Friday, December 31, 2010

Chapter 5

“Night, Miss Tillie!”  Annabelle called as she paused by the front door.

“ ‘Night, Annie.  You be careful drivin’ home now, ya hear?”  Tillie’s voice rang out from the kitchen.

Annie rolled her eyes and grinned at Richie.  “She’s been sayin’ that every night since I learned to drive when I was fourteen.”  She raised her voice to reply.  “Yes, Ma’am.  I’ll see you in the mornin’, bright and early.”

Otis’ surprised face appeared in the window.  “Girl, you workin’ all day tomorrow?”

Annie nodded.  “I told you I was working for Sadie.  She’s still in Savannah until tomorrow night.  I’m working a double shift tomorrow.”

Otis tsk-tsked as he shook his head.  “You gonna be dead on your feet come tomorrow night, Child.”  Then he grinned and gave Annabelle a wink.  “No night-owlin’  for you tomorrow night, huh?  Besides, you got your Gentleman Friend there to entertain.  Can’t just leave him sittin’ home all alone while you go out gallavantin’ around on a Saturday night.”

Annie laughed.  “Sure, Otis,” she answered, nodding her head toward Richie.  “What makes you think Richie wouldn’t want to do some gallavantin’?”

“Ohhhh, he looks like too fine a young man.  He’ll probably wanna stay home and read the Bible.”  Otis winked at Richie.  “Don’t let that Little Girl corrupt you now, hear?”

Richie arched an eyebrow at Annie, giving her a little smirk.  “Corrupt me?  This nice little Southern girl?  I doubt it.”

“Ohhhhh, Sonny,” Otis shook his head as he laughed.  “You just don’t even know what you’re in for.  Just don’t know.”  He swept a hand toward the door.  “Now both of ya, get on outta here.  Shoo.  Go Home.”

Annie giggled and blew him a kiss.  “Night, Otis. See you in the mornin’.”

“Sleep well, Child.  You too, Son.”

“Goodnight, Sir.  Ma’am!”  Richie called out his farewell to Tillie, who was still banging around the kitchen out of sight.  Then he followed Annabelle through the glass door and across the sidewalk to her pickup truck.  Before he could remember his manners and dash around to open her door, she had already climbed into the driver’s seat.  With a sheepish shrug Richie pulled open the passenger door and slid onto the seat.

“What time do you have to be back in the morning?” Richie asked as the engine roared to life.

“Seven.  Tillie and Otis will handle the early crowd.”  Annie slid her arm along the back of the seat as she turned to look over her shoulder before backing the truck out of its parking space.  With the movement her fingers nudged against Richie’s shoulder.

Richie’s skin tingled at the brush of her fingers against his t-shirt.  He smiled and looked at her, catching her profile as Annie craned her neck to look out the back window.  “There’s an earlier crowd than seven?”  Richie couldn’t fathom anyone being up and about at that hour.  He certainly wasn’t used to it.

Annie chuckled as she turned forward, shifting the truck into drive and letting it roll forward.  “Shrimpers, fishermen.  They’re out on the water at first light.  And they eat breakfast before then.”

“Oh.”  Richie looked out his window at Eddie’s Texaco as they rolled past.  He felt a knot tighten in his stomach as he remembered tomorrow he would have to figure out some way to pay for the Impala’s repair.  “Will Eddie’s place be open?”

“Yep.  Seven to five on Saturdays.”  Annie glanced sideways at Richie and saw his thoughtful expression.  “You gonna come in with me?  Or, if you want you can drive me to work then use my truck.  That way you don’t have to sit around bored all day.”

Richie shook his head in wonder at her offer.  He still couldn’t get over her generosity.  Not only had Annabelle invited him into her home, given him a place to sleep, and vowed to entertain him all weekend, now she was offering him her only means of transportation.  “Thanks, but I need to see what’s going on with my car in the morning.  I’ll just hang out at the garage with Eddie.  Maybe help him work on it, if he don’t mind.”

Annie chuckled softly.  “I’m sure he won’t mind a bit.  He’ll be happy to have somebody around.”

Richie nodded silently and turned away, looking out the window at the little town as they rolled past.  In a short minute Main Street had disappeared, replaced by tidy little houses glowing with warm light in the velvety Southern night.  The sweet, heavy scent of magnolias wafted in on the breeze that caressed Richie’s face and ruffled his hair.  This is nothing like back home, Richie mused silently.  This is a different world.

He turned his head to look at Annabelle and saw her smiling, her hands on the wheel and her eyes on the road, her honeyed hair swirling about her face.  Richie felt a little flutter in his heart at how pretty she looked in the dusky moonlight.  His eyes remained on her for a long minute before turning to the road.

They made the rest of the short drive in silence, listening to the radio.  Richie watched the scenery as the old pickup truck rumbled down the paved road, then turned off the asphalt onto a dusty country lane.  Gravel crunched under the tires as Annie guided the truck slowly down the winding path toward a tall stand of pine trees.

As they approached the trees Richie saw several small dwellings set back from the road.  A worn-looking trailer home was closest, rickety steps leading up to its dingy door and a faint light burning in the window at one end.  Further back, down a dirt driveway a pair of dilapidated shacks sat facing each other.  An assortment of rusty, dented vehicles surrounded the ramshackle structures. 

These homes bore the look of hard times; Richie wondered what the people who inhabited them were like.  In his travels through the South he had seen true poverty, entire families living on faith in barely-inhabitable structures like these.   Richie unconsciously shook his head at his musings.  He had grown up in a working-class neighborhood and times had been tough for his folks, but their home had always been comfortable.  He couldn’t imagine living in a house like one of these, that looked as if a strong wind would send it tumbling down.  Suddenly his own money worries didn’t seem quite so dire.

As they drove into the shadow of the pine grove Richie looked again at Annabelle.  His expression softened as his eyes traced over her profile, her face illuminated by the glow of the dashboard lights.  His gaze lingered on her lips.  They were plump and moist, and they looked so soft.  Richie felt a tingle run down his spine as he wondered what they felt like, how they tasted.  Somehow he just knew they were as sweet as the cherries in the pie she had served him back at the diner.

Richie blushed and looked away from Annabelle at the thought of kissing her.  It somehow seemed improper of him to have such a romantic notion.  But she was so pretty, so kind, so friendly…  Richie couldn’t help but feel affection for her.  He shifted uncomfortably in his seat as he felt a stirring in his groin that was most definitely more than affectionate. 

Stop it, he told himself.  She’s saving my ass.  What the Hell am I doing, thinking about her like some piece of tail?  She’s an angel.  Richie again glanced at Annabelle.  She’s way too good for me, for damned sure.

Annabelle stole a sideways glance at Richie as he fidgeted on the seat beside her.  She could sense his unease. Truth be told she was just a little anxious too, to be bringing him to her home.  Annie wasn’t afraid of Richie or worried he may try to take advantage of her; she felt completely safe with him.  But she felt a little charge of nervous excitement at the thought of being alone with him.

Moonlight flooded the cab of the truck as it emerged from the pine grove into an open meadow.  Richie saw the road snaking ahead, skirting along the edge of a grassy marsh.  Ahead on the right, nestled back against the trees, was a small white house.  A light glowed warmly on the tidy porch, welcoming them home as Annie pulled the pickup into the drive and turned off the engine.

“This is your house?” Richie’s surprise was evident in his voice as he turned his head to look at Annie.  “Wow – It’s nice.”

She chuckled at his wide-eyed stare.  “Yep.  And it’s got indoor plumbing and everything.”  She immediately regretted her joke as Richie dropped his eyes to his lap and mumbled an awkward apology.

“I.. I didn’t mean… Sorry…”

Annie silently cursed her smartassedness. “Richie, I’m sorry.  I’m teasing.  I know what you meant.”  Annie reached across the seat to gently squeeze his arm.  “Thank You.  It’s my Mama’s house.”

Again surprise lifted Richie’s brow as he looked back up at her.  “You live here with your Ma?”

Annie shook her head, her thick blonde waves shining in the moonlight.  “No.  My Mama’s gone.”  Her voice was soft, tinged with sadness.

“Oh.” Richie felt a stab of guilt.  “I… I’m sorry.”  He didn’t know what else to say.

“S’okay.  There’s nothing for you to be sorry about, Richie.  She’s in a better place.”  Annie gave him a gentle smile before turning to push open the door at her side. 

Richie followed her lead, climbing out of the truck.  He reached into the bed and hauled out his ruck, slinging it over his shoulder before more carefully lifting his guitar case.  Taking a deep breath, he followed Annie up the walk to the house and onto the porch. 

They paused in silence while Annie pulled open the screen door and turned her key in the lock.  Then she turned and gave him a wide smile, her blue eyes sparkling in the moonlight.  “C’mon in.” 

Richie realized his palms were sweating and his mouth had gone dry.  Licking his lips and taking another deep breath, Richie followed Annie through the door.  He stopped just across the threshold, blinking as his eyes tried to adjust to the dusky greyness of the room, then squinting as a sudden burst of light illuminated the space with Annie’s flick of a lamp switch. 

“It ain’t fancy, but it’s home.”  Annabelle’s soft drawl made Richie’s involuntary grimace soften to a smile.  As his eyes adjusted to the light he swiveled his head to look around the tidy little living room.  It looked like her; warm and feminine but not fussy.  Richie felt his nervousness subside a little in the comfort of the cozy room.

A worn braided rug blanketed a scuffed pinewood floor and the walls were covered with light brown wood paneling.  Against one wall sat a beige and rose floral-upholstered couch flanked by simple wooden end tables bearing small lamps.  Across the room, on either side of a picture window looking out over the front yard sat matching rose-colored wing-backed chairs.   Lacy beige curtains framed the window.

A television rested on an old trunk on the adjoining wall, its rabbit-ear antennae askew.  In the corner Richie noticed an ornate oak console.   Its fabric-covered front provided a clue to its contents; the turntable, radio, and eight-track tape player hidden inside.  A small adjacent bookshelf was stacked with record albums, books, and eight-track tapes.

Richie turned his gaze to Annie, who was quietly watching him survey the room.  “It’s really nice.” He smiled with his heartfelt complement.  “It fits you.”

“Thanks.”  Annie held Richie’s gaze for a moment, feeling her pulse quicken as she stared into those deep chocolate pools.  His eyes were beautiful, expressive, and very much the window to his gentle soul.  She again felt a little flutter in her stomach as she returned his smile. “Um, you can drop your stuff anywhere.”

Richie nodded and stepped over to set his guitar case on the floor in front of the stereo.  He carefully slid the ruck from his shoulder and dropped it lightly on the floor beside his guitar.  Richie hastily gave the bag a nudge with his foot when it tilted sideways.  Somehow it seemed his rumpled, musty meager belongings would make a mess in Annie’s pretty, tidy little house.  He took another deep breath before straightening and turning to look at her.

“Well, as you can see, your bed is there.”  Annabelle swept a hand toward the couch.  “I’ll get you a pillow and blanket.  And the bathroom’s just down the hall, on your left.”  She turned and pointed in the opposite direction, toward an arched doorway on the other side of the room.  “Kitchen’s in there – help yourself to whatever you can find.  Probably ain’t much in the fridge, I haven’t gone to the market in a week.  Sorry.”

Richie chuckled.  “Thanks, but I’m not hungry.  You fed me pretty good at the diner.”

Annie grinned.  “Well, I do have somethin’ in the fridge.  Why don’t you go grab us a couple beers while I change outta these work clothes?  I’ll just be a minute.”

“Okay.”  Richie nodded and paused for a moment before moving hesitantly toward the doorway to the kitchen.  He grinned sheepishly as he heard Annie’s chuckle.  He glanced back over his shoulder to see her retreating down the short hallway toward her bedroom.

Pull it together, Dude, Richie thought with a little shake of his dark head.  He had actually felt very comfortable and relaxed with Annie earlier at the restaurant.  But that was in a public place, with other people around.  Not alone in her house.  But now that he was here, there was no going back.  He just needed to chill out and try not to make an ass of himself.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Chapter 4

Richie looked up with a mouthful of mashed potatoes when Annie returned from the kitchen.  Swallowing and quickly wiping his mouth with a paper napkin, he grinned.  “This may be the best meat loaf I’ve ever had.”

Annie dropped her eyes to his plate and saw it was clean.  She laughed and shook her head.  “Did you even taste it?” she teased.  “Or did you just inhale?”

Richie blushed slightly.  He had been famished; all recall of table manners had gone out the window after his first bite.  “Yeah – it was great,” he repeated.

“You want some more, or are you ready for some dessert?”  Annie grinned and set a wide slice of cherry pie on the counter beside Richie’s dinner plate.

Richie chuckled and nodded.  “I could eat a little dessert.  I love homemade pie.  That’s one of the things I miss most about my Ma – her pies.”  He picked up his fork and hesitated, silently reminding himself to mind his manners. 

Annie leaned forward, placing her elbows on the counter and resting her chin on her folded hands.  Her smile gentled as she watched Richie carefully cut a piece of the pie with his fork and lift it to his mouth.  “You and your Mama close?”

Richie nodded, chewing and swallowing his bite of pie before responding.  “Yeah. I’m lucky – I have great parents.  They’ve always been supportive of whatever I’ve tried to do.”

“Mmmm,” Annie mused quietly. “How ‘bout other family? Brothers? Sisters?”

“Nuh-uh,” Richie shook his head, his long dark locks swaying with the motion.  “Just me.  Only child.”

“Me too.”  Annie was silent for a long minute, watching Richie eat.  She chuckled inwardly as she noticed he was trying hard to be mannerly, taking small bites of the pie and chewing slowly, a paper napkin draped over his lap.  “You want some coffee?”  She finally asked, standing upright.

“Sure.  Thanks.”  Richie popped the last bite of pie crust in his mouth.  Setting his fork on the empty plate, he watched Annie wander to the end of the counter.  She turned her back to him, picking up the pot and pouring the dark liquid into a beige cup.  Richie’s eyes slid over her figure, lingering for a long moment on her shapely derriere before following her long, tanned legs from the hem of her short skirt to her delicate ankles.  

The corners of Richie’s mouth curved upward.  Not only was Annabelle friendly and sweet, she was very attractive.  When she had given him a ride into town Richie had been so preoccupied with worry over his car and disappointment in himself that he hadn’t really noticed how just pretty she was.

Annie turned, the cup of coffee in her hand.  She saw Richie’s sweet expression and paused for a moment, her eyes meeting his.  His smile was beautiful, reaching his eyes and lighting his whole face.  Annie felt a little flutter of butterfly wings in her stomach as for the first time she saw in Richie not a lonely soul, but a handsome young man.

“Here ya go,” she said softly, breaking the silence as she moved over to set the cup and saucer on the counter.  She reached for the cream pitcher and sugar dispenser, sliding them over beside the cup.

“Thanks, Annie.”  Richie’s smile gentled as he said her name for the first time.  He realized that his earlier nervousness was gone.  He felt totally at ease with this young woman who had come to his rescue today, in more ways than one.

“You’re welcome, Richie.” 

They gazed silently at each other for a long moment, then Richie dropped his eyes to his coffee cup.  Still smiling, he stirred in sugar and cream and took a sip.

Annie reached for Richie’s empty dinner and dessert plates, stacking them before turning and setting them on the ledge for Otis.  She sighed happily to herself as she headed for the corner table to check on the other patrons. 

Annie was encouraged by what had just happened; it was as if an instant bond had formed between her and Richie.  She knew basically nothing about him, but somehow she understood him.  He was a kindred spirit, another battered but romantic soul.  In their silent exchanged look, she could tell.

The Lord works in mysterious ways.  Annie could almost hear her mother’s voice in her ear.  He brings us what we need when we need it most. 

She shook her head slightly at that Sunday School homily.  Though she regularly attended the First Baptist Church of Darien, Annie wasn’t a particularly religious person.  The events of the last several years had shaken her faith.  But she did believe in fate, in destiny.  Perhaps that was the power at work here, that had brought Richie to her.  He was obviously searching for something, trying to find his way.  Maybe she could help him. 

Maybe fate had shown itself in the form of a blown engine thermostat. 

Annabelle chuckled at that thought and turned to tend to her customers.

After chatting with the man and his granddaughter, accepting payment for the check and a tip, and clearing the table, Annabelle returned to Richie.  He was flipping through yesterday’s newspaper, his coffee cup empty.  Annie automatically turned for the pot to refill his cup.

“No, I’m good.  No thanks.”  Richie waved a hand over his cup when Annie turned back to him, the pot in her hand.  “If I have anymore I won’t sleep tonight.”

“You may not anyway.  My couch is pretty lumpy.”  Annie’s tease made Richie chuckle. 

“It will be just fine.  Better than the back seat of my Piece of Sh…. Crap.”  Richie quickly corrected himself, catching glimpse of Tillie through the order window to the kitchen.  “There’s a spring poking up in the middle of the seat.  Uncomfortable as heck to sleep on.”

Annie laughed, shaking her head.  “Well, I think there may be a few broken springs on my sofa too.”  She smirked naughtily.  “That’s what happens when you bounce on the furniture too much.”

Richie’s eyes widened, a rosy flush creeping to his cheeks as he grinned.  Annie could tell her tease had caught him off-guard.  She had no idea why she had even made that innuendo-laden remark; it had just slipped out of her mouth as she bantered with him.

“Promise I won’t bounce on the couch,” he teased back.  “Least I can do, since you’re saving me from my backseat.  Besides, I pretty much sleep like the dead.  I probably won’t even move, broken springs or no.”

“Well, okay,” Annie gave Richie a faux-stern look, then smiled again.  She glanced at the clock over the door and sighed.  “Another hour until closing time.  Sorry to make you sit here and wait on me.”

Richie shrugged.  “Where else am I gonna go?”  He chuckled softly, then looked around the empty restaurant.  “Is there something I can do to help?  Maybe wash dishes, take out the garbage?”

“Shhh!  You better not let Miss Tillie hear you say that, or she’ll have you on your hands and knees scrubbing floors!”  Annie laughed.  Despite her playful rebuke she was impressed with Richie’s offer.  He obviously wasn’t afraid of work, even what some men would consider “women’s work.”  Obviously his Mama had raised him right. 

She shook her head, her honey-blonde locks swishing with the movement.  “Naw, Otis has already done all that.  Nothin’ to do but just sit tight.  Or…”  Annie fished in the pocket of her skirt, pulling out a handful of coins.  “Here.  Why don’t you go play somethin’ on the jukebox?”  She picked out a few quarters and laid them on the counter next to Richie’s empty coffee cup.

“Okay,” Richie readily agreed.  Looking through the music menu on the old Wurlitzer would at least kill a few minutes.  “Anything you want to hear?”

Annie shook her head.  “I’ve heard every song on that thing a million times.  Pick whatever you want.  Except ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.’  That one drives me crazy.”

Richie laughed at Annabelle’s pained expression.  “Okay.  You don’t have to worry about me playing that one, for sure.”  He scooped the quarters into his hand and slid off the stool, then wandered over to the jukebox.

Annie took Richie’s used coffee cup, wiped the counter, then stood watching him as he worked the jukebox.  His lips moved silently as he read through the menu of songs, occasionally curving into a smile or a frown.  He dropped a quarter into the slot and pushed a pair of buttons.  Instantly the machine whirred to life, dropping a vinyl 45 onto the turntable and filling the diner with a loud musical yelp followed by jangling guitars.

Help! I need somebody
Help!  Not just anybody
Help! You know I need someone

Annie grinned at his first selection.  She loved the Beatles.  Perhaps she and Richie were kindred spirits in more ways than one.  She chuckled at the irony of the lyrics, given how they had met. 

Humming along to the song, she turned to pull a bottle of Coca-Cola out of the cooler, popping off the cap and taking a long drink before wandering over to the jukebox.  She settled on the stool at that end of the counter, watching Richie choose another song.

“Beatles, huh?”  She smiled when Richie looked sideways at her, his lips curving into a little grin as he nodded.  “Nobody ever plays that song here, except me.  Most everybody else plays country songs, or Elvis.”  She took another sip of her Coke.  “I wouldn’t have guessed you were a Beatles fan, though.  You look more like a Led Zeppelin or Rolling Stones guy.”

Richie chuckled softly.  “Yeah, I like Zeppelin and the Stones too.  Actually, I like most kinds of music.”

“Me too.”  Annie cocked her head to the side.  Her eyes traced over Richie’s profile as he looked down at the jukebox menu.  He was almost pretty, with his high cheekbones and his full lips.  His tanned skin looked soft, even with the faint stubble that shadowed his jaw.  His dark lashes were thick and lush and so long that had she not known better she would have thought he was wearing mascara.  And his deep brown eyes… a girl could get lost in those eyes.

Feeling her gaze on him, Richie turned to look at Annie.  “Want me to play something?”

Annie shook her head, her cheeks coloring as she realized she had been caught staring.  “Not really. Play whatever you want.”

“What other songs do you like on here?”  Richie’s voice was softer with the question.

“Well, there’s not much that’s not either oldies or country… how about Billy Joel?”

Richie nodded.  “Billy it is.”  With a little grin he pushed another quarter into the slot and punched a pair of buttons.  “Piano Man.  Great song.”  He stepped away from the jukebox and moved over to settle on the stool beside Annie’s.

“Yeah.”  Annie took another sip of her Coke and swiveled toward Richie, gently bumping her knee against his.  “So, you came down here from New Jersey lookin’ for a job, huh?  What kind of work do you do?”

Richie shrugged and looked at the floor.  “Nothin’ in particular.  I worked a couple places, but they were all temporary.”

“Were you in Florida?”

“Only for a few days.”  Richie shook his head slowly, his eyes still downcast.  “I was kinda all over the place, moving around.  Memphis, Tupelo, Birmingham… Mostly Memphis, though.”

Annie could see from the slump of Richie’s shoulders that she had touched a nerve with her question.  “Sorry, I don’t mean to pry.”

Richie turned his head to look at her, a hint of sadness in his brown eyes.  He shrugged. “S’okay.  Just not much to tell.  I worked some odd jobs as I could find ‘em, mostly around Beale Street and a couple music studios.  Ya know, sweeping up, taking out the trash, working the door, stuff like that.”

Annie’s surprise showed in her smile.  “Music studios?  Is that what took you to Memphis?  That guitar you were totin’ down the road?”

Richie nodded, his gaze again falling to the floor.  “Sorta.  I played a little when I was there, mostly in the clubs.  Just to make some extra money.”  He mumbled the half-lie, trying not to let disappointment creep into his voice.  He wasn’t embarrassed that he hadn’t succeeded as a musician, but he didn’t want Annie to feel sorry for him.  In the few short hours since they had met he and Annie had forged a sort of awkward friendship, one he hoped could continue.  She had already been so kind and generous to him, he didn’t think he could take it if he saw pity in her pretty blue eyes.

Annie beamed at Richie’s disclosure.  “Really?  You play for people?  I mean, like on a stage?  In bars?  That’s really cool!”  Her enthusiastic response made Richie look up, surprised.  “Do you sing too?”

“Uh, yeah.  Some.” 

“How long have you been playing?”  Annie shifted forward on her stool, her knees bumping against Richie’s leg.  He glanced down at her legs and saw that her skirt had slid a little further up her thighs.  He quickly raised his gaze to her face and saw her grinning eagerly, awaiting his reply.

“Since I was fourteen.  Fi…” Richie caught himself, remembering his earlier fib about his age.  “I.. I’ve been playing music longer than that, though.  I play piano and accordion too.”

Annie sighed through her smile.  “That’s so great.  I always wanted to take music lessons, but never had the chance.  Not really anyplace to do it ‘round here anyway.  The only thing I can play was that flute thingie we all learned in grade school music class.  I sing, though.”

Richie chuckled at Annie’s excited chatter.  “That’s great.  I bet you’re good -- you have a really pretty voice.”  He watched her cheeks flush a pretty shade of pink at his compliment.

“Why, thank you, Richie.”  Annie fluttered her sandy lashes as she demurely cast her gaze to the ground.  Richie chuckled again, surprised at how quickly Annabelle went from sassy tomboy to shy Southern Belle.  He felt a little embarrassed himself, seeing her response.  He cleared his throat, breaking the brief awkward silence.  “Umm… where do you sing?  Church?”

Annie nodded and raised her sparkling gaze to meet his.  “Yeah.  I’m in the choir.  I was in the chorus in high school, too.”  She smiled sweetly at him, her voice softening.  “I’d love to hear you play.  I mean, you’re gonna be stuck here in town all weekend, and there ain’t much to do…”

Her smile wilted as Richie shifted uncomfortably on his stool and looked away.  “Umm… maybe.  We’ll see.”

“Okay.” Annie’s voice betrayed her confusion at his response.  “Richie… sorry.  I don’t mean to be pushy.  I just…”

“It’s okay, Annie.”  Richie cut her off, turning raising his face to look at her again.  He gave her another little smile.  “I just don’t really feel like it right now, is all.”

Annie nodded.  “Fair enough.”  She took a long drink of her Coke, then set it on the counter.  “Well, I need to get in the kitchen and help Otis clean up some.  Don’t think we’ll be havin’ any more customers tonight.”  Annabelle smoothed her hands over her skirt and stood.

“Anything I can do to help?”  Richie stood too, in an awkward gentlemanly gesture.

Annie smiled at his repeat of his earlier offer.  “Naw.  Got it covered.  Just hang out here; I’ll be done soon.  Then we’ll go home and you can get some sleep.”  She reached out and gave his knee a little squeeze before moving past him and around the counter, then through the swinging kitchen doors.

Richie nodded as he watched her go.  Then he settled back onto the stool, a little smile curving his lips as he traced his fingers over the spot on his knee where Annie’s touch had lingered.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Chapter 3

Annie swiped the rag over the countertop and again glanced toward the plate-glass windows.  She smiled gently as she watched the two men huddled together under the hood of the old blue Impala, which now sat in one of the service station’s bays.

“Annie!  Order up!”  The cook’s deep baritone voice rumbled over the country music playing on the jukebox.

“Got it.”  Annie turned around to take the two plates of food from the ledge of the window separating the kitchen from the lunch counter. 

“You been smilin’ ever since you got here,” Otis observed, a wide grin creasing his weathered ebony face.  “What you got goin’ on in that pretty head of yours, Child?”

Annie chuckled and turned away.  “Nothin’, Otis.  I’m just in a good mood.”  She carried the plates around the counter and over to the table in the corner. 

“Here ya go, Handsome,” she said sweetly to the sixty-something man as she set his meal in front of him.  “And for you, sweetheart,” she added to the little girl who was her Pappy’s dining companion, setting her cheeseburger and fries on the table.  “Y’all need anything else?”  When they shook their heads, Annie retreated to her post behind the counter.  She couldn’t help but look again out the window at the activity in Eddie’s garage.

The restaurant’s proprietor shared a grin with Otis.  “You got an interest in that blue Impala across the street?”  Tillie Mayweather had known Annie since she was a toddler, and considered the girl her own kin.  As self-appointed second mother, Tillie knew exactly what was going on in Annabelle’s mind.

Annie made a face at Tillie before again breaking into a gentle grin.  “Not particularly,” she replied evasively.  “Just wondering what’s wrong with it.  I think it might be the radiator.”

“Oh really?”  Tillie arched a brow as she smirked.  “You know somethin’ about cars, all of a sudden?”

“Maybe,” Annie replied playfully, knowing she couldn’t fool her boss and guardian angel.

“I think maybe you want to know a little somethin’ more about that young Hippie Boy you towed into town.” Otis grinned as he voiced Tillie’s thoughts.

Annie rolled her eyes.  “His name is Richie, and he’s not a hippie.  He just has long hair, that’s all.”  She smiled again as she watched Richie pop his head out from under the hood, shaking back his shaggy dark hair with the movement.  “And I’m just trying to be nice to the poor guy.  Wouldn’t you want somebody to help you out if your car broke down on the road in some strange place?”

“Sure would,” Otis nodded.  “And I’d be mighty happy if it was a pretty young lady like yourself who helped me along.”  He gave Annabelle another big grin.  “Judging from the number of times that boy has looked over here, I think he’s lookin’ for a chance to thank you in person.”

“Oh Otis,” Annie sighed dramatically.  “I told him to come over when Eddie’s done looking at his car, and get some supper.  He’s not goin’ anywhere tonight, and he’s gotta eat, don’t he?”

“Sure does,” Otis chuckled.  “From the looks of him, that boy could use some home cookin’.  He’s skinny as a rail.”

Annie smiled a little more brightly as she saw Richie turn and look toward the restaurant.  He ran a hand through his hair, then turned to nod at Eddie, who lowered the Impala’s hood. 

“Well, he’s not gonna get better home-cookin’ anywhere than here,” Annie replied softly, distracted by what was going on across the street.

Tillie chuckled warmly and shook her head at Annie’s obvious interest in the young stranger.  She could understand; he was a handsome kid, and from what Annie had described of their encounter he seemed to be a polite young man as well. 

Tillie knew it was Annie’s nature to befriend everyone; she wasn’t one to turn someone away who needed help or just a little kindness.  If Annie had a fault, it was that her big-heartedness left her vulnerable.  Despite enduring more than her share of heartbreak in her short life, Annabelle Foster was still generous and optimistic and possessed of a romantic soul.  

No, she wasn’t going to just drop that kid off at Eddie’s garage and go about her business.  Tillie could see that as far as Annie was concerned, Richie was her business, for however long he stuck around.

“Well,” Tillie smoothed the apron down over her ample middle.  “When your new friend comes over for supper be sure you give him a piece of that cherry pie I just took out of the oven.”  She smiled when Annie turned to arch a questioning brow at her comment.  “He looks like he could use a little takin’ care of.”

Annie looked back at the window, her smile broadening as she watched Richie shake hands with Eddie then start to walk across the street toward a restaurant.  “Everybody can use another friend, Miss Tillie,” she observed quietly.

“I reckon so.”  Tillie exchanged another look with Otis, then slipped past Annabelle to check on the patrons at the corner table.

Richie took a deep breath, his pace slowing a bit as he neared Annabelle’s pickup truck.  He knew she was watching him; he had seen her in his own stolen glances at the restaurant while he and Eddie looked at his car.  Taking advantage of the truck blocking Annie’s view of him, Richie hesitated and wiped his sweaty palms against his denim-clad thighs.  He wasn’t sure why he was nervous, but he was.

With another deep breath Richie stepped up to the little diner’s glass door.  The soft tinkle of a bell announced his arrival.  Richie paused for a moment in the doorway, his dark head swiveling as he looked around the room.  His quick sweeping gaze took in the old Wurlitzer jukebox in the corner to his right, next to three tables against the plate-glass windows fronting the building. 

To his left, between another large window and a wood-paneled wall were two more pairs of tables.   The table in the corner was occupied by an old man and a grinning little girl.  Richie smiled back at the child before his eyes were drawn upward, to the black and white kitty clock on the wall above her head. 

He chuckled softly as he watched the pendulum-tail and the round eyes of the cat move side-to-side in unison while the second hand ticked around the clock face on the cat’s belly.  The diner he used to go to back home in Jersey had one of those kitty clocks.  A tiny wave of homesickness rippled through him, followed by a stab of guilt and disappointment.  He would be seeing that clock again soon, probably when he and his old man got off their night shift at the factory.

“So?  Ya hungry?”

Richie was pulled from his thoughts by the sweet, musical sound of Annie’s voice.  Immediately his sad smile gentled and he turned to look at her.  She was standing behind the gray formica-topped counter, pouring iced tea from a pitcher into a red plastic tumbler.  Annie’s blue eyes sparkled as she gave him a welcoming smile.

“Yeah, actually.”  Richie moved toward the counter, crossing the small room in three long strides.  He pulled his wallet out of his back pocket before settling on a vinyl-topped stool at the counter.  “What’s good?”

Annie chuckled and set the glass of iced tea on the counter in front of Richie.  “Everything.  But we have some specials today…”

“Howdy, Young Man.”  Tillie interrupted Annie’s recital of the menu before she could begin, strolling over to stand in front of Richie.  “Welcome to Darien.  I’m Tillie Mayweather, and this here’s Otis.”  The woman fluttered her hand beside her head, waving distractedly at the grinning Negro cook.  “I hear you had a little bad luck with your car.”

Richie nodded, smiling shyly.  “Yes, Ma’am.”  He was reasonably sure he was safe calling this plump, gray-haired woman “Ma’am.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”  Tillie pointed toward Richie’s wallet, which he had placed on the counter.  “Put that away.  Supper’s on the house for first-timers.”

Richie’s brown eyes widened with surprise.  “Uh… okay.  Thank you, Ma’am.”  He looked from Tillie to Annie, then smiled gratefully.  “Thank you very much.  I haven’t had a good meal in awhile.”

“From the looks of you, you haven’t had a good meal in a couple years,” Tillie replied, tsk-tsking as she looked Richie up and down.  “You don’t have much meat on your bones… What’s your name?”

“Richie, Ma’am.”  Richie chuckled at Tillie’s good-natured scolding.  “Actually, my Ma is a great cook.  But I haven’t been home in a long time.”

“Well, that’s a shame.”  Tillie smiled, this time a little more kindly.  He really did seem like a nice young man.  “I think we can come up with a little somethin’ to fill your belly.  You like meat loaf and mashed taters?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Richie grinned, chortling softly at the woman’s deep Southern twang as she pronounced “taters.”

“Otis!  Special for our young friend Richie!”  Tillie barked out her order to the fry cook before looking from Richie to Annabelle.  “Now I’m gonna take my break.  I’ll be out back if you need me.”  She turned and walked around the end of the counter, tugging at the strings of her apron as she moved.  “Oh, Annabelle…” she paused and looked back over her shoulder.  “Don’t forget dessert.”

“I got it, Miss Tillie,” Annie chuckled.  She turned her attention back to Richie as her boss pushed through the swinging door into the kitchen.  “I think she likes you.”

“She just met me.”  Richie reached for the glass and took a long drink of sweet tea.  He exhaled after nearly draining the glass.  He hadn’t realized just how thirsty he was.  “How could she like me?”

Annie automatically reached behind the counter for the pitcher to refill Richie’s glass.  “She’s been watching you for the past hour.  And she’s an excellent judge of character.”  Annie’s blue eyes met Richie’s as she smiled again, gently.

Richie blushed and looked down at the counter.  Remembering Miss Tillie’s command, he stuffed his wallet back into his pocket.  He was thankful for the free meal; he only had a few dollars to his name and he had no idea how he was going to pay for his car repair.

As if reading his mind, Annie asked the question.  “So, what’s wrong with your car?  Did you and Eddie figure it out?”

Richie nodded and took another drink of sweet tea.  “Thermostat.”

Annie grimaced.  “That sounds like it’s something important.”

Richie chuckled, remembering her earlier admitted lack of knowledge when it came to automotive matters.  “Yeah, it’s pretty important.  And mine’s busted.”

“Can Eddie fix it?”

Richie nodded again and looked up at Annie.  His heart warmed at the genuine concern in her expression.  “Yeah.  He said he can probably get the part tomorrow, but it may be Monday before he can get it installed.  He’s closed on Sunday.”

“Yeah.”  Annie smiled.  “So, guess you’ll be hangin’ around for a few days, huh?”

“Yeah, guess so.”  Richie looked down at the counter again, his smile fading.  He took another drink, uncomfortable with the realization that he had no earthly idea what he was going to do for an entire weekend.  For starters, he had no place to stay. 

“Um, is there a motel here in town?”  Richie was pretty sure he knew the answer to that question.  He didn’t recall passing one by before his car broke down.

“Nope.  Closest one is in Brunswick, fourteen miles.”  Annie saw Richie’s worried frown.  “Miss Anita rents out a couple rooms of her house over on Ash Street, but she already has some boarders.”  Her smile gentled.  “But you don’t need to worry about finding a room.  I got a couch.”

“Huh?”  Richie looked up, surprised. 

Annie chuckled.  “I said, I got a couch.  You can stay with me.”

“You sure?”  Richie could hardly believe what Annie was saying.  She was offering to take him, a complete stranger, into her home.  “I mean… I can sleep in my car.”

“That would be quite a sight,” Annie chortled.  She turned around to take the heaping plate of meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and green beans from the ledge behind her at Otis’ quiet rumble of “Order Up!”  Setting the meal on the counter in front of Richie, she smiled again.  “My couch ain’t the most comfortable, but at least your feet won’t be sticking out the window.”

Richie laughed softly at her tease, then smiled gratefully.  “Thanks.”  Again their eyes met, and Annie saw the sincerity of his sentiment.

“You’re welcome.”  Annie reached across the counter to give Richie’s arm a little squeeze.  “Now dig in, before that gets cold.  I’ll be right back.”  She turned away and headed for the swinging door to the kitchen.  In a glance back over her shoulder she saw Richie eagerly shovel a huge fork-full of meat loaf into his mouth.  Annie chuckled softly to herself and pushed through the door.

Wandering over to the stove against the back wall, Annie picked up one of the two freshly-baked cherry pies cooling on the stovetop.  She turned toward the counter, preparing to cut a slice for Richie’s dessert.  She was surprised to find herself face-to-face with her boss and surrogate mother.

“Annabelle Foster.  What are you doing?”  Tillie’s voice was stern, laced with concern.

Annie hesitated for a moment, then stepped around Tillie to the counter.  “What do you mean?” she asked calmly, setting down the pie and pulling a knife from a drawer.

“You know perfectly well what I mean.”  Tillie braced her hands on her hips and tilted her head to the side. 

Annie sighed.  “Miss Tillie, he doesn’t know anybody here in town.  He obviously don’t have much money, he’s got no place to stay.  I live alone; there’s plenty of room.”  She half-turned to look at Tillie.  “It’s the Christian thing to do, to help somebody in need, ain’t it?”

Tillie pressed her lips together in a firm line.  “It’s not proper for a single woman to have a strange man – or any man, for that matter – spend the night in her house.  Not even on the couch.  Your Mama wouldn’t approve of such behavior.”

Annabelle rolled her eyes and sighed again before giving the older woman a direct look.  “Miss Tillie.  This is a small town.  You know as well as I do that I haven’t been ‘proper’ for awhile now.”  She tried not to smirk as Tillie’s jaw tightened. “And as for my Mama, God rest her soul…. She doesn’t really have any say in the matter.”

Otis’ soft baritone chuckle broke the silence.  “She’s right, Miss Tillie.  Annie’s a grown woman.  She can make her own decisions.”  He looked through the window at Richie, grinning as he watched the skinny kid eating with gusto.  “And she’s a pretty danged good judge of people.  It’ll be fine.”  Otis winked at Annabelle when she gave him a thankful smile.  “Besides, it’s none of our business what she and that Hippie Boy get up to.  And we probably don’t wanna know.”

Tillie threw up her hands in surrender.  “All right.   Just don’t make me say I told you so, Annabelle.  I know you want to help every poor soul whose path crosses yours, which is sweet.  But you need to remember yourself, too.”

“I know, Miss Tillie.  I know.  I’ll be fine.”  Annie’s smile gentled as she glanced through the window at Richie.  “So will he.  I’m gonna make sure of that.”

Friday, December 10, 2010

Chapter 2

 “Thanks.”  Richie hauled his ruck off his shoulder and dumped it into the truck bed.  More carefully, he deposited his guitar case beside the canvas bag before climbing into the pickup’s cab.  “I appreciate you giving me a ride.”

“No problem,”  Annie replied with another warm smile.  “You ain’t from around here, are you?”

Richie shook his head.  “No.  Just passing through.  Well… trying to, anyway.”

Annie chuckled and looked at her rear-view mirror as she eased the pickup back onto the unmarked asphalt.  “I take it that’s your car back there?”

“Yes Ma’am.”  Richie winced.  There it was again – “Ma’am.”  What the Hell was wrong with him?

Annabelle looked sideways at her passenger.  “What’s your name?”

“Richard.”  His reply was almost wary as he met her glance.  “But everybody calls me Richie.”

“Well, Richie, I appreciate your nice manners, but my name ain’t ‘Ma’am.’  It’s Annabelle.  Everybody calls me Annie.”  She gave him another little smile.  “I’m not quite old enough to be a ‘Ma’am’ just yet.”

“How old are you?” Richie automatically asked.  He cringed again the second the words left his lips.

Annie turned her head to give him an amused look, one brow lifted.  “Well, so much for those manners.  Didn’t anybody teach you never to ask a woman her age?”  One corner of her mouth twisted in a little smirk as she chided him. 

“Sorry Ma’… Sorry.”  Richie flushed as he almost slipped again.  He took a deep breath and decided to just shut up.  He looked out the window, trying to collect his wits. 

Her musical laughter floated through the pickup’s cab.  “I’m just playin’, Richie.  I’m twenty-one.”  When Richie reluctantly glanced back at her she grinned.  “Now you have to tell me how old you are.  Fair is fair.”

Richie smiled sheepishly.  “Twenty-two,” he lied.  His smile broadened as Annie’s blue eyes sparkled back at him for a moment before she returned her gaze to the road.  He relaxed a little, for the first time really looking at her.

She was pretty in a fresh-faced, wholesome sort of way.  She wore no makeup and her skin had a healthy glow.  A sprinkling of faint freckles dotted her nose and a comfortable smile curved her pink lips.  The breeze from her open window stirred thick honey-blonde hair around her face and her sky-blue eyes glowed as she kept her gaze on the road.  Her posture was relaxed, as was her expression. A short-sleeved green plaid shirt and a short denim skirt revealed her lean, tanned arms and shapely bronzed legs. 

As he regarded her, Richie for some reason felt very nervous yet completely at ease with this pretty, kind young woman.  The paradigm of his response puzzled him.

Annabelle felt her passenger’s eyes on her, and her smile widened.  “So, where are you from, Richie?”  She knew from his accent he wasn’t a Southerner.  “And what brings you down to these parts?”

“Jersey.  I mean, I’m from New Jersey.  I came down here to… “ he paused, not knowing exactly how to answer that question.  He wasn’t really sure why he had headed to the Deep South, of all places.  He had just started driving and somehow ended up here.  “I guess I came here looking for… a job or something.”

“Oh.”  Annie could tell by the note of bitterness in Richie’s voice that he hadn’t found whatever it was he was really seeking.  “No luck?”

Richie shook his head and looked away, out the window.  “Nah.  It didn’t work out.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”  Not wanting him to withdraw, Annie changed the subject.  “So, what’s wrong with your car?  Out of gas?”

Richie sighed.  “I wish.  Something with the engine, I think.  I couldn’t see anything wrong when I took a look under the hood.  Other than a cloud of steam, that is.”

Annie made a face.  “That don’t sound good.”  She smiled again, a little more gently.  “Well, I’m sure Eddie can fix you up.”


“He owns the Texaco. It’s probably closed now, but he’s usually hanging around for awhile after quitting time.  I’ll drop you there, if that’s what you want.”

Richie nodded, hoping like Hell Eddie was still there and would be sympathetic to his plight.  “Thanks.  That would be great.  I was afraid there wouldn’t be a garage, or it would be closed.”

Annie smiled as she guided the pickup into a right turn at an unmarked intersection.  “Well, you’re in luck.  We DO have a garage, and even if it’s closing time we’re not gonna turn away somebody who needs help.  That’s not what we do here in Darien.”

Darien.  So that’s where I am.  Richie had to smile at Annie’s words.  “Even some Yankee stranger?”

Annie chuckled softly.  “There are no strangers in this town, Richie.  Just friends we don’t know yet.”

She said it with such simple sincerity that it didn’t even sound corny.  Richie’s heart warmed and he gave her a genuine smile, his first in a long time.  He could use a little kindness right now.

In a matter of minutes they were in town.  As the pickup truck rolled past neat little houses dwarfed by huge Spanish moss-draped cypress trees, Richie drew in a deep breath.  For the first time he detected the faint smell of the nearby ocean lingering in the heavy, humid air. 

Annie pulled the truck into another right turn, onto a wide street lined with old two-story buildings.  This was obviously Darien’s Main Street.  A few cars were parked at an angle along the three-block-long stretch and colorful signs dotted glass-windowed storefronts.  As the pickup rolled slowly along the street Richie picked out the Post Office, a barber shop, and a hardware store.  They all appeared to be closed.

At the far end of Main Street sat two separate buildings, one on either side of the road.  On Richie’s side was a small restaurant, identified by a rectangular illuminated marquee sign that proclaimed “Tillie’s Place” in big black letters.  Across the street from the restaurant sat a large, boxy building bearing twin roll-up doors on one side.  Two gas pumps outside the glass-fronted half of the building and a big red-starred sign made it clear that this was the town service station.  Richie frowned nervously as he saw no sign of activity around the pumps or in the garage.

Annie pulled the pickup into a parking space in front of the restaurant and killed the engine.  Turning to smile at Richie, she nodded over her shoulder toward the station behind them.  “That’s Eddie’s shop.  C’mon… I’ll walk you over.”

Richie nodded silently and climbed out of the truck.  He glanced at his bag and guitar in the bed, wondering if he should carry them with him across the street.  As if reading his mind, Annie spoke up. “You can leave your stuff until you figure out what’s goin’ on.”  She grinned again.  “It ain’t gonna go nowhere.”

Richie gave her a little smile and nodded.  “Okay.”  Taking a breath, he followed Annabelle across the street.  A worried frown turned his lips again when he saw the “Closed” sign in the front window of the service station’s office.  He was only half-surprised when, ignoring the sign, Annie pulled open the unlocked glass door and stepped inside. 

“Hey Eddie?”  Her voice was sweet and friendly as she called out for the proprietor.  “You around?”

“In back!”  Richie heard a deep, distinctively Southern male voice reply.  Not knowing what else to do, he followed Annabelle around the counter and through a door into the service bays.  He stood uncomfortably just inside the doorway, looking around the cluttered garage while Annie strolled on ahead.

“Whatcha workin’ on?”  Annie stopped in the middle of the big room and directed her question at the floor.  Following her gaze, Richie realized there was a pair of legs sticking out from under the green Buick on the other side of the bay.

“Hey, Annie.  I could tell ya….” There was a scraping sound as the man scooted out from under the car’s chassis, his body reclined on a wheeled creeper.  “… but you wouldn’t understand a danged word of what I said.”

“That’s true.” Annie laughed.  “That’s why I could never take a job here in your station.”

“You could pump gas and clean windshields,” Eddie grinned.  “But beyond that, you wouldn’t be much use, Honey.”  He sat up and wiped his hands on his thighs, leaving a smudge of grease on his stained blue work coveralls.  Looking up, he noticed Richie standing by the door.  Surprise registered on his ruddy, creased face, but his expression quickly turned to welcome. 

“Hey there!  Annie, why didn’t you tell me you brought a friend?”  Eddie clambered to his feet and stepped toward Richie, extending his hand.  “Eddie Duvall.”

“Hello, Sir.” Richie responded, accepting Eddie’s proffered hand.  He smiled nervously as he answered the middle-aged mechanic.  The weathered lines on his face, the gray at his temples, and the big rough hand that wrapped around his in a firm grip all reminded Richie of his Dad.  So did the kind brown eyes that regarded him with a mixture of curiosity and amusement.

“Eddie, this is Richie.  His car broke down out on Route 20.  He was hiking along the road so I gave him a lift into town.”  Annie stepped over so she was standing beside Richie.  “He thinks there’s something wrong with the engine.”

“That so?” Eddie raised an inquisitive eyebrow.  “What kinda car is it?”

“A ‘62 Impala.” Richie replied.  “It overheated, but once it cooled down I checked it out and can’t find anything loose or leaking.”

“Hmm.” Eddie mused.  “Well, I can take a look at it and see what we’ve got.” He winked at Annabelle.  “You out rescuing stray puppy dogs again?”

Annie giggled, her musical laughter making Richie smile through his unease.  “Oh, stop it, Eddie.  I’m just trying to do unto others.”  She gave Richie a little grin.  “Couldn’t leave this poor Yankee Boy stuck out there.”  Her tease was as sweet as her soft drawl.

Eddie chuckled, then directed his question at Richie.  “Think your car will start?”

Richie shook his head.  “I doubt it.”  He felt his gut tighten again as he wondered how much it was going to cost to have his car towed back to the garage in the morning.  He was going to have to figure out some way to get the money to pay for the repairs, and fast.  He really didn’t want to have to call his Dad and ask for help.

Eddie pulled a handkerchief from the pocket of his coveralls and swiped it across his face.  “Well, let’s go get her, then,” he declared.  “Come on.  I have a tow out back.”

Richie’s eyes widened in surprise.  “Now?  Umm… I thought you were closed?”

Annie chuckled.  “I told you, Richie, we don’t turn away those in need.”

“That’s right, Son.” Eddie nodded.  “Besides, if I know what kinda problem we’re looking at I can get goin’ on it first thing in the morning.”

Richie nodded his understanding.  “Yeah, okay.  Thanks.” 

“Okay, so…” Annie moved for the door.  “I gotta get to work, now that you’re in good hands.”

“Oh… let me come grab my stuff so you can go.”  Richie moved to follow her.

Annie laughed.  “I ain’t goin’ nowhere but across the street.  I work at Tillie’s.”  She gestured toward the little restaurant.  “Just leave your stuff in my truck until you find out what’s what.  Then come tell me about it and have some supper.”

Richie’s heart warmed at Annie’s directive, delivered in that sweet Southern drawl.  He gave her a grateful smile and nodded.  “Okay.”

Eddie chuckled at the exchange between the young people.  It was obvious Richie didn’t know quite what to make of Annabelle.  But Eddie would be willing to bet the pink slip to his prized dragster that Annie could convince Richie to walk on hot coals with just a wink and a smile.  “Alright Son, let’s go.” 

“Yes Sir.” With one more little smile for Annie, Richie followed Eddie toward the garage’s back door.

Annie watched him go, her eyes tracing over his long, lean body.  There was something about Richie, a quiet melancholy that tugged at her heart.   For some reason she felt like she needed to do more for him than just give him a ride into town. 

She had known the second Richie spoke to her that he was a gentle but lonely soul.    He needed someone to comfort him.   Annie knew what that was like; she had been there herself.  A little kindness goes a long way, she thought.  The least she could do was keep Richie company for however long it took for Eddie to fix his car.  Then he could be on his way, off to wherever he was headed.

Annie smiled and turned for the door.  Time to go to work.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Chapter 1

Coastal Georgia, Summer 1979

The sun hung low over the rippling marsh grass, painting the cracked asphalt highway with golden light.  The road was quiet save for the uneven rumble of the Impala’s engine as the beat-up sedan snaked along the highway curves.

Richie didn’t appreciate the simple beauty of the Southern afternoon as he guided the car northward along this back road.  He had the windows down and the radio cranked up, his shaggy hair streaming with the breeze.  But he didn’t see the road or hear the wind or the music.  His mind was consumed with dark thoughts of the inevitable.

He was trying to come to terms with his decision.  Hell, he couldn’t even really call it a decision – it wasn’t like he had much of a choice.  He was at the end of the line:  tired, broke, and lost.  The last few months had been brutal; it was as if he had endured hard lifetime in their span. 

Richie couldn’t believe he felt so old at nineteen.

He blinked back disappointed tears as he stared through the dirty windshield.  It was time to let go of the delusion that he would ever make it as a musician.  Time to man up, to go back home to Jersey and take a Union job at the factory like his Old Man.  Time to find a nice girl, settle down, have a few kids, and live a life of quiet desperation until he dropped dead.  Richie had tried college; it wasn’t for him.  He was a blue-collar guy, and now he would live a blue-collar life. 

He had been a fool to ever think he could make a living playing his guitar, let alone that it would ever make him a star.

As the old car rambled down the road Richie’s mind drifted back, replaying his life as he struggled to accept his future.  Soon bittersweet memories would be all he had left of his dream.

From the time he strummed his first chord he was in love.  Richie had learned music at a tender age, a student of the piano and accordion.  A couple years ago he put down the squeezebox and picked up a six-string, and discovered the magic. 

Richie never needed a lesson; he just started to play along with the radio and his record collection.  He found he could express himself better through melodies and rhythms than he ever could with words.  His talent for music didn’t hurt when it came to getting girls, either.  Though he was a gregarious and athletic teen who was friendly with everyone, he was for some reason shy when it came to the fairer sex. 

Unless he had a guitar in his hands.  Then he was confident and cool.  Then he was The Man.

Throughout high school Richie jammed with other like-minded guys, and he had played in several bands.  None of them really went anywhere so upon graduation Richie fulfilled his promise to his mother and enrolled in the local community college. 

College was basically a means to an end; a way to meet more girls and other musicians.  It was also an excuse not to get a full-time job.  But Richie’s heart wasn’t in his studies, and he knew after his first semester of mediocre grades that he wouldn’t be going back.

After dropping out of college Richie spent the next few months working part-time jobs and playing and writing as much as he could.  He spent nights and weekends down the Jersey Shore, hanging out at the clubs in Asbury and Seabright and soaking up the atmosphere. He tried out for several regional bands, but his youth and inexperience always overshadowed his talent.  Richie shopped his songs to every singer he could, but his talent for songwriting was ignored.  All anyone could see was a nice young kid with potential… just not enough potential to take a chance on.

As Richie became increasingly frustrated with the reality of life after high school his creativity withered.  Though his playing was still technically sound, its soul faded.  Discouraged with his inability to get anyone to listen to his music, Richie decided a change of scenery was in order.

He scraped together as much money as he could, loaded up his P.O.S., kissed his mother and shook hands with his father, then headed south.  Away from Jersey.  Away from the walls he had been beating his head against for months.  Toward someplace – any place -- that would spark his creativity once again and give him a chance to make it as a guitar player.

In his beat-up old Impala Richie wandered through the Carolinas, then turned west toward Tennessee.  Feeling a need to be part of something with soul, Richie rolled into Memphis.  He paid homage to The King then spent a couple months begging for session work at the studios by day and catching gigs in the Beale Street blues clubs by night. 

Somehow Richie managed to make enough money to keep gas in his tank and food in his belly.  He crashed on floors and couches of guys he met jamming, caught naps in the studio after sweeping up and taking out the trash, or slept in his car.  He drank, he got high, he scored with a few chicks, and he played until his fingers were raw.  But still he felt like he had nothing to say, no stories to tell.  His pen stayed silent while his guitar eked out his survival.

Finally, after yet another failed audition and no further session work on the horizon, Richie realized it was time to leave Memphis.  But he couldn’t go home yet.  He just couldn’t.  Heading south again, he drifted through Tupelo, then across Alabama and Georgia, living The Blues. 

Finally he reached Florida.  One moonlit night Richie drove the Impala right onto the beach and sat staring at the Atlantic, searching for his muse, for the soul of his music that had drifted a little further away with every failed audition and with every door slammed in his face.

After awhile he realized it was over.  It was time to go back home, to the life he was meant to lead.

The next day he pointed the Impala north and crawled along the old highway skirting the coast.  With each passing mile Richie felt like he was on a march to his doom.  In less than a weekend he would be back in Jersey.  Back where he belonged.

A loud rattle jolted Richie from his brooding.  The steering wheel jerked under his hands as the Impala’s engine coughed and whined.  “Fuck!” Richie swore from behind clenched teeth as he stomped on the accelerator.  “C’mon, Dammit!”

The battered car didn’t heed his curses, its momentum slowing despite repeated prods from Richie’s boot.  Steam began to seep from under the hood as the engine sputtered, then silenced.  “No, no NO, GodDAMNit!” Richie cursed as he guided the car to the side of the road before stomping on the brake and angrily throwing the transmission into park.

Slumping back against his seat, Richie angrily smacked the steering wheel with the heels of his hands.  “You piece of shit,” he growled at the Impala before dropping his head back and staring morosely up at the dirty blue fabric of the interior roof.  Fuck.  This can NOT be happening, he thought miserably as he listened to the boiling hiss of the overheated engine.  It’s already the worst damned day of my life.

Richie seethed for a long moment, then sighed and pulled his head upright.  Yanking hard on the handle, he kicked open the heavy door and unfolded his lanky frame from the seat.  Richie moved to the front of the car and raised the hood, quickly jumping back to avoid being scalded by the steam that came billowing out from the engine compartment.  “Shit, this don’t look good,” he mumbled sullenly.

Pulling a grungy red bandana from his jeans pocket, Richie wrapped the fabric around his hand before reaching toward the radiator.  He carefully grasped the small cap and twisted, turning his face away as another hiss emitted from the engine with the loosening of the seal.  Giving the steam a moment to escape, Richie removed the cap and looked into the reservoir.  His smooth brow furrowed with his frown as he saw that it was partially filled with water.

That can’t be good, Richie thought, realizing the problem with his engine was probably more than a mere overheat.  His gut tightened as he wondered what he was going to do if a major fix was needed.  He barely had enough money for gas and food.  He certainly couldn’t afford an engine repair.

Richie rounded to the back of the car and dug a tool bag out of the trunk while he waited for the engine to cool.  Once the steam had dissipated he ducked back under the hood and poked around, checking hoses and wires for leaks or disconnects.  He couldn’t find any obvious, easily-corrected problem.

Fuck.  That meant it was a bad part of some sort.  And that meant money.  Money he didn’t have.

With a soft groan of despair Richie straightened and ran a greasy hand through his hair.  He stared at the engine for a moment, then stepped back and slammed the hood down.  He didn’t have a choice.  He was going to have to hike back to the town he had just passed through and try to find a garage.  His beat-up Impala wasn’t going anywhere right now, least of all with him in it.

Richie sighed wearily and tossed the tool kit back into the trunk, then hauled out his dirty olive-drab ruck.  Slinging the canvas bag over his shoulder, he slammed the trunk shut and stepped up to yank open the sedan’s door.  Richie pushed the seat forward and roughly withdrew a battered brown case from the back seat, banging it against the door frame.  The guitar inside let out a muffled twang as it jostled against its container.

Dropping the guitar case and rucksack onto the cracked pavement, Richie cranked the handle to roll up the window before locking the car door and shoving it shut.  He turned and slumped back against the rusty blue sedan, blowing out a frustrated breath.  Glancing at his watch, he saw it was almost five o’clock. 

Just fucking perfect, Richie thought.  By the time he hiked back to town and found a garage or service station it would probably be closed.  After all, it was late Friday afternoon and this was the Middle of Nowhere, Georgia.  But what choice did he have?  He couldn’t sit out here on the side of this deserted road and hope the car’s engine would magically roar to life.

With another muttered curse Richie slung his ruck over his shoulder, picked up his guitar case, and started walking.


Well, I'm a standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona 
Such a fine sight to see 
It's a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford
Slowin' down to take a look at me 

Come on, baby, don't say maybe 
I gotta know if your sweet love is gonna save me 
We may lose and we may win
Though we will never be here again 
So open up, I'm climbin' in 
Take it easy 

She sang softly along with the Eagles tune on the radio, drumming her fingers against the old Ford pickup’s steering wheel.  Annabelle wasn’t in any particular hurry to get where she was going; there wouldn’t be any customers at the restaurant yet anyway. 

Annie wasn’t supposed to work tonight, but Sadie had begged her to trade shifts so Sadie could go to a concert in Savannah with some friends.  Not having any such exciting plans, Annie agreed. So, she had enjoyed a leisurely afternoon before heading for the town’s only restaurant at quarter of five.

As the song ended and recap of the day’s news began Annie reached over to twist the dial to change the station.  She frowned slightly as she fiddled with the knob, dropping her gaze from the road to the radio’s display.  When she raised her eyes again she saw something unexpected.  About a half-mile ahead was a battered blue sedan parked on the shoulder of the road.  Beyond the car someone was walking down the road, carrying something.

“Now who could that be?” Annabelle murmured thoughtfully.  She rarely saw a car on this winding back road at this time of day, and she certainly didn’t recognize this one.  As she neared the vehicle she noticed the unfamiliar license plate.  She slowed the truck and squinted at the tag as she passed, but couldn’t discern the state of issue through the thick layer of dirt and grime. 

Annie’s gaze was drawn ahead to the person walking along the road.  As she pulled closer she saw the wanderer was a tall, thin young man with shaggy dark hair and long legs.  From one hand swung a battered brown guitar case, and an army-surplus rucksack was slung over his opposite shoulder.  A dingy white t-shirt topped ripped, faded bell-bottom jeans and scuffed brown cowboy boots.  The Wanderer obviously heard the vehicle’s approach, for he stopped and turned toward the sound, extending an arm with a thumb pointed southward, in the direction of town.

Richie breathed a sigh of relief as he watched the white pickup truck slow in response to his gesture.  This was the first vehicle to happen along this road in the half hour he had been stuck here.  Hopefully some Good Samaritan would give him a ride into town, for he had no idea how long the walk would be.  He hadn’t exactly been paying attention when he drove through the little town earlier.

Pulling the truck even with the hitchhiker, Annie stepped on the brake.  “Hey there,” she called through the open passenger-side window.  “You goin’ to town?”  She gave the young man a friendly grin.

Richie was surprised to hear the feminine voice as he ducked his head to look through the window.  He had automatically assumed the pickup truck’s driver would be male.  Instead he found himself looking at a pretty, smiling blonde girl.

“Yes ma’am,” Richie answered.  He immediately felt strange.  He had no idea what had inspired him to call this very obviously young woman “Ma’am.”  Maybe it was her warm Southern drawl or her pretty blue eyes.  Whatever the reason, despite his dark mood a little smile curved Richie’s lips.

“Well, hop on in.” 

Thursday, November 18, 2010


Well, here I go.  Off on another adventure.

For some time I've had an idea rattling around in my brain, about my true love.  Yes, I know a certain someone has been the Leading Man in most of my writings to date, but the Dark One has always been in my heart.  And now it's finally his turn.

So where do I start?  At the beginning.  WAY back at the beginning.  Before there was a King of Swing or a Bon Jovi, back when a music-loving kid from Woodbridge, New Jersey was struggling to find his way.

I'm gonna take this one slow and easy, just like life in a little Southern town.  Look for a new chapter each week until the tale is told.

Hope you enjoy the journey.