On Sunday afternoons, the adolescent ambassadors of the church opened an hour of fellowship by arranging themselves into a circle, holding hands and asking God to shine through them as if they were jelly glasses.
Hal, the youth minister, often said that jelly glasses were unpretentious, sturdy, and (once the jelly was gone) transparent. All qualities of perfect vessels of God. Penny loved Hal for his acknowledgment of these virtues, which she believed herself to possess in spades.
Today Penny's older sister, Angela, had managed to insert herself in the circle between Chad and Justin. Any other girl would have been thrilled to hold hands with either of these boys. Penny held Braden Kemp's hand, which felt boneless and slippery as a fish belly, but she didn't care. As soon as the circle broke, she'd be able to reach into her pocket and touch the tiny mermaid hidden there.
Angela volunteered to pray. The innocence of her shining face, its flawless shades like those of the smooth inside of a conch shell, was only belied by her glittery purple mascara. Hal nodded. He had obviously forgotten the last time Angela led prayer. She began, her voice full of sincerity. "Lord, keep us from the temptations of youth..."
Angela was not a jelly glass. Penny knew this, having studied her sister for years. She knew her sister's pouts. Her tantrums. Her smooth skin. Penny's earliest memory was watching wide-eyed from the playpen as Angela blew kisses at their daddy.
Now, Penny tilted her head back and peeked at her sister through slightly-opened eyes. Her eyelids quivered, giving Angela the appearance of a film with bad tracking. As Angela prayed, she swayed slightly from one side to the other, as if trying to decide which boy was more deserving of her attentions. Chad was fourteen - her own age - and his daddy owned the downtown pharmacy which still boasted an old-fashioned soda fountain. (For this reason alone, he would have been Penny's choice.) Justin was fifteen and he played on the varsity football team.
" for we are only human, dear Lord, and vulnerable..." Angela swayed towards Chad, almost bumping him with her hip. "And help us Lord, for our own good, to resist the enticement of fast food, french fries, and too many carbonated beverages. For our bodies are temples and we owe it to you to keep them fit and healthy."
Penny winced. Angela had snuck that request in there for her - her sister liked to pray over her, especially in public.
Penny's weight was an embarrassment to Angela.
Their mother called it baby fat. She's not as mature as you are, dear. Some people just need more time. As if one day Penny would burst out of her chubby body, svelte and full-grown, like a butterfly from its cocoon.
Hal cleared his throat. His Adam's apple jiggled up and down like the bead on an abacus. Little older than a teen himself, he had problems reigning in the more difficult members. And he didn't like to interrupt the youths' efforts at communing with God, but often made an exception in Angela's case.
He offered a tentative, "Now -"
Angela managed to squeeze in a request that God deliver them from sneaking into the kitchen at night to eat the rest of the mint chocolate ice cream. Penny was just grateful her sister called her "Penny" at church. At home she called her "Penguin."
"Amen," Hal said, this time more forcefully. He gave Penny a quick smile and a wink, demonstrating once again that he knew that, of all the people in the youth group, no one was more of a jelly glass than her.
As soon as the circle let go of each other's hands, Penny wiped her palm on the
inside of her jacket pocket. Her fingers closed around the tiny plastic figurine. This one was green, her favorite mermaid color. She ran her thumb over the twin sharp points of its tail fin.
Penny had all the colors of mermaids - blue, green, pink, red and yellow. They arrived perched on the edge of her Styrofoam cup at the drive-in, each posed in an identical position, leaning back on their arms. The pose accentuated their hilly mermaid chests, but Penny forgave them this affectation, because they were tiny and vulnerable.
When she held them up, the light shined through them like little pieces of stained glass. Angela said they were tacky. She said thirteen was too old to play with dolls. She said if Penny didn't drink so many cherry sodas, her skin would clear up.
On Monday afternoon, Angela and Penny did homework at the kitchen table. More accurately, Penny did her homework and Angela wrote Mr. and Ms. Chad Jones on the inside of her algebra notebook, after first scribbling over Mr. and Ms. Justin Blukonski until no one could have guessed what was underneath. As she scribbled, she said, "Hey Penguin, I'm sorry about yesterday. Did you tell Mom?"
"No," Penny said.
No use. Angela always got out of trouble. She'd say, "I'm only trying to help. I love my little sister," and Mom would answer, "Of course you do, sweetheart. Deep inside, you're a good girl." If Angela was transparent, no one would have to guess at her goodness, would they? It would be obvious, wouldn't it?
Now Angela seemed relieved. "Sometimes I just feel so -" Below lime green eye shadow, her gaze was serious.
"I know," Penny said. Embarrassed, yes. You're embarrassed of me. But jelly glasses didn't pick arguments. "Would you like some help with those math problems?"
"No time, Penguin." Angela brightened. "I've got friends coming over."
When the doorbell rang, Angela rushed to answer it. She and three of
her friends trouped through the kitchen, and back to her room. Her friends always made a point of telling Penny that she had a pretty face, as if their mothers had told them that's what you say to fat girls. They began to giggle the moment they were out of the room. Their laughter stung Penny like bursts from an air gun.
After she finished her homework and a bowl of cherry cordial ice cream, Penny shut herself into her bedroom and went into the closet to pray. She didn't pray for smooth skin, slim hips, or straight hair. Instead, she prayed for Angela. "Make her sturdy. Unpretentious. Kindhearted." Knowing how much Angela would hate being these things didn't make Penny any less fervent in her requests.
She held the mermaids in her left hand. They lay on her open palm, turned every which way, like plastic monkeys shaken from a barrel. The back wall of Penny's closet separated her room from Angela's. She heard snatches of their conversation and laughter.
Suddenly there was quiet in Angela's room. Penny heard her bedroom door
open. More giggling, this time from inside her own bedroom. She couldn't bear to let them find her in the closet. She hung onto the doorknob, but the door jerked open and she landed on her knees in front of Angela.
"What are you doing, Penguin?"
"Penguin!" Ashley stood behind Angela and squealed the name several times, then clamped her hand over her mouth, as if the word would continue escaping of its own accord.
"Hush," Angela told her friend. She offered a hand to Penny. "I wanted to try on your sandals. I didn't expect to find you in the closet."
"I was praying." Penny handed her the shoes.
"Of course," Angela said.
After they left, Penny locked her door. Her hand hurt and she realized she had squeezed the mermaids until two of them cracked from the pressure. Their wounds were minor - one chipped tail, one missing thumb, smaller than a grain of rice. She examined the others for injuries, setting them back into the window sill.
Poor vain little mermaids.
Penny took off her blouse and examined herself in the mirror. What she saw was not her fault, no more than the mermaids could be blamed for their vanity. She hadn't doused her chest with Miracle Grow (as Mom teasingly instructed Angela to do, when Angela lamented her own flat chest).
Why was this happening to her? Two weeks before, a boy in her first period class had called her "jugs." Penny had been wearing a T-shirt her mom bought her - decorated with mermaids wearing rhinestone tiaras. "They made me think of you and your collection," her mom had explained.
Penny didn't comprehend his meaning at first. Then her cheeks grew warm. She calmed herself with the thought, Jelly glass. Jelly glass. Since then, she tried to hide the changes by slumping and wearing baggy shirts. And yet, she felt a twinge of pride in her reflection. She pushed the feeling away. Wasn't conceit a stumbling block?
She pulled her baggy shirt back on. The palm of her hand, where the sharp edges
of the mermaids had gouged, oozed droplets of blood. It left tiny tracks where she touched the fabric.
Penny needed to talk to Hal, to be reassured of being God's vessel.
She rode her bicycle to his apartment. It wasn't far. The youth group had been there for spaghetti and to watch slides from the Hallelujah-ween carnival. She rang the doorbell, realizing she had no idea what she wanted to ask him. (She could never say the word "breast" out loud, in mixed company.)
Hal's wife Cindy opened the door. "Oh, hi, Penny."
"Is Hal home?" Penny managed. She felt like a sweaty, grubby child next to Cindy, who studied dance at the university.
"He's at the library."
"Can I wait for him?" she asked, meaning to wait outside on apartment steps.
"Sure. Want some tea?"
"I don't want to bother you." Penny followed Cindy into the apartment.
"Hal would be sorry if he missed you," Cindy called over her shoulder. She headed into the tiny kitchen. "Is there anything I can help you with?"
Penny considered. Cindy was beautiful and slender - would she understand? She ventured, "You know the story Hal tells about jelly glasses?"
Cindy laughed, a tinkling sound. "How funny. He and I were just talking about that."
"Really?" Penny wondered if he had mentioned her.
"Yes, he's trying to come up with another metaphor."
Metaphor? Penny frowned.
Cindy continued, "I suggested he use the see-through mannequin at the natural science museum in Houston. Have you seen her?"
"I have." The mannequin's organs lighted up, as she expounded in a pre-recorded voice. This is my gallbladder, a pear-shaped organ cradled in my liver. The gallbladder secretes bile, which helps me digest fatty foods... These are my mammary glands... "But I like the jelly glass example."
"Are you okay, Penny?" Cindy carried two beautiful crystal tumblers of iced tea. Light danced off their edges.
Penny stared at them.
Cindy looked down at the glasses. "Aren't they beautiful? Wedding presents. Hal likes to use them everyday. He says it doesn't make sense to keep our most beautiful things put away most of the year." She pointed to the window. "He bought those, too. Aren't they pretty?"
Three faceted crystals were suspended from the window frame. They danced in the breeze from the fan, giving off glittering bits of sunshine. Penny's gaze followed their side-to-side movements, as if she were someone being hypnotized.
They sparkled shamelessly.
They were beautiful and Hal loved them.
Hal loved them and they were beautiful.
"Are you okay?" Cindy asked.
"I have to go." Penny was already on her feet.
"I'll tell Hal you stopped by."
From the door, Penny called, "Bye! See you later!"
She bicycled straight home and ran into the house. She could hear the older girls still giggling in Angela's room, but it didn't matter. Not anymore. Penny changed into the mermaid shirt. It clung to her curves. She ran into the front yard, to the sunniest spot on the lawn.
When Angela and her friends walked outside, they all stopped at once and stared, awe-stricken. Young Penny was spinning around and around, a lone dancer suspended in the light of the sun, her arms raised like propellers. She was smiling and giggling as she spun. Glittering bits of sunshine shot off the rhinestone embellishments of her mermaid shirt.
She sparkled shamelessly.
"My God," she heard someone whisper. "She's beautiful."
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This work is copyrighted by the author, Nancy Stebbins. All rights reserved