Volume 28, Number 2

Tried So Hard to Get the Twang out my Mouth

Perry Genovesi

While Stephanie strummed slow, sad arpeggios, the guitar let out a strange cry—yes, a cry. And in rocketing up from the tree stump where she sat, Stephanie nearly flipped the guitar into the pond.

Carefully at first, like touching an anthill, she turned the guitar over. Brushed some dirt off. She leaned it against the tree and just looked at it, backing up and then walking around the length of the pond. Then she sat back down and picked it up again. It felt hot.

“How does it feel?” she asked the guitar, and she felt the slight pull of the string on her finger and moved her hand to the raised humps of the frets, pulled now by some strange force to the C#. And then like floss the string popped under her fingernail.

The world turned black; she was underwater.

Something held her in place. It was showing her what it felt like to be used. Her lungs collapsed. She clawed at the surface, and then she was back, crawling out of the pond, and the back of her throat tasted blood. Her arms and legs tingled. Touching the guitar again made its point—the point of the note, the C# clear—it wanted to be free.

After lunch she went to the room outside the band room: it was time for her lesson. She sat down in the rough plastic chair. The music stand she set her Methods book on wobbled to one side and the metal leg touched down on the floor with a bang. Her teacher, Dale, came into the room. He was wearing a washed-black polo with the collar blown open. Ruddy brown chest hair sprung from the bottom of his neck. She didn’t like Dale.

There were rumors he’d worked a corporate job before teaching music to high schoolers, rumors that he used to make it a point of showing his anger to the younger men he was working with, especially his interns. He used to pretend he was yelling at someone on the phone when he was really yelling into the dial tone—just so his colleagues could see this and know his authority.

A political favor from their principal had made him a music teacher.

He peered out the door. Then, without taking out his guitar, he sat down next to her. He touched his finger to the bottom of his nose. “Do you know why it reached out to you?”

Stephanie shook her head no, and then clasped the underside of the seat, feeling a wad of gum on her finger.

He took out his guitar. “Think about ‘Louie Louie,’ he said. On his forehead just above his eyes, a patch of skin the color of cheesecloth shone. “Think about it!” Then his black acoustic’s in his hand. He started fingerpicking, his long fingers crawling and brushing. “You don’t want to rip the heart and soul away from music!” How did he know?

She peeled the book open to page 15: when the piece switched to adagio. The music stand stayed right. Dale stopped playing. “I think,” he said, “that if you surveyed 99.9 percent of the people on this planet, they’d feel the same way. Music’s here for our enjoyment. He took a foil wrapped-strip of gum out of this pocket, put in his mouth then smacked the white powder off his knees. She just watched. There was a lot of powder for just one piece of bubblegum.

She broke the silence. “That’s distracting,” she said. “All that powder.”

He stopped brushing to look at her. “They say Prometheus took music from the Gods in Greek myth. They used to hoard it up there, for themselves.”

“I don’t think that’s right,” Stephanie said. “Anyway, 99.9 percent of the planet can think whatever they want. I’m not interested in them. I’m interested in what the note thinks.”

“The note doesn’t think.

“Can we change the subject?”

So he gruffly switched on the metronome, way too slowly, but that was OK since she was able to let her mind rise about the valley of the scales—avoiding any C#’s—and drift. Music had always come easy to her, and she’d been able to switch off her eyes and fingers, leave them soaring on the strings while she explored the cave of her thoughts, enhanced and amplified by performing. How had Dale known? Casey must’ve told him. She had heard about his anger, that he could get angry, though she’d never seen it herself—she decided not to test him. But when she checked in on herself from above, she saw her head a storm. Was she making the right decision in thinking about freeing the C#?

When she was ready to make the decision, she’d return to the pond. She would be lying to herself if she thought she wouldn’t miss being able to use that note. Bands working the bridge to a new song would balk at finding their hook missing a leg. But that was the thing—she knew that to be played was agony, claustrophobic. It had shown her. Like being belted into the backseat for hours and not being able to stretch as you just watched while your parents drove. But what would she tell the singers who would wake up and feel like a part of their throat had been cut out when they can’t hit their note?

While the note was just one in an ocean, she knew it constituted some of her favorite musical moments. The high notes Morrissey hits in “William, it was Really Nothing,” that chorus that imbues with a red ripe sheen the curves of driveways she’d pass out the school bus window. She’d miss the feeling of a whole song.

“Prometheus brought fire,” said Dale suddenly, scratching his chin and then his neck. She stopped playing. “So what if you found out that fire feels its own heat? That it burned to be consumed in flames? Would you call for a moratorium then?”

“I don’t think I want to talk about this anymore,” she said.

“I’m serious,” he said. He clamped his hand on the fretboard, which made her seat squeal. “You don’t have to answer me right now. I just want you to consider. We can’t make an exception for everything we use.”

Now she was in the principal’s office. They stood very close to her.

Dale touched his finger to the bottom of his nose. “Do you know why it reached out to you?” he asked.

Stephanie shook her head no.

“Dale’s one of my very good friends,” said the Principal. He’s a very busy man and took a lot of time out of his busy day to meet with you,” she croaked. “You know he serves on our Board.”

Stephanie leaned forward “What do you do on the Board?”

Dale leaned forward—far forward, and turned his wedding ring. “We’re like the ones steering this great ship,” said Dale, and he stretched his arms out to emphasize. Then he said, “That’s too much to want of people—to ask them to give up a note.” He scratched his ankle under his snowman sock. “Music brings people joy. I used to work as a music therapist. Do you know what that is?”

“You used to help people with—”

“Veterans. With PTSD. People in need.”

The principal nodded.

“Music helps people, Stephanie. It always has. Why would you want to take that away?”

She shifted in her seat. Her arguments were failing to launch. “Were you ever a student here?” said Stephanie.

Dale and the principal looked at each other like statues dumped on by birds. “Music helps people,” he repeated. “Why would you want to take that away?”

Her t-shirt quivered over her heart, and where the string slid under her fingernail felt like a bee sting. She shot up. “I’m not taking anything away if it was never ours to begin with! People like you refuse to look at the whole picture, from the beginning to now. You only want to frame it in a way that most benefits you.” To her horror, he rose too, pushing himself up from the seat with his palms, brushing off his stomach. They looked at each other, and then she looked at the door.


At the pond, she cupped her hands on either side of her neck to wipe sweat. She adjusted her seat on the trunk, watched a mango-colored fish dart under the water’s lid. She watched headlights pass through tree-trunks.

Music played.

A twig snapped behind her.

He said he had come to talk to her and didn’t want to scare her.


“So this is the young woman?” said Dale’s wife, whose name was Carla. Stephanie thought she was very beautiful, the kind of woman who probably wore mink coats if she were alive in the 1950’s. Their kitchen was red and orange, McDonald’s colors. The word splashback came into her head from some home TV show.

”I’ve just gotten so used to criticizing people,” he said. “Every day of my life.” Dale was wiping his forehead with a cold washcloth. “It’s like, I once knew a guy who refused to buy an iPhone because some poor sap in Honduras made them for pennies on the dollar. And while I pray for these people it’s like, what can we do?”

“Do you want to talk a little bit more about why you brought her here?,” said Carla.

“It’s like I was telling you, she’s about to make a bad decision. It’s going to impact a lot of people. I thought bringing her here would help.”

Stephanie watched as he rolled first a red napkin on the table and then his wedding ring, and then he set his hands down flat.

“My dear,” said Carla. “You’re very pretty. Did he … bring you here … of your own accord?”

“Stop—stop this,” said Dale. “Stephanie, we just want to talk about the decision you want to make.”

“It’s been made,” she said. “The note’s free, and it’s never going to know hurt or pain again.” She slid back in the wooden seat until her spine pushed between the rails.

“What?” Dale squealed his chair back and left through the front, feverishly whistling in starts and stops, and came back with a brick-red acoustic guitar. He kicked the chair toward him and started thumbing around the fretboard and, sure enough, only dull thuds, like coins plunking floors, came from where the C# used to be. Stephanie watched his bald spot.

As the strumming flooded the kitchen, Carla reached across the table and touched her sleeve. “I’m proud of you. Dale had the opportunity once too, when he was your age—that’s how he found you. The C# reached out to him when he was just a boy—your age—but he decided he didn’t want it going free.”


Carla’s revelation had so engrossed Stephanie that she missed Dale setting the guitar on the chair he’d been sitting in. Then she felt his wood-smelling hands clutched around her throat. The kitchen table felt cold on her cheek. She could hear Dale’s breaths and grunts and her lack of them, and then the volume rising on Carla’s voice and then something nuzzling, digging and then release.

Two young women, Dale’s daughters maybe, had come downstairs and appeared then in the hallway. They looked like The Shining.


Stephanie walked past the Macy’s on Market Street. Ice had slicked the sidewalk, and busses twisted around City Hall. Her scarf was rough against her upper lip. People gathered around one of the window displays, a cluster of coats: burgundy, gray, cerulean. When she got closer, she realized they were watching a Christmas musical—a song from A Christmas Carol—a song full of C#’s. And they were still there, since only new notes had been liberated. The light from the screen slicked their faces.

She shuddered. Listening to these notes now felt offensive, obscene, in bad taste. Listening to a C# had become something like a taboo. Even though it was only a recording, knowing the note had been twisting and squirming in its capsule of air—and the passersby’s apparent fascination with listening to this being in shackles—for they all knew by now they were being soothed by a creature who was wailing and crying for help. How could they live with themselves, especially now that they knew they had been hurting something?

One of the figures was Dale.

He had been out since last year, but there was still paperwork to file. He turned toward her. “It’s like I always said. People can’t be bothered to think that far past themselves. People have to work, you know? People have to … feed their families. These are immediate, pressing concerns. Life-death situations. Unfortunately—and it is unfortunate because I know you give a shit, people usually just have what’s right in front of them to deal with. You’ll understand when you get to be my age.”

She tells him to go fuck himself.

And with that, he walked back East toward City Hall, and she never saw him again.