The Road to Ordinary (She Wrote, Week 1)

by Christine Hawks

I bid my farewell to I-40 after 3 days, 7 states and nearly 2,000 miles.  Life, as I had known it, was making a gradual retreat, disappearing into the horizon like the dashed yellow lines of the highway in my cracked rearview mirror.  A fresh start lay somewhere ahead, I thought, as I passed the sign proclaiming I had entered the Golden State.  And, with miles of the Mojave Desert bathed in the glow of a late August sunset, California appeared every bit as golden as its motto promised.

With road weariness settling in like the prolonged summer dusk and nothing but unwaveringly straight highway ahead, my thoughts drifted.  I had never aspired to fame or fortune.  Both states brought with them more trouble than I imagined either of them could be worth.  Fate would cruelly award me with both conditions and then as a final insult, infamous would be added to my list of unwanted attributes.  I needed to shed my former self, bury my history and fashion a “do over”, as I envisioned how my life should have been.

My former home had been Knoxville, Tennessee.  “Me 1.0” had been a decent singer and was the lead vocals for a small bluegrass band.  I was happy enough playing regular gigs at some of the local bars and the occasional festival.  The band had a loyal following, I made good tips and my performances never felt like work.  I loved life and I was loved in that life by Owen.

Owen was the band’s fiddle player.  He had a natural gift for music, but practiced relentlessly nonetheless.  He had once seen Charlie Daniels perform and was hellbent at being “the best there ever was”.   And, he’d be the best, of that I was certain.  Though his first love was music, his love for me was no less committed. When something or someone captured Owen’s heart, he was “all-in”.  Contrary to his rigid dedication and focus to what he loved, he was relaxed and carefree in every other aspect of his life.  Whereas I tended to be reserved when not performing, he had quite a following, socially.

It wasn’t unusual, after we’d wrapped up a show, for Owen to enjoy a late dinner and drinks with friends and fans or even to help the bar staff clean-up after closing and kick back a longneck, on the house, for his efforts.   And, that was how that late January evening unfolded.  After finishing our final set, a scratchy throat announcing the onset of a cold, I said my farewells, kissed Owen and headed for our apartment.

I awoke at 3:33 AM, a full minute before my cell phone would ring.  My heart was racing   even before the buzz of my phone heightened my sense of alarm.  No one calls in the middle of the night to give you good news.  I knew this call was no exception.  It was an officer with the Knoxville Police Department.  There had been an accident. Owen was dead.

Dead.  The concept was unthinkable to me.  He was alive just hours ago.  I recovered enough to find my voice and weakly asked, “How?”  I was informed that Owen had been walking back to our apartment and was hit by a drunk driver.  First responders arrived on the scene within minutes, rushing him to the hospital, but there was nothing that could be done. He was killed instantly.  So, too, was eight months of our marriage.

Twenty five, newly widowed and thanks to the news coverage, now known around town for more than my music.  At a time like this, Knoxville could feel repressively small, and I was suffocating.  Everyone knew Owen and always had a kind word to say or wanted to express their condolences when they learned who I was.  And, while I appreciated how well-loved he was, this was my loss and I, selfishly, wanted to grieve alone.  I had a badly broken heart to attempt to piece together.  Everywhere that I went someone or something reminded me of Owen.  In time, I’d want to remember all that we had shared, but just then, I wanted to wallow in the emptiness that filled me.  That was all that was left.

Realizing that I couldn’t heal without some distance, I sub-let our apartment, packed whatever clothes and photos would fill my duffle bag and pointed my beat-up Wrangler towards Nashville.  I had no plan, no address, just open road.

As it would turn out, my story was known in Nashville, as well.  And, that’s where I would meet A.J.  Unbeknownst to me, he had seen me perform in Knoxville a time or two.  A.J. Anderson was the founder of Two Nickels Distillery. Aptly named for how the business was born from not having two nickels to rub together.  Despite lacking money for his start-up,  A.J. did have a wealth of determination and innovation.  Though relatively new to the market, compared to some of Tennessee’s well-known whiskeys,  A.J. perfected a small batch recipe that had garnered high praise from critics and was gaining popularity throughout the southeast.  With an original cocktail recipe, using Two Nickels Whiskey, to be featured in an upcoming edition of The New York Times, A.J. was nearing the success to which he had long aspired.

I met A.J. while I was a server at Watermark in Nashville’s Gulch.  He and his partners were regular patrons, often inviting distributors for a mix of business and casual conversation over dinner.  Having never acknowledged me on a personal basis before, I was surprised when he stopped me one night as he was trailing his colleagues out of the restaurant.

“I know this may not mean much from a guy who makes his living off of selling alcohol, but for what it’s worth, I am sorry about what happened to your husband.”

It had been six months since I’d moved to Nashville and this was the first time in a long time that someone had mentioned Owen, much less recognized me.  I wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming numbness that returned at the mention of my former life.  I stood  there open-mouthed, unable to say anything.

He continued with, “I know, the wound is still fresh and I didn’t mean to cause you any pain by expressing my condolences to you.  While pedaling my wares over in Knoxville, I’d seen your band perform a few times.  I’d recognized you here before, but never knew what to say.”

“Thank you,” was all I could muster before attempting to get to the ladies room to pull myself together enough to finish my shift.

“Wait!”, he called after me.  “I’d be willing to help, if you’ll allow me.”

Curious, I turned back and asked what he meant.

“It’d mean a lot to several state policy makers if they had a distiller on their side who  was willing to help strengthen the penalties for DUIs.”

Over time, I’d accept his offer, and A.J. kept true to his word.  We’d meet occasionally  over lunch and he’d update me on the progress of a bill that was being drafted.  Once the language was drafted, there was nothing more that we could do besides await the vote.  And, yet, he’d still invite me to lunch.

The more time I spent getting to know A.J., the more that I liked him.  He was nearly 10 years older than I and our lives were vastly different.  Like Owen had been, I admired how driven he was and how he ardently pursued his passions.  And, gradually, we had grown to love each other.

It’s strange just how many forms love can take.  A.J. and I would never have the swooning, fairy tale, ride off into the sunset kind of love that Owen and I had shared.  But, we had a mutual admiration for each other and acknowledged that whether for better or worse, we were who we were.  Neither of us wanted to change that.  He accepted that my heart was damaged and that he’d never take Owen’s place.  And, I knew that there were a lot of turds floating around out there, so if a second chance for love with a good man came around, I’d be stupid not to take it.

After a private ceremony, we joined our lives as husband and wife.  Though A.J. tried to convince me that I didn’t need to work, I was too restless for a life of leisure.  I quit my waitressing job and put together a new band.  I was in Nashville, after all.  With money no longer a worry and no pressure or desire to make it big, I was free to once again pursue music. I spent my days trying my hand at songwriting and three to four evenings a week playing at the local hang-outs.  I had found something unexpected in that next chapter of my life – contentment.

But, it would be short-lived.  Something unusual was going on with A.J.  Typically a casual drinker, I’d often come home from a performance to find him passed out wherever he landed at the house.  In the mornings, he would never want to talk about  the drinking, much less the reason for the sudden change.

Preferring naivety over the sensationalism of current events, I mostly avoided the media outlets.  And, then, a band member gave me a copy of the local newspaper, pointing to the  front-page headline. “Local Accountant Discovered With More Than Two Nickels After Embezzlement Scandal.”  This was a major blow to the distillery.  How long would it take to recover its financial footing, much less the reputation that A.J. has so painstakingly personally constructed?

The expense and duration of the trial, the media requests and the time away from his business all took their toll on A.J.  He’d been indulging too frequently and would return home all too ready for a fight.

On a rare Saturday night off from a performance, I had just crossed the threshold into sleep when the sound of something toppling in the house awakened me.  A.J. was loud when his was drunk, never failing to announce his presence, but it was always verbal, never crashing into objects.  Either he’d crossed a new limit or someone was in the house.

I sat up, ears finely tuned in the direction of the commotion, trying to decide whether I should call out or hide myself.  I heard the sound of glass shattering and reached under the bed for the handgun we kept for home protection.  Neither of us were fond of guns, but A.J.’s father insisted I learn how to shoot one. He would often tell me, “If a person’s got a right to bear arms, they ought to be knowledgeable in how to use said arms.”  Despite my protests to the contrary, A.J.’s father would not accept my polite declines to his offer to educate me in the use of handguns. He had spent a series of Saturday’s at the shooting range with me, until he was satisfied that I could use the gun for defense, if needed,  without accidentally shooting myself.

I never actually thought I’d have to use those skills as I crouched in the narrow space between the bed and the wall.  I was still hoping I wouldn’t have to.  Whoever was in the house was not turning any lights on, so there was no way to know what I was up against.  Footsteps arrived at the entrance to the bedroom.  I pointed the gun and tried to steel myself for whatever might happen should those footsteps enter the room.  Though I wanted to scream from the tension, I backed myself up against the wall and kept quiet, fearing even my breathing would prompt unwanted notice.

I was gripped by a searing pain in my side.  With no light by which to see and carpeting for flooring in the bedroom, the intruder had somehow silently found me.  I felt a new pain, this time in my thigh.  Somehow, I manage to fire the gun and then, there was nothing.

When I awoke, I was no longer in my bedroom.  I soon realized that I was in a hospital room.  By the sunlight streaming through the window, it figured it was mid-morning.  What day it was?  I had no idea.  A doctor, passing by the room, noted that I was awake and spoke to someone outside the room beyond my field of vision.  Shortly after, two police officers entered the room.  What the hell had happened?

After introducing themselves, the female officer asked if I was feeling alert enough to answer a few questions.  I nodded my consent, but warned them that I was still trying to put the pieces together myself.  “Would you mind telling me why I’m in the hospital?”

The male officer replied that there had been a shooting at the house.  I nodded my head, not entirely sure if they meant that I had been shot or that someone had been shot at the house.  “You were injured; stabbed multiple times.  My partner and I were the first to arrive and we found you unconscious in the bedroom.  Can you remember anything from last night?”

A twinge of pain in my right side, brought with it a foggy memory of crouching in the bedroom. And, then?  I tentatively probed the recesses of my mind trying to remember what had happened.  I remember going to bed that night and then?

“A noise,” I said.  “I remember hearing a noise.  Someone was in the house.  I wasn’t sure if it was A.J. or an intruder.  There were no lights, just things breaking.”  And, then it occurred to me.  “Where’s A.J.?  Where’s my husband?” I asked.

The officers exchanged glances.  The male officer delivered the news as gently as he could.  “Ma’am, I’m sorry to tell you this.  Your husband is dead.”  Oh, no!  This cannot be happening to me, again!

“What?!” I asked, confused.  “Did you catch the intruder?”

The officer shook his head.  “There was no intruder, ma’am.  Near as we can tell, you shot him.”

A sharp “ding” brought my attention back to the highway.  My gas light had come on.  I glanced at my watch.  I was right on schedule and the exit sign indicated that I had reached my pit stop.  I pulled off the highway and made a left into the first gas station.  I started the gas pump and headed into the attached convenience store.

I helped myself to an Icee while I waited for my tank to fill.  The male clerk was occupied with another female customer at the register.

“That you?” he asked, pointing to the stack of papers on the counter.

“Yes,” she answered as she paid for her purchase.

I topped my cup with a lid, grabbed a straw and waited to pay.  I could see the newspaper over her shoulder.  “Wife Claims Self-Defense in Nashville Distiller Murder – No Trial”.  The girl in front of me gathered up her purchase and exited the store.  I paid for mine and followed her.

“Macie?” I asked.

The woman from the store turned around and grinned.  “Yes, ma’am, I am.  How was that?”

“You did just fine!  Which car is yours?”

“The blue Prius over there,” she said, pointing around the convenience store.

“The Jeep’s there at pump number 3,” I said, tossing her the keys and shrugging off my messenger bag.  I handed it to her and she gave me her Coach shopper.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked.  “It’s not too late and I wouldn’t blame you for having second thoughts.”

She smiled and responded, “Are you kidding?  What do I have to miss?  Living on tips, hoping to have enough money left at the end of the month to pay rent, waiting for my chance to make it big in Hollywood.  It’s not nearly the life you have.  I wanted so much more for myself; to make something of myself.”

I sighed.  “This is the role of the lifetime you are playing here.  They’ll be no film credits, no book deals, just the cash in that bag there and the account set up for you.  It should be more than enough to get you settled in Nashville.  Stick to the script,” I said pointing to the bag.  “At least until you get comfortable.  After that, where you take your story from there?  Well, that’s entirely up to you.”

She hugged me, saying, “Don’t worry!  I got this!  Best damn role I’ll ever play!”

“Ok, then.  Good luck, Macie!  And, thank you,” I said, hugging her one final time.  “You have saved my life.”

She headed for the Jeep and I for the Prius.  Once inside, I checked the contents of the bag.  A set of keys and a California driver’s license, as agreed.  I would be Jennifer Davis from now on.  Well, you can’t get more ubiquitous than that!

I followed the aging Jeep that was once mine out of the parking lot as it and my newly acquired Prius approached the on-ramps to the highway.  The Jeep was headed east in to the dark of night and I was headed west, riding into the sunset.  Two lives briefly intersecting before embarking in two very different directions.  One destined for the spotlight and one taking the long road to a life that would finally be ordinary.