BY: GLENDA BURGESS
Two little girls, holding hands and singing in the back seat of a car. There for each other, unafraid. Life for the Stone girls is a life lived on the edge. Singing for a living, Marley and Andi find their way through a childhood of upheaval marked by their mother Donna’s dark, unpredictable flights. Today, Marley writes the songs her twin, country diva Andi Stone, makes famous, and the girls’ connection struggles to survive the cuts and devastations of fame. “You girls,” laments their manager. “One of you marries indiscriminately, the other not at all.” When without warning Donna Stone takes her own life, alone at the family cabin, danger stalks Marley back to Lost Prince Lake, back into the loves and betrayals of the past. Hidden truths threaten to take the Stone sisters down, singly and together. A powerful, intimate portrait of love, ambition, and survival, So Long As We’re Together takes the reader into the lives of three women who give song to broken hearts, and for whom music is the language of family.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In So Long As We’re Together by Glenda Burgess, Marley Stone is a song writer, writing songs that her twin sister, Andi, makes famous. But when their mother commits suicide suddenly, the twins find their world turned upside down. Marley returns to the family cabin where their mother died, and where she must face a danger from her past.
A poignant and moving tale of family and betrayal, this is a story that will break your heart and warm it at the same time. A really great read.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: So Long As We’re Together by Glenda Burgess is the story of twin girls, Andi and Marley Stone, with a most unusual mother. Donna Stone raises her twin girls as a single mother, teaching them to sing and to see life as an adventure. She uproots them often as children, fleeing to a new place for seemingly no reason. When the girls are grown, Andi and Marley become music celebrities, with Andi singing the songs that Marley writes. Then Donna dies suddenly, a presumed suicide, and Andi and Marley blame themselves. Marley heads home to the family cabin at Lost Prince Lake to put Donna’s affairs in order, but what she finds there is a lot more that she bargained for…
With a heart-breakingly sweet story about family and the special bond between twins, So Long As We’re Together combines superb character development with a ring of truth that makes it one you really won’t want to miss.
“Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven,”
The past asks only to be remembered.
How difficult it is to remember. To let one’s self fall back, disarmed, vulnerable. When I place my fingertips on the cool resin piano keys and let them rest there, becoming not my hands but a vast waiting universe of notes and chords and arpeggios that speak to me as sentences, let them rest there, still silent, no sound, no strike against the strings made, only then do I stand in the doorway of things past.
The language of keys. Notes that form themselves on the black and white keyboard. Here is where memory lies. A melody loose, unexpectedly free. Shaped not by image or event but a deconstructed splinter of feeling. I become the conductor of histories, dramas at my command. I hesitate at the precipice, overwhelmed by the colors of known things.
It has taken most of my life to open to music. To play the sentiments as my fingers give them up. Generous, layered, dark tones. And light-filled notes so bright my heart hurts. I never know which they will be, the dark or the light. This corridor of the past commands surrender. Trust. What happens between my hands and the keys feels raw. Honest. Composed entirely of me and nothing of me. The tempo is time. Time paints the keyboard.
The past asks only to be remembered. It does not ask to be understood. My work, the reason for this dark and light, is to arrive at story. A song tells a story and I am a songwriter.
My fingertips register the smoothness of the keys and test the strike, sense the immediacy of sound. I breathe deep and play one clear note: the plain, openhearted middle C. Middle C, modest pitch note of the major keys, untainted by the complexities of sharps or flats. A beginning note. No accidentals. No accumulations of story fragments cling to middle C. Not yet. Middle C might be my narrative–a beginning I’ve endeavored my whole life to coax forward to its given high note. Not my sister’s narrative, or my mother’s, but mine. Middle C, the invisible note I find myself to be.
Family. History. Memory. Yes, there is a beginning. There was an end. And the middle resonates still–that unreasonable reasonable middle, pivot point between lower and upper registers, past and future chord, root and arpeggio, center of my keyboard and somehow my life. My impasse. The past deep in the bass clef, tomorrow in the treble.
My hands hover above the keys. I will tell you my story.
I woke to the grind of a bus shifting gears away from the curb somewhere beyond where I lay half-covered in a tangled sheet. I ran my tongue against the coating on the backside of my front teeth. Good God, I’d kill for a toothbrush.
Disoriented, I looked around. A runny yellow spill of sunlight fell between the curtains drawn across the window above my head, striping my body in darks and brights. One side of the curtain rod appeared broken, held in place with a twist of wire hanger. The hem of the curtain, knotted up off the floor, had a wide stain that might either be from a tipped bong, or possibly pancake syrup. The memory of the night came rushing back and I cursed silently.
My contacts were shellacked to my eyeballs and they hurt like a mother. I pried one eyelid up gently with my thumb and index finger, then the other. Sticking a finger into the water glass on the bedside stand, I dropped one bead of water into each eye. The liquid stung but the lenses released their dehydrated suction, allowing me to crimp each lens by its edge and lift the thin film. I rolled it between my thumb and index finger and flicked it to the floor.
Damn. At a hundred bucks a box, I couldn’t go around wasting contacts on yet another Saturday night cowboy.
Cowboy. Aw, God no.
I turned slowly to not disturb the man lying beside me. Face turned to the wall, soft drunken snores rolled in and out beneath the crook of his arm. Every naked inch of him splayed splendidly in the morning light. The body was good. On the floor, a cap embroidered with a bold purple university logo. Cowboy? Definitely not. College maybe. Baseball player. I wracked my brain for a memory of the guy’s face, his name. Something more than whiskey shots and a hot band and somewhere in there, a hand up my shirt and not saying no.
I slid out sideways from under the sheet, my bottom hitting the cold floor with a thud. Holding my breath, I rolled onto all fours and crawled across the room, collecting my jeans, bra, and shirt along the way. My boots stood at the door. Shivering in the unheated room, I riffled through khakis tossed over a backpack. Gently I extracted a wallet, taking a ten for the bus and a Starbucks. I slid the baseball player’s wallet back where I’d found it and folded the pants. I’d have rather stuffed a couple of hundreds in. And would have, if I hadn’t left my money and ID with the night bartender for safekeeping.
Billy was decent that way. He kept your wallet behind the counter when the tequila ran strong. Not the first time I’d dressed in a hallway or ridden the bus home at some ungodly hour with the all-night drunks and nurses coming off shift.
I twisted the doorknob silently and slipped out of the bedroom, clothes and boots under one arm. I winced in the glare bounced from the fluorescent overheads off the well-waxed dormitory floor. A door creaked on its hinges a few rooms down and a tousled blonde tiptoed out, adjusting her sweatshirt down over her hips and gathering her hair up into a ponytail with a rubber band slipped from her wrist. She stopped, and stared. The mascara smudges under her lashes mirrored my own. She sized me up, a naked, disheveled woman tugging on jeans.
I buttoned my shirt and felt for my phone, still safely tucked in the back pocket of my pants. I pulled on my boots, and ran a hand through my hair, wishing for a hair tie. If only I were half as prepared as this coed.
I picked my jacket off the floor outside the door and flashed a friendly smile as I passed by the blonde. Girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do, I said.
Girl? Who are you calling a girl? she said. You’re as old as my mother.
I stood at the campus bus stop in the pearl predawn gray, my free hand tucked under my armpit for warmth. My sister’s face wavered across the small screen of my phone.
She killed herself because we left, Marley.
Don’t be ridiculous, Andi. My tone was sharp.
I examined my sister closely, alarmed. Her familiar Ruby Slipper red hair hung loose, barely combed for a woman who considered “combed” hot rollers followed by a generous tease and a concrete setting of spray. Her water-stone eyes, a deep lake green. That generous mouth–usually quick with a wide smile, something halfway between a horse laugh and the polished flash of a pageant queen–drawn tight in restrained emotion. Her image broke apart, and I waited impatiently for the connection to synch back up.
We’re living the dream, remember? I said, softening. Her dream. Our dream. Donna knew what that meant, Andi. She’s the reason for the road. We both know that.
You’re wrong, Marley. It’s our fault. I know it. Andi’s voice crumbled, and she turned away from me.
Andi, Andi… Helpless, I touched my fingers to the image of her cheek. Willing myself through the cool, hard surface of the glass screen.
When we were small and one of us woke from a bad dream, the other would find her sister’s hand. Fold it in against her chest. Against a steady heart. Holding tight, no words, until once more sleep came. That last summer, the hard, final year of high school when I woke often in the night, unable to breathe, crushed and feverish and afraid, Andi, knowing only I was in trouble, in battle against some darkness that chased through my dreams, would slip from her twin bed across from mine and lay down beside me on the cool floor in her cotton nightgown. Her arm a pale branch in the dim moonlight rising to mine, twining fingers, until the thrashing stopped, the silence deepened, and sleep came again.
This was our way. Reaching across the stage, a bus, the back seat of a car. Hand upon hand. Some part of ourselves against or around the other, locked, as if we were two seedlings twisted by a common root to make one tree. A single unbroken trunk, a living heart reaching upward.
Even now, separated by a continent of geography.
Andi, I said. Please, don’t.
She turned to me and touched her own hand to mine, covering her screen. I closed my eyes, reaching, reaching.
Well, she said finally, steadying her breath. She faked me that famous smile, turning on the high-beam diva we both knew she could deploy under the worst of circumstances, for any photographer, any fan shouting, Andi Stone! Give us some love, girl! She wiped a slow finger under her lashes, neatening the tear-smeared layers of mascara.
Gotta go, Mar, she said. Schedule meeting at nine. Always a meeting. Her voice crisp, wry.
We smiled. It was a big job, being the queen of big band country.
Be good to you, I said. I could hear the approach of the downtown bus, my ride. Talk soon.
Talk soon, Andi replied.
She hung up, and I pocketed my phone. So far apart, I thought. Too far apart.
I palmed open the black door to The Corral and poked my head inside, scanning the dim interior for Billy, the bartender. I called out his name.
Back here, answered a voice from behind the bar.
I came for my wallet, I said.
Thought you might, he said. Opened early.
I slipped inside, assaulted instantly by a staled mash of odors. Piss, sweat, leather, and an eye-burning residue from some fancy e-cig–clove oil, maybe. In the main room the chairs had been upturned on the tables. A wheeled mop bucket blocked the back hallway to the washrooms, the red doors to Heifers and Bulls propped open for cleaning.
Billy tossed the rag he was using to wipe down the bar into the stainless-steel sink behind him. Hang on, Marley, he said. It’s in the safe.
I nodded. I sat on a stool, resting my elbows on the mahogany bar. I felt the lack of sleep and an urgent need for a shower, hating the taste of cheap weed in my mouth. Billy returned and handed me my wallet. I pocketed it silently. Billy was part Aleut, his flat cheekbones and coffee-colored skin a contrast to a population of pale Seattleites rarely exposed to the sun. He had an uneven scar over one eyebrow, his dark hair tied back with a twist of leather. Considering the denim shirt and black cords, the mid-sized ear gauges–his of a dark stripey wood–Billy could be any easygoing downtown Seattle guy.
He looked fifty although I knew him to be thirty-five.
He stared straight at me and I looked frankly back. The midnight lives of bartenders and travelling bands. Fellow creatures of the night.
Billy broke the silence. You look like hell, he said. What can I get you?
I craved coffee. But then I recalled little miss raccoon-eyes in the hallway, telling me I looked as old as her mother.
Virgin Mary, I said. Double the tequila.
Billy set the drink down in front of me. He looked about to say something–wavering between sympathetic friendliness and a darker pity–apparently thought better of it and turned his attention back to his shelves of well liquor, consolidating the half-empties. Preparing for the afternoon crowd.
I doused the tequila Mary with sriracha and then stirred it slowly with a straw. I sat there with my cheek in my palm, thinking about baseball, the unsettling call from Andi, and the unread messages that flashed on my phone. I spun my drink. A party for breakfast. What was I doing with my life?
Dude came in here last week looking for you, Billy said, talking over his shoulder. He was methodically restocking his cash drawer with a pack of new bills in low denominations, counting under his breath. Five, ten, twenty, forty, fifty, fifty-five…
Me? I said, surprised.
Pretty sure the picture was you.
Billy had my full attention now and I stopped sucking tequila up the straw long enough to stare at him, puzzled. Say what he want?
Billy placed the twenties in the drawer last, careful to separate the crisp bills between his thumb and index finger. He slipped the bigger denominations under his receipts. Not that I recall, he said. Mentioned your name. Said he knew you from school or something, heard you hung with the bands downtown. He slammed the cash drawer shut. I was too busy to deal, you know? Sorry.
I yawned. Another creeper fan, hunting a signature. Guy must have mixed me up with Andi, I thought. What’d he look like? I asked, off-hand.
Billy turned to face me, folding his arms. I dunno. Didn’t really notice the guy. Like I said, The KillJoys were on stage–couldn’t pull beers fast enough. Fuckin’ blew a keg. He sighed then, taking pity on me. Biker jacket. Tall kinda, he offered at last. Beard, I think. Any of that ring a bell?
I shook my head. You sure it was me in that photo? Not a celeb shot of Andi?
Billy retucked his shirt into the back of his jeans. Naw, not sure of nothin’. But this was old school, unnatural-like. Like a yearbook picture or those outdated passport shots. Teeny, right? Real weird if you ask me. He shrugged a shoulder. Anyway.
I took a long suck on the straw, eyes watering as the tequila Mary bit. I frowned. None of it made sense. Nor honestly, did I truthfully care.
What’d you do, Billy asked. Forget to pay your cable bill?
He topped off my drink.
Must’ve forgot to pay something, I said. I mean, heavy leathers?
America’s Most Wanted, Billed cracked.
From high school.
The eighties want you back, girl.
I turned away with a laugh.
If you asked me, high school photos were crime enough. You got zero cred as any kind of band groupie if you hoped to get something that uncool signed.
I picked up the drink, and headed across the dance floor, shadowy in the dim light. I circled the tables to reach the low stage, stepped up on the platform, and pulled a chair over to the upright piano at the back. The Corral kept a real piano, though most bands preferred their own electronic keyboards. Story was, the owner of The Corral before Billy, a grouse named Captain Mel, brought the piano south to the mainland from Anchorage. Deep scratches scarred the length of the upright. Captain Mel claimed he’d faced down a Grizzly from the backside of that piano. Claimed they were claw marks. I wondered what would tempt a bear to break into a bar.
I drained a third of the not-so-virgin Mary in one gulp and pushed up my shirtsleeves. My brain buzzed with fatigue and booze and the heat of the sriracha. I rested my fingers on the keys and looked down. Always piano keys appear alien to me. Strange pale bones. And above them, the black icicles of night.
My fingers sprawled easily from one end of the octave to the other–a knuckled starfish anchored to the old ivory. Blues hands, Donna had said. Not tiny like hers, so they must have been like my father’s. And ivory it was. Maybe walrus tusk. Each key covered by a thick cap yellowed with age. A piano built perhaps a hundred years earlier. A world before 1972, before the ivory trade was at last outlawed.
I closed my eyes.
The pads of my fingertips felt for the hollows worn into the keys by the players before me. This. The way in. Inviting the music in. Or maybe it was out. I don’t know, really. Shutting down the brain. Opening to something else, a thing deeper.
I’d thought to fiddle with the arrangement I had to finish for Andi and the band–a “beer, my girl, and my truck” kind of tune–but could not begin. I opened my eyes and glanced up. Blue colors floated visible in the light, caught by the dust.
I ran a few scales and chord progressions, letting my hands wander until I settled down in a major key. No sunny-side-up plate of notes this, but the tonal mirror of a long ago beauty gone to seed. I worked the chord triads and ran through the familiar pentatonic of country music–the major scale minus the fourth and seventh notes, making a shift to the minor, muted and layered. Something stark at its core. My hands drifted. My fingertips, imaginary cherry blossoms falling on the black and white keys. Petals blown into the street, crushed underfoot, flattened by passersby. A melody inhabited by the voice of blossoms. The delicate, stenciled perfection.
Abruptly, I stopped. Dug the plastic straw around several times in my drink, mixing tomato juice and tequila into the melted ice.
That new? Something for Andi? Billy asked from across the room.
No, I said. But I felt a quiver inside. This small something was the first original anything I’d composed at the keyboard in months. Andi would hate this, my second thought. Andi Stone, glam country diva, front woman for the Grammy-hit band The Andi Stone Tour, would not be interested in any sad little piano riff. I should know. I am the band’s songwriter. Have been for more than twenty years.
Lyrics and beats, that’s me.
Too bad, Billy said. He jabbed the mop to the floor, scrubbing away barbecue sauce and beer stains. Like it, he said. Made pictures in my head.
I played another thirty minutes or so, laying the bricks of the new theme to memory. Theme and chorus. I could flip this straight to honky-tonk cliché, but what I liked about it, felt for it, was the music’s crushed, almost beauty. A hookup and no last names. The stark pink light of a dormitory hall. Dignity, crushed in the sheets.
Tucking the imagery of street blossoms in my back pocket, I dropped the lid down over the keyboard and walked my empty glass behind the bar. I pulled a fifty out of my wallet and left it by the register for Billy, for thanks and the drink.
See ya around, Billy.
He nodded. Touched his brow with a forefinger.
I remembered my manners and pulled another bill out. I folded it and stuck it under an empty shot glass. You know that baseball player? I asked. The one I was with last night? He a regular?
Billy rolled the mop bucket back toward the storage closet. Yeah, he said over his shoulder. Kid comes in every Friday after a game. Real slugger.
He returned and leaned against the bar, eyeing me. Take it he lived up to the reputation?
A lady doesn’t tell, I said lightly. I hooked a thumb toward the folded twenty. See he gets that? I owe him.
Sure, Billy said. He stared at the wet gray street through the blinds. Still fuckin’ raining, he said.
I followed his gaze. On the street, a dented white pickup idled at the curb. A girl in a green sweater climbed out and leaned in to say something to the driver before closing the door. The pickup jammed gears and drove off, picking up speed, leaving the girl standing unprotected in the elements. Rain hit her face, drenching her hair, but she didn’t seem to care. Something about her fixed expression stirred an old feeling in me. I knew that look. This was a girl saying goodbye. Making up a story to explain an ending.
That look was about wanting reasons for endings when endings never seemed to have one.
I zipped up my jacket. A relic of my own college days. Years of northwest damp had faded the leather to the texture and color of barn siding.
I should go, I said, thinking of Nathan.
Nathan, whom I’d stood up yet again. Left to go it alone at a Seahawks recruits party, all to sample a little spring training of my own. Nathan, my boyfriend of six years. Nathan the Good, Andi sometimes mocked. Only he was good. Too decent for me, that was for sure.
Rain’s okay, Billy. I kind of like it, I said. I twisted my hair up, securing the knot with a swizzle stick from the bar. I slid a glance his direction. You know, I’m too damn old to be explaining myself anymore.
He grunted, his expression a shell of some memory he’d evidently crawled deep inside. If it’s all the same to you, he said, let the dude end it.
How did he know I’d meant Nathan? Why? I asked, curious.
He spit neatly in the sink. Give the dude his pride.
I rode the bus from Pine Street through wet streets toward the Queen Anne neighborhood I lived in. Early Saturday. Everywhere a busy world sliding into motion.
I thought about Billy’s remark. Whatever else he might be, Nathan was no softie. A sports talent agent, the Nathan Pepperell I knew was all about the win. But decent in his way, I’d give him that. He’d been good to me and for me–we’d racked up some years. Grown comfortable with the grind of our edges. But if I couldn’t show up, and I never did–I consistently failed to hold up my end at Nathan’s work events–there was no win in Team Marley-Nathan. Nathan would end things soon enough if I did not.
A young bearded dad, a Baby Bjorn snugged to his chest under his flapping rain jacket, climbed onto the bus, his dark-haired wife coming up the steps behind him holding the hand of their young daughter. The mother waited as the little girl approached the driver and carefully swiped their bus pass, her expression watchful and amused. Billy was right, I thought observing the dad pat the lump in the Bjorn protectively.
Nathan had cut me a great deal of slack. I’d give him that. Let him break it off.
I slipped on sunglasses, protection from the glare of too much world, and stood up for my stop, humming the crushed blossom theme.
© 2019 by Glenda Burgess
“Music scores the lives of two sisters together from girlhood to adulthood in Burgess’s sublime novel So Long As We’re Together. About ambition and the price of fame and the ties that bind (and sometimes strangle us), it’s also a fierce, frank portrayal of the ways we love one another—how we succeed and sometimes, how we fail. Piercingly honest and gorgeously written, and as indelible as a song you love.” — Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow
“In Burgess’s hand, the women of the Stone family are rendered as bright, as fractured, and as real as any characters I have ever read–and all with clean, direct prose that evokes the work of Jess Walter, Anthony Doerr, and Rebecca Makkai. This is a propulsive, moving book.” — Christian Kiefer, author of Phantoms
Peternelle van Arsdale:
“Glenda Burgess has written a deeply felt novel about families, particularly those made up of strong women. She beautifully explores both the sticky nature of sisterly love–the kind of love that persists even (or perhaps especially) when we’re not even sure we like each other–and the mystery of maternal love, which is almost too big, even when imperfect, to comprehend. Her sentences ring with the music her characters make.” — Peternelle van Arsdale, author of The Cold is in Her Bones
“So Long As We’re Together broke my heart and stitched it back together with endlessly sweet music. Tender, tough, and dazzling as an early snow. I loved this book.” — Laura Benedict, author of The Stranger Inside