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Drawing From Life © 2013 Jess Mowry
© 2013 Jess Mowry
Jerry Mathers stood at the bottom of the staircase and wondered why, after all the years of climbing those steps, he never felt like he’d reached the top. And why should he still be climbing them? The school had installed an elevator several years ago to comply with new State regulations granting more rights to the handicapped, though there had never been handicapped students in the fifteen years that Jerry had taught here.
Unless one counted those handicapped by being born with too much money.
Most of the kids used the stairs, even the fat or chubby kids, though probably not for exercise; likely it had more to do with the prominent blue-and-white handicapped sign beside the elevator doors, as if that might associate them with being less than superior. Most of the younger health-conscious staff members also used the stairs, but Jerry was neither especially health-conscious, nor could he call himself young anymore.
He recalled his mother reminiscing about the Jack Benny Show, and the comedian’s life-long assertion that he was 39... until he’d died at 80. Jack’s explanation had been that there was nothing funny about 40, and these days Jerry could relate. Looking back on 39 years from the bottom of these steps again, he admitted he’d never been as Bohemian as he’d once imagined he’d be. Or as artful at dodging time.
Or as successful in life.
Toting his leather portfolio case, a present from his mother in his optimistic days at college, those days when time had been on his side, he started up the stairway to begin yet another -- perhaps wasted -- year at Morrison Academy. He’d painted all summer as always, even though sadly distracted by his mother’s rapidly failing health, but had still managed time for daily walks along Lake Merritt, so it was with some surprise -- and maybe a little foreboding -- when he found himself a bit short of breath upon reaching the upper landing. The words of a Pink Floyd song came to mind, but he told himself to stop being morbid... wasn’t 40 now called “the new 30?” And didn’t that give him a whole decade to live all over again... and this time with the wisdom to not make the same mistakes?
If only he could be certain of what those mistakes had been.
Pausing for a minute -- to reflect, he told himself, not to catch his middle-aged breath -- he remembered once enjoying this job. But that was back when he’d still believed that he could teach Art. Or maybe that Art could be taught... which may have been a major mistake. He was realistic enough -- by this time in life, anyhow -- to know that his class was only offered because proper private schools had Art... even if not taken seriously. Most of his students took his class either at their parents’ insistence because it might look good on their records, and/or in hope of an easy A -- which would also look good on their records -- though Jerry was far from easy with A’s. Though many, like most kids, did posses some instinctive talent -- perhaps like rudimentary tails or hints of web between fingers and toes -- few took Art very seriously and none, so far as Jerry knew, had ever gone on to become a success.
At least in the way he still defined it.
Which may have been another mistake.
The logical question, he supposed, was why not get another job? He could certainly teach at a college, maybe Mills or even Berkeley -- he’d had enough minor successes to qualify for such a position -- but this was the first job he’d been offered when fresh out of college himself; a job he’d taken condescendingly just to pay room and board to his mother until the world recognized his talent.
Morrison Academy was housed in a huge Victorian horror that rather resembled the Munster mansion, three stories tall plus a lofty tower that made no pretense of symmetry, and was perched on the rising slope of a hill, its front doors reached by the twenty-foot staircase, and bequeathed for the education of youth by a plump and lemon-faced little old lady -- Miss Minerva Morrison -- who did somewhat resemble that queen and whose indifferently-rendered portrait by some obscure artist now long-forgotten hung in the high-ceilinged foyer and watched everyone with suspicious eyes as if doubting that any were worthy of her.
The artist had gotten that right, anyhow.
Most of the younger staff members called the house The Haunted Mansion, probably thanks to Disney. Of course there were rumors that Morrison’s ghost haunted the shadowy halls at night, and there had been occasional “sightings” by individuals working late... though such reports were discouraged for obvious publicity reasons and were generally attributed by the Director to immoderate consumption of energy drinks.
Elwood Stone, the custodian, whose father might have seen her alive -- there were rumors he’d been her gardener -- had readied the house for opening day and the spirits of Pine-Sol haunted the halls, though reminding Jerry more of boys rooms in underfunded public schools than a place of superior education. Morrison Academy wasn’t cheap, but neither was it an overpriced scam: not only did every teacher possess the proper credentials to teach in their fields but were actually qualified to teach. And those such as Jerry had also proven by real-world success that they could actually do what they taught... the Writing teacher had three published novels; the Drama teacher had two produced plays, and Jerry had sold a few of his paintings.
He was early and the house was silent, and all the more spooky because of it, most of the other staff not yet arrived. Elwood, an almost embarrassing caricature of a pre- Civil Rights southern Negro, as black as an old-fashioned telephone in clownishly baggy blue coveralls with a huge brass ring of skeleton keys, an archaic-looking leather tool belt bristling with obviously antique tools suggestive of alien probing devices, a Bull Durham string hanging out of a pocket, and crowned with a battered newsboy cap like a prop from an ancient movie, was watering a rubber tree -- itself a kind of requisite prop -- that stood near Jerry’s office door. Elwood actually tipped his cap, the gesture probably deeply ingrained from all the years it been required, though he spoke Standard English without a drawl and never used black expressions. “Welcome back, Mr. Mathers.”
Jerry thought of a ‘70s TV show. “Good to see you again, Elwood.” He really did like the old man, who could fix anything from one of the ancient high-tank toilets to a crashed PC in Computer Lab -- whose teacher had once worked for Dell -- but supposed because of the gulf of race, would never actually know him. On his first day here, fifteen years ago, he’d addressed him respectfully as Mr. Stone, but the man had looked disapproving, as if someone should remember their place. Elwood’s smile, always warm -- since first putting Jerry in his place -- seemed even more cheerful today, though three months had passed since Jerry had seen it, and smiles in his life had been few in that time.
“All ready for you, Mr. Mathers,” said Elwood with a sweep of a hand toward Jerry’s door. Then his ebony eyes showed concern. “How’s your mother these days?”
Jerry suppressed a sigh. “As well as can be expected, I guess.” He caught himself before adding, “at her age,” in deference to Elwood’s. It was also rumored, at least by a few of the younger staff who, like many twenty-somethings, didn’t seem to do math very well, that Elwood had been a young boy helping his father maintain the grounds during Miss Morrison’s time... which of course was impossible since that would have made him well over a hundred and he didn’t look much over seventy.
“Hope she’s better soon, Mr. Mathers.”
“Thank you, Elwood.”
The building, appropriately, was heavily shrouded with ivy, and leaf-dappled light filtered softly in though the room’s pair of tall, narrow windows, which were open to admit a faint Bay breeze that had managed to reach the Oakland foothills despite crossing over the flatlands below with their teeming exhaust-reeking freeways, various acrid industrial stinks, and the subtle but all the more depressing scents of hopelessness and decay -- a kind of second-hand store miasma of discarded dreams and abandoned plans rusting, rotting and falling to dust -- in what it was now politically-correct to call “low-income neighborhoods.” Still, there was that ghost of Pine-Sol, haunting Jerry with his own lost youth, which, though he’d gone to one of the better -- defined as being mostly white -- public elementary schools, had not been totally halcyon years for a somewhat shy and bespectacled boy who didn’t give a damn about sports or competing for a higher place in the juvenile pecking-order.
Gazing out one of the ivy-draped windows, seeing the early morning sun glaring off thousands of windows and windshields in the seemingly desperate and -- in the end -- futile struggle for life below, Jerry wondered if he had really risen very far above it all. Few down there would be remembered for contributing anything good to the world -- defined as beauty or inspiration -- but notwithstanding a few of his works displayed in mid-range galleries or hanging in upper- middle-class homes, would he be remembered for anything?
Releasing the sigh he’d kept from Elwood, he glanced around the high-ceilinged room, its wainscotted walls adorned with his paintings, several seascapes he’d done of the coast between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay, though he preferred portraiture -- his class was called Drawing From Life -- including one of his mother painted a decade before, cradling her cat, now long-deceased and buried in her flower garden despite city law forbidding interments. They were there, of course, to impress the parents, as were a few of his students’ best works; enough to imply there were many more... even though there weren’t.
The room, like many in Munster Mansion, had probably been a bedroom, and he turned to study himself in a slightly de-silvering beveled glass mirror on the door of a former closet now used as storage for stacks of childish, crude, and utterly hopeless art -- to even dignify it as such -- by fifteen years of junior-high cretins... though they were called middle-schoolers these days. He seldom opened that door, except to add more wasted paper and defiled canvas at the end of each quarter, as if many skeletons lurked within.
What he saw in the rose Victorian glass wasn’t as grim as he’d almost expected, although the leafy light was kind: he didn’t quite look middle-aged, though of middle height and, at least by current "health-nazi" standards, slightly overweight. Considering a sedentary childhood of reading or drawing alone in his room -- he hadn’t had his own television -- he might have gotten fat as a boy and consequently fatter by now... not the stereotype of an artist often portrayed as psychotically thin. But though, like most normal kids of his time, he’d regarded McDonalds as the absolute zenith of fine dining out, and still often lunched at the one down the street, he’d never been much overweight... whatever that weight was supposed to be. He’d never paid any attention to that because the youth of his generation had not been plagued with priests of “health” beating their bibles of BMIs, and “fatties” were only persecuted if they were otherwise uncool.
The few extra pounds he’d had and did carry had always been soft and loose on his frame like many present-day "gamer kids," though he’d never been shy about his body and had often gone shirtless on hot summer days, though usually either alone in his room or with Trevor, his best and only real friend since they’d met in second grade.
That hadn’t changed much in almost four decades -- god, had it really been that long! -- and for that he could probably thank his mother whose meals, though nutritional enough to ward off most of the childhood diseases democratically shared at school, had never been overly large. Nor, due to her widow’s pension, a pittance from a government that had sent her husband to Vietnam to die for a democratic cause, had she been affluent enough to make McDonalds or other fast-food more than a special-occasion treat or provide her son with much snacking money.
Jerry turned to her smiling portrait, decidedly done in Victorian style, which befitted her as a woman born many decades after her time. Though from a formerly well-to-do family -- her mother had known Gertrude Stein, and she often spoke fondly of their “colored maid” -- whose women weren’t brought up to work, she’d endured many years as a Woolworth’s clerk until that, too, had failed her, victim of another lost war, enabling Jerry to go to college and fulfill his dreams of being an artist.
At least, so far, sufficient enough to still believe in them.
It wasn’t until those college years that he’d realized he’d grown up poor despite a nice house in a nice neighborhood -- defined as being mostly white -- and his mother, not knowing how to be poor, had probably worked much harder for less than her old beloved “colored maid.” She had known nothing of “poor food,” how amply available it was -- at least to America’s indigents -- would have been ashamed to apply for Assistance, humiliated to use Food Stamps, and would shop at nothing less than Safeway, the reason his meals had always been small, scaled-down versions of those she recalled; and so despite being a physical sloth he’d never gained a lot of weight.
Though blue-jeaned and T-shirted during his youth, these days, as today, he wore tan Dockers, brown leather sneaks of the type called “deck shoes” by people with ponies and boats, along with a pale blue button-down shirt. Of course the dress-code for teachers and staff also required a tie. His mother had bought him a jacket when he’d first begun this job, tweed with leather elbow patches, more suited to an English professor -- at least the stereotype of one -- though he’d always worn it leaving the house as well as when returning home, and now when visiting her in a home, though he kept a brown leather surcoat, his sole attempt at Bohemian flair, in his car for public appearance. He’d met several counterparts over the years who actually affected berets, and not only did he think them absurd but suspected their students thought so as well. He’d decided long ago that he would never own a beret, even if he felt he’d earned one.
Which didn’t seem likely from where he stood now.
Looking at the man in the glass, blue-eyed of Anglo-Saxon descent, with slightly longish sandy hair -- and all of it still, thank god, with only a ghost of gray at the sides -- reasonably handsome, he supposed, at least by Caucasian standards, his rather archaic steel-framed glasses still looking too old for his yet-unlined face -- one benefit of chubbiness -- he couldn’t see any stereotype of either art teacher or artist, though he admitted he probably was in several less visible ways.
Topping the list was being 39, unmarried and living with his mother... at least until halfway through this summer. Each year there were rumors among the students, as well as occasional new staff members, that he was gay or perhaps in the closet -- assuming they weren’t simultaneously possible -- but though at 13 he’d had what nowadays would be called a “gay relationship,” however brief, with Trevor, he’d always regarded their passionate sessions of hugging and, yes, even kissing, and panting, sweaty masturbating as either purely hormonal or perhaps nature’s way of preparing them for future success with the opposite sex and thus survival of the species.
Trevor’s parents had moved to Santa Cruz a few months into that phase of their friendship, though probably not because of it -- surely they couldn’t have known -- ending what, whether for good or ill, had been Jerry’s best relationship, and at a time when he’d most needed one. Trevor, now in retrospect, freely confessed to feeling the same but had married a nice, intelligent girl his first year out of high school and was now an apparently straight and happy father of three chubby boys.
And possibly more Bohemian than Jerry since he and his wife owned The Book Of The Dead, a little book store and coffee house that catered to elderly hippies and youthful UCSC students. He and Jerry still kept in touch, though mostly through email these days -- the price of gas being prohibitive to driving down to Santa Cruz and/or for capturing seascapes -- and though neither felt uncomfortable with memories of that final summer, neither had ever expressed a desire to try to resurrect the corpse of something young and innocent that had died with its boots on and rested in peace.
Would they, or could they, have become gay -- disregarding most current theories -- had Trevor remained in Oakland? Jerry supposed he might have been happy spending his life with the Trevor he’d known sharing his bed in those long-ago days, though his mother would never have understood a love that dared not speak its name... if that was the right allusion. But, that was a road not taken, unless, as some physicists proposed -- including the school’s science teacher -- there were alternate universes and therefore alternate futures. But, Jerry was stuck in this universe and maybe digging a grave for his future by slowly burying his past.
Maybe giving up Trevor had been a mistake... though of course he’d had no choice in a time when long-distance calls were expensive and there had been no Internet. They had written letters for the first few months, but adolescent relationships require a physical form to survive.
UCSC, Jerry supposed, was another place of higher learning where his talent -- such as it seemed -- might be put to better use if this year’s crop at Morrison again turned out to be nothing but weeds. And soon, according to the doctor, there would be nothing to hold him in Oakland... which might be either the sign he needed to take a few chances while he still had the time...
Or just the opportunity to make more self-defeating mistakes.
As to his own relationships with the opposite sex, and though there had been a few, Jerry had found, and in a very Victorian sense -- perhaps in the way of Sherlock Holmes as well as many artists, writers, philosophers and religious men -- that, though he liked and respected women, the road to romance was not for him. A few years ago he still might have said that Art was his sustaining love, though today that sounded suspect by modern American standards which seemed to deny that being a bachelor could possibly be normal. Probably better to tolerate the occasional sophomoric student smirk or infantile locker room innuendo that he was gay and/or in a closet than to appear absurd... or possibly in denial.
He’d left the office door ajar, and through these mirrored meditations had been aware that Elwood still seemed to be working out in the hall. A rubber tree didn’t need much sustaining, so it may have been one of the ancient light fixtures, ornate brass scones along the walls like vases for flowers in mausoleums, though these held low-wattage candle-shaped bulbs -- the wiring couldn’t sustain any more -- which only seemed to enhance the shadows and were often shorting out, along with the equally aged switches of the late 19th-century rotary type. One of the conditions, apparently, of the late Miss Morrison’s will, was to preserve the gloomy old house in all its outdated, inconvenient, energy-wasting, hazardous, and frankly spooky former glory, as if she might return some day... assuming she’d ever left. To do so much as replace a light switch required the Administrator’s approval -- a shockingly aged and skeletal lawyer who could have starred as the Crypt Keeper -- though Elwood kept an ample stock of Period replacements, resurrected from demolition sites, and often made repairs on his own, which saved the Director a lot of bother, and no doubt money as well. The elevator would have never been approved, but the State was mightier than the estate on the issue of handicapped rights; but even then the Crypt Keeper had insisted it must look Period with wrought-iron grilles and brass-bound features, which had probably tripled the cost, though the modern signs were still required -- including two more on the boys and girls rooms where Elwood had modified one of their stalls according to more regulations -- which probably angered the old woman’s ghost if she still made inspections at night.
Besides Elwood in the hall, Jerry heard other staff arriving, going to their offices and probably the teachers lounge, where Elwood -- though it wasn’t his job -- would have made supernatural coffee in the Great Brass Gas-Fired Urn, itself a Victorian Age antique that only he could operate. It occurred to Jerry that with Elwood’s passing -- either in retirement or in the very literal sense -- the whole place might come crashing down like the House Of Usher.
He glanced at his watch, a middle-priced Bulova, also a present from his mother and engraved as such. The students would soon be invading, disrupting the albeit gloomy peace, and he found he rather dreaded confronting another roomful of bestial young faces; the boys these days looking cynically thuggish as if they’d all “come up in the hood,” except for the inevitable nerd, who, whether too fat or too skinny, or just plain nerdy without enhancement, often possessed the only real talent and sometimes a hope of pursuing it.
As well as the courage, despite all the ridicule he would get -- as Jerry himself had gotten -- for daring to think he could be an artist and make a living in a culture where artists and male ballet dancers were always suspected of something perverted... if not regarded as useless.
The girls would look cynically whoreish with carnal knowledge beyond their years -- even if lacking experience -- except for the ones who drew horses; and most of the faces would challenge him, daring him to teach them something they couldn’t find on the Internet and which required an attention span.
Funny to think he’d once looked forward to accepting that challenge... probably another mistake.
There would, of course, be the Disruptor, distinct from the Clown, who wasn’t malicious, along with the Bully and Alpha Male... the former kept leashed or allowed to attack depending upon the latter’s beneficence. There would be a Neurotic or two... often Emos these days, and sometimes Cutters as well. Perhaps there would be a Sociopath using Punk or Goth for cover, though usually unaware of it; and possibly a budding Lolita of either or indeterminate sex who would try to hone their skills on Jerry; and the rest would be Sheep who would follow the Judas whose bell of the moment was sounding.
Sighing again he sat down at his desk, a mammoth mahogany claw-footed thing with an equally massive mahogany chair which might have seemed sinfully comfortable to a Dickens-era counting-house clerk. There was a stack of manila folders off to one side of the fresh green blotter -- were blotters even made anymore, or had Elwood kept a reserve? -- though records were also computerized. Along with the archaic blotter was an eldritch bottle of iron gall ink and a steel-nib pen in a gargoyle holder... which he’d never used. There was also a heavy bronze ashtray from the Victorian age, and though Jerry had cut down this summer, it prompted him to search a desk drawer. He found a hard pack of Malboro “red” -- once the only type of Marlboro -- he’d left there in June, with three cigarettes. There was also a disposable lighter with still a few drops of fuel. He lit up and sighed out a ghost, then turned his attention to the folders. The Director had probably asked Elwood to bring them in this morning... there must have been a Custodian’s Union but Elwood didn’t seem to mind.
He switched on his computer -- almost the only thing in the room that wasn’t at least a hundred years old -- in case he wanted to make any notes, then took the top folder and opened it, shifting his glasses low on his nose and peering over the frame: he didn’t need bifocals... yet.
Official student I.D. photos were taken each year by the school -- touted as being for safety in this age of predators -- so pictures weren’t required for these folders, though Jerry had suggested them... he could usually spot all the typical types and forewarned was forearmed. This one included a picture, a standard head-and-shoulders shot, probably from his previous school, of Walter Wadsworth Wainwright III, whose face, though rather handsome, had that pudgy, pear-shaped look and vacant open-mouthed expression of kids who stared at screens all day.
Jerry had also suggested that applicants include a few samples of their recent work -- if any were actually serious they would be submitting portfolios to colleges in the future -- and Walter, though having some natural talent, was being corrupted by anime like so many kids of his generation. Not that anime wasn’t art, but cartooning, like graphic design, was an entirely different field and there was a class for the latter, though students more suited to pursuing the former -- and whether they knew it or not -- were usually dumped on Jerry. Walter’s intent was serious but his samples, unfortunately, resembled the ‘70s works of Gig and his big-eyed pity puppies and kittens.
The next folder, Caroline Holdhurst’s -- no photo so probably overweight, spotty complected, or both -- proved My Little Ponies would never die, though Jerry wished he could slaughter them all with an AK-47.
The third folder had a photo and introduced William Malone, who, unless any boy could be any more handsome, seemed to be this year’s Alpha Male, differentiated from the Bully by real intelligence in his eyes... and bullies weren’t usually handsome or they probably wouldn’t be bullies. William -- Will, or probably Bill -- might make a very striking model if his body went with his face. His samples, though typically teenage sullen, were actually quite good, though probably hadn’t been drawn from life... few young straight males would have the courage to ask a shirtless peer to pose. There was promise here, though Bill’s handsomeness -- assuming the body did go with the face -- would probably be a handicap: by American standards he was art and so might feel no need to create it.
After fifteen years of culling the herd, Jerry had ceased to expect very much so as he went on through the folders he wasn’t much further depressed. Besides more amateur anime, there was also Ed Hardy tattoo art, as well as the usual gothic skulls... enough to populate a graveyard, and obviously none of them drawn from life in either sense of the term. One folder contained graffiti designs like those upon walls in the black flatlands -- white imitations, anyway -- and several had anorexic Barbies... he was seeing more of those every year. Another contained blatant tracings of obvious magazine models... also disturbingly anorexic, and all the more scary for being alive.
Or were they supposed to be female zombies?
The photos, when furnished, almost always went with the art -- most of these kids were still too callow to realize what they might be revealing -- though there were a few exceptions: stereotype or not, he expected anime from Kenneth Yamato, a cheerful-looking moon-faced boy, but instead found chopper motorcycles... good technical work and he might have a future along those lines. Jerry tapped a note on his keyboard: Suggest transfer to Graphic Design.
Then there were more goddammed horses, a glitter-sparkled Disney princess, making him think of paintings with lights that passed for “art” in Walmart stores... along with dogs playing poker. And then an appalling, atrocious... thing!... combining the absolute worst of both in an anthropomorphic centaur-like creature drawn in a rather revolting contortion that more than suggested female self-abuse and which -- if such an abomination could exist in a sane universe -- was physically impossible, even for its anatomy, and titled Princess Sparkle-Pony.
Jerry, like several other teachers, kept a bottle in his desk, though his Cutty Sark was mainly for show, an ironic academic joke -- also Bohemian of course -- but Princess Sparkle-Pony almost made him seek its solace... or race for the nearest high-tank toilet. But he only closed the folder, drawing deep on his cigarette and resisting not only the urge for a drink but also his moral obligation to staple it securely shut and bury it very far away.
He was somehow very thankful that there was no Prince Sparkle-Pony.
If -- good god! -- Crystal Sterling wasn’t already in therapy she would and should be very soon if things like that ran free in her skull! Her photo looked normal enough, though the real certifiables usually did, and a camera wasn’t an artist who could see the soul beneath the face.
The next folders, fortunately, only contained the usual nightmares. Only three of his impending students had tried to render a real human form, and only Bill Malone showed promise... handicapped though he probably was. There was one folder left, but Jerry leaned back and sighed more smoke, tempted again to take a drink, though that seemed yet another mistake on a road to eventual surrender. Even if by some miracle his mother did recover, this would not be an easy year... maybe the worst one yet.
Was that the sign he needed?
Elwood still tinkered out in the hall, and students were starting to trickle in, the new ones still intimidated by the house’s spookiness as if venturing into a funeral home and therefore quiet, big-eyed and wary, peeping cautiously in as they passed as if fearing to see an open coffin.
Jerry opened the final folder, which didn’t include a photo: Nathan Graves. Unusual name and rather archaic, making him think of old New England and Peter Coffin in Moby Dick, though neither I’m-upper-class-and-you’re-not like Walter Wadsworth Wainwright III, nor working-class risen, take-it-or-leave-it like Norman Rockwell-ish Bill Malone.
Then he saw the sample drawing, and literally his mouth fell open.
Sitting bolt upright in the chair, he lay his Marlboro in the ashtray and cautiously took the paper -- actual quality drawing paper, not printer paper like most kids used -- as if afraid of damaging it, or even leaving a mark upon it, the slightest fingerprint or crease, and stared wide-eyed in wonder.
Just a soft-lead pencil drawing, but full of so much vividness, expressive line and -- life -- that it seemed to leap off the page in his face like a stereopticon image.
Recovering from his initial shock, he found he had to force himself to search for flaws... and there were none. And then he felt...
Was it an actual creep of fear? Or maybe the long-expected threat -- even if subconscious -- that a Master might feel when at last confronted by a student’s work that challenged his own?
Of course he’d never believed -- though of course there was no harm in hoping -- that he’d ever become the equal of one of the truly great Masters.
But, to see this masterful work by a boy only the first year into his teens!
Laying the drawing carefully down after making sure, absurdly, that the blotter was absolutely clean and the bottle of ink securely capped -- although he’d never opened it -- he tapped his password, BlueBoy, with fingers that actually trembled to call up Nathan’s file... he had to see this boy! Surely that face would go with this work!
But, again, there was no picture, nor very much else to reveal the boy: in these days of political-correctness asking for race on applications, if not taboo in many cases, was considered, at least, in questionable taste... and this was Morrision Academy where the usual minority was Asian.
But, political-correctness had leached its way into other aspects of physically profiling students, with some of the boxes marked Optional. Birthdate, of course, wasn’t one of them -- as much as he found that hard to believe when gazing again at the drawing -- and though most of the boxes had been filled in: Eye Color, brown, Hair Color, black, Height, only four-feet-eleven -- small for his age by American standards -- these weren’t very helpful in painting a portrait. One picture indeed, in this case, would have been worth a thousand words.
The box for Weight, though not left blank, only displayed a question mark; and though many overweight girls, as well as, these days, a few overweight boys, did choose to keep that a secret -- as if not admitting to something on paper could hide anything from reality -- the question mark seemed to suggest that Nathan honestly didn’t know... rare as that was in these health-rabid times when kids were forced to obsess about it. Still, he must have been small, possibly even delicate in the Victorian sense: though Jerry didn’t like to admit it, there had to be something “wrong” with a boy who at so young an age could draw so divinely.
He scrolled the screen with a strange urgency, feeling somehow like a Web predator, ridiculous as that was, while smoke from his forgotten Marlboro ghosted around his fingers. ...Private elementary school, though Jerry had expected that: not only did public schools stifle the gifted, they systematically beat them to death. Grades well above average except in P.E., though Jerry could relate. He knew a little about that school, Rutherford Academy, good but not in Morrison’s class, and somewhere at the feet of the foothills. The Graves family seemed to be rising.
Dismissing the otherwise useless file, he carefully took up the drawing again and told himself how absurd it was to in any way feel threatened. Wasn’t this what a good Master longed to discover?
And only a failing fraud would dread?
Then, worming its way into his mind, came a suspicion this might be a fraud... those anorexic models were tracings. But, what would be the point of fraud? Nathan wasn’t applying to some prestigious college of art where acceptance required actual talent. Even Crystal Sterling’s anthropomorphic obscenity qualified her for Jerry’s class; and a fraud would soon be exposed anyway when the students began to draw from life.
This was real, he was sure of that; the moment he’d always hoped would come but had lost all faith of it coming... most of his faith, anyway.
A sign at last?
“Coffee, Mr. Mathers?”
Definitely not one of Elwood’s duties, and a first, at least for Jerry, as Elwood came in with a cup in hand... one of the delicate china survivors bequeathed by the late Miss Morrison and possibly touched by her prim wrinkled lips.
“Thank you,” said Jerry, carefully taking the cup, not because of its legacy but to prevent the slightest drop from falling on the drawing. He almost added it hadn’t been necessary, but that would be stating the obvious. Then, simple custodian or not, Jerry had to share this moment with someone. “What do you think of this?”
Elwood seemed to share Jerry’s caution and didn’t touch the paper, only leaning in to regard it. A racist joke, and infantile, crossed Jerry’s mind and was instantly buried. But, maybe he’d expected too much: Elwood didn’t examine the picture long -- and caution for the paper wasn’t reverence for the Art -- and only said, “She looks very peaceful.”
“...Well... yes, she does,” said Jerry. He studied the picture as if, like The Mezzotint, it might have changed when he’d looked away, but it was the same and still amazing... an elderly African-American woman, probably someone’s beloved grandmother, just her face, and seemingly napping upon a pillow. “But, so alive,” he couldn’t help adding... or maybe insisting.
“You can see her spirit,” said Elwood, and Jerry was satisfied with that... even with all the wisdom of age, and of his patient, long-suffering people, Elwood seldom used metaphors. To make a politically-incorrect pun, he usually called a spade a spade; and one could see the old woman’s spirit in the serenity of her face; perhaps her housework done for the day. ...Or maybe someone else’s.
The Graves family’s colored maid?
Jerry’s mother sometimes looked like that when he found her asleep in the nursing home.
“Welcome back, Jerry.”
Elwood tipped his venerable cap and deferentially stepped aside as the school’s Director, Crawford Tillinghast, steamed majestically into the room like the Titanic might have looked arriving in New York... had it not met an iceberg. Then, offering Jerry another smile, Elwood unobtrusively left with a ghostly clinking of skeleton keys.
Tillinghast was “a man of substance,” as would have been said in Victorian times, with a prosperous paunch and thick silver hair, and dressed as always in a suit that, while it was certainly modern, still somehow looked Period... mostly due to the gold watch chain across the ample vest. Though probably in his early fifties -- which, these days, were called the new forties -- he gave the impression of being much older though very well-preserved.
“Ready for another year?”
A few minutes ago Jerry might have thought, another year down a high-tank toilet, but his smile required no fraudulence as he displayed the drawing... almost proudly, as if he’d had anything to do with it. “I am after seeing this.”
“Thought you might be,“ said Tillinghast, though only giving the picture a glance. “Of course I’m no judge of art... that’s what we pay you for... but it looks pretty good to me.”
“It is,” said Jerry. “Extremely good.” Then a thought flitted through his mind like a bat: If I could have drawn like him at thirteen...
Tillinghast offered a Cuban cigar, illegal, as far as Jerry knew -- at least for the Proletarian class -- as if announcing a birth. “Two firsts for Morrison this year.”
Jerry raised a polite eyebrow while carefully laying the drawing down and accepting the hefty phallic symbol.
“Our first physically handicapped student,” Tillinghast went on, maybe stressing “physically,” though Jerry might have imagined it. “Finally a use for that dammed elevator besides a groping booth for the kids.” Tillinghast’s expression soured. “Of either sex these days.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” said Jerry.
“Don’t guess you would have,” Tillinghast said with no apparent irony. He glanced to the hallway door -- Elwood had not presumed to close it -- then lowered his voice a little. “And our first African-American.”
“...Oh,” said Jerry, for lack of anything else.
“Of course that wasn’t intentional.” Tillinghast seemed to consider possible misinterpretations. “Either way,” he added.
“...Of course not,” said Jerry, working that out.
“Our doors have always been open,” Tillinghast said magnanimously, “to any student who meets our standards. ...Though we’ve gotten a reputation for being a mostly white school.”
Jerry said carefully, “Our standards are high.”
Tillinghast chuckled. “So is our tuition. And Miss Morrison didn’t believe in scholarships. ‘Anything acquired too easily in life is seldom valued at its worth.’”
Including talent, Jerry thought, glancing again at the drawing and suddenly hoping this wasn’t the case.
Tillinghast shrugged. “She wasn’t any more of a racist than most of her class at the time.”
I’m sure she respected her colored maid... and probably Elwood’s gardener father.
“And of course she couldn't have foreseen that any of... them... would apply to her school.”
The subject seemed to be getting deeper than it may have deserved to be, with explanations -- or justifications -- offered when they weren’t required, and Jerry offered a chuckle. “Her picture wasn’t dripping blood when I came in this morning.”
Tillinghast turned to the doorway again as several students, obviously new, crept cautiously past in the shadows... the light fixture must have shorted. “Little pitchers have big ears. ...Or is it pictures?”
“Pitchers,” said Jerry. “My mother used to say it.”
“Well, that’s one thing this school doesn’t need.” Tillinghast lowered his voice again. “People will tolerate diversity... up to a point, anyway... but they won’t abide rumors of... those kinds of things.”
A spook in the flesh but not one in spirit. “I suppose not,” said Jerry. He caught himself inspecting the cigar, which had probably cost at least twenty dollars, and quickly placed it beside the ink bottle.
Tillinghast noted the open folder. “I came to tell you that Nathan Graves is Morrison’s first... in both respects.”
Jerry felt a little relieved. “That probably explains his remarkable talent.”
Tillinghast cocked his head.
“It’s common for handicapped people to excel in other ways.”
“Like... what’s-his-name... the physicist?”
Tillinghast seemed to consider. “I suppose it could be said that Nathan Graves is handicapped in two senses of the word.”
Jerry wondered why he felt offended. “Disregarding the latter... though I suppose it’s true enough... what’s his physical handicap?”
“He’s in a wheelchair... but he’s got legs, and everything else seems to work. And he does seem bright for his... age.”
“...Oh,” said Jerry, trying to picture a small black boy -- perhaps a charming Webster -- partly paralyzed. Maybe in an accident? No one got Polio anymore as in his mother’s day.
“It’s one of those power types,” Tillinghast went on. “Of course I know nothing about such things, but it looks expensive as hell... like a Rolls-Royce of those kinds of things. I’m sure you couldn’t get one on any sort of Assistance.”
Jerry thought of a Silver Ghost, the only Rolls-Royce model he knew of, thanks to a James Bond novel. “Probably not,” he said, then looked at the drawing again... maybe Nathan’s grandmother? He'd read that elderly black people often lived with their families instead of being... put in homes. But Jerry hadn’t wanted to put his mother in a home: she had fallen twice this summer, and he couldn’t have left her alone all day.
If he’d only been a better artist and could have done his work at home.
Tillinghast extracted his watch and opened its golden cover, which made his time seem more valuable than someone who simply glanced at his wrist. “Since your class is his first of the day, would you ask if any of your students might volunteer to be his aide? I don’t think he needs much help... seemed pretty self-sufficient to me when I met him last week with his guardian... apparently he's adopted... but State guidelines suggest a peer aide. We can offer some extra credit, and it would look good on a student’s record.”
“Of course,” said Jerry.
Tillinghast closed his watch like a bite. “I’m sure Elwood will accommodate any other needs the boy might have. ...Wonder if he ever thought he'd live to see this day?”
“Probably not," said Jerry, feeling oddly offended again.
“Is it incorrect to call them boys?”
“I think ‘young man’ would be safer.”
Tillinghast seemed to consider again. “You went to a public school... of course I don’t mean that disparagingly.”
Jerry’s smile required some fraud. “I understand. But in my school it was mostly a case of ‘why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria.’”
Tillinghast nodded. “I don’t know the quote but the meaning seems clear. Of course I wasn’t implying...” He seemed to weigh choices of words. “...that you might be an expert. But you did grow up in Oakland, unlike most of our staff, so you must have had some... contact?”
“I understand,” said Jerry.
“And, as you said, the... young man... does seem to posses some talent related to your field, so you’d have that much in...”
“I understand,” said Jerry again, a little more forcefully than intended.
Tillinghast glanced around at the paintings. “Morrison has had many successes... Congressmen, Senators, business leaders, even a scientist or two... be nice if we could boast of an artist who actually made some money.”
“I’m sure it would look good on our record.”
Tillinghast smiled. “As well as on yours. The... young man’s... guardian inquired at some length about your resumé.” He came about majestically, but halfway out the door he paused. “How’s your mother?”
Jerry had picked up the drawing again, regarding the old woman’s face... all her work seemingly done for the day and resting in well-deserved peace. He pictured a small black boy, who looked even smaller, fragile perhaps, in a big complicated power chair, quietly drawing from life. His voice caught in his throat for a moment. “I... don’t think she’ll be coming home.”
“Sorry to hear that, Jerry. But none of us are getting younger.”
“I know,” said Jerry.
“If there’s anything I can do...”
“Thanks,” said Jerry. People always said that, no doubt with the best of intentions, and usually in situations where nothing could be done.
The term, “living room,” Jerry’s mother had said, dated from the early 20th century, originally coined by the middle-class whose smaller, less affluent houses didn’t have parlors and sitting rooms. Jerry remembered a novel he’d read, written during the 1920s, in which “living room” was contained in quotes as if to denote a colloquialism that proper people didn’t use. Traditionally, he’d also read, the front parlor in proper homes was used for receiving significant guests, and was also where a family’s deceased were laid out before their funerals. For the middle-class the term, “living room,” must have caused some consternation when the Reaper came to call.
Nothing so oxymoronic could have occurred in the Morrison Mansion, possessed as it was of seemingly countless front, rear and middle parlors... not to mention sitting rooms, drawing rooms, a sewing room, a music room, a breakfast room, a library and a conservatory. Indeed, as evidenced by one of several photographs in the teacher’s lounge -- formerly the trophy room -- the late lady had received her last callers in the grandest parlor, which was now Jerry’s classroom.
The irony that Drawing From Life was taught in a room where the dead had reposed was offset by its four tall windows -- kept clear of ivy by Elwood -- which, thanks to benign Bay Area winters provided perfect natural light.
Though electric bells had been fitted to schools during Miss Morrison’s time, she had regarded them as vulgar, maintaining that students of proper schools were neither “Pavlovian mongrels nor Proletarian factory workers.” Consequently, each classroom, hallway, office and staff area had a wood-cased regulator that subtly sounded the hours; though keeping each clock synchronized, indeed even operational, must have tried even Elwood’s skills. And, since most of the students, no matter what class their former schools, had already been trained to respond to bells, it was common during the first few days for some to be a few minutes late.
This being the case, Jerry wasn’t surprised, as his regulator began chiming eight, that three of this year’s thirteen students weren’t yet in their places with bright shining faces, including Nathan Graves, the one he most wanted to meet... though that seemed even more forgivable since he was handicapped.
In keeping with the late lady’s wishes, the desks were also from a time when proper young ladies and gentlemen displayed their good breeding with genteel posture... and probably felt like torture devices to bodies accustomed to boneless slumping in egromatic computer chairs or sprawling on couches in front of TVs with channel or game controllers in hand.
Jerry usually made his entrance just as his clock struck its final note -- he remembered an old children’s book, a bedtime story read by his mother, in which a king had been perplexed as to whether it was something o’clock when a clock began chiming or when it had finished -- but this year he’d come in early, striking a Bohemian pose by sitting upon his desktop, in hope of meeting Nathan before many other students arrived. The art book in hand was merely a prop to seemingly ponder while glancing up and nodding as each of his pupils came in. ...Also intimidating them by already knowing their names. He easily recognized faces from the folder photographs and, thanks to long experience, was able to guess most of others from the samples of their work.
Bill Malone’s body did go with his face, “tightly undone,” as a Who song had said, in an underwear shirt of the type called a “singlet” in Morrison’s age but termed a “wife-beater” by youth of today. No doubt her ghost was very displeased by such body-baring informal attire, though -- fortunately for the students -- she couldn’t have foreseen a time when children in schools of her class of people would dress in less than collars and corsets. The snowy white cotton looked spray-painted on over high, jutting “pecs” like a small pair of bricks, their nipples pertly budding the cloth, and what today’s kids called a “six-pack.” His biceps bulged like baseballs even though relaxed, and his face was Caucasian perfection without so much as a ghost of a zit and framed by a shoulder-length golden mane in a rather 1970s style, though his jeans were currently oversize, giving him a faun-like appearance, and rode low enough so his indigo boxers were partially displayed. His big hoove-like Nikes were well-worn but spotless, and the I-phone clipped to the top of his jeans was skinned with a skateboarding anamorph that did somewhat resemble a faun.
Jerry suppressed a sigh as the young prince took his proper place at a desk in the very last row -- from which to observe his subjects -- only seeming a little surprised when he found it defied his casual slump but covering it as cool as a cat. Jerry’s stillborn sigh, however, was not because of the boy’s perfection but rather because Bill knew he was perfect and therefore -- as Jerry had feared -- might feel no need to create anything.
Then came Crystal Sterling, her eyes -- as Jerry had also feared -- revealing a green glow of lunacy and her smile disturbingly toothy, though of course there was nothing wrong with her teeth. Jerry seldom saw braces on Morrison kids and sometimes wondered if either there were expensive procedures exclusive to the upper-class to correct orthodontic misfortunes, or whether rich children with malocclusions were sent to discreet sanatoriums to conceal their durations of grinning in tin. She knew that Jerry had seen her... thing, which made him feel like a child-molester meeting an all-too willing victim whose picture he’d seen in cyberspace and who might have a razor blade taped to a finger.
The others were much as he’d envisioned... if that was any kind of talent. The Bully, Raymond Blakemore, was possibly a banker’s son, his art of the type one usually saw on muscular forearms unloading ships and maybe a little too masculine, his brawn about twenty-five percent fat, which would only increase in the coming years because he was an entitled bully rather than one who’d worked for his place... though by the time the ratio reversed his bullying wouldn’t require any muscle. Jerry saw him spot the Alpha and take a desk in the next row up where he could prey if the prince would permit.
Jerry had also guessed most of the others; Goths and Emos -- of course just a phase as their parents would say -- horsey girls, sheep, and a male Lolita with long brown hair and mascared lashes, his body softly breasted and bellied, the latter overlapping his jeans... another form of the “gamer look.”
The Disruptor this year was a James Dean type, though it was doubtful he knew it, who’d probably hoped he would be the Alpha, slouching in a minute late -- the cigarette in his mouth implied -- and probably on purpose.
Mostly a pack of young Republicans still in pubescent denial, synonymous with unteachable cretins... at least in regard to Art.
But maybe this year there was hope of success in the way he still defined it.
Walter Wadsworth Wainwright III, who’d obviously gained a lot of weight since his folder photograph, presently sporting a soft second chin below a now pendulous pear-shaped face and following a bulbous belly that looked like he’d swallowed a basketball, two of his shirt’s lower buttons undone and his navel peeking cartoonishly like a Don Martin drawing for Mad Magazine -- though one would have thought that a boy so affluent would have purchased a larger shirt -- duck-footed in a few seconds later and properly apologized, which Jerry acknowledged with a nod. He always explained about the clocks after all were present, stressing in proper Morrison style that while position had privileges they came with responsibilities... such as being in class on time without the Pavlovian prompting of bells. He’d also found that breaking the butterfly on the wheel was more effective on opening day than kept in reserve as the ultimate weapon, and would add that, though expulsions were rare, they wouldn’t look good on anyone’s record.
He doubted if, in flatland schools, that would have been much of a threat, but these kids had been trained from birth -- however defiant they pretended to be -- to think about their futures.
But he hadn’t said that yet because of Nathan’s absence, and the eyes which had animalistically been scanning the pack for weaknesses -- Raymond’s lasering “Lolita” with a rage he didn’t understand -- were beginning to search for the same in him. He didn’t need to look at the clock, its archaic mechanical ticking sufficient to mark the passage of time, to know that another minute had passed. He suddenly felt a kind of despair -- a Victorian what will become of me feeling -- as when the doctor had said last week that his mother didn’t have much time. Had something happened to Nathan Graves, delicate as he was?
Of course it was ridiculous, unrealistic and downright absurd, but he realized he’d been basing his hope...
Hope of what?
A sign that he hadn’t he wasted his life -- at least the best years of his life -- in pursuit of a dream that would never come true?
All on a single drawing by a crippled black kid he’d never met?
That despair must have shown in his face because all the animal eyes turned to him... that’s what they were and always would be, beasts with no conception of beauty who would spend their lives creating nothing but misery for those beneath them; who had no higher purpose in life than to grab all the toys they could in their claws and “win” by dying with them.
He almost said it aloud, picturing old Miss Morrison dying alone in her vast lonely house: what will become of me.
Then, from out in the hall, he heard an electric motor sound, faintly familiar from malls and sometimes on his Lake Merritt walks. He also heard the floorboards creaking rather ominously: Victorian mansions, though built to endure, had not been designed to bear power chairs... at least not those of the handicapped.
But, there was another sound, a sort of muffled, rhythmic padding, perhaps like many marching boots thickly soled in rubber. Absurdly, he pictured a squad of soldiers, then, a bit less improbably, a group of guards accompanying the boy. He considered that for a moment: disregarding the Angloish name, could Nathan be an Arabian prince, his family wallowing in oil? There had been one of those several years ago who’d actually had a bodyguard, his parents not being popular with the downtrodden peasants they ruled from afar. “Black” would be black to Tillinghast, ambiguously African... though wasn’t there oil in Africa? But, surely Tillinghast would have announced if the boy had a troop of bodyguards.
The students’ eyes had turned to the door, taking a cue from Jerry that something was out of the ordinary. There hadn’t been any conversation since none of them knew each other, only the shuffle of sneaks on the floor and the creaks of the ancient uncomfortable desks defying young bodies determined to slouch, but now total silence fell in the room except for the tick of the regulator.
Then, Nathan Graves made his entrance.
Tillinghast had understated the chair: it wasn’t simply a “Rolls-Royce of those kinds of things,” it was more like something designed by NASA and possibly built by Caterpillar to explore the surface of alien worlds. It was far too complex to be grasped at a glance, other than being primarily black with glints of silver aluminum or maybe a more exotic metal... magnesium or titanium? Instead of wheels, it was fitted with cleated rubber tracks like small bulldozers Jerry had seen at work in streets and construction sites, which explained the rhythmic padding, the cleats passing over the floor, laying down a road in front and picking it up behind. But it wasn’t the chair he’d wanted to see, astonishing as it was, but the boy who had drawn so divinely from life.
One of his mother’s earliest teachings was “nice people don’t stare,” as applied to those with handicaps or physical aberrations, but Jerry found that hard to obey as the boy in command of the mighty machine guided it expertly through the doorway using a single “joystick” control, though there was barely an inch to spare.
To say that Nathan Graves was “fat” would have been an understatement of gargantuan proportions. The boy must have been, literally, as big around as he was tall. Though Jerry had pictured “a small black boy, who looked even smaller, fragile perhaps, in a big complicated power chair,” the boy seemed to overwhelm the machine, massive though it was. Jerry had also expected a gaudy “hip-hop” costume or maybe a “gangster lean,” but the boy was dressed -- assuming a boy of his bulk could be dressed -- in a white T-shirt and new blue-jeans, both of which had surely come from one of those stores called “big and tall”... though in his case only the former applied. Nevertheless, the shirt, though obviously sized with multiple Xs, was stretched as tight as Bill Malone’s “beater,” seemingly spray-painted over two orbs that looked like mammoth water-balloons inflated to the verge of explosion and almost engulfing Nathan’s chins... of which at least three were visible. Below them his body was shapeless, partly contained by the arms of the chair, though rolls of fat wobbled out underneath, having escaped from his shirt. His gigantic belly was also part bare, avalanching over enormous thighs that strained their confines of dark blue denim, with a navel like an ironic smile due to overlapping rolls. His calves were proportionally huge, and his sneaks -- understandably showing no wear -- must have been at least size 12. His upper arms were also enormous, pouring out of the sleeves of his shirt, his forearms only a little less so; and his hands, with dimples instead of knuckles, looked like those of “the world’s biggest baby” who Jerry had stumbled across on the Web. The boy had no visible neck; his chins, as Jerry had already noted, entrapped between the balloons of his chest. His spherical cheeks engulfed his nose, which though bridgeless was wide at the tip and only looked small in that full-moon face... a velvet-black moon in this case.
Indeed, and though living in Oakland for every one of his 39 years, Jerry couldn’t recall a blacker boy; and though he’d seen a thousand fat kids of every race and color, he’d never seen one of this size before... at least of this circumference.
Regardless of his mother’s teaching, Jerry studied Nathan’s face, which made him think of an African cherub... one who had gotten too fat to fly. The mouth, like the nose, might have looked wide -- at least by Caucasian standards -- on a boy of lesser volume, but here it was rather a rosebud, sweet with full, expressive lips which were probably always open at rest displaying a pair of startling teeth... both for their size and their contrasting whiteness. The eyes, below a woolly cap of moderately “Afroish” hair, looked as black as the space between stars despite being given as “brown,” and even above those opulent cheeks were large and somehow quite charming... though had the boy not been so fat, they might have resembled a pity puppy’s.
Jerry’s eyes searched for any malaise, fearing to find the defeating self-hatred beat into so many overweight kids, even those who in his generation would have been called only chubby, but instead found a bright intelligence studying him in return; not even a ghost of self-pity haunted those midnight depths, nor any plea for pity from others. No “skinny boy” was trapped in there and screaming to be free.
Only a moment or two had passed, the boy navigating into the room on his dauntless Caterpillar tracks. The chair, as Jerry took in more detail, was loaded like an Army jeep equipped for long campaign with black nylon pouches slung here and there, as well as a pair of matching packs, appearing, as Tillinghast had said, very self-sufficient... or well-equipped for an alien world. The boy looked Jerry a question as to where to position himself, and Jerry tried to appear nonchalant -- as if seeing incredibly fat black boys was a normal occurrence at Morrison -- and nodded toward the empty space between the desks and a row of easels. He carefully modulated his voice so his greeting, “Good morning, Mr. Graves,” sounded just as casual as when he’d greeted the other kids, though his mind was trying to reconcile, to accept the reality of this boy -- this divinely gifted boy -- and abandon the mental sketch he’d made... which certainly hadn’t been drawn from life.
Okay, he thought, so the boy was fat; what difference did that make? No more difference than his color. Handicapped as he was -- in three ways -- it had probably tripled his talent. And, being confined to a wheelchair -- in this case one with bulldozer tracks -- it didn’t seem all that extraordinary for him to have gotten so fat. He might have taken easier roads -- the roads most boys of his age would take in the same or a similar situation -- become a computer or gamer addict, lost his soul in cyberspace, or simply “zombied-out” on TV; but instead he’d chosen to create, and what he’d created was beautiful.
The other students, Jerry noted, though still sneaking peeps at the mammoth boy -- Walter most of all, though maybe that was logical with all the weight he’d gained this summer -- seemed, probably due to his nonchalance, to accept Nathan Graves, at least for the moment, as simply a very fat black kid -- or the token at Hogwarts -- who hadn’t yet revealed himself as being cool or lame; though Raymond was assessing him for possible victimization. Jerry caught Raymond’s eyes flicking to Bill, seeking the sanction he needed, though Bill seemed favorable toward Nathan and not only ignored Raymond’s pleas to attack but frowned to keep him leashed. Then Bill did a very princely thing, proving himself a nobleman possessed of the very rare quality of actually being noble: he smiled at Nathan and said, “Cool ride.”
Most of the students giggled or grinned, except for Raymond and the Disruptor... both evidently realizing that if Bill wouldn't let them attack this fat boy they couldn't go after Walter, either. Nathan smiled at Bill in return, not gratefully but as an equal. Kenneth Yamoto seemed intrigued by Nathan’s mighty mechanical steed and -- had Jerry not begun his spiel about the clocks, noblesse oblige, and the final solution -- might have started to sketch it. Walter snapped a phone picture -- clandestinely from the hip -- and only Jerry noticed.
Jerry then began his introduction to Drawing From Life, something else he’d once enjoyed but which, for the last few years, had been a mostly mechanical speech like a flight attendant’s robotic recital of how to fasten a seat belt and use one’s cushion to stay afloat... presumably after hitting the sea at 300 miles-per-hour. But now there seemed to again be a reason to introduce these kids to Art, and a hope -- notwithstanding Nathan’s talent -- that one or two might actually pursue it.
This not being a public school where one size was commanded for all and square pegs were relentlessly pounded, regardless of splinters and collateral damage, into a plodding assembly line of State-mandated circular holes, Jerry had designed his class to give the less able the basics they needed while allowing the truly talented students -- with his Master’s guidance -- to create at their own higher levels. Obviously, those like Bill Malone, possibly Walter and several others whose samples did show promise -- not to mention Nathan Graves -- would be held back and therefore discouraged if forced to begin by drawing stick figures and learning basic anatomy, while horsey girls had to be convinced that, while horses were beautiful animals, there were few equine paintings in art galleries featuring bow ties and derby hats. Skulls and bones were for Halloween; while tattoo art belonged on skin rather than quality canvas. Anime was cartooning, a highly competitive field of Art, requiring not only exceptional skills but also a few lucky breaks to succeed.
Without looking at Kenneth Yamoto, who had begun to sketch the chair, while Walter snapped another picture -- presumably of its occupant -- Jerry offered the option of Graphic Design for those who preferred machines to people.
That left Crystal Sterling’s... thing, which, like breaking the butterfly, was best gotten over with now. Jerry didn’t believe in peer critique -- just as one couldn’t learn brain surgery from a fellow first-year medical student, one didn’t learn how to draw from life from those who had barely started to live -- but in this case he wanted to see their reactions, if only to confirm his judgement that the girl needed help in a lot more than Art.
Asking Raymond to draw the drapes -- a warning of who would be the Bully if any bullying reared its head -- Jerry switched on the overhead projector and took a drawing from a folder... not Crystal Sterling’s obscenity, but a horse by a girl named Susan Treadwell who was sunny blonde and rather pretty by Anglo-Saxon standards. Her horse, not surprisingly Palomino, was one of the more realistic beasts, though certainly hadn’t been drawn from life, and there were careful appreciative murmurs, the kids unsure of whether or not to express what they actually felt. Jerry followed the horse with one of Ken’s choppers, which impressed most of the males; and he noted Nathan’s approval in a slight cock of the head -- all it could manage, engulfed in fat -- which seemed to show he wasn’t a snob, at least when it came to other art forms besides the one he seemed to have mastered.
Jerry reminded himself that he’d only seen one example so far.
To show that he wasn’t a bully -- unless someone provoked him -- Jerry projected Raymond’s sample, which also impressed most of the males, though Nathan might have looked a bit wry... a face that dark was hard to read, especially now in the darkened room.
Then, to lighten the atmosphere, Jerry offered one of the My Little Ponies, which delighted most of the girls but got a lot of rolled eyes from the boys; though Nathan only looked patient, like connoisseur of serious films sitting through a silly cartoon.
A glance at Crystal Sterling confirmed that she in her looney innocence wanted to see her work displayed, but instead he projected a Bill Malone drawing -- a shirtless, sullen-looking boy almost as handsome as Bill himself and pondering at a window -- which seemed to impress most the kids since they could relate without knowing they were. Though he hadn’t identified anyone, connecting the art to the artists, he thought he saw Nathan smile at Bill.
Surely they couldn’t have known each other? Not only was there the gulf of race, but the boys were almost antipodes in every other way. Could Nathan have simply guessed... or was he as good as Jerry at seeing subjects’ souls?
Crystal gave Jerry an expectant look that sent a shiver down his spine. He remembered an ancient TV show from his early childhood -- You Asked For It -- then unleashed Princess Sparkle Pony.
These were not kids of his generation to whom the apex of deviancy was a Hustler found in a garbage can -- or maybe daddy’s bottom drawer -- this was the Internet generation who, despite Parental Controls, had probably seen almost every sex act the human mind could devise or pervert, from boys and girls of their age masturbating to transgender twinks copulating with goats, but total silence fell in the room, and more than one pair of students’ eyes expanded to pity puppy proportions.
Raymond finally recovered and attempted a prompting snicker, which fell as flat as a fart in church... or maybe a prayer in hell. Poor Crystal thought she was being flattered by gaping mouths and saucer eyes. Jerry looked for Nathan’s reaction but, maybe due to the darkness compounding the midnight of his face, only got an impression of thoughtfulness.
It occurred to Jerry that, had this been a public school ruled by religious hypocrites and equally hypocritical Proles who compounded their own deviations by being abysmally ignorant, intolerant and hateful, he might have been instantly fired, prosecuted, tried and convicted, imprisoned and then forever branded with the new American Scarlet Letter for inflicting this thing upon young adolescents... but the same might apply if he’d shown the Creation.
The students’ obvious shock, literally rippling through the room, not only confirmed Jerry’s earlier judgement but made him feel like like the professor in Lionel Trilling’s college tale; and this feeling only intensified when Crystal Sterling smiled at him as if he’d seen her soul. ...He had, and it scared him shitless.
In a way it didn’t seem fair, either to her or to Nathan, perversely a tough act to follow -- literally beauty after a beast -- but he projected Nathan’s drawing.
Again, there was absolute silence, the tick of the clock sounding loud, but this time the silence of awe. Even if only instinctively, the kids recognized the Art they were seeing, and a few of them may have gotten a glimmer of what Art actually was; that even the finest photograph could never have captured that old woman’s soul.
Perhaps because of the subject’s race, a few eyes turned to Nathan, though Bill’s, Jerry noted, had been the first... could they have known each other? An old hippie cliché, which had survived into Jerry’s childhood, ghosted through his mind -- met in a previous life -- followed by a racist joke: my great-grandfather owned your great-grandfather.
He found himself, as he had in his office, feeling like predator -- or how he imagined one might feel -- wanting to be alone with Nathan, though of course with much loftier motives.
Clearing his throat, and wondering why, he instructed Raymond to open the drapes while switching off the projector. Recapturing his Bohemian pose by seating himself on his desk, and also his confidence that he was Master here, his students caught off-guard and cowed by Crystal Sterling’s monstrosity and realizing he had the power to shock and awe them if he chose, he reinforced those points by reminding them they were Morrison students, expected to be exceptional; not only more intelligent than those of other, lesser, schools, but also more mature. He finished by adding that none of them were compelled to be in his class, and if they didn’t feel comfortable here, perhaps they belonged somewhere else. ...They would, he went on, after a moment for that to sink sufficiently in, indeed be drawing from life, and they would be their own peer models.
Comprehension dawned on several faces -- Bill Malone’s one of the first -- though Nathan seemed to already know. Walter cautiously raised his hand.
“You mean we’ll be drawing each other... um, naked?”
This of course released the tension with various snickers and giggles.
Jerry smiled. “I’m afraid we’re not that progressive, Walter, even here at Morrison, but a decent amount of skin will be shown in the interest of learning anatomy. We’re not here to draw clothes for Calvin or Tommy.”
This released more laughter: maybe this guy was okay... for his age.
Brandon Foxworthy, this year’s Lolita, batted his silky lashes at Jerry. “How much are we gonna show?”
More laughter, of course, and a feeling of dawning camaraderie filled the air like pheromones: maybe they weren’t quite the beasts that Jerry had condemned them as being, though that was before Nathan Graves had resurrected his hope of salvation... or perhaps deliverance.
“No more than on a public beach,” said Jerry. “Males in boxers, if they wish... but no tighty whities.”
“Or swim wear,” Jerry continued. “And girls in bathing suits.”
“Bikinis?” asked a boy, hopefully.
“What about speedos?” asked a girl, also hopefully.
Jerry smiled amid the laughter. “This isn’t kiddie porn 101.”
Uproarious laughter now, possibly stirring Miss Morrison’s bones, which ostensibly lay in a vine-covered crypt beneath somber oaks in the mansion’s back yard... one of the last such interments allowed. Maybe this old guy WAS okay and the kind of teacher worthy of them... exceptional and mature as they were.
Of course there were kids every year, usually the overweight -- or those brainwashed to believe they were -- who didn’t want to pose; and of course Jerry thought of Nathan, though Walter also qualified. The others would think of that in a moment, so without looking at Nathan, Jerry added that posing was voluntary and no extra credit was given, nor any less for not.
That reminded him of something, though he couldn’t bring it to mind.
Peer pressure or fear of ridicule would make that decision for some, no matter what their appearance or weight and, though it saddened Jerry sometimes, he could do nothing about it; and trying to would just make it worse. Eyes began to evaluate bodies and speculate on what might be concealed, most of the girls’ on Bill Malone’s, even though much was already revealed. Brandon also turned to Bill, though several girls had turned to him. Most male eyes studied female forms, and even the cretins of either sex began to see some use for art... or at least an excuse for it.
Jerry let this go on for a minute... maybe for the first time in their lives these kids were trying to see each other as something besides what their clothes claimed to be. Then he announced that their first assignment, evaluating their drawing skills in regard to a human form, would be, for the rest of this period, to sketch a representative model. There was no pressure to finish the sketch; simply to capture as much as they could to the best of their abilities. Today, since the girls were unprepared... unless they had brought bathing suits...
...the model would be a male. So, who would volunteer?
“Can we vote?” asked Susan Treadwell, her passion for horses quelled for the moment by obvious interest in Bill.
“Yes,” said Jerry. “But first we need volunteers.”
“Can we nominate?” It was Crystal Sterling who, at least for the present, appeared to be just a normal girl also enchanted by Bill.
“Yes,” said Jerry. “But this isn’t a Chippendale pageant, and real beauty is more than skin deep and what you’ve been taught by Hollywood.”
Again, Bill glanced at Nathan, who had smiled through most of this, which seemed to show that either he wasn’t ashamed of his body, or maybe he simply didn’t believe that anyone would want to draw him. Of course it was hard to tell what he thought with his lips in open repose and his big white teeth always showing. Something seemed to be exchanged between himself and Bill, and Bill put up a hand, drawing cheers from several girls and a lustful puppy look from Brandon. Walter seemed about to say something, but another girl pointed to Brandon and said, “I was going to nominate him.”
Brandon looked surprised, although not discomfited.
“We don’t have much time today,” said Jerry, glancing at the clock. “And we have the whole year ahead to find the real beauty within each other.” He added, though knowing it wasn’t true, “And everyone here is beautiful... if we will only train ourselves to see the soul within.”
That got a few looks of incomprehension, but Jerry turned to Bill and indicated what in Morrison’s time had been called a “Japanese screen” -- this one had actually come from Japan -- standing in a corner. All eyes followed Bill as he strode to the screen, casually shedding his shirt on the way -- to various giggles, sighs and cheers -- and disappeared behind it. While Bill was disrobing, Jerry asked Raymond -- a final reminder of who was the ultimate Alpha here -- to distribute drawing pads and pencils. Morrison’s paper was quality, as were the virgin but pre-sharpened pencils, but Nathan had brought his own and they were the absolute best. His chair was fitted with a retractable surface of black-anodized aluminum that folded over his mammoth middle like a table top, though the orbs of his chest were so enormous that Jerry wondered how he could draw. And it seemed equally hard to believe that those fat-padded fingers could wield a pencil with such awesome skill as his sample had shown; but the lingering ghost of a possible fraud was dispelled by Nathan’s confident manner... he would produce another divine, spirit-baring creation.
He’d obviously noted the posing stand over by one of the windows, a four-foot plywood cube, built by Elwood at Jerry’s request and draped with sky-blue velvet -- a color that best complimented the usually fair-skinned models -- and maneuvered his chair for a good point of view, gently bulldozing a few empty desks. Jerry told the other kids they were free to chose their own vantage points; then there were cheers, giggles and sighs -- one of the latter from Brandon -- as Bill emerged in golden glory clad in only his indigo shorts, his muscular legs and large puppy feet as perfect as the rest of him.
Jerry indicated the velvet-draped cube and suggested Bill assume a pose that he could maintain for the next forty minutes. Of course he first mounted, stood and flexed in ridiculous body-builder style -- although he probably didn’t work-out, being blessed with beautiful genes -- which naturally got laughter, but then sat down with a knee drawn up and turned his face to a window in one of his own subjects’ brooding poses.
Had he been brave enough, Jerry wondered, or secure enough in himself at thirteen, to have actually drawn those subjects from life? ...Just as Jerry had drawn Trevor.
Nathan had begun to work as soon as Bill composed himself, his pencil sweeping confidently, every stroke, bold or subtle, absolutely sure. And he’d brought out no eraser. Or course Jerry wanted to watch, and of course he would in the future, just he would the other students... but what suggestions could he make to a boy already so masterful?
Again he felt the ghost of a threat, like a specter at his shoulder, as the other students dithered, their pencils hesitating as if fearing to commit themselves to anything they might regret, making attempts, hesitating again, then tentatively beginning anew. A few of them, of either sex, were embarrassed to fix their gaze on Bill, as if they felt guilty of something by touching him with their eyes... including Raymond Blakemore. And Brandon had a bulge in his jeans that must have felt like ticking bomb... he would probably ask to go to the bathroom. But the kids soon lost their shyness as they glanced at less uncertain peers; and Nathan’s steady gaze at Bill seemed to put them further at ease.
Jerry usually also sketched the model, ostensibly to show his students how it should be done -- and probably subconsciously to prove he was the Master -- but again he felt a creep of fear... what if Nathan put his work to shame? He glanced at Nathan again, noting again those confident strokes, then sat at his desk and seized a pencil.
The last of the other students, Amanda Teabrook -- nefarious tracer of anorexics and evidently one herself -- had just left the room after laying her drawing on Jerry’s desk atop the other students’ works. She followed Bill Malone, who’d emerged still shirtless from behind the screen, to the delight of the girls and Brandon -- the latter had asked to go to the bathroom, returning flushed and short of breath -- and had only completed his wardrobe while pausing to speak with Nathan. Jerry hadn’t heard the exchange, but it didn’t seem they knew each other, and maybe Bill was just being noble. Walter had also lingered, apparently wanting to meet Nathan, too, but had been preempted by Bill, had glanced at his Rolex and finally duck-footed out. After a few words with Nathan, trading smiles and a handshake, Bill had sauntered into the hall followed by a wistful Amanda -- who might have thought he would like her if she lost what remained of the flesh on her bones -- leaving only Nathan, who’d been next to the last to add his work and was now Caterpillaring toward the door. Nathan swung his machine around with the grace of a little bulldozer.
Jerry usually didn’t look at work before it was time to grade it, and hadn’t looked at Nathan’s, now beneath Amanda’s, despite how much he’d wanted to. And now that he was alone with the boy he felt absurdly uneasy again. He resisted the urge to clear his throat although he probably should have, his voice coming out with the ghost of a quaver. “I was very impressed by your sample drawing.”
Nathan smiled, which was only displaying his teeth a bit more. “Thank you, sir.”
Most Morrison kids had been trained to say “sir” if the situation required, but Nathan made it sound normal.
“Have you done any others?” asked Jerry.
Nathan reached into one of his packs and pulled out his drawing pad, then rolled on his tracks to Jerry’s desk. “I did this last night.”
It was, as Jerry had almost feared, absolutely perfect... at least he could have done no better. It depicted a black boy of possibly ten, maybe Nathan’s younger brother, chubby and seemingly asleep; and, as with the old woman’s picture, there was serenity in the face.
“This is... very good,” said Jerry. He wanted to say a lot more -- words like stunning or masterful -- but somehow he couldn’t. Because no one had said them to him? He remembered a warning he’d read somewhere that one shouldn’t over-praise gifted children, though he couldn’t remember why. “Er... pardon?”
“I said, thank you, sir.”
“Oh.” Jerry wanted to ask a million questions, but of course there wasn’t time with Nathan due in another class. Then he remembered what he’d forgotten. “I’m sorry, the Director asked me this morning to ask if any of my other students would volunteer to be your aide.”
“That’s okay, sir, I don’t need any help.”
He’d said it matter-of-factly, which didn’t suggest denial. Jerry supposed it was normal to wonder how Nathan, not only handicapped but also so incredibly fat, attended to what in Victorian times might have been termed “nature’s call.” Nathan smiled again as if guessing a logical progression of thought, but said:
“I saw your work in the school brochure, and more in a gallery downtown. You’re a great artist, sir. That’s why I wanted to learn from you.”
“Thank you,” said Jerry, feeling absurdly flattered. ...Or maybe somehow compensated for fifteen years of darkness without a glimmer of light ahead. He wanted so much to talk with this boy... surely there would be no gulf of age in regard to the subject of Art? In a way it seemed wrong to think like that, as if somehow taking advantage, but Nathan’s... condition... must have segregated him from peers of any color. Although he hadn’t spoken in class, concentrating on drawing Bill, he nevertheless seemed more mature; a boy who hadn’t wasted his childhood being... well, childish. Perhaps he hadn’t learned to be childish, or believed the great American myth that he had to be childish for twenty-one years... and then a boy-man for the rest of his life?
Jerry thought about meeting with him after school, but he had to see his mother... every day was precious now. Then he had another idea. “I’d like to talk with you about Art... maybe at lunch?” He added depreciatingly, “If you wouldn’t mind being seen with a teacher?”
Nathan smiled again. “That would be cool, but I was going to McDonalds with Bill.”
“...Oh,” said Jerry, hoping he didn’t sound disappointed. Bill must have invited Nathan when he’d stopped to talk with him... and Jerry couldn’t feel jealous! “No problem,” he said with a casualness that was surprisingly forced. “Maybe another day. I often go there myself. For a Quarter-Pounder with cheese.”
“That’s my favorite, too,” said Nathan. “But if you want to talk that’s cool, I can go with Bill anytime.”
It seemed obvious now that Nathan hadn’t grown up with his peers; he could be making a career decision and didn’t seem to know it. Just as in Victorian times, "no" wasn't a word to use to a prince, and one didn’t refuse to dine with an Alpha. Maybe the proper thing to do was let Nathan go with Bill -- there was plenty of time to talk about Art -- but Jerry said, “Great. I’ll meet you in the foyer.”
“Okay, see you, sir.” Nathan swung his machine around and Caterpillared out the door, the rolls of his sides just clearing the frame.
Jerry studied the sleeping boy as the rumble of tracks and creak of floorboards faded away up the hall, envying the peace in his face and suddenly longing to feel the same... that he was loved and cared for, safe and protected from a world that didn't love or care; and even the boy’s chubbiness, despite all the current denial and hate, was proof that he was loved.
Then he took Nathan’s drawing of Bill from under Amanda’s childish work -- at best an amateur comic cartoon depicting Bill as a young super-hero brooding in his Fortress Of Solitude -- and studied it in the clear morning light streaming through the windows. Just as he’d hoped -- and still feared -- Nathan’s work was perfect. As much as a pencil drawing could show, Bill Malone was there and alive. And, despite his perfection -- being the handsomest faun in the woods to whom all others would bow down and serve -- there was somehow an aura of good around him.
Jerry held his own work beside Nathan’s: the skills, he admitted were equal... though didn’t that mean improvement was needed? Or at least possible?
The regulators began to chime as he sat there comparing the boys... though there was little beyond skills to compare because Jerry had drawn Nathan Graves.
The school had a lunch room of course, still the mansion’s grand dining room, with a Cordon Bleu chef who was actually French and a menu uncorrupted by the current obsession with “health.” The entrées were made as in Morrison’s time with actual eggs, butter and cream, and well-prepared meats were a staple -- the chef was fond of saying that Hitler had been vegetarian -- and while low-fat milk was available it had to be requested as if one had a gastronomic perversion.
The atmosphere with white-clothed tables, Victorian silver and china plates beneath a crystal chandelier was more than a bit restrictive to normal teenage behavior, and many students took their meals out to the lush back yard, where wrought-iron tables and chairs were provided for dining among the flowers and trees, all carefully tended by Elwood. There were also many sculptures of stone, most of these cherubs and chubby young fauns playing or lounging in the foliage, though as Jerry had noted over the years, the kids avoided the vine-covered crypt with its massive riveted iron door, which morbidly stood slightly ajar, but was secured by a mammoth chain and equally ponderous padlock... Jerry assumed Elwood had the key and dusted the tomb on a regular basis. Of course the new kids would venture a peek, though there was nothing inside to see but a single enormous marble box -- far too large for the small skeleton presumably resting within -- upon a granite pedestal in the center of the shadowy space. There must have been a family plot of many Morrison generations, but maybe since she had died alone, unmarried, unloved, and the last of her line, she had chosen to remain alone for all eternity.
Many kids also went to McDonalds, though the school’s lavish lunch was included in the price of their lavish tuition, and the last of these were descending the stairs as Jerry stood in the dim-lit foyer across from Miss Morrison’s portrait. As he’d joked to Tillinghast -- or tried to -- the picture wasn’t dripping blood in response to Nathan invading the house, though Minerva did seem to look grimmer today.
There was a minute of silence after the kids reached the sidewalk below and their voices faded away down the street; and Jerry felt a little uneasy beneath the old woman’s glowering gaze, as if she was delving into his mind for things he might have buried... that long-forgotten artist had been better than Jerry had previously thought. Then, and with a little relief, he heard the electric motor sound and the rhythmic padding of rubber tracks accompanied by the creak of old wood as Nathan came down the shadowy hall. Jerry pushed the elevator button, but there was no thrum of cables or hum of machinery. He pushed the button again.
“I don’t think it works,” said Nathan, tractoring up to Jerry. “It wasn’t when I got here this morning. That’s why I was late for your class.”
“That’s odd,” said Jerry, regarding the ornate iron grille and the blackness of the shaft beyond. Surely Elwood had tested it, especially on opening day. And certainly since he’d known of Nathan... Jerry had deduced that, clued by Elwood’s extra warmth and solicitude that morning. He must have seen Nathan’s drawing before Jerry had shown it to him, maybe when bringing the folders, and probably read his file. Maybe he’d overstepped himself, but Jerry couldn’t blame him... as Tillinghast had said, Elwood had probably never dreamed he would live to see this day.
“But how did you get up the stairs?”
Nathan patted the chair’s joystick the way an old-time engineer might have patted his locomotive’s throttle. “It climbs stairs.”
Of course it does, thought Jerry.
Still, he felt overprotective, like watching a kid do a dangerous thing -- like Trevor climbing a water tower when they’d been eight-years-old -- as Nathan launched his machine down the stairs, which creaked and groaned beneath his weight as if the house was crying in pain. Fearful of overloading the structure, Jerry waited until he reached the sidewalk. Then, before descending, he glanced at the old woman’s portrait again and could have sworn it looked malicious.
“That’s quite a machine,” said Jerry, quelling the urge to say "cool ride," as they headed down the well-kept street which, unlike many flatland streets in a city named after trees, was actually lined with magnificent oaks.
“My guardian built it for me this summer. It’ll go more places than a Jeep. Range, about a hundred miles.”
Jerry wasn’t mechanically-minded -- he’d once tried to tune-up his mother’s car, which resulted in having it towed to a shop -- but that seemed impressive for... a handicapped device. “It must have a very large battery.”
“There’s a little diesel generator... under here, see? It recharges the battery. And there’s a solar charger, too.”
Jerry, puffing a bit as Nathan maintained a rather brisk pace, refrained from asking the American question, instead inquiring, “You take it... off road?”
“Sure, we go camping and fishing a lot.”
Jerry remembered fishing with Trevor in the Oakland Estuary, and camping trips with Trevor’s parents -- normal boyhood activities -- and wondered why he felt surprised that Nathan did them, too.
They reached the corner McDonalds where Nathan ordered two double Quarter-Pounders with cheese, a large Coke, super-size fries and a strawberry sundae. Jerry had intended to treat despite being bound to a niggardly budget, but Nathan paid for his Quarter-Pounder, small fries and a medium Coke before he could pull out his wallet. They took their orders outside, where toddlers supervised by their mothers -- or probably nannies in this neighborhood -- were playing on the McDonald Land structures. Jerry saw Bill at a nearby table fawningly being served by Raymond while being admired by Susan and Brandon separately from other tables. Bill, who’d obligingly lost his shirt despite the posted regulations, looking again the perfect faun-prince in his oversize jeans and hoove-like sneaks, nodded to Nathan and smiled.
Nathan’s shirt, though at least triple-X, simply could not contain all of him, though doubtless larger shirts were made. Maybe he just didn’t care? He apparently didn't know what he weighed -- the question mark on his application -- and obviously wasn’t shy. Or maybe the sun felt good on his skin. Jerry recalled summer days with Trevor roaming shirtless around Lake Merritt, but resisted the urge to roll up his sleeves or even loosen his tie.
Most adults in this neighborhood were proper enough not to stare at Nathan; and though many had probably been infected with the anti-obesity virus, glances that would have been hateful had Nathan been simply a normal fat kid seemed tempered by his handicap. Proof of that was Walter, who’d also lost his shirt, his belly striped like a red-and-white zebra with obviously recent stretch marks, though his chest was childishly undefined, and a lunch before him that rivaled Nathan’s, who was getting a lot of hateful looks from people who probably thought themselves “nice.”
Jerry chose a table beside the low McDonald Land fence, and Nathan spread his enormous lunch upon his machine’s retractable surface. Jerry supposed his first question was normal, although it sounded somewhat crass: “Have you been... handicapped all your life?”
Nathan smiled while unwrapping a burger. “I’m not handicapped, I just got too fat to walk very far. To the fridge and the bathroom’s about my limit.” He patted his vast spill of belly, making it ripple in ebony waves and his navel undulate like a laugh. “When it hangs down to your knees you have to sort of push it to walk, and climbing stairs is pretty hard.”
“...Oh,” said Jerry, surprised not only by that revelation but also by Nathan’s casualness... perhaps like the pressure to be a child he’d also been free of societal pressure to be obsessed with staying thin? He obviously wasn’t trying to be what current culture said he should be, either in physical appearance, nor apparently in his mind. His voice, though husky -- perhaps since his neck was encircled by rolls -- didn’t sound stereotypically “black.” He didn’t drop his “G's” or use much current youthful slang -- “cool” seeming the major exception, though “cool” was far from current -- which made him seem very mature. Also apparently very astute because he smiled again and said:
“You’re wondering if I would have drawn if I hadn’t gotten so fat.“
“...Well, yes. ...But how did you know?”
Nathan chomped a huge crescent of burger. “Logical progression of thought. But I always liked to draw, even when I was little.” He laughed and gulped some Coke. “Relatively speaking.”
“So, you’ve been drawing for most of your life?”
Nathan munched a fistful of fries. “Since I was four, but of course that was juvenilia. ...You?”
“Most of my life," said Jerry, thinking again, if I could have drawn like him at thirteen! "Is that your grandmother in the sample drawing, and a younger brother in the other picture?”
Nathan chomped more cheeseburger: apparently speaking with one’s mouth full had not been discouraged in his family... or maybe it was a compliment that he treated Jerry as a peer. He would have excelled at Chubby Bunny. “No, just friends. Everyone’s a friend in our house.”
Jerry supposed it was a “black thing,” though it sounded nice. He hadn’t touched his own food yet, though watching Nathan eat made him suddenly ravenous. He took a bite of his cheeseburger and seemed to be transported back in time: like the old food critic in Ratatouille he remembered being Nathan’s age and his mother taking him out to McDonalds for one of those rare culinary treats. It wasn’t until his college years that he’d realized how dear it had cost her.
The fries were as good as the burger, golden with just the right crispiness, and the Coke just as sweet as he recalled with that peppery nip that teased the tongue and tickled the back of the throat. The palate grew jaded with age, he’d read, demanding more exotic sensations, but kids were happy with simple fare; perhaps why many chose McDonalds over the gourmet Morrison lunch. Maybe it was ridiculous, but for a moment he forgot he was old: he could have been thirteen again, grabbing a burger with Trevor... Trevor usually buying.
Nathan’s smile looked mischievous, as did the “smile” of his cavernous navel, its twin scalloped rolls suggesting cheeks. “You wanted to talk about Art, sir?"
Lunch with Nathan seemed to Jerry -- in retrospect a few hours later, sitting at his office desk and grading the drawings of Bill Malone -- to have been as surreal as a Dali painting. One moment he’d been thirteen again, the food as delicious as he recalled, the sun as sensually warm on his skin, with no past regrets or future forebodings as in those long-vanished times with Trevor, and in the next instant realizing he was 39 and a teacher having lunch with a student. And even when coming back to the future he’d still been amazed by Nathan.
He told himself now, realistically, setting aside Brandon’s drawing of Bill in which pure adolescent lust was much more apparent than artistic skill, it was simply Nathan’s knowledge of Art, the subject to which he’d confined himself because it would have been improper -- even suspect or abnormal -- to ask the boy many personal questions. It was like the reverse of a predator, who always tried to lure their prey into baring their -- mostly -- innocent souls; though it was a shock to emerge from the past of simple sensations and pure motivations and realize he’d been on the verge of asking something he might have asked Trevor. And maybe because Nathan was black -- not without morals, of course, but maybe less inhibited, just as he wasn't by his weight -- the boy would have answered anything, and that itself was scary. Jerry had learned how to deal with Lolitas, who could not only topple a teacher’s career but also shatter their own young souls, as well as the crazies like Crystal Sterling and the rest of the typical types, but he’d never encountered a Nathan before; a youth who at times seemed an equal.
And yet he couldn’t say what he felt, ask the questions he wanted to ask, or at least metaphorically bare his own soul, because this culture that exploited its children from the moment they first turned on a TV; that brutally raped their innocent minds, impregnating them with intolerance, xenophobia, narcissism, materialism and greed, had drawn a line at a calendar year and declared it immoral to cross.
In regard to the proper conversation, and maybe not surprisingly in light of his talent for portraiture, Nathan’s knowledge of Realists extended far into the past. He’d even quoted Aristotle: "The aim of Art is to present not the outward appearance of things, but rather their inner significance."
He’d also quoted Edward Burne-Jones: "The only expression allowable in great portraiture is the expression of character and moral quality, not anything superficial.” Which meant subject’s dress or surroundings... their self-created illusion of self. He might have glanced at Walter -- who seemed to be in food coma, his belly looking about to explode, stretched to its absolute extreme as he sprawled with his virginal Nikes splayed out -- and repeated that phrase: their self-created illusion of self.
Jerry had always had similar thoughts, and though it was treading improper turf he’d asked if, for that reason, Nathan had ever done any nudes?
“Occasionally,” the boy had replied, as if that should have been obvious, then had added matter-of-factly that all were naked under their clothes and a good portrait artist could always reveal it. He’d smiled impishly, above and below, and winked a large onyx eye. “Sort of like having X-ray vision.”
Baring the soul? Jerry had asked. No matter how well, or how perhaps desperately, the subject tried to hide it?
"Exactly," Nathan had replied, washing down a last spoonful of sundae with a gulp from his bucket of Coke.
Jerry had felt uneasy again, facing both of Nathan’s smiles and the ebony depths of his eyes and wondering what the boy could see, although unlike Miss Morrison’s gaze there seemed to be no deliberate digging.
Still, he’d been almost relieved when Bill had appeared with a strawberry sundae and offered it to Nathan like a Hobbit’s second breakfast. Jerry had excused himself, and Bill had taken his place at the table. As Jerry had walked up the oak-lined street, resisting the urge to loosen his tie -- though he felt like losing his shirt in the sun -- he’d wondered what they were talking about.
Of course he knew nothing of Bill, who, despite being physically perfect, might be very intelligent. A boy like Nathan would not suffer fools; nor after what he’d learned at lunch could Jerry imagine him satisfied with superficial teenage drivel. A thought did ghost across his mind as he’d reached the foot of Morrison’s stairs that Nathan could be “playing” Bill because it would be convenient to have the Alpha on his side in a juvenile environment... although that seemed beneath a boy who was obviously secure with himself.
Jerry had paused on the bottom step. On the other hand, what could Bill see in Nathan? He could have all the synchophants he wanted and -- barring some tragic disfigurement or lapse of acceptable BMI -- could have them all his life. Bill already knew he was perfect -- without any self-created illusion -- and seemed to be secure with himself, so he didn’t need a fat black boy to enhance his perfection by contrast. Could he simply be “good,” as Nathan’s drawing seemed to reveal, despite that being a handicap and one he’d surely know by now was only self-imposed? For someone who’d been blessed like Bill, that would indeed be tempting the gods.
Not sure why, Jerry had gone to the elevator and pressed the Period brass button. The cables had thrummed, the machinery hummed, and the cage had smoothly descended for him... although he’d climbed the stairs instead, facing again Miss Morrison’s eyes and feeling somehow defiant.
The evening sun through the west-facing windows had taken on a golden glow, giving rich tones to dark old wood and his mother’s portrait on the opposite wall, her eyes looking kind as he always remembered, though he’d also captured the faunlike confusion; that wonderment of being wounded without any comprehendible cause. The world was filled with flying arrows shot at random by wounded hunters, themselves being only random targets, and she’d never seemed to understand that.
For some reason Jerry pictured those rays slanting in through the foyer doors’ glass and illuminating Miss Morrison’s face. Would it look less malicious in daylight than he recalled in the shadows?
He glanced at the regulator as an archaic mechanical whir heralded the striking of five, which echoed through the shadowy halls with a synchronization not quite perfect but surely as fine as Elwood could tune it. Then the house was silent again except for the creaks of settling timbers as the warmth of the day slowly waned: the students had all departed at three, and most the staff had left by four, Tillinghast steaming in for a moment to ask how things had gone with Nathan... Jerry replying, “very well,” and for some reason reluctant to reveal the elation he actually felt.
Now he sat listening to silence which was only enhanced by a creaking joist or the groan of a shifting rafter, feeling alone in the vast old house... though Elwood was probably making his rounds and tidying up the classrooms. Jerry had seldom stayed this late and had never been in the house after dark, usually doing his grading at home and often asking his mother’s opinions, which were often more kindly than his.
The truth was, he admitted, leaning back in the stern old chair where Minerva may have once penned her epistles with sharp steel nib and iron-gall ink, he didn’t really want to go home. Maybe, as Thomas Wolfe had said, he really couldn’t go home again because time had invaded and trashed the place and nothing remained for him.
He’d gone to his mother’s “new home” -- her impending final home -- shortly after leaving McDonalds and following a few minutes of counsel with anorexic Amanda Teabrook, who explained that she couldn’t model because she was “horribly obese.” He’d assured her, as he’d done for the class, that she was under no obligation and it wouldn’t affect her grade... and she had looked down at her skeletal self and cried, “If I wasn’t so fat!”
He’d emailed a note to the school psychiatrist -- in residence only one day a week, having a lucrative private practice prescribing drugs for rich looney-tunes -- after the poor addled girl had left. She had created her own self-illusion... or in her case a delusion. That made him wonder if Walter stuffing himself at lunch wasn’t some opposite kind of delusion? And he might be sending an email soon for Crystal Sterling’s aberration, another tactful variation of look, I’ve found another... though wasn’t he also a little bit mad? He remembered something he’d read somewhere: If you’re successful they’ll call you eccentric; if you’re not they’ll say you’re insane.
His contract required his presence at school for a minimum of six hours a day, but other than teaching his morning class, being available later to counsel and attending occasional meetings, his hours were fairly flexible; and Tillinghast probably wouldn’t object under the circumstances.
Which, after all, were temporary.
At the home he’d been greeted by Harriet Cole, an enormous nurse as black as her name who could have quelled riots at Bedlam but was remarkably kind and soft-spoken. Of course when he’d gone -- shopping? -- for homes, aware of all the horror stories of elder-abuse and neglect in such places, he’d tried to investigate each throughly. But, like finding a funeral home -- he instantly buried that thought -- it was something you only did when you had to, a task you were never prepared to perform no matter if you thought you were. And then it had to be quickly done, leaving you little time for choices.
This, as Harriet Cole had said, simply but somehow kindly, was one his mother’s “good days,” and he’d taken that for a sign... though well-aware he was looking for signs. Though it had drained his bank account -- he was grateful Nathan had paid for lunch -- his mother had a private room, cheerfully lighted by leaf-dappled sun though a sliding glass door to a well-tended courtyard of green healthy trees and bright flower beds -- Elwood could have done no better -- now open in the warm afternoon to admit the herbal scents of life along with the pleasant play of a fountain... a rather remarkably fat little cherub poised with a vase on a shoulder.
She had chosen three of his paintings “to keep her company,” which Harriet had hung on the walls; one a seascape of a beach with a lighthouse he’d done on his last drive down to see Trevor before the price of gas had tripled; another a sunny scene of Lake Merritt, where up until midway through this summer they’d gone for daily walks; and the third -- perhaps oddly -- a juvenilia portrait of Trevor in Jerry's room at age thirteen, shirtless and gazing out the window as Bill Malone had posed today. He’d wondered why she’d wanted it since she hadn’t seen Trevor since then, though she often inquired about him, and maybe more these last few years... though that may have been due to the advent of email and Tillinghast generously giving Jerry one of the school’s outdated PCs.
She was sitting up in the hospital bed atop its cheerful saffron cover, though bolstered by pillows in an old-fashioned way rather than using the bed’s mechanisms, dressed in her pink terry robe and slippers, an ashtray on the beside table -- provided by Harriet Cole, though technically against the rules -- containing a trio of Pall Mall stubs, and re-reading Great Expectations, one of her favorite books. The room had a television of course, but she’d never been much of a TV watcher, nor respected the medium: Jerry’s childhood TV shows -- Sesame Street, Hong Kong Phooey, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids -- first seen on a ghost-haunted black-and-white Philco, and the living room furniture not yet arranged to constantly worship this jealous “new” god.
She was a small and delicate woman without looking overly thin; those diminutive meals had been ample for her, and the food here -- of course Jerry sampled it often -- was well above institutional grade, though she looked smaller to Jerry these days. Her silver hair, thanks to Harriet Cole, was coifed in its usual 50’s style, which rather resembled June Cleaver’s. Her glasses were steel and simple like Jerry’s, not some ghastly “old lady’s” grotesques, and she only wore them for reading and driving. She still had a license, the State still unaware of her state, though she hadn’t driven for several years because “motorists had become so rude,” preferring Jerry to chauffeur her on well-planned weekly shopping safaris -- always armed with a purse full of coupons -- and those ominously increasing visits to her doctor.
Her doctor -- also Jerry’s since boyhood -- was probably pushing eighty himself, an “old school” Marcus Welby type who didn’t deluge his patients with pills to the point where they needed one medication to counteract the effects of another; and rather than annually ragging Jerry about his childhood chubbiness, had always complimented him for having a healthy appetite. His diagnosis back in July after Jerry’s mother had fallen twice in a grim parody of a TV commercial, and following a series of tests which had gobbled up most of her health insurance, was simply that she was “getting on,” the natural process of being born and living -- in her case from what he’d observed -- a long and relatively happy life, and Jerry should prepare himself for the perfectly natural conclusion. There wasn’t, he’d said in the practical manner of one who had sat beside many death beds, while tapping the dottle from a pipe that Jerry recalled first seeing at five, anything actually “wrong” with her defined as something that could be “fixed.” It was simply her “natural clock winding down.”
Jerry had naturally raged against that in what these days was called denial... which the doctor assured him was normal. And of course he understood if Jerry wanted a second opinion. He’d also added frankly that with money her time might be extended; “her clock oiled a bit, so to speak, with rather expensive medications, although its spring could not be rewound.”
His mother, on the other hand, had calmly accepted her doom, so to speak, as if was only another bill -- each always demanding a little more -- that naturally had to be paid. She had also reminded Jerry, as he’d driven her home in denial that day demanding she seek a second-opinion, this was the doctor who’d diagnosed a simple case of too many green apples -- liberated from a neighbor’s tree -- when the “stupid young quacks at the hospital were ready to cut him open.”
Besides, she had said, after asking Jerry to stop at Lake Merritt for a peaceful walk along the shore, even if they could afford it -- and she would never mortgage the house, which was all she had to leave to him -- she had no wish to cling to life “by grasping at straws of expensive drugs as if she were some sort of addict,” and had quoted a line from Great Expectations about an old woman who had finally conquered the habit of living into which she had fallen.
The doctor had also described to Jerry what the near future would bring: if left alone there would be more falls, each of course risking an injury. There would be lapses -- minutes at first, but lengthening into hours and days -- in which his mother would “not be there.”
In Victorian times they’d been called “black spells.”
Today she had been “there” for him, smiling and setting aside her book as he’d entered in his “professor’s jacket,” and asking as she’d done each year -- not only the fifteen at Morrison but all the way back to kindergarten -- how his first day of school had been? He’d thought of testing her -- that she wasn’t asking about kindergarten -- but then she’d asked if he had any promising students this year?
The room had a comfortable visitors chair, as if visitors were actually expected, and Jerry had drawn it close to her beside, opening his portfolio and offering Nathan’s Art.
“These are beautiful!” she had exclaimed after a long perusal of each; the chubby young black boy asleep, Bill Malone at the window brooding -- a perfect version of less perfect Trevor -- and studying longest the elderly woman. “She looks so peaceful.”
“You can see her spirit,” Jerry had said, not surprised to be quoting Elwood.
“All her work done and resting in peace.”
“That was my impression, too.”
“This is what you’ve been hoping for, Jerry; finally a student worthy of you.”
Jerry had hesitated a moment, gazing out at the cherub. “The truth is, mom, he scares me a little.”
His mother had followed his eyes to the boy eternally filling the fountain. “It is sometimes scary to get what you wished for, especially if you forgot you were wishing.”
Jerry had sighed. “But sometimes you get what you wished for too late. ...Like something you wanted when you were thirteen but can’t be of any use to you now.”
His mother had smiled. “The Buddhists say, ‘when the student is ready a teacher will appear.’ Maybe it works the other way, too. ...Let’s go outside, it’s a beautiful day.”
“Are you sure you feel up to it, mom?”
“I’m going to be lying down a long time, I certainly don’t need to practice.”
Jerry had helped her to her feet, keeping an arm around her waist as he’d opened the screen to the courtyard.
“There’s a nice bench by the fountain,” she’d said. “Harriet sits with me there when she can, but she’s run off her feet in this place, poor woman. And her wages are disgraceful! My father paid our maid more than that!”
Jerry had felt guilty, of course, for not coming more often or staying longer, though knowing that wasn’t his mother’s intent as he’d walked her to a bench beneath trees... hand-carved from marble, he’d noted, like the fat little water boy, not simply cast of crude concrete as most “garden art” was made these days.
“Who is this remarkable student?” she’d asked as had Jerry seated her.
“His name is Nathan Graves. Sounds a little archaic, though the surname might be a slave name.”
“I did some research on my computer: originally they were only first names given to slaves by their... owners. But after the Civil War former slaves either chose family names... which most hadn’t had before... and since most were uneducated, they were often simple names, like Woods or Fields... or Graves. Or, family names were given to them by Reconstruction officials, and no doubt some were jokes.”
His mother had looked puzzled, and Jerry had asked, “Will you be all right for a minute? I’ll get my portfolio.”
“Jerry, it’s thirty feet away, I’m not going to decompose while you’re gone.”
He’d brought out the drawing he’d done of Nathan, and his mother had regarded it for as long as she’d studied the sleeping old woman. She had never derided fat people, though he expected at least a remark in regard to Nathan’s remarkable size, or a question about his handicap -- which was, in a way, self-imposed -- but she said: “He has an artist’s eyes. Like yours, he can see a subject’s soul.”
“Maybe that scares me a little, too.”
His mother had raised an eyebrow. “Why in heaven’s name would that scare you?”
Jerry had studied the cherub again, who surely must have been carved from life... the details were absolutely perfect, a little Shar-Pei composed of rolls; and not many artists, especially these days, would have created a boy so fat, his belly concealing his private parts, his breasts already opulent though the model had probably been only five. “I’m not sure, mom... unless I don’t feel worthy of him. ...Like, I’m not a good enough artist for him. ...Like, he has too much of a head-start on me, so there’s nothing I can teach him now, and...” Jerry had given a helpless shrug. “He’s going to realize that soon.”
His mother had regarded him shrewdly. “So you feel like a fraud?”
“...Well... I suppose. ...And I’ve certainly done nothing great.”
“You have, Jerry. Beginning with that portrait of Trevor. The world just hasn’t realized that... ‘gotten a clue,’ like Harriet says. And you will do much greater things.” His mother had laughed. “You don’t have one foot in the grave, you know.”
His mother’s expression had turned serious. “You need some new inspiration, Jerry. And a fresh perspective... nine months every year in that old mausoleum trying to teach over-privileged brats who wouldn’t know Art if it walked up and kicked them. Then coming home to a creaky old crone.”
His mother had made a dismissive gesture. “Not that it hasn’t been good, Jerry... your being there for me... but you’ve been handicapping yourself. You can’t paint beauty among ugly things... you can’t draw from life where no one’s really living.” She’d pointed to the fountain. “Just look at the life in that little boy, and the beauty the artist saw in him... the beauty and life that you can see. And your new student can see. He’s ready for you and you’re ready for him, and you’re both in your ways just beginning your lives. So make the most of this year, Jerry, and make the most of him by giving him what you have to give and accepting whatever he has to give you, then...”
Jerry had smiled. “Get off my butt and do something great?”
His mother had drawn a pack of Pall Malls from a pocket of her robe and offered a cigarette to Jerry, which he’d taken then searched his pockets for matches until his mother produced the old Ronson that Jerry had bought as a birthday gift when he’d been thirteen. She had laughed after flicking its flame. “Even after all these years I still feel I’m corrupting you.”
Jerry had also laughed while accepting his mother’s light. “I corrupted myself a long time ago.”
His mother had lighted her cigarette, then asked, “Does Trevor still smoke?”
“As of the last time I saw him.”
“That was almost three years ago... if I remember correctly?”
“That’s right, mom.”
She had sighed out a ghost of smoke. “Time is fleeting, Jerry.” Then she had smiled. “And it fleets so much faster as you get older until finally you can’t keep up anymore. You should see him again, soon.” She had paused to gaze at the fat little cherub. “And use the gift you’ve been given in the way it was meant to be used. ...Do instead of trying to teach, and the students who are ready will find you... even if they never meet you... and be inspired to do the same. ...I don’t expect you to keep the house. I’m certainly not going to haunt it.”
She had studied his drawing of Nathan again. “May I have this? I’d like it here.”
“Of course, mom.”
“I’d also like one of these,” she'd said, drawing something else from her robe.
Jerry had recoiled in horror... it was a picture of an old-fashioned coffin!
“Mom!” he’d cried, sounding like Beaver... then, “Where did you get this?”
“Harriet and I Googled on her laptop, then she printed this page for me. Any funeral home can order it, and a decent home won’t mark it up much.”
“...Mark it up?” Jerry had said, still staring horrified at the coffin.
“Profit margin, Jerry. Most coffins aren’t really expensive wholesale, but many greedy funeral homes mark them up hideously. It’s called taking advantage of grief. I’ve been doing some research online... if they’d had the Internet in my day I’d have a lot more to leave to you.”
“Stop being silly, Jerry. I know you haven’t been doing your homework.”
“Like that report on Malcolm X.”
“The one you had to do in sixth grade... you had two months in which to write it, but you dawdled until the night before.”
“...I still got a B.”
“I’d like an ‘A’ funeral, Jerry, and at least I have insurance for that.”
“You’ve been researching... funeral homes?”
“Not yet, but I will if you dawdle.”
“...I’ll start checking tomorrow.” Jerry had forced himself to look at the coffin again... a “Victorian Model 97.”
“You... want this one?”
“A coffin should look like a coffin without pretensions, don’t you think?”
“...Well, I suppose.”
“And the lining looks very comfortable.”
“And, as I said, a decent home won’t triple the wholesale price. Or, you can order it yourself and have it delivered right to the house.”
Jerry didn’t care for that picture at all.
“And don’t let some undertaker smoke you.”
“I borrowed that from Harriet. It means...”
“I know what it means.”
“By law they have to use whatever coffin you supply as long it meets State requirements.”
“You have been doing research.”
“I reminded you twice about that report and you still dawdled until the last minute.”
“Have you been researching... tombstones, too?”
His mother had laughed again. “Surprise me, Jerry. The plot, as you know, is paid for... up on a hill with a view of the Bay... and includes the price of a moderate stone.”
“...Can you give me some idea?”
“Something you’ll want to remember me by. Something you’ll want to visit and which won’t make either of us sad.” She had turned to the fountain again. “I’ve always been partial to cherubs, and that’s something I can remember you by.”
“I wasn’t that fat.”
“Charmingly cherubic. Those memories are still clear and bright. ...But not a sad one, Jerry; no little boy crying alone.”
Jerry had taken her hand. “You’re not scared, mom?”
“No, Jerry, I’m not... and you shouldn’t be, either."
The light in the room was dying, the sun slanting low through shrouds of ivy, and Jerry switched on the Tiffany lamp. He would have preferred a modern desk lamp, this expensive antique was damnably dim, but that might have displeased the Crypt Keeper, and doubtless the fabled Morrison ghost. And, according to Elwood, a larger bulb would have been unsafe, overloading the wires. There were three more drawings to grade with notes of advice to be added to each, and he picked up Raymond Blakemore’s.
Not surprisingly, considering his over-masculine style, he’d exaggerated Bill’s musculature to comic book hero proportions while basically only sketching the face and rendering the pubic region rather fearfully vague. Jerry recalled medieval maps whose borders faded away into mist with legends like Unexplored Territory, or warnings of Here Be Dragons. While most of the students had made some attempt to draw Bill’s shorts with folds, creases, and ribs of the waistband -- fabric was often hard to depict, even for many experienced artists -- Raymond had only drawn Mickey Mouse shorts, sans buttons of course, while enhancing Bill’s thigh and leg muscles and further enlarging his big puppy-feet. No doubt the psychiatrist could have explained it, but Jerry figured his own diagnosis was probably close to right-on.
Most of the girls -- and Brandon Foxworthy -- had spent a lot of time on Bill’s face, with widely varying degrees of success; and while none of the students had enhanced Bill’s body as much as Raymond Blakemore, most had produced an Elfquest look with a more exaggerated chest, narrower waist and slenderer hips. Though all had obviously seen Bill in life and had most of an hour in which to explore him, and even allowing for untutored skills, all had interpreted him in some way, perhaps creating their own illusions.
Except Nathan Graves.
Only Nathan had drawn him from life, accurately though artistically, revealing Bill as he actually was; not only naked beneath his clothes -- such as they were -- but bared inside his body as well.
Unless that aura of goodness was only Nathan’s illusion.
Jerry picked up his portfolio and took out Nathan’s drawing of Bill, which of course he’d graded “A.” Though he didn’t usually grade on a curve, he hadn’t been able to bring himself to depreciate Nathan’s masterful work by giving more than a “B” to the best of the other drawings... that by Susan Treadwell. He should have drawn Bill, as he normally would have; the Master showing his students how to bare a subject’s soul. Would he have seen that goodness, too?
Or simply a very handsome boy who hadn’t lost all of his soul yet? A soul for which Satan would offer a lot because Bill was a perfect Judas.
Though Nathan’s samples had only been faces -- the sleeping old woman and slumbering boy -- Bill Malone’s body was drawn perfectly, and Nathan could also do fabric. Then Jerry noticed another detail and drew the dim lamp closer, wishing again for more adequate light than Minerva had apparently needed. He studied the drawing intently: the morning sun through the classroom window had made Bill’s boxers translucent, revealing an erection... at least the ghost of one.
At thirteen that was perfectly normal, as Jerry could attest, and also rather faun-like, though with all those eyes upon him it did seem reckless -- at least careless -- and might have been why he’d chosen to sit with a leg drawn up and half facing away... though he certainly hadn’t been like that when he’d first mounted the stand. Had he anticipated it, knowing he couldn’t change his pose once he’d chosen one? If one ruled out exhibitionism -- there had been such a student a few years ago who’d been discreetly expelled -- it would have been involuntary, and the logical question was what could have caused it?
Arousal by adoration?
En masse, or an individual?
And if the latter, who?
Of course, as Jerry had thought after lunch, he didn’t know Bill Malone, and the boy could have some kind of perversion to flaw his apparent perfection.
He shuffled through the other drawings, damming again the inadequate lamp. The room’s other lights, as out in the halls, were low-wattage candle-shaped bulbs in scones from back in a time still accustomed to gas and wouldn’t be any more useful. Raymond Blakemore, assuming he’d noticed, would never have dared to draw Bill that way; and most of the girls would have been too shy... again assuming they’d noticed. Brandon was certainly lustful enough; but, for whatever reasons, none of the other students had drawn that part of Bill... though of course it may have been visible only from Nathan’s point of view.
Sitting there in the darkening silence, his desk top a dim yellow island of light among a sea of gathering shadows, Jerry wondered if, despite all his preaching about the integrity of an artist, he would have dared to draw Bill from life in that particular moment in time? ...At least in this environment which demanded he deny it.
He sighed and slumped back in the chair. Maybe his mother was right and he had been handicapping himself? These students, most through no fault of their own, some simply lacking the talent, others the motivation or need, and a few like Amanda Teabrook perverted in mind by a perverted culture that demanded illusion instead of truth, really weren’t ready for him.
Except Nathan Graves.
Of the two remaining drawings, one was Crystal Sterling’s, and though he was curious to see how she had interpreted Bill -- pray God not as Prince Sparkle Pony! -- he needed a break and a cup of coffee. And maybe also a smoke, though he only had two Marlboros left and with the state of his finances should probably hoard them against real stress. Tillinghast had once commented, ostensibly in jest, that Jerry’s job was easy... as in what could be hard about looking at pictures?
His office was on the second floor, and since he’d never been here at night the hall seemed almost forbidding, its darkness mocking the feeble bulbs spaced widely apart in their wall-mounted scones and barely illuminating themselves. The Period style EXIT sign, glowing blood-red at one end of the hall beside the staircase and elevator shaft, seemed farther away than it should have been; and though it was childish he realized that he’d have to traverse that long dark passage, the doors all closed on either side, then descend those shadowy stairs to “escape” Miss Morrison’s house.
Another thought ghosted through his mind... what if the lights went out? He told himself that was ridiculous; he would simply feel his way down the hall and likewise down the stairs...
Where Morrison’s portrait lurked in the dark.
Then, with some relief, he remembered the tiny LED flashlight on the key ring in his pocket -- a birthday gift from his mother last year -- which made him feel prepared like a Boy Scout, though he’d never been one.
The only sounds in the vast old house were the ticks of the ancient regulators... and maybe his own heartbeat. That made him think of The Telltale Heart, and he realized he had simply assumed that Elwood knew he was here, although he hadn’t seen the old man since coming back from the nursing home and reporting the elevator malfunction. Elwood was too professional to offer an off-the-cuff explanation and had said he would check it right away. ...But, he must have known that Jerry was here or the lights would already be off.
He wondered where Elwood might be... still at work on the floor below, or maybe retired to his basement abode? He listened again, holding his breath, but there was only the ticking of clocks relentlessly eating away at time. He could hear no cars on the street outside, though that probably wasn’t unusual at this time of night in this neighborhood of upper-class residential. He recalled an old photograph in the lounge: the house had once stood alone on this hill with a flight of stone steps leading up to its doors through flowers and trees in a huge front yard where cherubs had played in sparkling fountains and fauns had lounged in leafy nooks... a sort of Victorian McDonald Land of plump stone children and young animorphs. The street had been straightened and widened, and sidewalks added in 1901, devouring the lush front yard -- which must have enraged Miss Morrison -- and the wooden staircase had been built, which, though grand enough in itself, had not restored the home’s former glory. Judging from today's profusion, the fauns and cherubs had been relocated to the back yard. Then, other houses invaded the hill, expensive but smaller in less lavish styles, which had probably seemed to Miss Morrison -- perhaps looking down from her lofty tower -- as if she was being surrounded by slums.
Had she thought the Victorian equivalent of “there goes the neighborhood?”
He turned toward the opposite end of the hall, about the same distance as the stairs, though also seeming strangely distant. Like all the others, the door to the dining room was closed, and the kitchen staff wouldn’t have left coffee on. The same applied to the teacher’s lounge where Elwood had probably drained the urn and prepared it to fire up in the morning.
Jerry considered going home, either taking the last two drawings with him or coming back early to grade them tomorrow, but again he felt reluctant: his house felt so empty without his mother. Emptier somehow than this one.
He looked again to the distant stairs, then crossed his office to one of the windows, still open since the night was warm, and scanned the street forty feet below half obscured by its venerable oaks. The sight of his car at the curb reassured him, though the old-fashioned cast-iron street lamps might have been actually burning gas... though that was the intended illusion. And the golden glow of McDonalds, its arches like an inverted image of the Golden Gate across the Bay, on the corner of a still-busy street lighted by powerful sodium globes and the headlight beams of scurrying cars, were certainly of the present. But again he found himself uneasy at the thought of traversing that long dark hall, then descending those gloomy stairs. And then -- confronting -- the old woman’s eyes. He realized then he had no choice; that whether he simply wanted some coffee or decided to go home, there was no other way out of this house.
Absurdly, he leaned out the window: as State regulations required, there was an iron fire ladder, one of those old accordion types, discretely concealed in the ivy, that could be dropped by pulling a lever.
But that was a ridiculous thought, and he immediately turned on his heel and marched with dignity down the hall, denying that something was “following him.” ...And the tingle on the back of his neck was only imaginary. Despite the strange illusion of distance, the hall was no longer than it actually was -- of course it wasn’t! -- but he paused at the head of the staircase. There were no lights in the stairwell, nor in the foyer below. Could they have shorted out? Elwood wouldn’t have turned them off...
Assuming he knew that Jerry was here.
Peering down he could see a faint glow from a street lamp through the front door glass... and pictured it lighting Miss Morrison’s face. He almost called for Elwood, but closed his mouth before making a sound. He glanced at the elevator shaft with its modern blue-and-white handicapped placard beside the Victorian cast-iron grille. Elwood must have fixed it... Jerry recalled the clack of its cables when the last of the staff had left. Besides, it had worked when he’d come back from lunch. He noted the clock style indicator -- G 1 2 3 -- was pointing to 3. That seemed strange since, so he’d been told -- never having been up there -- it had once been mostly servants’ rooms, one now used to store old files, but otherwise deserted. He’d asked Elwood about the tower many years ago, which must have offered an excellent view of San Francisco Bay, and surely worthy of painting, but Elwood had only shrugged and said that "nothing was up there but shadows and dust," and the tower stairway wasn’t safe.
He pressed the polished button. The elevator would bypass the foyer and let him out on the street.
He felt a childish relief when the wood-paneled cage, dimly lit by a bronze-grilled globe, obediently descended for him. Pulling open the iron gate, he stepped in and pressed the G button. It was somehow anticlimactic to “escape” on the street in a minute after only a glimpse of Miss Morrison’s face as the cage sank past the shadowy foyer... though he could have sworn it looked mocking.
He hesitated at his car: he could go home right now instead of...
Tempting a ghost?
He gazed down the street at the golden arches, considering the drive-through... but he wasn’t too old to walk a block!
About twenty minutes later he entered the elevator again, which had waited for him at ground level. Since he hadn’t had supper, he’d splurged on a Quarter-Pounder with cheese and fries to go with his coffee, toted in a white paper bag, the aromas making his stomach growl just as they had when he’d been thirteen. He pressed the button for 2, deliberately facing Miss Morrison as the cage ascended past the foyer, though resisting the ridiculous urge to flip the now seemingly smirking old bat -- did she think she’d scared him? -- a totally adolescent bird.
Back in his office and feeling triumphant -- absurdly humming the “Victorious” song from The Five-Thousand Fingers Of Doctor T -- he set the bag on his desk and was about to sit down to eat when he noticed one of the drawings lying on the floor. It was Nathan’s drawing of Bill. How had that happened? The windows were open but he’d felt no breeze, either walking to or back from McDonalds.
Then he saw the bottle of ink, which had also fallen, become uncapped, and spilled all over the drawing.
Then the lights went out.
For a moment he was too surprised for any tangible emotion -- unless surprise was an emotion -- but then he felt a creep of fear. It was instinctive in humans to be afraid of the dark: humans couldn’t see well in the dark and anything might be lurking unseen. Like most young children, Jerry had been afraid of the dark until around the age of six when, again like most young children, he’d been persuaded by his mother, as well as by society, that there wasn’t anything in the dark that wasn’t there in the light.
Although, instinctively, he knew better.
Instinctively he knew better now... there was something here in the dark!
The creep of fear was trying to break into a gallop of terror. He hadn’t felt this helpless, this vulnerable, since he’d been five and awakened from a nightmare. It had been the night after a funeral -- the first and last he’d ever attended -- for one of his mother’s elderly friends, a woman who had lived down his block and who, despite her kindness and tempting abundance of chocolate-chip cookies, had always frightened him. Perhaps it was only her shocking old-age and aura of approaching death... which must have also been instinctive for the very young. He remembered waking in his room, his Star Wars pajamas drenched in sweat. The night had been cloudy with rain, and his room had been as black as a grave. ...And he’d been sure that the coffin he’d seen with the withered old woman lying inside was there in the dark beside his bed... its lid about to open!
He found he was sweating now. And, just like on that long-ago night, he grew more afraid as his eyes adjusted to the glow of street lamps... afraid he would see what he knew was there!
He didn’t dare look around. Absurdly, and just for an instant, he remembered how angry he’d been at his mother, deep inside and for many years after, that she’d taken him to that dammed funeral.
Then a little reason returned, and what came out wasn’t quite a scream... like he’d screamed for his mother that night: “Elwood!”
The lights came on.
Dim though they were, his wide-open eyes were dazzled at first, then focused on what he’d last seen in the light... Nathan’s drawing of Bill on the floor lying in a pool of black.
He had another childish feeling, this of almost tearful relief, as Elwood materialized in the doorway, his dark face seeming the last to appear against the shadows at his back. Though he carried an antique flashlight on his ancient tool belt, he now held a candle in a brass holder... which seemed somehow appropriate.
Jerry’s voice wouldn’t work for a second, his throat seeming clogged by the not-quite scream as if by spider webs. Then it took another moment to figure out what to say. “...Guess you didn’t know I was here?”
Elwood came in with a ghostly rattle of skeleton keys like some steam-punk Victorian caricature of a cemetery watchman. “I did, Mr. Mathers. I saw your car was still out there, and I heard the elevator.” He paused as if hesitant to offer what might sound like an excuse, then added, “One of the fuses blew. Happens sometimes with my floor-polisher... not enough circuits for all these new gadgets. I usually warn folks about that if they’re staying here at night.”
“...Oh,” said Jerry. That could have accounted for some of the “sightings,” but he knew better... now. Then his eyes returned to the floor.
Elwood’s followed. “What happened, Mr. Mathers?”
Jerry turned to the open windows. “Must have been the wind,” he said, though knowing damn well it wasn’t. He knelt to study the mess, and Elwood crouched down with the candle. Jerry picked up the drawing, which seemed to be dripping black blood. “This can’t be saved.” Then he scowled at the ink bottle. “I must have pushed it almost off when I moved the lamp.” That wasn’t true either, he knew. “I don’t want another one in this room!”
Elwood rose with a creak of old bones. “Sorry, Mr. Mathers, but it’s one of the conditions...”
“Then make it an empty one!” Jerry snapped. Then he added ridiculously, “That ought to be good enough for a ghost!”
Elwood's face in the candle glow may have looked troubled for a moment, but then he said impassively, “I’ll have this cleaned up by morning, sir. ...Sorry about the picture.”
“So am I,” said Jerry. ...Though it was a small consolation that, however masterful, it was only juvenilia for Nathan.
“Best let me see you out, Mr. Mathers... in case another fuse blows.”
“Thank you, Elwood. ...Sorry I raised my voice.”
“I understand, Mr. Mathers. ...Nathan drew that, didn’t he?”
“Yes.” That was probably obvious, even to Elwood’s untutored eyes, and an obvious thought crossed Jerry’s mind... the only logical explanation.
But, he knew how this had happened... and the reason why. He slipped the drawing into a folder, then into his portfolio. Then he added the ungraded drawings and took his surcoat from a hook on the wall. He glanced at the bottle again: there was probably still some ink inside... but of course he’d be fired for throwing it like vitriol in Miss Morrison’s mocking face.
If he’d only been a better artist he wouldn’t have given a damn.
It was still a nice neighborhood by almost anyone’s definition, a mix of small Victorian houses and bungalow styles from the 1920s -- a few inspired by Frank Llyod Wright -- the street lined with mostly centuried trees whose roots had rippled the well-worn sidewalks. Burglaries and car thefts were rare; only a few security signs were discreetly displayed on porches or lawns; there weren’t any bars on doors or windows, and people still went strolling at night without being armed with Tasers or Mace. All the houses’ original owners had long since met the Reaper -- the withered old woman one of the last -- and those who’d moved in during Jerry’s childhood were mostly retired middle-aged couples, the last of which were still kicking-off. Jerry’s early solitude, at least in regard to his own age-group, had no doubt nourished his interest in Art, just as his role of surrogate grandson to silver-haired cookie-baking ladies had nourished his childhood chubbiness. After his nightmare about the coffin his mother hadn’t taken him to anyone else’s funeral -- though her older friends and acquaintances seemed to be croaking at least once a month -- leaving him with a neighbor woman, another great artist of cookies and pies... though reassuringly decades younger.
The house was a little Victorian with vestiges of gingerbread, the kind realtors advertised as “doll houses,” though on the verge of needing new paint. It was two stories tall plus a lofty attic that could have been a floor by itself, a basement still having a coal bin -- though the current furnace burned natural gas -- and taller than it was wide. The front yard boasted a well-tended lawn in keeping with a neighborhood where people were judged in inverse proportion to how many dandelions they allowed, mowed once a week and weeded by Jerry since he’d been old enough to know that his mother actually needed his help... “manning-up,” as they called it today, though fewer boys seemed to be “manning” each year.
The back yard featured a huge weeping willow, which may have been older than the house and rivaled it in size, a dozen rose bushes, a large flower bed, a big though tottering tool shed -- which had naturally been Jerry’s secret base for many pre-pubescent adventures whether imaginary or real -- and the grave of his mother’s cat. The tombstone was simply a brick on which Jerry had chiseled the name... a cross might have brought retribution from the municipality, and assuming there was a feline religion it probably long predated Christ.
For a few weeks after she’d gone to the home, Jerry had weeded every day -- as if perhaps by killing something Death might be distracted -- but had finally given up and indigenous species were sending out scouts.
She had planted her annual garden in May, a ritual born of necessity, potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini, string beans, and a pumpkin patch for Jerry so he would have a jack-o-lantern -- which he’d still dutifully carved each year and placed on the front porch for Halloween night -- but he’d offered this autumn’s harvest to neighbors and the pumpkins to the Brown family kids... the only black family, so far, on the block. The father, Malcolm, a city bus driver, had seemed offended at first -- though Jerry couldn’t fathom why -- but Jerry had gone on to say that tending the pumpkins, watching them grow, and harvesting them with their own hands might be a learning experience versus simply buying one, and Malcolm had smiled and agreed.
The night had been clear -- and without any wind -- when he’d left Miss Morrison’s house, ushered out by Elwood, appropriately with candle in hand, but was growing darker with gathering clouds as Jerry pulled into his driveway... merely two strips of weathered concrete originally meant for buggy wheels, and the little garage for the buggy. Or “coach” as proper people had said. Presumably the family horse had been stabled in the back yard shed and hay delivered like ice and coal.
The car’s radio was only AM, nowadays mostly religious rants damming Islam and begging for money to carry on their crusades for Christ, moronic or hate-spewing talk shows, and extremely conservative news -- though Jerry remembered AM rock and listening at night to a Monterey station that Trevor had written about -- and the weather forecast was impending rain. Jerry had sold his car last month, a Dodge Neon he’d bought second-hand, to help with the nursing home expenses... which he had grimly calculated would cover them through October. His mother had told him to sell her car, but a 1976 AMC Gremlin, the only new car she had ever bought -- though with the interest on small monthly payments she’d probably paid for it twice -- was worth almost nothing today, even with less than 30,000 miles. It seemed ironic that, unlike the grandfather clock in the song, this reputedly crappy car built by long-dead company would probably outlive her.
Raindrops freckled the windshield as he stopped and shut off the engine, which had its oil changed and tune-ups performed -- disregarding Jerry’s attempt -- by ever more adolescent mechanics who regarded the car as a joke. Though too polite to laugh when his mother had brought it in, they had openly laughed at Jerry last week as if at some ludicrous perversion... perhaps like wearing women’s clothes. Gremlins had been offered in pink, but fortunately his mother had chosen dark metallic green.
The rain was slowly increasing, but Jerry still felt reluctant to enter the empty house... there seemed to be an implied acceptance of what he didn’t want to accept by going inside and closing the door. If he went for a walk he’d get soaked, and though he’d never been delicate, this wasn’t a time to risk getting sick. There weren’t many other options -- a movie, a drink or a bite to eat -- that didn’t require money; and all would only be delaying what he eventually had to do. He remembered something he’d read in a book: you have to get over this sometime, so why get over it not now?
But, it wasn’t over yet.
His own car had always slept in the driveway so killing the engine had been automatic, but he couldn’t leave his mother’s car out. Emerging into the rain, the collar of his coat upturned, he unpadlocked the old carriage house, restarted the car and drove it inside. He told himself that was practical: the vehicle was in good condition, even if worthless to the world, and would serve him for this year at school, which might -- and maybe should be -- his last. It would surely make it to Santa Cruz, and possibly many miles beyond down whatever road he chose. He paused before closing the carriage house doors to study the car’s silly emblem... a fat little gremlin.
He locked the padlock again, though only a retard would steal such a ride, then, toting his portfolio, climbed the steps to the high back porch. Since he hadn’t planned to stay late at the school he hadn’t left the porch light on and used his tiny flashlight to guide his key -- still a skeleton type -- into the door’s ancient lock. Although not Period for the house, the kitchen’s appliances were also antiques; a 1920s long-legged stove, green-and-white porcelain with a high-mounted oven, and a 1940s refrigerator with motor and cooling coils on top. The chrome-legged dinette was early ‘50s, though he’d gotten his mother a microwave as a Christmas present five years ago after selling one of his seascapes.
He paused after switching on the light, still automatically expecting to hear his mother’s, “Is that you, Jerry?” from the living room -- who else would it ever have been? -- and since it was raining she would have asked if he’d wiped his feet. At thirteen he’d often answered, “duh,” though now he wished he hadn’t.
He wasn’t very hungry, not after what had happened -- whatever had actually happened -- but he put the burger, fries and coffee into the microwave and tapped the tabs for three minutes. Driving down from the foothills, he’d tried to persuade himself of the only logical explanation: Elwood had come into his office while he’d been at McDonalds, probably to see Nathan’s work -- and Jerry could understand that -- had accidentally dropped the drawing and somehow spilled the ink.
But, even disregarding the fact that Elwood had too much integrity to lie about such a thing, Jerry knew it wasn’t true.
Just as he’d expected and feared, he felt the emptiness of the house, magnified now by the patter of rain and the willow tree’s rustle against a window. Even the microwave’s rotating plate seemed to echo alone, alone. He was a single, middle-aged man who’d only had one real friend in his life, without a foreseeable future ahead, microwaving a fast-food meal like a sadly stereotypical joke. The rhythm of rain as it dripped from the eaves seemed to add what will become of me to the mocking chant of the oven.
He turned to the old gas oven, which had no modern safety devices: one could simply turn on the gas...
And forget to light it.
He shrugged and said to the silence, “I have to bury my mother. ...Then maybe I’ll think about it.”
Then he thought of Nathan Graves... but was he a reason to live? A boy who was his student -- at least until he realized that Jerry wasn’t good enough to teach him anything -- but could never be his friend.
The microwave beeped, startling him, and at least interrupting his morbid mood. He took out and unwrapped the burger. It tasted better than he’d expected despite its resurrection. He sat at the table in his usual chair -- when small he had sat on a Sears catalog -- uncapped the coffee and started to eat. Considering the source of the food, it probably wasn’t unusual that he thought of his lunch with Nathan. He glanced at the kitchen clock, a 1950s Felix The Cat, who rolled his eyes and waved his tail to mark the relentless march of time... also the name of his mother’s cat chiseled out there on a brick in the rain. He’d learned to tell time on that clock, and remembered all those mornings when it had watched him leave for school. Preparing himself for a future... but not a present like this. Despite the feeling of lateness -- it’s later than you think -- it was only a quarter past nine.
What would Nathan be doing now? A “normal boy” might be watching TV, playing a game or surfing the web. And he had homework in other classes, though Jerry pictured him drawing from life... he’d drawn the sleeping boy last night. Absurdly, Jerry wanted to be there, like he and Trevor in each other’s rooms, and long before that final summer before their relationship had... blossomed?
“Budded” was more accurate; the question being, as he’d thought that morning, would it or could it have blossomed? And, if so, would they have been happy? And, since it hadn’t had that chance -- one bud uprooted, so to speak -- why hadn’t it put out other shoots, like ivy searching for something to climb, for either bud in all these years? Or, if they had been so inclined, why had they buried those two young cowboys instead of living Brokeback Mountain?
Of course there was a “window” theory... another road not taken.
Jerry recalled a story he’d read when he’d been around ten, about a boy who’d run away from a dismal life on a failing farm ruled by an abusive father. Miles down a lonely moonlit road he’d come to three forks -- three choices to make -- and the story told of three alternate futures depending upon which road he’d chosen. One had led to a wealthy life: he’d worked his way to success in a city, but had died in a fire at age 39.
One road had led him back to the farm, where his father had died a few years later and the boy built up to prosperity... but he died in a fire at age 39.
The third road had led to a modest life of a general store clerk in a rural village, a sort of Bob Cratchit scenario with a loving wife and family.
And he’d died in a fire at age 39.
Jerry glanced at the oven again... but then to the wall telephone nearby, which, though it had buttons instead of a dial and was made of plastic instead of Bakelite, was just as black as Nathan Graves and otherwise looked about the same as its 1950’s predecessor. Through they’d exchanged several emails this year, Trevor’s always including pictures of his three ever-fattening boys and their latest accomplishments -- one on the honor roll at school, another playing bass guitar in some pubescent metal band, and youngest with a passion for drawing “inherited, LOL, from Jerry” -- Jerry hadn’t spoken with Trevor since last year’s Christmas call. But Trevor would be at The Book Of The Dead, open until midnight, and probably busy with customers. And after that it would be too late for a casual call.
And how could it be any other kind? How’s the wife and kids? What else could Jerry say? Scream for help like he’d screamed for his mother on a rainy night at five-years-old?
Come back and be thirteen with me again!
It was too late to choose a road not taken... even assuming the ultimate end would always be the same.
He sighed and sipped his coffee, then finished his burger to the patter of rain and the weeping willow’s lonely rustle. There was a kitchen radio, a wood-cased tube-type Emerson, but his kind of music was called “classic rock,” and the sophomoric DJs who played it -- while probably waiting for better jobs -- were too dense to know it had meant something. ...That he and Trevor had cried to Time For Me To Fly and danced in savage ecstasy to the ever-mounting Roll With The Changes.
The ceramic ashtray on the table, a plump, rosy-cheeked little Hummel boy -- who'd be hated for being "obese" these days -- a Mother's Day gift from Jerry when he’d been eleven, awakened an urge for a cigarette. His mother, like most of her generation, had smoked since her early teens, and despite all the current paranoia that smoking was responsible for almost all of society’s ills -- the rest being caused by “obesity” -- it hadn’t, according to the doctor, contributed to her oncoming demise. Like many of Jerry’s generation, he’d grown up surrounded by “second-hand smoke,” but hadn’t met a kid with athsma until he’d been in high school... a girl whose parents hadn’t smoked. Strange that these days with far fewer smokers athsma seemed so prevalent.
Despite access to his mother’s Pall Malls -- there was always a carton in one of the cupboards -- Jerry had not started smoking until Trevor began at twelve, and then it had been Marlboros... Pall Malls were “girls cigarettes.”
And, despite being fully aware that his mother’s last carton of Pall Malls had gone with her to the home, Jerry got up and went to the cupboard, but of course found only the ghost of tobacco haunting his nose when he opened the door. He considered the three-block walk to a market -- and it would kill a little more time -- but he hadn’t owned a raincoat in years and, as he’d thought when arriving, this wasn’t a time to risk getting sick. Of course he could take the car, but that seemed yet another admission that time was slowly killing him.
He still had those last two drawings to grade.
Below the phone was a small wooden shelf holding the Oakland telephone book, which harkened back to the house’s first phone, no doubt a huge mahogany thing having a shelf of its own. Maybe, since the ultimate end -- whether unalterable or not -- seemed to be haunting him tonight, he would fight fire with fire and start researching funeral homes.
End of excerpt. This book is available on Kindle.