How good was proved the heart that is in blameless Penelope.
Homer, The Odyssey
Lake Superior is the largest, deepest, and coldest of the five Great Lakes. The other four emptied into its basin would leave room and then some for the ten thousand and more lakes Minnesota claims within its borders. Lake Superior’s water could cover North and South American with a waking pool nine inches deep. Agates of exceptional beauty are strewn along its beaches with pebbles worn smooth by the action of its waves. Its rock is the oldest on the face of the earth. From most points on its shoreline of over two thousand miles, its opposite shore cannot be seen.
Like any ocean, this vast lake encourages speculation and wonderment. It has its own folklore and mysteries; its ghosts and ghost ships; its own Flying Dutchman; and its pirates, sea shanties, and even a few mermaids. Its depths, darker than the darkest nights, are littered with shipwrecks and human remains preserved in water too cold to support bacterial decay. Here science and superstition agree: This lake truly never gives up its dead. Its drowned mariners have no graves but the lake. Their names can be found inscribed on plaques, like the one destroyed in a Bell Harbor church fire fifteen years ago. St. John Vianney Church was soon rebuilt in a modern design. The plaque bearing names no one alive could remember from two shipwrecks nearly a century ago was never replaced.
Not all of Lake Superior’s well-kept secrets lie inscrutably in its cold, dark depths, the stuff of speculation, legend, and sea song. Some are within easier reach on shore in the light of day but equally unknown. One is to be found in the cheery company of Sister Hilaria and her third-graders at St. John Vianney School adjacent the new church. Almost a generation of eight-year-olds have stowed their snow boots and hung their coats and scarves beneath the high shelf holding a brown cardboard box among three others of the same color, size, and shape, one to its right and two to its left.
The names of school subjects written on the boxes suggest they contain old textbooks and outdated teaching materials. Three of them do. Sister Hilaria is tall enough to reach them without aid of stool or stepladder, but she has been busy with her students, happy with the textbooks in hand, and till now has never bothered. After six years at St. John Vianney School, she is being transferred. She intends to do some spring cleaning and straightening up before handing over her classroom to her replacement. She has her eyes on the boxes, layered with the dust of many school years and a few odds-and-ends her pupils have tossed up there and forgotten.
Sister Hilaria soon discovers that the box second to the right marked “Geography” contains no textbooks, but instead what appear to be the broken pieces of an elaborate, hand-forged weather vane. Underneath this jumble is a white envelope bearing a blackened scorch mark on one corner as if meant to be burned, or perhaps it had been pulled from a fire by someone who reconsidered, or perhaps it is one of those inexplicable survivors of an inferno. How such things came to be stored in her classroom is beyond imagining.
The envelope holds a letter torn in two. Sister trembles as she holds its two sides together and attempts to read it. She herself thinks of burning it, for it describes what only two men could know for certain. One, the father of a former student, is in prison. The other is dead. Just two Sundays ago, the second Sunday of Lent, his passing was announced in church. What she holds in hand is too late to change anything. It might not have mattered regardless, but perhaps here is the spark that ignited the match that set fire to the church. The inexplicable at last has been explained.
As Sister Hilaria so often says, Not everything we will never know is unknowable. Some things are just never discovered. But some secrets gnaw like the mouse she hears from time to time in a wall of the convent visitor’s parlor. What is it doing in there day by day? Is it trying to find its way out?
Perhaps it knows a time has come to awaken and explore. Migrations will soon begin. A voice seems to urge: Repair the net and the line! Restore the broken connection! Find the lost mitten in the melting snow and bring it home to the other!
Along the north shore of Lake Superior, ice still extends out as far as the eye can see but not much farther. From her classroom windows Sister Hilaria sees the ice and mist as a thick grey line hugging the horizon over open water beyond the ice. It might be mistaken for a cloud, but the day is bright with sunshine.
She knows what she must do.
Easter is little more than a week away. Inland, snowdrifts are becoming puddles, rain has already pattered on roofs, shirtfronts appear from unzipped jackets, and the Bell Harbor Sentinel on its front page reports a first robin sighting. Beyond the horizon in waters frozen only in the coldest winters, the Great Lakes shipping season has already begun, with taconite boats toiling northeast toward Sault Ste. Marie, meeting freighters on their way to Duluth-Superior Harbor to be loaded with last year’s harvest. Ice-breakers have created a pathway. Sunlight has done the rest.
At Lighthouse Consolidated High School, perched on a hillside above the lake, the day ends with yet another surprise, a question out of nowhere and an answer having nowhere from which to come. Words seem to echo and reverberate as words do in hollow places and empty spaces, some words in particular.
“So, where is your real dad?”
“At the sawmill.”
“No, not Marvin, the other one!”
It seems like forever before Penelope can think of much of an answer. Never in her life had she been asked this most natural of questions. The world till now has been keeping her father, the other one, a secret.
The mouse gnaws. Another time is at hand.
“I … I don’t remember”, Penelope says, turning away.
Ninth-grader Jackie Rae clicks her tongue, gives Penelope a knowing look, then hoists a book bag over her shoulder, almost brushing Penelope’s face with it. Jackie darts away to catch her bus, fortunately not the same bus as Penelope’s.
Penelope’s father, her real father, is never discussed when Penelope is near. He has to be an old story by now, the kind found in a yellowed newspaper stuffed between cracks to keep the chill out. She cannot believe anybody ever talks about him, even when she isn’t in the next room and close enough to hear. Yet if nobody ever talks about him, what made Jackie ask? Who had been talking, and what had Jackie overheard?
One question leads to another and then to another and soon becomes a cascade of springtime melting. Penelope’s father is still alive as far as she knows, but even had he died, nobody would have told her. He is in prison somewhere, but she doesn’t know where. Why is he there? What had he done? Would he ever get out? Did he ever think of her? Once she started thinking about him, where would it lead? It’s true she doesn’t remember him, but she feels as if she does, making it even stranger. Whenever Penelope thinks about her father, she seems to be in two places at the same time, but more aware of one of them. The one of which she is least aware scares her more with its strange, magnetic attraction.
Staring out a school bus window on her way home, Penelope tried to think of something else. This had the usual effect of being able to think of nothing else. The world had become a blur with her father the center of it. The bus was speeding more quickly than any bus can go, traveling like a spaceship through time to a destination behind her somewhere. Whatever was out there stayed a blur even when the bus stopped to let someone off. Twenty voices talking at once and the low, floor-shaking roar of the bus could not drown out the echoes of questions she was unable to answer. Out there somewhere was a man beyond imagining except for his severed hand.
In one of Penelope’s baby pictures, cut in half, there remained a hand resting on the railing of her crib. It had to be her father’s hand, pointing to her upturned face aglow in a swath of sunlight.
The bus rumbled past thick stands of jack pines and water-filled ditches along both sides of the road. In another mile or so it would turn off this road onto another leading to Penelope’s home on Star Island. Penelope straightened the pile of school books in her lap and balanced on top of it a coat button that had come loose when she pulled on a thread. She ought to have known pulling on loose ends almost always leads to stray buttons.
The only time Penelope asked about her prison father, her mother said, “Forget about him—it never happened.”
But if “it” never happened, what was there to forget? Being told to forget about something that never happened had twisted into a knot winding back on itself.
The bus stopped at a railroad crossing where these days there were never any trains. If there never had been trains, why was it there and why did the bus stop? With most of the snow gone, Penelope could see last summer’s dead grass folded over and flattened against blackened timbers between rusty rails that had to lead somewhere. Yet like thoughts of her father they seemed never to lead anywhere.
To Penelope’s left beyond a line of brush and piles of blue-grey boulders was a lake the color of her eyes and, like her thoughts this afternoon, invisible under a dark layer of thawing ice and gathering mist. After crossing the railroad tracks, the bus stopped a dozen times, and now it was quieter around her. Penelope knew without looking back that a line of cars would be following. Weekdays, the bus rides to and from school were almost always the same. They were like something memorized and stuck in her mind. She knew what was next before it happened. This day, though, was unlike any other. Inserted between things known by heart, under the skin, was something unknown yet painful like a sliver bound to throb and fester.
At last, where houses were farther apart, the highway straighter, and where there were but few resorts, cars would be able to pass. By the time Penelope’s bus got to the Star Island turnoff, she would be the last one on it. Home was on the end of the school route beyond a narrow causeway of boulders, rocky rubble, and an old board bridge joining Star Island to its Minnesota mainland.
A long time ago Star Island had been a real island, but over time it had become a peninsula and was no more a real island than Marvin was her real father. The difference was that people still called the place Star Island, and nobody ever asked if it was real or not.
In the beginning she had been Penelope Hall, daughter of Warren Hall. Now she was Penelope Lister, ever since her mother’s second husband had adopted her long ago. At least as far as school records were concerned, Marvin had always been her father. She had been Penelope Lister on every one of her report cards, ten of them, including this year and kindergarten.
She might have said to anyone, “It’s okay. Really, it’s okay.”
Penelope said that about many things other than the main thing, and much of the time she meant it.
Somehow Penelope’s mother had ignored, forgotten, or despaired of the fact her prison dad had also named her Penelope. Back further in the blur, this had been his grandmother’s name. Back much further Penelope was the name of a woman in a story by a blind poet named Homer. A portion of The Odyssey had been assigned reading in an English class, and when Penelope’s name came up in the course of a teacher’s lecture, everyone turned to look at her.
Homer’s Penelope had waited many years for her husband to return from a war. She had been faithful to him, strong, and patient until he did return at last. Penelope had yet to read all of The Odyssey, but hearing this much reinforced a sort of obstinate pride she took in her name. She absolutely rejected occasional attempts to call her Penny. She would never be Penny. Even when some people pronounced Penelope wrong and grinned as if the mistake were hers for having a name that looked like it rhymed with antelope, better that than Penny.
Penelope could not explain why she guarded her name so fiercely. She thought it important to be faithful, strong, and patient, but long before the day she first heard of The Odyssey, she wore her name like a badge of honor and a duty without knowing for what or for whom she was waiting.
Whatever happened to her father had really happenedand could not be erased by simply saying, “Forget about it.” Everywhere she could see reminders and gaps left by what had been. Over a garage door, the bolt holes in a rectangular patch marked the location of her father’s welding shop sign. After all these years it was still noticeably less weathered than the wood around it.
Over a garage door, the bolt holes in a rectangular patch marked the location of her father’s welding shop sign. After all these years it was still noticeably less weathered than the wood around it. Down a trail behind the house, in an abandoned family dump, the sign with paint flaking off it leaned against a tree. A pile of old tires hid it from view on one side, and a set of rusty bed springs blocked her way from the other. She could read her father’s name through bed spring coils. Above all that, in a crotch of the tree her father’s black welding mask had been wedged. It faced her each time she came down the path, as if her father himself stood there facing her, waiting for her to say something and keeping quiet till she remembered him one day.
How could her mother say, “Forget about it”? How could she cut her baby picture in half, and not notice the severed hand? How could she change her last name and leave her first? More surprising than the things her mother thought of were the things she did not think of, such as disguising her birthday present in a box three times the size of it so she would be surprised while leaving the credit card slip in full view on the washing machine downstairs.
Penelope would say, “It’s okay. Really, it’s okay.”
Was it possible her mother really did want her to notice little details like receipts, and that is why she left certain things around? Some of these items could be clues to a mystery she was supposed to solve.
One clue perhaps was the Lister’s mailbox, with its two bullet holes. Otherwise it could look like any other mailbox when it leaned in the usual manner from snow heaved against it by plows clearing the Star Island road. With its squeaking hinge, it could sound like any other. It was the same mailbox from the very beginning when she had lived here with her father and her mother and then alone with her mother, not remembering any of those years. Her first memories include Marvin, as if he too had been with them from the very beginning, and the severed hand the picture was supposed to be his.
Marvin built his pole barn and redesigned the turnaround so that it met the island road at a different spot. Still the mailbox stayed where it had always been, with “Lister” painted over the name she was supposed to forget, which showed through more and more as the years went by till it was almost easy to read. Wouldn’t her mother get another mailbox if she were really supposed to forget her other father, the real one?
In older parts of the family photo album, picture fasteners marked the corners where snapshots of her father had been removed. Why remove the pictures and leave the empty spaces for her to imagine what had been there? Aunt Charlotte, her father’s sister, remained in what was left of the picture cut in half. Her hand, extended over the crib railing, nearly touched his. She was all he had for family unless Penelope could still be counted. How could his own daughter not be counted, along with Aunt Charlotte, who lived in Bell Harbor no more than three blocks from Penelope’s school?
Penelope was never supposed to visit Charlotte. She was supposed to avoid her as if she carried around a deadly disease, and yet here she was in the family photo album, smiling at Penelope while spreading germs. If Charlotte ever wrote her dad, Penelope wondered, did he write back? Did she sometimes visit him in his prison?
Forget Aunt Charlotte, but there she was one afternoon on a Bell Harbor sidewalk as Penelope’s school bus crept by her in a row of cars. The woman carrying a guitar case was unmistakably Penelope’s aunt. Her carrot-red hair was the same as in the picture and the same as Penelope’s hair. With her fingertips out of sight below the window ledge, Penelope had even waved. How could Penelope be told she should never see someone whose hair was the same odd color as hers? How could she ignore Aunt Charlotte who maybe played a guitar?
Searching on a school computer, Penelope had learned that prisoners could write letters and have visitors. This privilege was not available to her dad where his daughter was concerned; there was not supposed to be any communication between them, ever. Was he supposed to forget her just as she was supposed to forget him? If it were so important for them to forget each other, why was the court order preventing their communication left in the drawer of a china cabinet for Penelope to read anytime? why did it say that such communication would be too disturbing and confusing for her in her formative years?
Here Penelope was in her formative years, and instead what had become disturbing and confusing was that she was supposed to forget him because an attorney had argued it might impair her in forming a loving relationship with her stepfather, Marvin Lister.
Having a loving relationship with Marvin was the easy part, and it did not require pretending her father had never existed. Marvin wasn’t what people might expect given all the horror stories about stepparents. He seemed more like an uncle. She would have been happy to call him Uncle Marvin instead of Dad as her mother insisted, and he would have been happy to be called that.
Marvin never shooed her away the minute the telephone rang for him. When he answered, he would say, “Hang on a minute”, and while he held his hand over the speaker, he finished what he was saying or finished listening to what she was saying. Marvin was as easygoing as chewing-gum, the pink stuff he not only tolerated but seemed to enjoy watching her soften up and work into a glorious, sweet bubble with the patience of a glassblower.
Marvin’s face kept its easy, absentminded grin even while she peeled the gummy explosion off hers. He never glared at her across the dinner table when a pea rolled off her fork. He knew he had a lapful of his own peas. He was the all-time sloppiest eater, this coming from sheer awkwardness, not piggish tendencies. Marvin was as lean, straight up and down, and disproportionate as a giraffe. He reached for things out-of-reach as if, tall as he was and long as his arms were, he had yet to figure out his true dimensions.
Marvin never bothered Penelope about homework or anything else. He was all grins and no frowns. Most of the time he was every bit as cheerful and hopeful as he looked, though if he had a bad day at work, she could always tell. He wasn’t a very good actor.
If she seemed bored, he might even point to the door and say, “Should we go for a walk? It will help you pass the time.”
Marvin loved to hike along the lake and repeat tales of superstition, shipwreck, and logjams passed along by old-timers he knew from working at the sawmill. With arms too long for his jacket and legs too long for his jeans, he seemed constructed for scrambling over driftwood and boulders. He brushed his hair every morning, gray streaks and all, and ten minutes later, a straight hank of it would already be down on his forehead dancing over his nose. By noon his part had disappeared.
Marvin was a year or two from fifty, making him about six years older than Penelope’s mother, whose name was June. Yet much of the time June seemed to treat him like an older child of hers. She pulled him left when he was trying to go right and urged him to sit up straight when he wanted to slouch. Marvin didn’t mind or at least never showed that he did.
He could laugh at himself when he looked in a mirror or at a picture someone had just taken. His close-set blue eyes were forever squinting, whether on bright days or in gray evenings at their kitchen table, where he liked to sit long after supper, leafing through his antique car magazines. Sometimes he gave out a short whistle when he found something he particularly liked in the want ads.
Old cars were Marvin’s passion. He owned fifteen, some of them jalopies, but in his eyes, all were antiques and classics. He treated each like a prize won in a raffle on a lucky day or like a trophy won in a contest where his persistence had paid off. Every car in his collection came with a story about how he came by it. Repeating the story, he would lick his lips as if living the adventure all over again. This in turn would remind him of related tales involving the near-misses, mischances, instances of blind luck, and ironies of car-collecting. Sometimes he seemed to relish these stories even more than the cars themselves. He might look at a calendar page near the kitchen table first thing in the morning and say, “It was five years ago I picked up the Desoto at an estate auction.”
Marvin who said things like “by gosh” and “yup” had always been good to Penelope. At table, he passed things to her first without exception, even when his nephews were visiting. He let her go into the pole barn and sit in any of his antique cars, whether he was around or not.
He bought her a rabbit, and when it got out of its cage one night and was killed by an owl, he helped her bury it and bought her another one. Everything was fine between her and Marvin. It just struck her as strange to have his name. It was like wearing shoes on the wrong feet. It felt more natural to be growing up with Marvin as her father, even if he wasn’t her real father, than to have his last name.
The only time she and her mother ever talked about it was by accident when Penelope answered the phone one afternoon and someone using an old mailing list asked for Mrs. Hall.
“Get used to it. It’s what happens to women,” her mother said. “Someday your name will probably change again.” This sounded like a warning.
June Lister worked long days in Bell Harbor, more or less managing an insurance agency without ever being given that position. Everyone doing insurance business there knew if you had an important question or wanted something done right you should ask for June when you called or came in, even if the owner himself answered the phone or was sitting alone in his office. June was a quiet, terse, and methodical sort who always changed her clothes when she got home from work. Anything not going into the wash was hung precisely where it had been in the morning. Then she would often turn to insurance matters left over from her day at work. When it came to much else at home, she seemed to lose a firm grip on the efficient ways making her a mainstay in the Bell Harbor insurance business and its owner the envy of other agents in town.
She might have smiled her professional smile while churning through a ten-hour day when anything and everything came up, but at home she seemed to struggle with details. Spontaneity, affection, and even notes under refrigerator magnets were beyond her. Sometimes when her eyes fell on her daughter and her husband sitting off to the side, giggling over something ridiculous Marvin had just said, she seemed to look at them as if they were strangers with policies expired for non-payment.
Whenever Penelope thought about it, it struck her as strange that among these two parents, the one real and the other pretend, the pretend one had so much more to say to her. She had ten conversations with Marvin for every one with her mother. Though he left for work later, he would be home first and her mother another hour after that. Most mornings, June would leave for work before Penelope’s bus arrived on the island.
About a half hour before he had to leave for the sawmill, Marvin seemed to make a special point of visiting with Penelope. It was all easygoing Marvin stuff, about the weather, somebody he saw at work yesterday, some antique car parts he had heard about, or what she would be doing in school today. They would walk together down the path to his pole barn, where the bus usually arrived while he was inside picking out a car to drive to work that day.
Star Island could be a lonely place, for Penelope’s family were the only ones living there, but as Marvin often said, without elaborating, “It sure has its charms.”
He must have meant the lake fogs and mists that could move in suddenly, blotting out the brightest day and turning the nearest things Penelope could see from her bedroom window into ghostly apparitions. Add to this the lake sounds, which were particularly keen at night; the rolling rumble of its cracking ice; winds in the shoreline treetops; the various clucks and toots of summer’s restless shorebirds; and especially the bells and whistles of ships far out beyond the bay. Here were sounds lonely enough to put your heart in your throat.
“It’s okay,” Penelope would say. “It really is.”
She could not imagine living anywhere else, away from these black boulder outcrops festooned with pines, from which she could look down on the rock-strewn shore and across Lake Superior as far as any eye could see. She didn’t have to imagine what an ocean was like. Nor, thanks to Marvin, need she imagine what a father might be like, even if the very sound of the word stepfather—no matter how good the man was—had loneliness enough in it.
Star Island was full of trees, wildlife, and Great Lakes history. Marvin was full of contentment and good suggestions. It was his idea that she advertise for a pen pal in a life insurance company magazine he received a couple times each year.
The bridge thumped now as the bus drove over it and continued down the causeway. Soon Marvin’s pole barn lurched into view beyond a bend, with a driveway turnaround in front of it. She would be let out there and walk the rest of the way to her house, out of sight behind a further bend in their road and screened from view by an aspen grove whose leaves clacked in the summertime whenever gusts blew in from the lake.
Larry, the bus driver, waved as he always did when he had turned the bus around and was driving away, leaving her alone by the mailbox. She was usually the first one home. She would pick up the mail before she walked on to the house, but she never opened the mailbox till Larry had waved and driven away. This was her habit: first Larry and then the mail, even when she was expecting something.
The bus was out of sight thumping back over the bridge as she pulled the mail from the box, closing it with the back of her hand. Once in a while Larry would honk goodbye when he got that far. Today he honked. People were just so kind to her: Sometimes it could make her feel like crying. How did Larry know she had been asked a question that she might be the one kid in Bell Harbor unable to answer? Jackie probably even knew the answer and had asked it just to see if Penelope did.
Questions were like mail waiting in a box, and mail was like French fries. One led to another. She could not just take them from the counter back to her table, sit down, and then start eating. She had to pick one or two and have them on the way. Since her feet knew the way to the house, she could flip through the mail before she got there, even with her school books tucked under her arm.
An envelope slipped from her hand as her fingers shuffled through the stack folded within one of Marvin’s car magazines. A gust of wind caught it and sent it cartwheeling. It landed face up on the first of thirty-seven flat stones she knew by heart lining the last fifty feet of a path to their door. Stooping to retrieve it, she saw it was addressed to her in an odd handwriting she would never forget. Her last name looked like listen – Penelope Listen. That too would prove memorable.
“Oh my God, it’s from my pen pal!” Penelope exclaimed and ran the rest of the way to the house.