CHAPTER ONE – Originally excerpted at Dames of Dialogue.
She hadn’t trusted in the myth of “happily ever after” for a very long time, but despite herself, she had believed that he was going to be the love of her life. After all, the two of them had been hanging out pretty regularly now for a couple of months. He came to the roadhouse where she worked, usually right after he finished up with his construction crew, and they had fallen into the habit of leaving together after her shift ended. But tonight had been different, right from the start.
First of all, he had barely acknowledged her presence when he got there. Still, she had tried not to take it personally, telling herself that he was just catching up with the guys. But then he’d started flirting with some of the other girls who had come in halfway through the night. Toward the end of her shift at the roadhouse, she had watched Buck walking out with that little twit, the one who had been hanging all over him all night long, and she could see the handwriting on the wall: he was moving on.
She had struggled along anyway, trying to pretend that none of it bothered her, until finally she was able to leave for the night. She headed toward the parking lot, and after she climbed into the old beat-up pickup truck, she huddled up inside for a few minutes wishing she could somehow disappear. She wished she could close her eyes, and then, once she opened them again this whole day would have magically turned out to be nothing but a dream. A nightmare, of course, but just a dream all the same! The humiliation of it all! She could still see the faces of the others as Buck had turned on his heel and walked out that door with someone else.
So anticlimactic after the way he had relentlessly pursued her all those months.
As she slowly drove out of the parking lot, wishing that she could go back somehow and change a lot of things about her life, she knew that starting up with Buck Edmonds in the first place would be at the top of her list. With his long dark hair tossed casually over his shoulders and wearing those sexy suede cowboy pants and leather vests, he had captivated her with his chivalry and sexual magnetism. Now she thought that he must have faked most of that. Ha! He’d probably read a bunch of romance novels so he could convincingly play the part of the romantic hero.
As Amber Cushing reflected on her choices so far, she shuddered. For as far back as she could remember, everything she touched seemed to turn to…well, shit! That was the only way she could describe her life up to this point. Not to mention all those people who sat in judgment, looking down their noses at her! She knew what they were thinking. She made a wrong turn…she made a bad choice…if only she’d listened…Amber had said the very same things to herself over and over, so she didn’t need any of those judgmental folks telling her where she’d gone wrong.
Except, it wasn’t all that easy. Sure, she guessed she was probably a little impulsive. Well, maybe a lot impulsive. She allowed her emotions to lead her most of the time, and maybe her instincts weren’t that great after all. But it’s not like she set out to make mistakes. Things just weren’t that clear sometimes.
She braked suddenly when a squirrel darted across the roadway, and after that she paid closer attention to the road and when she saw the turnoff to her trailer she skillfully guided the vehicle up the sloping dirt road until at last she could see the outlines of her home. She sat in the truck for a moment, studying this place she called home. It sure wasn’t like anything you would ever see in those pages of House Beautiful, Architectural Digest, and Metropolitan Home that her mother always had spread out on the coffee table.
She quickly shoved the images of her mother and her childhood out of her head and trudged up the graveled pathway to her front door. Once inside, she sank down onto the old tweed couch, trying to think of what to do next. A beer might help. She grabbed one out of the old fridge and as she popped the top on the can, for just a moment, she felt like everything was somehow going to turn out okay after all.
Closing her eyes against reality for awhile, she gradually began to feel the slight buzz as the liquid slid down her throat. She finished the beer in record time and idly pointed the remote control toward her TV, hoping that she still had cable. She knew the bill was overdue, but sometimes she got lucky and they gave her a little grace period before they turned it off. No such luck this time. Nothing but the public access channel. Not even the networks came on when they shut off the box. Well, guess I’ll have to scrounge up some money to pay that bill.
Next to the front door sat the basket with the unpaid bills. Overflowing, it signaled how out-of-control her life had become. But then again, had it ever been under control? Mostly she could remember her life going pretty much like this, with her staying one or two steps behind while she scrambled to keep up.
She shoved her thumbs into her temples as she tried to concentrate. There had to be something she could do to turn things around. But what? No way would she call either of her parents. Mother had been speaking volumes lately with her exaggerated silence. And Daddy…well, Daddy had been gone for so many years she had lost count. Even when he’d been around, he’d been pretty much useless.
But she needed some cash. And she needed someone, somewhere to give her a decent job. Continuing to work at the bar after her total humiliation tonight…well, that was just out of the question. She pictured Buck sauntering in every night with his new ladylove, and her flesh began to crawl. Since he was a regular at the roadhouse, there was no chance to avoid him if she stayed on at that job.
She picked up the phone slowly. As she dialed her mother’s number, she cringed; planning what to say and hoping that she wouldn’t have to beg, or worse yet, hear that disappointment in her mother’s voice, she hesitated. But maybe her mother would take pity on her and offer to help, without any of the usual lectures. Fat chance.
* * *
Hilary Redmond had just finished up some late-night work and was restlessly contemplating the row of wine bottles in the rack, thinking a little glass of Merlot might help her relax. She’d been having trouble sleeping lately. Focusing on the labels, she was startled by the ringing phone. She hesitated. Something about the phone ringing at this time of night always signaled disaster, or at least unpleasantness. She pursed her lips as if to ward off the onslaught of whatever it would turn out to be and then picked up the phone after the third ring.
“Hello?” She could hear someone breathing on the other end of the line. Whoever it was seemed to be having difficulty speaking up…it must be one of those crank callers, she decided, placing the phone back in the cradle.
Almost instantly, it rang again.
This time, someone spoke up. “Hey, Mother!” Amber’s voice croaked out her greeting with that brave little cheeriness that meant only one thing. She needed something.
“Well, this is a surprise,” Hilary murmured, buying time. “Are you alright? Are you still living in the same place?”
Amber almost hung up right then and there, hearing that tone, that slightly distasteful edge to her mother’s voice that suggested that Amber’s living arrangements were almost too embarrassing to discuss. But she pushed ahead, knowing that her mother was her last hope. “Yeah, I’m still living up in Auberry, in my same old place. Not much going on here, I’m afraid. But…I’m kind of stuck. I lost my job today, and while I know I can find another one real easy…it’s going to take some time. I was hoping to get a loan.” Her voice went up a couple of octaves as she spoke but she persisted, knowing there was really no other way.
Silence. Hilary must have heard her, so not answering could only mean that she was really angry, or at least upset. Amber could almost see the tightness in her mother’s face, that jaw-clenching thing she did when she was frustrated. She was probably remembering that her loser daughter hadn’t paid her back for the last loan. Then, out of the blue, her voice came back. “How much do you need?”
That’s it? That’s all she wrote? It couldn’t be that easy, could it? Plunging ahead, Amber named a figure that she thought would get her cable back on, pay the rent and utilities, and buy her some food for a month or so, because that’s how long it would be before she would even see a paycheck, even if she got a job tomorrow. “About fifteen hundred should do it,” she squeaked out.
“All right. I’ll put a check in the mail tomorrow. Are you okay, though? I mean, you’re not sick, are you?”
It was kind of sweet, Amber thought, Mother actually sounding like she cared. She must, though, or she wouldn’t keep bailing me out. “I’m fine, Mother,” she said. “I really appreciate the loan.”
Her mother then slipped into that awkward silence that always followed one of the little exchanges they’d been having now for years, as if she wanted to pretend that everything was somehow normal between them, that her daughter didn’t only call her when she needed money. “Well, Mother, gotta go! Thanks a lot!” And Amber slid the phone back on the hook.
Hilary hung up and then sat staring at the telephone for a few minutes as if she could somehow magically transform her daughter over the wires. But nothing was ever going to change with Amber. She sighed, and then looked restlessly around her kitchen, trying to find something to distract her from the dark thoughts that now threatened to cast a pall over the rest of the night. She didn’t have to look far.
From where she sat in the little breakfast nook she could see the sweep of golden hued tile, with that colorful backsplash reminiscent of the French countryside; overhead, the copper pots hung from that charming rack she had found in an old antique shop in downtown Sacramento. As she padded into the kitchen again in search of the corkscrew for the wine bottle, the wooden plank floors under her bare feet suggested the Old World ambience she’d been trying to achieve when she had designed this room.
If everything in her life, especially her daughter, could be as easily dealt with as her décor, she would be a lucky woman indeed. Her own life had been golden, with the major exception of how her daughter had morphed into someone unrecognizable. When had that happened, exactly? Had it been in those adolescent years after her father had disappeared? Was that the reason Amber had changed from the sweet, almost compliant little child into that dark and moody teenager? At the time, Hilary had tried to ignore the behavior, thinking that eventually her familiar daughter would reappear. But that hadn’t happened yet.
In fact, everything had gone from bad to worse. First, Amber had taken off before she’d even finished high school, drifting around, until Hilary’s private detective found her in San Francisco, hanging out in Haight-Ashbury. Hilary couldn’t believe that that infamous neighborhood still had a magnetic pull for kids today. Back when she was young, she’d known kids who’d gone there to drop out and drop acid. But she had believed that the kids born in the seventies and coming of age in the nineties had been a different breed from her own generation. She had come to realize, in time, that many of these kids were not that different from the youth of her day; they drifted along, moving from one impulse to the next. Only they didn’t seem to have any of the political passion that had somehow made her contemporaries seem purposeful.
After running away that first time, Amber had come back even more estranged from her mother. Even as she plodded through her final year of high school, finally graduating with her class, she had seemed to be marking time. And sure enough, right after she’d turned eighteen, she left again. And except for the occasional visit when Amber needed something, or the odd phone call here and there for the same reason, Amber had pretty much been a stranger in Hilary’s life.
Well, there was no way Hilary was going to be able to solve the problem of Amber’s defection from the life she had envisioned for her. Not tonight, anyway. So she poured a glass of Merlot from the bottle she had finally selected and headed up the stairs to her room.
As she reached the top of the stairs, she paused, reflecting on the serendipity that had brought her to this lovely condo in an upscale neighborhood near downtown Sacramento. As she passed through the loft space that she used as a den/office, she glanced over the railing to the dining room and living room below. She felt a familiar pleasure as her gaze swept across the gleaming wood floors softened by the blue and burgundy rugs. Everything in those rooms had been carefully selected, from the dark blue Victorian sofa to the two floral wing chairs in shades of burgundy and blue that flanked the fireplace. And in the dining room, the old oak hutch that proudly displayed her collection of handpainted blue and white china was the focal point of the room.
Pausing for a moment in the loft, she allowed herself the luxury of soaking up the comforts of this room, from the deep rose stuffed armchairs facing the beautifully handpainted trunk to the white armoire stenciled in dusty rose and blue floral designs. Behind those doors, all of her video and stereo equipment hid, while overflowing bookshelves seemed to stand guard over the long library table at the opposite end of the room. She paused at the table, glancing longingly at her computer and fax machine, tempted to work on that unfinished brief. Work always calmed her after encounters with difficult people. Like her daughter.
But dismissing that thought, she continued into her bedroom. This room was truly a sanctuary, she decided, taking in the white on white décor. Everything here was in all the varying shades of white, from the walls to the bed linens, and to the billowy fabrics hung on each post of the bed. Even her silk slipper chairs were white. An off-white chest contained her small TV, and she aimed the remote, only half-watching as she changed from her woolen slacks and cashmere sweater into the silk negligee. After plumping up her pillows just so, she settled in for whatever late-night fare she might find.
A talk-show host was interviewing a starlet who reminded Hilary of Amber. At least, she resembled Amber without the layers of cheap makeup she usually applied to her naturally pink and white skin. Like Amber would look if she had a professional haircut, or even if she tried letting her hair go back to its natural ash blond instead of that burgundy and black streaked dye job she’d been sporting the last time she’d seen her. Idly, she wondered what Amber looked like now. She realized that she hadn’t actually seen her daughter in almost two years.
Oh, there’d been the emergency phone calls, three times in the past two years, come to think of it. Remembering that she had promised to send a check, Hilary fished her appointment book out of her alligator handbag and slipped the checkbook from its little slot. Frowning, she paused as she considered the way she had been dealing with Amber for as far back as she could remember. Maybe sending her these checks wasn’t the best way. Wasn’t she just reinforcing her daughter’s inability to make it on her own? But then she shook her head, knowing that if she didn’t send the money and something terrible happened to her daughter, she’d never be able to forgive herself.
So, she wrote out the check and then slipped it into a scented envelope along with a page from her personalized stationery, on which she scrawled a note:
I am sending this with reluctance, knowing that the money is not really helping you do anything useful with your life. I wish you would come home. We could think of a plan together. Please consider it.
As she signed “mother,” she thought wistfully of the time when Amber had called her “mommy.” That little girl seemed so far away, somewhere in the distant past. Maybe she had imagined the closeness they once had shared? Had she been delusional all those years, in “denial” as the talk-show hosts seemed to suggest whenever something was “dysfunctional”?
Whenever Hilary thought of those faraway years, she could still picture Amber’s little chubby cheeks framed by the long hair she wore to her waist, struggling under the weight of her backpack as she headed out the door on a school morning. She had been a picture-perfect child! Even her report cards had been littered with teacher’s remarks, such as, “Amber is a delightful child”, or “Amber has tremendous potential”. She couldn’t ever remember a time when Amber’s behavior had hinted at what was to come.
Even when she’d first started junior high, she had gone off to school in her Italian pants and cashmere sweaters, her hair cut in that cute little bob, and only the slightest hint of makeup accenting her face. And then, as if someone had appeared one night and swooped through the house while they slept, it had all changed. So drastically and so suddenly, Hilary had been left breathless as if from a blow.
Jeremy Cushing, Amber’s father, had left only a couple of years before. In fact, now that she thought about it, she’d first noticed the changes right after she had become involved with someone from the office, another attorney who had recently been appointed a partner in her firm. They had started out gradually, and Hilary hadn’t even brought him around the house until she had felt sure that they had achieved a certain level of commitment. Then he would come for dinner once in awhile, only occasionally staying over on the weekends. Nothing too drastic, she’d thought at the time.
Had Jonathan Markham’s presence somehow played a role in the changes Amber had undergone? That couldn’t be the case, surely, because Amber had always seemed very friendly with Jonathan. Hadn’t she? Oh, well, it had all been so long ago, she could barely remember. And her life had been so hectic in those days.
At any rate, Amber had changed, seemingly overnight, and nothing had been the same since.
Then, almost as if Amber had cast some kind of spell over her mother’s life, Jonathan was history. Their relationship had ended abruptly and embarrassed by the rejection, she hadn’t questioned it too closely. Instead, Hilary had burrowed into her case files and pushed ahead, making her work and her goal of achieving a partnership in the firm her first priority.
And she had accomplished just that. A measure of success had continued to follow in the intervening years. Now she could pretty much carve out the kind of life she had always wanted, and certainly her material possessions spoke volumes about her hard work and dedication to her goals. If she hadn’t pushed ahead, making work her priority, she wouldn’t be in a position now to write these checks to Amber. That’s what she told herself in the long, lonely nights as she drew comfort from the beautiful objects around her and tried not to think about her daughter, her ex-husband, or her ex-lovers.
Almost resentfully, she put the checkbook back in its pocket and slid her appointment book away. She frowned at the TV screen and the flickering image of the starlet who, now that she studied her closely, looked nothing like Amber. Then, pushing the power button, she watched with satisfaction as the images disappeared, leaving a blank screen.
She picked up a decorating magazine and idly flipped through the pages. Soon, she was lost in the fantasy of redoing the downstairs bedrooms.
* * *
Finding a job became like an obsession with Amber as she plodded along from place to place, filling out applications and sometimes even landing an interview. On the Monday morning of the second week, something like panic began to form in the pit of her stomach and churned upward until it seemed to be clutching her throat. What was happening? Why hadn’t she found anything yet?
But then, she had to look at her history. What was the longest time she’d even held a job? She’d had this last job at the roadhouse for almost nine months, and she thought that was probably the longest gig she’d ever had. Oh, well, it’s not like she was applying to do brain surgery!
In the bathroom, which was barely more than a cubicle, she scrutinized her reflection in the tiny mirror. As she studied her face, she wondered if she should rethink her presentation. Now, that’s a description Mother would come up with, she thought. Laughing, Amber played with her hair, rearranging the streaky tresses upward into something like a French twist. She pulled a few curls loose. Last time she had dyed her hair, she had chosen this dark auburn. With just a little more eyeshadow here and some extra mascara, I could pass for someone kind of glamorous, she mused.
Disgusted with her same old job-hunting dress, a tight black number with a slit up each side, she decided to try something a little more…mainstream. She found in the very back of her closet something even her mother might approve of. In fact, maybe her mother had given it to her. She slid the green silk dress over her head, and as it fell into place, she hesitated. But then, she thought, what could it hurt? Nothing else was working. She finished off the look with dark hose and matching pumps, something else she’d found in the back of the closet.
Praying silently that her truck would start, she breathed a sigh of relief when the engine turned over. Then she headed off toward Clovis where she was interviewing for a job as a receptionist in a small business. She reminded herself that she had computer skills, she could dress nice if she had to, and she could modulate her voice. After all, she had had proper upbringing, even if she usually chose to ignore it. She listened to the local rock station, humming along as she drove, and tried to psych herself up for the interview. How hard could it be? The knot in her stomach grew until it felt like a hard boulder by the time she pulled into a parking space.
* * *
Another week had passed before Amber finally landed a job. It wasn’t the receptionist gig or the cocktail waitress job at a downtown bar. It was really a pretty disgusting kind of job, she thought, as she tried to sound grateful for the offer. A fast-food restaurant! Had she come to this, then? Counter girl at the local burger stand? She’d be getting minimum wage again, a come-down after her job at the roadhouse, which, while it didn’t pay much more than minimum wage, had been supplemented by tips. No tips at this job! She grinned and heard herself thanking the manager for the opportunity.
Later, as she drove back home with her uniform and her weekly schedule, she cursed out loud. She should have just swallowed her pride and stayed on at the roadhouse. Was it too late to go back there? After all, how bad could it be working around Buck night after night? Bad, she reminded herself.
She pulled in next to the trailer and sat there a long time studying it. Set back from the road, it at least offered some privacy, unlike the rows and rows of trailers she’d seen in the parks. But maybe she should consider moving in closer to town. She could save money on gas. But the rent here was really reasonable, and it was kind of cool to be able to wake up each morning and look out the window at all those trees. It reminded her of a time many years ago when life had been beautiful and effortless.
That was another lifetime and she had been a completely different person then. Pushing the thoughts aside, she trudged into her home and sank down on the sofa. She flipped on the TV. At least, thanks to her mother’s loan, she’d been able to restore her cable service. She watched a movie on HBO and thought of all the things she would like to change in her life. If only.
* * *
Right after leaving home all those years ago, Amber had headed to San Francisco again. Something about that place had called to her. She had rented a room in a small boarding house in Haight-Ashbury and hit the streets looking for work. She’d been too young then for the gigs in bars, but had finally found something in a little coffeehouse nearby. Life was better then. She’d worked, hung out with cool people she met in the coffeehouse, and soon she had something resembling a life of her own.
That had been the summer of 1988. She’d just turned eighteen in April and high on the excitement of being on her own, she had followed her heart, as always. Things had started to change, though, toward the end of the eighties. All the mainstream people seemed to be afraid to take risks, worried about getting busted or catching a disease. But the young people who came to the coffeehouse seemed like they were in some bohemian time warp, and Amber liked it. She could relate to these people, especially to this one guy named Luke. He came in almost every day. At first, Amber had thought he must be a student at San Francisco State University. He wore faded jeans and T-shirts, his long red hair pulled back in a ponytail, and his lower face was covered with a matching beard. His eyes seemed to pierce right through her with their intensely blue gaze, and she felt an instantaneous connection to him whenever she waited on him.
She found out later that he had dropped out of college, moving from gig to gig. His philosophy about work was to put in as few hours as possible, just enough to get by. He rented a cheap room nearby and seemed really casual about his lifestyle. No worries. No stress. He thought he might try working a few more hours soon because he was saving up money to go to Europe. He’d been thinking about going to Ireland.
Fascinated, Amber had accepted his invitation to hang out at his place after work. They smoked a little dope and while they passed the joint back and forth, she studied her surroundings. Luke had created something like a photo gallery here, and the pictures seemed to transform the ugly walls. He apparently liked photography, and was good at it. The photos, arranged asymmetrically on the wall, seemed to really capture the essence of the common subjects.
As time passed, they mellowed out. And they talked. They talked for hours before he even made a move on her and then, when it happened, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to make love. Amber still thought of sex as “making love” back then. That was before.
Before the humiliating events that had propelled her out of San Francisco.
She shuddered at the memories. She had been so wrong about everything. Somehow, things had gotten out of control…as usual…and she had to leave San Francisco. She hitched a ride to LA, hoping that the scene there would block the memories of what had happened that last day.
In LA, she found plenty of opportunities to forget and she shed her old life like snakeskin.
Going through the motions, she took a job with someone who promised to turn her into a model and as she stood woodenly before the photographer in what turned out to be a series of sleazy sessions, she shuddered. But not from what was happening to her in that moment.
Flashing images of Luke in bed with another guy, strobe lights spotlighting their naked bodies.
More drugs helped, but after one too many doped-out sessions, the photographer cut her loose. Truly desperate, she’d moved in with some girls she’d met one day while waiting for one of those endless interviews at the modeling agencies. They’d let her sleep on their couch for awhile, offering to introduce her to some cool guys. She could still see the look they’d exchanged between them as they laughed and offered to totally change her life.
They had come through, all right. Because after that, nothing had ever been the same.
* * *
Looking back, now, she realized how totally naïve she had been.
Even after everything that had happened in San Francisco and then the disastrous gigs she’d found so far in LA…how had she ended up standing on the corner of Sunset Boulevard peddling her body for a few dollars?
What had started out as a few “dates” with businessmen at a local bar had somehow morphed into hanging out on street corners, scrambling for enough money to pay the rent, to buy a few good times along the way, and to finally climb out of this hellhole that had become her life. She had tried to pretend that everything was under control.
When a kindly older man named Jason O’Meara offered her refuge in his guesthouse, no strings attached, she accepted. He’d picked her up late one night after a particularly brutal experience with one of her johns. She was feeling vulnerable, and when he started to talk about how she could change her life and how he wanted to help, she didn’t really believe him at first.
But he had taken her there, to a place in Beverly Hills, and showed her the little guest cottage behind his lovely, sprawling house. Stunned that he might actually be true to his word, that he really wanted to help her and not just use her, she had settled in, telling herself she would just stay the night, and then move on.
She had stayed with Jason O’Meara for two years.
Much later, she would wonder about the nature of their strange relationship, with few sexual encounters between them and no romantic overtures. She guessed that he was satisfied with the companionship and the occasional sexual interlude. He gave her a feeling of safety and security.
Restless after almost two years with him, as if she were his daughter needing to rebel, she’d started hanging out in a coffee shop on Venice Beach. There she met some kids who were talking about heading up north. Itching to explore new options, she had taken off without even a backward glance, traveling light with only her backpack.
They had stopped off in Fresno, on their way to San Francisco, and while they were gulping down burgers, she had mulled everything over in her mind. She had looked around, taking in the surroundings of this quirky little neighborhood called the Tower District, deciding that it seemed pretty cool. So she told them she had decided to stay here. She didn’t want to go back to San Francisco after all.
Her new friends had gone on without her and her life in the Central Valley had begun.
* * *
Amber spent her first week at the burger stand cursing the bad judgment that had brought her here. She’d actually started to make progress, or so she thought, moving from cashier in that little boutique when she’d first arrived in town to waiting tables at the local coffee shop, and finally to bartender in training at the roadhouse out in the country near Auberry.
So how had she ended up here scraping the grill at the burger stand and wiping the sweat off her brow? At the end of her long shift, she sighed and promised herself that no matter what whirlwind adventures lay ahead of her, she had to learn to stop and think once in awhile. If she didn’t, there was no telling what might happen next. And she couldn’t afford too many more disastrous mistakes.
Like a cat on its ninth life, she could feel her luck running out.