She had been impressed by far less than this. A petal from a wildflower blown onto damp earth. A horned beetle inching its way across her path. Her old tiger cat leaping for a moth. Even the songs of the wind aroused her interest easily. But she felt strangely intimidated by this and unmoved. She stood at the end of the room and turned to meet their faces illumined by candlelight, registered their cheers. They found her worthy of attention, believed her success amid their failures was a boon for them all. Or so she guessed. It all seemed like someone’s else’s story.
Two years ago she was just the girl who could be seen found sitting on the back porch of Harper’s Inn rather often, sipping a lemonade in the harsh glare summer. She worked at Harper’s Inn as a hostess at the dining room and when she had ten minutes she escaped, ear cocked for the brass bell that customers rang when they arrived and the desk was unmanned. Her disappearance was tolerated because when she was at her post she was good.
It took exceptional good humor and flexibility to greet people for eight or more hours, to inquire of their well-being and offer them a distraction if the wait was long. Most of the girls had quit after six months. Too many diners treated you like you were their servant, like you weren’t smart enough to do anything else or too pretty to be doing such a job. So they said. It was true you got propositions and complaints and you had to smile, nod, write names down as though it was a king or queen needing assistance.
But Dina made it seem a privilege that they found Harper’s Inn.
“My, what a long trip. I hope we don’t to wait more than fifteen minutes!”
The woman was halfway through retying her scarf when she dabbed her perspiring forehead with the blue and white checkered fabric. It looked neater against her white shirt. Her companion had his lips set like an unbroken horizon. His face was pink and veiny and reminded Dina of raw shrimp.
“Why, I can get you iced water while you wait,” Dina said, reaching for a pitcher. “And there’s a place on the bench. Have you been on the road a long time?”
And from there things would move along, the woman enthusing about her new grand-baby, the man stating his opinion about Iowa, both relaxing under the light touch of Dina’s congeniality. She welcomed people. She brought what mattered most to them at that moment. It wasn’t just food or drink. Mostly it was about getting and staying comfortable in an inhospitable world. Or so Dina felt it must be. That’s what mattered to her. And people commented on how nice an atmosphere Harper’s had even though it was pricier than a place on the other side of town.
So when she ducked out back for a few, putting finger to lips when she passed the kitchen, no one complained. Kenneth, the manager found her there after a few days and was about to complain when he heard voices at a table in the garden.
“How about that Dina? She moved here to finish her senior year, then must have gotten stuck here. She should get out. Such a good way with people. Classy but down to earth. Well, Harper’s needed that touch.”
Dina had looked up when Kenneth touched her on the shoulder.
“Hey, just wanted to let you know you’re doing a nice job here.”
Dina shrugged. It was bread and butter money. It helped out at home and in time her measly paycheck might contribute to a better guitar. Because that’s what she thought about out there. Her songs. They skipped about in her brain even when customers were talking to her. People often inspired her. One might have deep forlorn eyes and place a protective touch on a child’s head. A man would wistfully look at the black and silver matchbooks in the little silver bowl as though they reminded him of some place or someone. She saw the expensive women’s footwear and was drawn to high heels even though she didn’t like them for herself. They seemed barbaric. But tasteful. How could she sing about that?
Every person who came in had a complicated history, held close their desires and dreams, had been places she had never seen. So she took them home in her head and got out her guitar and paper and pen. And the best part of her life began. She had written more than eighty songs by the time she was eighteen, some forgettable, many that were better or getting there, a few that stood the test of repetition so far.
Marva, for one, liked them. She was a waitress at Harper’s Inn but knew Dina’s mother. She had heard Dina play and sing up in her room, so asked her to come join them on the porch swing and serenade the neighbors, too. She did so, but quietly.
“Why on earth have you not been promoting this child? Why, she has a voice to rival Dolly’s.”
Dina winced. She hadn’t meant to sound that country but there it was–it sneaked in from southeastern Missouri where she was born. The place they had left.
Helen, her mother, laughed. “Yes, she’d going to make a mint and take us all to Paris! Marva, don’t encourage foolishness.” Her face turned hard, the way Dina knew it to be in general. “She’s a damned dreamer, this child. She sings rather than cooks or cleans and I don’t know what to do with her since I don’t have the money to send her off to the state college.”
“Well, our little music maker,” Marva winked at Dina, “stay late on Saturday night and sing a long with Max and the crew. We have some good times.”
Helen rolled her eyes and rubbed lotion on her hands that smelled of slightly rancid lilacs. Her mother feared things, like getting old, but acted otherwise.
So that’s how it started. Marva had come from a bluegrass family; her great-grandfather had taught his children banjo and tunes and it just kept going. Her friend Cap was a piano player and played nearly anything on week-ends to entertain the guests. Carter and Phil were singers from way back, on the other side of thirty, itching to go to Nashville, just four hours from there. They needed more money so they could survive awhile, they said. And more nerve. Far greater pitch would have helped, Dina noted silently.
The first time she sang with the gang her reservations dissipated. It felt good to blend into a group. She’d waited to sing with them for weeks and here it was. A few songs in, Dina closed her eyes and harmonized awhile, then wove back to the melody, letting her voice establish its place while the others filled things out. They quieted down after the third verse and let her have the room. She didn’t notice at first, the piano playing so good and happy, her guitar releasing rhythmic chords like they were scrappy creatures set free.
And then she stopped in the middle of a phrase, confused.
“What are you all doing here? Trying to embarrass the heck of me?” A look of horror passed over her face and she covered it with a free hand, letting the plastic guitar pick fall to the floor.
Marva clapped, then the rest joined in and hooted and whistled.
“I told these boys how much you had going for you. That was primo singing!”
Marva gave her a hug, bosom squashed against Dina’s thin frame and taking the breath from her. But she joined the ragtag group every Saturday night after work, eleven to midnight. And finally, after a few months, she sang for customers a little, and dared sing a few of her own songs.
“Walk a Winding Path” was one of her favorites, about a boy from Missouri she’d left. She had practiced it a long time, adding here, erasing there, til the chorus sounded right:
I can’t find the sweet end of day
without your hand fitting mine;
you roam the far ends of this world,
and I’m lost without your light.
She knew it was simple but really, life was. She hadn’t hit twenty yet but knew from watching though not completely experiencing it that it about boiled down to love or at least lust, loss, pain, joy, and hope. And God. Everybody needed God sooner or later. Simple.
It was the tune that hooked them, she saw, well, maybe the way the words crowned the melody. They were twins of inspiration. The full room cheered her on. And she sang the next week and the next. Things just happened until she made more money singing three nights a week than hostessing so she quit hostessing.
It all added up to this. Leaving to make a record. A producer had stopped on his way to Nashville and liked what he heard, came back for more and offered her a contract. It was ridiculous, really, how songs made on her bedroom floor, in the empty basement, on the porch swing could be important enough to reveal to the faceless many. Maybe there would be nice money and Paris. But she wondered what would happen to her songs. If they would hide away from her. If it mattered how many people heard them. Harper’s Inn was one thing, a country another. Far less had beguiled her and it had been enough. Sunrises from a hilltop and iced tea with her mother on a balmy afternoon. But her music had found its way out there. She was going to have to follow it all the way. If things fell apart she could come back. Welcome guests. Make more songs.