“God, they’re terrible!” Maxwell grunts, wiping sweat from his forehead. He looks disgusted, tired, as if he’d been adrift in the South Pacific for a month and is contemplating eating his toes. “They make me want to f****** kill myself. I mean really!”
“They’re not that bad,” I say, hoping to calm him. But with the hapless West Greenville Choir bleating out the chorus to Wouldn’t It Be Lovely, every syllable like the individual serrations on a very long steak knife, I might as well be swimming against a rip tide. “Pen’s part is coming up; it’ll be good.”
With a sour face, Maxwell crosses his massive arms over his distended belly, resting them there as if it were a desktop. “How much longer ’til it’s over.”
I tell him.
“Too long.” He spits a white and green loogie on the seats below us, “It’s like they’re killing a cat. I mean, really strangling the little f***** with both hands!”
I cringe at the thought, closing my eyes and shaking my head. Usually, Maxwell’s a gentle sort of impatient, like fine grain sandpaper, but today his insults have been brutal, enough so to cause me several dizzy spells.
I recommend that we move, telling him that the gym’s top bleachers aren’t the best place to watch anything-a basketball game, a pep rally, choir practice-that hot air rises and we could get a better view from down below where it’s cooler. He ignores me, not wanting to mix with the band kids, having recently got into it with one of the clarinet players, a sophomore named Wally Vinson.
“There she goes.” I point as Pen and two other altos, the twins Jamie and Harriet Dell, move to three microphones placed a few feet in front of the rest of the choir. A fourth, standing center court, is taken by a soprano, Emma Pond. Coach Garza (West Greeneville’s choir director) continues waving her hands in no discernable pattern. “Listen, it’ll be good.”
Despite the train wreck behind them (the Greenville Trumpet once described our choir as an ‘enemy of sound and art’) the altos’ voices rise, clear and distinct, harmonized, like bright red kites pulled up evenly by the same gentle wind. Emma’s soon joins them, but with a higher, more radiant tone. It taunts, tickles, invigorates, caresses. I can feel it in my fingertips. If the alto’s voices are kites, Emma’s is a rainbow.
…Lots of chocolate for me to eat
Lots of coal makin’ lots of heat
Warm face, warm hands, warm feet
Oh, wouldn’t it be loverly?
Oh, so lovely sittin’
I would never budge till spring
Crept over me window sill…
Maxwell’s eyes soften, his frown inverting, almost forming a grin. What is it they say about music and the savage beast?
“Well?” I ask.
“They’re alright.” Maxwell mutters, wiping more sweat away with his sleeve, “It’s good to see Pen doing something useful.”
I’m sure Principle Gamble would agree. After the whole bobcat/penis incident, and the subsequent weeks of morning detention, he’d given Pen a choice-join the choir or spend the semester as a ‘West Greenville Litter Bug.’ That is, picking up trash after football games and track meets. It was an easy decision.
The song ends with an impossibly high, incredibly long note by Emma. It’s sharp, piercing, and remarkably clean, like a marquise cut diamond. I’m surprised the gym’s upper windows don’t shatter and rain down.
After a brief, awed silence, everyone erupts into applause; the hopeless choir with their dull unintelligent smiles; the band playing backup, their instruments shining; Coach Garza with her big sister smile and the twins sporting an identical pair of star-struck smirks.
Pen, though, only sneers. She crosses her arms over the front of her Sex Pistols t-shirt, one hand holding the wrist of the other, and shakes her head. There’s no anger in the motion or envy. Amusement maybe, as if she’d seen something silly and knows only she’s recognized it.
“God, she’s good,” Maxwell says. He’s standing, slapping his enormous hands together, producing a thick, wet, meaty sound, like two prize fighters murdering each other in the ring.
“Pretty good.” I agree. My own applause is soft, like leaves rustling, “Pen’s not happy though.”
Coach Garza releases the choir for a break. Half head outside to the snack machines, others mingle with the band. A few-Ryan Sanders, Michael Adcock, and Flannery Bramhall-pull out Calculus II notes and begin studying. It’s something I’m sure to be doing past midnight. Tomorrow’s test on something something value theorems will be brutal.
“Why the crap are you all the way up here?” Pen groans. She sits beside us, out of breath from the long climb to the top bleachers. Sweat has already gathered on her forehead, and she begins fanning her shirt, hoping for some relief. “It’s hot, and you can’t see me.”
Maxwell points to the bottom bleachers. Wally Vinson is reclining with the other woodwinds, resting his head on Mattie Pak’s shoulder with an intimacy that’s almost familial. The two belong in a Southern Gothic novel-Mattie the enormous Korean girl, her eyes even more slanted now as she smiles, and beautiful, blonde Wally, so thin he could be taken as either an emaciated teenage girl or prepubescent alter boy. His bright pink polo and black skinny jeans, coupled with his perfectly trimmed, perfectly gelled hair and glinting gold earrings, seem chosen by a Broadway costume designer. He couldn’t advertise more with a rainbow neckerchief.
“Oh,” Pen says. She settles in, checking the time on her screen-cracked iPhone 3. “You have to be careful. Wally’s friends are planning to trash your car.”
The story is both simple and complicated-Sudoku for beginners. From what I can tell, began as an argument over a spot in the senior’s parking lot.
Maxwell exhales, once, then twice, deeply like a North Atlantic gale. You’d think he’d been taking Lamaze classes and is about to give birth to a 9lb. 6oz bouncing baby boy or, at the very least, pass a kidney stone. Instead, he pulls out a Pall Mall and lights it; it’s tip glowing orange with his first drag. I can’t help but stare. It’s a beautiful, malignant thing, the sizzling fuse on a stick of TNT.
“What?” He asks me, annoyed. “Smoke rises, remember? You won’t get in trouble.” He offers a cigarette to Pen who shakes her head.
“I’m quitting.” She takes a small bottle from her pocket and sprays something citrus into her mouth. After clearing her throat (and for some reason moving her tongue around as if searching for a loose tooth), she begins to hum. After another moment, and with her mouth opened in a slight, almost fishlike way, she carries a note. Then another, one slightly higher. She goes on, testing her vocal cords like a piano tuner tests the keys on a baby grand. My ears tingle.
“That last one was F5,” Pen says assuming the term should mean something musical to me-notes on sheet music or a professional alto singing Carnegie Hall. Instead, it only conjures images of a computer keyboard. She clears her throat and takes another spray of citrus. “That’s a hard one, in case you didn’t know.”
“Ok.” I nod.
She goes into details, using terms- forte, flat, cut time, etc.- that might as well be lines binary code, a series of ones and zeros that mean nothing to most people, to the majority of people.
“You understand tempo right?” Pen asks but rolls on before I can answer, using more foreign lingo-tremolo, melisma, consonance- as if we were old coworkers talking shop.
“What does ‘consonance’ mean again?” I ask, hoping to slow her down. “It means to sing in unison?”
Irritated, she attempts to explain with her hands, making motions that seem more likely to signal a runner to steal second than coax forty-six odd fits into singing in harmony. And that may be an impossibility anyhow. Our choir has a reputation for being a strange, otherworldly lot; the sightless, translucent fish found at the bottom of black caves. Last year, one boy, a bass named Tony Flavin, was caught with the makings of pipe bombs in his closet and a hit list on his computer. My name-one of seventy or eighty-was on it, both underlined and italicized. I never found out why.
“Are you getting all this?” Pen asks.
I nod, confused but for the first time appreciating the intricate mechanics of the ‘choral arts.’ Before this, all I knew was that singing was an ability reserved only for special people, the same way the ability to carve horses from blocks of marble or fix cars is reserved for certain, special people. This is why I don’t sing, not even on solitary drives with Taylor Swift pumping through my speakers. I merely tap the steering wheel in time with Love Story or (when I’m feeling particularly adventurous) mouth the words, making Taylor’s voice my own. I’m sure that this freakish abnormality (yes, I’m comfortable calling it what it is, being honest with yourself is the first step towards enlightenment isn’t it?) can be traced back to an early childhood trauma, an abrasion to the psyche, one that left a painless, invisible scar.
It was during the Second grade. I remember that much. The school was having auditions for it’s Christmas musical, A Bethlehem Goodnight. My choice song was “Silent Night,” which I sang on stage before hundreds of wide fishlike eyes. I thought that my pitch was perfect and my timing spot on, and was confident the role of Mary was mine. Would I have my own dressing room? Will there be a star on the door? My mind was a happy land of happy thoughts.
The thirty other prospects and I were separated into groups. My group (the larger group) was sent to the library to be fitted for our costumes. A woman asked if my parents could buy me brown pants and a brown shirt and if I could stand absolutely still and be completely quiet for about an hour. With a heart like a bag of broken Christmas ornaments, I said ‘yes.’ Assured, she smiled, placed a small, faux leaf covered sombrero on my head, adjusted it carefully, and smiled again. For my stage debut, the lone act in my short-lived acting career, I was to be a palm tree.
“What are they going to do to Bitch?” Maxwell asks. He seems resigned to the fact that his car, his beloved 92′ Saratoga, is in for a rough week. “Nothing too bad?”
Pen eyes him, annoyed at having her tutorial on music theory interrupted. While she has few occasions to boost (currently she’s a solid C student and is retaking Algebra II for the third time,) there is talent where it shines brightest: she’s an artist, and she’ll never let us forget it. “I don’t know,” she says, “pee on it? It’s your fault anyway. You shouldn’t have said what you said. You called him a f…a…g.”
“The f** parked in my spot!” Maxwell says, one huge hand outstretched towards Wally. “Would you rather I’d broken him in half!”
Pen looks at him for a moment, perhaps considering the consequences of a brutal, campus homicide: Maxwell’s arrest after a high-speed chase down I-20 (though I doubt Bitch can break 60 mph downhill); the televised trial on CourtTV; the inevitable life sentence, if not the death penalty. He is eighteen after all. As a friend, will she be required to testify as a character witness? What about monthly visitations? Christmas cards? Celebrities have done wonders familiarizing young American minds with crime and punishment- OJ Simpson, Lindsey Lohan and Charlie Sheen- but the finer details are often overlooked.
“Well?” Maxwell demands.
“Yes,” Pen says finally, perhaps deciding that felonies void all the social obligations of friendship, “you should’ve killed him. It wouldn’t have been personal then.”
Maxwell’s teeth clench, and his jaw tightens. Pen-for being as untethered as an alley cat-is a political correctness Nazi when it comes to the LGBT thing. Apparently, they can do no wrong.
From below we hear a voice rise, weave a few times like a sprinter navigating hurdles, then rise again. It’s Emma Pond. She’s standing with Mrs. Garza, her mouth opened like a baby bird’s, her hands at her side’s. The song is Johnny’s So Long At The Fair.
O dear, what can the matter be?
Dear, dear, what can the matter be?
O dear, what can the matter be?
Johnny’s so long at the fair…
“She’s awesome,” Maxwell says with a sweetness so artificial it could be used to sugar a diabetic’s coffee. He relaxes, leaning back onto the bleacher behind us, his pale belly showing from underneath his shapeless shirt. “Emma’s the best singer at West Greenville.”
Pen makes a sound that’s not quite a laugh, not quite a huff. “She isn’t that great.”
“I think she’s magnificent.” Maxwell smiles. While he may not be able to protect his car from a band of queers, wear pants without elastic bands, or pull an “A” out of any class (including his 5th-period Domestic Guidance class where you’re taught things baking peanut butter brownies), he does know how to ruffle feathers. He enjoys it. “Mable thinks she’s great too.” He looks at me, eyes urging me on.
“Her voice is like a rainbow,” I say, pleased with myself.
Pen cuts me a disgusted look. You’d thought I’d just puked on her shoes.
“She’s more than just a rainbow.” Maxwell says, still wearing that Teddy Roosevelt grin, “She’s the Sun, the Moon, and all the stars, she’s the best singer in the choir.”
I realize now that Maxwell isn’t just ruffling feathers, he’s plucking them. His every commending word is a short, quick tug, one that leaves a small bleeding hole. The smug look on his round moon face-the way he holds his tongue between large, flat, bovine teeth, his thick wet lips like sausages-is revolting.
“She’s OK,” Pen concedes, almost gagging on her words, “but she’s not great, she’s hardly any good. You people don’t know good.” The last word is spun with sympathy. This Jacksonville girl feels nothing but pain for us Greenville plebeians. Art, culture, music are all beyond us. She pulls up a video on her iPhone, one of the hundreds saved to her YouTube Favorites list, and hits play. “Listen.”
After a short ad for a new antidepressant (a small pink pill that guarantees a slew of physical ailments in exchange for mental and emotional ones) the video opens on a soundstage. A woman, wearing a plain black dress and with her blonde hair pulled into a tight, root ripping bun, leans into a microphone dangling above her. Her solitary voice ascends with a single sharp, mournful note. My eardrums quiver.
Un bel dì, vedremo
levarsi un fil di fumo
sull’estremo confin del mare.
E poi la nave appare.
Poi la nave bianca
entra nel porto,
romba il suo saluto…
Maxwell grunts something, but Pen shushes him. “Just listen.”
Vedi? È venuto!
Io non gli scendo incontro. Io no.
Mi metto là sul ciglio del colle e aspetto,
e aspetto gran tempo
e non mi pesa,
la lunga attesa…
The woman goes on, and the camera pans out to show an empty piano, a set of timpani drums, and dozens of unused music stands. Pen says something about what concert hall it is, the Helix in Dublin. There’s a close-up. The woman’s throat trembles and her blue eyes bulge, tears forming in their corners. The sound made is a gleaming razor, drawing blood. For a moment the nameless performer (the video is entitled merely ‘Soprano Sings Puccini’) appears transfigured, her face awash, eyes open but unseeing. She seems surprised with herself as if her throat had not produced sound at all but a flurry of small, colourful birds.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Pen asks, her eyes nearly closed, swaying almost imperceptibly, like a skiff on a calm lake. “Nothing here can compare to this.”
Sighing, Pen slides the phone into her pocket. Emma’s still bellowing, her mouth now the size of a softball as all eyes stare on, gleaming with admiration.
“Well…” Pen says, deflating a little more with each note. I want to console her, to tell her that she’s doing great things with the twins, that when the time comes for the Spring Concert, they’ll be incredible. “Well…”
It wasn’t until a week ago that Pen thought of the choir at all. Before then they-the school’s unremarkable fulfillment of the state’s performing arts requirement, known more for their Fall doughnut fundraisers than for their tri-annual performances-were a non-issue, existing only on her and everyone else’s peripheries. Even their quarter-page photo in last year’s annual, taken on the football field as the band practiced behind them, was cheerless. Only Emma and the twins, their arms draped over each other’s shoulders (Emma, of course, in the middle), were smiling. And their enthusiasm was unusually fierce. You’d thought they were drunk, posing there with their teeth bare and tongues just visible.
And then, a few days ago, standing before Mrs. Mamaril’s stunned class, their jackrabbit eyes opened wide, Pen sang.