Chapter 1: Bagels and Joe
1 Bagels and Joe
Bagels and Joe can’t be more than the size of your average motel room, but it is wall-to-wall jars of roasted coffee beans. It smells nutty and warm on this cold September morning. No one looks for a truant in a place like this. Ordinarily I love it here, curled up with a book and headphones in a corner where I can be any age at all in the low light. But today I can’t hide. Because today I am the entertainment.
It’s been a month since our last show and my most recent episode. I can still feel the terrible panic, hear the confused voices of the crowd, and see Mom trying to gather our money and run. I suppose I should be grateful for the four-week break with no shows along the lake. She has a job now too, at the diner down the road, so we’ve usually got enough leftover hash browns and day-old donuts to keep us fed. But that doesn’t mean she still hasn’t been trying, like always, to land me the “next big gig.” And today we’ve got a show.
I can’t tell if the time off has made the fear better or worse. Do I want to throw up more or less than I normally do before a performance? It’s too close to call.
It doesn’t help that Bagels and Joe is also “the place” to come in Lake Tahoe to find undiscovered talent. I can’t believe Mom finally talked Joe, the owner, into it. Maybe he heard about what had happened in front of the restaurant. Everybody always feels sorry for me after they see me melt down.
That can’t happen today. Mom’s already given me the “stand tall, be brave, keep it together” speech. She also tacked on the “you have a gift to share with the world” speech for good measure. But there are so many people clinking cups and scraping forks on plates. They’ve crammed themselves around wobbly tables that Joe himself moved out through the open doors and onto the deck. I am standing with my back to it all, tuning Mom’s guitar and swallowing buckets of air. No matter how many breaths I take, it’s not enough. I feel light-headed and fluttery, like a paper caught on a fence.
The tuning is good. It gives my hands something to do. I won’t be playing the guitar, though. That’s Mom’s job. Whenever it comes time to sing in front of people, I can’t do anything but squeeze my hands tight behind my back. I used to close my eyes, too, but once I turned eleven, Mom said I had to keep them open or I’d creep out the customers. Good. Let them be as creeped out by me as I am by them. It’s like the moment right before you’re supposed to blow out the candles on your birthday cake, when all the pressure’s on you. Except none of them can step in and help if I can’t do it.
I look out over the railing. The lake and the sky are the same blue—so light they’re almost white, and it makes me think of heaven. And rest and quiet. I tug at Mom’s sleeve so she’ll pull back from the audience she’s currently “meeting and greeting.”
“I want to start with the Patty Griffin song,” I whisper. She nods without looking away from the couple in spandex active wear at the front table.
She jerks a glittery pink thumbnail toward them so only I can see. “Ray Bans and Rolexes,” she says. “Today’s the day, baby. I can feel it. Somebody in this pack is a scout from LA.”
She stares at the couple, lazily stirring their coffees with tanned hands, like she’s hungry for something that has nothing to do with food. My insides turn to soup, and I feel sloshy and heavy all at once. My suede jacket feels too tight. Like saran wrap that’s shrinking. Joe gives me a thumbs-up over by the open doors. He’s been nice, nice enough to let me sing on his property and to allow Mom in all her glory to put up flyers everywhere and basically boss his servers around all morning long. There’s always some promising musician up here trying to get a Saturday spot on the deck. He must do pretty well. I bet he doesn’t have to sleep in a truck like Mom and me. I shoot him a tiny smile.
Maybe this time will be different. At least out here on the deck, the customers are a good four feet away. No unexpected touches. I take a breath like I’m about to dive underwater as Mom starts to speak in the voice she saves especially for shows. She sounds like the ringmaster in a circus. Or a car salesman.
“Now this show is about to get under way, and we so appreciate your attendance. If you would, please hold your applause until the end. And boy will you want to applaud.” She pauses and chuckles like she always does. “And now, the lovely Louise Montgomery!”
My insides have liquefied. But I hand Mom the guitar and watch her count off: “A one, a two, a one two three four—” and then I find it. One red spot on a pine branch five feet away, just above the heads of the spandex couple. It’s a cardinal. And today he’s going to be who I sing to so I don’t have to look at the crowd. I fix my eyes on him, and as I do, he turns his tufted head toward me and our eyes meet and it is luck and it is just enough to get me going.
I let the beat of Mom’s guitar strum through me and start low, lower than a twelve-year-old girl should be able to go, or so Mom says. I sing of heaven and clouds and troubles blowing away in the wind.
I go high on the “trouble,” and my cardinal friend cocks his head, like he knows I’m lying, because nothing chases away trouble. Except maybe the sound of my own voice in my head.
I close my eyes and let the music take me. I sing of sorrow and time I can’t borrow, and too soon I feel a tightening in my gut over what I have to do when the song’s over. I never want it to end. If I could sing forever, I would. Then I’d never have to speak to a living soul other than my mom.
I go so low on the last line that it feels like a secret to myself. I say it over and over. Finally, my voice quivers to a stop like a penny settling on a counter. When the applause hits, it’s loud and sharp and knocks me back like a crack of thunder. The cardinal springs from his tree, and I drop to my knees. I will not rock back and forth. I will not whimper and whine. We can’t have a repeat of what happened at Christy’s. We can’t. I bite my tongue until I taste blood.
I feel Mom come up behind me. She shoves the guitar at me and mutters, “Pretend like you’re tuning.” She’s covering. Like she always does. She tosses her dyed blond hair over her shoulder and begins a speech mostly knit together with thank-yous. She takes her time asking for requests from the group, beaming most of her megawatt smile at the couple at the front table. I get myself under control.
By the time we begin the rest of our set, I am back to normal enough to finish three more songs. When the applause comes again, I stick my fingers in my ears while pretending to hold my hair back for a curtsy. I’m so relieved it’s over I feel woozy.
Joe approaches with a cup of coffee. I take it and breathe it in. The foam and sugary sweetness hit me like smelling salts and bring me back to myself. I study Joe over my cup while he keeps an eye on the crowd. He’s a muscly guy with tan lines from his sunglasses that make him look like a very nice raccoon. Right now, his arms are crossed like he’s my own personal bodyguard. People give us space.
“Not bad, Louise. Not bad at all,” he says once the crowd begins to move back inside. “Your mom was right when she said you had the pipes.”
I smile into my cup.
“Don’t tell her I caffeinated a minor, okay?”
We both look over to where she’s standing, her hands on the hips of her tightest black jeans, talking to the Ray Ban guy.
“I don’t think she’d care.”
“No?” Joe gives me a look like he wants to ask more. I’ve already said too much, gotten too comfortable. He’s easy to talk to, and that’s a problem. What happens between me and Mom stays between me and Mom.
I begin packing up the guitar and tasseled rug we unroll for performances.
“Thanks for the joe, Joe,” I say.
“Was that a joke?” He makes a shocked “oh” face, and I laugh, because the caffeine has kicked in and I’m happy my job is done for the day. “I didn’t think you had it in you. Stay cool, Louise,” he says, and walks back into the café, throwing a dish towel over his shoulder.
Oh no. Mom is leading the fancy spandex couple over, and I immediately tense up. I guess I’m not quite done for the day after all.
Mom starts the introductions.
“Louise, I’d like you to meet Howard Maze.”
“Howie. Please.” Howie sticks out a big hand with stubby fingers. I can’t do it. A shake is too much. I give a little wave instead. He doesn’t seem to mind.
“This is my wife, Margaret. Maggie.”
Howie and Maggie. Same height, same glasses, same dark hair. They could have been cartoon supervillains.
“We’re a husband-and-wife talent team—the Maze Agency. We’re a family business, and we’re in the business of making families’ dreams come true,” Howie says like he’s in a commercial. “And we love your sound.”
“You’ve really got something, honey,” Maggie chimes in, lifting her glasses and eyeing me up and down. “Kind of raspy, like a modern Stevie Nicks.”
“A tiny dynamo, like Amy Winehouse,” Howie adds.
“But fragile-looking,” counters Maggie, “like early Taylor Swift.” This is too weird. I feel my jacket getting tight again. Mom nods. She’s been following the two of them as they size me up like it’s a tennis match. But I’m white-knuckling the coffee cup for all I’m worth. I can do this. I can be calm. Please, please don’t let the Mazes try to touch me.
Just as Howie’s reaching toward me like he wants to try that handshake again, Mom bumps Howie’s shoulder with hers like they’re old friends and says, “I told you you were in for a treat.” He drops his hand as she keeps talking. “And this is just a taste. Wait until you hear her miked and in studio.”
What is Mom doing? I study my toes while the three of them look at me. I have never set foot in a studio in my life. She’s making promises I can’t keep.
“Yeah, I believe it. I like her sound already. And the acoustics out here are zilch. I’m thinking commercial jingles at first. Then we’ll talk singles. She’s young yet. Does she act? Could she do Disney?”
The idea of television makes me want to puke. I consider puking right here to prove my point, but he keeps talking, more to himself than to us.
“Never mind, never mind,” he says. “This is vacation, not business, and believe it or not, we like to keep the two separate.”
It’s the first thing he says that makes me think I might like Howie Maze. Maybe he really is a family guy, and it’s not just a line? Disney’s a joke. Commercials of any kind are a joke. There’s no way a camera pointed at me would turn out well. But could I handle being alone in a studio? I picture it. A black box with nothing inside it but me and the music. It sounds soothing, like a sleeping bag zipped all the way up. But he ruins the dream with what he says next.
“We can’t tell anything until we get her into our offices back in LA. We’ve got a studio there, and we’ll see how she reads and looks on camera. Do you have a headshot?”
For just one second Mom looks as panicked as I feel. But then it’s gone. “Ah no. Sorry, Howie. Left those on the plane, I’m afraid. It was a rough transfer from Chicago to Reno.”
We have never been on a plane in our lives.
Maggie taps my shoulder, and I flinch. “Here, honey, you take this.” She hands me an ivory card with THE MAZE AGENCY printed on it in big blue letters. “Call us at the office, and we’ll set something up when we get back.” She turns to her husband, who is snapping to-go lids on both their lattes. “What do you think, Howie, end of next week?”
“Next week. Yeah, that should work. Vacation first, then work.”
“Excellent. We’ll check our schedule and get back to you,” Mom says like we’re on tour. But the Mazes are already making their way through the doors and back out into the Tahoe morning.
I swallow the last of my coffee and stare into the bottom of my cup. This was supposed to be free coffee and enough of a gig to keep Mom happy for another few weeks. Despite all her pep talks over the years, I never thought I’d actually have someone think I was good enough to sign. I love to sing because the sound of my own voice in my ears steadies me. It makes me feel stronger than I am. I try to imagine doing that in front of cameras and crowds and high fives and handshakes and applause. An acidy burp escapes my throat and burns. As soon as the Mazes disappear, I grab Mom’s hand.
“Mom, we can’t go to LA next week.”
“Why not?” She’s smiling and clicking her fingers together like there’s a song playing I can’t hear.
“Because… you have a job here.…” Because I like the mountains and the quietness of this place, I think. Because if someone tries to fit me for a Disney costume, I will implode.
“A job?” She stops and points to a stool so I’ll sit. “You mean the minimum-wage, no-insurance, waitress job? Yeah, tough decision there.”
I shake my head. I hate it when she gets sarcastic with me. The deck is almost empty now that the free entertainment’s over. I move to set my cup on the stool next to me, and it wobbles because my hands are shaking again. She sees it and leans her shoulder, as carefully as always, into mine. I sigh with relief at the weight of it. If either of us were to pull away, we’d both topple over.
“It’s about a seven-hour drive down to LA,” she says in a low, calm voice. “How about this—we go next week, see what happens?” The way it comes out, she sounds like she couldn’t care less if I get it or not. But I know better. “And then, hey, if they love you as much as I think they will, we’ll sign a big contract, make this our home base, and fly back and forth like fancy jet-setters?”
There it is. Her not-so-secret Hollywood dream life. But I can’t pretend I don’t like the idea of making Lake Tahoe permanent.
“Like with a real house here, maybe?” I ask, against my better judgment. “One of those cabins by the water near Commons Beach?”
Mom smiles. “Why not, baby girl? You’re a fighter, and you’ve fought your way almost to the tippity top. With your abilities, we could buy a McMansion in Beverly Hills.”
I smile too, because if I ignore the whole performing-in-public part, I can kind of see it. Not the McMansion. I see the rich people who fly into Tahoe for the weekend, with their shiny SUVs and ten-dollar lattes. They’ve never clipped a coupon or wondered where they’d sleep at night. But they don’t look any happier. I just want a little cabin with my own bedroom where I can pin pictures to the walls and pick out a quilt for the bed. We would have a kitchen—a real one, not a camp stove—and a refrigerator that would always be full. There’d be a path to the water, too. A place of my own.
“Hey, you two, lunch on the house?”
Joe comes out and hands me a bag with two bagel sandwiches and chips inside. I can smell the smoked salmon, and my stomach growls, yells really. It’ll be the first thing I’ve eaten today. There were no freebies from Mom’s late shift last night.
“Thanks, hon.” Mom slides off the stool. “And thanks for letting my baby girl take the stage this morning.”
“Sure. It was an honor. Louise, you’ve got a great voice. Keep at it.”
Mom bobs her head in agreement like he’s just stated the obvious—the sky is blue; the world is round; Lou’s voice is great.
“Listen,” Joe adds. “I know school’s back in session, but I hope you find the time for your music. I really do.”
Quick as I can, I drop my head and let the curtain of my hair fall forward. Mom made me memorize the name of the middle school in town, but I can’t remember it. Why can’t I remember it? Thank goodness for Mom. “Oh, she’s a good manager of her time, Joe. A real responsible kid. Homework first, that’s what I say, and singing second. And she sticks to it. Straight As all the way.”
I sigh inside. She’s gone too far. It’s still too early in the year for grades, even I know that, but Joe either doesn’t pick up on it or doesn’t care, because he smiles when I squeak out a “Thank you for the lunch,” and Mom pulls us away, through the café and back out onto the sidewalk. The sun isn’t as warm as it was just a few weeks ago. October is almost here. How am I going to hide the fact that I’m not in school once the weather turns too cold to be outside? Not that I’m complaining. I love the mountain quiet where I can be alone without bells ringing and bus brakes screeching and kids bumping into me. I miss the homework, though. There’s only so much you can learn from the donations in the Little Free Library. While we walk back down the hill to the campsite, Mom hums. School’s the last thing on her mind.
I flip down the tailgate, and we sit in the bed of the truck with our feet up and tucked into each other. The Chevy used to be white. It’s more a dirty beige now with cracks of rust running through it. But it’s home. I unwrap both our sandwiches, and we eat slowly, savoring something that’s not fried or out of a can. I lick the cream cheese off my fingers and then tip the paper wrapping up to catch the last of the crumbs. Right now, this is just about perfect. It’s cozy in the truck, and there’s a couple trying to teach their little kid to fish. He keeps throwing his Elmo pole into the water when he casts his line. It’s hilarious.
Mom reaches over and tucks a piece of hair behind my ear. I smell her, the warm tanned scent of her underneath the cigarette smoke. She moves to grab a Camel from her stash, but I catch her hand and hold it. She shakes her head but laughs.
“Maybe now’s the time to quit. A fresh start for me and you. Yeah?” she says.
I nod into her shoulder, and we both shiver when a gust of wind blows in off the lake.
“It’s colder now than it was this morning.” She sighs. “It’s probably eighty degrees in LA. What do you bet?”
I don’t answer. Instead, I scooch down so my head is on her lap. She moves her fingers through my hair slowly, and it doesn’t make me want to twitch. She’s the only one who can touch me like this without making me jump or cringe. There’s no startle reflex when it comes to her. I close my eyes and remember when I was littler and she used to do it all the time.…
It was the year I turned ten, and we lived down in Biloxi. We were hitting the casino circuit then. Mom had a job at a souvenir shop selling maps and T-shirts and gator-teeth necklaces. The tourist season was steady enough, even after the Katrina rebuild, that we could afford to stay at the Starlight, a pay-by-the-week motel just off the highway on a little strip of beach. I went to real school there too, all of fourth grade. Mom got me a Dora the Explorer backpack on discount from her work, and I ate a hot breakfast and lunch every day because the county paid. Biscuits and eggs and spaghetti and pizza and big, warm chocolate chip cookies. It was the longest I remember not being hungry.
It was also when I realized something was wrong with me. “On the spectrum,” I heard my teacher, Mrs. Guidry, whisper to another teacher at recess when I freaked out when a kid tried to push me on the swings. I didn’t know what it meant. But when I asked Mom later, she got mad and didn’t answer. Then I handed her a note from Mrs. Guidry and the school counselor. They wanted me to be tested. But Mom barely looked at it before tearing it into teeny-tiny pieces. She yelled that she was going to go down to the school to give them a piece of her mind. But she never did. We hit the road the next day. That was the end of Biloxi.
It was only later, after we’d moved, that I realized they’d meant autism. I’ve never been tested for it. Mom refused when they brought it up at school conferences. But I guess it didn’t matter. My teachers had already decided. They treated me different, and so I felt more different than ever. They were the grown-ups, so they must be right.
Mom lived for the weekends in Biloxi, when we’d hit up the “karaoke for kids” nights at the Beau Rivage and Hard Rock and Treasure Bay—all the big casinos. I can still remember the air when you first walked in. It was blasting cold, like stepping into a giant refrigerator. I kept a fuzzy old sweatshirt in my backpack that Mom made me take off before I performed. She said it was cold because they pumped in extra oxygen so the gamblers would stay awake and keep spending money. I believe it.
The karaoke nights, though, those were bad. The strobe lights were so bright they left lightning streaks on the back of my eyelids when I blinked. And the kids were mostly older than me, already eleven or twelve, and they danced and sang, and it was all hip-hop or rap. I actually like rap, the kind that sounds like poetry and doesn’t need instruments in the background to make you feel it in your bones. But Mom would pick Dolly Parton or a show tune from Grease, and I’d just stand there with my eyes closed and pull at the skin on my elbows while I sang. The only good thing about it was that no one really paid attention to what was happening onstage. Mom thought those karaoke nights would be our big break. She thought there’d be talent scouts. It took a whole year before she realized no one was looking for “the next big thing” in a karaoke club in Mississippi.
But after every show, when we were back in our room at the Starlight, I would take a bath and curl up in my towel on the bed. Mom would comb my hair out with her fingers just like she’s doing now, and we’d watch something goofy on the television… old episodes of Andy Griffith or Charlie’s Angels.
“Did you know I’m named after a Charlie’s Angel, baby girl?” she said one night.
I sat up and twisted around in my towel so I could tell if she was joking or not, but she was looking at the screen.
“That one.” She pointed to a woman with big blond hair and bell-bottom jeans. “Farrah Fawcett.”
“Your name’s Jill.”
“Jill’s her name on the show.” Mom stopped playing with my hair and curled her skinny arms around her knees.
“Your grandma wanted a beauty queen for a daughter.”
Mom could have been a beauty queen if she’d wanted. She’s the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen—even more than the casino girls in their feathers and sequins. But she never talked about my grandparents. All I knew was they’d kicked her out when she got pregnant with me at seventeen. “Hard to kick someone out of a double-wide I never wanted to be in in the first place,” she’d say any time I brought them up. I learned not to ask. But I still tried to picture them, Ronald and Leslie Montgomery of middle-of-nowhere Arkansas. They’re just blurred faces, though, all distorted like in a funhouse mirror. I guess that’s pretty much what Mom sees too.
I feel Mom’s hand still on my head and I sit up. I miss Biloxi. Not the casinos with their jangling noises and bright lights and carpet that smelled like beer and cigarette ash, but I miss the school with its steady meals and the Starlight with a clean bed and a bath.
Maybe Mom’s right. Maybe this will be different. Maybe I won’t freak out like I did in front of Christy’s restaurant when the crowd got too close, pushing me in on all sides. I can still feel the way the gravel dug into my knees after I screamed and dropped to the ground. I can still hear their voices:
“Is she okay?”
“I just touched her. That’s it. And she… screamed.”
“Drugs, you think?”
“No such thing as too young.”
“That’s a little cynical.”
“Well, whatever it is, someone needs to do something about that mother.”
And above it all, Mom yelling, “Get your hands off my daughter!”
I shake my head. Maybe Howie and Maggie will like me so much they’ll offer me a job, and I can sit in a dark, quiet studio and make some music and some money, and it’ll be better for both of us. I’ll turn into the star, and the fighter, Mom thinks I already am.