The charm of traveling alone was gone. While the idea of exploring strange towns every night was quite romantic, the reality of finding something, anything, to do in the long hours between concerts and driving was a little less than appealing. Somewhere during the long, rain-soaked week in Indiana, Ramona lost all desire to eat at places with “local flavor” and in a late night run to a Wal-Mart, bought a hot plate and ten packages of ramen noodles.
The endless parades of county fair midways also lost their charm. While riding the Tilt-O-Whirl for the seventieth time in a month, Ramona realized she recognized the greasy carnie running the ride. Worse yet, he recognized her and gave her a toothless leer that made her skin crawl.
Ramona checked in with Neil every couple of days, letting him know where she was, but always careful to be upbeat in the face of his almost matronly concern for her well-being. She made a point, however, of not calling home more than once a week, and then only to make sure Leo wasn’t snacking too much. Her own trim waistline held in the face of fair foods and endless miles behind the wheel of her car. In fact, she found it quite easy to turn down any type of deep fried-stuck-on-a-stick-and-sold-for-four-dollars snack. Even the thought of deep fried cheese curds, a rarity outside Wisconsin but not altogether extinct, did not sway her from her determination to be as perfect for Jesse as possible with the magic moment came.
Checking the schedule of tour stops, Ramona was delighted to see that they were headed to Milwaukee for Summerfest. The world’s largest music festival would certainly be her lucky stop. I might even celebrate with some cheese curds there. Or maybe some mozzarella sticks and marinara sauce.
Her online friends checked with her daily with multitudes of questions about everything from the concerts to the hotels. She stretched the truth in some cases, not telling the ladies about her crushing sense of loneliness or the night she killed a mouse in her motel room in Kankakee, Illinois. Mary insisted on meeting up with Ramona at Summerfest and then traveling through Michigan with her. It didn’t take too much convincing. Ramona was lonely, and Mary seemed like just the kind of traveling companion she needed.
For Ramona, going to Summerfest was much like going home. As she passed through the gates of the crowded lakeshore festival grounds, Ramona closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. Music from a dozen stages filled her ears as the smells from hundreds of tiny vendors tantalized her nose. A crisp, cool breeze blew from Lake Michigan, giving everything a sweet, slightly fishy smell.
Her first challenge was to find Mary in the throng of fest goers. They agreed to meet in front of the Channel 12 News Arena, but even that specific location was broad and, once arriving there, Ramona was overwhelmed with the task of finding someone she’d never met in person.
She thought about their last telephone conversation.
“The Channel 12 News Arena. You can’t miss it. It’s up front sort of.”
“Okay Mary, but how am I going to recognize you?”
“Ramona, it’s easy. I’m Wisconsin’s last redheaded six-foot tall virgin. Follow the smell of sun block, you can’t miss me!”
Ramona liked Mary’s easy humor. So much about the trip so far had been jostling for good seats or finding a decent hotel. It would be nice, at least for the next week, to have a real person with whom to talk. Even a six-foot redheaded virgin who smelled of sun block.
Ramona squinted into the hot sun. The evening news crew was primping for the six o’clock newscast. Ramona vaguely recognized the anchor, a middle-aged man with a good chin and salt and pepper hair. As she studied him, a piece of conversation caught her ear.
“So then I was just walking along saying, ‘Ramona, Ramona, Ramona!’ And she couldn’t say no then, right?”
Ramona whirled around to spot the speaker and there, not ten feet away, was a tall red head talking to another woman, who could have been a sister or a cousin of some kind. “Mary didn’t say anything about having a sister or anyone with her.” Ramona closed her eyes and swallowed down the butterflies in her stomach. “Uh...Mary?”
“Hey! Ramona!” With this, the taller of the two red heads wrestled Ramona into a bear hug. “I knew if I just kept saying your name over and over someone would look up! See Terry, it worked!”
“It did. You were right.” Terry waited until Ramona had extracted herself from Mary’s arms. “I’m Terry. Mary’s older and much wiser sister. She tells me you’re more insane than she is and I said that wasn’t possible.”
Ramona knew she was blushing at Terry’s comment, but the expression of cheerful patience that Mary wore gave her courage. “I guess I am...more insane than Mary.”
“So you’re really trying to hit every single stop Jesse’s making on this tour?”
“Not trying, sis, she has!” Mary looked like she was going to burst with excitement. “Just tell her where you’ve been this summer already, Ramona!”
I’ve been in a lot of lonely hotel rooms in a lot of little towns praying something I know won’t happen might just happen. Ramona smiled weakly and pushed her negative thought away. “I’ve been all over the place. Toured Minnesota, Iowa, a few stops in Illinois, although I know he’s going back there later in the summer, and even one stop in South Dakota.”
Terry crossed her arms and clicked her tongue against her teeth, a sound that Ramona knew all too well from her own mother. “Well, Mary quit her job to join you. She thinks the band will see her and let her tour with them as a backup singer. I told her she’s crazy and then she told me about you, and your little plan.” Terry shook her head. “Just make sure you two don’t get arrested or killed or something.”
“Geez, Terry, you make it sound like we’re children.” Mary gave Terry a look that reminded Ramona just a little bit of her four-year-old niece. “We’re grown women and if you want to leave, that’s fine. Ramona and I will be just fine without you.”
Terry shrugged her shoulders. “Fine. Ramona, if you’re some kidnapper out to steal my sister, I’ll warn you...she snores and she has hellacious morning breath.”
“I’m not a kidnapper. I’m just a fan...of Jesse’s.”
“Then I’ll leave you two to your insanity. Sis, just don’t do anything stupid...or more stupid than this already is, okay?” Terry handed Mary a large, bulging duffel bag.
Mary hugged her sister but didn’t say anything more until Terry had been swallowed by the crowd pressing forward to see the live newscast. “I thought she’d never leave! She’s such a stick in the mud, you know?” Mary tossed her head back; her red hair flamed against the red orange light of the evening sky. “So where’s your car?”
Jesse was scheduled to go on stage at ten on the Miller Beer stage, a prime spot at the festival, and by far the best quality stage he’d been on yet. Ramona and Mary spent the rest of the late afternoon working their way as close to the front as they could, sometimes inching between the closely packed bodies to an open space no larger than Ramona‘s two feet. By ten o’clock, sun burnt from her day outside, and tired from standing, Ramona was more than ready for the concert to start.
The crowd surged forward as Jesse took the stage, his screaming guitar barely heard above the screams of approval. They love you here, Jesse. You need to be in Wisconsin more. She clapped and moved with the rhythm of the mass, losing Mary, and then gaining sight of her new friend as the crowd pulsed with a life of its own.
Jesse, as if reading her thoughts, fed off the friendly crowd. His smile was not tired; he played with an energy she hadn’t seen in several shows. He had fun. And because he was having fun, everyone was having fun.
Some over-enthusiastic fan bumped into Ramona, pouring beer over her shoulders before knocking her to the ground. Dirty, and now smelling like a brewery, Ramona struggled to get back on her feet. A hand pushed through the throng of bare legs and dropped beer cups, helped her up. She gave of look of gratitude to her savior. “Neil!”
His smile seemed more than a little confident. “I figured you’d be here. I came down with friends. Thought we’d check out the concert.”
Ramona hardly heard him above the noise, but nodded and smiled. “Can we talk later?” She pointed to the stage where Jesse was taking requests.
Neil stayed by her side until the last screaming fan left the area and the smell of stale beer replaced the smell of sweat. They strolled to the main gates, laughing about finding each other in the crowd and catching up and little bits of gossip from home.
Ramona ignored the feeling she had that Neil wanted to tell her something, and instead looked around for Mary. Neil was quiet, restrained, maybe more nervous than usual, but the euphoria of Jesse’s best concert in weeks hadn’t worn off and Ramona was not about to let Neil Horton cool her enthusiasm.
“So, how’s she running?” Neil touched the dusty red door and pulled his hand back quickly as if burned.
“Fine. Perfect, in fact.”
Neil seemed surprised. “No stalling? No dying on the highway?”
“Nope. Purrs like a big old cat. Starts up and runs great, and I get really decent gas mileage.” Ramona tried to stifle a superior smile. “Looks like I got a car that’s just like me. Dependable.” She brushed a drop of sweat out of her eye. “Well, dependable and dirty.”
“With a great body.” Neil looked up, startled at his own words. “T-the car, I mean.”
“Of course.” She slipped passed him and opened the trunk. Mary ran toward them. “Well, see ya, Neil.”
“You’re going already? This late at night?”
“The next stop is in Benton Harbor. That’s four hours from here. If I get there tonight yet, I’ll actually get some sleep before the show tomorrow night. I’ve got a really great feeling that I’m going to get a back stage pass very soon. I haven’t looked on the website yet...” She pulled out the computer satchel. “But,” she returned her gaze to Neil, “I have a good feeling this time.”
“Ramona, you can’t leave this late at night for a four hour drive. Not by yourself.”
“But she’s not by herself.” Mary stopped short and leaned over the hood of the car, winded from her run. “I’m going with her.”
“And you are?”
“Oh, sorry. Mary, this is Neil. I work-I worked with him back home. Neil, I met Mary online.”
Neil wrinkled his brow. “Let me guess...online fan group?”
“Yeah, how’d you know? He’s a smart one, Ramona. Cute, too!” Mary giggled and climbed into the passenger seat.
“Well, then, so you have to go, I guess.” Neil stepped away from the car and stared at his feet.
No longer able to ignore the nagging feeling she had, Ramona leaned on the car door. “Neil, is there something you want to talk about before I go?”
“What? Oh, no, nothing really.”
“Okay. Then I’ll see you later.” She started the car.
“It’s just that, well, I want-” He cast a glance at Mary, who had closed her eyes and looked unconscious.
Ramona shut off the engine. “What? What do you want, Neil?” She hoped she didn’t sound as impatient as she felt.
“Can we, can we talk, alone?”
Ramona hoisted herself out of the car. “Fine, Neil.” She strode to a spot ten feet away and waited for him to catch up. “Now, what do you want to say?”
“I wanted to say that if you decided to give up this quest of yours, that maybe you would find someone right here at home that loves you. And maybe that person could make you happy.”
“I mean, I thought, well, I thought we were maybe starting, I don’t know, something.” He kicked the dust at his feet.
“I know, I know. All those dinners, they didn’t mean as much to you as they did to me. But they did mean something to me, Ramona. And I thought maybe you might think of me, differently. I was hoping that after a little while, you’d get tired of chasing this, this whatever and come home…to me.”
He never took his eyes off his dusty shoes, but Ramona didn’t have to see his face to know exactly what expression he wore. She tried not to laugh at the comic intensity with which he spoke. “I know you think I’m ridiculous to tell you something like that.”
“No, Neil.” She touched his shoulder. “I don’t think you’re ridiculous at all. I appreciate your honesty. But-”
“But you can’t love someone like me.”
Something in his words sent a pang through her. “Now that’s not true at all. I was going to say, I love you, too, but as my friend. As my dearest friend.”
He lifted his eyes to hers and for the first time since she’d known him, Ramona saw in Neil a deep, slow burning passion that surprised her. “Then that is what I’ll have to be happy with right now, I guess.”
She took a step back, unable to respond to this new side of him. Silently she walked back to the car and got in. She started up the engine again, and gave him one last look before speaking. “I’ll see you later, Neil.”
“Just remember what I said, Ramona.”
She jerked the car into gear and rumbled out of the graveled parking lot, giving the rearview mirror a glance. He stood there under the lot lamp, an eerie purple haze surrounding him from head to foot.
The damp lake air of I-94 swept against her sweaty skin like a cold hand. Glad to have the top down on the convertible, Ramona reveled in the feel of the wind in her hair as she reached for the radio. She paused, her hand hovering just above the volume knob. Neil’s words reverberated in her head like a mantra until her eyes ached and she pulled the car over at the nearest exit. “Mary, we’re stopping for the night.”
Mary mumbled something but didn’t open her eyes.
They checked into a colorless hotel near the outlet mall centers. After swallowing a large dose of aspirin, Ramona flopped on the bed and turned on her computer. Neil’s words faded with the click of the keys as she connected to the internet connection. By the time she reached Jesse’s web site, Ramona had all but forgotten her best friend’s declaration of love.
Her fingers trembled over the keys as she punched in her daily entry for the back stage pass. Her task completed in a minute, she then checked her enormous list of emails, deleting those from her fan group that she knew from experience were simply requests for Jesse concert souvenirs.
“What’s this one?” She highlighted a post from an address she didn’t immediately recognize. “BKSTGJess?” She mulled the address over, trying to recall any new members in her group. “Oh...wait a minute!” She snapped the email open with a quick click of her index finger.
“Hey Ramona Simms! You are the lucky winner! You and a friend will be escorted to the front row of my July 6th concert in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Then after the show, you’ll come back stage to party with me!”
There were several other lines of instructions about bringing proper ID and such, but none of that sank in as Ramona read the line over and over again. “You are the lucky winner.”
“Leo! Leo we won!” She jumped up from the bed and for a moment looked around for the dog. Realizing her mistake, Ramona let out a giddy giggle and checked the clock. No, it was much too late to call home, especially to talk to the dog. “Mary! Mary, we’re going to meet Jesse!”
Mary didn’t stir in her bed.
Ramona ached to share the news with someone, but Neil wouldn’t be home yet, so she couldn’t call him. “Not that he’d be all that thrilled.” She calmed down for a moment and pictured the Neil Horton she’d seen a few hours earlier. No, that Neil would not be thrilled at all.
It doesn’t matter that I don’t have anyone to tell right now. In two days, I’ll be standing close enough to touch Jesse, and then he’ll know just how much I love him and how long we’ve waited for each other. Then he’ll love me and I’ll live a great life.
Hands sweating and shaking, Ramona sent off a quick and poorly spelled email to her fan group, letting them know the good news and that Mary was going with her. They’ll be happy for me; I know they will. If anyone understands how great this is, my friends in the group will.
Reenergized, Ramona shut off her computer and packed her few belongings quickly. The early predawn air was damp and cool. Checking her watch, she realized she’d be in Benton Harbor before the sun was fully up. There was no time to waste. “Come on Mary, we’re leaving!”