This trip Myrna Sweeney was in first-class. Free drinks though it was still too early for a beer. More legroom so her knees wouldn’t be bruised like they were after the trip to New York last week, her first flight ever. Late for someone pushing forty. But she was worried. When a woman’s a self-employed truck driver, time off has a humongous price tag. The casting director said Ellen liked to give folks things. Money sometimes. Stuff. She wouldn’t make any promises, but she said it would be fun and worth it. Better be. Myrna was sick of telling the story when what she really wanted to do was to forget the whole bejesus.
Los Angeles from the air was a huge shallow chowder bowl packed tight with buildings, ribbons of car-jammed asphalt, and the occasional sizable green patch she took to be golf courses. Thick haze hung high up over the whole basin. Like the cottony fog that often rolled in and blanketed Hare Cove back home on Bart’s Island, though this mess looked sicky, yellow and smother-ish. Everything down there was crammed in like a bed of gray-blue mussels and twisted seaweed, complete with a spikey sea urchin of skyscrapers in the center.
The trip from the airport to the hotel was fixing to be a complete horror show starting with the limo driver. Maybe he worried Myrna would shabby up his shiny black Escalade. He wrestled his face fast from astonishment to a more professional neutral when she’d walked up to the “M. Sweeney, The Ellen Show” sign he waved. Perhaps it had been a while since such a tall and hefty fare was a woman and not a football player.
“Not from around here?” he said, leading the way out of the terminal.
“I’m in disguise.”
Her driver scanned the curb for luggage, then tried to relieve her of her duffel but she wouldn’t give it up. She was perfectly capable of handling bags herself. Didn’t even own a suitcase let alone one with wheels. But she’d rummaged in the depths of her only closet for her father’s crumpled duffel from when he was in the army. Worked fine. Khaki canvas, super rugged, with Sweeney stenciled in black on the side. Came with a strap to be slung over one shoulder. She didn’t even need a luggage tag.
A tricked-out Hummer in the line ahead picked up two girls who’d been waiting with about a half-dozen roller bags, their long, silky hair swinging practically to their butts. They weren’t old enough to be called women, leggy and tall in their platform shoes. Were they models? Starlets? Their skirts and halter tops barely covered the essentials, though their essentials weren’t big enough to warrant much fabric. The blonde—well, they were both blonde, with dark roots signaling help from a bottle—pointed at Myrna who saluted and then hoisted her duffle over her head and did two quick overhead pumps. When the glistening gun-metal-gray monster pulled away from the curb, the girls turned and stared out the rear window.
Myrna thought she looked rather natty. Her yellow and navy plaid shirt-jacket at least was clean, no rips, frays, or stains, and matched her bandana and the newish L. L. Bean jeans she’d snagged last year from the men’s section of the outlet in Ellsworth. She’d borrowed an iron from her neighbor that his third wife had left behind and coaxed a crease into the denim. She’d even scrubbed the mud and salt off her workbooks and rubbed saddle-soap into the leather. By Maine standards, she was overdressed.
The dude knew how to drive though, expertly weaving in and out of traffic as they exited the airport. Not often that she was a passenger and practically never in the back seat. His foot was a little heavy for Myrna’s taste. She braced herself as he shot up the ramps and rather rudely wedged the Escalade into what passed for a flow of traffic. The seatbelt cut into her neck. She felt like a ball in that pinball machine at Joe’s Spaghetti House, but this game was in three D.
Cozy little place, Joe’s, tucked away on a side street in Catamount. Nice place to stop and get warm when she was a kid on the way home from the bowling alley. Open the door in the winter and you were enveloped in a cloud of spaghetti-scented steam. The pinball game and the juke box were the main attractions. Not much else, except maybe an Orange Crush if she had an extra quarter. She never could figure out why her mother was so upset when she heard that Myrna was hanging out there. The men sitting on the three bar stools, shaggy, whiskery, and a bit odiferous, were harmless. No one was ever eating. Just sipping on their mugs of beer. They never bothered Myrna.
“How far to the hotel?” She could feel the drips from her armpits roll down her sides. She struggled out of her flannel shirt. Had she packed anything cool enough for this heat?
“Only an hour on a good day,” the limo driver said. “See the cooler? Help yourself.”
Perrier inside, no cheapos from Walmart. Never had a Perrier. Swank. She grabbed one of the little cloths tucked inside the cooler between the bottles, then wiped her forehead and the back of her neck. Wet and chilled. Nice.
“So is this a good day?” asked Myrna.
“We’ll see. Not bad right now.”
She fanned herself with the cloth. “Could you push some more AC back here? Not used to this heat.”
First time the driver cracked a smile. “From the north? That explains the L.L.Bean gear. But looks like you’re the real thing, not one of those make-believe lumberjacks from New York City.”
“Don’t get to thinking I can afford Beans. I shop the outlet and rummage sales.”
“Gotcha!” he said. “Want some music? I got country.”
“How about some Motown? Any Stevie Wonder?”
Seconds later Stevie was belting out “Signed, Sealed, and Delivered” and the day began to look up.
When the traffic moved, and it didn’t always, fancy little sports cars zipped in and out: low profile, expensive numbers that were hard to see, even from the limo. Myrna winced to think what keeping track of them would be like from high up in the Rolling Grape, her front third of an eighteen-wheeler.
Her skin felt crawly, dirty. She took another swipe across her forehead and the back of her neck with a fresh washcloth. It came away grimy. She didn’t know if it was her imagination, but it seemed hard to breathe. She suspected this junket wasn’t a good idea. Much as she admired Ellen and would like to have something good done for baby Violet.
Get me home, she thought, though it was probably too late.
Backstage at the Ellen Show, Myrna waited to be called onto the set. She could hear Ellen on stage, joking with Twitch, that guy who plays the music she dances to.
Folks dressed in black whispered into headsets and scurried about, tense looks on their faces. She’d been warned not to wear black or somber colors. No problem. Purple was her theme for the day. Tee, bandana—underwear, too, her fancy-satiny stuff, not that anyone would know. Some of the black-garbed people pushed around rolling tables covered with sheets. She wondered what was underneath.
She’d gotten a talk from a producer about what to expect. The woman didn’t appear old enough to have a driver’s license. They all looked like a bunch of kids. She must be getting old for them to look so young.
The producer said Myrna would go on after Ellen played a game with the audience and then interviewed some celebrity. Just be yourself, the producer said.
Yup. Sure. Lesbian truck driver. That ought to go over great.
“You know how we love stories here on the Ellen Show. Well, this is a good one. Please help me welcome Myrna Sweeney who’s come here all the way from Bart’s Island in Maine to tell us hers.”
The huge sliding doors parted, someone pushed Myrna forward, and out she went. She sauntered across the stage, just as she’d been told to do.
Ellen stood waiting to greet her.
And time slowed down.
Ellen was stunning.
No one could look that good naturally. Ellen sparkled. Her hair was shiny-blonde and impeccably, freshly cut. Her skin shone and her blue eyes were captivating. Everything she had on screamed casual and expensive—the denim jacket that looked worn and aged but wasn’t, the crisp white shirt that peeked out above and below the luscious blue sweater that exactly matched her eyes, probably cashmere though Myrna didn’t know how to tell—and brand new, right down to her glowing white sneakers. It was a look that Myrna couldn’t help but admire, and interestingly, one she’d tried to do too, though not as well as Ellen had: strike just the note, blur the line between male and female, and then strut your stuff. Maybe not lesbian, but not feminine or straight either.
Now Myrna’s outfit, if she could call what she had on an outfit, seemed outlandish. Her favorite purple looked harsh and cheap. And her boots: huge as washtubs, scuffed and worn, despite her saddle soap treatment. Her look hollered country. Hick. She fought to keep herself from turning right around and hustling back through those immense sliding panels that were now gliding shut.
Ellen put out her right hand to shake Myrna’s and did an exaggerated crane of her neck to look up into Myrna’s face. “My, you are a big one!” she said.
“So they tell me,” said Myrna.
Ellen gestured for Myrna to sit on the white sofa. The leather was luxuriously cozy, soft and strokable, but the sofa was low. Felt like her butt was on the floor. How would she ever get back up? Forget graceful.
Ellen sank deep into the matching chair. At least they were now more on the same level.
“You’re a truck driver, right?” asked Ellen.
“Yup,” said Myrna.
“Owner, operator, correct?” Ellen glanced behind the sofa and chair, gestured. The audience cheered and clapped.
Myrna turned and saw a picture of her and the Rolling Grape on a huge screen, the photo that the guy from the Portland paper took. “Yikes. That’s me all right.” She tried unsuccessfully to tuck her boots under the sofa. She was only here to help Violet, she told herself. It would be worth it. The casting director said so.
“Nice truck, Myrna. Love the color,” said Ellen. The audience cheered. “The truck’s part of your story, isn’t it? Tell us what happened.”
So Myrna did. She told about the flash from the car bumper that got her attention. About doubling back and slip-sliding down into the gully, then finding the driver dead in a flipped-over car. Then about to go for help, she’d heard a sound.
“It was a baby. Upside down in a car seat. Like this.” She leaned forward and flopped her arms like Violet hanging in the back of the car.
“Golly gee willikers. What did you do then?” asked Ellen as she stared right into Myrna’s eyes.
How could anyone’s eyes be so blue? Did eyes really come in that color? Were those eyelashes hers? Could Ellen be wearing false ones? Ellen?
“Well, what else could I do? I had to get the baby out. The only one who could keep matters from getting worse for that baby was me.”
“So wow,” said Ellen. “That was it?”
“Yup, that’s it. Last I saw the baby, she was being put in the ambulance.”
“My goodness me. You saved her life, probably. And risked your own. Did you get hurt?”
“No, not really.” Her legs and hands still had scabs The red scars hadn’t faded. She tucked her hands under her thighs.
“That’s amazing. Don’t you think so?” Ellen asked the audience who applauded and yelled. Someone started a chant: “Myrna, Myrna!”
Myrna looked at the rows of people, half smiled, nodded. She knew the studio was freezing cold but she felt hot and not just because of the lights.
Ellen signaled for the audience to quiet down. “So let’s hear the rest of the story. What happened to the baby?”
“The policeman called the next day and told me she was fine, except for a bruise. But now her daddy’s dead. She’s with her mother now, but they’ll be needing lots of help.”
“You haven’t seen her since then? You haven’t met the mother?”
“Nope, don’t know the family. The cop said the baby’s name is Violet, though.” She shifted on the sofa.
“That ER visit probably cost. I know ambulances do.”
“Goodness me,” said Ellen. “That’s true. Accidents are pricy. So tell us. Would you like to see baby Violet again sometime?”
Myrna started, looked at the audience again and then at Ellen. “Well, yeah, I guess so. She was a real cutie. Don’t know how I’d do that though. Wouldn’t want to intrude.”
“What would you say to, like, right now?” said Ellen. She smiled wide then winked at the crowd. The audience screamed and clapped.
Myrna didn’t know what they were so excited about, but they gaped and pointed behind her. Ellen stood. Myrna heaved herself up from the low-slung sofa.
A woman walked towards her carrying a baby. A happy, healthy Violet, clean and in a ruffly lilac dress.
Myrna then had the oddest feeling of dread. She liked to know what was about to happen or at least have an inkling. This was a surprise, and she wasn’t ready. She was horrified to feel a prickling behind her eyes, familiar now since she rescued Violet.
The woman pressed the baby towards Myrna. She wrapped her arms around Violet, wanted to sink her face into Violet’s neck, inhale the baby smells, maybe even cry. But Myrna didn’t allow herself to do any of those things. Mostly she didn’t want to scare the little sweetie.
Violet pressed her hands against Myrna’s chest, leaned back, and stared.
“Hello, baby,” Myrna said.
Ellen gestured towards Myrna and Violet, nodded her head, beckoned the audience. The audience went wild, cheering, clapping. The chant started up again, “Myrna, Myrna!” And clouds of paper hearts like bright purple maple leaves fluttered down from the stage lighting above.
Finally Ellen ushered the woman and Myrna who still carried Violet over to the stage sofa.
“So Myrna, I see you only have eyes for Violet, but I’d like you to meet this lady next to you,” said Ellen and gestured. “This is Roxanne Clews. Violet’s mom.”
Myrna shifted Violet to her knee and turned towards the woman. “No kidding?”
“Nope, it’s true,” Roxanne said. “Violet’s mine.”
She was young, eighteen, twenty at the most. She looked like Maine. Long, straight hair, a dark brown. A tattoo crept up one side of her neck, makeup covered pimples on her cheeks and chin, and she could’ve used a visit to the dentist.
“So’s me and my family, we want to thank you.” Roxanne had a thick mid-coast accent. “Our Violet would be dead, ‘cept for you. We’re wicked grateful.”
Violet wriggled on Myrna’s knee and reached for Roxanne who took the baby and tossed her over one shoulder then smacked her on the back.
Stop! Stop! Myrna almost yelled. Too hard! She tucked her hands under her legs again, this time so she wouldn’t grab Violet back. You’re not the mother, she wanted to scream, I am! Even though she knew that was nuts.
“Anyone would have done the same,” Myrna said and struggled to look at anything that wasn’t Violet. “You do what you have to do.”
Stifle yourself, Myrn. Violet has a mother and it’s not you.
“But you didn’t have to stop, Myrna,” said Ellen. “You could have kept going. No one would’ve known the difference.”
“I would’ve known. So I stopped.” She turned to Roxanne. “How’s Violet been?”
“First few days were kinda rough. She didn’t sleep so good. But now she’s fine. Except for the bruise on her chest, and that’s most gone. My mom says babies don’t remember stuff.”
Violet now strained against Roxanne who then laid the baby on her stomach on the floor. Her starchy dress popped up over her back. She had matching ruffly pants over her diaper.
Myrna dragged her eyes away from Violet to Roxanne. “You got what you need? Any help?”
“We’re okay, but I worry. Bruce, that was Violet’s dad in the car. He wasn’t around much, but he did help out with diapers and such.”
Ellen sat back in her chair and looked at the audience. “Well, we can do something about that.” Two of the Ellen staffers pushed one of the rolling tables she’d seen backstage. It was stacked high with boxes. “Our friends at babies4u.com are going to keep little Violet in diapers and baby food for the next three years, plus five thousand more for clothes and anything else she might need.”
Roxanne screeched like she was the winner on a game show and bounced up and down on the sofa. Then, still screaming, she jumped up, stepped over Violet, and hugged the seated Ellen from behind Ellen’s chair. One of the black-clad staffers, headset bobbing, hovered just behind Roxanne. Violet’s head swiveled as she watched the action from the floor.
A little over the top, Myrna thought, Roxanne was. The whole business was over the top. She was about done with all the commotion.
“Now, Myrna,” said Ellen after Roxanne was back on the sofa. “You are a hard woman to buy for. But I’ll bet we’ve figured out something you could use.” She reached behind her chair and pulled out a huge cardboard check made out in big letters to Myrna Sweeney. “We heard that RiteStart’s back in Maine is your favorite truck stop. They’re giving you ten…thousand…dollars’ worth of fuel for your truck.”
Gas? They were giving her gas? Ten thousand was more than what was going to Roxanne. She could use the fuel for sure, but the money should be for Violet.
Ellen looked out at the audience, straight faced. “I’ve always wanted to give a woman diesel.”
Roxanne looked baffled. Baby Violet’s eyes were wide. She looked a little scared and like she might cry.
The chant “Myrna, Myrna,” got started again. Myrna, reddening, had to laugh too. Ellen chucked her on the elbow.
“Good job,” she said.
Myrna did a quick calculation. Almost twenty thou in loot? Worth it probably, but why did she feel such dread?
She wondered how many people would make the connection between diesel and dyke.