“Do you think you’ll stick with it for the year?” I ask tentatively, looking down at Pen’s scuffed boots. The question is a tossup, a fifty-cent piece with handsome J. Kennedy pressed on one side, and the bald eagle stamped flat on the other, looking very American with both arrows and olive branch clutched between its talons. “That’s a long time.”
Pen tilts her head, considering the next two semesters with the keen eye of Wall Street stockbroker, weighing current and future variables with past trends. Will she buy more or sell everything? At times she embraces the role of “First Alto,” taking the twins under her wing with the determined, slightly snappish tone of an impatient father teaching his clumsy daughters to ride bikes. But then, on hot afternoons, it’s as if the choir were a pair of shoes she can’t quit squeeze her hoofs into. She answers honestly. “Maybe. Maybe not.”
It seems strange to say that Pen’s first performance, an old folk tune I’d never heard before, was done under contractual obligation. The agreement with Mrs. Mamaril (our AP Biology teacher), signed by herself and each of her students and then notarized by Mrs. Garth, the school’s ancient and gargoylesque office assistant, is that any missed homework assignment will result in either a five-page MLA style report or (fear bubbles in me just thinking of it) singing before the class, a cappella.
It’s a way, Mrs. Mamaril says, of ensuring that she passes on something useful to future generations, as if an intimate understanding of cellular division or knowing the differences between DNA and RNA were the same as a 250K life insurance policy or a set of Craftsmen wrenches. But, I suppose she’s right-fear motivates. Few people miss homework assignments, and I’m sure that the four stages of mitoses and the taxonomic ranks of life (which begins with domains and ends with species in case you didn’t know) will be with me ’til I’m old and grey, confusing my day nurse with the mailman.
“It’ll be five pages, Ms. Coyne, on the ecology of fungi.” Mrs. Mamaril said, not looking up from her grade book, penciling in a question mark beside Pen’s name. She’d been calling out roll, checking the previous night’s homework assignment (twelve chapter review questions on how varying temperatures and pH affect enzyme activity) as she went. “Ten sources, and no Wikipedia.”
Our lab table was at the back of the room, near the supply closet and emergency eyewash station. June was hard at it erasing graffiti some goon left on the table top beside the gas facet. She was fixated. Having already eradicated the crude penis, the eraser on her No. 2 Ticonderoga worn down to a pathetic nub, she began working on the saggy, hairy scrotum. She wasn’t paying attention to anyone, and Pen and I might as well have been power outlets or slightly larger soap dispensers.
“I want to sing.” Pen said offhandedly. She was doodling in her notebook, a new Five Star multi-subject already half-filled with English notes, Biology definitions and enough artwork to headline a new exhibit at the MET, one entitled “American Angst: The Misunderstood Millennial.” There are inkings of teachers and colourful caricatures of friends, gruesome ones of enemies. Somewhere are several pages of “incidental art,” splashes of watercolor (mostly black) that bend and flow, pleasing the eyes in curious, sultry ways. Her current project, opposite a page of slumped and either sleeping or dead art mannequins, is a rabbit. It’s a work of beauty and love, nearly perfect with it’s every earth brown hair and tough wire whisker in place. And its eyes, half-moons peering out wearily from underneath half-closed lids, are haunting. She’d been working on it for several days, alternating between the thin lines of her fine-point Sharpie and the broad strokes of her “good” colour pencils, Prismacolor Premiers, each whittled down to thumb length from use.
Pen slid the Sharpie into the ringed spine of her notebook and turned to June, watching her erase for a moment, the lead of the No. 2 dancing about like a desperate insect, then to me. “You want to hear me sing?” She whispered. “I’m pretty good.”
“Ok,” I said though the thought of it made me woozy. It’s the same exhausted feeling I get when trying to read one of Grace’s Harry Potter fan-fictions, an act that requires determination, clenched teeth, and a soft tongue. Because-however perfect a girl’s grammar and punctuation may be, and beautiful her calligraphic script is (Grace writes in leather bound journals with an entirely too expensive and complicated fountain pen)- some hobbies should be kept in the closet. “I’d love that.”
Pen winked and slid off her stool and stretched, making an effort at popping every single one her vertebrae. “Mrs. M, I want to sing Neil Young. You know Young right?”
Eyes still down, Mrs. Mamaril motioned to the front of the room with her free, arthritic hand. Her white knuckles were like the knots on a pine branch. In her thirty-five years at WGHS she’d probably heard it all, a constant stream of Top Tens- mostly pop, some country, a little rap, Milli-Vanilli and MC Hammer, Garth Brooks and Creed- and has become numb to the experience. Perhaps she views all the willing students as if they were nothing more than small, empty plates. Not only uninteresting but slightly depressing.
Pen walked to the front of the class, slowly, her heavy black boots squeaking against the chipped tile. Everyone quieted down, never wanting to miss the chance to see someone humiliate themselves. I’m sure they rubberneck at car crashes and house fires too. Human beings have a fetish for the morbid, of death and pain, self-inflicted or otherwise. We’re flies drawn mesmerized to a high voltage bug zapper, ever wondering what’s beyond the proverbial white light. It’s what separates us from chimps and gibbons-insufferable curiosity.
Outside the clouds cleared and through the windows an ocean of yellow sun poured in, causing the energy saver lights to kick off. This, I thought, was a mercy. Under their unforgiving fluorescence, everyone looks cadaverous. Pen would at least have kind sunlight to die by.
“When you’re ready.” Mrs. Mamaril said, still without glancing up. Her scalp, which I’ve seen more often than her eyes, was a crown of grey hair.
Pen studied the class, eyeing everyone, waiting for the last few murmurs to hush. She cleared her throat.
I want to live, I want to give
I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold
It’s these expressions I never give
That keep me searchin’ for a heart of gold
And I’m getting old
Keep me searchin’ for a heart of gold
And I’m getting old…
We stared at her, my mouth agape, June’s lips pursed and her eyebrows inclined, questioning. The pencil’s eraser hovered motionless above the one remaining testicle.
The words weren’t sharp but blunt, almost dull, Patsy Cline crooning a honky-tonk of adolescent barflies. And her face was that of the Puccini singer, transfigured, as is she’d known what she was producing wasn’t just some tune, vibrations carried through the air to hum in our eardrums, but art, holy and deathless, incorruptible, an auditory Pollock or Stieglitz.
I’ve been to Hollywood, I’ve been to Redwood
I crossed the ocean for a heart of gold
I’ve been in my mind, it’s such a fine line
That keeps me searchin’ for a heart of gold
And I’m getting old
Keeps me searchin’ for a heart of gold
And I’m getting old
Keep me searchin’ for a heart of gold
You keep me searchin’
And I’m growing old
Keep me searchin’ for a heart of gold
I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold.
Someone, Abigail Goosier sitting at the table in front of us, began to clap. Most of the class joined her.
“Penelope…” Mrs. Mamaril stammered. She searched for the one right word to fit the moment. She’s scientific like that, precise as an atom smasher. Her first assignment this year, after a three-page report on a current ecological crisis, was a list of fifty scientific terms. They were to be memorized and digested. I now know what “aqueous” means. “…you were…sublime.”
Walking back to her stool, Pen hardly glanced around. She seemed not to hear the warm adulation coming from her fellow students. Instead, she sat and looked at June and me. She smiled, her thin lips curling with a deep inner pleasure. Her song could’ve been a clever card trick- Is it the Queen of Hearts? Oh, it is? Why, aren’t I so clever!
After a minute, and seeing that the moment had passed (Pen was already adding whiskers to the rabbit’s finished nose), Mrs. Mamaril again began calling out more names; Matthew Dawson, Brandon Emmer, Hailey Foster…
The world settled back into its mundane routine, though the song, Neil Young, still thrummed in the air like static, giving everything something of an electric charge. Students, girls mostly with their estrogen and progesterone working strange needs, shifted uncomfortably on their stools. Hair began twisting around anxious fingers, and scribbled hearts started to appear in notebooks.
Abigail Goosier turned too us, her smile blemished by crooked teeth. “You’re really good!”
Pen looked at her, studying the stiff blonde ponytail and then eyeing a small gold cross that hung from around the girl’s neck. Pen’s expression soured, her lips puckering and nostrils flaring wide. She leaned in close, nearly touching Abigail’s nose. “Your breath stinks. You know that? It smells like piss.”
Abigail’s smile faded, draining away like water through a sieve. She turned to June, who shrugged, then to me. Her grey eyes were the sad colour of rain clouds. Between us, like a stuck match seen miles away, was a brief spark of recognition.
How do I know you? She wondered.
Second grade? I thought. We’d swap cookies during lunch, your chocolate chip for my oatmeal raisin, and we’d do each others hair during recess.
Yes! I’d pull your horrible red curls into tight French braids; every day a French braid. My fingers became experts, working on their own as we talked about Bratz, about my brother, about nothing. Whatever it was you tried to build with my own hair- ponytails, pigtails, Princess Leia buns- would always fall into tangles, a yellow bird’s nest. Mrs. Shaw would have to straighten it out.
She didn’t mind, though. I thought. We loved her for that.
Yes, we did. And when Adrian Sanchez brought his pet king snake in for Show and Tell, we both shrank to the size of pebbles. But our hands found each other quickly, like magnets. We weren’t afraid then, we became curious.
And then we cried when he fed it a baby mouse. Remember that?
Just now. She thought. How did we forget?
I don’t know.
Without a word and with her eyes softened by distant memories Abigail turned back to her table.
Still wearing a sneer, Pen looked down at her notebook. She ran her fingers along the rabbit’s dark silhouette. After a moment and with eyes like small grey stones, she leaned over and poked Abigail’s shoulder. Her fingernail probably felt like a needle.
Abigail turned and answered with a single, sharp syllable. “What?”
Pen tapped the page. “This is my god. It’s rabbit Christ. Not Jesus Christ,” she shook her head, “it’s rabbit Christ. He’s my god.”
The next song, sung two days later in exchange for a missed assignment on glycolysis and fermentation, was something in Latin, Schubert’s Ave Maria. The meaningless words (Pen later confessed that even she didn’t know what they meant) flowed out of her like a soft wind, whispering in our ears and ruffling our hair, causing the blinds to flutter. Abigail, eyes closed, swayed to the tune.
…Ave, ave dominus
Benedicta tu in mulieribus
Benedictus fructus, fructus ventris
Ventris tui, Jesus
Pen’s final melody, chirped out the day after Ave Maria, was Mumford and Sons The Cave. It’s a song I’ve fallen in love with from a band I’m now creaming over in a hard-nipple, let me introduce you to my parents, our first daughter’s name will be Emily, sort of way. In only a week, seven short days, I’ve become an obsessed fan, complete with an I Will Wait t-shirt in my closet and a Babel poster hanging above my headboard, beside my Harry Potter wall calendar. Mom thinks I’ve gone crazy. Maybe I have. Folk rock, who knew?
Pen’s take on The Cave was unique. Partly sung, mostly spoken, the words came out as poetry, with her foot quietly tapping the time.
It’s empty in the valley of your heart
The sun, it rises slowly as you walk
Away from all the fears
And all the faults you’ve left behind
The harvest left no food for you to eat
You cannibal, you meat-eater, you see
But I have seen the same
I know the shame in your defeat…
Principle Gamble, out of breath and with his tie twisted at an odd angle, crept in half-way through the performance, quietly taking a seat beside “Indian-dot-not-feathers-Bob,” West Greenville’s authentic human skeleton (hung by wire in a glass display case) and the Scholars Bowl Team’s unofficial mascot. Mrs. Mamaril called Mr. Gamble before Pen began, buzzing the office by pressing the small red “oh s***” button near the door and whispering into the intercom. Word of our little bird’s talent must’ve spread throughout the faculty.
…And I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck
And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again.
Afterward, Pen took her seat, ignoring June who booed as only a friend can. As for everyone else, just a few brave souls still applauded her, most having learned that their appreciation only brought contempt. Abigail Goosier (having more of an indignant spark than I remember from Second grade) slapped her hands together with hateful vigor. Pen merely poked out her tongue, though that slim protrusion of taste buds could’ve been a rusty switchblade for all the love it gave.
Mr. Gamble remained quiet, studying the exchange, careful not to miss a beat. The air soon rang with more names: Timothy Goddard, Raymond Hayes, Riley Hearn… Pen opened her notebook and took up with the rabbit’s finishing details: benign black claws and a few dozen stray hairs, each as carefully placed as a slit trench at Verdun.
After a moment, Mr. Gamble stood, whispered something in Mrs. Mamaril’s ear, and left, the door creaking closed behind him. The rest of class dripped by with definitions, a short five-question quiz, and an errant lab experiment that resulted in a puff of green smoke and the lingering stink of rotten eggs.
After a terrible First lunch (the sulfur smell still clung to our nose hairs, killing most of our appetites) Mrs. Mamaril called Pen to her desk, handed over a hall pass and told her to make for the principle’s office.
The next morning, after detention, Pen sang Simple Gifts before an awestruck Couch Garza. It was a banner moment. Her voice filled the tiny gym office like a savory aroma before drifting out over the court. The girl’s basketball team (who’d been running drills, perhaps in hopes of for once having a winning season) slowed and stopped. The last sharp squeaks of their Nikes echoed off the gym’s bare walls as basketballs slipped from clumsy fingers to rolled away unnoticed. They stared at the office’s open door, wondering how such a beautiful, resonant sound could come from such a small room. Hadn’t it once been a utility closet?
Pen’s first choir practice was the next afternoon.
I look again at Emma Pond. She’s finished her song and is smiling sheepishly at the applause, warm adoration for a voice that only nature could give and years of practice (and if the rumors of a voice coach in Brannon are correct, maybe a little money) could polish.
“Just look at her.” Pen’s laugh is small and full of teeth. She runs her hands through her boyish hair. It’s just long enough for her to tousle. She’s bound to trim it down soon. God forbid anything truly feminine ever be associated with Penelope Coyne. “That stupid smile, she doesn’t even know to be embarrassed.”
My cheeks burn, and if I had a mirror, I’m sure they’d be tomato red. I’m beginning to wonder if (as I’ve heard in some war movie) we are all really part of one big soul, if we all have the same face and that pain is universal. If Emma doesn’t know to be embarrassed, I’ll be embarrassed for her.
Coach Garza whistles for the choir to reform. They move down the bleachers and inside through the gym’s double doors, slowly, downing the last of their cokes and Dr. Peppers. Pen stands and stretches, popping each and every one of her small bones. I’m beginning to wonder if they’re hollow, like a bird’s, if she’ll one day sprout feathers and fly away.
“Can you listen out for stuff about my car?” Maxwell asks, his voice betraying an inner fragility I never suspected. He rubs his hands together, nervous as a jackrabbit. The stump of the cigarette dangles from between his wet lips. “Maybe put in a good word for me?”
Pen slips her thumbs into her empty belt loops and sucks air between her teeth. I’ve seen more pity in the slit eyes of king snakes. “No.”
She heads down the bleachers and doesn’t see Maxwell’s one-fingered salute.
“God, that b****…” He mumbles, looking hurt, the last boy picked for a basketball game. Or maybe, even more painfully, one who wasn’t picked at all but left on the sideline. I know the feeling.
“I’ll listen out for you,” I say, knowing my words carry about as much weight as a helium-filled balloon. At West Greenville, I currently have the social standing of a shadow, a few steps below non-verbal autistic Henry Utley (known school-wide for his awkward pep rally dance moves), and a few higher than a volunteer hall monitor.
Maxwell mutters something, thanks maybe, but continues staring after Pen. His eyes could burn a hole into the back of her head. The poor guy, with one slip of the f-word he made enemies of West Greenville’s tiny yet completely Comanche LGBT movement and by pure bad luck, the band’s entire woodwind section.
Soon the choir has reformed and is half-listening to Couch Garza gives instructions. Standing between the twins, Pen shifts from foot to foot. She can’t stop sneaking glimpses of Emma.
“I’ll be sure to think her after practice,” I say, a warm feeling spreading through me, an intoxicating dose of affection in spite of Pen’s attitude. “You know, for the songs. They were beautiful.”
Maxwell remains quite, making a show of studying the unlit scoreboard, the high electric lights, the band kids shifting through pages of sheet music. He’s sullen, and if my experience with June (the only other person I know of comparable size and temperament) has taught me anything, it’s to let him stew. And he is a boy, isn’t he? They see the world at a different wavelength, somewhere between ultraviolet and infrared, with some colours being unbearably bright while others are nonexistent altogether.
“I’ll think her when I drop her off,” I say, hearing The Cave swimming up from the memory center of my brain, the tune by now perfectly ingrained. Though the voice I hear isn’t Marcus Mumford’s at the Red Rocks amphitheater but Penelope Coyne’s as she stands before our AP Biology class, her voice low and defiant and brave.
…So make your siren’s call
And sing all you want
I will not hear what you have to say
‘Cause I need freedom now
And I need to know how
To live my life as it’s meant to be…