I always wanted to be the sort of person who likes country music. The movie plays over in my mind. This gal walks into some roadside diner in Colorado… Montana… Idaho… where two different country music songs play, one from the jukebox and one from the radio behind the counter, where a waitress named Jo leans over the counter, pouring coffee in Tiny’s cup – one last swig before he heads back to the ranch. The gal sits down. The gal notices that Jo is twenty pounds underweight, wearing bobby socks and beat-up sneakers. Jo takes the gal’s order: coke, burger, extra fries. The gal says, Hey, Jo, how’s your little boy?
Jo shrugs and says, Ok, I guess… But he’s still got that wheeze.
That’s too bad, says the gal. Although she’s never met Jo’s boy, she knows his health has been awful, Jo picking up all kinds of extra hours to pay for his medical bills. The gal frowns into an empty coffee mug.
A few minutes later, after countless big rigs have barreled by, the diner’s windows quaking as they pass, Jo brings out the gal’s food, setting the plate down softly in front of her. Heat wafts up, and the food smells wonderful. The gal is suddenly ravenous; she didn’t realize how hungry she was. The coke fizzles in her nose, sweet and perfect as she sips from the straw. Her foot taps on the floor and she hums along to all the songs because she knows every word. She hums even as she chews her tasty burger and nibbles on her fries, one by one, dipping each in a swirl of ketchup and mustard, making sure the ratio between the two is kept equal.
The diner empties out. Light beams fall onto the red vinyl seats, dust mites dancing. Behind the counter, Jo counts her tips, slowly fingering each bill and placing them into purposeful piles. She sees the gal watching and pipes up: Damn cheapskates! They smile at each other.
A song comes on the radio that the gal remembers from a time when she thought she was in love. She turns her head so that Jo can’t see she’s crying. As some guy’s voice croons through the airwaves, the gal thinks how different things might be if only he hadn’t left so soon. But then, someone comes in the diner. The gal hears the door swoosh behind her. She turns to see who it is, just in time to see the stranger smile and tip his hat at Jo, saying Howdy ma’am.
A truck horn blares. The gal turns again to watch the truck as it passes, but she misses it. The song changes. She takes another look at the stranger, in his dusty, worn Wranglers with the shiny gold belt buckle, and thinks, Trouble. Rugged, handsome trouble. She gets up to leave, leaving an oversized tip for Jo. Jo’s got her eyes locked thoughtfully on the stranger, so the gal leaves quietly, gets in her truck, and pulls out onto the road like a thief at night. She flips on the radio and toys with the dials as the truck picks up speed.
The DJ says, Here’s an old favorite. James Taylor with Sweet Baby James.
The gal thinks, Who’s James Taylor? But she recognizes the song and her thoughts drift off towards rocking-a-bye with Baby James. Thunderheads roll over the land, casting shadows over the Snake River Gorge, but otherwise the sky is clear from the Owyhees to the Sawtooths. She turns onto the interstate and drives, as the comfort of a soft James Taylor song carries her out into the dusty horizon and far, far away from me.