Sunday night is showtime in Pasadena, the evening when the big club Bayou City Nights opens its doors to the underage. Teenagers pour inside until the place ripples with cowboy hats, until the floor is blotted out and there's nowhere to go but the karaoke room.
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.
She knew something was wrong, and she was pretty sure it was physical. Home at last, Sandra examined herself in the mirror. There was nothing special about brown hair. She had always been proud of her legs, but her nose was "just too big and long." It was too wide, it was too crooked, and why did she have to have Daddy's nose, instead of Elizabeth Taylor's? It wasn't fair, but the worst part was she had his breasts, too. "I thought God forgot I was a girl when he got to that part," Sandra says.
For a long time after the dance, she took no more risks. Junior high flowed into high school, and high school became another event that Sandra watched. She tried out for one activity -- the a cappella choir -- and was rejected. Otherwise, in class Sandra sat quietly admiring boys and studying the girls they chose. Mother recalls that Sandra was very reliable then. Mike Sprouse, who sat beside her in homeroom, remembers that "she wouldn't have said 'shit' if she had a mouth full of it."
Sandra went away to Sam Houston State. Out of the presence of everyone who had witnessed her humiliations, she began, ever so slightly, to recover herself. She took a boyfriend; he took her to his fraternity dances. She was elated until she realized he was more interested in drinking than in dancing. Sandra had no use for him. She said good-bye.
After that, music and men were the dueling interests in her life. At Sam Houston, Sandra was a lazy student, but she managed to earn a master's in education. Teaching seemed to her the most agreeable profession for a lady. She went into it for the money and had six wonderfully single months in Houston, dancing with her roommates, until a man spoiled the party.
He was an acquaintance from high school who she had always suspected was kind of mean. He asked nicely if she would go out with him, and she agreed. Then he got mean. Sandra kept going out with him but finally told him she wouldn't marry him. When he didn't fly into a rage, Sandra thought maybe he was nice after all. So in 1968 they got married, and he was mean.
There's an eight-year span of silence in Sandra's knowledge of pop music, covering the length of their marriage. Her husband, the pipe fitter, had no use for music. Sandra had two sons by him and went about the rituals of raising them until 1976, when her husband pushed her down for the last time, and she said she was sorry, but he really had to go.
Then the music came on again, blasting out of the giant honky-tonk on Spencer Highway. Gilley's was an oasis of music and men. Every Friday and Saturday night, Sandra began leaving her sons with Mother and going to Gilley's. She liked to dance and to ride the mechanical bull, and Sandra fell in love at Gilley's many times, and often more than once an evening.
The hardest she ever fell was to a man who enjoyed hitting the punching bag. He was also a fine two-stepper, but away from the dance floor, Sandra discovered that he was cold. One morning in 1980, she was weeping about it when she heard him propose marriage. It was such a sweet thing for him to do; maybe after all he was a warm, gentle man. Sandra said yes, and he became cold again. They argued all the way to Las Vegas. They were married four months before Sandra told him to leave.
After that, she gave up drinking when she went to bars. She wanted, among other things, a clear view of the men coming her way. Sandra developed a list of standards. She was seeking a man who didn't drink, smoke, dip or chew. He should be a good kisser, and he should never have been divorced. "She's looking for someone who's real boring, obviously," says her friend Miranda Funk. And Sandra has never found him in a bar.
She began living on her own terms. As her boys grew up, they occasionally took to kicking holes in the walls and cussing her. Without a husband to discipline them, Sandra made use of the police. Her son Joe says he developed great respect for his mother during the night he spent in jail.
In 1983 Sandra bought her first pickup. Pickups were nice in case she ever wanted to carry something somewhere. Four-wheel drive was important in case she ever traveled into the mud. Also, Sandra enjoyed sitting taller than everyone else on the road.
During the day she drove her truck to school, and at night she often parked it among other trucks grazing outside the big clubs. That was the key advantage of teaching remedial classes in the Pasadena school district -- there were fewer students, which meant fewer papers to grade at night. Sandra went dancing with a vengeance. She did all the dancing she had never done in high school. The men asked her, and she accepted. And as she whirled around the floor, she could feel that people were looking at her, and she felt special.
She found at school that books written for teenagers were easy to understand, "and you could learn more." One of the books she read was about a girl named Elizabeth who began life in a dungeon and went on to become Queen of England. Sandra liked come-from-behind stories like that. Queen Elizabeth, for her strength and courage, became one of Sandra's heroes, along with Morgan Fairchild, who had beautiful hair.
Sandra lived, she learned, she got plastic surgery. She became "one of those happy campers who has a nose job." Her first breast implant was done by an old guy who just gave her "the minimum." Then she found a younger surgeon who said they could definitely go larger, and she "was like, 'Okay.' "
It was strange how each high school reunion was more fun than the last. She was nervous during the tenth, but by the 30th, experience and surgeries had bolstered her confidence. She strode in with blond hair. Mike Sprouse did a double take. He was amazed at how Sandra had "blossomed."
Sandra found that all the old class starlets were willing to talk to her now. She even approached a few middle-aged men and confessed that she used to have crushes on them. But not anymore, they should understand. She liked younger men now.
Her sons grew up to become devoted mama's boys. When Sandra began seeing a 21-year-old, Joe said, "Mom! Can't you at least keep them older than Jeff and me?" And Sandra said that might be hard to do, because they were getting up in years.
At first, Sandra seems to have been unaware that she was getting older, too. One morning she woke up and touched herself and said, "Oh my God! There's no oil on my face!" After that, like Queen Elizabeth, Sandra began wearing more makeup, and for a while that did the trick. And then the lines grew deeper and more difficult to conceal, and not long after she noticed that guys her age just looked like old guys to her, Sandra realized that she was having to wait longer and longer before being asked to dance.
It began to feel like junior high again. Sandra went into a deep depression, and about then she discovered karaoke.
She had quit her teaching job (they made her teach literature; "I'm not a literature person," she explained), and she was working as a waitress at Texas Saloon. One night in 1995, Sandra got up and sang Mary Chapin Carpenter's "I Feel Lucky." She basked in the lights. "You feel special when people are looking at you," Sandra says. When she was done, everyone applauded, and someone even asked why she wasn't a professional singer.
Sandra's mood improved. She had fallen deeply into debt, but rather than go on worrying about those complicated bankruptcy forms, she got an unlisted phone number instead. She was bothered that she had never made money doing anything she wanted to do and thought maybe it was time to do something about that. Sandra bought a karaoke machine and began practicing. She sold her house and moved in with Mother so she could avail herself of whatever opportunities came her way. She quickly became one of those people who really wants to entertain you: the volunteer nightclub singer.
There is an entire corps of them patrolling Pasadena. They are distinguished by their stone-cold sobriety, the way they walk to the microphone without staggering and sing without slurring. Some of them stand away from the video monitor, just to prove they know the lyrics. Some of them sing with a finger to their ear as though listening on headsets, just like real recording artists.
They are people like Larry with the pocket protector and "a little bit of Billy Joel for you"; like Steve, singing Elvis and winking at the ladies; like Diane, singing "People helping people" until at the high notes people cover their ears.
And like Sandra, who prefers the songs that strong women sing. She stands before the monitor unmoving, clutching the microphone with both hands, singing Bonnie Raitt, Melissa Etheridge, Patty Loveless. I've got a jea-lous bo-onnne.... Her voice is powerful. She sounds best when she's loud. Sometimes when people are talking, Sandra sings her loudest, "to make them hear me, whether they want to or not."
She goes where the karaoke is, into the small bars she avoided when she was younger -- "places like my daddy used to go." Some are little more than a shack in a mud puddle. Inside, the clientele, says Sandra, is typically a collection of "local alcoholics -- I mean, some of them look okay, but some of them are toothless."
Her friend Mike Sprouse wonders why Sandra spends so much time in these bars if the man she seeks is a young teetotaler. He proposes a good Baptist singles group, but Sandra replies that it's boring to go where no one dances or sings. She likes men "a lot," but if forced to a choice, she'll always choose music.
She backs against the wall when the fights break out. She tells the men, when they approach, that "God didn't mean for us to be together." And Sandra is grateful to be what she always wanted to be: a performer. If she can live to 80 or 90 and afford more plastic surgery, she thinks she has the ability to become famous.
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After Bayou City, beyond midnight, the last stop of the evening is a place called Michael J's. Sandra tiptoes across the gravel parking lot. Inside, the bar is lighted by beer signs and populated by one old boy playing the songs of yesteryear, two old girls singing them and one tattered old drunk leaning on the bar, listening.
Sandra gives the emcee the number of her song and scurries off to check her makeup. The music fades. The drunk babbles, "Why's it so damn quiet in here?"
"That's what happens," the emcee blares, "when your singer's in the bathroom."
To that introduction, Sandra emerges and steps before the crowd. The song she sings is the only one whose words matter to her: Patty Loveless's "You Don't Even Know Who I Am." She is more than she appears, more than anyone has ever known. Her voice grows raspy. The drunk grows calm. By the time Sandra puts down the microphone, tears are streaming down her cheek, and the drunk has laid his head upon the bar.