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Riding with the Queen Chapter 1

The sun rises red-hot in the rearview mirror like an Atomic Fireball, one of those jawbreakers that always sounds like a good idea until you're halfway through it and sweating from the cinnamon burn and can't find a good place to spit it out. My eyes water at the mirror's fiery reflection, but after driving all night even a long blink could mean disaster. And, considering my destination, it feels a hell of a lot better to look back than ahead. I keep glancing up into that light, tracking the sun until it rises out of view and throws hot unforgiving light across endless rows of corn stretching in every direction.

Beneath me, the wheels beat out the rhythm of an old blues song: I got them traveling blues, Lord. They got me down today. The road goes on and on forever, disappearing finally at the edge of the earth into the empty morning sky. A sign flies by: GOODLAND 188, DENVER 432. I wish I was going someplace as happy-sounding as Goodland, but the plan is to arrive in Denver before nightfall.

Ahead, a band of blackbirds stands guard over a lump of roadkill, stubbornly holding ground until only a few yards remain between their prize and my wheels. When I'm close enough to see the blue sheen of their wings, they lift gracefully into the air. I become one of them, flying west over hundreds of miles of sweltering prairie, skimming low and stealthy across the earth's muggy surface. It's only a matter of hours now. I take a deep breath, shift in my seat, grip the wheel tighter. After being AWOL half my life, I'm going home.

In the distance a building floats miragelike on the flat Kansas horizon. I squint at it through the bug gut-painted windshield until it becomes a gas station. No, a truck stop. Caffeine. Thank God. I gun the hatchback I paid the drummer three hundred bucks for, almost everything I had, even though it looks like a rusty tin can. Even though what I really wanted was for him to come with me.

"What the hell is in Denver?" he said, green eyes shifting the way that lets you know this person no longer gives a damn about you, if, in fact, he ever did. He turned his lanky frame away, long blond ponytail hanging down his back, busying himself with tearing down his kit so he wouldn't have to deal with me. I could almost feel the soft hair in my grip, the snap of his head if I yanked, but I walked away, tossing the key in my hand like dice.

Granted, Denver is no musical Mecca. If I had a choice, I'd go to Memphis, or San Francisco, or even Austin, but I don't, so I concentrate on the truck stop instead, push the accelerator to the floor, the metal hot and sticky beneath my bare foot. As the speedometer needle licks seventy, the car rattles like a cheap tambourine. You'd think I'd have learned my lesson about dating musicians.

The truck stop morphs from mirage to piss yellow cinderblock with a hand-lettered sign: EAT AND GAS UP. At least they're honest. I pull off and a cloud of hot choking dust follows me across the gravel lot. Visions of home fries and runny eggs and strong smoky coffee fill me as I wind through pickups and fancy big rigs to an empty parking space near the door.

I turn the key and the engine shudders a lingering death. Two cowboys leaning against a fire red pickup turn their heads, smirks on their faces. I ignore them, take a deep breath and pull the rearview toward me. I wipe mascara gunk from the corners of my eyes and pout like Madonna, fluff my hair into its usual curly lion's mane. Nothing helps—I look like hell.

Hoping for a miracle, I squeak open the hinged lid of the worn sky blue cosmetics case in the passenger seat. A gift from my mother for my sixteenth birthday, although she didn't pull her shit together enough to give it to me until the week after, when she finally reemerged from her bedroom, blinking and pale as a mole. I only keep the case because it's sturdy and roomy enough to hold all my trade secrets: ultra-size Aqua Net, black eyeliner, Miss Clairol Summer white, extra-coverage concealer, Secret roll-on in Shower Fresh scent, Shimmer Pink lipstick. The tubes and boxes and bottles lie jumbled in whatever order I last used them, and I dig through impatiently, my stomach twisting from not eating. What I really need is a cigarette, which I've been out of since 4 A.M., so no amount of makeup is going to make me feel better.

To hell with it, I decide snapping the case shut. It's only a truck stop in Kansas. I reach down and pull on the strappy high-heeled sandals I wear on stage, even though they're probably too fancy for cutoffs and a jog bra. Leaning into the backseat, I rummage through one of my two battered cardboard boxes for a shirt, yellowed box-tape sticking to my arm. I pull free and a square inch of peach fuzz is liberated from my arm, so, to hell with the shirt, too, I decide, and kick my way out of the car. I hitch my bag onto my shoulder, lean over to roll up the window, and catch the cowboys staring at my chest.

"Never seen boobs before?" I call over, yanking down the stretchy fabric. "What are you, a couple of gay caballeros?"

The smirks slide from their faces and the bigger of the two turns his back. The little one hitches up his jeans, raises his chin to fix me with a tough-guy stare.

Whatever. I've got my own problems. I can't get the car to lock, no matter how I wrestle the key in the keyhole, no matter how many times I open the door, press the button, and slam the door shut. Everything I own is sitting in there; my stage clothes, my 1964 turquoise Stratocaster, my Shure SM58 microphone, bought with the first-ever real gig money I earned.

"Wanna let me have a stab at her?" a low voice says behind me, and I turn to see the big cowboy standing too close, smelling of diesel, sweat, and pomade. He's even bigger than I thought, bull-chested and a sadistic glint in his bloodshot eyes, and I wish now I hadn't egged him on.

"That's okay," I say. "It's just a piece of shit car and nothing works on it. No radio, no AC, and now, no locks." I laugh a little and shift from one strappy sandal to the other.

"Gimme the key." He stretches a hand toward me that looks like a slab of beef.

"No, thank you," I say, trying to sound polite. "I'll just keep an eye on it from the window." I start to squeeze by him and he snags the key from my hand and jiggles it in the lock. The button inside disappears from view.

"How'd you do that?"

"Sometimes they like to wiggle around a little, is all," he says. "Especially when they's kind of old and, uh, overly used." He throws a wink at his buddy and strides back toward the pickup.

I open my mouth to bite back, then lower my head and walk toward the door. I hate this feeling, this better-be-careful bullshit. It's the feeling I've worked my whole life to outrun.

The truck stop's dusty décor is a mixture of '50's diner and wagon-wheel chic, and half of the tables are occupied by men, young and old, in sweat-stained caps and faded brown overalls, dirty jeans and thread-worn cowboy shirts. After a quick stop at the cigarette machine, I head for the stainless steel counter, waiting for the customary feel of men's hungry eyes. It must still be too early in the morning, though, because not one greasy trucker lifts his head.

I straddle a rickety chrome stool. The cracked red vinyl seat is covered in dirty duct tape; it sticks to the underside of my thigh no matter how I reposition myself. A round, gray-headed waitress sees me, putting up a finger like she'll be with me in a sec, so I pull a laminated menu from between a napkin dispenser and a ketchup bottle and fire up a Salem. She's walking toward me with a coffeepot and I'm pushing my cup at her when she says, "Sorry, hon."

"But it says 'smoking section' right on that little sign.

She sighs. She looks like a roly-poly bug in a pink waitress uniform. "No, I mean, sorry, we can't serve you without a…without proper attire."

I look down at myself, then back up. "You're kidding. Girls wear jog bras all the time these days."

She shakes her head and shrugs. "If it was up to me…but you know how it is. Wayne, he's the owner and he's a Christian."

"Wow, that's pretty Christian," I say, smiling, trying to win her over. I sure as hell don't want to go back outside with Buford and Bubba. "Is Wayne actually here today?" I look around but the only employees I see are a hair-netted Hispanic teenager flipping pancakes behind the window and a tired blonde working the tables. "I mean, what he doesn't know—"

"I really am sorry, hon," roly-poly bug says. I'm not going to be able to serve you unless you put a shirt on. We've been having a lot of trouble lately with, you know…" She looks embarrassed. "Solicitations."

I stare at her and she sighs again. "Look, I know everybody's got to make a living, and I don't hold it against you none. We're just not that kind of place, okay?"

"You think I'm a hooker?" I say suddenly and too loud. Everyone in the place looks up. An old guy in a John Deere cap raises an eyebrow. "I'm not a prostitute," I hiss. "I'm a musician!"

"Well, then, hon, just get you a shirt and we'll be happy to serve you," she says, but I don't care anymore about food. I don't care anymore about coffee. I don't even care so much about Buford and Bubba.

Something in me wants to cry, at these clueless Hicksville idiots, at the thought of getting back into that crappy tin can in this heat, at all the shit that's happened in the last twenty-four hours, but I pull it together, stub out my cigarette, stand, and clack my heels evenly across the linoleum and out into the hazy white sunlight. The cowboys' truck hasn't moved but they're nowhere to be seen, so I jump into the car like a Clyde-less Bonnie and hightail it the hell out of there, spraying gravel as I whip onto the highway.

Like some freight-train phantom from out of nowhere, a semi whips around me, passing in a vacuum roar of wind so loud I barely hear the long horn blast. When he's pulled back into his lane in front of me, I check the rearview. There in the backseat sits a black woman wedged between my boxes. My breath catches like a plug in my throat at the sight of her, big-boned and impeccable in a red silk dress and black hat, head cocked and cherry red lips pursed in dismay. "Tallulah Jean Beck, pay attention," she says, shaking her head before she disappears.

I'd know her anywhere, but still.


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