The Artist

The Artist smoothed the rough canvas with his hands. He was pondering whether he should being painting the scene of the old grove in Harrington or a portrait of Darby Shrift, Suzanne Wash's little girl. His thoughts went racing back to the younger days of Suzanne, the tough little girl who would get into fights with the boys who would challenge the greatness of the name Wash. She was a bright student though, and would stay out of trouble as long as her family name was unthreatened. Darby had her charming girlish face, but did not have any traits of her character. She was unusually shy and withdrawn; when provoked she would smile or send a blessing. Yet still, she was strangely morose and dark and The Artist wished to embark on a painting that bore some beauty and light, while containing truth. He knew he wanted some kind of his work to capture the likeness of Darby Shrift, so he sketched an outline of a novella he planned to write in the near future. But for now he would work on a scene from the old grove.
"Stay away from the Artist," Suzanne Wash strictly warned her daughter. "He's a dangerous man."
"All men are dangerous," Darby replied sullenly.never seen a runover pig. How did she come up with that?
"Is my punishment over?"
"Yes, I suppose."
Suzanne sighed. "If all men are dangerous, why do you cherish your father? You're a loving daughter to him."
"I cherish him as you should have always done. But he is dangerous to you, and so he is still dangerous in a way. And so all men are dangerous."
An eight year old shouldn't think thoughts like that, Suzanne thought. Alright, let me change the subject from men.
Suzanne was in the middle of a divorce from her husband, Roane Shrift, Darby's father. She was fighting for total custody of her child, because she was the mother and Roane had been part of some kind of embezzlement. She wanted her daughter far away from her father, but although Darby knew of his dealings, she didn't disdain him at all. She had love for her father and would not stop loving him, even if the whole world did. He was never unkind to her; likewise she never would be distant to him.
The day before, Roane had telephoned for his daughter, and Darby accidentally revealed that her mother was dating a guy named Floyd Irving. Suzanne had warned punishment if Darby ever spoke of her mother's personal matters to her father. She didn't believe in corporal punishment, but would make her daughter write an essay each time she did something wrong. While Darby loved to write, Suzanne thought this more of a discipline than punishment and wished to establish her daughter as much as possible in the way she was leaning to go. You would think Darby would get into as much trouble as she could, but she did not.
"If you so kindly would share with me that composition I asked you to write, I would appreciate it."
Darby solemnly said, "Well I didn't write it, Mother."
"Sweetie, you must not leave this table until you come up with something."
"Oh, oh Mother," Darby explained. "I've come up with a title, but I can't figure out how the story goes."
"Oh. Well state the title and that will be sufficient."
"The Runover Pig."
"The - what!?" Suzanne exclaimed casting a scolding look at her daughter. How awful. That is so morbid. I know she's I know she's never seen a run-over pig. How did she come up with that? "Is my punishment over?" "Yes, I suppose."
"Good now, I can have my friends over. Jackie's coming over in a minute."
"Jackie's a boy."
"He's coming over with Martha Covington."
"I don't see how Mrs. Covington allows her child to roam around with a boy."
"Well why not? They will probably get married in the future."
"Married. I bet they won't. Marriage is a long way off and they're just childhood friends. I had a childhood friendship with a kid named Rusty Everett, and I'm telling you I thought I'd marry him. His folks moved to Indiana when he was in the third grade and I've never seen him since."
"But this situation will be different. You'll see."
"Ah." Suzanne smiled.
Soon enough the three children were romping around Suzanne's household.
"Calm down you guys! Hey, sit at the table and eat some of this mud pie I made," she said.
Jackie's first response to her offer was a polite "thank you." He was a gentle boy, blonde, and a little tall for his age. His father died when he was young, so he lived with his mother who worked two jobs and his three older brothers. He didn't stay around home much, because his older brothers picked on him all the time and if his mother was home, she was always too tired to bother with him. He sat down at the table and started to unconsciously stare at Suzanne.
"Hmm, what are you looking at Jackie?" she asked.
"Oh, I'm thinking that I admire you."
"Admire me!" she laughed. "Why would you admire an old hag like me?"
"Well for being a kind mother who would let us over. You have dessert prepared for us. You have a nice face and you're no so serious like my mother. You're not worried. Most grown-ups are worried. And they don't like kids."
"I adore kids."
"Why don't you have more kids of your own?" Martha asked.
Jackie gave her a nudge. "She's not exactly married anymore," he whispered gravely.
"Oh. I'm sorry. Oops."
Suzanne was relieved that she did not have to give Martha a word of admonishment and quickly thought back to Jackie's background. He was brought up in a very religious home that bore strict rules attached to his upbringing. He saw things in black and white and followed the letter of the law. He was not one for troublemaking, but was more of a dreamer. Suzanne wondered if Jackie admired her, because she was free. As long as he doesn't try to push religion on Darby, he's welcome in my home.
"What do you think of the Artist?" Martha asked when Suzanne had gone out of the room.
"I don't like his paintings, but I like his books," Jackie said.
"Hmm," Darby said. "I've never thought about the Artist much before, and besides my mom said he's a dangerous man."
"He is," Jackie said. "He's dangerous because he brings about change and the world is complacent."
Martha said, "Funny, but I like his painting, but not his books. They're too hard to read. I just look at the pictures and make up the story for myself."
Jackie said, "I don't like his paintings, because I have a hard time visualizing a story. Now if his paintings were based on his if he drew pictures of his characters or the scenes in his books, I'd like that. But his paintings are based on real things, like the one of Mayor Henry Gordon. I had always liked Mr. Gordon until I saw the Artist's portrait of him. The piece revealed a sneer on his face. I've never liked the Mayor or the Artist's paintings since then."
"I like his portraits, because they reveal the dark side of staunchy people who appear so good on the outside. But I love his landscapes best. They capture the glory of the places I love best. The old schoolhouse with attention being drawn to the little maple in the left corner by the door."
"I've always hated that maple," Darby said unexpectedly.
"Why Darby, I didn't think there was an ounce of hate in you," Jackie said.
"Well, I had a pet snail in the first grade and mean ol' Roy Hodges hit it against that tree until it was all crushed up in a slimy, shelly mess."
"Speaking of snails," Martha said, "I never want to be rich, cause then I'll have to eat escargot."
"Ewww!" the others said.
"I want to be famous though," Martha continued. "I want to be a singer/songwriter like James Taylor. Only I don't want fame in my lifetime- like Mozart."
"But Mozart composed his first compositions at like age three," Darby said.
"Well yeah, because he was a genius," Jackie answered.
"So are you saying I'm not a genius?" Darby asked, intimidated. "Because you have to be a genius or a politician to be remembered."
"Or religious or artistic," Jackie said.
"I have an idea then," said Martha saucily. "I'll be a politician, religious, and artistic, so fame can't escape me."
"That sounds good," Darby nodded. Then she thought of what her mother had said earlier. "Hey Jackie, are you interested in girls yet?"
"No, no, no!" he said rather emphatically. "Not interested in like a ... yucky way."
"Amy and Rick make out on a regular basis," Darby said, referring to a couple, two grades ahead of them. "That is just disgusting. And they're only in the fifth grade."
"Oh yuck," Jackie said.
"I don't want to date until I'm sixteen," Darby said. "And I won't kiss any guy until I'm safely engaged. But then, I'm not sure I may even want to get married."
"Well," Martha said, "When I start dating, I'd peck my boyfriend every now and then."
"Okay you guys," Darby said, "promise me that when you get older, Martha and Jackie, that you'll marry each other."
Jackie hesitated. "Well, I can't promise that. I don't think we'll ever be more than friends."
Martha said, "Well I'll say that I promise Jackie will be my first choice. If he finds another girl or doesn't like me, then I won't. But otherwise I will."
Jackie revealed a grotesque look, when Suzanne presently returned to the room, rubbing the boy's hair with her hands. "Oh you beautiful boy. Never grow up. Or if you do, always remain as kind and innocent as you are."
"Oh I'm not innocent," Jackie said. "I've done lots of things wrong. Sometimes I talk back to my superiors and stuff. You know."
Suzanne laughed. "You're so sweet."
The night passed swiftly and soon the mothers of Jackie and Martha respectively come to pick them up. The kids said their goodbyes and told each other how they couldn't wait to see them at school the next day.
Settings like these continued for years and the children remained great friends. Jackie was bent on becoming a writer, Martha a singer/songwriter, but Darby didn't know what she wanted to do with her life.
When she was fourteen Suzanne asked her, "Do you know what you want to do with your life?"
"Well, see, I don't know. There's so much I could do. Like Uncle Rick lived with Grandma and Grandpa 'til he was twenty-something and didn't get a job until this girl came along one day. But before that, he was a bum and watched TV all day and got high. I know I don't want to be like that. But you make it seem so bad that when I'm sixteen, I want to get a simple job at like Wal-Mart. I don't think I want to do something big. I think I just want to have a simple life. I like reading, but I suppose there is no job that has you reading all day."
"Except you could be a proof-reader for the newspaper, but you're not good at English."
"Well I don't have every single, stupid grammar rule memorized, no," Darby said.
"Well, kiss me before you go to sleep tonight."
"OK. Hey Mom. Do you believe I should pray tonight?"
"Well, to what god?"
"Why, God Himself."
"Have you been getting ideas from Jackie? No, I don't think you should, dear. Besides there is no god, and if there is, you don't need to bother the Christian God."
"Well is it OK if I do?"
"I'd prefer you not to."
"Alright." But I have a funny feeling that something terrible will happen tomorrow if I don't, Darby thought.
Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy or maybe Darby should have prayed to God Himself, because something a little disturbing did happen the next day.
At school, the teacher announced that this day was going to count for double attendance. The woman, Miss Marguerite Handen, was particularly unbecoming for someone so young. It wasn't that she was ugly, because she had several boyfriends, one right after the other. She just always had a mean and bitter look across her face. She was stately and serious and insisted that school should no longer be fun, but tough work, for students who just entering high school.
"So Miss Handen," Darby started talking without permission from the teacher. "Stacie Ellis is not here because she had to go to an aunt's funeral. Does that mean that it will count as two days off for her?"
"Precisely," Miss Handen nodded. "But don't talk out of turn again."
"But you said the highest grade a student can attain for attendance is a B, and that will throw off Stacie's GPA. It's stupid that the school attendance affects someone's GPA, but it's far more stupid that today counts as double attendance. You know this will hurt Stacie and she's a perfect student otherwise. She's trying to get a scholarship for college."
"She shouldn't have missed today then. Tsk, tsk, tsk," Miss Handen said tauntingly.
"Oh you mean, mean witch that cannot live a day on this earth without committing evil, dastardly crimes." Darby proceeded to spew vulgar, venomous words from her mouth that she even didn't know where they were coming from.
"Out! Out! Out!" the flustered Marguerite said to the child.
Jackie and most of the other students were in a state of shock, while Martha giggled, though she tried not to.
"Oh, this is a trip," she whispered to Stacie's best friend, Carolyn.
Suzanne was called. After obtaining her daughter from the principal's office and sitting her down in the car, she looked at her daughter seriously.
"You cussed out the teacher?"
Darby silently nodded, while a little tear rolled down her cheek.
Suzanne threw back her head and bawled with laughter.
"Honey, this is obscenely funny, however I'm going to have to give you a severe consequence."
"Okay," Darby said bravely.
"Well," hesitated Suzanne, "just in your head now, title an essay that you will have to write one hundred pages for."
"When will it be due?"
"Tonight before you go to bed."
"But Mother I can't-"
"No, no, think of the title. Got it?"
"Wait...yeah. OK."
"Write it down on some notebook paper."
Darby did.
"Now write one sentence."
"One sentence? Oh OK."
"Make it as concise as possible."
"Concise. Good. I have one word."
"One word, honey?"
"Jonathan. It could be Jonathan or it could be a million pages."
"What was the title?"
"The Artist's Name. I wonder what it is."
"It's like asking God's name. It's simply 'God', however there's lots of other Roman and Greek gods and such."
"No, no. He's been labeled 'the Artist' but he's anonymous, yet he's someone. I've always wondered his name.
"Why Jonathan?" Suzanne asked.
"Because Jonathan is the name of someone noble and brave and strong. And he is noble and brave and strong. And the Artist is Jackie's favorite writer, because he instills truth and beauty into his work, and because he's good."
"Enough talk of the Artist. He's dangerous."
"Jackie says he's dangerous because the world is complacent and he brings change."
"No," Suzanne said. "No, the world needs a Saviour. The world needs a leader. There's so much going on in the world that it is chaotic. What change does the Artist bring? If it were good, the world wouldn't resent it."
"I guess I don't know. I thought you said to stop talking of the Artist."
So the inevitable thing happened. Darby soon gathered with Jackie and Martha to discuss the possible name of the Artist.
"I don't think Mom was satisfied with my naming the Artist Jonathan. It's too positive, maybe."
"I think it's Frederick, cause it's, you know- artistic," Martha said.
"You told your mom the Artist was my favorite writer?" asked Jackie. "Oh gosh. No, he's just a good writer. No, he's more. He's a good mentor, someone I would live my life like. A really good person. Godly. But he's done nothing personally for me. I'd call him Dylan. It sounds so distant."
"Dylan, I kind of like that," Martha giggled.
"You know, come to think of it, Stephen James is a more dignified name for an artist than Jonathan," Darby said.
"But I'm sure his mother didn't know he'd be an artist, so she didn't give him a name with that much flair. That's probably why he doesn't reveal His name," Jackie said.
"It'd be romantic if his name was something like Allen," Martha said.
Darby and Jackie rolled their eyes. Allen Crosby was the name of the guy who took Martha to the fall dance and they had gone on three dates afterward. Jackie had politely taken Darby, but explained he had no interest in her.
Suzanne remarked to Darby that she thought she and Jackie were queer or something of the like, because they both had no interest in the opposite sex. Darby jad never been crazy about guys and had even gone through a phase of not speaking to any boys when she was eleven. Luckily it didn't last long, because she wouldn't even speak to Jackie and Suzanne was getting worried. Darby was upset that her mother had referred to Jackie as being possibly queer though.
"They call him a faggot at school sometimes," Darby said.
"Some guys were sneering at the size of Jodie's breasts one day and Jackie, the religious guy he is, pointed out that women shouldn't be talked about that way. And everyone teases him, but he's only fourteen."
"Only fourteen," Suzanne replied. "Honey, my parents wouldn't let me date 'til I was fifteen and I was miserable every day of my fourteen year-old existence. You just have feelings for the opposite sex at that age." Silence for a few seconds. "Was it because me and your dad broke up that you're afraid of relationships?"
"No," said Darby. "Let's just stop talking about this."
Darby was required to read a biography about a scientist for school, so she continued reading that book on Isaac Newton that she had picked out. She loved the beginning, because it had a description of his childhood and his parents’ past. When he grew up though, the details of his life became increasingly dry and harder to understand. So he was the man who had discovered Calculus that all the smart-aleck kids wanted to put to death for his creation. He also discovered gravity. Darby thought about discovering gravity. She didn’t enjoy science that much, but she thought it would be neat to discover something that already existed, like gravity. What was something that was there, but had no name? Something so ordinary that people didn’t think of it at all. She thought of this until she was frustrated and decided to go to bed early.
Later she hears about element 108
The next day at the lunch break, Jackie asked to speak to her alone in the library.
“Why sure,” she agreed.
“I hate to admit it, but I’m gay,” Jackie confessed.
“No, you’re not,” Darby said incredulously. “Come on, you’re just not grown up yet.”
Darby was hurt and surprised at her own emotions. She had always thought that gay people were wrong and had something wrong with them. She didn’t want to say something was wrong with Jackie.
“Try to get over this,” Darby said. “But you’ll be my friend no matter what. I thought you were a Christian?”
“I know.”
“But Jackie, I thought your church preached against this.”
“I know, but they also preached against girls. I had just never thought about them in that way. And there’s this guy I like now.”
“Jackie, I love you. But please don’t talk about this anymore. This is too much for me to handle.”
“Just don’t tell your mom about this.”
Darby went into the girls’ restroom and started to cry. “What is wrong with him? I don’t want to hurt his feelings, but he has just got to stop this. Being gay is wrong.”
Suzanne and Darby didn’t own a television. Darby didn’t care, but one day Suzanne said that they had to buy one. “You have no idea what’s going on in Harrington. You haven’t been following up on news and you’re completely naïve about the details of the shootings in Harrington. You should watch the news every morning.”
The lady on the news is stupid, Darby thought, while watching Lee Ann Peters read the news in her fake, sing-songy voice. “Well, I learned so much this morning, Mom,” Darby said as Suzanne rushed into the room preparing for work. “I now know that bacteria are our friends and we shouldn’t use the anti-bacterial soap that you put in the kitchen, because then our immune system will fail and we’ll die.”
“You’re exaggerating. She just said that new evidence shows that being overprecautionary about bacteria may be more harmful than helpful.”
“But you didn’t hear what else they said. Supposedly the liquid kind of laundry detergent makes your clothes catch on fire easier. Maybe if you were in a fire, you’d burn up just like that. Stop using the liquid kind.”
“Well I use the liquid kind, because the powdery kind doesn’t dissolve well in a cold wash. And I don’t think we’ll be in a fire soon, so I’d rather use the liquid kind that to redo the wash.”
The Artist had set up his canvas and utensils right on the sidewalk, because he was commissioned to paint the new café in town by his friend who was the owner. Darby passed by the Artist a couple times since he was setup on the route home from school. She waved when he looked at her and his eyes gave an inviting look. One day while passing by, she was absolutely miserable. Martha was ignoring her because she was all caught up in her new boyfriend, Todd, and she was beginning to feel uncomfortable with Jackie and wanted to take a break from being acquainted with him for awhile. The Artist waited for her to wave, because he delighted in this small thing each day. When she didn’t wave, the Artist called out, “Darby. Hey!”
Darby turned around, her eyes brimming with tears. “Leave me alone. What do you want?”
“It’s just so strange how you can be smiley with me one day and mean to me the next. Sit down. Could you do me a favour?”
Well, what is it?”
“Go up to the outside menu, and look at it as if interested in the listings. You are going to be my model.” The Artist had decided against writing the novella about Darby. There was no good reason to write about her. However, he wished to create a mood by placing her in the painting.
After about fifteen minutes, Darby grew impatient. “I need to get home or my mother will get worried.”
“I can’t capture your face unless you stand there for a couple of hours. Come by here on your way from school tomorrow so I can continue drawing you.”
Darby looked at the canvas and saw that he hadn’t gotten very far at all.
Darby came home from school after posing for the artist's new pice for about two hours. Her mother came home in a very bad mood and she hoped that she did not inquire where she had been. She knew her mother had disapproved of the Artist when she was younger, and wondered if she still did or wanted to keep Darby away from strangers when she was a small child.
"That's my last day at that stupid job!" Suzanne yelled, with a skinny stream of tears running down her face. "There's barely any tips and the owners of that run down shack treat you like dirt."
Suzanne had worked as a waitress during the week at a successful little country restaurant called "Home-Cookin'". "There's a new cafe in town that everyone's excited about, but they haven't called me back yet."
"You called them already?" Darby asked.
"Yeah, and I really hope I can work there. I need to pay the rent and grocery bill and it's real hard when you don't have a job or child support."
"You should have waited to quit until you got a new job," Darby said.
"Well, you seem to know it all except how badly they treat you at a dump like Home-Cookin. They treat me like I'm a bag of trash over there."
Darby didn't know how to console her mother, so she didn't persist. Her mother had studied broadcasting in college, but never finished her degree. Still she wondered why her mother didn't apply for something in that field. Darby looked at the papers daily in search for a job for her mother.
"Here's a job at a new radio station," Darby said.
"Oh great," Suzanne said. "You know what they want is experience and the big stations like that want a degree. I have none. Sure, I volunteered at the dumpy little college station they had. But I had to drop out, and at first I applied to some stations to be a DJ. They wanted experience. I told them I had experience, but they wanted me to have internships. So here I am, jobless and unfortunate."
"Well I think you should try again."
"You need to have a sophisticated tape."
"No, just call them up and sell them with your perky voice."
"You just don't know how it is, honey."
But Suzanne called the radio manager and applied for a job. They called her for two interviews, but no results came from that.
One day Darby was listening to the radio at about 7:53 in the morning for on the hour news. She agreed with her mother to listen to the radio as a supplement to the TV for news.
"I bought the stupid TV and you don't even like it."
"Well not for news. I swear we have the worst newscasters in this whole city, and you'd be better than them>"
"Because of my nice, perky voice, right?"
"Call this talk radio station. You could do talk radio."
"And read news."
"Or you could have your own talk show."
"Like Dr. Laura."
"Yeah only you could make a theme."
"And I'd cause a revolution in America. Everything's backwards here," Suzanne said.
"Well, that's going too far, but it would be a nice job for you."
"But like I said, you can't just call up and say 'could I have a job' and expect them to even consider you."
But Suzanne called. She had begun working at the new cafe in town, but was looking for something more fulfilling and exciting.
The manager informed her that the woman that led the traditional values talk show was getting married and was living up to what she was preaching and settling down.
"I can give you the job," he said, "but it will have to center on women. This show never had outstanding ratings, so we'll give you a shot. Maybe you can make it more exciting. Come up with a name for your show and we'll discuss pay and what holidays we offer next time you come up to the station."
"Sure thing," Suzanne said out of excitement.