A Novel by EJ Spode.
Chapter 7: Penny
After rereading the Cartagena Diaries a couple of times I felt like I still needed to process things more, so I rolled another blunt and nursed it.
Just how had everything gone so bad and why was it still going bad?
I met Penny when she moved to Sioux Falls in her junior year of high school – I was a senior. She was new so of course I noticed her, but she wasn’t just new. She was unlike anything else on earth. She floated into my geology class with her so long hippy hair and her stoner gait, but without the stoner eyes and stoner vacancy. In fact, she had bright, moist mahogany eyes, and she was using them to observe everyone and everything in the room – she was fucking devouring the room with her eyes. Some things made her smile (the off-center clock for some reason), and some things made her frown (a garishly colored poster of geologicalstrata), and some things seemed to quietly delight her. And then her eyes found me as I was tracking her and our eyes locked. She just smiled like “I know you kindred spirit” and took her seat.
After class, I closed in on her and introduced myself. “Hi, I’m EJ, who are you?”
“Hello friend, I’m Penelope.”
She spoke like we had known each other for 3000 years. And only then did I notice how beautiful she was. I know this is a common trope, but I have to use it here – If you have ever seen the face of a Botticelli angel, then you have an idea of what her face was like. She was runway model tall and thin and moved elegantly in a stoner way and had this smile that made me melt – the kind of smile you would give to a friend you have known for 3000 years. And from that moment we were friends.
Our relationship didn’t evolve from friendship into a thing until the summer after my senior year – before I went to college at the State University of South Dakota in Brookings. In the beginning, when we first met, she hung out with my friends and me and went to boozy smoky, parties with us and then she and I would go on long walks on cracked and broken FDR era sidewalks and talk for hours about music and art and her personal brand of existentialist philosophy. I had never met anything like her; my first thought was “where did she even come
Where she came from was Arizona somewhere. Her mom had been an artist living on some artist colony there, and her dad was somewhere else – I want to say he was some kind of nature photographer who had gone to Thailand or some such place and never returned. Penny never said much about him and never really seemed to be much bothered by her absence from her life. Her relationship with her mother was a whole ‘nother matter.
Penny and her mom fought like sisters forced to share both a bedroom and a car. They loved each other, but it was just an impossible situation. Her mom also quickly tired of her job as an art teacher in Sioux Falls and was off to another artist colony in New Jersey or someplace equally grim. Penny decided to stay on. She followed me to college in Brookings, but only lasted two years – college was not her jam. So in 2010, she moved back to Sioux Falls and set up permanent camp.
After that, Penny didn’t merely live in Sioux Falls; she adopted Sioux Falls and decided she was going to be a transformative agent for what was otherwise a cultural desert in the middle of a cultural desert. She had returned to Sioux Falls with a mission to enlighten it and the surrounding territory. She organized art events and poetry readings and art walks and literary circles and rap battles and one act-plays and readings of one act plays and the list went on and on. And slowly but surely she built something of an oasis of culture, in the Stockman bar of all places. She purchased the bar for a few thousand dollars, and used it as the epicenter of her project.
It was all entirely unlikely, but Penny, when she was on, felt that she was on a mission from the Elders of the Universe to bring culture, critical thinking, and positivity to the prairie. A lot of people had the attitude that well, it’s her time; she can waste it however she wants. Her project was threatening to others. Why? God only knows. Some people just can’t stand the idea of someone being successful at doing something positive.
All this was when Penny was on, but then there were the moments – usually midwinter – when she felt it was all going nowhere and that she was a failure. When we were in high school she would come to my place in tears, and we would binge watch black and white movies and drink extra cold gin and tonics and smoke gooey dank weed for days on end, until her depression lifted. I could never predict when it would lift, and there was never anything I could do to help it lift, but one day she would smile, and then laugh, and then within 24 hours she would be her old self again with big plans to save the planet, or at least, her corner of it.
The first few times she sank deep into her depression I was very frustrated. I wanted to do something to help, but of course, I couldn’t. I eventually came to terms with the fact that what I could do and what I should do is just be present. She didn’t need smiles or pep talks or gifts or fun. She just needed me to be around. So I would sit and read, or write, or watch old movies with her until the depression finally lifted.
Once her depression lifted, I could be more pro-active. I’d like to think I was able to help her with some of her big plans, and during my years in college at Brookings (which was only an hour from Sioux Falls), we remained something of a team. When I went to grad school at Cornell, our team started to come apart – slowly at first, but the end was maybe inevitable. Or it began to seem inevitable. But this past year, as the end of grad school appeared on the near horizon, I began to fantasize about returning to Sioux Falls and writing there and getting back with Penny. I mean I do my best work there, and Penny is still my muse at the end of the day, and even with all the shit we’ve been through she is my best friend.
It just seemed so alien to be on the outs with Penny – like there was a giant hole in me. I missed having her near me, and you know the best part was just walking around with her. It was like having an extra pair of eyes – eyes that could see things I couldn’t see on my own. Sometimes she saw beauty that I had overlooked. Sometimes she saw ugliness that I had ignored. And sometimes an idea would fall to her like a large red maple leaf, and she would snatch it from the air and study it and share it with me, and we would talk about the idea all day long.
Still, no matter how much I thought about it I could not get to the bottom of why I loved Penny so much. Yeah, we were a team, and we were connected and we had been through shit and yeah she had goddess quality beauty and poise, but I kept coming back to the very minute I met her because that seemed to hold the key to the whole mystery.
One day, when I returned from Cartagena I spoke with Athena about what had happened there. After hearing my negativity about the relationship, Athena asked me what I liked best about Penny, and I paused…. At first, I was going to say her mind – her beautiful fucking mind that did not quit and went on for days. And then I was going to say her body – her beautiful tawny body and her legs that went on for days. And then I was going to say her love – her beautiful, caring love for everybody; love that like her legs went on for days. And then I
was going to say her energy – her persistence – her strength – her raw sexuality, her vision, her ability to see the beautiful in absolutely everything. But what came out was this:
And you know, it was the truest thing I ever said.
We got back together after that, of course. It seemed like we always did. The April after our Cartagena trip she reached out to me via email. Would I proofread and comment on what she had written for an art show she was curating? She almost certainly didn’t need my help with that, but it was pretty clear she was missing me and, of course, I was missing her. So we exchanged some thoughts about her writing and then our conversations drifted into art and life and her projects, and by the time I was back in Sioux Falls on my 2012 summer break we were a thing again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chapter 1: Giants of the Earth:
Chapter 2: The Welcome Inn:
Chapter 3: Dimebag Bob’s:
Chapter 4: The Trojan Horse:
Chapter 5: The Turtle Diaries:
Chapter 6: The Cartagena Diaries
Images: Jana Astanov
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 12th, 2016.