For American Idol's Lakisha Jones, the past four months - a grueling and sublime ride as a standout on the country's most popular television show - comes down to a set of ordinary house keys.
Fresh from her elimination the night before, the 27-year-old singer was asked by reporters yesterday whether she was planning any splurges in light of her newfound fame.
"I'm going to buy a new home for me and my daughter," the former Millersville bank teller said during a conference call. "I don't ever want to rent again. The house doesn't even have to have anything in it. I just can't wait to get the keys and open the front door and let my baby run through it."
Exactly where that home might be, though, isn't clear. Jones is going to stay in California for the May 23 finale, and then go on tour this summer with the Top 10 Idol contestants. Then it is anybody's guess.
When Jones returned to her hotel room after her ouster, she told her 4-year-old daughter, Brionne, that she had placed fourth in the contest that she desperately wanted to win.
"I was crying last night," Jones said, "and she wiped my face and said, 'Mommy, I'm not mad.' It was almost as though she was telling me she was proud of me. It was sweet."
During the 20-minute interview, Jones struggled to speak through the hoarseness that afflicted her performances Tuesday.
"I knew on Tuesday that I was hoarse, and I tried to sing past it," Jones said. "When you're on American Idol, you can't just say, 'I can't sing this week.'"
Throughout the interview, Jones sounded variously philosophical, tired, overwhelmed and satisfied. Idol, of course, is the most-watched show on television, a show on which each contestant attracts a passionately devoted cadre of viewers.
As one fan wrote yesterday on the Web site televisionwithout pity.com:
"It's funny how this show gets into your blood and suddenly one day you're insulting teenagers and ready to march on Washington for contestant rights."
And Jones' fans were no exception. They warmed to the single mother with the hard-luck background, even as they occasionally found her song choices and stoic, on-air demeanor frustrating.
Jones' time on the show has made her acutely aware of the areas in which she needs to improve. Before Idol, she said, she had just two years of formal training when she attended the University of Michigan.
"I need to work on my breath control," she said. "As far as phrasing goes, I think I have that down. I also probably need to work on song selection."
Not that the Idol experience didn't have its lighter moments. On a previous broadcast, Jones and acerbic judge Simon Cowell famously smooched for the cameras.
Asked to rate Cowell as a kisser, Jones said, "He is a good kisser, and I would do it again. His lips were really soft and thin."
She added that Cowell offered words of encouragement after she learned that she had finished fourth.
"Simon told me that he was really proud of me and that I am going to have a successful career," she said.
Jones is too diplomatic to say which contestant she thinks will win - or even which should win. But she happily revealed the qualities she admires in her competitors:
Jordin Sparks: "I like Jordin. She's so doggone cute, and she has a wonderful spirit. She's really genuine."
Melinda Doolittle: "Melinda, oh, my God, Melinda has so much soul and power."
Blake Lewis: "I love him! Blake keeps me going. I'd be down, and he'd be like, 'Come over here.'" Jones then launched into a passable imitation of Lewis' trademark beat-boxing: "Buh buh buh buh buh ... "
"He could always make me laugh and smile."
Jones hopes to eventually sign a recording contract, though no agents have come calling - yet.
"I plan on continuing to sing," she said. "Hopefully great opportunities will come my way."
When Jones was asked how she felt about finishing fourth, she said: "Look at Chris Daughtry" - invoking the name of the former Idol contestant from last season (and, like her, a fourth-place finisher) whose album now is burning up the charts.
"My opening number on Tuesday was 'Stayin' Alive,'" Jones said. "I chose it because of the message. I'm telling you, America - I'm not going anywhere."