Authors: Lisa Tucker
Tags: #Fiction, #General
More praise for Lisa Tucker’s THE SONG READER
—The Boston Globe
“Tucker turns an engaging premise into a fascinating novel.”
—The Denver Post
“An achingly tender narrative about grief, love, madness, and crippling family secrets. This intoxicating debut may remind [readers] of… Pat Conroy’s
The Prince of Tides,
but it’s not lost in [its] shadow.”
“[An] engagingly intricate debut… The characters become as real to the reader as they are to [the narrator]… Though brimful of sentiment,
The Song Reader
never spills over into sentimentality.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“[An] intriguing and heartwarming tale of family and struggle.”
“Engaging and bittersweet… a wonderful first novel.”
“Incisive and ultimately startling.”
“A brilliant, hard-to-put-down novel, Tucker teaches us a life lesson….”
“[A] sparkling debut… delightful and engrossing.”
—Margot Livesey, author of
Eva Moves the Furniture
“Tucker takes the… idea of the connection between music and the mind [and] formulates it into something innovative and emotional… [and] compelling.”
—Santa Monica Mirror
“[The] novel works on several levels… You[’ll] root for Leeann and keep turning pages in hopes that she finds happiness.”
—St. Louis Post Dispatch
“[A] page-turner which features several compelling plots working in tandem… Tucker’s writing presents an enlightening notion of family.”
—Bookselling This Week
“The plot is every bit as fascinating as the premise.”
“[A] convincing musing on the importance of memory.”
—Santa Fe Reporter
“[T]he book is an anthem to the power of music in individual lives. It’s Tucker’s way of gently encouraging all of us to take a minute and listen to the music of our lives.”
—Ventura County Star
“A novel of remarkable wisdom and tenderness… Every splendid page inspires courage.”
—Kevin McIlvoy, author of
“It’s the relationship between the two sisters that makes this a page-turner.”
“[M]y pick for best book so far in 2003. [A] spectacular novel… surprising, funny, sad, easy to get into, well-plotted, original, and rich in its characters.”
“[A] beautiful and bittersweet debut… funny and touching, heartbreaking and wise.”
Publication of POCKET BOOKS
A Downtown Press Book published by
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2004 by Lisa Tucker
The Winters in Bloom
copyright © 2011 by Lisa Tucker
The Promised World
copyright © 2009 by Lisa Tucker
The Cure for Modern Life
copyright © 2008 by Lisa Tucker
Once Upon a Day
copyright © 2006 by Lisa Tucker
Shout Down the Moon
copyright © 2004 by Lisa Tucker
The Song Reader
copyright © 2003 by Lisa Tucker
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Pocket Books, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020
DOWNTOWN PRESS and colophon are trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Book design by Jaime Putorti
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This book is for Scott and Miles.
A Love Supreme by way of the A Train,
My two beautiful guys,
You really were waiting in tomorrow.
know he’s coming. His sentence was seven years, but after less than three, he’s made parole. Mama sends me the news on one of her yellow stickies: FYI, with the date he’s being released— June 3, 1991—circled several times in thick black pen.
On the phone I remind her of the letter I sent him after Willie was born, explaining I wouldn’t be writing anymore, it was over between us. I talk as though I believe the letter convinced him, and change the subject while she’s still feeling relieved.
For weeks I expect him to show up at the club. Sometimes I peer out into the blackness of the audience, wondering if his eyes are on me, if he is listening. Once, I’m sure I hear him laughing right before the first set and I screw up one of the verses of our big opening number: a medley of oldies we call “Yesterday Once More.” Our keyboard player, Jonathan, frowns and later, grumbles to the other guys that I’m an air- head. He doesn’t like me, none of them really do. Before I came along a year ago, they were the Jonathan Brewer Quartet, no chick singer, strictly jazz. They didn’t make any money as Fred Larsen, our manager, likes to point out. Fred likes money and he likes me just fine.
Fred renamed the band, making me the primary attraction, the name on the marquee and the face in the advertisements. At the time I felt flattered; now I realize this means it will be easy for Rick to find me. And he does, but he doesn’t come to the club. We’re doing a two-week stint in Paducah, Kentucky; it’s the middle of the afternoon on a Saturday in July so hot the blacktop feels soft under my sandals. I’ve been down the road at the drugstore, picking up chewable vitamins for Willie, and as I round the corner, I feel my breath catch as I see him, slumping in a lawn chair outside of my motel room with his head against the green concrete wall. Asleep.
He looks paler, a little thinner, but otherwise the same. His hair is still long with a few curls; he still has a gold earring in his left ear, and he still has the stubble on his chin that’s become the style for guys now but he’s had ever since I’ve known him. Even the clothes he’s wearing are familiar: black cap pushed back a little, tight, faded blue jeans, white T-shirt advertising Lewisville Motor Sports, a place he used to work years ago, before he met me. In a way, I’m relieved—I imagined terrible things happening to him in prison, things that would mark him, change him—but I’m also more nervous.
Asleep, he looks younger, almost innocent. And so much like Willie, that’s what hits me the hardest.
He hasn’t heard me coming, I could still back away, but I don’t. Willie is with my friend Irene for the next few hours and this is as good a time as any. I say his name and he wakes up so suddenly that he bangs his head. And then he rubs his eyes and looks at me.
Instinctively, I cross my arms. When he last saw me, I was so skinny I could hide an ounce of weed in the waist of my junior size five jeans. Having Willie made me fill out everywhere. Now I wear a misses size eight.
He stares at me for a minute, and then he’s standing and mumbling, “Patty, Jesus,” as he reaches for me so quickly that I drop my package.
His skin is hot and sweaty but I don’t pull away. He’s trembling and his voice is soft, telling me he’s missed me so much, please don’t make a scene, he’s violating parole to be here, out of state. But he had to see me, just for a little while. He can’t stay long; he has to see his parole officer back in Kansas City first thing Monday morning.
When I finally step back, I’m shaking too because it has occurred to me that I smell like Willie. And because I know we’re standing two feet from the door to my room, and on the other side of the door is the evidence: diapers, Willie’s clothes, stuffed animals, Ninja turtles, and Matchbox cars.
The thought that Irene and Willie may come back early makes me decide what to do. I pick up my drugstore bag and shove it in my purse. “Let’s go to the coffee shop across the street,” I say, already moving in that direction.
I look back and see him still standing by the door. I know he wants to go to my room so we can be alone. “Patty,” he mutters, but when I turn back around and begin walking, I hear him following me.
At the restaurant we order too much food to distract ourselves from the awkwardness. He sips his coffee and says he doesn’t want to talk about prison; then he asks me questions about my job.
I tell him we’re a cover band, playing pop and rock songs, old and new. I tell him about Jonathan’s original pieces, how beautiful they are, no words, just the richest melodies and a deep, complicated interplay between the instruments, and how if the crowd is small, the group gets to play some of those songs in the last set.
I’m still describing one of the songs when Rick interrupts. “I’ve never heard you talk about music like this before.”
He’s leaning back, looking straight at me. I tell him I’ve been with the band for almost a year; I’ve picked up a lot of the language. I don’t say that nearly everything I’ve learned I’ve had to overhear, since none of the guys will talk to me about music. Jonathan resents me even being on stage when he plays the instrumentals, even though he knows it’s not my doing. It’s Fred’s biggest rule: “The Patty Taylor Band has Patty Taylor on all night.” When I’m not singing, he wants me to shake a tambourine and smile, or dance a little in the tight gowns he has me wear. Once Jonathan complained that having a chick gyrating distracted the audience from his art, and Fred snapped, “You better get over your problem with her if you don’t want to find your ass on the street.”
“I can’t wait to hear you,” Rick says, tapping his fingers. “I always knew you’d be a star.”
I don’t bother telling him that the most I ever make—at the top clubs, the ones Fred has to sweat to get us in—is four hundred dollars a week. I’m hardly a star.
I ask him if he has a job yet and he shrugs. “I’ve only been out a few weeks.” He smiles. “I’ve been busy… busy thinking about you.”
Both of us are finished picking at our food when he lowers his voice and tells me he still has it. One of his friends kept it for him while he was in jail. And he can give me some. He can give me as much as I need.
I know he’s talking about all the money he had: thousands of dollars he kept in a blue duffel bag in the bedroom closet, next to the other bag, the one that said Reebok, which he used to carry his guns. I’m surprised; I figured the cops confiscated all the cash when they tore our apartment to pieces the morning after he was arrested. I stare at the wall behind him and think about what that money could mean for Willie. But then I think what Rick might mean for Willie, and I don’t respond.
“Come on,” he says, and smiles a half smile. “What do I have to do? Stick the money in your hand?”
He’s trying to remind me of the day we met. I look away, pretend to be interested in the old couple who’ve just sat down at the next table—but of course I’m thinking about that day now too.
It was late fall, my freshman year. Mama had gone on another of her drinking binges, and I was sitting on the bleachers of the deserted baseball field, trying to decide where to go. I didn’t have any real friends; I couldn’t bring anyone to my house, knowing how Mama was. I was tired of going to the Baptist church shelter, tired of having to tell them the same lie, that I’d run away, and then be forced to listen to the counselor telling me how worried my family had to be.
By the time Rick came along it was nearly dark. I might have been crying a little. I prided myself on my ability not to cry when Mama threw me out, but this time was different. This time she’d pushed me out the door before I could grab my Walkman. I had nothing to listen to but the sound of my own lonely breath.
He parked his car by first base and walked over and stood in front of me.
“I’ve driven by here three times tonight,” he said. “You haven’t moved. Are you all right?”
I mumbled, “Yeah,” and tried not to look at him. I knew who he was, even though I didn’t know his name. He and his friends had fancy cars and bad reputations; of course they stuck out in a town as small as Lewisville, Missouri. One of the girls at my school said they were a gang of big-time drug dealers, but I figured she was making it up. This wasn’t New York or L.A. Our local paper covered Cub Scout food drives and car washes, not gangs and drug busts.
I heard him exhale. “You need a place to stay tonight.” When I didn’t answer, he opened his wallet and started pulling out twenties. “Go to Red Roof Inn. Debbie works there. Tell her Rick sent you.”
I shook my head, but he stuck the money in my palm and told me to do it. Then he said, more quietly, “I’m not going to hurt you.”
He left before I could give the money back, and I didn’t see him until the next morning, after I woke up in the beautiful Red Roof. I was never sure the hotel was a good idea, but I got cold. It was a few blocks away. I wanted the clean sheets and the TV.
He was waiting in the lobby. When he asked if I wanted some breakfast, I was floored. I hadn’t had anybody offer me breakfast since I was seven years old.
Later, Rick admitted it was partly charity but not just that. He thought my hair was absolutely gorgeous. From the road, when he was driving by, he could see it was blond and very long, way past my waist. And when he saw the rest of me, he thought I was like a girl in a dream he had, a girl he’d always been looking for. To me, he was like the big brother and uncle and boyfriend I’d never had, all rolled into one. Meeting him, I’d finally found my luck.
I wait for the waitress to pour more coffee and take our plates before I change the subject, away from money and our past, back to the band. Rick listens to me talk about the places our band has been. I tell him we’re based in Kansas City, but we’re on the road most of the time, playing hotels and little clubs. I’m in the middle of a story about a wedding we played in Fayetteville, Arkansas, when he tells me he has to know.
I give him a startled glance.
“What did you name him?” He clears his throat. “Or is it her?”
I feel like I’ve just been punched. I was so careful not to be in Lewisville the whole time I was pregnant. I lived in a home for pregnant girls down in Kansas City. I never saw anyone who knew us, or so I thought.
I force a confused look, insist I have no idea what he’s talking about.
“Just tell me the baby’s name, Patty,” he says, his voice urgent, his hands flat on the table. “Please.”
“He’s not a baby. He’s almost two and a half.” I pause before whispering, “William.”
“William Malone,” he says, but I correct him. Willie has my last name. Mine.
“Right,” he says. Then softly, amazed, “I have a son… Does he know about me?”
I feel tears in my throat as all at once I’m remembering when Willie was born. I was alone in the county hospital. My counselor from the home didn’t show up and there was no one else to call; Mama hadn’t even spoken to me since I’d thrown away the pamphlets from the clinic and refused to get an abortion. When the pain got bad, I started screaming for him. Rick, help me. Rick, it hurts. Rick, I need you, please come. The nurse gave me a shot of Demerol and I got confused and thought he was on his way. I asked her, “Is he here yet?” over and over. When the doctor came in, he looked at me as though I was pathetic, slightly nuts. I’d already told them the father was dead; I didn’t want to say he was in prison.
Remembering this is too hard; I can’t sit in this restaurant anymore. I tell him good-bye, and then I’m running between the booths and outside, across the street, back to the place Willie and I call home for now.
“Patty,” he says, touching my elbow. He has caught up with me outside of my room door, and he’s so close I can feel his breath on my hair.
“Go away,” I stammer.
“You don’t want that.” He turns me around to face him; his hands are on my shoulders. “You don’t want that,” he says again, looking in my eyes as though he’s willing it to be true.
I don’t pull away when he gathers me in his arms and whispers, “I love you.” I know he means it. For so many years, his love was the one thing I could count on, the one thing I knew would never change. And he let me get closer to him than anybody ever had; he let me see him be weak. Only I knew that he sobbed for fifteen minutes when his best friend got his throat cut in a bar fight. Only I knew that he fell on his knees and screamed to God for help when I was standing on the rail of the Lewisville River Bridge, about to jump, because I couldn’t live without him and I couldn’t stand our life.
After a while a businessman drives up in a dusty Plymouth. He’s fiddling with his bags, trying not to stare at us. Rick lowers his voice and says, “Let’s go in your room. Just for a few minutes,” and I put in the key as an answer. But before I open the door, I look at him, remind him this is just for a few minutes, and he nods.
The hotel room is small and cramped with ugly, square furniture, but the mess of Willie’s toys and clothes make it seem softer, more colorful. His little blanket is lying in a heap on the floor between the bed and the dresser. Rick picks it up, quickly passes it over his face, inhales, before setting it on the dresser. Mama bought the blanket and Willie’s favorite stuffed animal, the green beagle with the blue-and-white cap he sleeps with while I’m at work—even though she didn’t want me to have Willie. She was holding the presents when she showed up at the hospital when Willie was two days old. She’d joined AA; she said she was there to take us home.