Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Gambling

We're here for only as long as it takes him to get the shot. He has an image in his mind, and he needs to replicate this in a photo. He's looked at pictures in books and brochures, so he knows what's out there. He thinks he can go and find it. He thinks he can do better.

I am along for the ride. I'm a secretary for the big company we both work for. I remember the day he first came into the office. He had flown in from the West. He was bigger, taller, louder, rougher than the people are back East. His wildness stirred something in me. He signed in and I buzzed the CEO to say there was a visitor from the Colorado branch. I watched him go back to the CEO's office. He walked like a broken cowboy.

On his way out he asked me if I knew about a good place to get a drink. I did not, but I said I did. I'm no fool. If I had said no, I would never have seen him again.

In my junky little car after work, I drove us in the direction of the nearest town. The big hotel would have a bar. I pulled into the lot and he laughed and said this was where he was staying; his things were in a room upstairs. In a not-unkind voice, he said he had been hoping to see something different than where he had already been, but he guessed this was alright for now.

After four long letters from me and three from him and seven long-distance phone calls no shorter than one hour each, he invited me out here to drive around with him in his truck and sleep in his trailer while he photographed dramatic natural landscapes. My mother would have said it was shameful because he and I aren't married or even engaged. But that is the very goal I am working toward.

The CEO said he couldn't guarantee my job would still be there if I were gone for more than two weeks. I said I understood and packed up the plants on my desk just in case. I thought that I would be Western, I would gamble, I would journey out like those who sought gold, fame, or home.

So here I am, and here we are, until he gets the shot. It's somehow more than I hoped it would be. I love him more each day. I remember the East as a closet. I can't imagine going back.

But often I slip. I say something foolish like, "Wouldn't this be a pretty place for us to live?" at a campsite that has a spectacular view of wild, jagged peaks. He grins and dodges the hint, reminding me that this is a trailer park, a campground. All of the houses have wheels. Your next-door neighbor could be someone new tomorrow. The view out the window by the fold-up kitchen table could be mountains one day, desert the next. And that's the beauty of it.

Of course, I like all of our neighbors, the ever-changing cast of them, and I grow attached to views and am sad to leave them. "Baby, that's what the photos are for," he says and poses me in front of the mountains.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Then you rise, and you're pure

Here, there is silence punctuated with birds.
When my grandfather is in the yard tending to his fruit trees or tomato plants, and my grandmother is in the basement doing laundry or in the kitchen cooking a casserole, I can sit and listen to the living-room clock tick.
I can sit and let my gaze crawl, from the blue-velvet armchair, to the porcelain Precious Moments figurines in their glass-fronted display cabinet, to the thick Bible on the coffee table, to that marbled-glass vase that's been sitting there on an end table since I was little.
I can walk to town, and it takes not even five minutes. The only thing down there that is part of a national chain is the CVS. Part of an aisle is taken up by funeral wreaths on stands. Most out-of-towners come here to go to the funeral of a great-aunt, or 90-year-old Uncle Charlie, or Great-Granny Frye.
I came because of you.

While I'm here, we visit my own great-aunts and great-uncles who are still living. Their houses are out in the purple mountains--up close they're not purple--and have views of distant cows. They offer you homemade fudge. They talk about church, about the weather today.
I chose to come to my dad's parents because they're quieter. My mom's parents long ago moved from here to the Richmond suburbs, back when the only factory here in town closed down and sent everyone scattering. My dad's parents left then, too, but have moved back.
My grandfather reads from his stack of Louis L'Amour paperbacks in his recliner in the den. My grandmother hums when she cooks or does housework, a thin, vibrato hum, usually gospel songs. Her favorite thing to do is organize: baby photos in albums, family reunions, church potlucks. They both leave me alone.

Lottie is the name of the woman who puts the local newspaper together. She writes the articles, lays them out using an inexpensive computer program, takes all the photos, dispatches everything to a printer in town. She was happy for help, especially from the girl who won the state's highest journalism honor one year and used to write for a daily paper in the city. "But ah cain't pay much. All ah can give ya raht now is part-tahm." I have to admit that the accent here was funny at first. She didn't ask questions. People here are too polite for that; some of them guard their privacy with hunting rifles and "No Trespassing! Vicious Dog" signs. The hot topic here these days is meth labs. We've had a lot of meth-lab busts in the past few months. After the front page, the most-read section of the paper is Lula Coe's column, which sometimes includes who has grandkids visiting this week, and sometimes includes a recipe, and always thanks the Good Lord for something or other.

I have a routine now.
I wake up early--before dawn if I can stand it--and drive to the community center. I show the sleepy-eyed attendant my ID card and go to the locker room, where I stow my clothes. I emerge in a modest, one-piece bathing suit I bought at JCPenney in Bristol--we went to the mall the first week I got here, an exciting outing in my grandfather's new car that has a navigation system in it that talks to you--and I pad out to the indoor pool.
I'm not alone at first. There's a water aerobics class for senior citizens that four or five ladies regularly attend. Two of them protect their short bluish curls with swim caps. They all wear modest swimsuits like mine.
Their class only lasts 45 minutes, and as they go through their moves, mimicking the middle-aged female instructor in the area with "4 FT" painted all around it, the lap lanes are empty, and I have the deep end to myself.
The instructor brings a boombox and plays this funny, jazzy, Big Band music, stuff like my grandmother likes. White light ripples onto the ceiling as the ladies swan through the water and arch their arms and twirl, water ballerinas. The music hits me in waves, mingled with the splashes from their kicks and slices through the bright aquamarine water.
I swim slow laps while they're here, then I grip the metal stepladder by the side of the pool and do leg exercises, pumping slowly in that fluid, throbbing motion of limbs through water. There's no lifeguard, but the attendant walks by occasionally. When they're all gone, I do the dead-man's float.

I know when I hit the bottom.

You had sent me another racy e-mail--the kind that you and I had been exchanging for months--and in this one you were telling me about how Japanese girls fuck differently than Western girls do.

I cursed you, crying as I read the rest of the e-mail. Then I logged off, went to the bedroom, lay across the bed, clutched my pillow to my body, and with my fist I beat at my skull.

When I first came here, I didn't eat. I hadn't eaten much for the two weeks before that (I gave precisely two weeks' notice at work, as much as I wanted to leave immediately). The food here isn't stylish or healthy, but it's good for me. I had gotten used to my twentysomething-bachelorette diet, Pop-Tarts, frozen pizzas, frozen mocha coffees for lunch. Now I have oatmeal in the morning, and turkey biscuits for lunch (they call that meal "dinner" here), and green-bean casserole and cornbread and my grandfather's tomatoes for supper, and homemade brownies from a tin my grandmother keeps on a lace doily on the dining-room sideboard. I'm getting fatter, and this is fine with me.

We sat at the dining-room table one evening after I first got here, my practical grandparents and I, looking at my most recent bank statement and my first dinky paycheck from the paper, and decided that I'd have to save up for a while before I could rent a room in a house here. There are no apartments here.
They keep saying they're more than happy to let me stay with them for as long as I like. My grandfather pointed out that if I saved up I could afford a small trailer. I couldn't help it--I laughed. I laughed too hard, because I was trying to picture your reaction to that: She's living in Appalachia now -- in a trailer. You would shake your head as you shared this with your friends over beers, and someone would do that famous opening to "Dueling Banjos." And you would laugh at me.

Do you miss me at all?

I go to church with my grandparents even though I am an atheist. It would be an affront to not go. It's the hub of everything social here. I like my grandparents' Methodist church: dry, quiet, still. It reminds me of why I chose them and not my mom's parents. My mom's parents are Pentecostal, and during church some of them speak in tongues; there's a lot of passion and sweating and shouting, and they sing hymns over and over until you're lightheaded, until all the speaking-in-tongues has subsided. It's like a drone, and it always made me feel seasick.
What I want right now is the opposite of passion. I want to be still.
I want to wear an ugly, modest church dress from JCPenney, one that's high-necked and goes down to mid-calf and of which the Amish would probably approve. I want to listen skeptically but politely to the preacher's sermon, then look out the stained-glass window after the first five minutes, and think nothing. And stand when the preacher says to open your hymnals to 396, and thin pages with gilded edges flip, and you follow the words on the top line, then the second line, then the third line, then you sit back down when it's done.
When I was driving out here, with all of my clothes and boxes of books in the trunk, I had this fantasy of getting baptized in a little country stream, the way some of them do out here. Of course that's absurd--an atheist getting baptized. But I held that image, and I'd thought it would feel so good: a cleansing, a purging, supportive arms holding your back as your head is dunked backwards into the clear, cold water--and then you rise, and you're pure.

I asked my grandmother about it, trying not to sound too eager. She told me that it's only some of the little Pentecostal churches way out in the country that still do it that way, that her church has a dunk tank right inside the church now. It's more efficient and hygienic this way, she said. And less poetic, I didn't say.
But I've found something else that helps. I go to the pool at 5 a.m., and when I'm finally alone, I float. I make myself forget that my body has any weight to it, and I surrender. My ears are half-under, and it sounds like listening to the inside of a seashell. It's like being suspended at the perfect point in a baptism, when you're resting in someone's arms, and your head is in the water where it's pure, but you don't have to rise, you don't have to face the world and test your newfound purity to make sure it took. You're just suspended in the water, and time is still, and you think nothing.

I guess it's pretty unoriginal of me, coming out here, now that I think about it. The young city girl comes out to live with relatives in the country, to get away from all the madness, get back to her roots, and is rejuvenated by being around nature and regular folks. In the movie version, in just a few months I'd realize what's really important in life, have some sort of catharsis.

I don't think I'll be around long enough for a catharsis, or a trailer. I doubt I'll stick it out a year.

I'm the type of person who often dreamed of dropping out of my life and joining some Buddhist convent in the Himalayas. Shave my head and humbly beg for alms in the morning from villagers, and spend all day ridding my mind of earthly concerns. If I'd been alive back in the 60s, I probably would have been the biggest hippie you'd ever seen, having lots of free love and doing mind-expanding drugs; maybe I'd even have joined a cult, fallen in love with a cult leader and been one of his many wives.
I'm also the kind of girl who had crushes on her male English teachers. I would write a poem, and he would praise it, and I'd decide he was my soul mate.
So it didn't surprise me when I fell for you. I didn't really want to be a newspaper reporter, only did it because it was some kind of writing, so I signed up for the creative-writing class at the community college, a night class, and there you were.
You were critical, but kind. You thought that at least some of my stories should have happy endings. You seemed most interested in the sex scenes, so I wrote more of those.
It became a private joke. I e-mailed you short, sexy stories. You were game, and wrote some for me, too. And in them, you and I were the stars.

I know you felt something real for me.

I ran into you and your wife at a restaurant. She was lovely and intelligent; goodness radiated from her.
On a weekend later, I ran into you and some friends at a bar. I drank too much. I sat on your lap. I whispered lewd things to you with my beery breath. You were embarrassed for me.
You sent me an e-mail, making it clear that we are not to cross that line. You'd been with many women before, a veritable lothario, but those days were over, because of your wife. Had I met you back then, you could have been mine, even if just for one night.
I told you that I understood, that I admired you, even. And we resumed our game.
We shared stories from our sex lives, your populous one and my very limited, practically solitary one. Each time I read about you with someone else, I felt a squeeze in my chest; I would say I felt it right over my heart, but you would take out your red pen and write "melodramatic." 
I don't know what it was about that last e-mail that sent me over the edge. Maybe it was the casual way you said you'd "had" Japanese girls (girls, plural). The way you were comparing women (plural), in different cultures, like some sleazy sociologist. The way you made light of it; the way you reduced a woman's behavior during lovemaking to the culture to which she belonged. But mostly I think it was just jealousy, boiling over at long last.
All these women around the world who got to have you, who got to revel in your love and attention, your eyes on them, your arms around them, you in them--and those days are over, so I am throwing myself at you, but you won't have me.

Venomous, toxic thoughts. I came here to think nothing. I came here to feel nothing.

My grandparents used to have a dog, an Irish Setter named Red. He just showed up one day, so my grandparents took him in. When I was little, I would spend hours lying out in the sun with him as he rested on the welcome mat out by the garage. I would pet him, and I was calmed by his deeply heaving flanks as he breathed. He was later struck dead by a car. To this day, my grandfather can't talk about dogs, will never have another dog. It's too painful, and it feels like a betrayal to Red. So they have a cat instead. The cat is shy, only peeking out at you from behind the almost-closed basement door at the top of the stairs, and she doesn't let you pet her.

It's cute, the way my grandfather keeps saying that he'll find me a "feller." Yes, he says "feller" instead of "fellow" or even "fella." My grandmother says there are some nice young single men at the church. But I'm 27, and most of the girls I know here already have five children and short, frosted hair like my mom's and order corny earrings and crystal vases from QVC.

People here are so nice. When I showed up at the paper for my interview with Lottie, she said, "Ah've known Billy since he was knee-ha to a grasshopper! He and Ricky go way back." She was referring to my dad and his childhood best friend, respectively. There were no advertised openings at the paper--no openings at all, actually--but Lottie heard that I was looking for work, and she scrapes together a little to pay me each week for the measly bit of work I do for her. Ricky, my dad's friend, is obese and wears overalls and John Deere baseball hats. Not everyone here looks like that, but he does. He was once the paper's editor, and later the town's mayor. He stopped by my grandparents' house once after I came here, and I got a vibe from him, like he was interested in dating me. I hope I leave town before I have to break his heart.

The climate here in fall is more perfect than anything I could have ever wished for. Cool, cloud shadows moving across deflated purple hills. Most of the town's population is elderly. Patchwork quilts, whitewashed churches, cows. Nothing here should make me think of sex, nothing here should make me think of you.
Somehow everything does.
I was helping my grandfather change a tire--he was teaching me, and I know it's partly because I'm an over-25 single woman and he figures I need to learn how to do it myself. I squinted up at him in the sun as I knelt and followed his instructions. Pure technical instructions, metal tools, nuts and bolts, smell of tar. And I thought of you.
We went to the homecoming football game. My parents came to town that weekend to cheer for the old home team. Knit scarves and chili dogs. Marching band. Again, not a thing in sight to make me think of you.
But, of course, I did.

I'm lying to myself if I say it's getting better.

5:45 a.m., aquamarine water. The deep end, floating. Dancing light flecks on the ceiling. Buoyant. The swans have left. As long as I stay here, I am pure.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Fire in the Gym


*First published in Pen & Palette, the literary magazine of Mount Vernon High School, Alexandria, VA, 1994; written at age 14.

Hey. Heard the latest? Someone set fire to our high school gym. Can you imagine? Whatever would possess someone to--

Oh, look. There goes Anna. Nice girl, that Anna. Bit on the quiet side, though. Always looks deep in thought. Pity she doesn't have the guts to speak her mind. Strange thoughts rattling around in that head of hers, I'll bet. Nice girl, that Anna, though.

I just know it was those boys who live on Piney Road. They're always back there, behind the bleachers, smoking those cigarettes and God knows what else. Complete losers, those boys from Piney Road. Total losers. Not like Anna. Nice, respectable Anna. Well, one thing's certain. We know that it couldn't have been Anna.

Did ya see what Mary Smith is wearing today?

***

Pep rally in the high school gym. Bright lights cast their light downward, making everything look nakedly candid. The acoustics make every sound echo a hundred times. Students seated on the bleachers. Basketball players down front and Kassia leading the cheerleaders as usual.

Students stomping and cheering, clapping and whistling. All this noise is giving Kassia a headache. Her body is here at school, hollering cheers at the top of her voice and going through the routines, being spirited Kassia, but her mind is elsewhere. Kassia the prom queen. Kassia who would never do anything to harm the general welfare of her school.

Glee Club breaks into a rendition of The School Song. Students and all join in. Anna religiously sings the song with everyone else. Nope, it couldn't have been Anna.

***

Monday morning. Monday Monday. Same old scenario. Losers standing apart in their corner, waiting for the bell to ring so they can waltz into first period "fashionably late." Jocks and their girls and a few hangers-on rule the hall, the jerks. All losers kindly step to the side. God's gift and his friend are approaching.

And Anna hates them. She's wary of strangers, and they are wary right back at her. Always ready to ridicule, prepared to point their fingers at the hideous, the less fortunate, and the weird. Always watching when you wish they weren't. Never there for you when you wish they were.

And Kassia ought to be in hog heaven right now. Look at all those silly boys at her feet. And the girl pretends not to care. She must not be quite all right in the head.

***

Wednesday afternoon after school. Kassia at cheerleading practice. Anna having missed the bus, waiting for Mom. Piney Road boys smoking everything except their shoes. Anna sidling past the bleachers shyly, heading for the door that leads to the parking lot and Mom must be here by now.

One of the Piney boys calls her. He knows my name. How does he know my--

"Pity what happened to those bleachers over there. You know, the fire?"

Ordinarily Anna would not waste her time talking with such trash. But the Piney boy has such sad, gentle eyes. Nice green eyes.

"Yeah," Anna replies. "Pity." She starts to dash for the door, but stops. "Pity the whole school didn't burn down when I set fire to the bleachers." Anna doesn't break eye contact, but she does hold her breath.

Between the two is understanding. Anna knows he will not tell. She turns toward the door. The moment shared between the two is gone. Now they are strangers again.

Anna dashes out the door. The Piney Road boy lifts the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth and exhales. "Let's go watch the cheerleader-bimbos," he says to his friends.

***

Hey. Did ya hear the latest? Those good-fer-nothin' Piney boys -- all four of 'em -- got suspended for setting fire to the gym. And they still won't outright admit it was them who did it. Can you imagine? That green-eyed one, kinda cute but a loser anyhow, said maybe he did it and maybe he didn't.

Guess what Kassia had to say about the matter? She said God bless whoever did it and too bad the whole damn school didn't burn down.
Can you imagine?

Can you believe it? Mary Smith shaved her head.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

White light

Chill bumps rose through liquid latex.

The girl laughed nervously. Wind blew through a crack in the doorway. They had opened the door to let out the paint fumes.

She stood on a wooden platform. Sheets of tacked-up clear plastic fluttered against the farmhouse ceiling and walls.

Two guys painted her naked body. Two other guys and a girl took pictures. She had shaved everywhere but her head.

She looked away from her body.

***

The girl who was being painted caught the eye of the friend she had brought with her. The friend was helping the main artist paint her body. She looked into her friend's eyes that were golden-brown and familiar. She tried to send him a message in a code she was just now making up.

"In my trunk. There's some tea." She said tea but it was really sweet-tea-flavored vodka. She had bought a bottle at the ABC store. She always pre-gamed before social events but had walked in here stone-sober at two in the afternoon. "My keys. In my purse. In the basement." Staccato fragments were what came out.

She hoped he would telepathically know to not bring in the "discreet" ABC-store black bag with the two clanking bottles in there -- the vodka, and also some limoncello. She hoped he would somehow know to just pour the "tea" into a red plastic cup in the kitchen, one of the cups left over from the party last week, so they could all politely pretend to not know what she had inside it.

He brought in the black bag, but they all politely pretended anyway. They painted and snapped. It felt surreal but serene. At least for a while.

Until she thought ahead to how, when they had finished painting, she would be expected to perform. Her friend poured just a bit of "tea" into the cup. She asked for a lot more, and he gave it to her.

Then it was gone.

The bohemian farmhouse that their friend owned and let people use for parties and photo shoots, the people swirling slowly around her with their lenses, the little details -- chill bumps through paint, flutter of clear plastic. She remembered only flashes of what happened after that.

***

She saw the photos later in the photographers' "friends-only" online albums.

Later in the day, after it was all gone to her, they had taken some photos in the basement, where chains hung matter-of-factly from the ceiling.

In some of the pictures, there were big black leather cuffs on her wrists. She hadn't remembered that.

They had painted her in bright diagonal stripes that peeled off in random patches and patterns. In the photos, especially the later ones they took down in the basement, she looked like an animal coming unskinned. She glared and snarled and taunted. It gave the pictures a rawness, having her filters down like that.

In some of the photos she stood in a white-tiled shower with the water off. By then the paint was gone and she was naked again. The alcohol had shrunk her self-consciousness down to nothing like a pupil in bright light.

She had forgotten most of what had happened in the basement, so when she saw the photos later, just for a moment, she thought of seeing pictures of a loved one who'd been kidnapped. It was the chains and the exposed wooden basement beams that made her think that, that was all – the photographers had been respectful. They were all her friends. And besides, she had long ago vowed to never let herself think anyone else was to blame for anything that happened to her. When everything is your fault, it means you have power, because you could have done otherwise.

She had forgotten her drive home from the photo shoot, too. Thank god it was only a couple of miles. When she saw later that her car's side airbags had popped out and deflated, she didn't remember what had set them off. Maybe a pothole, maybe a curb.

*** 

She had been ugly in her teens, ugly in her 20s. Or so she'd thought. She didn't look much different now. The difference now was just that she refused to be ugly, would not allow it.

She had not had sex until she was nearly 28 years old. After that spike on the timeline of her life, she knew what she was capable of. It felt like being able to get on a new wavelength, to hear a frequency that many other people had been able to hear for years. Every male was ripe for seduction. It had nothing to do with how she looked.

Her biggest fear was fear. She didn't like what it did to her, how she cowered and deferred, the way it made her shrink and look inward. Alcohol made her less fearful. It was the magic cure.

One day she would realize that the answer to overcoming fear was to accept death. Once you realize you're going to die, everything else seems small.

***

In the soft white light upstairs where they'd painted her in the diffuse afternoon sun, before she was drunk, before they went down into the basement, she had thought about how she should feel versus how she actually felt. It occurred to her that maybe she should feel ashamed, or so her mom would say if she'd had any idea what her daughter got up to these days (she did not). It occurred to her that it might be the latest in a parade of signs that she was coming unravelled: earlier in the week, 4 a.m., pouring bottles of booze down the drain and crying, swearing never again (again); posting an S.O.S. to her Facebook friends about how she might need anti-depressants.

One of the photographers had said, "Don't look at me. Look anywhere but at me."

So she had looked off. You couldn't see out the windows; for insulation, the windows were covered with clear plastic that was clouded, like wax paper. She didn't feel ashamed, or crazy. She just felt that she was doing something interesting, that she was living an interesting life full of stories. She thought about how there was a kind of life that was new to her and unknown to many, or disregarded by many, one she was just learning.

Photo by Lenore Rossini; album: http://www.flickr.com/photos/60361158@N02/sets/72157626101695491/ 

Highs and lows

The elementary-school music teacher's name was Mrs. Fleming-Dillon. Everyone was a little in love with her. She looked like Whitney Houston and taught rich suburban white kids how to have soul. The parents loved her, and loved that their kids loved her. The girl students hugged her and brought flowers on her birthday. At the last chorus concert of the school year, a little delegation of popular older kids always took the microphone and gave speeches, warm and sprinkled with private jokes that the audience always laughed at, about their favorite teacher and idol.
When the class was noisy, she pretended to transform into "Mrs. Fleming-Dillon's evil twin" -- she growled like a bear and pounded on the piano's low keys. This made them laugh, and then they behaved, because it was her.

Chorus try-outs were the first Thursday of the school year. The chorus was divided into "highs" and "lows" -- that was easier for kids than "soprano," "alto," and all the rest of the Latinate terms she had learned in her years of classical training. And it wasn't as if you found many baritones in elementary school. For the most part, she kept the girls in the "highs" and the boys in the "lows," to keep teasing to a minimum on either end.
Only fifth and sixth graders were allowed in chorus. In the other grades, kindergarten through fourth, the whole grade got to perform in concerts -- the entire kindergarten singing "The Farmer in the Dell," the fourth grade doing songs from "Oklahoma."
Chorus was special. Chorus was for the kids who could actually sing. It was the cool thing to do in school. It was Mrs. Fleming-Dillon's favorite part of her job.
In chorus, they sang Stevie Wonder and did dance routines to Janet Jackson and New Kids on the Block. They sang Michael Jackson and, of course, Whitney Houston. They sometimes sang risque hits from Broadway, such as "42nd Street," whose lyrics include "sexy ladies from the eighties." Mrs. Fleming-Dillon got away with anything.

Mollie was a shy kid. That was the extent of what Mrs. Fleming-Dillon knew about her. Mollie was a different breed, one that Mrs. Fleming-Dillion knew she couldn't really relate to. Mrs. Fleming-Dillon got along best with the cool kids, the extraverts. It wasn't so much being snobby or shallow, Mrs. Fleming-Dillon thought -- the cool kids were confident; they made stuff happen. They seemed more enlightened than kids like Mollie who gnawed at their nails or the ends of their hair, too self-conscious to speak, frozen with doubt.
Mollie was probably smart, in a bookish way. She might be one of those late bloomers -- mousy till college, then she'd go wild. She'd stop draping her thin frame in baggy clothes, change her big glasses to contacts. Mrs. Fleming-Dillon thought of those commercials about the kids who drank milk, who started off nerdy and grew up to be babes.

But this was now, and now Mollie was standing alone before Mrs. Fleming-Dillon in the music classroom after school, trying out for chorus.
She had probably told her mom to pick her up after school, because she was trying out for chorus, and her mom had probably been proud of her shy daughter's bravery. Her mom was maybe even in the car now, windows rolled down and reading a book, trying not to be nervous. Or maybe even praying.
But Mrs. Fleming-Dillon wasn't doing this for charity. Chorus was for the real singers. Chorus was elite, and had to stay that way. No pity votes.
Mrs. Fleming-Dillon said brightly: "OK Mollie, what are you going to sing?"
" 'The Greatest Love of All.' "
She had chosen a safe one. It was Whitney Houston, which would ordinarily have been ambitious, but the opening verses in this one were uneventful, a monotonous flatline on the sheet music.
"You may begin when you're ready," said Mrs. Fleming-Dillon in her clear, assured, popular-teacher's voice.
Mollie began. She sang it soft and sweet. She wasn't off-key. It wasn't bad. It was almost soulful.
But it wasn't bold. Mollie swayed from side to side as she sang, a nervous habit that Mrs. Fleming-Dillon had to bite her tongue to keep from interrupting and correcting.
Mollie sang her part, and then there was silence.
"Thank you, Mollie," Mrs. Fleming-Dillon said in a tone she knew sounded phony, falsely bright. "I'll post the list outside my door on Monday."

On Monday, when Mrs. Fleming-Dillon Scotch-taped the list to her door, she thought for just a second about the kids who hadn't made it. Mollie really could have made it; she wasn't a bad singer. But "not bad" wasn't the same as "good," Mrs. Fleming-Dillon assured herself, trying not to picture Mollie's crestfallen little face checking the list, trying not to think of Mollie's mom waiting to hear if her daughter had made it into chorus with the cool girls at school.
If you wanted your voice to be heard, you couldn't just be good; you had to be loud. That had gotten Mrs. Fleming-Dillon where she was today, a black teacher worshipped by the faculty and parents of a rich suburban white school. If you wanted to be loved, you had to be more than just adequate.