A would-be star battles storms, luck, and fate
| "It's fairly straightforward, Ma'am," James Penny told the middle-age woman with the spiky blonde wig, wilted from the downpour she had endured coming in from her car. "You turn off the water supply, flush the toilet, then put a bucket under the old valve. Then you unscrew it, the residual water will drain into the bucket, and you screw in the new one. Hook up the chain to the flush handle, connect the bowl filler hose, turn the water back on, and you're done."
"And what happens if I take my toilet apart, and it isn't as easy as you're making it sound?"
"I'll include a pamphlet that shows the whole process, step by step, in pictures."
He turned away, running his fingers over a wall of pamphlets behind him. Finding the right one, he turned and handed it to her.
"If you can't make out these instructions, just call the store, and one of us will be happy to walk you through it."
She unfolded the slick paper and studied the pictures for a moment.
"I think this will be sufficient... Jim," she said, squinting at his name tag as she refolded it and slipped it into her purse. "I'll take it."
"An excellent choice, Ma'am," he said, taking it from her and scanning the bar code. "This has been one of our most trouble-free models. I think you'll find it easier than you're expecting. That will be fifteen sixty seven, including tax."
She scanned her card, waited for approval, and accepted the bag and her receipt.
"Hold onto that," James told her, "in case you need to return it. Thank you for shopping at FlashMart."
"Jimbo," a voice came from behind him as the lady walked away to battle a mutinous toilet, not to mention the storm raging outside. "How's life treating you?"
He turned to see Bill Sanders, his relief, and one of his few friends, standing behind the counter with him.
"All right, I guess. I wouldn't object to a winning lottery ticket."
"You, either, huh? You hear anything yet?"
"Got a feeler from some fly-by-night in Houston. They want an on-screen personality to make internet commercials for some kind of sleazite kitchenware."
Penny began the log-out procedure on the computer-based register.
"What's the pay like?"
"Ten thousand per commercial."
Sanders gave a long, low whistle.
"And you're still here?"
"They don't want to tell me how many are guaranteed. Ten large would be nice, but it would have to be more than twice a year, you know?"
"Ah, I see."
"Anyway, I'm a singer, not a carnival huckster."
"And a good one," Sanders said, logging in. "You think there might be something wrong with your tape?"
"Naw, that's golden. I spent my whole tax return to have it made in a professional studio. That thing sounds like Sinatra made it."
"Your material, then?"
"Born Free? It's a classic! Shows off my range, and sounds best right in my home octave, too. There's nothing wrong with that song."
"You wouldn't think. How long's it been now?"
"Over a month."
"Well, it only takes a minute to say no. You must be on the list, at least."
"One can hope."
Penny and Sanders both looked to the end of the aisle where a poster boy for short-man's syndrome stood tapping his watch. Gary D. Campbell, floor manager and terror of the night shift.
"Are you logged off?"
"Yes, Mr. Campbell."
"Well, hadn't you better get off the clock? You run into overtime, you're going to be in more trouble than you know what to do with."
"Yes, Mr. Campbell."
Penny mimed punching his friend on the shoulder.
"I'll be here with bells on."
Penny parked his car as close to the stairs as he could. His umbrella had turned inside-out and ripped this morning as he ran for the shelter of FlashMart's entrance.
He reached into the back seat of his cantankerous old Buick and pulled out a coat that was almost as old as the car. Spreading it over his head, he opened the door and ran for the apartment. The wind was howling around the building, the stanchions, and the decorative landscaping, driving the rain in near-horizontal torrents from three directions at once, and by the time he reached his apartment door, he was as wet as if he had showered with his clothes on. As he lowered one hand to fumble for the key, the door opened and he was greeted by a vision of loveliness in sweatpants and a tee, standing on tiptoes to kiss his cheek. He had forgotten that this was Beth's day off, and he hugged her shoulders like a drowning man hugs a buoy.
"Oh, honey, you're soaked!" she said, twisting away. "Go get some warm clothes on, and I'll finish getting dinner ready."
He hung the soaked coat on the back of a kitchen chair and headed for the bedroom.
"Any good mail today?" he called from the bedroom as he changed.
"Anything from a recording studio, a talent agent, anything like that?"
"Sorry. Got a final notice from the internet company, though."
He emerged from the bedroom in his own sweat pants and a long-sleeved shirt, and picked up the mail from the table.
"You've been pre-approved," he read in bright red letters on an ad for a Citizen's Bank credit card.
"Yeah, right," he muttered, "until you find out who I am."
He flipped through the rest. Pleas from charities with pictures of starving children and crippled dogs vied for his attention with a pink envelope marked "Final Notice!" from Midlands Cable and Web. A bill for his credit card from Central Bank of Ohio, the one that had gotten him in trouble in the first place; that wouldn't be due for almost three weeks. Maybe I can rob a gas station by then. A windowed envelope from a place called Globe-Trotter Collections was a new visitor; the threats were a week or so off, and he tossed it aside with the rest of them. There would be no relief today.
"Not much uplifting news today," Beth said.
He almost answered, thank you, Captain Obvious, but none of this was her fault, and he wouldn't take out his frustration on her. The miracle was that she stayed with him at all.
"Sit down, honey. I made your favorite dish tonight."
"Fricasseed gopher guts?" He asked in amazement.
"No, silly," she answered with a laugh. "Salmon steaks and baby corn."
"Are you crazy? We don't have the money for things like that!"
"Relax, honey. It's out of my tips."
"Still... Well, I can't deny it's a wonderful treat."
They ate her well-prepared meal, making small talk about the crazy shoppers at FlashMart and what she did on her day off, which wasn't much given the storm that was lashing the area. They finished their supper and Beth rose to collect the plates. He listened to her scraping the fish skins into the trash, and thought about the burden he had become on her life. She had been a treasure when he'd met her, and became an even greater one as she stood with him through thick and thin... Mostly thin. This could not continue. He waited until the clatter of dishes stopped and stepped into the entrance of the small kitchen.
"Beth, I've come to a decision."
"You sound so serious."
"I am serious. I've decided I'm going to take the job in Houston."
"What, just like that? You don't plan to consult me?"
"How does that work? Because I seem to recall that we were going to face the world together, discuss everything before we made a decision."
"We also agreed that we were working toward getting married and having a family. How the hell are we going to have kids? I can't even support you in the proper manner."
"You don't hear me complaining, do you?"
"No, Beth, and maybe you should have. It might have gotten me off my ass sooner."
"Well, what's gotten you 'off your ass' now?"
"Seeing you spend the tips you work hard for to buy me a twelve-dollar cut of fish, and all the while I'm barely bringing in enough to keep the lights on. This is intolerable, and I'm going to fix it."
"How, by leaving me here alone while you fly off to Texas? How does that fix anything?"
"Mr. Patterson told me I'd make ten thousand dollars a spot. I'll send you enough to get the bill collectors off our backs the minute I get paid. If they like me, they may have me cut a couple more at ten thou each. That would get us far enough ahead that I could look for a real job."
"I don't like it," she said, laying her head on his chest and snuggling into him. "I want us to be together every minute of every day."
"And that's what I want, babe. But this is just for a few days, a week, two at the most, and there'll be enough money so we can see out of this hole we're in. It'll be fine, you'll see."
"When are you going?"
"Tonight if there's a bus."
"A bus?" She stepped back and looked at him as if he'd lost his mind. "It's fifteen hundred miles to Houston. You can't ride a bus!"
"Well, we can't afford for me to fly, so bus it is. Anyway, it isn't that far."
"Twelve hundred, then. You'll be in that cramped seat for hours. Days."
"Surely not. I'd better call Trailways and see what the schedule is."
"Well... Are you going to shower first, or just run out the door in your sweat pants?"
"If I have time. Look, babe, if you want to help me in this, put my suit in my bag, my dress shoes, and a couple of changes of casual clothes. Nice ones."
"Would you like any underwear with that, sir?" she asked in her best waitress tone.
"Please," he said, "and you'd better include a side of socks."
The Trailways clerk told him that an overnight express stopped to exchange passengers at 7:10 PM, and it generally took about eighteen hours to get to Houston, although with the storm ravaging the entire Mississippi Valley, it would likely take more like twenty-four. They still had a few hundred dollars on their debit card, and he bought a one-way ticket for $121.00 and went in to take a shower. By the time he finished, dried, and dressed, time was pressing, and he made sure he was wearing the proper clothes for Perrysburg, Ohio, and that the right ones for Houston, Texas were in his bag. He called for a cab and indulged in some last-minute snuggling with Beth that almost broke his resolve, but far too soon, the taxi driver pulled up and blew his horn.
There was time for one quick kiss, then Jim was out the door and dashing for the sidewalk, an old folded newspaper held above his head to replace his ruined umbrella. She watched the tail lights until they turned at the end of the street, then drew the drapes, tuned in some romantic jazz on the stereo, and returned to the kitchen to finish the dishes.
Twenty minutes later, Beth was drying the few dishes they'd used for dinner and putting them away when her cell phone began to warble. Couldn't wait half an hour, she thought with a smile, but then a knot rose in her stomach as she realized that that wasn't her ringtone. It was Jim's!
She followed the sound into their living room and there on the side table by the couch was Jim's phone, her picture lit up, warbling away. She looked at the screen to find a 310 area code; Los Angeles. She picked it up, and after a moment's consideration, slid the green bar down to answer.
There was a moment's hesitation before the caller, expecting to hear a man answer, spoke.
"Mrs. Penny? Mrs. James Penny?"
"No, this is Miss Lambert, but Jim, uh, James lives here."
"Ah, fine. This is Joseph Piño of Sunset Records in Los Angeles. Would he be available to speak with?"
Beth breathed a deep sigh into the phone.
"I'm afraid not. He's just left for Houston, and as I've just discovered, he left his phone here in the rush to get out. I'm sure he'll call me when he gets there, and I can give him a message when he does."
"You can tell him we called if you want. He has our number."
"All right. Are you sure I can't give him a message? It's no trouble."
"No, that's fine, thank you, Miss Lambert. It isn't time-critical. Just tell him we called."
"All right, I sure will. It shouldn't be too long."
"That will be fine. You have a nice evening, then."
The phone disconnected.
In a modern office decorated with gold records and statuettes 2400 miles to the west, the gentleman with the handsome Latino features hung up the phone and looked up at the man behind the big wooden desk.
"Unbelievable!" he said. "The guy left for Houston and left his phone behind."
"Jesus!" the man at the desk swore.
"I got his girlfriend. She says he'll call her when he gets there, and she'll tell him we called. You want to wait?"
"Kid's got a good voice, I'll give him that. His looks are nothing exceptional, though. Who's the next guy on the list?"
Joe Piño looked down and consulted his printout.
"That would be Ray Dougherty, Wilmington, Vermont. What do you think, Mr. Mallory, should I call him now?"
"What is it in Vermont, eight thirty? He should still be up. Yeah, make the call."
What was left behind
Worst storm in 50 years