Yesterday I was out at the Waukesha Farmer's Market signing and selling books. Seeing everything I've put in print in the last five years was really something. As authors, we write and then shelve what we write and move on to the next thing. Sometimes just putting everything on a single table and saying, yes I wrote that. In my case it's been four novels, two humor books and two novellas, in five years. That doesn't include "Missing in Manitowoc" which is finished but not yet out, nor does it include "Love is Eternal" which is the final in my three novella series, which is also almost finished.
The last five years have been a crazy whirlwind and I found myself yesterday sort of paging through some of the books, thinking about how I wrote them, how I fell in love with the heroes, and fought battles with the heroines. I was taken back to that very first novel, the one that got me published and gave me the confidence to go forward and make a name for myself and tell my stories to everyone out there: Dream in Color.
Dream in Color is the book everyone should read if they've ever had a crush on a celebrity. I know who my celebrity crush is...at least the one I was thinking of when I wrote this. I hear from other people at signings and they tell me about this crush or that. It's a universal thing, falling in love with someone so completely out of reach, you carry that feeling in your heart forever.
Every author has a fondness for the first book they publish because it's the first. I'm no different. So today I'm going back five years and sharing a bit of this with you. Enjoy!
“The first thing I have to do is lose some weight.” Ramona studied her reflection in the mirror the next morning. Leo watched her, tipping his head to one side so the skin hanging over his furry eyes would shift and he could better see Ramona twist this way and that way while still clinging to the bath towel that covered her.
“What are you looking at, Leo?” Ramona dressed quickly and self-consciously in front of her dog. Something about the way Leo looked at her made her wonder if dogs really did have a sense of humor. “Yes, I’m going to lose some weight, and so are you. No more late night pizzas for us.”
Leo pawed in disapproval at the towel now on the floor.
“Of course I have to lose weight. Jesse Alexander would never, ever love a chubby chunk like me. But I’ve got four months to be beautiful. Or at least thinner.” Ramona puffed her usual amount of powder foundation on her face and then looked at herself with a very critical eye. “I’m going to start wearing more makeup, too.” She picked up a tube of mascara and twisted off the top, crusty from years of disuse. She eyed up the stiff bristles of the black brush. Behind her, Jesse howled something about finding a lost love.
“You sing it, Jesse. Pretty soon, you’ll be singing live for me!” She tossed out the old bottle and checked the clock. “I’ve got time to stop at the store for new mascara.”
Ramona grabbed her keys and blew one kiss to Leo and one to Jesse’s picture on her desk. “And neither one of you will recognize little old me when I’m done.”
Ramona arrived at work, still with enough time to apply the dozen different cosmetic products that she had squirreled in her purse. As she left the restroom feeling like a new woman, Virgil bumped into her.
“Oh, excuse me, ma’am. I’m sorry.”
“Virgil. You doofus.”
Virgil looked up and squinted at her. “Ramona?”
Not taking his eyes from her, Virgil reached out a hand to her shoulder. “Are you still sick?”
“You’ve got some black lines around your eyes. And your face is flushed.”
“Virgil, I’m wearing makeup.” Ramona frowned at him. “I’ve decided to make myself more presentable.”
“Oh.” Virgil followed her to her cubicle, a confused look gracing his face. “But, um, why?”
Ramona turned excited eyes to him. “Tell me if I’m crazy or not, okay? Last night I was on the internet and I went to this Official Jesse Alexander website.” Ramona fairly bounced in her ergonomically correct office chair. “I’m looking at the site, and there’s a list of tour dates. He’s doing a bunch of fairs and festivals and stuff, all over the place, in the Midwest. So I’m thinking, hey, I didn’t take any vacation time last year, maybe it’s time I did. I’ll take my three weeks and go to as many shows as I can.”
Virgil toyed with the Jesse Alexander paperweight that held down the morning’s latest shipping orders. “You didn’t take a vacation last year?”
“Where would I go? Can you see me on vacation with Eileen and Russell? Please. Dinner with them is bad enough. Can you see it? Singing songs as we drive across country to-”
“Ramona!” Virgil looked as surprised by his sharp interruption as she was. “What about your sick time?”
“From last year? Apparently, that’s gone. I guess Celia’s been docking me a half day for the days I show up ten minutes late. Wish I’d known that, I would’ve taken the whole half-day. So anyway, I’m sitting there, thinking-”
“Ramona, when is your anniversary date? With the company?”
This time Ramona stopped her prattling and stared at her friend. “Next week.” She flipped her calendar. “January 29th. I’ll have been here ten amazing years. And I thought maybe I’d ask Celia if I could take last year’s vacation as well as this year’s all this summer because of the tour and all, but she’ll definitely say no to that, I barely have to even ask her, and I know that’s what her answer will-”
“I’m sorry, Ramona, I don’t mean to keep interrupting you, but there’s something you should know.”
“And that is?”
Virgil cleared his throat and pushed up his glasses as he looked around the cubicle. “When L.M.I. International was sold the last time, the new owners changed the benefits packages for the new employees, but not for the ones who have been here longer than five years.”
“Okay, that’s fascinating, Virgil. But what has that got do to with the tour schedule?” Ramona fought the urge to wave her hands in front of his face to bring his focus back on her story.
“You’ve been here ten years, which means you get to roll over any unused vacation time dating back five years.” Virgil cleared his throat. “Plus, since you started prior to the sale, you get an extra two weeks’ time from the company once you hit ten years. You see, under the old package employees got to roll time year after year for five years if they wanted to. One of the reasons the company almost went under was because the entire shipping department decided to take off the last quarter of 1997.”
Ramona’s vision blurred. “How much time did you say I had?”
“Well, three weeks of your time last year, plus the five weeks this year. And tell me, did you use all your time from the last five years?”
“I don’t think so...not in the last five years. I haven’t done more than take a day here or there.” Ramona slumped in her chair, rocking forward to lean her spinning head in her hands. “That means...that means...do you know what that means?” She looked up at him, excitement feverish in her eyes. “What does this mean, Virgil?”
“It means you have somewhere in the neighborhood of seventeen weeks coming to you.” Virgil set the paperweight down again and stood up. “It’s a simple figure of math, really. You just add your weeks of vacation together over the period of five years. That’s three weeks a year, plus the bonus two weeks. ”
Joy shot through her like a bolt of electricity and Ramona kissed Virgil impetuously on the lips. She wrapped her arms around him, joy steeling her joints against his surprised struggle. Finally, after sucking the life out of him, Ramona let Virgil crumple against the desk.
“Virgil, I love you for telling me this!”
“Um, oh, I love you, too, Ramona.” Virgil dabbed at his broad forehead with his handkerchief. “I-I mean, you’re welcome, of course.”
“I have to go talk to Celia about getting all this time off.” Ramona smoothed her blouse and patted her hair before stepping out of her cubicle. Her hands trembled as she began to choose her words carefully.
“Ramona?” He didn’t move from his spot on the desk.
“What was the crazy thing you were going to tell me?”
Ramona gave him a smile the exuded more confidence than she’d ever felt before. “I’m going to marry Jesse Alexander.”
“Oh…I…see.” The pained look on Virgil’s face did not even register in her ecstatic mind as Ramona hustled to Celia’s office.
Ramona paused outside her supervisor’s office and ran over what she would say several times. Finally, squaring her shoulders, she went in.
Every time Ramona entered Celia Yasher’s office, she thought of her waitress job in college when she was required to get hamburger patties out of the walk-in freezer. Celia’s office reflected her personality in a way Ramona never thought possible in a room. Every corner was sharp, every pencil sharper.
“Celia?” Ramona hardly recognized the anemic sound as her own voice.
Celia did not look up. Ramona cleared her throat and swallowed. “Celia?” This time, her voice held more weight to it. “I’ve come to request vacation time.”
“Good to see you’ve recovered from your headache, Ramona.” Celia still didn’t look up but she did reach for a three-ring binder labeled ‘Vacations’.
“Celia, the thing is, I didn’t take any vacation time last year, and I’ll be getting five weeks of time this year, once I pass my anniversary date. I was told I could put all that together. As well as the weeks from the past five years.”
Now Celia raised her gaze to Ramona. “My, my. Been busy checking have we?”
Ramona felt uncomfortable under the cat’s eye stare, but plowed on. “I want to take that all at once.”
Celia didn’t blink at the request. Her painted face remained still. “I see. And when do you think you’d like to take all this time off?”
“I’d like to leave the week before Memorial Day weekend. The way I figure it, with Memorial Day and the Fourth of July holiday weekends, I’d be able to take the entire summer off. I’d come back right after Labor Day. That’s not even really the whole amount of time I have coming.”
“Well, that’s quite a chunk of time, isn’t it?” Celia’s stare never wavered, although her voice held a note of contemptuous humor. “May I ask what big plans you have for such an amount of time?”
I really shouldn’t tell her. Ramona inhaled and held her breath, preparing herself for the next wave of mockery. “Jesse Alexander is going on tour of most of the Midwest, and I want to see all the shows. There are going to be forty shows, and I may even get to meet him in person.” As she said the words aloud, she wondered if they sounded as hopeful and pathetic to Celia as they did to her own ears.
“Well, isn’t that quite the fantasy for someone your age? I suppose, being single, you have nothing else better to do.” Celia glanced at her garish wedding ring for emphasis. “Still, you should focus on someone a little more, shall we say, attainable. You know that for a woman your age, it’s more likely that you’ll be hit by lightening than get married now. And to some rock star person, too.”
“Then I guess I’ll steer clear of thunderstorms, won’t I?” Ramona bit her lower lip, swallowing her sharper words. “How about it, Celia? Do I get the time off or not?”
Celia gave her a dried up little smile. “I’m going to have to deny your request.”
“What, just like that? All of it?” Ramona swallowed back the disappointment that welled in her.
“All of it. I’m sorry, Ramona, but summer is just not a good time for you to take any time off. Shipping is going to be busy. You know that. And there’s no room in the budget to hire a temp while you’re off on this wild goose chase of yours.”
“So what’s the point of saving up all this vacation time if I never get to use it?”
“You needn’t get snippy with me. No one forced you to stay at your desk when you had vacation time coming.”
“You can’t tell me no one forced me to stay at my desk, Celia Yasher. You know full well you denied me the few times I did ask for time off.”
“I understand you’re disappointed, Ramona, but as your supervisor, I have to tell you that I do not have to tolerate your disrespectful tone.”
Ramona took a deep breath and unclenched her fists. “Fine. In another week I’ll have earned five weeks’ time. I’d like to take that.”
“Certainly, provided it’s not during June, July, August, or September.”
Ramona clenched her fists again as she watched Celia wrestle with the smirk that threatened to emerge on her face. “So I get no vacation time at all, no matter how much in advance I ask for it, and no matter how little an amount of time I ask for. Is that pretty much how it is?”
“No not at all, dear. Of course you can use your vacation time. As I look on the calendar, I can spare you for a week in October. Will that work with your plans?”
Ramona had no words to give the rage that pounded in her chest. Her nails embedded themselves into her palms.
Celia’s tone was syrupy thick. “Are you not feeling well, Ramona? You look flushed.”
“Actually, Celia, I am feeling a bit ill. I think I’m going to go home a little early if that’s okay.”
“I suppose. Of course, the time will be charged against your vacation time since you have no sick time left.”
“Of course.” Ramona pulled the office door shut and brushed past Minnie without focusing on anything.
“Ramona? Ramona, are you okay?” Minnie huffed to keep up. “You look funny.” She reached Ramona’s cubicle as Ramona turned off her computer. “Are you okay, girl? What did that old bat say to you?”
Ramona squared her shoulders and smiled at Minnie. “I’m just fine, Minnie. I’m perfect. I’m feeling a tiny bit under the weather, that’s all. I’m going home. Of course, this will count against my vacation time, but since I have almost seven hundred hours of vacation, I can spare it, I suppose. Have a good night, Minnie.”
Ramona walked to the front and out the door without another word to anyone. Once inside her car, Ramona rested her head on the steering wheel and let the sobs roll out of her in waves.
“Ramona, are you okay?”
Ramona raised her tear-stained face to see Virgil tapping her car window. “Virgil,” she groaned.
“Ramona, please roll down the window.” His watery gray eyes pleaded with her. “Minnie just told me. What can I do to help?”
Ramona sighed and lowered the window down an inch. “Nothing. I’m fine. My headache came back from yesterday, so I’m going to go home.” She put her key in the ignition and fired up her car. As she pulled out of her parking spot, she saw Virgil, looking very, very sad. “Virgil. I’m fine. I’m going home to lie down or something.”
The sun was still bright as Ramona drove down Waldo Boulevard. Feeling a little better escaping L.M.I., Ramona decided to go for a walk along the breakwater on the lake. She pulled into the marina parking lot, ignoring the storm clouds threatened on the horizon. Ramona grabbed her digital music player from her glove compartment and started out to the lighthouse.
The wind off the lake cut at her cheeks, stinging her face and tearing up her eyes. She didn’t care. The lighthouse was her goal, a point of safety from the angry cloud of noise surrounding her.
Tugging at her collar and adjusting the headphones, Ramona never looked down as she made her way over the oft-walked uneven rocks to her favorite perch. She turned up the volume of the music and shut out the last of the disapproving voices that tried to reach her. Her mind was free to dream.
Ramona’s spot at the lighthouse was little more than a broken section of concrete piled up on the far side of the deck. As a child, she dangled her feet over the dark, icy water, delighted when frigid fingers dampened her toes. An adult now, she curled her legs under her, but still watched the water with dark fascination.
She turned the volume up once more, leaned back on the concrete, and closed her eyes. The throbbing from the headphones soothed her aching head, cleansed her angry thoughts, and transported her from her misery.
Jesse sits down next to her. His long hair whips in the wind, just hiding his eyes from her. He crosses his arms, holding his black coat closer to him. Sitting at the very edge of the walkway, he dangles one foot over the black water of Lake Michigan.
“Ramona, come with me. I’ll take you away from everything.”
“I want to, Jesse. I do.”
“Then do it. What’s here for you? Leave with me.” Jesse taps his foot against hers and grins.
“You have no idea how bad I want to go away with you.”
“Well, I’m flattered lady, but first you’d better get off your ass before you get washed out into the lake!”
Startled, Ramona opened her eyes and looked up into the face of one very unhappy marina employee. The large, gruff looking man tapped her on the shoulder and pulled the earpiece away from her head again.
“Lady, there’s a storm out there. What the hell are you doing sleeping here?”
Ramona stood up but hunched herself to the smallest form possible in front of him. “I’m terribly sorry. I-I had no idea the weather was rough.”
“Don’t be sorry, lady. Just don’t be out here when it’s starting to storm like that.” He pointed to the brilliant flashes of lightening that broke the sky in half. Icy sleet whipped around them. “Weird winter storm. I never like lightning in the winter. It’s not safe out here. Come on.”
Ramona followed him like an obedient child for a few steps, and then stopped as a crack of thunder opened a plan up to her. “No! I’m not taking this anymore. I’m going to live my life my way!”
“Listen, lady, if it was up to me, you could sit out here all night, and we’d just fish you out of the marina in the morning. But the boss has a thing about bodies near the yachts, so you haveta get out of here.”
“Not that.” She pulled away from him. “I gotta go.” She ran down the pier, not listening as the man swore into the wind.
Once back at her house, Ramona aimed straight for the stereo. She cranked the volume level to the red zone and selected a song. Glasses rattled in the cupboard and she tore layers of clothing off and sang along.