Hello Friends! Last week I gave you a taste of my first novel, Dream in Color. I figured, it was only fair to sort of start you at the beginning this week...so here it is: Chapter one. Enjoy!
“Good morning beautiful, beautiful, Ramona.”
Ramona keeps her eyes closed. This is her favorite part of the day, when Jesse wakes her. She curls her toes between the satin sheets and waits for him to touch her.
“I brought you something special this morning.”
Eyes still closed, Ramona stretches her arms over her head and sinks deeper into the pile of goose down pillows. “What did you bring me?”
“See if you can tell.” He passes something beneath her nose. Ramona closes her eyes tightly, fighting the urge to peak and ruin the surprise. No easy feat, because she loves Jesse’s cooking and something smells too tempting to resist. He hasn’t touched her, but it’s all part of their ritual, a ritual they’d started the first morning after they were married.
“Not even close.”
She sniffs a little. “I don’t know. Bring it closer.”
“I’ll give you a hint. It’s always been your favorite.”
The smell grows stronger and Ramona lets herself sink into the lazy loveliness of it all. Jesse waves the plate of wonderful smells closer now, and something wet touches her cheek.
“I’m not sure, Jesse. What is it?”
Ramona Simms snapped one eye open and then another. Gone was Jesse Alexander, former teen pop star, her Prince Charming, her ultimate dream date. In his place was Leo, her eleven-year-old poodle/bulldog mutt, licking her face as the clock radio blared the morning weather report and, worst of all, the time. She squinted at the blurry red numbers while slapping her hand on the nightstand vainly searching for her glasses. The numbers on the clock confirmed her worst fears.
“Shit!” She flung back the tattered quilt on her bed, shoving Leo off her in the process. “Leo, I’m late, again! Celia’s going to be seriously pissed this time!” She staggered to the kitchen and let Leo out the back door.
Her next stop was the bathroom, where she evaluated her reflection in the mirror. “Aren’t I a vision?” She yanked three silvery strands of hair away from her shoulder length brunette locks. “It may be time for hair color. Unless I can pass these off as blonde highlights?” Grinning at the thought, Ramona jerked a brush through her hair and brushed her teeth. “That’s going to have to do this morning.” She gave the air a sniff. “Eww. Deodorant isn’t going to be enough today. Must have perfume!”
She rummaged in the vanity drawer in vain for something resembling perfume. “Oh screw it!” She ran back to her bedroom and dragged the first dress that came to her hand out of the closet.
Simultaneously kicking off her ratty sweat shorts and pulling on a blue dress that hadn’t been in style for more than ten years, and hadn’t fit her properly in five, Ramona caught a glance of herself in the full-length mirror. “Cellulite. Never leave home without it.” She flung the shorts off the end of her toes and flung her hair out of her eyes. “Well, there’s not much I can do about that now, is there? I’m over thirty-five, I’m overweight, and I’m going to be over late if I don’t get a move on.” She gave her control top pantyhose a short, ferocious yank and let the skirt drop past her waist. It got stuck around her hips, of course. Ramona wiggled her size sixteen rear at the mirror and the skirt fell into place.
She stomped through the living room back into the kitchen and jerked open the door. Leo skittered in, shaking snowflakes off his curly brown coat. “Leo, I gotta run. You sure you’re done outside?” She gave her dog a stern look. “I don’t want the house stinking when I get home.”
Leo, named after Ramona’s favorite Jesse Alexander song, gave her a solemn, brown-eyed look that melted her heart every time. As much as the furry, lumpy dog’s furious flatulence annoyed her, she adored him. He was really her one true love, farts and all.
“I’m going to Mom’s for dinner tonight.” Ramona smiled when Leo licked his nose with his ample tongue and whined. “So you won’t be coming with me?” Ramona rubbed Leo’s broad head, setting in motion several rolls of fur-covered skin. “Be good.”
She grabbed her coat and boots out of the front closet, and paused, as she did every day, in front of the autographed picture sitting on the piano. “Well Jesse, I’m off for another glamorous day at work.” She touched the smiling face with her index finger. “Unless you’re standing next to my car, in which case I’ll be jetting off someplace with you.”
One last touch to the picture and she whipped through the kitchen, grabbing the keys that hung on the hook next to the door. Jesse Alexander was not standing in her driveway, so, resigned to another day of life as a normal person, Ramona slammed the rusty door of her longsuffering Ford Tempo and turned up the car stereo, the first strains of “Leo” crackling out of the protesting speakers as the windshield wipers creaked in protest against the blustery, snow-laden wind.
As she drove slowly on the tree-lined roads of Cobia, Wisconsin, Ramona reminded herself that the town itself wasn’t so bad. What started out as a booming submarine-building city on Lake Michigan during World War II mellowed nicely into a collection of thirty-thousand souls, all fighting the inevitable march towards becoming a sleepy tourist town for harried executives from Chicago. Forever frozen in the 1940’s, downtown Cobia looked more like a movie set and less like place where actual people lived real lives every day. Maybe because of the aura of the past that clung to Cobia, the whole town seemed far smaller than most cities of the same size. Ramona didn’t mind the feeling that everyone knew her business. She had no business to know.
No, it was the job. Ramona tried to keep her mind off L.M.I., where she’d worked for nearly a decade, tapping out data entry numbers like some frantic distress signal to anyone bored enough to approach her tiny, corner cubicle. She parked her rusted vehicle in the only parking space left, the one furthest from the door. In spite of the snow, as she walked toward the building, Ramona’s pace grew slower and more measured, as if even her feet were dreading another day at L. M. I. International.
“Who the hell moved my headset?” Bonnie, the long time receptionist, had a phone voice that sounded like smooth jazz, but that’s where the charm ended. Her regular voice matched her worn out, cigarette smoking, teased hair persona much better, and she wasn’t nearly as polite to the office personnel as she was on the phone. “If that headset isn’t on my desk in ten seconds I swear I will find out who took it and I will take great pleasure in drowning them in packing peanuts back in shipping!” She looked up at Ramona. “Hey there Sunshine. Good of you to join us today. And if you’re planning on taking the tour to your desk, might I suggest taking the roundabout way, through production and past the restrooms? I told Celia it was your time of the month and you were probably in one of the restrooms not feeling well.” Bonnie looked Ramona up and down. “And that shouldn’t be a hard fib to pull off since you look like hell.”
Ramona shook the last snowflakes off her coat and hung it in the front closet. “Thanks for the vote of confidence. I overslept and I’m parked in outer Siberia.”
Bonnie raised an over-plucked eyebrow at her. “And yet, you’re not looking pissed. Which means something good happened to you last night. Get lucky?”
Ramona looked over her shoulder in case her supervisor was near. Celia Yasher was a cold woman, eternally clad in severe business suits with a hairstyle and personality to match. Worse for Ramona, Celia seemed to have a perverse delight in scolding her, especially, for any minor infraction.
Certain the hall was clear, Ramona leaned over the counter. “I got ‘Reflections in Blue.’”
“You didn’t!” Bonnie softened and looked impressed. “That disk was like forty bucks or something, right?”
“Yeah, it went to fifty, and I’ll be eating ramen noodles for a week, but I don’t care. It’s Jesse’s last recording before he retired. I just had to have it.”
“You are the girl who makes eBay go ‘round. Aha!” Bonnie uncovered her headset from a pile of FedEx envelopes. “It figures. I’m gone one afternoon and that temp shoves my headset in the mailers.” She squashed it down over her hopelessly stiff bouffant. “Doll, if you’re not his truest fan, then I don’t know who is.” Bonnie let loose a smoky cough. “I always liked that Jesse Alexander. He was an easy one to look at.”
Short clicks on the resilient tile announced the arrival of Celia to the office, and Ramona skittered around the receptionist’s desk. “I totally agree.” She grinned at Bonnie before slipping down the hall to the poolroom.
The “poolroom” was a large warehouse-sized room filled with endless cubicles from which rose the rhythmic sound of clacking as rows and rows of data entry specialists, secretaries, and filing clerks tracked every item shipped to and from L.M.I. Ramona’s cube was in the farthest corner, a space cut off from the rest of the pool by a support column, and mostly unheated, but Ramona rarely complained. Very few people passed by her desk, and even fewer bothered her. Her job as the Quality Control Records Clerk was dull and uninspiring, but it did nothing to invade her eight-hour-long daydreams of Jesse. Just the way Ramona liked it.
Just ahead of Celia, Ramona dashed to her desk and tossed her lunch bag into the bottom drawer. With practiced accuracy, she slipped her feet out of the battered sneakers she wore to work and into the pinching pumps she kept under her desk for those multiple moments in the day when Celia, the office cop, inspected each and every clicking clacking cubicle for company policy outlaws.
“Good morning, Ramona. Just getting in?”
Ramona looked up from her stack of shipping orders and gave her supervisor a look of vacant innocence. “I’ve been here for ten minutes, Celia. Got in at eight on the dot, like always. Just not feeling well,” she lowered her voice, “it’s that time, you know, and the ladies room is out of personal items. So I went back to the production rest room.”
“Out of personal items? That cleaning crew! That’s it! I will be calling their manager today and I’ll have three new companies tour the place by the end of the week.”
“Oh, wait Celia, maybe the machine was just jammed or something. You don’t have to-”
Celia turned icy eyes on her. “You really shouldn’t defend shoddy workmanship, Ramona. If we are willing to accept substandard workmanship in others, then it’s not a long fall to substandard performances on our own part. Wouldn’t you agree, Ramona?”
Ramona cringed at the way Celia dragged out her name. “I’m just saying that before you go firing anyone, maybe you should double check. I could have made a mistake, or the machine could be jammed or something.” She swallowed and tried to look pathetic and weak. “I’m not feeling at all well today.”
“Fine, I will check the machine myself.” Celia sniffed and looked hard at Ramona’s outfit. “What are we wearing today?” Celia raised a sharp, drawn-in eyebrow at her.
Ramona’s shoulders tensed. Every morning the same question, the same inspection, the same erosion of self-esteem spewed from Celia’s mouth and covered Ramona like hot, sticky lava. “I can’t speak for you, but let’s see, I’m wearing uncomfortable shoes, circulation-stifling pantyhose, itchy skirt, and lung crushing foundation garments. Do I pass muster?”
“You know,” Celia poked a long, well-manicured nail at her, “that smart mouth has no place here. It’s bad for morale.”
“Well, you’re the expert on being bad for morale.” Ramona started shuffling papers and looking generally busy.
Celia blinked, analyzing Ramona‘s comment but apparently did not find the insult. “Filing needs the Bio-West order by noon.”
“Filing shall have the Bio-West order by noon. I have it right here.” Ramona held up a thick stack of flimsy green shipping orders. “It’s my first order of business.”
“It should be.” Celia’s eyes, restrained by enormous horn-rimmed glasses, stopped their search as they fell on the small personal CD player on Ramona’s desk. “We’re still listening to our own music, I see.”
Ramona sighed. Celia was never quite satisfied until she’d sucked every bit joy from the person to whom she was speaking. “Yes, Celia, we are. You know it helps me concentrate, and I don’t disturb a soul.”
“I don’t like it.” Celia sniffed the air as if sensing another infraction in a cubicle far, far away. “It doesn’t look professional.”
Ramona looked around her tiny space and shook her head. “Well, besides you and the guy from shipping who drops off the shipping orders, who sees me?”
“Just don’t ever let Mr. Anderson catch you with them on.” Celia brushed her hands against each other, as if washing them of all guilt for such a transgression. “Just because you’ve been an employee here longer than any of the other girls in this department, that doesn’t guarantee you any special treatment from him.”
“I wouldn’t think of it.” Ramona kept a pleasant look on her face, praying Celia would leave. Sniffing one more time, Celia left the cubicle without another word. Ramona reached into her bottom drawer where she kept her CD’s, and thumbed through the collection.
“Did Vampira draw any blood this morning?”
Ramona looked up and into the plain, honest face of Neil Horton. Neil, like Ramona, had grown up in Cobia and now worked as head of the accounting department for L.M.I. He was the perfect stereotype for his position, from his thinning, dull brown hair to his long, narrow nose to the squinty, near-sighted way he studied anyone to whom he spoke. The joke around the office was that no one needed a weatherman. Anyone who wanted to know what the weather was going to be just had to see what Neil Horton was wearing. If it was a bland button-down oxford shirt, it was a warm day. If he had a sweater vest over the oxford, it was a touch chilly. If Neil wore a cardigan sweater, it was a brutally cold day. The closer he got to his fortieth birthday, the more predictable his wardrobe was.
High school pals, Ramona and Neil had gone to separate colleges, and had lost touch as Neil started his career with L.M.I. and Ramona attempted a life away from Cobia. It was Neil who got her a job when she came back home and it was Neil who stopped by her workstation every day with a smile and a candy bar. It was a friendship that Ramona simultaneously treasured and took for granted.
“You know, whenever she drops by, it’s the only time I ever admit maybe my mother was right.” Ramona pulled an industrial sized bottle of hand lotion out of her middle desk drawer and began her morning ritual of limbering her fingers for another brutal day on the computer. Taking good care of her hands was the only carry-over habit from her years, in the very distant past, of chasing a career as a musician.
“How’s that?” Neil perched on the edge of her desk.
“If I’d gotten an accounting degree, you’d be my supervisor, I would be in an office where the heat and air conditioning actually reach the desks, and I wouldn’t have to squeeze my ever widening rear end into these ridiculous clothes. I could wear jeans and comfortable shoes just like all the guys in your office do.”
“Well, we’d welcome you, that’s for sure. And your rear end is just fine.”
A rare awkward silence hung between them as Ramona looked at him in surprise.
“I mean, I mean you’d be fine in whatever you wanted to wear.” Neil ran a hand through his perfectly straight hair and blushed beneath the wire-rimmed glasses balanced on his long, bony nose.
“Well, thanks Neil.”
“Oh, hey, here you go. Thought I’d bring you a snack.” He handed her a Kit-Kat bar, her favorite.
“Neil. Thanks.” She smiled at him and set the candy bar next to her keyboard. “It’s nice to know I’ve got you anyway.”
“Of course you do...have me. As a friend, I mean.” He pushed up his glasses on his nose, something he did whenever embarrassed.
“Well, I gotta get at it.” Ramona put away the hand lotion and reached for her headphones. Chatting with Neil was nice, but she did have work to do. “That’ll taste good when I finish the Bio-West shipping order. Celia will have me in a headlock if I don’t get these to Filing by noon.”
“Okay, I’m going to let you get to work, then. See you at lunch?”
“If Celia doesn’t somehow find a way to make me work through it.”
Neil gave her a wave and left the tiny space. Now alone and facing a full day of flying fingered data entry, Ramona put on her headphones, selected Jesse Alexander’s third album to kick off her day, and turned up the volume.