A Cappella

By Erin Lynn Cook

Awebbigail’s vocal instructor picked the C minor scale on his Gibson. The amp was turned low. He fingered the strings absent-mindedly, as if both the neck and the base were mere extensions of his arms. It seemed like breathing for him and Abigail could feel her own shallow inhales and exhales as his notes slid up and down her spine. He looked up with an expression of curiosity, as if being watched were a unique experience, while his old basketball sneaker tapped time, the white rubber toe moving up and down.

Abigail wasn’t alone, of course, there was an entire roomful of madrigal female singers, all with their mouths in perfect O’s mimicking the scale as it rose up and down. They were the elite choral group of the high school, capable of phonating with the minor scales and sight reading unfamiliar music scores.

“Now E,” he said. “Let’s hear Eee, make sure there’s a smile at the end with each one. Really enunciate.”

The students sang through a succession of vocalises to practice good articulation. One thing Abigail now knew was that even a beautiful voice can’t be understood if the singer is inarticulate. She felt awkward at first opening her mouth with such exaggeration, but Mr. Spivey, her instructor, had told her she was cutting off the ends of her words. So she practiced everywhere, carefully enunciating each vowel, each consonant. “Think alpha and omega, Abby, you must begin and end each word for clarity.”

Mr. Spivey had looked at her when he said this with his long fingers making pinching signs to indicate how to open and close each word.

 *   *   *

“You sound funny,” her brother had said. “Like a choppy record or something.”

Abigail had practiced at the dinner table at home. She spoke as clearly as she could, imagining Mr. Spivey nodding his head with approbation. She ended each word with emphasis placed on the last consonant. When she said “I would like some bread please,” the sounds “d” “k” “m” “d” “s” stood out like exclamation points. Her brother, Gerald, at the age of nine, stuck his tongue out at her as far as it could go. Her father cleared his throat to suppress a laugh and her mother passed her the bread without a flinch.

The next day in class she was excited to perform the classical operatic piece she’d been working on: “I Attempt from Love’s Sickness to Fly,” by Henry Purcell. She went through the warm-ups with everyone, opening her mouth wide and breathing from her diaphragm, not shallow like a girl, but deep. She felt as if she were the Gibson guitar, resonating in the hollowed body against the tonewood.

When warm-ups were finished, it was time for solo pieces. Most of her classmates were practicing modern arias from popular musicals, like Xanadu, or Grease, trying to be the next Olivia Newton John, but Abigail had chosen seventeenth-century a cappella. It made her nervous to sing while standing in front of Mr. Spivey on guitar, so she resolved to sing alone.

She felt brave and singular. At home that morning she had practiced her articulation while singing it everywhere: in the shower, combing her hair, applying deodorant, and brushing her teeth. Gerald stood outside the closed bathroom door and sang a sneering version of it back to her in a nasally whiney voice, “Since I am myself my own fever and pain.” He exaggerated the words fever and pain, mocking the soft yearning embedded in the lyrics. She wanted to swing open the door and backhand him, to send him flying, like her love’s sickness, against the wall, but instead she left the house early for school.

Mr. Spivey called on her to stand.

She stood and faced the class, her chin high to avoid eye contact and possible trembling in her mouth. Most of the other girls were busy applying Bonnie Bell lip gloss from big tubes. Flavors like root beer and Dr. Pepper and cherry. Flavors they boasted the boys liked to kiss. When applied, their lips looked like reddish smears from snails. Abigail had a grape flavor an aunt gave her, but when she wore it her lips turned purple like Violet Beauregarde.

Mr. Spivey sat on his stool, his gray mass of hair silver flames down to his collar bone. He looked at her with searing blue eyes and seemed to wait impatiently for her to begin. A quick smile passed over his mouth, shadow-like, and she wasn’t sure if it had been real.

“Deep breath, Abby,” he said. “From the middle, deep, feel your belly rise.” He placed his hand on his own diaphragm to demonstrate how it should look and feel. He breathed in as if diving under water for as long as possible.

Abigail did as instructed. A girl named Beth giggled. Her pink Chemin de fer pants were the sailor style, six buttons on either side. Abigail imagined her  lying on her bedroomfloor to suck in her stomach just to fit into them. Beth smirked when Mr. Spivey eyed her giggling and when he turned his head she rolled her eyes.

Abigail concentrated. The first words were forming in her mind. It was a simple song, really. The lyrics weren’t difficult, it was the transitional notes that startled her with their complexities. Her lips separated to form the first word “I.”

There was only one boy allowed in the madrigal’s room. His name was Tommy and he also played guitar. He was like Mr. Spivey’s sidekick. His Tonto. He sat on a guitar stool like Mr. Spivey, though his frog legs spread wide while Mr. Spivey’s were tastefully closed. His fingers strummed his knees nervously as if in conversation with Abigail’s own nerves. Tommy was nice enough, he was just unappealing. There was no romance to him. A plain Jane in a boy.

It seemed minutes had passed since Mr. Spivey had called her to sing, but when she glanced at the big clock the second hand was just ticking around to the half minute mark. Mr. Spivey nodded to her, a cue to begin.

She sang. “I attempt from love’s sickness to fly in vain.” The word fly had to be held out to cover all ten distinctly separate notes. It made a total of twenty-three notes to hit in the first line alone. The next line had fewer notes, only thirteen, as she sang, “Since I am myself my own fever and pain.” The word fever was drawn out. Fly fever. It made sense to her. An epiphany in the midst of performing. Fly and fever. She was feeling the words vibrate in her heart, like feathers tickling the sole of her foot. She wondered if she’d felt anything akin to the sensation before. It was a transformative feeling that made her both sad and glad, like a Doctor Seuss character. If she could realize how innocent she was, the feeling would remind her of a white Chrysanthemum, truth, because innocence is complete honesty.

Tommy stopped strumming his knee and his fingers flattened on the leg of his Levis. Mr. Spivey looked away, an attempt at distraction.

In the long five minutes she sung, her gaze was kept  above the heads of all. When she finished there was only a soft sound of rubbing material and skin on skin. It was as if all the girls together decided to shift in their seats, their pant legs rubbing against each other, their hands against their bare arms. Tommy’s fingers were still splayed out like fans on his knees, but they had ceased to move.

Mr. Spivey cleared his throat. “Nice, Abby, a good choice for you.”

He moved the class forward with little delay while Abby sat carefully in a folded out chair and felt warm. If her mother put the glass thermometer under her tongue she suspected it might read over a hundred. She may have to lie in her bed listening to records on her mom’s turn table. Abigail had only a few albums of her own, Supertramp’s Breakfast in America and in the last year she’d saved up enough to buy Blondie’s Parallel Lines and The Cars. They were a few years old, but the DJ played them so much Abigail grew to love them.

She listened remotely as Beth sang her solo. Nothing was as intoxicating as the growing feeling of warmth in her belly. It sprouted up through her and made her face pink. Beth’s red glossy lips hung in her vision like overripe strawberries devoid of all lustre. The buttons on Beth’s pants like asterix signaling a truth beyond her recognition.

 *   *   *

The bell rang. Mr. Spivey had already rested his guitar in its stand and had gone into his little office with a big glass window. It was time for Anatomy and Physiology. Abigail collected her belongings and thought of her locker combination as she frequently did prior to opening it. It was a ritual: 10, 27, 38. The numbers clashed so much in her memory that the only way to recall the numbers sufficiently before the rush to open, shove, grab, and close the metal door was to recite them in her mind. It was the same with directions. A month prior her mother had allowed her to drive them both to San Francisco for a day’s excursion and when Abigail had to choose between north or south on the 99, she started towards south before her mom quickly corrected her, teasing her relentlessly the entire drive.

She was concentrating on her numbers infusing them with bits of the song’s lyrics she’d sung only a half an hour before when she heard her name called.

Mr. Spivey had emerged from his office. He leaned against the door frame waiting for her to respond. She nodded at him, as if a nod would quell whatever criticism he might be about to impart based on her performance.

“What made you choose that song?” He paused as if the question weren’t presented the way he intended. “I mean, it’s classical—operatic. Girls these days like singing Pat Benatar or Annie Lennox or that new gal, what’s her name? Madonna? Why did you choose that old love song?”

Abigail was taken aback. When confronted with questions of her intent she often balked. A question of, Are you sure you’re done with your test?, from a teacher may bring a sense of panic that she had missed some crucial question or misread essential points. Are you sure you want a taco instead of a burrito? may make her doubt her own taste buds, preferring the other simply because the choice was presented to her.

Sure she liked Pat Benatar, one boy had told her she looked like her. And she liked older tunes like John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Jim Croce’s “Operator.” She thought about telling Mr. Spivey the truth: it makes me nervous to watch you playing while I sing. Or was that the truth? Now she doubted her reasoning for choosing an archaic instrument-less song. Did she think she was better than the others to choose classical music over contemporary?

But Mr. Spivey wouldn’t hear all the workings in her mind, instead he heard her say, “I don’t know. Was it not a good choice?”

He nodded. “It was fine, very nice. Nice work.” He turned to go back to his office and Abigail sensed that she’d lost an opportunity somehow. She didn’t respond the right way, the words she chose were not the right ones. When he got to the door he turned again and said, “Have you considered where you’re going to school next year?”

It was early fall. The weather was still hot. Though her senior year had kicked into full swing with heavy workloads in her required classes, she still felt that it was summer. College was still a year away in her mind.

She shook her head at his question. The thought had not occurred to her, yet.

“Well, I just thought perhaps you ought to consider auditioning for some music schools. It might not be the direction you were considering, but it’s worth a thought or two.” He looked at her sharply and Abigail thought he was angry. She had disappointed him somehow by not thinking earlier of college. She was feeling disappointment for her own lack of efforts and enthusiasm. Why hadn’t she considered music school? Why hadn’t she been able to spout off a list of prestigious universities she planned to apply to? Why couldn’t she talk when she was around Mr. Spivey or anyone, really, for that matter? And why did she continue to stand there gaping when she should excuse herself to work the combination on her locker?

Mr. Spivey helped by saying, “Have a good day, Abby. Just think of it, that’s all.”

She nodded and left his room.

 *   *   *

Tommy was lingering near her locker. He didn’t wear a backpack and only carried a stack of books from one class to the next. He held them like he held his guitar, low on his arm, but it was awkward with books, as they slipped down the length of his forearm at odd angles and seemed to be ready to fall.

“Hey,” he said to her.

Abigail nodded at him. She busied herself with her locker combination, the numbers seemed to float and not connect. She turned the dial again and it finally clicked. She retrieved her Anatomy book, a striking picture of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man on the cover, arms and legs outstretched like a man on the rack. A boy who sat next to her had pointed to the man’s private parts the first day they were issued the texts. He had whispered that he was much bigger if she wanted to see, and Abigail had turned away, later she asked her instructor to move her seat and offered no explanation when the teacher asked why. She couldn’t say. Her Vitruvian Man, however, was now hidden by a brown grocery bag book cover with simply the words Anatomy Physiology printed large on the cover. Only the cover never truly hid the man beneath. The figure had been cemented in her mind’s eye, like looking too long at a bright light or the sun, its shadow appeared everywhere she blinked. She blushed just thinking about it.

“What class do you have next?” Tommy said.



She closed her locker and turned the knob. Careful to not have it land on the first number of her combination.

Tommy followed a step behind. She could see his footfalls next to hers. He wore surfer-type shoes and a Dr. Zog’s Sex Wax shirt. The tee-shirt was against the school dress code. It was the first time Abigail noticed any particular detail about Tommy since he was always hidden behind Mr. Spivey.

“You sang great,” he said. He quickened his pace to be in stride with her. She turned her head slightly to see his profile. He had thick wavey brown hair that fell like Mr. Spivey’s down his neck. His eyes, too, were similar in color. She hadn’t noticed how blue they seemed to be. “You choose that song, or did, you know, Spivey choose it?”

“I did. I don’t think he liked it.”

“No?” He sounded sincerely surprised. “He looked pretty impressed. I mean, for him, you know. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what he’s got going on upstairs.”

“Like smarts? You mean you think he’s not intelligent or something?”

“Not that, really, just that, you know, he’s hard to read is all.”

They walked along for several paces without talking anymore. Abigail felt inelegant. She didn’t know if she should continue talking with him or let the silence prevail. It stayed quiet long enough to become almost comfortable. As if having Tommy walk alongside her were more or less a normal occurrence.

“Well, I’ll let you go. You probably have some things to do before class. I just wanted to say hey and tell you it sounded real good, Abby. If you ever want me to accompany you, you know, on the guitar, just let me know.”

Abigail paused. She was a few doors away from her Anatomy class. Tommy paused too, then he turned abruptly and walked back down the same corridor he’d been walking along with her. Apparently he had gone out of his way.

 *   *   *

At home she told her mom about the solo performance. She told her Mr. Spivey suggested she apply to music colleges. Her mom stood at the kitchen counter dicing up a white onion for dinner, her eyes and nose were watering. “Could you grab me a tissue, Abby?”

Abigail reached up to a shelf above the oven and handed her one. “What do you think, Mom? Think I should?”

“What’s that, honey?”

“Apply to a music college.”

“Well, I think it’d be very difficult to find a job with just that kind of degree, don’t you think? I mean, it seems something like nursing would be more practical, then you could do your music stuff on the side. You know, a hobby.”

She pushed the onions into a frying pan and handed Abigail a block of cheese. “Could you grate this for me, sweetie? We need about a cup.”

Abigail wanted to tell her mom more. She wanted to explain about how Mr. Spivey had expressed his opinion so pointedly and seemed almost disappointed that she hadn’t considered it before. She wanted her mom to take her music as seriously as he seemed to. She wanted to tell her that she chose the classical piece because singing in front of her vocal instructor was difficult. But her mom had moved on to something new. She was now cooking up the ground beef for the pasta sauce. It would be a good meal.

At dinner she broached the subject with her father. He had only an hour before heading back to the store for the last two hours. Dinner usually consisted of her parents discussing her father’s day. When she was little she had to eat in the laundry room on several occasions because she couldn’t keep food from dropping onto the table or the floor. Her father didn’t like messy eaters and once informed her that eating in the bathtub might be more appropriate.

There was a lull in the conversation about customers and employees and her father turned to Abigail and Gerald to ask how their day’s had been. They both started talking at once. Her brother kept getting louder and louder and Abigail was frustrated. What she had to say was much more important than what his teacher had said about his mission project.

“I want to go to music college,” she finally said, louder than she anticipated.

Her father looked at her and shook his head. “Wouldn’t be very practical. Do it as a hobby, Abby. Musicians and artists rarely earn enough money to sustain a decent life. You need to have a career, then do your music thing on the side.”

It was as if her mom and dad had talked behind her back, but she had seen her father drive into the driveway in his olive green Buick, open the driver’s side door, and come in through the garage, all from the dining room window while her mom was still in the kitchen. When he’d entered, he’d kissed her mom and patted her rear end, then sat at his desk and began to sort through the mail. There had been no real opportunity for secret whispers, or had there?

However it happened, her parents were on the same page. Her brief pursuit of music school was thwarted in a single evening.

 *   *   *

After dinner she watched Fantasy Island. Mr. Roarke was battling the devil over some island guestsʼ souls. Roddey McDowall played Mephistopheles with small reddish horns on his forehead revealed at the end. It was eery and comical. Abigail thought of a line from her English class about looking like an innocent flower but being the serpent underneath. She wondered if she had enough gumption to be an innocent seeming serpent.

And if she could, what kind of serpent would she become?

 *   *   *

On Sunday her family went to church twice: in the morning and the evening.

It was a large sanctuary with high vaulted ceilings and dark wooden beams. There were elongated stained glass windows in jeweled colors and from the balcony where in the morning Abigail and her friends liked to sit, she could see clearly the darkened led lines separating each piece of colored glass. The pictures on the windows were strange renditions of stages of the cross. They reminded her of being in a catholic church, though the large wooden cross at the front of the sanctuary hanging just above the baptismal indicated this was a protestant church, Baptist.

At church she felt more at ease. She had grown up with these kids, had gone to summer camp, and over-night youth trips with them, had shared sleeping bags and awkwardly kissed at least two of the boys in the choir room behind the rows and rows of blue choral robes.

She and her friends loved to sing the hymns. It was there, at church, where she first learned to sight read the music and sing the harmony rather than the melody lines. Her favorite hymn was sung at every Sunday evening service—”Beneath the Cross of Jesus.” Its harmony was eery and dark, especially the line: the shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land. The pastor always ended every Sunday night service with that hymn, the lights were lowered and only the cross glowed, lit up from beneath. The organ filled the sanctuary with rich notes, like the jeweled colored glass hanging up high. There was something sensual about the song, if she were capable of articulating such a thought, like the idea of innocence and honesty, sensuality was only just forming. On Sunday evenings she had to sit with her family on the red upholstered pew benches, enough room between her and Gerald to leave a satisfying gap.

“The wonders of redeeming love and my unworthiness,” she sang that Sunday evening. And as she sang the line, her love’s sickness came strongly to the forefront. She began to sing the words to her a cappella song instead of her favorite hymn: For love has more power and less mercy than fate, to make us seek ruin, and love those that hate. The words meshed nicely with the darkness of the hymn and filled her again with the heat from her classroom performance. She was sure she was feverish. If Gerald could see her clearly in the darkened sanctuary he would laugh at how red she felt her face to be. She imagined his chortling, “You’re like a beet!” and then his characteristic teasing, “Abby’s in lo-ove!” She imagined elbowing him in the ribs hard several times to make him stop and then his complaint to her mother that she was beating him up.

It was a play ready to be enacted.

She put her two cool palms against her cheeks where they burned, and then shut her eyes tight.  Under the lids tears formed.  And when she opened them they ran hot down her cheeks. There is no real explanation for this, she exclaimed in her mind. No reason at all!

That night under cover of her sheets she sought solace and self-redemption, her mind’s needle vibrating over her grooves.

 *   *   *

The next day at school the madrigals were back to their normal daily routine. Solo performances were over and Mr. Spivey was dictating and directing a new series of music to lumber through that would constitute  the scores for their fall performances. New dresses had to be made, with the material chosen by Abigail’s mother and two of the other madrigal moms. They were all seamstresses and came to class to take the girls’ measurements for the patterns. Each dress would be fitted to the girl.

Mr. Spivey met with the mothers in his office where behind the glass window Abigail could see her own mother’s face tilted up towards his. Her mother looked odd sitting next to Mr. Spivey. Mr. Spivey was younger, but his hair had grayed, while her mother’s hair was brown but still done up in the style of a decade ago. Abigail was embarrassed. Why didn’t her mother perm her hair like the other moms? Why didn’t she grow it longer and not keep it ratted up high on top?

Abigail thought of her own permed curls, which, if left to nature, would be straight and silky. The roots were growing out exposing the straight natural lines of her hair and it was time for another permanent, but she didn’t like going to her mom’s beauty parlor where they used old fashioned tight rods giving her uniformed small curls that shrank her hair up short. Abigail felt her hair never looked like the full wavy curls of Tatum O’Neal or Brooke Shields, but instead was poodle-like for at least two weeks after every perm.

But Abigail’s outdated mother was making Mr. Spivey laugh.

She knew it was her mother who was making him laugh because his face was turned towards her mom’s, his smile wide, teeth showing, in real enjoyment. And for a brief moment he glanced through the window and caught Abigail’s eyes and winked. Just once. If she hadn’t been watching at just that moment, she wouldn’t have noticed the gesture of familiarity.  Her insides contracted and there was a sensation that someone else had seen, though when she glanced, no one was looking.

She and the other madrigals were seated in a circle. She played cat’s cradle with one of the girls. Her fingers were entwined in white butcher’s string, the tips turning a light shade of purple while the other girl tightened the string to invert Abigail’s design upside down onto her own fingers.

It was a child’s game and Abigail suddenly felt foolish and relaxed her fingers until the string went limp. The girl she was playing with complained. “Sorry,” Abigail responded. And in the fall of an eyelash the girl was playing Jacob’s ladder with another madrigal. The fickleness of favor had turned.

The mothers and Mr. Spivey emerged from their meeting. All faces were smiling. Her mother’s rich colored Hawaiian print skirt with large macaws and palm fronds, home-made, of course, swung loosely at her calves. She had sewn a matching print top that tucked in smartly, though the style was to wear stripes or solids. She stuck out from the other mothers who had shoulder pads under their tailored shirts and straight skirts or jeans.

Mr. Spivey came up to the circle of girls and told them to stand. There was a collective knowledge that he wanted them to perform for the mothers.

The madrigals stood and took their places, a half ring around their instructor. Mr. Spivey sat on his stool and placed his guitar in his lap then began to strum “Edelweiss” while the madrigals sang in perfect harmony, each coming in at their own moment with another layer. It was simple and complex. Abigail enjoyed it.

Though it was after school, Tommy came into the room. He stood off to the side and watched as Mr. Spivey finished up the song amidst the appealing lauds of praise from the mothers.

Tommy caught Abigail’s eyes and nodded, as if they already had an arrangement. Abigail turned her head and saw that Beth had seen the brief exchange. There was a smile forming on her glossy reddened lips. Then Beth glanced at Mr. Spivey and Abigail knew that Beth had also seen Mr. Spivey’s wink while her mother made him laugh.

The tense moment with Beth was no more than ten seconds, but the dark realization, the understanding that loomed unexpectedly on Abigail, that somehow she was a deflowered serpent, would linger long after. She felt as if she were alone on a stage, a singular perfomer with no accompaniment, singing a cappella.

Heat spread on her face as she watched the jeweled colors of the stained glass windows flow through her mother’s skirt.


Erin Lynn Cook‘s fiction has been published in numerous journals including South Dakota Review, Harpur Palate, Slice Magazine, and Quiddity, among others.  She is a high school and college writing instructor and the mom of two awesome guys.

Comments are closed.