"That waitress. The redhead. Is she -- "
"And stop staring at her!" Mary whispered fiercely. "You look like a kid trying to peek up some girl's skirt in study hall!"
He pulled his eyes away... but with an effort. "Is she the spit-image of Janis Joplin, or am I crazy?"
Startled, Mary cast another glance at the redhead. She had turned away slightly to speak to the short-order cook through the pass-through, but Mary could still see at least two-thirds of her face, and that was enough. She felt an almost audible click in her head as she superimposed the face of the redhead over the face on record albums she still owned -- vinyl albums pressed in a year when nobody owned Sony Walkmen and the concept of the compact disc would have seemed like science fiction, record albums now packed away in cardboard boxes from the neighborhood liquor mart and stowed in some dusty attic alcove; record albums with names like Big Brother and the Holding Company, Cheap Thrills, and Pearl. And the face of Janis Joplin -- that sweet, homely face, which had grown old and harsh and wounded far too soon. Clark was right; this woman's face was the spitting image of the face on those old albums.
Except it was more than the face, and Mary felt fear swarm into her chest, making her heart feel suddenly light and stuttery and dangerous.
It was the voice.
In the ear of her memory she heard Janis's chilling, spiraling howl at the beginning of "Piece of My Heart." She laid that bluesy, boozy shout over the redhead's Scotch-and-Marlboros voice, just as she had laid one face over the other, and knew that if the waitress began to sing that song, her voice would be identical to the voice of the dead girl from Texas.
Because she is the dead girl from Texas. Congratulations, Mary -- you had to wait until you were thirty-two, but you've finally made the grade; you've finally seen your first ghost.
She tried to dispute the idea, tried to suggest to herself that a combination of factors, not the least of them being the stress of getting lost, had caused her to make too much of a chance resemblance, but these rational thoughts had no chance against the dead certainty in her guts: she was seeing a ghost.
Life within her body underwent a strange and sudden sea-change. Her heart sped up from a beat to a sprint; it felt like a pumped-up runner bursting out of the blocks in an Olympic heat. Adrenaline dumped, simultaneously tightening her stomach and heating her diaphragm like a swallow of brandy. She could feel sweat in her armpits and moisture at her temples. Most amazing of all was the way color seemed to pour into the world, making everything -- the neon around the clock-face, the stainless-steel pass-through to the kitchen, the sprays of revolving color behind the juke's facade -- seem simultaneously unreal and too real. She could hear the fans paddling the air overhead, a low, rhythmic sound like a hand stroking silk, and smell the aroma of old fried meat rising from the unseen grill in the next room. And at the same time, she suddenly felt herself on the edge of losing her balance on the stool and swooning to the floor in a dead faint.
Get hold of yourself, woman! she told herself frantically. You're having a panic attack, that's all -- no ghosts, no goblins, no demons, just a good old-fashioned whole-body panic attack, you've had them before, at the start of big exams in college, the first day of teaching at school, and that time before you had to speak to the P.T.A. You know what it is and you can deal with it. No one's going to do any fainting around here, so just get hold of yourself, do you hear me?
She crossed her toes inside her low-topped sneakers and squeezed them as hard as she could, concentrating on the sensation, using it in an effort to draw herself back to reality and away from that too-bright place she knew was the threshold of a faint. "Honey?" Clark's voice, from far away. "You all right?" "Yes, fine." Her voice was also coming from far away... but she knew it was closer than it would have been if she'd tried to speak even fifteen seconds ago. Still pressing her crossed toes tightly together, she picked up the napkin the waitress had left, wanting to feel its texture -- it was another connection to the world and another way to break the panicky, irrational (it was irrational, wasn't it? surely it was) feeling which had gripped her so strongly. She raised it toward her face, meaning to wipe her brow with it, and saw there was something written on the underside in ghostly pencil strokes that had torn the fragile paper into little puffs. Mary read this message, printed in jagged capital letters:
GET OUT WHILE YOU STILL CAN.
"Mare? What is it?"
The waitress with the coldsore and the restless, scared eyes was coming back with their pie. Mary dropped the napkin into her lap. "Nothing," she said calmly. As the waitress set the plates in front of them, Mary forced herself to catch the girl's eyes with her own. "Thank you," she said.
"Don't mention it," the girl mumbled, looking directly at Mary for only a moment before her eyes began to skate aimlessly around the room again.
"Changed your mind about the pie, I see," her husband was saying in his most infuriatingly indulgent Clark Knows Best voice. Women! this tone said. Gosh, aren't they something? Sometimes just leading them to the waterhole isn't enough -- you gotta hold their heads down to get em started. All part of the job. It isn't easy being a man, but I do my goldurn best.
"Well, it looks awfully good," she said, marveling at the even tone of her voice. She smiled at him brightly, aware that the redhead who looked like Janis Joplin was keeping an eye on them.
"I can't get over how much she looks like -- " Clark began, and this time Mary kicked his ankle as hard as she could, no fooling around. He drew in a hurt, hissing breath, eyes popping wide, but before he could say anything, she shoved the napkin with its penciled message into his hand.
He bent his head. Looked at it. And Mary found herself praying -- really, really praying -- for the first time in perhaps twenty years. Please, God, make him see it's not a joke. Make him see it's not a joke became that woman doesn't just look like Janis Joplin, that woman is Janis Joplin, and I've got a horrible feeling about this town, a really horrible feeling.
He raised his head and her heart sank. There was confusion on his face, and exasperation, but nothing else. He opened his mouth to speak... and it went right on opening until it looked as if someone had removed the pins from the place where his jaws connected.
Mary turned in the direction of his gaze. The short-order cook, dressed in immaculate whites and wearing a little paper cap cocked over one eye, had come out of the kitchen and was leaning against the tiled wall with his arms folded across his chest. He was talking to the redhead while the younger waitress stood by, watching them with a combination of terror and weariness.
If she doesn't get out of here soon, it'll just be weariness, Mary thought. Or maybe apathy.
The cook was almost impossibly handsome -- so handsome that Mary found herself unable to accurately assess his age. Between thirty-five and forty-five, probably, but that was the best she could do. Like the redhead, he looked familiar. He glanced up at them, disclosing a pair of wide-set blue eyes fringed with gorgeous thick lashes, and smiled briefly at them before returning his attention to the redhead. He said something that made her caw raucous laughter.
"My God, that's Rick Nelson," Clark whispered. "It can't be, it's impossible, he died in a plane crash six or seven years ago, but it is."
Mary opened her mouth to say he must be mistaken, ready to brand such an idea ludicrous even though she herself now found it impossible to believe that the redheaded waitress was anyone but the years-dead blues shouter Janis Joplin. Before she could say anything, that click -- the one which turned vague resemblance into positive identification -- came again. Clark had been able to put the name to the face first because Clark was nine years older, Clark had been listening to the radio and watching American Bandstand back when Rick Nelson had been Ricky Nelson and songs like "Be-Bop Baby" and "Lonesome Town" were happening hits, not just dusty artifacts restricted to the golden oldie stations which catered to the now-graying baby boomers. Clark saw it first, but now that he had pointed it out to her, she could not unsee it.
What had the redheaded waitress said? Y'all oughtta try the cherry pie! Rick just made it!
There, not twenty feet away, the fatal plane crash victim was telling a joke -- probably a dirty one, from the looks on their faces -- to the fatal drug o.d.
The redhead threw back her head and bellowed her rusty laugh at the ceiling again. The cook smiled, the dimples at the corners of his full lips deepening prettily. And the younger waitress, the one with the coldsore and the haunted eyes, glanced over at Clark and Mary, as if to ask Are you watching this? Are you seeing this?