In the days when we spent all our time together, during the spring of 1958, Aunt May and I clung to certain rituals.
On Friday after we finished work, we climbed into May’s car to travel along the dirt road to her house. This afternoon, she was letting me drive. She had taught me how and at first, she’d laughed at me from the passenger seat while I steered with white knuckles. By now I’d acquired her posture behind the wheel, loose and confident, the car an extension of my body.
I dreamed about Friday night from the moment I punched the clock on Monday morning. Though neither of us had much money to spare, May and I put great care into gathering provisions for our little parties. There was always something good to eat like deviled eggs, cherry tomatoes, roast beef with mustard, or sliced pork.
Though May’s house only had a few rooms and paint flaked from its exterior, we treated it like a palace. We laid a fresh white cloth on the table and set the food out on her chipped plates. We mixed gin and tonics and chilled a bottle of white wine in May’s silver ice bucket.
After supper we sat on the front porch with full bellies, on kitchen chairs we dragged outside to cool ourselves down. May sipped her gin and tonic, rattling ice around in her glass so that it clinked against the edges.
“Alice, why don’t you go on inside and get the guitar? Play me a song, will ya?”
My guitar was propped against the wall in the hallway. When I ran my fingertips over the smooth wood, it felt like the first time I’d touched it, when I’d discovered how it fit perfectly into my hands. The instrument spoke a language I picked up quickly, as though it was my native tongue. I’d developed thick callouses on the fingertips of my left hand and when I was bored I ran my thumb over them, testing their firmness.
I strummed an old song called “Grave in the Pines” while May sang with gusto, her voice made gravelly from cigarettes.
“Why don’t you sing louder, Alice? You’re like a little mouse!”
“I can’t get it to sound the way I want.”
“Who cares? It’s like a stiff drink, it’ll make you feel good!”
“I don’t think Mama would approve of that idea, would she?”
May leaned back in her chair to look out at the stars. I played some chords, finding a pattern and repeating it. The edge of my thumb moved gently against the strings, the progression melancholy but pleasing. A melody suggested itself, and a song began to take shape.
“What’s that you’re playing? It’s real pretty.”
“Nothing. Just making it up.”
“Just now? You could be famous one day. The next Kitty Wells. Just don’t forget who bought you that guitar when it happens, will you now?”
I set the guitar down, laughing at her. The guitar had been a gift for my twenty-first birthday. I was twenty-five now, and I’d barely put the thing down since. When I peeled brown paper wrapping from the secondhand case, I was happy enough to cry. She said that she was sure I’d be able to do something special with it. I’d been making up songs since I was a kid.
“I’ll be famous when hell freezes over. I’m going to be stuck working at the phone company forever,” I said.
“There’s nothing wrong with that, is there? You’ll be an old-timer like me. We can practically run the place together, keep everyone else in line,” she said, smacking her lips after a sip of gin.
I plucked a couple of strings between my forefinger and thumb. “Sure, May. Sounds good to me.”
“Stop being such a grouch. Now go and get the radio. Our country hour’s gonna be on any minute. I don’t want to miss the start.”
“Okay,” I said, the chair creaking underneath me as I stood.
May expected me to wait on her when I was at the house. I couldn’t get too mad about her asking me to fetch things, not when she’d done so much for me. I was working in a cannery when a position at the telephone company came up, and she put in a good word for me with the manager. After I was hired as a gofer, running errands and making coffee, she showed me the ropes.
“Now don’t talk to Evelyn, Mr. Clark’s secretary. She’s bad news and she’ll only get you into trouble. Mr. White’s girl is a good one though, she’ll help you out. You need to put your head down and just learn for a while, act gracious to anyone who talks to you,” May explained.
I heeded May’s advice and after a couple of years, I moved up to work the switchboard alongside her. We passed our days working the lines, laughing together with the other girls. It bonded us so that May and I began to spend even more time together than we had before.
A lot of the time at May’s it was just the two of us, but tonight when I came back outside with the radio there was a red car parked on the front lawn. Henry ambled up the stairs and took off his hat to greet me, revealing his almost-bald scalp. I looked away when he kissed May hello. Henry was nice enough, but I wondered how long he’d stick around.
“Go fix yourself a drink, Henry. You’re just in time to listen to our show,” May said.
She turned up the volume and the notes of the theme song rang out, making the speakers crackle. We’d been listening to Huck’s Dixie Hour together for years. Only a handful of stations were in range of Greenville, but we could pick up a few from over in Mobile. Huck was the best; we loved his rapid-fire announcing.
“Welcome to the show, ladies and gentlemen! I’ve got a real treat for you tonight, a record that I just got into my hot little hands. It’s by a group of sisters, a wholesome family band that I think you’re all going to love if you don’t already know them.”
It was a number about loving a beau who lived too far away. I could pick out three voices bending together in harmony. May tapped her foot against the ground in time with the beat. The chorus played, and then there was a solo.
My arms broke out in goose bumps. That voice. It could make ships smash on the rocks, could make you weep with the beauty of it.
Henry came outside with a glass of beer, stomping along the floorboards. “Hey, May, you want a smoke?”
“Ssshhh!” I said.
Henry sparked a match on his shoe, then cupped his hands around May’s to light her up. I closed my eyes and leaned against the back of my chair.
The song faded out. I got closer to the speakers, crouching up next to the radio.
“And that was the Stellar Sisters, with ‘My Country Boy.’ I may be a little late to the party, but I sure am glad I finally heard these gals, and I bet you are, too.”
“Tell me all about your day, Henry. Alice and I had a boring old time at the office. I could use the excitement,” May said, grabbing onto Henry’s tie.
“I’m going to head on inside, play my guitar for a while,” I said.
“All right. I can see your fingers itching. We’ll come in a little later.”
I pulled a chair up to the kitchen table, resting my guitar on my knee. The ballpoint pen and notebook I stored in my handbag were in front of me. I let the woman’s voice play over in my mind. Though I wished I could listen to it again, its ghost was still with me.
The soloist had the voice of a caged bird, longing to take flight. The lonesome sound was searching for the right song.
I positioned my fingers into the shape of the chords I’d been playing earlier. I worked for a long time, adjusting the melody and playing until it flowed like a river. The lyrics needed filling in, but it could be the start of something good. I was going to call it “Do You Miss Me?”
When I was satisfied with what I had for now, I packed my guitar away, still humming my song.
The next day I walked into town to Stone Street Records, having decided that it wouldn’t hurt to treat myself for once. Aside from the money I gave to my parents, I salted away every penny I earned. I’d been saving for a car since the day I started working.
I opened the door to the record store, hearing the bell chime as I walked in. The man behind the counter hurriedly dog-eared his paperback and stashed it under the counter. He was younger than the guy who usually served me, though there was a resemblance. Like the other man he was well-dressed, and I wondered if he was hot in his collared shirt and tie. The room was broken up into lanes by the wooden display cases housing records.
“Hello, ma’am,” the clerk said, when I’d weaved around them to reach him.
“Hello. I was wondering if you had anything by a group called the Stellar Sisters?”
“The Stellar Sisters? I know those girls. I’m sure I’ve got a copy of ‘My Country Boy.’ Let me see.”
He led me down one of the little lanes to the country section, then quickly flicked through the stack labeled “S.”
“This group is great… Did you hear one of them left the group not too long ago? It’s going to be a duo now, but there’s nothing new out for them yet,” he said, sliding the record out of the sleeve to check the label. “Not sure if they’ll have the same sound.”
“Oh? One of them left?” I asked.
“Dorothy. Great voice. She did a lot of the best solos with the Stellars… Did the solo on this one if I’m not mistaken. She’s gone out on her own now. Going by the name of Dorothy Long.”
“Do you have any of her records?” I asked.
“We sold them already, we only had a small batch. I bought one myself. You want me to order one in for you? I can have it in a few weeks,” he said, moving back behind the counter to pick up a book.
“Sure,” I said. I wrote my details on the slip he handed me before giving it back.
“You know, while you’re waiting for that record, she’s going to be playing out at Merle’s in a couple of weeks. The honky-tonk just out of town? You could go on out there and see her if you wanted to.”
“I might just do that,” I said. “Thanks.”
He scribbled down a note with the date, then tucked it into the paper bag with my purchase. Once it was inside, he folded down the top corner and sealed it neatly with his thumb, handing it to me with a grin. On the way home I walked faster than usual, clutching the bag against my side. Since the night before, the song was all I could think about.
“Do you mind if I use the record player today?” I asked Mama. I found her coming out of her room, finger combing her hair. It had turned from red to a rosy-blond shade with age, and I wondered if mine would be the same color one day.
“Aren’t you coming to visit your grandparents?” Mama asked.
“I just got a new country record I want to listen to.”
My parents only used their player to spin the handful of gospel records they owned. Sometimes we sat around to listen to them on Sunday evenings after dinner, Mama becoming misty-eyed.
“You can use it, but I don’t know where you got your love of that stuff from. All that wailing and complaining about everything. At least it’s not rock and roll music like that awful Buddy Holly, I suppose.”
When she and Daddy were gone, I got on my back next to the player to listen to “My Country Boy.” I’d wondered if I’d exaggerated something about the voice after I’d heard it, but it was just like I remembered.
I flipped the record to check out the B-side. The opening notes of a ballad rang out and then Dorothy sang the lead vocals. There was a throb of sadness in her voice, the kind that grants a contrary kind of pleasure with its pain. I held the cover against my chest, letting it run over me.
Afterward, I studied the photograph of the group on the cover. The three members stood in a row wearing identical red and white checked dresses, looking to be about the same age as me or a little older. They each had the same dark hair, but one of them had hair that was wavier than the others. I stared at the faces one after another, trying to guess which of the women was Dorothy.
It was impossible to tell. I drew the needle back and dropped it again.
On Monday mornings it was always hard for me to get going, but I liked being able to see May. We met in the breakroom to make coffee, then went to the switchboard to prepare for a day of taking calls. It was odd to sit in the room when it was still so quiet, the night shift girls on their way out, passing us with drowsy-looking eyes.
“How’s that sister of mine?” May asked. “Was she mad that you didn’t come home until Saturday again?”
“Of course not. She knows I was with my dear old Aunt May. I told her I was trying to bring you back to the Lord,” I said, arranging headphones over my hair.
May swatted at me. “Don’t you dare call me old. It’s no joking matter, you know. She wouldn’t be happy if she knew what we were up to. Especially if she knew there were men coming around. Even if it’s just skinny old Henry.”
“Well, she doesn’t know, and she never will because you sure aren’t going to tell her, are you?”
“I won’t tell her anything about anything,” May said. “I know she’s never going to forgive me for getting divorced from Ernie, even if he was a dog who ran around on me all the time. She thinks I’m bringing shame on the family.”
“It’s coming up to nine. We’d better get ready,” I said, avoiding the matter of being stuck between Mama and May. I slipped into my professional tone, my words even and sharp. I’d had to work at it, having always been the type of person who mumbled or trailed off.
“Good morning! Ladies, how y’all doing today?”
Frank came in to visit us at least once a day. For a time, I’d thought Frank was sweet on May. When I’d grumbled to May about him she’d accused me of being blind, saying that it was as plain on the nose on my face that it was me he was after.
I smiled genially at him, tucking my legs under the desk so he couldn’t leer at them. “We’re just fine, Frank, busy as usual, and how are you doing today?”
He hooked his meaty hands into his belt, his foot coming down on the empty chair next to me. A button was popped open on his plaid shirt, white skin standing out where his belly strained against it. “Just the same. So busy you wouldn’t believe it. But I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here because I’m wondering…just when are you going to let me take you out, Alice?”
“Leave my baby niece alone, Frank. You need to beat it. You’re going to get us both into trouble and not the kind of trouble you want. Shoo,” May said, flapping her hand at him.
Frank cackled, slapping his knee. “You’re just jealous I’m not asking you out, May. Don’t worry, sweetheart. I’m always saying the pair of you could be sisters.”
“Well, I’m only ten years older than Alice you know!”
It was something people always said about us. May and I had matching hazel eyes and reddish-brown hair, and we were both on the short side. She was fond of telling me how lucky I was to share her heart-shaped face and small frame. There was a greater likeness between us than the one I shared with my real sister, Francine.
“All right then,” Frank said. “I’ll get out of here, I guess. But I’m ready whenever you are, Alice.”
“Don’t hold your breath,” I said, as soon as he was out of earshot.
May shoved me with her elbow. “I can’t keep rescuing you, honey. One of these days you’re going to have to go out with him or one of the other fellas. Just go out on a date or two. You don’t have the marry the guy.”
“I don’t want to date Frank or anyone else who works here. Is there a rule in the company handbook that says I have to?”
“I don’t know how any niece of mine got to be such a prude!”
A line lit up and I leapt to answer it. “Alice speaking, how may I direct your call?”
When I was done May was on a call herself. I waited for her to finish, knowing that by the time she was done the subject of men would be forgotten.
“Hey, I was thinking. Maybe we could go out soon? Have some fun?”
May’s face brightened, a loose line clutched between her fingertips. “You want to go out?”
“Sure. I was thinking about going to Merle’s.”
“That’s right. I heard there’s a good singer playing out there in a couple of weeks.”
“Maybe,” she said doubtfully. It was hard to pry her away from home sometimes, where she could have her radio and mix her own drinks.
“I was thinking you could bring Henry and see if he has a friend he might like to bring, too?”
“I thought you didn’t like his friends?”
“Maybe he has one I haven’t met yet.”
“That sounds like a good time to me! I’ll talk to him about it when I see him tomorrow night.”
“That’d be swell. You go on and do that.”
I faced the switchboard, trying to ignore the way she smiled proudly at me from my peripheral vision.
On the night of Dorothy Long’s show, I waited for my date to come and get me. When Mama answered the door, his deep voice was followed by Mama’s laughter.
I took one last look in the mirror and wondered if I should do something different with my hair, but it was too late for that. I hadn’t been to the salon for a long time; it was long and hung in a simple style around my face. I’d always hated having red hair, because I had the light freckles dusted over my nose to match. I checked my lipstick, then straightened the hem of my only good dress. It was soft blue, gathering in at the waist with a full skirt. Mama sewed it for me for a dance a few years back, and I’d hardly worn it since.
In the living room, my date was sitting on the sofa between my folks. It was strange seeing how young he looked next to them, like just a boy. Daddy’s beard was salt-and-pepper; I doubted my date would even be able to grow one.
“Good evening, ma’am,” the boy said, hat in his hands as he stood up. “I’m Tommy.”
“Nice to meet you, Tommy. I’m Alice.”
“Pleased to meet you,” he said, with a shrewd scan up and down my figure.
I would try very hard to like him. Perhaps May was right when she said I never gave anyone a fighting chance. At least Tommy was close to my age, when Henry had introduced me to much older friends in the past.
Tommy walked me out to Henry’s red Pontiac, idling in the driveway. Henry and May sat in front, and Henry capped his flask when we walked up to the car. Tommy held the door open for me so that I could get into the backseat, then ran around to the other side to slide in next to me.
“Good evening, young Alice, and may I say you are looking lovely this evening. As I told Tommy he is the luckiest man in town,” Henry said, looking over the back of the seat at me.
“Not as lucky as you. Stop that smooth talk and get to driving,” May said. “We’ve got a show to catch. You didn’t tell Shirley I was in the car, did you, Alice? She’ll be mad at me for not saying hello.”
“Of course, I told her!”
“Christ,” May said.
“Do you go to this place much?” Tommy asked.
“When there’s someone good playing. I haven’t been down there for a while,” I said.
Tommy nodded politely, then hunched forward to talk to Henry. I listened to them, thinking about Dorothy Long. I couldn’t wait to hear her sing or to finally see what she looked like. My Stellar Sisters record had been on constant rotation during the past few weeks.
When we arrived at Merle’s, Tommy helped me out of the car with a clammy palm. I discreetly wiped my hand on my dress, May and I following behind our dates as we walked toward the entrance of the honky-tonk.
It was heaving with people, who pushed up against one another while they danced. The dusty wooden floorboards shook with movement, the air thick with smoke around us. I raised myself onto my tiptoes to peer over all the heads in the crowd. There was a small stage in the corner, raised slightly over the room.
There wasn’t a girl up there though, not yet.
“What can we get you ladies to drink?” Henry asked, yelling over the music.
“I’ll have a soda, thanks. Lemonade,” I said.
“Gin and tonic for me. Let’s get ourselves a seat,” May said, pointing over to the tables in the corner.
We fought our way over to them and I sat next to her. May shook her head and gestured across to the other side of the table. “What are you doing, girl? Get over there so Tommy can sit next to you.”
“Excuse me, I wasn’t thinking.”
My new position was better, because now I was facing the stage. I drummed my fingers against the checked tablecloth along to the music. May leaned across the table. “So, what do you think of him?”
“Who? Oh, Tommy? He’s really…nice?”
May nodded enthusiastically as the men came back. Tommy pushed a frosted glass of lemonade across to me.
“So, how do you fellas know each other? Henry here, he likes to keep everything a mystery. He’s under the impression that it makes him charming,” May said.
“Well, I’ll solve that mystery for you at last,” Henry said.
“What is it, are you two joining the space race together or something? You’d think it was something top secret, from the way you carry on,” May said.
“Work,” Henry said, tipping his head across to Tommy. “This guy comes into the store all the time and we got to talking one day.”
“And you ladies work together, don’t you?” Tommy asked.
I let May answer for me while I looked past her toward the stage. The music died out, and the room filled with chattering voices. A double bass and a guitar were being carried out. Three men in suits stood there, one of them lifting the guitar and adjusting the strap over his shoulder. Another perched on a stool behind the drum kit, smirking at the others as he twirled a stick in his fingers.
Where was she? I craned my neck and checked around, wondering if there was still another band to come before her.
Finally, a woman in a red dress walked across the stage.
This was the woman with the golden vocal cords. Even from back here in the dark I could see that there was a spark about her, a specialness that she vibrated with.
When Dorothy opened her mouth to sing, the conversation at our table stopped. Henry and May twisted toward her, and I leaned forward. Dorothy’s voice was rich velvet, like smoke curling around us.
When the song ended Henry stuck his fingers into his mouth to whistle. The sound, long and low, pierced through the crowd.
“What a singer, dang!” Henry said. “Glad you dragged us all down here tonight, Alice.”
“I’m pleased you’re enjoying it. Excuse me, I’m going the powder room,” I said, not meeting May’s eye. I didn’t want her to offer to come with me.
The area right in front of the stage was impossible to see from our table, obscured by the audience. The next song was another ballad, and most of the people on the dance floor were coupled up to waltz. I watched them for a while before I turned to the stage.
Dorothy’s eyes were closed, displaying her long thick lashes. Her head was inclined toward the silver ball of the microphone, a hand curled around it. Coral pink lipstick painted her full lips and the lights caught her shoulder-length hair, making her waves shine underneath them.
No matter how high the notes were, and regardless of how much she was belting them out, it appeared to not cost her any effort. For her, singing seemed to be as natural as talking. I could write something special for that voice. Even if she never knew about it, there would be a song from my pen that was just for her.
Dorothy opened her eyes. They were a missing puzzle piece, bringing her face together. Her eyes were large and brown, sweeping over the crowd with a curious hint of sadness.
For a song and the next, I watched the guitarist’s fingers. When I got home, I would play the parts I could remember.
Between songs, the drummer put down his sticks to roll up the sleeves of his shirt and wipe sweat from his forehead. Dorothy leaned down and picked up a glass of water that stood by her feet. All around me the crowd buzzed, returning to talking and laughing, the band forgotten for now.
Dorothy set the glass down and conferred with the double bass player. When she turned back to the crowd, her gaze came to rest on me. I looked away as soon as our eyes met. The band launched into a faster-paced tune, the drums and the double bass chugging along like a train.
I started at a tap on my shoulder, spinning around to see May standing behind me. “Where have you been all this time? We were looking for you, the boys want to get up and dance. I thought you said you were going to the ladies’ room?”
“I did go. I was just passing back this way and I wanted to hear the music better.”
“Well, come on now. They’re waiting for us at the table. Hurry,” she said, tugging at my wrist.
Tommy led me out to the dance floor, while Henry did the same with May. I positioned my hand on Tommy’s shoulder, looking past him toward the stage as often as I could. When the show was over we broke apart. Tommy’s cheeks were flushed, dark patches showing on his shirt from sweat.
I sought out Dorothy one last time, catching a glimpse of her back as she exited the stage to the crowd’s applause.
The night air was cool on my skin when we walked outside. People milled around, soaking up the music spilling from the open windows.
Henry took a pull from his flask and winced before offering it to Tommy.
“Well, what do you say we all go out to May’s place, have a few more drinks?” Henry said.
“I told my mother I’d be home by eleven,” I replied.
May slapped my arm. “You fool. Why didn’t you tell her you were staying at my place tonight?”
“Sorry. That’s why I was only drinking soda.”
“You’re a good girl, not like your aunt, huh, Alice?” Henry said. “Come on, we’ll run you on home.”
When we arrived, Tommy walked me up to the door. I turned around, stepping back from him. “Thank you for this evening. I had a lovely night.”
“Me too,” he said, leaning toward me.
“My mom is probably watching from over there,” I said, pointing to a window.
He laughed and put his hat on. “Well then, I’d best be on my way. Don’t want your father coming out here with a shotgun or anything. You enjoy the rest of your night.”
“Thanks. And thanks for this evening, I had a nice time.”
I waved goodbye to Henry and May, who stuck their hands out of the open windows of the car to wave back. Stepping inside, I smiled to myself.
I’d done it. I’d seen her, and she was extraordinary.
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