Blue Highway

By Thomas M. Atkinson

I’m sitting in my rusty Corolla across from the entrance to the Whispering Palms trailer park that I have, until just this moment, called home. My black 1984 Fender D’Aquisto is belted in across the back seat and my stage clothes are hanging above it on one of those wardrobe bars that seem only to be purchased by salesmen and old couples in Lincoln Town Cars. I turned in my key and signed a piece of paper acknowledging that I fully understood, in all available legalese, that my security deposit and the remainder of this month’s rent were forfeit. It’s not like I ever expected to get the security deposit back, and it’s not like the check they are holding will clear anyway, so I guess we’re even. Now I’m just sipping on a travel mug full of Bailey’s Irish Cream, listening to distant sirens, waiting for the show to start.

      I fell in love and was fired today.

      She was on this morning’s cruise, with her mother and her sister, and I saw her in the main lounge before I changed into my costume. I think she was Cuban, her hair up tight in a high bun, with large brown eyes. She was wearing a sleeveless white blouse, a denim skirt and flat sandals, and her skin glowed like polished amber. And she was hugely, unnaturally, majestically tall. Volleyball-scholarship-at-a-Big-Ten tall. Probably six-five or six-six. She was almost a full head taller than everyone else. She looked just like her sister, if her sister had been bitten by a radioactive spider, or exposed to gamma rays, or put in some mad scientist’s Gigantor Girl machine. Her mother had that sixth sense that a lot of Latina mothers have, some internal laser triangulation device which targets any male dishonoring her daughter with his eyes.

      They were at the back of the line for the buffet, behind the blue-haired regulars who’d postponed staking out their favorite nickel slot to mount an early assault on the mountain of free hard-boiled eggs. For reasons that remain unclear to me, hard-boiled eggs are always disproportionately represented on the daytime buffet, freshly peeled and dozens deep in square stainless pans, like the glistening roe of some giant albino carp. The last remnants of the Greatest Generation seem drawn to them, like the privations of depressions and world wars guide them instinctively past bait-sized ‘peel-n-eat’ shrimp, to cheap, familiar, plentiful protein.

      Except for the unfortunate hairline, my resemblance to Neil Diamond is quite unremarkable. My hair is naturally curlier than his, especially in the thick humidity of Florida, so once I’m on board, well-dosed with Dramamine and in the air-conditioned fog of diesel fumes, cigarette smoke, and old ladies’ cologne, I wet my hair and blow-dry it to something more like straight before encasing it in Aqua Net. Once a month I even out the color with L’Oreal’s Superior Preference #5AM, Medium Amber Brown, because I’m worth it. One of the featured dancers at my last job thought I should, actually whispered it to me with sweet Bailey’s breath, and since it’s one of the few pieces of career advice I’ve ever received, I couldn’t not take it. I have a blousy blue-sequined shirt that hides a lot of pudge, but it’s expensive to get dry cleaned, and the one time I hung it outside to air, my neighbors’ kids dressed a stray dog in it. Makeup and stage lights help. When I was fifteen I won a talent show at temple that my mother and her friends organized singing “Sweet Caroline,” and these many years later I still open every set with it.

      For the past month I’ve been paired with Reba McEntire, aka Wanda Skaggs, who looks considerably less like Reba than I do, and whose homage consists almost entirely of a red wig and braying “y’all” at full voice. She applies her makeup with a little rubber squeegee, which she can do while talking, smoking a Virginia Slims menthol, and drinking from a bottomless sloe gin fizz. The audience never seems to mind that she can’t play an instrument and lip-syncs like the heroine in a martial arts movie. Her alcohol-fueled exuberance is such that people are frightened not to clap. I take a certain pride in singing my own songs and playing my own instrument, which took a bit of getting used to for the three-piece house band.

      Our emcee is a light-absorbing Haitian who wears mirrored sunglasses and claims to have once eaten part of an Aristide supporter during the rebellion. He is also the DJ between shows and never fails to play the crowd favorites, “Bad Boys” and “Rocky Top.” Four times a day, twice during the morning cruise and twice during the evening cruise, he introduced me as, “The one, the only, the incomparable Jazz Singer himself, Mister Neil Diamond!” The first show of either cruise was best because everyone was still waiting to get far enough offshore for the gambling to commence. By the second show everyone was broke and pissed off, or drunk and broke and pissed off. It always made me uncomfortable that he never used the words “impersonator” or “tribute,” but never uncomfortable enough to confront a man unashamed to eat his enemies.

      She was at the first show, with her mother and sister at one of the small tables that edge the dance floor, crowded along one side to see the stage. And like some trick of perspective in a science book, only she appeared seated in a child’s chair. Even up on the little riser that served as the stage, we were very nearly eye to eye. After “Sweet Caroline,” I kept it bouncy with “Forever in Blue Jeans” and “Song Sung Blue.” I sang “Longfellow Serenade,” then I made a clumsy introduction to “America” in which I think I thanked all of the boat people for overrunning Miami-Dade. They didn’t seem to notice, and her mother smiled and sang along with the chorus.

      I sang “Kentucky Woman” and, even with her sitting there, all I could think of was my neighbors’ lone lawn ornament: a flat UK Wildcats basketball on a ceramic birdbath pedestal. There were also two rusting mag wheels tucked under the edge of their trailer but I could never tell if they were decorative or structural. The Kentucky fans were a man and a woman and an assortment of children who all seemed less than nine months apart. He had a “.38 Special” tattoo across one shoulder, and she didn’t own a bra, and the stench of caustic chemicals and fried food hung between our trailers like wet laundry. The kids never went to school and woke me early every morning by throwing the heavy seedpods of a magnolia tree up on my roof. Once, after the weekly game of dodge-the-appliance, a parole officer came and took him away. She sat at my breakfast nook and picked at a sore on her arm and tried to work up a few tears. After he came back, he always smiled and called me “Jew Boy” and I don’t know why.

      When I sang, “Solitary Man,” I sang it like I had only once before, the one time I sang it like I meant it. My first job when I arrived in town was at Sassy Merlot’s II, a strip club in a strip mall over on the bypass. I introduced the dancers and did a few songs between girls with a little practice amp I could get off the stage quickly. Sometimes I’d stay and help Del Ron slop citrus degreaser on the stage after Tiffany did her baby oil shower. Once I took her out for popcorn shrimp and a movie, then back to the trailer and a well-chilled bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream. I groped her in the breakfast nook until she brought up the issue of money. While I thought we were on a date, she thought we were on a “date,” the difference being several more twenties than I had left in my wallet after popcorn shrimp, hours of Kevin Costner, and the bottle of Bailey’s. She pulled up her tube top and slammed the flimsy screen door on her way out, and as she crunched her way across the gravel she said, “Yet another reason not to fuck the help.”

      My neighbor stood in his doorway and laughed like a donkey. The next day I was replaced by a pimply-faced kid who banged his drum kit along to heavy metal tunes broadcast over the sound system, but not before I sang “Solitary Man” like Neil must have to the woman that broke his heart. The owner denied my release was Tiffany-related, he just said I depressed the customers.

      While I was singing “I am ... I said,” the audience sang along with the chorus, and not because it’s the most popular Neil Diamond song, but because it has the most memorable chorus, although at any given moment half of them were singing, “I said” and the other half were singing, “I cried.” It’s a natural mistake, and one I used to make myself. But she knew the words, and I watched her lips form every one of them, her tongue working there in the darkness. She shouldered her sister gently and turned to smile at her mother, a smile warm and shy in the same moment of time. When she turned back, there was still some left for me. And that brief smile, like sunlight off sand-polished shells, emboldened some small and restive me.

      So I sang, “I’m a Believer,” which I usually didn’t because it required more explanation than most audiences cared to listen to. Everybody thinks it’s a Monkees song, so they didn’t understand why “Neil Diamond” is singing a Monkees song, unless you explain that he wrote it and by then some drunk was usually yelling, “Who gives a shit?” A reasonable question, all things considered. Nobody came on a gambling cruise to hear fake band roots music. It’s best not to confuse an audience that could care less anyway. But she liked it, I knew she would, and she and her sister bobbed their heads in time with the music, and paddled the air in a seated version of some ‘60s dance craze. Not many people ever got up to dance on the daytime cruise.

      Wanda was stamping her heels behind one speaker bank, and the Haitian signaled me to wrap things up by dragging one thumb slowly across his throat. I spoke to the band and before I announced that it was my last song, I asked for a spotlight. I stepped back to turn up the reverb and vibrato on my amp. And when I stepped back into the narrow light, I caught her eyes and sang, “Girl...” D, B flat, A, G -- a twangy four-note switchblade solo, the way they covered it in Pulp Fiction -- “You’ll be a woman soon ...” D minor chord to bring in the band.

      The next three minutes were, I’m not sorry to say, the greatest of my sorry life. I was angry and pleading, hopelessly in love and hell-bent, every outsider and outcast who’s ever found true love on the other side of the tracks. For three minutes I was James Dean and Romeo, her mother’s disapproval fuel for my fire, and I didn’t need control-top underwear to lean on a fender with the sleeves of my white T-shirt rolled high. How could this have come from the same pen as “Cracklin’ Rosé”?

Girl, you’ll be a woman soon.

Please come take my hand.

Girl, you’ll be a woman soon,

Soon, you’ll need a man.

      I played the solo again and let the G note ring, and when the lights went out, I was still grinding the body of my D’Aquisto like a living thing, with my pick hand held high. I could hear her clapping in the dark, and I walked out through the double doors before the lights came back up, not even thinking about looking back.

      In the dressing room, I wiped the sweat and makeup off my face with a cloth napkin, James Dean wondering at the jowly little man in the mirror. I thought about going down to the gaming levels to look for her. I almost did. But I think I realized that what she’d clapped for would be noticeably absent on the casino floor, and I’d best just wait for the second show. Instead I just sat there, rearranging a set list in my head, until Wanda threw the door open and yelled, “What the hell was that supposed to be?” And I couldn’t begin to explain.

      Before the next show I went down to the gift shop for more Dramamine. I took the back way, down the service stairs, through narrow aisles of chain-smoking regulars, tethered to their nickel slots by neck lanyards clipped to prepaid gambling cards. On my way back, I came up out of the stairwell and turned into the companionway, absently attending to a stray nose hair. She wasn’t supposed to be there, let alone with her sister. No one was ever there. It wasn’t a place you stopped. It was not a smudged porthole that anyone looked out. But they turned, and she looked over the top of her sister’s head in time to see Neil Diamond with a finger up his nose. Then she watched me try to run faster than the speed of laughter.

      What I remember next is sitting in the dressing room, the emcee behind me in the mirror. And Wanda shouting through the door, “Is he coming, or what?” He rested his hands gently on my shoulders and said, “It’s show time, Neil. They’re waiting for you.” Which is exactly what I was afraid of. I looked at his mirrored lenses in the mirror and shook my head. He said, “If you don’t come now, Mister H, he say ‘You fired.’ “ And without a pause, without breaking his unseen gaze, I said, “You can kill me and eat me ... but I’m not going out there.” He pursed his lips and thought about that for a moment, then squeezed my shoulders once before he left. As he eased the door shut, I heard him tell Wanda, “Leave him be.”

      I’m in love and currently seeking employment.

      Three Brevard County Sheriff’s Deputies have already pulled into Whispering Palms, along with two fire trucks, a white SUV from Child Services, and the haz-mat unit that always responds when they might have a meth lab. The local news can’t be far behind. I pour out the rest of my Bailey’s and turn south on the A1A. I’ll catch glimpses of the glittering sea between condos and cottages, piers and dunes, and follow the blue highway all the way down to Miami. Her sister was wearing a Hurricanes shirt. I know it’s a long shot, but it’s all that I’ve got.

Copyright © 2003 by Thomas M. Atkinson

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“Blue Highway” took first prize in Cincinnati’s Mercantile Library 2004 Short Story competition and was originally published in that city’s CityBeat magazine. Mr. Atkinson’s novel Strobe Life is available from Electron Press. He is the author of six plays, including the one-woman show “Cuttings”, which premiered in 2003 at the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, and was the Comedy/Drama Finalist in the Seventh Annual New Play Contest at Theatre Conspiracy in Fort Myers, Florida.

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