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The Great Pretender

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I’ve found that, in just the way painters use specific colors to describe the personalities of their subjects, I too can describe the people I meet, just with songs rather than colors. You see, I’ve had this one gig as a soda jerk at the local town diner, Phillies, for years now, so I’ve seen my fair share of characters. It wasn’t until this one chick walked in giving flirty glances to all the guys she glided past, the song Runaround Sue just happening to be playing on the old beat up jukebox that sat in the corner of the diner, that I truly noticed how well you can describe someone with a song. Call it a person’s theme song if you will.

Ever since then, I’ve been giving songs to everyone who walks into the dinner. Sure, there’s always an abundance of greasers, paper shakers, big daddies, and squares that walk in. They’re easy to give a song. But every once and a while someone more mysterious, more hard to place will walk in, and I’ll spend a couple hours trying to figure out who they are, and what their song is.

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve had any real challenges though, so when the door rings to announce someone’s entrance at ten minutes of ten at night, I don’t even turn around. The only other person in the diner besides me right now is an older man who sits at the counter—whom I’ve already decided is a Mr. Lonely—staring intently at his drink. I finish sweeping up the floors and place the broom back in its corner, turning to face the left-most side of the rectangular counter and coming face to face with a red, red girl.

“Oh, erm, hello.” I stutter out awkwardly as I nervously adjust my skewed hat.

The girl in front of me really is red, from her silky dress to her fiery hair and plush, red lips, all the way down to the red heels she wears. She looks absolutely mesmerizing, so mesmerizing that I stand, gawking, her only reaction being a slight smirk.

“Coffee.” She says. As thoughts start tumbling back into my brain again and I start moving towards the coffee machine, I finally remembered about the songs, and begin to wonder which is hers. For the first time ever, I draw an absolute blank when trying to think of any song, any thing that may even slightly relate to this person.

“Any sugar or cream?” I ask.

“I take it black.” She says, with not a hint of emotion.

For the next five minutes the diner is filled with silence, only the soft humming sounds of the coffee machine and the ticking of the clock hung on the diners peeling yellow walls filling the void. Once the coffee, black as the women requested, is poured into the cup, I shakily set it down onto the counter in front of the women.

She says nothing, and takes a second to sniff the coffee, making sure it is up to her standards. She sits there, glancing around the room casually as she sips her coffee, as if she has all the time in the world. While going over to fill up the man on the other side of the counter’s coffee, I start running through my lists of songs, silently scratching each of them, knowing that none are good enough to describe this mysterious person.

I look at the woman who sits, delicately stirring her coffee, and instantly think that maybe she’s a Love Potion #9, mysterious and sultry, but scratch that one, too. Despite her looks, nothing about this woman says tease to me. Maybe she’s a Donna the Prima Donna, or perhaps a Sandy? That doesn’t make any sense to me either. The woman may be beautiful, but she doesn’t scream radioactive. She seems like a person who does what she wants, and doesn’t let anyone tell her what to do or who to be.

I finally decide that to learn her song, I need to, you know, actually speak to her. “So…” I trail off, “What brings a doll like you here?”

She gives me a blank stair, making me begin to regret my choice of words. I start to scramble, trying to apologize, but am cut off.

“I was in the mood.” She says. In the mood for what, I wonder, but don’t dare to ask.

I begin to turn around, but pause halfway before blurting out, “What’s your name?”

The woman gives another smirk, pausing for a moment as if trying to decide what name to use. “Molly.” She finally says, but something about the way she says it makes me believe that this plain name could not be hers.

“I’m Norman.” I tell her. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you around here before. I’ve worked here for a while, ya know, whole family run business and stuff. My grody brother works here too sometimes, so maybe you’ve seen him before? He’s two years older than me, and you know how older siblings are. Him an his greaser friends always come in here, wanting me to slip them some free drinks before them and my brother split halfway through his shift. Do you have any siblings? Cause’ if not then… I guess you might not… get it…” I trail off, glancing at the girl awkwardly. I’ve done it again, just blurted out whatever came to my mind. After no response from the girl I turn back around and find something behind the counter to fiddle with, periodically filling both her and Mr. Lonley’s cup while telling myself what a wet rag of a nerd I am. My mind keeps running through songs, from Rockin’ Robbin, to Blue Velvet, and even Elusive Butterfly, but none some to fit. I’ve just shot down the song Chances Are when the door to the diner rings, and I whip around to see who could be coming into the diner so late at night. Standing in the doorway is a spiffy looking man, who, to me, seems to be more fit for a zoot suit than anything else based on the way the guy walks around the counter, high and mighty like, purposely taking the seat next to the red girl. The man screams Rocket 88 as he pulls off his lid to run his hands through his greased hair and sends the red girl a wink before setting the hat back on his head.

“Hey, kid, a coffee, would ya?” The man asks. I mumble a reply as I begin making the coffee, never letting my eyes of the man. He seemed to think he was a real cat, the way he sat there all commanding like, but the red girl didn’t even seem to notice him, or care for that matter, as she preoccupied herself with looking at her, also red, nails.

I set down the coffee in front of the man and he gives me a smirk, but cold and creepy, not at all like the red girl’s. I decide to try and ignore the man while I continue my search for this girl’s song. Lawdy Miss Clawdy, Ooby Dooby, Tennessee Waltz, and Blue in Green all come to mind, but nothing fits. I go as far to even think of songs such as Jambalaya (on the Bayou), Speedo, and Rock and Roll Music, but absolutely nothing seems to fit this red, red girl.

I start wiping down the counter top just to give my hands something to do, when the man begins to talk. I try not to be obvious about it, but I am listening to ever word he says.

“It’s been awhile, Susan.” The man says, both him and the red girl all the while never looking at one another. Susan! Susan, I think, how could this girls name be Susan? And more so, how could this man know this red Molly or maybe perhaps Susan girl?

The minutes pass by, but the red girl does not speak. The man does not seem to be affected by this however, as he keeps talking.

“I still remember what happened in London last year, and in Budapest three years ago, you know.” The man says.

The red girl stays silent.

“And I’m sure anyone who would follow us here would know too. Wouldn’t they?” The man says, posing this question towards the other man sitting on the opposite side of the counter.

“Perhaps.” The older man says, an unusually strange grin appearing onto his face.

“Not today.” The red girl says, not looking at either man.

“What are you talking about? But it’s been so long Susan. Don’t you remember me? Your pal James?” The man says.

“Not today.” The red girl repeats once again.

“Oh please. I come out to this nowheresville and your not even going to do anything?”

“Not today, John.” The red girl snaps, finally turning to look at both men. I am so utterly confused I can barley follow their conversation, but I continue to watch on, not saying a word.

“I didn’t come here for you just to bail out on me again, you know. This is the last time I’m going to come and play one of your little games unless you stop with the tantrums. I didn’t sign up to do this so I could sit around and hear about all your problems.” The man yelled back.

After a long pause, the women turned away from the man, and said, in the quietest, most broken voice I had ever heard, “Then don’t.”

“I won’t.” The man said, standing up. “And neither will Mark.” The man gave a stern look to the other man, who then gathers his things and follows the other man out the door, but not without leaving a few coins, enough to pay for both his and the other mans coffee.

They both walk out of the diner and around the building, and it’s not until I see both of them pass by the larger windows that I turn back towards the red girl. For a moment I just stare at her, unsure if she will ever look up from her empty coffee cup.

“Refill?” I ask quietly. She looks up at me with an expression I’ve never seen on her before. It is surprise.

“No thanks.” She replies as she begins to dig through her coin purse for some money.

“Oh, you don’t have to-“ I start to say, but when she pushes the money towards me with that intent gaze of hers, I take it.

For a while she just sits there, as if debating whether to leave yet. I can’t help my curiosity though, and so I ask her, simply, “Do I want to know?”

She takes a second, but the replies, “Probably not.”

I nod my head, content to leave the strange subject alone when she, to my surprise, begins to speak again.

“It’s all a game.” She says. With my deduction skills I was already able to figure this out, but I stay silent anyways. “We, most of the times I, make up the story. It’s not always with the same people, but it’s always the same kind of thing.” She pauses again.

I stay silent.

“I don’t know why I started it. No, scratch that, I do. I just don’t like to say it.” She stops, and I nod my head, saying that I am still listening. “These games, they’re for… All the sad people.” I think of the man, Mark, sitting alone on the corner of the counter. “The bored people,” I think of the man who I imagined in the zoot suit, that loud, confidant man, “and the lonely people.” I don’t know whom to think of when she says this, but I have the inkling of an idea. “People who want things they can’t have. It’s for all those people.”

Silence fills the diner, and a million questions run through my mind at once, but I only say one. “What’s your song?”

“My song?” She asks.

“Yes. Who are you? I don’t need to know your name, or your age, or even where you’re from. All I need to know is your song, which one is you.” I plead her.

She stays silent, once again, before getting off of her chair without a word, and walking towards the door. I start to open my mouth to say something, anything to get her to stay, but I snap it shut once I notice that it isn’t the door she’s walking to, but the beat up old jukebox standing in the corner next to it. I hear the coins getting fed into the machine and it whirring to life, the sound of the vinyl records flipping by. After a minute of flipping she finally pauses, and hits the button to select the song.

Turning towards me, the song starts to begin as she flashes me a small, sad, red smile, and begins to walk out the door. I know the song almost instantly, and finally I know that this is the song, this is her song.

It’s The Great Pretender, and it’s every lyric, every note, everything I’ve been trying so hard to find to explain this red girl. The song sings of that lonely girl, the great pretender, playing games in her own world, ignoring one real life and choosing to play a million fake ones. This girl, this red, red girl, is lonely, but she hides, and she ignores her sadness. So no one will ever know.

Before I even think about it, I’ve dashed out of the diner, speeding past the large glass windows and around the block, in search of my great pretender. I run down the street and when I turn the next corner, I see the red girl, boarding a trolley to home, another game, or who knows where. I keep running though, even as the trolley begins to move. I yell to her and the red girl sees me chasing after and, hanging halfway out of the trolley door, shouts something to me.

“What?” I scream back. The trolley is getting farther and farther away, and before long, will be gone from sight, and from ear, forever.

“Amelia!” She shouts, just loud enough for me to hear. “My name,” the trolley whistle sounds, “is Amelia!”

Amelia. Amelia! I knew it couldn’t be Molly, or Susan. “Amelia!” I say, and I can tell that this name fits the girl perfectly.

“Goodbye, Norman!” She cries, waving her hand wildly. Even though she is not close enough to see, I can tell that there must be tears in her eyes. Not of sadness, for once, however.

“Goodbye Amelia!” I shout, the trolley turning the last corner. “I’ll see you again!” I promise to her, but get no response other than the fading sounds of the trolley as it drives away, leaving me huffing in the middle of the abandoned street.

I take my time walking back to the diner, and when I get there I switch the open sign to closed and turn to the jukebox and flip the song so that it will play Amelia’s. I walk to the counter and pick up my broom, beginning to sweep the floors as I whistle along with the song, looking towards Amelia’s empty seat where her coffee cup still lies on the counter. I finish sweeping up and wash out the cup and store it in a cupboard in the kitchen, away from the rest. I keep the same song replaying the entire time, and when I have finally finished cleaning and all the chairs are stacked on the tables, I stand in the middle of the diner, looking towards what will now always be to me Amelia’s seat.

The song finishes and I flick the lights off and lock the door to the diner. I begin to walk down the street, in the opposite direction of Amelia’s trolley, hands in my pocket and humming her tune. Walking alone on that peaceful night, I dream of tomorrow, of The Great Pretender, and of a sad and lonely game. More than anything however, I dream of Amelia, a beautiful, mysterious, and extremely red, red girl.



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