He was the boy with a dog. Standing in the first row, singing, she'd turn sometimes when she heard his voice: first tenor, clear and bright. For days he'd wear the same baggy sweater -- burgundy; worn at the elbows, covered always with lint. Once, before her family moved to Paradise Valley; her father had promised she could have a dog.
He wasn't from here either. In 1978, nobody was. He was new -- a transfer, midsemester, from Illinois. He was quiet, and shy, and strangely confident of his own voice, as if just waiting to be discovered. Standing there, with him behind her in the choir, his sweater all full of fur, she would listen to him pierce a high C. She knew a lot about scales, would spend ten minutes a day, the start of each practice, warming up on her flute. In the afternoons, after arriving home, having departed the bus, having walked the three long blocks in the sunshine home, there she would wait for her father to call from his office and ask if she'd practiced yet. In Paradise Valley, the streets were newly paved, and there were no sidewalks, or telephone poles. Her father, excited about the possibilities of fiber optics, explained that here communication traveled underground. He explained that here everything was new. The valley, he explained, was fed by a series of rivers, the Salt and the Verde, the Gila, tributaries of the Colorado now linked by a growing system of canals and locks which had brought their family, as well as everybody else, here to live. At home, meanwhile, she spent a lot of time practicing, even if she knew it would be hopeless. She was good enough to know why she would never be really good -- exceptional, her father would say, hopefully. She was smart enough to know the world didn't need another girl who could play the flute.
Once a guy learned she could play the flute, she knew precisely what he thought about. When she played, she'd lift the piece to her mouth, set her lip, her wrist now in full display. She kept her sleeves uncuffed, each rolled twice, but never more. The scars from a childhood accident began at her fingertips and ran past her elbow, toward her shoulder. When people asked what had happened, usually girls, because guys were too ashamed to admit they had noticed...whenever a girl asked what had happened, she always wanted to know just how.
A pot of boiling water? You were eleven?
Elizabeth doesn't remember any of it clearly. She doesn't recall the trip to the hospital, the sirens lit up like a parade, bright as day. Her mother once confessed the police had called to check up on her. They worried, her mother explained, it might have been done on purpose -- the water, scalding, and the flesh it had destroyed there on her arm. Now her mother says that true pain is always merciful. It hurts only by way of memory, long after the fact, and by then it has become bittersweet: like a kiss, provided by a shy boy you will not grow up to marry; or a slap delivered sharply by somebody you have been instructed by your life to love. Somehow, her mother says, tenderly, you have been made...not necessarily better, but stronger...for it.
Do you see?
It's not the pain which matters, she has come to realize, but the way you carry the memory of it with you afterward. Each day she would rise, and dress, and then roll up the cuffs of her sleeves. When she was tan it was easier not to notice. In Paradise Valley, you could spend a lot of time working on your tan. In the pool, swimming, like a fish, her father says...in the pool, swimming, you could let the water lead you to reflection. The sun also provided a fine excuse to put lotion on your body. On one arm, the skin was gnarled, twisted with burnt tendons and ligaments, its design complicated further by repeated skin grafts lifted from her hip and thigh. But on the other...the other...and her shoulders, her belly, and those places surrounding those territories plundered for grafts...there the skin was smooth as water. Eager as light. There she felt it possible to slip away inside herself, often, as if she were a dream.
Nights she found herself dreaming about the boy with the dog. He was short, almost scrawny, with black curly hair, and he could hit a high C. His name was Irish, like a song, the way you could cause the name to lilt, lingering a while in the back of your mind, or throat. Sometimes a boyfriend would call her up, usually after eleven, while she lay in bed dreaming about the boy with a dog.
"What are you thinking about?"
And then one night she realized it was best never to ask a question unless you really wanted to hear the answer.
McConnell...that was his name. Patrick McConnell. The boy with a dog. The boy who could hit a high C and make your flesh goosepimple -- the skin, rising of its own accord, as if to meet with someone warm. The boy who sat by himself during fourth period while she walked by every day with Bittner, or others, and who always pretended not to notice, never looking up even to catch her eye. Still, she noticed things. She noticed he wrote with his left hand, that he read from a different paperback each week, often tucking one into the back pocket of his jeans; she noticed his eyes, blue, and the nails bitten to the quick, and the old leather shoes with bright red laces. He had skin like a baby, too -- opalescent, and sweet. Once she even stood behind him in a line. Then she pressed her body into him, like a kiss, and held it there.
"Oh," he said, turning.
"I'm sorry," she said, pleased with the excuse.
He smelled like fresh laundry and wet wool and bread. His sweater was dark as blood, nearly threadbare, and then he receded, farther into the line, into the throng, until he disappeared entirely from view.
That night she had a dream he came to her.
Copyright © 1998 by T. M. McNally