The Secret Song

“Star Witness” by Joe Meno: Episode Three

The Secret Song

New episodes of “Star Witness” are published every Friday. Read the next episode and find out more about “Star Witness” here. Become a member for exclusive access to the audio editions of each episode.

Shelley Enters the Woods

1.Shelley reached up to touch one of the wood-and-yarn structures and tried to decipher what all the shapes hanging in the trees were supposed to mean. But after several seconds on tiptoe, inspecting how they were all arranged, she found she was unable to understand their message.

The deputy swept his flashlight back and forth near the base of the tree, finding footprints leading off into the forest. The small depressions followed several winding paths through the woods and back to the road where they discovered the deputy’s squad car parked.

“Nothing,” Shelley announced bleakly, leaning up against the patrol car. The deputy took off his hat and did the same, leaning beside her, dropping the beam of the flashlight to the ground.

“Now what?” she asked.

The girl saw a silver flash near the deputy’s polished black brogans. She reached down and lifted up an enormous set of keys. “Are these yours?”

The deputy grinned, taking them in his hands. “You saved me. I can’t tell you how I appreciate it, Shelley.”

Star Witness: A Story in Seven Parts (Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading Book 274)

He reattached the ring to his belt and shook her hand with both of his own. “I can’t tell you what it means to me. Saves me from getting my hide chewed out by the sheriff. I gotta go check in.” He checked his watch. “Almost 8:30. You best be heading home yourself. I’m sure your grandmother’s getting worried about you.”

“I will. Don’t forget about your cheek.”

He held his fingers to the side of his face absentmindedly. “I won’t. You just make sure you get home all right.”

“Goodnight.”

“Goodnight,” the deputy said and climbed into the patrol car. Shelley watched him drive off, the car’s red lights and white shape dissolving into the darkness. She picked up her bicycle from where she had left it and rode away.

Just after Shelley passed over the blue bridge that turns away from town out along Farm Road, she heard a whistle, and not just any whistle. It was the secret song, the whistle she and Jamie had made up two summers before — two short notes, one long — coming from the empty parking lot beside the vacant gas station and the Bide-A-While, the only place in town Shelley was afraid of.

Braking before the moveable electric sign of the Bide-A-While, Shelley stared at the one-story building and its near-empty parking lot and felt a deepening sense of dread.

Above, up in the night air, the movable electric sign announced: Tuesday Night: Lingerie Contest. Friday Night: Dollar Beers or Two Dollar Shots.

The former gentlemen’s club turned mixed-company roadhouse was the only place in town Shelley had sworn never to set foot inside. It was the last place anybody had ever seen her mother that night, nearly 13 years before, and the source of all her anger and frustration about the world.

But tonight was different. Or so she’d begun to think. Someone she knew and loved was gone and missing.

Once again, Shelley heard the secret code — one short whistle, two long — and climbed off her bicycle. She set it down at the edge of the parking lot and stepped into the shadows between the Bide-A-While and the abandoned gas station, seeing how the building’s broken windows had all been smeared with lewd graffiti. Before she was overtaken by darkness, she called out “Jamie?” a little too hopefully.

Once more she heard the whistle.

She stepped forward and whispered, “Jamie?” again.

This time there was no reply.

The music from the Bide-A-While reverberated along the slanted walls. The jukebox, which hadn’t been updated since the mid-1980s, played a song she remembered but couldn’t recognize. Shelley saw the shape of someone crouching there in the dark, and heard them singing along off-key.

Irene, goodnight
Irene, goodnight,
Goodnight, Irene, goodnight, Irene, I’ll see you in my dreams

Before she could back away and hurry again into the light, the shape lifted its head. It was a man. Singing full-throated, the man appeared to be inebriated, his eyes bloodshot and his face unshaven, with unidentifiable black stains on his factory garb. He was sitting along the side of the white brick wall of the Bide-A-While, grinning wildly to himself.

At once, Shelley identified him as Bob White, a layabout and malingerer, a scoundrel sometimes in the employ of the nearby plastics factory, who had a prosthetic right hand. In his left, he held a half-empty pint of sour mash.

Whenever Bob came into the diner, he would sit at the counter and leer—the cold, plastic hand sitting open-palmed upon the linoleum as if dead.

2.Shelley began to quietly back away as the man slowly turned his head and fixed his gaze upon her.

“Girl. Girl. Who you whispering to?”

“Nobody,” she murmured, trying to get back into the light from the adjacent parking lot.

“I thought you might be trying to whisper to me. You sure you weren’t whispering to me?”

But Shelley was too afraid to speak.

“You want me to sing you a song? Something from the jukebox maybe? Maybe C-29? ‘Moonlight for Lovers’ by the Ray Squires Band?”

“No, please. I was just…”

But Bob was quicker than he looked. Before she could move away, he was up on his feet and had an arm out, was beside her, blocking her path with the cold, plastic hand.

“How about I sing you a little tune? Maybe you’d like old R-33 by the venerable Cole Sisters?” He coughed a little, looking defeated. “They won’t let me in the bar anymore without cash in hand. So I sit out here and sing for drinks. People can be awful generous if they want to be. The name’s Bob White, by the way. I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced, now have we?”

“I’m pleased, pleased to meet you, Mr. White. I see you in church every few weeks. You sit in the far back row. I’m Shelley George. I sing in the choir.”

“Well, I knew I recognized you from somewhere. I did. Glad to make your formal acquaintance, from one child of God to another.”

The man extended his lifeless right hand to shake. Shelley recoiled a little. The man looked down and scowled. “Oh, don’t mind that now. The right hand got taken off when I was 17 years old, over at the Precious Eternity plant, you know, the collectable plate factory, just before it shut down. Fooling around when I shoulda been watching what I was doing. A whole palette of Tin Man and Scarecrow plates from the Wizard of Oz fell right on it. Bam. Just like that. Lopped off. I went from being right-handed to left-handed in a blink of an eye.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Well, of course, I don’t mean to bother you any, I understand you probably get bothered by men all the time, looking how you do, but I guess I have a question I’d like to ask you.”

Audio: “Star Witness” | A Story in Seven Parts

Shelley could see the nearly empty parking lot, could see the few vehicles sitting there, could still hear the signs of life from inside the bar. But if she yelled now, if she screamed, would anybody hear her?

“Do you mind if I ask you a question? I’m standing here trying to build up the courage.”

“Okay.”

“Would you mind telling me if you thought I was ugly-looking?”

“Pardon me?”

“Ugly, you know, do you think I’m ugly to look at?”

Shelley was disarmed by Bob White’s question; there was something about his weakness, his vulnerability that intrigued her. She looked up at his face, and quickly turned away.

“No. I think you have a good face. It’s…it’s sturdy.”

“But that’s my problem. Where I work, all anybody sees is the missing hand. We got to wear masks and uniforms all the time. So all anybody ever sees is this.”

The man held up the plastic appendage again. She did her best not to wince this time, forcing herself to stare.

“I work the line at Happy-Time now. The toy factory, over in Dwyer. You know, ‘Playtime is Happy-Time.’ We make doll parts and toy ponies. Sometimes I’m on the line that does Pretty Polly, the baby doll. Other times, it’s for the toy ponies, Wonder-Ponies.”

“Oh. I see.”

“They’re mostly the kind sold at dollar stores and drugstores, that kind of thing. They’re usually all in one aisle, you know, in some corner, like in a supermarket. They’re the kind no kid wants. You get it for them to keep them from crying.”

“I know the kind you mean.”

“That place, that factory is so loud, you can’t hear anything. There’s a mold, a press, you know, that makes all the ponies and dolls, one after the other, sometimes they get stuck, like Siamese. Or sometimes they come out funny, missing their heads. We put all those in a box and send them back to the front of the line and they melt them and put back them back in the mold. It makes me feel awful. Handing them that box at the end of the day. Turning in all them ugly, deformed animals and children.”

Shelley itched her nose, listening.

“Now I forgot what I was talking about.”

“How at the factory, nobody sees your face.”

“It’s the honest-to-God truth. We’ve got masks on, for the fumes. And uniforms and hats. So the only way to tell anyone apart is by their hands. And there’s this lady there, Silvia. She’s from Mexico. She came up to work at the factory with her brother and two sisters. She’s stationed at the end of my line. And they switch us every few hours, you know, to keep us from going mad. So once a day, she comes from the end of the line to the front where I’m working, and I have to hand her this little controller, what’s it called? It’s a controller with a button on it. You hit the button if the press gets jammed or there’s an emergency or fire. It’s called something, but I forget right now. But I have to hand her the little button with my left hand, so she doesn’t know I don’t have the right. It’s horrible is what it is.”

“That’s terrible.”

“It is terrible. Because I can’t get up the nerve to say anything to her.”

“Well, have you…have you ever tried talking to her?”

“Who me? What, are you crazy? No, I couldn’t. She wears red nail polish. When I hand her the controller, all I see is red nails. What can I say to someone like that?”

Shelley smiled.

“You might just introduce yourself. Just like we’re talking now.”

“Just like we’re talking now, huh?”

The man grinned and rubbed his chin and stared at Shelley’s face. He seemed to recognize something in it. “Go on and tell me your last name again,” he said. The girl looked down, and even in the dark, could feel her face go red.

She looked up finally and said, “It’s George. Shelley George.”

The man’s grin faded. “George, huh? George. I used to know your mom. I used to know your mother. She was a pistol. She was a wild one with her red hair. Loretta, that was her name?”

Shelley lowered her head. “Yes.”

“But she went by Lottie, wasn’t it? She was all brass. She had you when she was young, huh? She used to come up here on weeknights. Not a lot of ladies do that. Come up here on weeknights by themselves.”

“She was young. Not even 20,” Shelley said. “She didn’t like to be alone, at home, I guess.”

“That’s too bad. Well, I remember she had a pair of lungs. She used to sing along with the jukebox. People would clap when she was done.” The man grimaced, looking away. “Like they were at a real show, like she was an actual singer. Would you like to hear a secret?”

She looked up briefly. “Okay.”

“One time, your mother and me, we was drunk. She was drunker than me, if you can believe that, so I gave her a ride home. People don’t think you can drive if you’re missing a hand, but you can. I got this knob attached to the steering wheel. Well, she was having a hard time remembering where she lived. And when we pulled up in front of her place, she said she didn’t want to go in. I remember I tried to make a pass at her — she was one of the few women back then who would even bother to talk to me — and she just laughed and put a finger to the side of my mouth, right here, and she said I ought to keep that spot for her. That even though we never even kissed, I ought to keep it to commemorate the occasion. And I ain’t never been kissed on that spot. Not even when I did have the chance. And then she just leaned in close and sang me a song.”

The man began to sing a line from “Blue” by Patsy Cline, but Shelley only heard her mother’s voice from some far-off and pitiable memory.

When he was done singing, she thanked him for the story and said she should be going.

But the man did not lower his arm. “Where you running off to now?”

“Nowhere. I…I just need to be going.”

The man stared at her hard. “You’re looking for that girl, aren’t you?”

“No, I’m not.”

“I heard you say her name. You were whispering it all down this alley.”

Shelley felt embarrassed and afraid.

“I seen that girl. I seen her in the junkyard, this afternoon, playing by a pile of old beds. Nobody thought to ask me, but I did.”

“You saw her?”

“The one. From the parade a year or so ago.”

Shelley murmured, “She was Miss Somerset last year at the Founder’s Day parade.”

“I seen her today. I think it was today. I was coming home from my shift and stopped on my way home at the Well to have a drink. When I was done, I seen that girl playing out by the dump. She had made a little fort, with some mattresses piled up. I watched her for a while, but I think I scared her off. She ran off into the woods and just disappeared.”

“It was this afternoon?”

“Leastways I think it was. Or could have been yesterday, now that I think of it.”

“The dump,” she said. “Thank you very much, Mr. White. May I please go now?”

The man nodded regretfully and finally lowered his arm.

Shelley picked up her bicycle from where she had left it sitting in the parking lot and climbed on. The man followed, still standing in the shadows by the side of the building. “Of course, there’s just one more thing. Would you mind me asking you a favor? Something small is all it is.”

“I should be going, Mr. White.”

“No, I can’t even ask it.”

“No, please, go on.”

“Would you mind touching my hand, just once, just for good luck?”

Her face went pale. “But, Mr. White…”

“Please. You wouldn’t know what it would mean to me.”

She carefully reached out and touched the man’s hand. The world, the alley was very quiet: as if only for a second all the noise from the building and the road had gone silent. The man’s brow furrowed with sincere gratitude, his face briefly divided by the lights from the parking lot nearby. “Thank you. Thank you very much. You wouldn’t know what it means.”

“I’m going to go now, Mr. White.”

The man looked at his hand as if it has been somehow transformed. “You get going now. Before something terrible happens,” he said.

“Thank you, Mr. White. I will.”

“Remember now: Stay in the light!”

“I will,” the girl shouted, pedaling off.

“Stay in the light!”

It wasn’t until she’d pedaled safely away that she realized her shoulders were shaking and her hands were having a hard time staying on the handlebars. The woods seemed once again to grow around her.

A noise, a call came from somewhere up ahead, something unnatural, the thrashing of feathers and wings.

Before she knew it, she was surrounded by a bleak cloud of birds. Everything in the road ahead seemed to be obscured by their beaks and black eyes. Shelley paused. Their gnashing seemed to signal a silent though serious entreaty. Go back, the birds seemed to say, their wings flapping in frantic semaphore.

Continue reading Episode 4: “A Very Odd Occurrence of Birds,” 

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