia, Wisconsin, tell me something.”
“What do you want to know?”
He arched and eyebrow at her. “Don‘t sound so casual. You may not want to answer this question.”
She took a last drag on her straw and pushed the glass away. “Well, I’ve told you about my pathetic life and you haven’t run screaming into the night.” And you haven’t begged me for my real name. “So what could you possibly want to know that I wouldn’t tell you?”
“This is something I’ve always kinda wanted to ask women when I meet them and they seem so sure they’re my destiny.” He swirled the last bit of root beer in his glass and studied the bubbles for a moment. “But I’ve never had enough interest in any of them to really care until now.” He looked up at her from beneath the fringe of his hair. “Does that work as a compliment here in the Midwest?”
Ramona felt no self-consciousness as she grinned at him. “Yes, that does just fine. So ask your question now that you’re being all charming.”
“What would you have said to me back there at the fairgrounds to make me think you were the person I’ve been waiting for all these years? What were your magic words?”
Her grin faded, replaced with a furious blush. “Umm, no. Let’s discuss something else.”
“No, really, I’d like to know.” He put down the straw. “It’s weird, but suddenly I have this feeling like maybe all those women I’ve met on the road were right. Maybe I’m waiting for the right words from the right person.” He ran his hand through his hair, brushing it away from his face. “And I’d hate to miss an opportunity like this with someone as interesting as you.” There was no hint of mockery on his face.
She shook her head. “Honestly I don’t think I had anything really worked out to say to you.” Liar, liar, pants on fire. “I was going for the sudden glance across a crowded room scenario.”
“Well, that is a classic, I’ll give you points for staying with what works.”
“Besides, I don’t exactly fit into fairy tale material anymore.” She tried to fill the empty space with a short laugh.
“You shouldn’t sell yourself short.” His smile held an unmistakable glimmer of promise. “We have all the makings of a real Brothers Grimm classic. A carriage, a beautiful night, a dashing prince, and this,” here he stretched out his arms as if to pull the whole diner closer to them, “this amazing palace.”
Ramona laughed at the comical look on his face, but she wasn’t going to fall into his teasing. “You know I’m right. I’m just a regular person from a regular town, I’m not some supermodel. And you, you’re...well, you.” She shrugged. “Even grumpy, you’re still Jesse Alexander.”
He folded and unfolded his hands on the table. “Supermodels. Geez, we rock stars do have a lot to live up to. You know how many supermodels I’ve been with?”
“No, but feel free to tell me.”
“Zero. And that goes for actresses, politicians, and talk show hosts. Hell, my ex was a waitress at the diner across the street from my record company. I’ve always been more attracted to regular women. That’s one thing I wish people...people like you…would get about me.”
Ramona’s heart did a little flip-flop at his words. Maybe he was a little older, and maybe he hadn’t been languishing in love for her all these years. Still, there was a look in his eye that mirrored her longing for something.
“Hey, folks, we’re closing, so it’s time to leave.” The waitress grabbed the glasses and tossed the bill on the table without looking at either one of them.
Jesse looked at his watch and grinned. “It’s pretty late, Cinderella.”
Ramona bit her lip at the memory of the old childhood taunt, but knew Jesse meant nothing. “Oh, that’s more than okay, believe me.” She stood up and rolled her cramped ankles around. “But I’ve taken enough of your time.”
He stood as well, stretched his arms over his head, and nodded toward the restrooms. “I’m gonna make a stop before we go back, okay?”
Ramona tried not to stare as he headed for the rest room. His sense of ease around her unsettled her almost as much as the fine, fine shape of his butt. She checked her watch and made her way to the ladies room.