Singing for the Lonely
by Sutton Strother
Can't talk for long, your father threatens when he finally calls, and to think you’d been so grateful for the ring of the phone.
No parties, you promise. This time it’s true, technically. Kate and Justine came over last night, you confess, but when he says, Okay, you hear Who? though he's met them more than once.
You imagine your girlfriends back in their houses now, houses with clean windows and working heat and two parents. Kate cut out early last night, but there’s still a Justine-shaped imprint in the blankets piled beside your twin bed, where she slept like a faithful pet until noon (you know why she stays so close; you pretend not to know so she’ll never stop). Justine rarely has friends over, though her bed is big enough to hold all three of you. If you woke up there tomorrow, her mom would serve you pancakes and chocolate milk while her dad read you a story from his book of devotionals. You’ve got no use for Jesus but you’d welcome the noise. Your own house might be haunted, though if so, it’s haunted by absence, ghosts molded from negative space. One parent works in a factory one hundred fifty miles away, drops in twice a month. The other never lived here. Your friends are gone and your dog died two months ago and the cable got shut off last week but there should be money soon to pay the bill and then the house need never go quiet again.
You ask your father questions to keep him on the line. How’s work? How’s Dayton? Did Bob’s wife have her baby? Are you eating anything but burgers and cold pizza? Will you please eat a salad? Should I call someone about the thermostat? Where do we keep the light bulbs? The stain remover? The bug spray? When are you coming home?
His answers are designed to save breath. Some barely qualify as words. You tell him, I love you, and he answers, Call soon. Whether that’s an order or a promise, you don't have time to ask.
Because the silence cannot be permitted to linger, you find new sounds to fill it up: the scratch of a pencil against your geometry worksheets, the swish of the broom across the linoleum, the Miller Light tab’s click and hiss, and the cartoon gulps that fill your ears from the inside. The beer tastes like your father smells, which fucks you up so bad you drink more deeply, drink another. You could never explain it to anyone else. Nor why you’re undressing in his bedroom after the second can, slipping into his undershirt and the jeans smeared with oil stains down both thighs. When you stand before his mirror, you expect him to stare back but there’s only you, breasts already sagging at seventeen, red hair as limp your mother’s in every photo you have of her.
But you can look away, can’t you, and pretend?
You have his records, at least. Elvis. Skynyrd. George Jones. Roy Orbison. You settle on the last and think of when you were so small your father could sling you over his shoulder while you both sang along. You’ve never brought Kate or Justine into this room, never played these records for them. Kate wouldn’t believe you knew how to work a turntable, even though it was you who taught her to change the tires on her shitty little Camry and pick the lock of her parents’ bedroom door and smoke a cigarette without coughing (you think, not for the first time, maybe Kate only wants the parts of you she can stitch into herself).
The plaintive wail of Roy Orbison’s voice eats up every molecule of quiet in your house. You imagine this is what opera would sound like if they’d invented it in Texas, these swelling songs about lonesomeness, but they’re not your brand of lonesome, which is a comfort. Roy’s longing has somebody on the other end, a lover to pine for. It’s longing with a direct object, not simply I Want but I Want Her. What you wouldn’t give to yearn for something as simple as a lover. You’ve never met a boy worth the trouble.
Your father has never yearned for anything, as far as you know. There’s a comfort in that, too, and a power.
Justine would come if you called. Even if her parents said No, Justine could get them to Yes. She would lie at your feet and keep vigil against what’s troubling you, even if you couldn’t name it. You could even pull the covers back and let her curl around you like a shell while the thrum of her blood beat back the silence.
You cut the music. A specter lingers just beyond your field of vision, still singing along and stinking of beer. You ignore him and you dial.
This is the second story I’ve written featuring this set of characters (the first, “Girls Who Cruise,” was published by Pithead Chapel in 2019), and I’m certain it won’t be the last. Sadie and Justine and Kate occupy a special corner of my heart, figuring themselves out at the start of a new millennium, just as I once did. In large part, these stories arose from me thinking about the music I grew up with, which was mostly my parents’ music, and how I made that music important to me. I wasn’t raised on Bruce Springsteen (like Kate in “Girls Who Cruise”) or Roy Orbison (like Sadie here in “Singing for the Lonely”) specifically, but it was the same kind of very masculine, very heterosexual rock music, so I’m interested in how young women and nonbinary people connect to that music, especially the ways they reappropriate and reinterpret those songs as expressions of their own identities and longings and experiences.
Sutton Strother is a writer and teacher who lives in New York. Her writing has been featured various journals, including in Atlas and Alice, Pidgeonholes, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Pithead Chapel. You can read more of her work at suttonstrother.wordpress.com. She tweets @suttonstrother.