Cygnet

As I walked up the street to Deena Jones’s house, I thought how already two bad things had happened that year. The first was in January when I had to quit my lessons with Madame LaValle at the French School of Ballet. My mother came with me to the tiny studio to explain, and Madame argued with her.

“But the child, she has talent, a desire, don’t you see? A duckling still, but look, the neck, the legs…”

My mother flinched, and I prayed, Please, there has to be a way. I’ll get a paper route, give up my allowance. But the more Madame pleaded, the more my mother’s face hardened.

“I’m sorry,” she said curtly. “You know how things are at the mills. We’ll be lucky if they don’t cut my husband’s hours any further.”

She pulled me away, but not before Madame uttered a last plea. “Practice, Jassy, before your mirror. I know you will return to me.” Into my arms she thrust a parting present, the old white tutu and feathered headpiece I had worn at the Christmas recital.

So every day after school I put on my leotard and did pliés before the bedroom mirror. But the space was too small, there was no barre, and already without Madame’s guidance I could feel grace slipping from me, the moves going wrong.

The second bad thing was in March when my best friend Martha’s father lost his job and they left town. Now the only other girl my age on our street was Deena, a rat-faced child who was always in trouble at school. Her house had a sweaty smell, and her parents smoked so much it made my eyes water. The first time I came over, her brother Donnie grabbed my arm.

“Well, well, if it isn’t Miss Ballerina,” he sneered. Donnie was thirteen, and one day last fall he had caught me and Martha practicing pirouettes in her yard next door.

Deena grabbed my other arm. “Well, she’s gonna be my friend now, so leave her alone, Donnie.” She yanked me out of his grasp. They both left red finger marks on my skin.

Now it was May, and in the after-dinner twilight I paused sadly before Martha’s old house. It was a small brick bungalow, and though some new people had moved in, the house kept its desperate look. In fact, all our street seemed hushed and fearful, each family waiting to see who would be laid off next. My father’s hours had been cut to half, and every night my mother worried how far her paycheck from the Kmart would stretch. Reading in my room, I would hear them fighting, my mother fretting and nagging, my father insisting the union would save the steel workers’ jobs and nothing this bad could go on much longer. So I escaped to Deena’s house, where at least for a while I could forget.

I mounted her steps, and she answered my knock. “Good, you’re here. Let’s play Monopoly.”

“All right.” I really didn’t care what we played, but lately Deena had had a passion for Monopoly. She brought the box from the house and unfolded the stained board on the porch. I sat opposite, silently accepting the paper money she doled out. Night after night of the game had given me the ability to go through the motions without thinking, and as Deena hopped her piece around the board yelling “Ha! Park Place!” or “Doubles! I pass Go!” I dreamed I danced Swan Lake at the New York Ballet while in the audience Madame LaValle dabbed tears of joy from her powdered cheeks.

Suddenly, a strange music crept into my thoughts. It came from the rear bedroom of Martha’s old house next door. Seeing my startled look, Deena snickered.

“It’s the opera singer.”

“What?”

“You know.” She sang up and down the scale, la-la-la-la-la, in a simpering voice. I noticed again her squinty eyes and thought how little I liked her. Next door the voice continued its warm-up to a record. I had glimpsed the new people: a nervous, back-slapping man, his mousy wife, and their tall shy daughter who looked about twenty. Only last week the two women had applied for jobs at the Kmart, leading my mother to complain bitterly that wasn’t it bad enough there were so few jobs to go around without newcomers trying to butt in.

“Who’s singing?” I asked cautiously, picturing the daughter.

“Skinny Legs,” said Deena, confirming my guess. “And her father’s a boozer.”

I didn’t argue. Deena’s father drank enough I figured she should know.

“Why did they come here?”

“They’re renting. The drunk’s an inventor. He told my father he’s got some gadget that will speed up the production line and make him a millionaire. My father wanted to get in on it, but he says it’s a big secret. Then he drank a lot of beer, and my father kicked him out.”

She shrugged, but for a moment I felt a stab of pity. Deena’s father was a mean, gut-heavy man who slapped her and Donnie around as he pleased. Her mother never interfered.

I indicated the game. “Go on, your turn.” We both knew it wasn’t, but Deena took up the dice with a look that said Serves you right if you can’t keep track. I listened to the music. The voice had completed its warm-up, and foreign words came to my ears. If I still had ballet lessons I could have asked Madame what language it was. Madame had danced in Paris—she had photographs on her walls to prove it—and she told me wonderful stories of concerts and plays.

“Your turn,” said Deena.

I rolled and landed in Jail. Deena rolled and began counting out money to buy a hotel. Next door the voice piped and trilled. I tried to mimic it under my breath, but my throat stretched in vain. The notes went high, higher, as if the singer reached for something withheld or denied.

“Are you going to play or not?” Deena reached out and captured a black-and-orange butterfly flitting past.

“Huh?” I came out of my daydream. It was a moment before my eyes refocused, and when they did, I let out a gasp. Deena had set the butterfly before her, and in a single, neat movement, her fingers gripping on either side, she ripped off its wings. Only a dry black worm remained, lying helpless on the concrete. My heart had just eased its shocked thumping, when Deena picked up a hundred dollar bill and with its sharp edge sliced the body in two. Inside was a thick substance the color of a pumpkin. There had been no sound, no movement from the victim, and it was a full minute staring at the halved body before it hit me completely that the butterfly was dead.

“Deena Jones, you’re horrible!” I cried, springing to my feet. “I hate you!” I scrambled off the porch and ran crying home.

*****

In June my father lost his job. His lunch box sat on the refrigerator, and he spent hours puttering in the garage as if he were doing something important. I tried to help by getting babysitting jobs or a paper route, but no one could afford to go out, and more and more families were canceling their subscriptions. I made dinner, so at least my mother wouldn’t have to cook when she got home from work, but that didn’t soften her temper. Every night as soon as we sat down to our macaroni, she would start on my father. “Did you look at the ads for help wanted? Did you speak to the foreman? Couldn’t you at least get some handyman work from the owners?” Her voice pressed and prodded as if my father were a lump of clay that could be knuckled into shape. I ate hurriedly, then fled. In front of Martha’s old house I crouched beside the street light where nightly the voice of the opera singer floated out to greet me.

“I have to have ballet lessons,” I told my mother when I got home, not caring what it cost in rebuke.

“Ballet lessons? Ballet lessons?” She laughed as if I were an idiot. “What good would a few lessons do? Don’t you know that to be a real ballerina you have to train all day long in a special school? It’s too late for you. It always has been.”

I covered my ears and ran.

The next night, as I haunted the sidewalk before Martha’s, Deena and Donnie came out and saw me.

“There’s the crybaby,” Deena taunted. “Crybaby, crybaby!”

I tried to ignore her. Deena’s father had been laid off at the same time as mine, and their house, too, had closed up and gone into mourning. I shuddered at the purple bruises on her bare shins.

“Crybaby!” She hopped off the porch and came toward me with a menacing swagger. I held my ground, though the hairs on my neck and arms prickled. “Crybaby, crybaby.” She strutted closer. I saw the anger in her squinty eyes, and somehow I knew, even before Deena did herself, that she meant to attack. With an anguished shriek she lunged at me, fists flying. Her hard, thin arms beat at me like sticks. Donnie, still on the porch, clutched his stomach with laughter, as if the whole scene were too funny for words. Suddenly a hand whisked me aside.

“Stop that!” It was the opera singer, pale and shaking in a checked dress. Her eyes were wide with fright, and I wasn’t at all sure she would be able to fend off the raging Deena except that at the same moment Deena’s father appeared at their door.

“You damn kids get in here!” he bellowed, grabbing Donnie by the belt and throwing him against the screen. Deena’s hands flew to her mouth in a cry of alarm. She dashed back to the house and ducked inside while her father wrestled with the now bawling Donnie.

I turned to see the girl who had saved me.

“Are you all right?” she asked. She was tall and thin, and freckles covered her pale face. Her hair was almost the same color as mine—what my mother called dishwater blonde, a name that always made me feel dirty—and it frizzed a little around her face and hung down her back in loose waves.

“I’m all right.”

She frowned and pointed to a bloody scratch on my left arm I had neither felt nor noticed. “Maybe you better go home and wash it.”

“No.” The word popped out automatically as I remembered all the reasons I didn’t want to return.

“Then come inside and I’ll clean it for you.”

She led me in the front door, and as I passed through the familiar, sparsely furnished rooms, I told her about Martha and Deena and how I had come to hear her sing.

“You heard me?” She stopped, startled. “I thought I was keeping my voice low.”

“It wasn’t loud,” I assured her.

We reached the bathroom, and the girl wrung a washcloth in cool water. She dabbed the blood from my arm.

“My name is Jassy Parker,” I said, “short for Jasmine, and I want to be a ballerina just like you want to be an opera singer. Madame LaValle picked me to dance the swan in Swan Lake at our Christmas recital.”

For a moment the girl said nothing. Then she took my hand. “I’ll show you my records,” she said. We went to Martha’s old room, and she pointed for me to sit on the bed. Beside it on a small table was an old black stereo. The girl started a record, and as the music leaped forth she spread a half dozen albums across the bed. I pored over the covers. La Traviata, Carmen, Aida. All the singers were big, hearty people, the men stout and red cheeked, the women’s bosoms swelling like pink balloons in their low-cut gowns. I looked again at the girl and wondered how she could make opera come out of her slight frame.

She went to the window and lowered the glass pane over the screen. “I probably should keep this closed,” she apologized, “except it gets so stuffy in here.”

“Are you home alone?” I asked.

She nodded. “My mother got a cleaning job, night shift.  My father…” Her voice trailed away.

“Did you get a job, too?”

“Not yet.”

“Would you sing some opera for me?”

“All right,” she said, surprised. She changed the record, and as the music began she straightened her back, lifted her chin, and drew breath. The next instant the small bedroom trembled to a sound like water spilling from a fountain, splashing down fluted tiers, pooling in sunlight, then rising to burst forth again. The girl matched the singer on the record note for note, and when it was over I clapped my hands in delight. She smiled a thank-you and turned off the stereo.

“Did you go to a music school?” I asked.

“No, but I used to have lessons, when we could afford them, when we stayed any where long enough. Maybe if my father sells his invention and times get better, I’ll be able to again.”

“My mother says you have to be in a special school and train all the time to be a ballerina.” I hung my head.“She says it’s already too late for me.”

“That’s not true!”

I raised my head at the conviction in the girl’s voice. She held an album in her hand, and now she clasped her arms across it and held it tightly to her chest like a shield. “That’s not true and don’t you ever believe it.”

“Madame LaValle says I’m a duckling, but I think she meant—”

“She meant you will become a swan.” The girl sat beside me on the bed. “You must believe that and you must never give up, do you promise?”

“I promise,” I said, awed.

“Good.” She took my hand and led me to the door.

“Can I ask you one more thing?” I begged. “What is opera?”

For a moment her face seemed to want to both smile and cry. “Opera?” she said, as if recalling an old joke. “It’s a form of art in which you sing while you’re dying.”

*****

It was the very next night that the third bad thing of the year happened. Or maybe it was two things. I had just finished chopping the cabbage and was tossing it in a bowl with some mayonnaise when my mother returned from work. She set her purse on the counter. Her lips were pressed tight. All the time I was frying the potatoes and setting the table she said nothing. We took our places and waited for my father to come in from the garage.

“I went to the bank today,” my mother said. “I went to get the last bit of money from the savings account to pay the telephone bill.”

A guilty look came over my father’s face. He laughed, a foolish heh-heh-heh that both admitted some mistake and tried to coax his way out of it.

“Where’s the money?” The words hissed between my mother’s teeth.

“Any day now,” my father promised, “bound to be a payoff, the same numbers over and over—Jassy’s birthday, our anniversary…” He offered the bowl of coleslaw. My mother sent it clattering to the floor.

“Where’s the money?” she screamed.

“Lottery tickets,” he mumbled.

My mother collapsed, her head on her arms. Great sobbing sounds gurgled from her body. My father sat back in his chair, stricken. I pushed away my plate and bolted.

I was almost to the opera singer’s house when their car pulled up to the curb and her father got out. I slowed to avoid him, but even at my shuffling pace I crossed his path as he stumbled across the sidewalk. His tie was crooked, and his shirt hung out of his pants. He greeted me with a slurred “H’lo,” then weaved onto the porch. I was staring after him when Deena and Donnie came out eating hot dogs. I ducked into the street and crouched by the fender of the boozer’s car. It was uncomfortable, but at least I was out of sight and close enough to hear when the singing began.

But no opera came, and I thought with disappointment that tonight the girl must have closed her window. Still I sat, calculating—they’ve eaten dinner, her father’s gone to read the paper or fallen asleep, any minute now…Ah! The first faint strains of music had just drifted to the street when they were cut off by a loud crack! I jumped to my feet, the echo washing over me. Next door, Deena and Donnie stood open-mouthed and blinking. In seconds, their parents and several other neighbors appeared. I caught whispers and worried glances as they gathered around the property. Not another noise came from the house, and it seemed a long, long time before a wailing police car and an ambulance arrived.

“Suicide.” The news reached me at the curb. “Blew his brains out.” I clutched at the “his” in relief.

The rescue crew came out of the house, carrying a draped body on a litter. Another squad car arrived bearing the opera singer’s mother. She wore a shabby housedress and a scarf around her faded hair, and when she saw the litter she burst into tears.

“Where will we go now?” she cried to the crowd. “How will we live?”

Last, escorted by a policeman, the opera singer emerged. She turned and carefully shut and locked the door. Then she paused, returning the silent stare of the neighborhood with a face so pale and composed and a bearing so proud I felt my chest swell. As she walked to the car she clasped her arms to her chest as if she held an invisible shield.

Deena sidled up to me. “So what do you think of old Skinny Legs now?” she taunted. “Singing her dumb head off while in the very next room her father shoots himself. ‘Course he was drunk, so maybe it didn’t hurt. But you know what she did? Before she called the cops she cleaned up all his brains up so her mother wouldn’t hafta see.”

Deena’s sniveling face leered at me, and with a feeling like joy I punched her smack between the eyes. Her legs flew out, her mouth flew open, and her bottom landed where her feet had just been. I composed my expression. I straightened my spine. Without a word I turned on my heel and walked away.

In our house my mother lay face down, moaning on the sofa. My father coaxed and fidgeted, a useless glass of water in his hand. I went to my bedroom and closed the door. From my closet I took the white tutu Madame LaValle had given me.

Look at the neck, the legs, a duckling still but—

I fluffed the tulle skirt. I twisted my hair into a knot and pinned the feathered headpiece to my head. Right, left, my arms floated out like graceful wings. I rose on my toes, heart beating like a bird poised for flight.

(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1994)

Santa Clara Review, Winter 1994

~ Return to the list of stories ~