My heart wants to sing ev'ry song it hears.
—OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN II
The "I Want" Song
The O'Hanlon farm was devoted mostly to pigs, with stalls for breeding and a large slaughterhouse on the west edge of the property. They also owned a horse barn, an apple orchard, a coop for chickens, and a field where they grew food for the animals. The farm was like a large body, clear yet relentless in its needs. While the animals' appetites stayed consistent and the chores of the day never changed—only occasionally growing more difficult, due to weather or workers' illness—Eleanor, who had spent nearly every day of her life on this farm, made mistakes. As often as she brushed the horses until they gleamed, she would also bring the chickens the wrong feed. She had a tendency to grow dreamy while picking apples and let too many wormy runts into the mix. She was not a stupid girl. But the place did not allow for a lack of attention, and though it had been her family's farm since her grandfather bought it forty years earlier, Eleanor was never interested enough to learn its rhythms.
Still, while Eleanor dreaded all of her farm chores, she never once neglected to feed the pigs. On sterile winter mornings, she resisted the pull of her bedclothes and stepped onto the chilled floorboards. It was easier in summer, when she woke with the sheets sticking to her back.
On her twenty-first birthday, the June sun was hot. She carried heavy pails with rag-wrapped handles that wouldn't cut into her palms. When the pigs noticed her approach, they swarmed the edge of the sty, their noises layering into a fugue of desperation.
It was early, and dew still shone on the soybeans in the neighboring fields to the east. The land was flat and pale green, the sun sending rays straight into her eyes. Pink, fatty bodies rammed her legs; snouts nudged her hands and pockets in search of food. She greeted them each by name and dumped feed into the trough, rubber boots sinking into the mud. Eleanor was the one in the family who'd named the pigs. The names were born from a desire to bait rather than sentiment. It enraged her father. She hated the sows most—gelatinous, sedentary bodies reserved for reproduction and consumption, bellies already resembling Christmas hams. When Eleanor saw them, her tongue rose with sharp nausea.
She slid out of the gate, using her thigh to keep the animals inside, and returned to the barn. A cat uncurled from its place on the supply shelf and darted away. The hay all around her was dry from the heat, which was good. Sometimes, on humid days, it was stuffy inside the barn. She closed the door so only a seam of light glowed through, inhaled, and began to sing.
Even surrounded by the muffling hay, Eleanor's voice filled the space. She always warmed up with ascending scales. Her voice was a strong soprano with a persistent rasp, as if she had just woken up. She'd learned to sing in church, but despite her talent she was passed over for solos. Her mother said everyone was jealous; her best friend, Rosie, said it was because her voice was too sexy for Jesus.
As soon as Eleanor had gotten old enough to manage the morning chores alone, she'd started rushing through them to make sure she had time to sing before breakfast. Some days, her barn mornings were all the practice time she got. So even when she did not want to wake up, she did, because the only thing worse than rising at dawn to feed the pigs was a day without singing.
After her warm-up, she chose a song: "If I Were a Bell" from Guys and Dolls. It had opened on Broadway eight years earlier, and she'd memorized it off the record. It was a bright song, tipsy and fun, and reminded Eleanor of New York, where she had never been but burned to go. She loved to imagine what the actress might have looked like onstage—how could a woman make a song come to life with nothing but her body and voice? How would she move her fingers, her eyebrows, her shoulders? Eleanor pretended she was singing to a man, her scene partner, and stepped as far into the character as she could. For half an hour, she lost herself in the material. Alone, she performed.
Singing was innate to her, like walking, speaking, or sensing the temperature of the air. Her body had learned to sing before her mind caught on. Music was everywhere. Television jingles had enchanted her as a baby. Mass was fascinating—as long as the priest kept quiet. What was background noise to everyone else was a life-giving pulse to her. At parties, she had trouble keeping up in conversations, distracted by whatever record was spinning.