Song Readerby Lisa Tucker
From a talented new voice in fiction comes a novel complete with unforgettable characters and unforgettable songs.
Leeann's older sister Mary Beth has a gift. When the two sisters are left alone after the death of their mother and the disappearance of their father, Mary Beth becomes the hero of both her younger sister and their entire town. She is a "song… See more details below
From a talented new voice in fiction comes a novel complete with unforgettable characters and unforgettable songs.
Leeann's older sister Mary Beth has a gift. When the two sisters are left alone after the death of their mother and the disappearance of their father, Mary Beth becomes the hero of both her younger sister and their entire town. She is a "song reader." She doesn't read palms or tarot cards; she reads people's secrets and desires from the songs they can't get out of their minds. And her customers idolize her. As Leeann tells us, "They took her advice-to marry, to break it off...They swore she could see right into their hearts."
But as Leeann soon learns, every gift has its price. The sisters' bond will be tested when Mary Beth's advice leads to a tragedy that divides their small Missouri town. As Mary Beth retreats into her own world, Leeann must face the truth about their parents and their past, and the flawed humanity of the sister she adores. Lyrical, haunting, with a deeply compelling story, The Song Reader is an exploration of what makes a family, what breaks it apart, and how the bonds of love and blood can be both a burden and a blessing.
Inka Bajandas, Teen Reviewer
John Dufresne author of Louisiana Power & Light [A]n achingly beautiful and bittersweet tale.
Silas House author of A Parchment of Leaves A stunning debut by a major new voice for her generation.
- Downtown Press
- Publication date:
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- Product dimensions:
- 4.20(w) x 7.50(h) x 1.00(d)
Read an Excerpt
from The Song Reader
It started when we tried to find our father, once, a long time ago. It was after Mom died, back when we were still reeling from the loss of our normal life.
Tracking him down was my idea, although I thought it was the obvious thing to do under the circumstances. My sister didn't agree. At Mom's funeral, when people asked her if we were going to contact our father now, she stared right through them. Later she said she couldn't believe such a rude question. How could it matter after this? How could anything matter after this?
Mom had been on her way home from the July sale at Venture when she pulled out in front of an eighteen-wheeler on Highway 61. Her car was cut in two but, when the insurance adjuster pried open the trunk, the bag from the sale was still intact. A green-and-pink striped bath towel, two packages of girls' size ten underwear for me, and the album Plastic Letters for Mary Beth. Mom didn't know anything about Debbie Harry or punk, but she'd always called Mary Beth her blondie.
What I remember about that time is how tired I was. I would go to bed so sleepy that I felt like I'd be out for hours, only to startle awake again and realize what had happened. Mary Beth had the same problem, but when the doctor offered her sleeping pills, she said no. After he left the room, she mumbled that he could just shove those sedatives. "Doctors try to solve everything with pills," she told me, "even feelings."
I would have gladly taken them but nobody offered. I was just a kid.
We waited weeks to clean out Mom's bedroom. We bagged up the clothes first, to give to the needy. It was what Mom would have wanted. Mary Beth was almost six feet tall; Mom had been five feet three at best, and I had no immediate plans to wear polyester pantsuits and stiff-collared shirtwaist dresses.
Dad had been gone five years by then, and the room seemed like it had always been only Mom's. There was no aftershave stain on the dresser, no tie collecting dust in the bottom of the closet, no flattened, laceless wing tip under the bed. It was just luck that I found his ring under Mom's cedar chest -- luck in the form of an old vacuum cleaner that balked and spit the silver circle back at my ankle hard enough to make me bend down and take a look.
It took me a minute to realize that the ring must have been Dad's. It was engraved with his initials, HN, Henry Norris, but it was so small it fit me. It turned out he'd worn it as a little boy, a gift from his mother. Dad adored his mother. This was one of the few facts I had about him.
He grew up in Shelbyville, Tennessee. His father died when he fell off a train, drunk, when Dad was seven. His mother had to support them with her sewing, "piecework" they called it, since she was paid only when she finished a piece of clothing, getting nothing if she was too sick or tired to turn in anything at the end of a day. But when Dad was seventeen, she too died suddenly. She had a stroke of some kind, quite rare as young as she was, and I'd heard whispers between cousins I barely knew about Dad's reaction: how he had a kind of nervous breakdown and great-aunt somebody had to take him to her house to recover, and how after that he, the brightest-smartest-could-have-made-something-of-himself boy you ever saw, never even finished high school.
Mary Beth told me once it takes guts to go nuts, and he must have had guts. "Most people," she said, "ignore the wound, put a Band-Aid on it, and forget it. Only the gutsy ones can look right at the blood, stare into the pain, and risk losing their minds to know what's what."
I didn't think she was talking about Dad though. She almost never did.
I wore the ring for several weeks, thinking it would tell me something about him. I'd had a dream he was standing on a boat wearing a skipper's cap, holding a compass, issuing directions to unseen sailors. Later I realized I'd seen a picture of him on a boat, taken when he and Mom were on their honeymoon at the Lake of the Ozarks, but this didn't shake my feeling that he had crossed the sea and was thousands of miles from Tainer, Missouri.
When Mary Beth saw the ring on my finger, she said, "How cute," as though I was a little kid playing dress-up, as though this ring was as meaningless to me as the ones that shot out in colorful plastic orbs from the gum-ball machine.
She knew I didn't really remember Dad. I was five when he left us; she was seventeen. One of the only discussions we'd ever had about him was when she realized I was making up things, telling my friends whatever came to mind, from a secret government assignment that called him to Venezuela, to a job in Hollywood, behind the camera for Eight Is Enough.
I think she felt sorry for me, because she gave me two true stories instead. When he worked for Hedley's Auto Parts and Tires, she said, he made a jungle gym out of junk parts and old tires that had a ten-foot-tall hideout that was the favorite of all the kids in the neighborhood. And once, he won a contest at the civic club downtown. It was like Name That Tune and he could name them faster than anyone. He always loved music, especially tunes from shows like Oklahoma and Carousel and classical stuff.
Neither of these things helped. The jungle gym had nothing to do with me; I'd never even seen it. (We'd moved into our apartment on the second floor of Agnes' house when I was just a baby; Mary Beth said it would have been impossible to move even if we'd had the yard space.) And the contest business was just another connection between Dad and my sister that I didn't share. She was the musical one, the one who'd had the largest record collection in the senior class.
Maybe I wanted to know something about him that she didn't. Maybe that's why I started writing to his relatives to locate him, without mentioning what I was doing to her or anyone.
Mom had kept some of their addresses in her blue phone book. I began with the N page, for Norris, and just kept going, writing one a day, every afternoon, before Mary Beth came home from the restaurant. I knew it was a long shot, but Mom always said hard work would pay off in the long run.
And it turned out to be true. After a few months of writing, I got the information I was waiting for. Joseph Morgan, from Kansas City, a second cousin of Dad's whom I'd met only once long ago at a family reunion in Boonville, had seen Dad. His letter went on for two pages, updating me about people and things I'd never heard of, but it ended with the news that Dad had given him an address. No phone, not even an unlisted one, but a street and an apartment number and even a zip code.
I folded the letter carefully and stuck it in my dresser, under my pajamas. I intended to keep it a secret from Mary Beth for at least a few days, but I barely lasted through dinner.
She didn't speak for a full minute after reading the letter. I thought for sure she was upset, but then she smiled. "You did it, honey," she said. "Good for you."
It crossed my mind that she'd known all along that I'd been trying to find him, but I was too happy to care. When I told her I was going to write him that night, she nodded. "Of course you are."
It wasn't a long letter. I told him we were doing fine, that I was in the fifth grade and my favorite subject was history. In the last paragraph, I told him about Mom. I almost didn't, figuring it would come as such a shock, but I worried that if I didn't, he might not write back. I signed my letter, "All my love. Your daughter, Leeann."
I circled the date I mailed the letter on the calendar, Tuesday, December 5, and calculated how long I would have to wait for a response. I figured for sure I would hear something by the fifteenth, but when the fifteenth came and went, I decided he hadn't written because he was going to just show up for the holidays and surprise us. I wished I'd asked him what he wanted for Christmas. I had to get him something, but I didn't know what he liked or his size or even his favorite color. I settled on a one-size-fits-all acrylic sweater from the Men's Place in bright blue and violet stripes. My favorite color was blue, Mary Beth's was violet. I figured our father had to like one of those colors at least a little.
Mary Beth knew I was buying Dad a present and she didn't try to talk me out of it. "It's sweet of you. If he doesn't come here for Christmas, we can always mail it to him. More important now is what you want for Christmas: you haven't told me yet, you know." She sighed. "I want to make this holiday as normal as possible. I think it's what Mom would want for us."
I didn't really care about presents, but I made a short list. On Christmas morning it was all there: a denim jacket, a Sony portable radio, and a set of fancy drawing pencils. But Dad didn't come. Of course. His sweater, wrapped in green and yellow snowmen, stayed under the tree in the back, almost out of sight, until New Year's Day when Mary Beth and I packed up the ornaments and put the tree out in the street with the trash.
I stuffed the present under my bed, where it was safe, and where I wouldn't have to see it everyday. I stopped thinking about Dad. I knew I'd have to keep trying, but I didn't know where to begin. About a month and a half later I came up with a plan. I would go to Kansas City to deliver the sweater myself.
This time when I told my sister there was no smile and good for you. She was watching One Day at a Time and filing her nails. She said it wasn't a good idea, and turned up the volume on the TV.
"Come on, Mary Beth," I pleaded. "I'm sure we could get there in a few hours. It's not that far."
"It takes about five hours, but that's not the problem." Her voice was flat; she was concentrating on the edge of her thumb. "Think about it. He knows exactly where we are, and yet he hasn't ever come back to see us. There has to be a reason for that."
When I pressured her to tell me what that reason could be, she shook her head. "I'm not up to discussing this right now. Please, Leeann, just leave it alone."
But I couldn't do that. Every night that week after she got home from work, I begged her to change her mind, and every night she told me to drop the subject. I tried everything, from promises of good behavior to persuading her latest boyfriend, Nick, to take my side. Nothing helped. My promises were sweet, she said, but they didn't change the situation. And Nick's advice was meaningless. What would he know about her family and her life?
He wasn't the first guy to hear that from my sister, and he wasn't the first (or last) to be dumped when he tried to interfere. She told him not to call anymore after she found out that he'd offered to take me to Kansas City himself one Sunday when she had to work. I felt bad for him, but I had to tell her. I knew it would be just the thing to make her realize she had no choice in the matter.
I didn't want to go with Nick; I wanted to go with her.
And it worked. She said we could leave in a few weeks, as soon as she could arrange a weekend off. I hugged her and thanked her. I said it would be an adventure, a real-life long-lost-loved-one kind of meeting like the ones in the movies.
"Maybe," was all she said.
When the Friday evening finally arrived, I packed up the present and my nicest skirt and knitted beige sweater while Mary Beth threw together some of her stuff. The trip took almost exactly five hours, and I was so tired when she pulled into a Travelodge motel in Independence that I fell asleep immediately, with my clothes still on, when I lay down on the stiff motel bed.
The next morning we had to get our bearings in Kansas City and find the downtown area, and then go south, like the map Mary Beth bought at the motel told us to do. When we finally got close to Dad's, however, Mary Beth decided we couldn't go yet since we hadn't had lunch, so we headed further south to the Plaza. I complained a little but I really didn't mind. Just seeing his neighborhood had made my throat go dry and itchy.
We ate, and then hung out at the Plaza, looking in store windows, trying on clothes we couldn't afford. Finally, Mary Beth said we better get going, and we headed back up to Harrison Street.
We found the address quickly. It was a three-story, dark red brick apartment building, run-down looking, with an overflowing Dumpster at the side, and two yellowing chairs sitting on the front lawn. We walked up to the door and opened it; my stomach knotted when I saw Henry Norris printed neatly on a white card above the middle of the six buzzers.
Mary Beth rang the buzzer. No one answered so she rang again. Still no answer, so she rang the buzzer on the left, underneath the card that said Landlord. A woman in a purple housecoat and silver-sequined slippers opened the door. She looked us over without any expression. "Who're you looking for?"
Mary Beth said, "Henry Norris. I see his name here, but he doesn't answer his buzzer. Do you have any idea when he might return? We're sorry to bother you, but we've come a long way, and we can't wait too long."
"I wish I knew. He let out of here two weeks ago without so much as a good-bye. He didn't owe me no back rent, but he left the place in an awful state. My nephew came over last week and took one look and told me he'd have to give it at least two coats of paint before I can advertise. In the meantime, I'm losing money, and I can barely make ends meet as it is. So I'm not real happy with Henry Norris right now. Are you related?"
"Yes," Mary Beth said. "We're his daughters."
She looked us up and down again. "Well, I'll take you up there, if you want to see it. I have no idea where he is, but maybe you can figure something out from the mess he left behind."
"No thanks," Mary Beth said. "He's not here. I don't see any point in looking at an empty apartment. Sorry to bother you, though."
She started to backup through the front door, but I grabbed her arm. "Wait, Mary Beth. I want to go up. Maybe there's a new address or something....Come on."
"Okay, okay." She turned to the landlady. "If it's not too much trouble."
We walked up one flight of narrow, creaking stairs: the landlady leading me with Mary Beth right behind. "It's up here," the woman said, pulling a ring of keys from her housecoat pocket. "Be careful," she added, looking at me. "This place ain't no playground."
She opened the door. "I'll be downstairs. Let me know when you've finished so I can lock up."
It was a one-room apartment, divided up into a living room area, with a small green couch, old TV with bent-rabbit-ears antenna, and wobbly wood-veneer coffee table; kitchen area, with a plastic-top table and two metal chairs with sticky brown rubber cushions; and a bedroom area, with a three-drawer dresser and a twin bed that came out of a closet. The landlady was right: it was a mess, but I hardly noticed the trash even though a couple of times I had to kick away crumpled paper and old cans. I didn't really pay attention to the smell either, although it reeked of spoiled food. It was the walls I noticed. They were covered with words, filled with big square letters. Someone -- it took me a minute to realize it must have been Dad -- had actually written on almost every available inch of the walls with a thick black pen. On the one behind the couch, I read "EVERY MORNING" in large print, and then underneath a list numbered from one to fifteen. Many of the words were smeared and illegible, but I made out:
Bowl of Cereal Juice Coffee
Bus #9 leaves from corner at 7:42
Pack lunch FIRST!
Get three quarters from drawer for bus there, three quarters more for bus home: total of six quarters needed.
Lock apartment door
Lists like this covered every wall in the place. There was a list for every evening over by the pullout bed, with instructions like "eat dinner," " lock the door," "wash out underwear for the next day." There was a list for each day of the week: Tuesday's list, in the bathroom, included taking the trash to the Dumpster outside; Saturday's longer list, by the kitchen table, included going to the Laundromat and the corner grocery store. There was another list right by the refrigerator of things to buy at the store (which seemed senseless to me until I decided he must have copied this one down on paper before he went to do his shopping). There were even reminders for specific days over by the door, such as "December 17: Library Books Due. Library Closes at exactly 7:30," and "November 8, 10:30 A.M., plant physical. Shower in morning first."
There were so many words, so many lists, and I moved from wall to wall like a spider, taking it all in. I couldn't stop reading, even though my mind was becoming numb from the boring repetition of the lists and my eyes were aching from the strain of squinting so hard to read in the early evening February darkness. I kept looking for something that would make sense of it, something that would explain the why of all these words. Only after more than an hour, when I'd seen all the walls and read every legible word, did I finally fall back, bone-tired, on the couch by Mary Beth.
Her eyes were closed, and her head was lying back, but I knew she wasn't asleep because her teeth were pressed down, biting her bottom lip. I told her I was ready, and she stood up without saying anything and we walked downstairs.
The landlady was cooking spaghetti sauce when we knocked on the door. The garlic smell was so heavy it made me feel nauseated. When she opened the door, she asked us if we'd found what we were looking for and Mary Beth nodded. Then Mary Beth opened her purse and pulled out two twenty dollar bills. "It's not much, but it'll help pay for the paint at least. I'm really sorry about your trouble, and thanks again for letting us go up there."
The woman smiled warmly for the first time. "That's awfully good of you. It's just too bad you didn't catch him. Hold on. I've got something for the little girl."
She brought out a bruised apple and put it in my hand. "You're probably hungry by now. You all take care of yourselves. If I see Henry Norris again, I'll be sure and tell him you were here."
Copyright © 2003 by Lisa Tucker
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