Melissa wiped her face with a towel backstage and guzzled a cold Evian. Great show, she heard someone call out as she advanced to her changing room and locked the door behind her. Her lower back throbbed more than it had the night before. Despite the prescription pills at her disposal, she refused to take them, opting for plain Ibuprofen instead. The pain was only temporary, she surmised. A result of her new routine, riding hours on end between outdoor shows along the East Coast festival tour.
She changed into a pair of loose-fitting jeans and an oversized shirt made from soft cotton weave. She let her hair down and approached a bouquet of pink roses inside an ornamental vase effervescing with the fragrance of fresh flowers. A white card poked out from the top with her name on it. “Who is it?” she asked when a loud knock startled her.
“Sorry to bother you,” she heard her stage manager reply through the door. “There’s a guy out here who wants to talk with you. He says he knows you. He says it’s important.“
“What does he look like?”
“He’s clean. Should I tell him to beat it?“
“Just a second.”
Melissa composed herself before she opened her room to find Martin holding a bottle of champagne. “What are you doing here?” she sighed incredulously. She stepped outside the room to see her manager flirting with a backup singer.
Martin raised the bottle of Cristal. “I thought you could use some company.”
Melissa retreated inside. “You thought wrong.”
Martin propped the door with his foot before Melissa could shut it all the way. “I didn’t come here to argue.”
“You’re a lawyer. Isn’t that what you do best?”
“I was in town. I miss the boys. I miss you.”
“How’d you find me?”
“Brad Siegel said your crew would be in Raleigh for two nights.”
Melissa grabbed the flower vase. “This was you?”
“I know pink are your favorite.”
Melissa dropped the vase in the wastebasket. “Anything else?”
“I drove five hundred miles to see you. That should tell you something.”
“It tells me you’ve got a long ride home.”
“Where are the boys?”
“On my bus.”
“No. I left them with Freddy Krueger.”
Martin set the flat-bottom bottle of Cristal on the makeup counter and peeled the gold foil wrapping. “You look nice.”
“I’ve been on stage for two hours with the heat and bugs. I smell like a sweat shop.”
Martin opened the bottle. “How ’bout a toast?”
“Come home with me, Mel. We both know you’re not cut out for this life anymore. And our boys need a father.”
“The boys had a father. He died in the flood.”
“Tomás was family, and he loved our boys like they were his own.”
“Well they weren’t. He was cheap labor from a third world country.”
Melissa crossed her arms in disgust. “I think I’m going to throw up in my mouth. Get out!”
Martin raised his hand. “I didn’t mean it that way. I liked Tomás. He was a good man, but I’m miserable without you.”
“And I’m miserable with you. There’s no place in my life for us anymore. Why can’t you see that?”
“This is no life for you and the boys, playing hillbilly concerts with a bunch of B-list minstrels. If it weren’t for me you’d be tied up in court with your record label or in jail on tax evasion. If I hadn’t bought your house—”
“Save it, Martin. You’re only digging the hole deeper.”
“How do you think you got this gig?”
Melissa threw her hands in the air. “This was you? I should have known.”
“Sid got his ten percent.”
“If you didn’t want us on the road, why did you set it up in the first place?”
“I wanted to make you happy. I didn’t think you’d take the boys with you.”
“And you thought what? I would just leave them in your custody to play house while I’m on tour? You couldn’t even be a father for the one night I let you have them.”
“I messed up. I own that. But I’m confident we can make this work. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t care about you and our family. Like it or not, our sons need me in their lives. Not some honky-tonk cowboy living a lie.”
“You’re one to talk.”
“I’ve made mistakes. And I know I’ve hurt our family, but I never lied to you about who I am or where I stand. When your career took off, I felt like I got left behind. I ran to California with another woman because I thought I needed her. I was wrong. She meant nothing to me. You’re the only woman I ever really loved. I’m asking for a second chance here. A chance to do this over again. To do it right this time. Our boys deserve a normal life with a mother and a full time father.”
Melissa rubbed her arms while the canned apology gnawed at her like a cancer in her bones. “Get out.”
Martin held the champagne bottle in one hand. “Are you serious?”
“I don’t trust you.”
“Don’t trust me? What about—”
Martin pondered Melissa’s reaction. “Don’t throw your life away with him.”
“There is no more him, or you. There’s only the boys and I.”
Martin poured the champagne on the floor. “In case you get thirsty,” he grunted bitterly. He emptied the bottle and dropped it on the makeup counter. Then he left abruptly and slammed the door behind him.
Melissa fumed inside her dressing room, recounting all the missteps she’d made in her life. More upset with herself than she was with Martin, she dismissed his comments as the words of a lying fool who occasionally spoke the truth when it served him. Her new recording contract had come too easy; a token gesture facilitated by her bitter ex and a power house label with no intention of supporting her career.
She gathered her things and walked to her bus to find her boys out cold in their bunks. She wanted them back in their own beds; in a house without wheels and land to roam. She had everything she wanted and only herself to blame. Her life had reached a paradox of epic proportion, where no amount of fame or fortune could restore her faith in the world as she knew it. She didn’t need a man in her life, but she wanted one. If only the one she longed for had been honest with her to begin with.
Leland woke up in bed alone and smacked the alarm clock to cancel the annoying beep. He pushed the covers aside and stepped carefully over Abby’s cat flopped lengthwise on the floor with his tail thumping the carpet. Leland knew he’d come so close to having everything he ever wanted. Now the further he descended, the further the bottom fell away.
He checked his phone for messages and called Sid to leave a voice mail. A quick shower and shave preceded his efforts to feed the cat and brew a pot of coffee to fill his thermos for work. He drove the long commute to the new construction site near Franklin and met up with the surly foreman, a high-strung weather-beaten chief from Boston, who possessed all the warmth and charisma of a shovel.
“I hate to ask you this out of the chute,” Leland started, “but is there any way you could float me an advance on my first paycheck?”
“I cut paychecks on Friday. You do your job. You get your check.”
“What about a loan?”
“You got your own tools?”
“In the truck,” Leland answered. He gestured toward his old Dodge Ram in the parking lot. “I take it that’s a no?”
“Take it any way you want it. You need a loan, see a bank. There’s a shitload of work to do, and you’re thirty minutes late.”
“I had a personal issue.”
“Not my problem. You show up late again, and you can find another job.”
Leland gathered his tools from the truck. He needed the work as much as he needed the distraction from his pending court date. The more he dwelled on the paternity results, the more he questioned his own existence. If he hadn’t fathered Abby, why was she so prominent in his life? What did Paula have to gain by tearing his life apart? How much did Abby know? Would she see him in the same light if she knew the truth—or reject him the way Melissa had? Abby was a constant in his life, along with his love for music. Together, they’d kept him anchored through the tough times and brought him more comfort than one man deserved. Without Abby he had nothing. Without music, he was lost.
He made his way toward the construction zone managed by the same company he’d worked for previously and approached a cache of hollow metal framing posts. He acknowledged a coworker in a pair of Dickies and a short sleeve shirt. “I’m Leland.”
“Miles,” the man replied. He gave Leland a quick fist bump through his leather work glove. “You don’t look thrilled to be here.”
“Got a lot on my mind.”
“Amen, brother. I’ve been working this site since they cleared the land. Not sure another mall makes sense in this part of town, but they don’t pay me to think.”
“You from Nashville?”
“Atlanta,” said Miles.
“Were you here for the storm?” Leland asked.
“Every drop. Cost me five days pay when they shut us down. Lucky we didn’t get hit as hard as some parts, or we’d be running pumps and hoses all day.”
Leland rested his hand on his tool belt. “You have kids?”
“Two girls. Ten and twelve. I got an older boy from a baby momma, but I never see him much. His mom’s got a new man. Doesn’t like it when I come around. You?”
“Thirteen going on thirty.”
“I hear you. My oldest is the same. Too young to know better. Too old to take direction without giving lip to her mom or me.” Miles lifted a section of hollow steel frame from the pile and propped it vertically in the track bolted to the concrete floor. “You been downtown since the flood?”
“Not much.” Leland held the frame while Miles secured it to the track in the floor with a hammer drill. “How long have you worked for this builder?”
Miles stood up with the drill at his side. “Too long. But their checks always clear.” He pointed at Leland with the drill. “You look familiar to me.”
Leland repositioned his hold on the beam. “I did some work up in Nashville.”
“I never seen you on site before.”
“I must have one of those faces.”
“Or you white guys all look the same,” Miles jabbed with a big grin on his face.
Leland allowed himself to laugh. “You stole my line.”
Miles grabbed another length of framing steel and held it upright. “Where’re you from?”
“All over. I moved to Nashville a few months back.”
“What happened? They run out of work in all over?”
“Something like that. I came here to sing.”
“Then what are you doing here?”
Leland shrugged. “I got bills to pay like everyone else.”
“We are what we believe. We all have a purpose in life. Some meaning. Some reason to get up in the morning and make it through another day. Do you believe in yourself?”
“I do,” Leland replied. He held the metal stud for Miles to fasten at the track along the floor.
“Then what’s keeping you here? And don’t tell me about bills. We all gotta pay the man. For me, I got nothing but labor on my resume. This kind of work is in my blood. If you got the pipes to sing, use them. This work won’t take you anywhere.”
“You trying to talk me out of a job?”
“I’m trying to educate your mind. If you have a God-given talent, you should use it.”
“Not that simple.”
“It’s only as hard as you make it,” Miles countered. He helped Leland position the frame in place. “I believe in an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. I believe in God. I believe in family. I believe in myself to provide for them no matter how hard I struggle at times.” Miles reached inside his tool pouch for another screw. “What do you believe in?”
Leland looked up at the concrete ceiling.
Miles tapped him on the side of the shoulder. “It ain’t a trick question. If you got to think about it, you need to get right with your god. You follow me?”
“I follow you. But something you said got me thinking…”