Chapter 2: The Lodge

** 3 days before The Diner **

I stared blankly at Ed, sitting across from me in a diner in Reno. The chiming of frenzied slot machines could be heard everywhere. There was a mixed scent of second-hand smoke, coffee, and booze that filled the air and I visualized gold coins being dropped from the sky as if I were in a cartoon. Eddie sat there staring out the window, with a reflection of the Sierra Nevadas in his eyes. I studied his face- dark brown curls, hazel eyes, olive skin. I thought of what our kids might look like, if we had them. I felt so sorry for him. I didn’t feel like eating this morning and resided to a usual black coffee. I fell in love with the waitress as she poured me another cup and snapped me out of my head. A bracelet with red hearts dangled loosely from her nimble wrist and it clinked the side of my cup. Hanging from her ears were a pair of red dice that somehow looked homemade. Chipper as wine, she smacked her gum at me and it’s fair to say we spoke telepathically.

Ed and I had had a weird night out before and it was unbearably obvious he was dying to talk about it. He woke up after I had come out of the bathroom, post spew, and smiled. “Hey eskimo, how about some pancakes to make amends..” he searched my face, his hair in a tangled mop with sleep in his eyes. I sighed after a long pause, and nodded my head. We walked over to the diner that was across the street from the lodge and grabbed a booth in the corner. My head was swimming with booze and I was certain I smelled like a brothel. Our waitress came over with more coffee, bless her, and I finally caught a glimpse of her name tag: Angel.

“Is that your real name?” I asked her.

“More like my alter-ego,” she gave me a wink and walked away. I liked that and got lost in a thought. Ed and I had been in a little tiki bar across town the night before. I had practically begged him for us to go out, as he wouldn’t allow me to go out alone, as per usual. He wanted to stay in, order room service, and get a good night’s rest for us to hop on the road early the next morning. This was my first time ever in Reno and I wanted to go out and live. I needed booze, I needed conversations with strangers, and Ed finally gave in and followed me like a lost puppy, as he always does. The tiki bar was like walking into a time warp. It felt like Bedrock and I thought I had been transported to another time. The 70’s maybe. It was dark, smokey, and filled with vibrant pops of color everywhere. Rockabilly music took over the place and I was already drunk on love, leaving Ed trailing behind me on fumes. I ordered a drink called “The Drunken Monkey” as it seemed appropriate. It was a whopping five bucks and was apart of Happy Hour for the next three hours. I thought I’d struck gold. It came with a pink umbrella on top, wedge of lime, pineapple slice, and tasted like something you’d drink when you’re 16, hoping to make a boy jealous. I smashed through two of them while Ed was still on his first low-carb beer.

“Im going to get another,” I slurred to Ed.

“Come on, let’s go back to the room,” he looked worried. This pissed me off and I just shook my head and swayed to the bar. As I was waiting for my third round, I started writing a poem on my damp napkin.

‘Don’t leave her shut in the cupboard,

hold her hand and lead her out..

Show her the world that she’s been missing,

Let her voice be heard out loud.

Take her up to the mountains,

Tell her to breath in that air.

No words need to be spoken,

Now she knows that you care..’

“I always found that the material flows better after a few cocktails,” I looked up and saw a man in what appeared to be a suit with a bolo tie, white cowboy hat, and brown slim-toed cowboy boots. He had round tortoise shell glasses and brown eyes. What a strange ensemble.

“Excuse me?” I said.

He pointed at the napkin. “You’re little scripture there. I can always spot out the good writers in this city.” He had a permanent smile on his face.

“You call this a city?”

“Of course! Don’t you know Reno is the biggest little city in the world?” he pointed to the framed photo on the wall of the infamous Reno sign stating just those words at the start of town. I nodded and crumpled the napkin in my hand, gazing back at my princess drink.

“Hey now, aren’t you going to save that? Could come of use one day.”

“I’m not a poet,” I snapped.

“Maybe so, but you’re definitely a writer- that’s plain to see. We’re the only suds in this crazy world that scribbles on backs of receipts and napkins and there ain’t nothing anyone can do about it.” he was beaming. I didn’t understand why he was so chuffed with himself. He seemed to be alone, but I wondered what the costume was for.

“So, who are you? And why are you in Reno? Do you live here?” I said.

He laughed and wiped his hands on his pants. “Shoot, I’m sorry. Forgive me for not introducing myself. My names Alan, Alan Drez. I’m a talent agent. I’m actually from Los Angeles but just here scoping out the local talent,” he took a sip of his drink and smiled. “You know, I could probably help you catch that dream of yours you’ve been chasing.”

“Who said i’m chasing a dream?” I asked slowly.

“Sweetheart, it’s written all over your face. It’s my job to help young gals like you. I can take you to the top! I’m a huge believer in vibes and ora’s people emit, and honey you have got it,” he started fishing around in his coat pockets and pulled out a card.

“Here’s my card. I’d love to have a serious chat with you if you’ve got the time. I’m here all weekend.” I took the card and looked it over. ‘Alan Drez: Talent Agent at Silo Talent Group.’ The front had an artsy sketch of the Sierras.

I took the last gulp of my drink, swiveled around in my seat, and got up from the bar. “I’m not anyone’s honey and don’t call me sweetheart.” I turned and walked away and could hear him exploding with a deep bellied laugh. Ed was still sitting patiently at the hightop, his head in his hand, most likely having watched my whole encounter. I felt nauseous. My body began to shrink as the world around me grew bigger and taller until I couldn’t breath. I was having one of my out-of-body experiences, looking down at myself sinking into a crack.

Ed pulled me out of my abyss by lightly stroking my hand. He had those puppy dog eyes on, and a smile turned down low. A look he often gave, thinking it was irresistible. He looked pathetic and I felt embarrassed for him. “Did you get the guy’s number?”

“Fucking hell, It wasn’t like that,” I snapped.

“I know exactly what it was. If I wasn’t here, the guy would’ve drugged you and swept you away.”

“Ya know, he saw something in me. He’s an agent from LA and was asking to meet with me… said he could turn me into something big if I wanted it.” I immediately regretted saying these words out loud. I sounded pathetic and desperate for understanding.

“Jesus Christ, Renee. Why do we always end up on this same topic? You need to snap out of this dream state you’re in and come back down to reality. That guy wanted in your pants and that’s all there is to it. Damnit, don’t you know I care about you and only want what’s best for you?”

I didn’t have any words. A strong sadness came over me that I knew quite well; it was the familiar feeling of being constantly misunderstood, and I sure as hell didn’t want to try and explain it to Ed, as he would poke and prod. Aretha Franklin’s ‘I Say a Little Prayer’ came on and I rose from my seat like a worm and made my way to the front by the stage. The stage was empty of course, but I got on it anyway, in my own world. Whoever was in control of the music, must’ve seen me stumble aboard and turned up the tunes, probably in hopes of a sloppy drunk girl show. I wasn’t phased, and started to dance alone. I pretended to have a mic in my hand and started to lip sync the song and twirl my body around theatrically. People would look up occasionally, dismissing themselves from drinks and conversations, just to study me for a split moment, then get back to their lives. This is why I loved this damn country so much.

‘And while i’m combing my hair now, and wondering what dress to wear now’

I was thrashing my body around, dripping in hot wax and dreams, drunk on monkey’s and felt more myself than I had in weeks. A fire was burning in my chest and I had a strong desire to go someplace and get all the poison out on paper, to write until the booze wore off. I couldn’t leave until after this song. I felt a hand on the small of my back and suddenly I was cradled in someone’s arms. It was Ed. He twirled me, swung me, dipped me, kissed me. And just like that, we were dancing on that stage, him singing the words into my ear. Me singing back. Our teeth touching. I was glowing. He couldn’t help himself and always ended up giving in, dipping into my crazy, and drowning in it. This was the Ed I loved. This was why we worked and why we didn’t. We danced and danced, through Aretha, through Bowie, and through Janis. An abrupt applause lit up the room and whistles, hollers, hoots and yeahs snowballed. People were trying to usher us back on until Ed picked me up in his arms and carried me off the stage and through the sea of folks like a firefighter carrying a child through flames. My eyes were rolling to the back of my head, but I caught a glimpse of Alan Drez, from Silo Talent, still at the bar, and still smiling from that Hollywood mouth. He tipped his hat and raised his glass to me as we were going through the door in slow-motion.

Ed carried me the whole way back to the lodge. Across the parking lot, across the busy street, now turned barren. I stared over his shoulder, my head bobbing from side to side with his alternating steps, staring the tiki bar down while it’s neon flamingo’s and bright lights burned into my eyes.

The last thing I remember was getting back to the room at the lodge and Ed trying to put me to bed. I threw a tantrum like a child because I wanted to sleep in the jacuzzi that was in the room. He finally gave in, and filled the tub with all the pillows from the bed and the comforter. I dreamt of Alan and Hollywood that night. I was in a cafe off Hollywood Blvd drinking drip and eating pancakes. I had a thick stack of paper that looked like a manuscript and it had my name on it. Alan sat across from me and was laughing in a terrifying maniac way while coffee was spilling out everywhere, staining the pages and dripping onto my legs. I woke up to a slow drip of water dripping from the faucet onto my left leg that had found its way out of the sea of blankets. What in the fuck was in those drinks last night? My head was throbbing like a throbbin’ knob, and I needed to spew. I got up and walked passed Ed’s quivering body on the bed. He had given me all of the bedding last night and only had a sheet left to himself. I was embarrassed.

So now here we are again, after another one of my ‘episodes’. Ed sitting across from me, reading the paper, pretending like everything was fine. He had this thing that he did, when we would have an argument, or if I did something wrong and it wasn’t properly addressed. He’d give me some space, then come back to me and pretend all was well. He would award me with coffee and pancakes, kisses and hugs, tell me how beautiful I was, when all I ever wanted was for him to speak up. Grow a pair and be hurt for once. Give ME the silent treatment. But no, not Ed. He was a noble tree that withstood the trying times of passing storms. He knew if he ever were to treat me that way, i’d be flying out the gate like a horse ran home, and that was a heartbreaking thought.

“So I thought maybe we could take an easy drive today, seeing as you’re probably not feeling too hot today,” he laughed. “We’ll drive to Bishop and stay the night. It’s just over a four hour drive. It’s quite a cool little town, actually. Figured we could check into a motel, maybe go to a museum, grab a bite, and..”

“Ed..” I cut him off. “I want to stay another night in Reno. Maybe a few actually.” My eyes still lost in my coffee, I could feel his clocks winding in his mind.

“Um, sorry, why? I thought we would try to make up some of the time we’ve lost and stick back to the plan.” he said.

“Look, i’m not feeling too great, and in all honesty, I do want to meet up with that guy from last night and see what he has to offer. If anything, I just want to hear him out.”

Ed was silent and his rage was enough to set the whole table on fire. I was waiting for him to fight back, to convince me otherwise, but he didn’t.

“Fine. I’ll just leave you alone tonight. I’ll do my own thing.” and with that, he got up and left. I immediately felt sick to my stomach but brushed the thought away. I wanted to be selfish and do something for my own sake. Not stick to a plan or go the routed path. I watched him walk out the door and cross the street. I felt horrible, but also felt an immediate relief that put my mind and body at rest.

Pulling out my notebook, I drew a line in the middle of the page from  the top to bottom. On the left side, I wrote ‘Pros’ and on the right side, ‘Cons’. Here I was, hungover in Reno, writing a pros and cons list for staying with Ed. I must have a special place in Hell.

Looking out the misty window, it really hit me; Reno was actually quite a beautiful place. I liked that it had a little city, but didn’t lose sight of itself being the small town nestled beneath the Sierra Nevada’s. I couldn’t tell if winter was dying off here or if it would linger for awhile, but I didn’t mind the frigid temps and sleet that littered the ground. This place seemed like the type of dark oasis that washed up celebrities and old, weathered writers would come to forget about the horrible things they’ve done. Travelers stopping off on their way to bigger and brighter destinations would occupy diners and prowl the lit up streets, drinking fruity cocktails under the desert sun, or holing up in a casino in the dead of winter, rocking themselves into a slumber from the slots and booze. What a dream.

I felt around for the business card in my pocket. It was practically burning a hole through my thigh. I looked up at the Minnie Mouse clock on the wall, 10:22, and decided I’d give Alan a call at 1pm. I needed this time to be alone. Quickly I became infuriated because it was hard to remember the last time I truly was alone. The fact is, people like Ed, and the people sitting next to me right now, they don’t mind living a mundane life. Repeatedly doing the same thing after the other. How is everyone not shouting at the top of their lungs? Standing on top of these tables, throwing shit around, refusing to live any way but extraordinarily? I’ve lived every day, up to this moment, trying to figure out how to get to my dreams. How to climb to the top, through the clouds and mist, and oversee the world. My problem, has always been men. I’ve found myself in relationships, which is pure and true, but it also doesn’t allow me to thrive in creativity. I’ve spent days, months, years even, following others on their paths and doing the things that they feel are right. I’ve resorted to keeping quiet and being alone inside my mind with cyclones of words trapping me there. It’s been a lonely road and one that i’ve been ready to exit for sometime. But saying goodbye can never be easy if it’s unexpected.

I had so much life that needed to be lived, by me and myself only. I wanted to swim naked in lakes, not hiding my body from anyone. I wanted to stay up at all hours of the night, writing, anywhere but home, singing in cafes and bars, staying in motels, hotels, camping, tramping, hitchhiking. I needed more freedom to be me, and this path required me to travel solo. My pen started moving before I even realized, and everything I was thinking was pouring out onto the pages. I’ve journaled daily for the majority of my life, but i’ve never really written something. Told a proper story. I wanted to reach women, men even, anyone out there who felt this same way. Who felt like an oddball, a lone ranger having to adapt to society and feeling as if they were putting a lid on themselves constantly.

“Renee!” that voice. I know that voice. “Hellooooo… anyone home?” sitting across from me now was of course, Mr. Drez. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how he caught my name.

“Oh, hi Mr. Drez. Sorry, I was planning on ringing you in about an hours time,” to be honest I was a bit annoyed this guy was beating me to the punch. Was he following me or something?

“Don’t worry, I’m not following you,” shit, was I speaking out loud? “And please, call me Alan. I’m just too happy to meet with you, and of course you’re here, writing nonetheless. Where’s your man-friend? The one that carried you out last night like a burning corpse?”

Today, Alan was wearing the same thing as last night, but in a different color. He was sporting a deep mustard yellow suit, and had it not been for the snow, I’m sure he would’ve blended in with the background hills. I couldn’t tell if I could picture him as an agent or some seedy car salesman. Now that I was sober, I started to be a little apprehensive about him.

“Anyway, how abouts we head over to the lodge? They’ve got a mighty big fireplace in the lobby that I just can’t seem to get enough of. Also, the coffee is free,” he said.

“You’re staying at the lodge as well?” I asked wearily.

“Yes ma’am. I’ve been staying at the lodge every year now since coming over here for scouting.”

My red flags were going off, but I couldn’t ignore the beautiful timing of all of this. Something happened to me last night in my drunken frenzy. Sure I may have had one too many monkeys, but it awakened me and made me want to be out of my comfort zone as much as possible.

“Alright, sure. Let’s go.” I grabbed my bag, dropped $2.50 on the table for the coffee, and said goodbye to Angel.

“I’m sure i’ll see you again soon, sweetheart.” she blew me a kiss.

“Thought no one was allowed to call you sweetheart?” Alan said behind me.

“Only Angels can call me that.” I said, scrunching my hair up.

He raised his eyebrows and ran after me.

 

Back at the Lodge, I could hear the crackling of the fire before rounding the corner into the belly of the lobby. It was quiet, people must’ve still been lounging in beds with lovers drunk on their hangovers. Old country music was softly playing about, which I thought was mighty fitting for a place like this. A server came quietly over to us once we perched ourselves near the fire.

“Mr. Drez, sir. Your usual?” a man who looked far too old to be working as a waiter was patiently waiting at his side.

“Thank you, Jack. That’ll be lovely. Make that two of ’em please.” He gave the waiter a nod and he fluttered away disappearing behind the bar.

“Wow, Mr. Bigshot around here, huh.” I said, cockily.

“I told you, I visit the Lodge yearly and Jack has been here since the walls went up.”

Jack appeared in two minutes time with a pot of coffee, a jug of cream, and two whiskey doubles in small vessels. “Thank you, Jack.” he said, as he slipped him a 20.

For awhile, we sat there in silence staring into the fire. I wondered how hot it was in there. I wondered how I could possibly trap its essence and its crackling wood sounds into a jar to open up at times of need. Alan took off his hat and gently placed it on the leather sofa next to him. He poured us both coffees, and poured a drop of whiskey in his cup, before adding a dash of cream. He looked at me and motioned towards the booze with a shrug, and I gave him a shrug response, and so there we were, there I was, drinking whiskey coffees with a man in a mustard suit next to an open fire.

“I call this here a Red Eye, cos it keeps you drunk and awake at all hours leaving ya with bloodshot eyes,” he let out that deep bellied laugh of his. “Alright, let’s just get straight into it. Why don’t you tell me what your plan is, or if you have one, and if you have any material for me to gaze over..” he leaned back and crossed one leg over the other, taking a rather large sip of his red eye. He let out one of those ‘ahhh’ sounds people sometimes do after taking a drink and I almost threw my drink out and walked off right then and there.

“Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t have a plan. I’ve been on a trip down to San Diego from Portland with my boyfriend to visit his family. We’ve had plans to stop in LA for a couple days, but not near enough time as I would like. I also found a ring in his bag the other night which I presume he’s about to show me and ask me a certain question, and, well, I don’t want that at all right now in this point in my life. Truth is, i’m not ready for such a thing. I haven’t lived for myself at all in my life and damnit, don’t I deserve that? Doesn’t everyone? Truth is, i’ve had a sort of awakening, a eureka moment, if you will, and I just want to take it and run with it, but, well, see now i’ve got myself in a pickle, as I always do. So..” I stopped, noticing I was crying. “Sorry..”

He just sat there in silence, with that same smirk on his face, and I wanted to hit him square in the teeth and run away, but I just sat there waiting for him to say something.

“Have you been writing?” he asked.

“Every day, every chance I get,” I said quietly.

“And what do you plan to do now? What will you do about your man friend?” he asked timidly.

I thought about this for a moment. I forgot about Ed entirely and didn’t know what to say or how to say it. We had been together for five years and i’ve kept these feelings bottled up for too long to count. Guilt started seeping in again so I blinked a few times and washed it down with a red eye gulp. I gazed up at the walls. There were paintings of the Sierra’s, the Cascades, countless National Parks, the Pacific Coast Highway, and scenes from Reno. Taxidermy animals were perched around all areas of the lobby as well. A massive bobcat lurked above the Sierra’s, and a big moose head sat above the fire mantel. I wanted to grab it all, muddle it down to a paste, and mix it up with whiskey. Drink it down until it filled me with purpose.

“I don’t know what i’ll do. I suppose i’ll go along with him and i’ll have to tell him everything. Then, I don’t know what.” the tears started welling again in my eyes. This was the unfortunate part about breaking away for myself. I had to leave one behind and it would hurt him. Poor Ed just needed a normal girl. A girl who was happy working part time, allowing him to care for her, to depend on him. She’d make pot roasts and host dinner parties, and wouldn’t daydream about Hollywood or the desert. She’d be in a book club and it would be enough excitement for her. I couldn’t be furthest from that and he had been trying to fit his square peg in my round hole for years now. But now, the words were flowing out of me, and they needed to be on paper. I needed to get it out there and be something.

“Well, I tell you what, i’ve seen you sing, i’ve seen you dance, and damnit I know you can write. You’re an artist, inside an out. It basically spills out of that little body of yours! It’s in your eyes, it’s in your tone..but you need to recognize that first. You’ve got to dig inside and carve that shit out! Now I know you’ve got it in ya, and you might be thinking, well shit, you’ve just met me, you don’t know shit, in that sassy little tone of yours. But I’ve got an intuition like no other, and throughout all my years doing what I do, I’ve been good at it because of this gift, you see? And this is why i’m so successful doing what I do. If you think that you can get out there on the road, and spark somethin, anything, and you write some words on that little venture of yours, you flick that through to me and i’ll make some magic happen for ya, I swear it.”

I sat there in bewilderment. I looked around at the others in the room, waiting for everyone to pop up at the same time and say, ‘Surprise! You’ve been fooled!’ But they all went about their business, Jack behind the bar, a couple of cowboys talking low in the corner, old timers perched at the slot machines with their cigarette bowls and jar of pennies.

“Um, thank you? Sorry, I don’t really know what to say..” my voice sounding small and like it was from a child.

“Listen, I’ve been in your shoes. Where you are now is at the start of the fork. The road you’re on splits off in two different ways, and you’re the driver who has to make the call: do I go left? Or do I go right? What’s to the left? Home, familiarity, making someone happy.. and what about the right? The unfamiliar, new digs, new beginnings, making yourself happy? I know that it’s scary, I was in this same position about 25 years ago, and I was lucky enough to have someone pushing me to chase after my dreams. Sometimes, all we need is a little shove in the right direction for us to hit the ground running. Now, I can sit here and preach to you all day long, but i’m a busy man and i’ve got people like yourself to meet with. I would love to work with you and i’m sure we will be laughing about this a few years down the road, but the choice is yours. Don’t decide anything right now, sweetheart. You’ve got my card. Just keep in touch and shoot me through some of your jib jab once you’ve got a minute. My tabs open so keep drinkin’ all you like. Alright?”

With that, he picked up his hat and placed it back on his head. He reached out his hand to give mine a shake, and turned on his heel. Before he reached the door, I shouted, “Hey!” he turned around towards me, “Don’t call me sweetheart, damnit!”

He tilted his head back with that big-bellied laugh of his, and did a guilty prance out the door. I laughed and was quick to notice that I was indeed drunk. What a delight that strange encounter was! And what a joy, to be drunk in the day! I felt high as a kite and warm and fuzzy from the fire and booze. I ordered another round for myself and sat in complete bliss next to the fire. I thought about Angel and wondered what time she was off work. I thought about all the people she must meet day in and day out. Bet she’d have some stories to tell. I took out my notepad and began to write. I wrote of Ed, of the tiki lounge, of dancing my way back to life, and of Alan Drez, from Silo Talent with that Sierra backdrop. Hot damn. I really was at the fork in the road.

Dizzily, I got up and asked Jack for a to-go cup. He handed me a styrofoam cup about two hands tall, and gave me a wink. “Shall I top it up, miss?” I gave him a giddy nod. Surely, this was all a dream and I would be waking up soon with a pounding headache. I walked off, biting the edges of the cup.

Knowing too well that eventually I’d have to face Ed, I took a walk down Virginia Street, lost in thoughts and buzzing from booze and caffeine. The city was so alive with promise and hopes of cash. The dazzling lights were intoxicating in amongst themselves and dripped off buildings and signs like melted candy. “7.00 Unlimited Buffet!” “$24 a room” “Happy Hour Til 4am!” It was filled with noise and laughter, glamour, invitation and escape. Music burst like tidal waves out of every venue passed. Live bands, jazz bands, blues bands, honky tonk. I grasped my cup and held it close to my chest, grinned ear to ear, the whiskey warming my throat in the brisk air. And with a few more sluggish steps, there she was, next to Fitzgerald’s, the infamous Reno Sign. So Mr. Drez was right after all, it really was the biggest little city in the world.

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.