Chapter 1: The Diner

I came to a halt as a vibrant neon sign came into focus up ahead. “Hot coffee and flapperjacks, 24/7.” I could already taste sticky sweet syrup mixed with a coffee ending. Snow was falling and the air was peacefully still, with each flake creating its own small sound once hitting the road. I rubbed my hands together and blew hot air into a slit between both palms. That night was the type of cold where it almost seemed burning hot. I smiled through cracked lips and crunched my way through the snow, towards the diner that I decided was an angel.

Steam fogged the windows from the inside out and only a few patrons vacated the place. I opened the door and was welcomed by a familiar tune: Santo and Johnny’s Sleepwalk. I beamed. How appropriate.

“Is it just yourself tonight?” I snapped out of my dream and found the voice that was talking at me. A woman in her late 60’s with white/blonde frizzy hair, bright pink crayon-like lipstick, and a vibrant blue eyeshadow to match her dress and apron. Her name tag said Dotti and I could’ve kissed her on the mouth.

“That’s right, just me,” I said feeling tears well in my eyes. I quickly grabbed a seat in a booth. The seats were plush pink with a light blue trim, and leather yellow diamonds on the upholstery. I couldn’t help feeling like I was sitting on this woman’s face. I chuckled. Why did I feel high right now?

“What can I get cha, honey?” she asked.

I flipped the menu over, front to back, and placed it back on the table.

“I’ll just have a cup of coffee and the short stack please,” The heart wants, what the heart wants.

She gave me a sad smirk and walked back to the kitchen. I looked around and studied everything that was on the walls. A big clock with Elvis in the middle, sat proudly in the centre of the wall above the milkshake machine. His big arm pointed to the 11, and his little arm pointed to the 15. 11:15pm. Best time of day to have a cup of joe and a stack of hot cakes, I reckon. There were black and white photos of Marilyn Monroe, more Elvis, Dolly Parton, Aubrey Hepburn, John Wayne, James Dean, Grace Kelly, and so on and so on. All the greats. The floor was a checkered black and white tile, and the light was a bit hazy. This must be what the inside of a jukebox feels like. I’ve never felt so comfortable. I’ve always been in love with diners. The more grime, the better.

I skimmed over my fellow inmates. A rancher hunched over at the bar who looked like he’d either just finished a work day from hell, or maybe discovered a cheating wife, was staring into his coffee cup, getting lost in its darkness. He had a wrinkly weathered face, but overall looked not too old. I wondered if he was alright and I thought what it would be like making love to him.

Two old birds sat in a booth near the front door. One was extremely wealthy looking. She had on a fur coat of sorts with bright red lipstick, and a giant pearl necklace. The other couldn’t be more opposite. She had dyed maroon hair, a red lip, and was in a raggedy sweater and pair of old Levi’s. They sat in complete silence, each picking at their hash browns.

A plate stacked high with pancakes and a mug with liquid gold was set in front of me. “Here ya go, sweet. You sure you’re okay? Can I get cha anything else?” The waitress looked down at me warily and almost sympathetically.

“No ma’am, I’m okay thank you,” I said. She shrugged and walked back over to the magazine she was reading. Billie Holiday now took over the muffled speakers. I’d never been happier.

The first sip of coffee made me think of mom. She always put the coffee on first thing in the morning and brewed it strong. The pot was filled to the max of 12 cups, so it could be enjoyed at all hours of day and night. Syrup and coffee always lingered in our kitchen, which eventually took over the whole house. My friends used to call our house “The Candy House” because it always smelled of sweets and coffee.

I let the butter sink a bit deeper into my pancakes before swirling it around. I slowly poured that Canadian maple over the cakes and let the steam reach my face. Pancakes really are a true piece of art. My grandpa used to say that good pancakes and a cup of joe could cure cancer- I believe him.

A burning sensation took over my left knee, where the rip in my jeans was. I reached down under the table and lightly touched the swelling and hot surface. I could feel my body tumbling out of the car once more. The brisk air stinging my face, the smack and roll I did into the snowy ditch. The screech of brakes on ice and the burning gleam of brake lights hitting my face. I found my feet after forgetting I had such things, and before I could even understand the pain was in, I ran. The taste of blood filled my mouth, my lungs stung, my head hurt, but this burst of energy came from somewhere deep within my soul, and I ran with it.

Shaking my head, I took a sip of coffee and got back to the pancakes, which were transporting me to better times. I felt light and airy, like dust settling down after a bomb has exploded minutes prior. Ella Fitzgerald now.

“Sweetie, you want to use the phone and call someone?” piped Dotti from behind the counter. With a shake of my head, I got out of my seat and went to the bathroom. Quietly I closed the door behind me and looked into the mirror. I let out a huge sigh and put my palms on the bathroom sink. The face staring back at me was almost unrecognizable. This woman had a dirty face, messy hair tangled with dirt and weeds, dried blood at the top of her head, and smeared red lipstick. These people must thing that i’ve just been gang-banged in a suburban. I turned on the tap and splashed some water on my face. Now I understood Dotti’s concern. My thoughts drifted to Eddy for the first time in about two hours. What his face must’ve looked like as I threw myself out of the car. I imagined his light blue eyes transforming to that dark hazel. His confusion and hurt projecting in his cries out to me as I ran through the abyss. I’ve never heard a man yell out like that; let alone Ed. Suddenly, I felt spit coming up in my mouth. Shame was what I was afraid of, and here it was hitting me square in the face in this tiny diner bathroom that reeked of lavender. The poor man. All he ever did was love me and try to understand my irrational behaviors. Truth is, I didn’t have an excuse for what I did. I just knew I needed to go and go the way I did. I spewed in the sink and walked back out to my booth.

The two old birds, the rancher, and Dotti, were all staring at me. It was as if the music had stopped and there was a spotlight following my steps. Pausing at my table, I filled up my coffee, and walked over to the rancher. I just needed to talk to someone. Maybe hear about someone else’s pain to forget about mine. It was selfish, but this new person I was turning into didn’t care.

He wore one of those Stetson cowboy hats. Like the ones bull riders wear at rodeos. A black felt one with a buckle on the side. The black almost looked brown as it was covered in what I assumed was dust. I slid into the booth, opposite to him, and he didn’t even look up. His eyes were still fixed on his coffee, swirling it around with a spoon, clinking the sides of the cup. I looked at the buttons on his denim shirt. The right pocket had the name, “Lolito Ranch” embroidered in green thread.

I cleared my throat a little. “Erm, hi there. My name’s Renee..” I said with a timid tone.

He looked up finally with the greenest eyes I ever did see. Dark circles shadowed underneath, and a suggestion of a dip could be seen in his lip. He smelled of nicotine and cinnamon and I wanted to know more.

“Ma’am,” he tipped his hat, just barely, and his eyes went back to his coffee. There was a faint pink lipstick mark on the lip of his cup and I wondered if it was Dotti’s. Something told me he wouldn’t share his name, so I gave him one: Cowboy.

“Coffee’s pretty good here, huh?” I said.

“Best in Bridgeport,” he slurred.

Bridgeport.. so that’s where we were. The last place I remember passing through was Carson City.

“What brings you to Lulu’s Diner?” said the cowboy.

“Mmm, I was on my way to LA, but there’s been a change of plans, so i’m headed to Kelso.”

“Kelso,” he smirked. “Why in god’s name were you on your way to LA? You tryin’ to be a big movie star?”

I took a slow sip of coffee and smiled. “Maybe, what’s wrong with that?” I remembered all the times I would tell Ed that I wanted to stay in LA. If not LA, then at least anywhere California. It was always a dream to be amongst the woozy atmosphere of Hollywood and venture out. Even to walk around for hours. Stay out all night. Eat pancakes across town. Drink gallons of coffee and write. Sleep on a beach. Work in the day for less than minimum wage at a cafe to save my soul for the things I loved. Anything. He never took me seriously when I shared my dreams of writing, or acting. Spending nights somewhere doing standup or attending an Improv class. I wanted to use my voice and release it into the world. To slather it across Hollywood and see who would have me. Ed was a ‘realist’ as he used to say, and time spent dreaming about such things was time wasted. He was an office manager and was asleep by 9 every night, without fail.

“So what do you do?”  I asked Cowboy.

He let out a sigh and raised a finger in the air to the waitress for a top-up. “I’m a rancher,” He squinted and tipped his hat to Dotti after she filled him up. “I’m just on my way to Borrego Springs to see my old man.”

Borrego Springs. The only thing I knew about that place was that it was in the middle of the desert. I always fantasized about traveling to the desert. Getting swallowed whole in its vastness. Staring up at a big sky and hallucinating on mirage and dehydration. How romantic. I felt aroused and terrified. Not in the way that I wanted to fuck this man. I was impressed with myself. Without even thinking it through, I quietly asked, “Can I come with you?”

He didn’t even look up. I watched the corner of his mouth slightly lift into a crooked smile. “Ain’t you got anything better to do, Miss Hollywood?”

“I’m figuring it out. Plus I’ve always wanted to get lost in a ghost town. Maybe this’ll spark some creativity. Maybe i’ll pick up a pen and write something.”

There was a long and uncomfortable pause. That same smirk stayed on his mouth but there was no doubt an ocean of sadness in his eyes.

“Well, alright then,” he mumbled. “You gonna tell me what happened to your face?”

I got up from the table to go and grab my bag. “Nope.”

And that was that. Dotti filled me up a 16 oz styrofoam cup of sweet joe with a stack of napkins. Immediately I began biting the cup all the way around, making dents with my teeth. Bad habit. I looked back at Cowboy as he was throwing on a brown suede jacket. His boots making a deep click clack sound on the tile, he opened the door for me to pass through first. I took a last glimpse at the inside of my jukebox diner, said goodbye with my eyes to the two old birds who still sat in silence, and waved to Dotti.

You know that feeling when you leave a bar, all boozy and ears ringing from music.. You stumble outside and it sounds as if your ears are plugged or you’re underwater; as if the fun has stopped, the drugs are wearing off, and now you’re tossed back into reality. I felt that a little bit just then. It only just hit me as we were walking towards Cowboy’s blue and white 1963 ford fairlane. I clutched my bag to my chest with a fishbowl brain swimming of insecurities and small regrets. Cowboy opened the passenger side door for me and I nearly bounced off the seats from how bouncy those springs were. His car smelled of cigarettes and horse tack. Fuck I loved that smell. I thought of mom for a split second. Us on grandma’s ranch riding bareback on two paints toward the base of the mountains in Montana. I was just shy of seven.

“Buckle up, Hollywood.” said Cowboy fastening his seat belt. He adjusted the rearview mirror and started it up. It only hit me this man couldn’t have been driving a more inappropriate car in the snow. I wondered if I had any sort of weapon in my bag. A pair of nail clippers? Could you stab someone with that? A glimpse of marijuana wafted in the air as I shuffled and I remembered I had some weed in my bag. I wonder if he was into that sort of thing. He rolled down his window half way and spit out his dip. We made a left out of the lot and made our way South. He fiddled with the dial on the radio until it settled on fuzzy station that played a familiar song: Springsteen’s Streets of Philadelphia. Ed used to sing it in the shower sometimes. I looked out the window to pure darkness and wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into. I was levitating, but outside of myself. I didn’t have the slightest idea what would happen in the next day, night, five minutes even, and this made my heart dance. Wait, how could I just hop into a car with a man who wears suede in snow? Cowboy started to sing along to Bruce and I chuckled quietly; I still didn’t catch his name.