She was the kind of woman who straightened her curls. God forbid they would bounce up and out, revealing her true nature. Abandoned time and time again, she picked herself up and went right on living. Sometimes that meant packing up and taking the next exit off the highway. All dirt roads lead somewhere.
She ended up at the Sunshine Diner during one of these packing up and heading off days. Trying to emulate the diners of the fifties, Sunshine’s silver rimmed walls and roof blazed in the desert sun. She was dazzled. Though she was trying to spend as little as possible, nothing could keep her from coffee and a glazed donut.
Habits, even those of others, have their effect. Coffee and a donut once a day, when the sun was at its highest, and taking the time to enjoy it, was something Grandpa Mike used to do. Day after day for over forty years. He must have eaten thousands, she reckoned. “Gotta make time for your pleasures,” he’d say with a smile. But that was a long time ago. Grandpa Mike was part of her other life, one she rarely let herself reminisce on. The cool blast of air as she opened the diner door was like heaven after miles in the old station wagon. She strode forward, ignoring the hostess, took a booth by the window. Probably for parties of two or more, but who cared. She wasn’t the type of woman people stood up to.
An aging Hispanic woman approached, set down water. Too much ice made her teeth hurt. The straw would make it bearable. She studied the woman’s face as she revealed the specials in monotone broken English. How long had she been here? Too long in this place. Fingernails worn to the bone. The fire had gone out inside this woman.
Renee ordered her coffee and donut. Maybe afterwards she would have eggs, but the coffee would probably give her enough energy for the next stretch of asphalt. She watched the waitress tend to other customers, methodical in her movements, drop a check here, wipe a spill there. Still, better than what she had left behind, probably. Everyone is running from something, out here in the no-man’s land of endless highways between hubs. At least the frontier settlers had unspoiled landscape through the puckered gaps in their wagons. Now it was billboards for cars and bail bondsmen. Things change. She felt like she had not. She adapted to the circumstances. She paid the check, leaving a few singles for the waitress. Their eyes met as she reached for the door. An understanding, each recognizing something in the other. A toughness, hard to say. The heat had not abated. It was time to go.
Nevada was an unforgiving place, Las Vegas in particular.
Jackie and her husband Ron moved there five years ago from L.A. Their agency bit the dust and they found a cheap foreclosure a few miles from the strip. Part of Jackie enjoyed the anonymity this place offered. She could hide in her air conditioned house all day, no one would bother her.
Ron was beginning to slip in and out of dementia. He was no longer fully of this world, but seemed happy nonetheless. He spent his days reading his old National Geographics, reengaging in his twin childhood loves of science and nature.
He had somehow talked her into getting a cat.
“They don’t need taking care of,” he prodded, while they stood in the mall staring at kittens behind glass. “They do their own thing. Just like you.”
He twisted her arm. Still knew how to talk her into something. “I can put up with one lousy cat,” she decided, showing no outward signs of enthusiasm.
Felix, so aptly named, was astute and almost princely, true to his feline nature. Jet black with one white paw. Did that one splash of white remove him from the black brethren of lucky cats? He enjoyed a languid existence, napped often, and kept to his own schedule. Sometimes he would stop and look at Jackie before he departed for his evening prowl in the abandoned construction site behind the house. He would look for a moment, then go on his way, as if to say “Don’t wait up.”
He would return in the violet light of late evening, his bounty in his mouth. Mice, usually. Sometimes a bird or two. One time the sinister half carcass of an opossum, smiling in death. They had an understanding, Felix and Jackie. Though she liked to be alone, he made her feel less so. Two planets in orbit around a central sun that nurtured them both. Sometimes Jackie liked to walk the strip at night when Ron was sleeping, Felix curled beneath the air conditioning vent.
Bachelorette parties, guys on tour, the beautiful and damned, spilling into the streets and back into casinos, clubs, the next hot spot. It appeared to her that they were in a fog. They didn’t seem to see her. Once, people used to stare at her when she walked down the street. Red hair, smooth pale skin, a dancer’s body. She could have had her pick of the jobs in the best of these clubs. She knew she still looked good, but the sparkle of youth had been extinguished. Part of her mind still lived in that time, L.A. in the early fifties, sepia toned, parties till dawn, the taste of last night’s gin and tonic on her tongue. She had no desire to go back, but sometimes she wished she could visit.
Jackie found herself at the Bellagio fountains, behind the throngs who worshipped as the jets rose higher. It’s amazing what man can create, this desert playground. She kept walking.
Some small bar in the Tropicana was serving two-for- one. Two gin and tonics for old times’ sake. They went down easy. Round two, old habits die hard. Ron and Felix wouldn’t miss her. There were still a few hours to go till dawn.
She closed her hand around a roll of twenties. The cool night air felt good as she strode purposefully away from the alley. Knocking the guy out had been easy. He was so drunk all his reflexes were off. Met him at the bar, sweet talking. Lured him to her car with the promise of further sweet nothings. She knew he was carrying cash, the telltale cube in his jeans pocket. She felt no guilt. He had it coming. Smart talking to the bartender. Why did some people just adore the sound of their own voice?
Renee slipped the notes into her jacket pocket as she reached her car. This money would get her a little further, across one state, maybe two. Maybe along the way she’d splurge on a Courtyard Marriott. It wasn’t like she didn’t deserve it. Lay by the pool for a day. The idea latched in her mind. Quit running for one day. Sometimes pleasure has to come first.
She sat into the car and pulled down the vanity. She liked how she looked in this half glow. Confident, unafraid. She turned the key in the ignition and rolled out onto the road.
She took an aerobics class every Tuesday morning, but not for the company. She liked the beat of the music and the peppiness of the instructor, Roberto. He was gay, with eyebrows most women would die for. That perfect arch.
Her classmates were of varying ages. Some young, cocktail waitresses staying in shape. Others at the far end of the spectrum, like Jackie, just keeping fit or getting out of the house. Even though in Las Vegas, getting out of the house meant leaving your house for another air conditioned building. Jackie liked the rhythm of the class, movements blending into each other, the women moving in unison. Just the right amount of human interaction. She could spot the others like her, at the back and in the corners. These women made eye contact, smiled, but she knew not to start a full on conversation with them. It wasn’t what she wanted, nor they. Ron never understood her need for solitude. He always needed people around, that was how he relaxed. As she grew older, she found herself retreating more. She liked being an observer, inventing stories about the people she didn’t get to know.
Roberto danced in a Chippendales style show somewhere on the Strip. Part of her wanted to organize a night for the class to go and see him perform. She knew inside it would go down a treat. So what was stopping her? The little voice that she knew was looking out for her best interests. “Think on it a little longer. You don’t have to decide just yet. “She let it win, carried on with the high kicks.
The evening light was waning as she left the nail salon after her aerobics class. The mixture of neon and natural light was disorientating for a moment, otherworldly. Plain pink shellac, the usual. Her nail lady didn’t even ask her to pick a color anymore. Over the years, Jackie had learned bits about her, though they didn’t talk much. Her son, eight years old, was autistic. His father gone, aged grandmother caring for the boy. No English spoken. That’s real hardship, she said to herself and reminded herself of it every time she cursed Ron’s snoring or this desert life, ablaze in white light.
In the car, heading back home. She dimmed her headlights before turning into the driveway, not wanting to disturb Ron in his slumber. In the final flash she saw Felix’s silhouette in the window, waiting for her to return home, betraying his icy exterior. This warmed her heart, and she found herself growing to appreciate her feline companion.
She entered the house through the back door. The hose trickled lazily on the concrete step. She told herself she really ought to turn it off, but she was already halfway inside. Cool air, a faint hum. The house in darkness. She sat at the table, spread her hands on the smooth top. An image came to her then, a memory of the shrouded woman spreading her cards on a table like this one, long ago. Psychics always fascinated her as a child. On her way to school in the mornings, Jackie and her mother would pass Miss Eleanora’s, on the ground floor of a brick two story at the end of the street. Letters on the window in faded gold spelled her name. Jackie would press her face against that window and try to peer in, her mother dragging her away muttering “Fool’s magic.” Mother was strict but gentle, God-fearing. Some things from the old country never leave you. It was God who you listened to and obeyed, not some dark eyed woman who danced with the devil.
Years later, she pulled cards from the deck in a darkened room, Miss Eleanora watching with seasoned indifference. Did she know all the times Jackie had longed to sit in this chair? Her husky voice broke the silence.
“The eight of cups. Wanderlust. Dissatisfaction with what you have. Ennui.” These words meant something and nothing to Jackie. She wondered how many people had changed the course of their lives over a symbol on a card.
Back in the present, she poured herself a glass of crisp white wine and sat in the dark. The psychic’s words rang in her ears. Ennui. The world rolled easily off the tongue. Maybe she and Ron should go to Paris, see the Eiffel Tower. Ask a French person to explain the word to her, give her its true meaning.
Light padding on the tiles, the swish of Felix’s tail through the air. He did not join her at the table but perched on the marble hearth. He always liked to sit somewhere cool. He regarded her from his perch, eyes unmoving.
Jackie raised her glass to him. Silence enveloped them in the half light. She felt content in that moment, yet a tiny piece of her felt that something was still missing. She knew, but still could not give it any words.
She woke to the sounds of maids in the hallway, chattering in Spanish. A crack in the curtain left a shaft of pale pre-dawn light on her pillow. She closed her eyes and tried to block out these annoyances. She could feel the presence of her many shopping bags on the other side of the room and groaned. The logical side of her brain was wide awake, making up for its absence yesterday when she visited the mall with the wad of twenties.
“Those jeans could have bought three meals.”
She sat up, mouth dry, chest tight. Where to now? Usually she had a plan in place. Sitting in some generic hotel in the middle of America. Down to her last hundred. Immigrants came here with nothing. Surely the only way for her to go was up. As soon as she had her coffee and donut, then she would decide. Halfway to California. Maybe she would go to Santa Monica, walk on the pier, dip her toes in the Pacific. The thought soothed her restless mind. A lyric came to her and she found herself humming, “California here we come, right back where we started from.”
Renee liked to be on the highway as day broke. First, the sky tinged with lavender, then pink, the colors of a little girl’s bedroom. A waning blue, knowing its time was drawing to a close, the last stars fading. Then a burst of fresh light, slightly less glaring.
When she was a little girl, she was fascinated that it could be daytime on one side of the world and night on the other. Couldn’t get her head around it. She remembered Grandpa Mike showing her how the sun and moon could appear in the sky at the same time. Two deities. She sat rapt on the grass in the hot evening. It hurt to think of him, so she stopped.
A little further down the highway, she pulled into the shoulder, got out and laid back on the bonnet. The hot metal felt smooth and comforting against her body. A large bird wheeled overhead. A condor? She was getting close. Now and again, she thought she could smell the sea on a passing breeze. She felt tired now, having driven through the early morning hours. She allowed herself to doze. The highway remained mercifully quiet in these early hours, she was alone with the road, as she had been for so long.
The road never talked back or asked questions, it just let her drive away from what needed to be left behind. She thought now of the papers in the pocket of her bag, turning thin and soft with age. The name of a hospital, a woman, a date.
© 2016 Jenny Griffin