By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
The karaoke singers have waited for this all week. This is the night they have an audience.
At the wheel of her pickup, Sandra Kennedy comes barreling over from South Houston. Her bleach-blond 'do glows in the dark, her fingers are heavy with the remains of two marriages and she is wearing the black leather miniskirt of which Mother does not approve. Mother says a woman of Sandra's age -- 53 -- shouldn't wear such clothes. What does Sandra say?
"I said, 'Well, Mother, I think it's how you look in them, not how old you are.' "
Her arrival at Bayou City creates a sense of moment, because her gleaming red truck is such a damn big truck. Sandra reins it in. She straps on her heels. She strolls past the long line of children waiting to have their IDs checked, like a movie star to her own premiere. From behind, she looks like any one of the little girls, but then Sandra goes to the bathroom and again discovers her age. Staring into the mirror beside "all them young girls," she's horrified by what she sees. Sandra comes rushing out, reaching for her bag. She should have used more eye shadow, she says. "Where's my eye shadow?"
Makeup calms her like medication. She puts on her bifocals and begins reading the song list. Perhaps she'll sing "my Bon Jovi song," she says. And though Bon Jovi is a bit dated for the crowd, Sandra does her best to fit in. A few minutes later, looking like someone's embarrassing mom, she takes the stage and sings:
... remember at the prom that night, you and me had a fight ... together forever, never say good-bye, never say good-bye ...
Sandra's 82-year-old mother sometimes wakes in the night and realizes her daughter isn't home. She lies there wondering what Sandra is up to now.
They live together beyond the asphalt plant, beneath the power lines, beside the drainage canal in South Houston. Their house is small, white and tidy, with a Rottweiler to answer the door.
Sandra's mother spends much of the day watching television. About three days a week Sandra works as a substitute teacher. In the afternoon, when she comes home from school, she gets on the phone with her friends, two of whom are 30 years younger than she. Afterward, Sandra turns on the stereo. Mother tells her to turn it down, but Sandra can't hear it that low, and she has to practice. Back and forth, they compromise until evening when they retreat to their rooms, Mother to get ready for bed and Sandra to get dressed to go out.
In Sandra's bedroom the walls are adorned with the men on whom she has crushes: the quarterback John Elway, the football coach Jeff Fisher, the Channel 26 weatherman Robert Smith. On the dresser, this is the silk rose from a man who changed his mind in the morning, and that is the framed "token boyfriend picture" of a fellow with whom she danced and never saw again. There by the bed is the lamp Sandra never turns off. The bed, she says, hasn't seemed as empty since she began sleeping on top of the covers.
Sandra says it's no big deal. There are a lot of women like her.
"I can be lonely and still happy," she says. "I know when I'm happy, and right now I'm happy."
The room is not a dungeon, as she sees it, but a place of infinite possibility. Sandra restructured her life to live in Mother's house, rootless, ready to go. Anything could happen from here. Would it be the man of her dreams? Or an Exciting New Career, perhaps as a singer? Sandra doesn't know, but she's ready for whatever it is, for anything at all. Everything begins with getting dressed....
She emerges from her room in the miniskirt, the black stockings, the stiletto heels. Mother, in front of the television, is awed once more that her own daughter would wear these "woman of the street" clothes. And go out at this hour. At her age!
"It's a good thing I'm not a teenager and insecure anymore," says Sandra, "because she would just be suppressing me big-time."
And according to custom, Sandra stalks into the night, headed for the karaoke bars.
She would probably be an entirely different person now were it not for a single wicked event she suffered 40 years ago.
Her mother was a nurse, and her daddy worked in the refineries. Sandra speaks of no great trauma in her life until she was about 14 years old. By then, she had become a great fan of Elvis Presley's and had been dancing alone in her room for three years. When the ninth grade dance was announced, Sandra resolved that it was time to go public. She wrapped herself up and went alone, a present to the world. And the girls didn't talk with her, and the boys didn't dance with her. She stood there for four hours in fear, paralysis, agony.