Being an artist didn’t carry a lot of weight in my neighborhood. It’s not like I could hit the ball over Metzger’s fence or had a 10-speed bike or ever kissed Melinda Dawson or anything major like that. Those were things a kid could brag about and get a little respect. In fact, it could be a real pain, especially since I was also the smartest kid in my class and the littlest. Sort of like three strikes for a kid. Bullies could smell David Abbott from way over in Polish Town.
Actually, Alton Greenwood was littler, but that didn’t count, because he wasn’t a regular kid. He had little tiny flippers for arms and wore real thick glasses. Everybody said he was going to die soon, but they’d been saying that since he moved here in the first grade, and after five years he didn’t look too dead yet. My old man tried to convince me once that God made him like that because he played with himself, but I didn’t buy it.
But I could draw. I made colored pencil portraits of the neighborhood kids from their class pictures and sold them to their parents for a quarter apiece. That kept me in ready cash most of the time. And my mom always said that making pictures is a heck of a lot better than smoking and hanging out and getting into trouble, which is what most of the kids around here seemed to do all the time. That was probably the truth.
Every once in a while, when my old man was nursing a hangover and wanted to go somewhere my mom couldn’t yell at him, I’d talk him into taking me to the art museum. It was always quiet there, and he liked it. He’d find a chair and move it into the coat room and go to sleep. When he was out, I’d sneak a nickel out of his pocket and buy a candy bar from the machine and wander around. There really were a lot of neat pictures there. My favorites were paintings of landscapes and Indians from something called the Hudson River School. It seemed kind of funny that all those artists went to the same school, but maybe it was a special school for landscape painters. Anyway, I guess I wouldn’t mind going there myself, someday.
I think my old man was secretly a little proud I was a good artist. Once he got me a book from the museum for my birthday that had all kinds of drawing exercises. Like perspective and how to draw hands and faces and how to do shading so it looked like the light was all coming from the same direction. It was the first art book I ever had, and I was pretty excited. It was by Robert Fawcett. He was no Norman Rockwell, but sometimes he had illustrations in The Saturday Evening Post.
The Post always had lots of cool illustrations by famous artists. When my parents asked me what I wanted for Christmas last year, I told them a subscription to The Saturday Evening Post. Their eyebrows went up and their mouths dropped open. Just like in a Three Stooges skit. I never knew people really did that. They looked at me, and then at each other, then back at me. You’d think I just told them President Eisenhower was coming over for lunch. But it wasn’t too expensive, so I got it.
After that, I sat on the front porch every Tuesday after school and waited for the mailman, hoping Norman Rockwell had a cover illustration. It always came on Tuesday. I wondered why it wasn’t called The Tuesday Evening Post. I finally read the postmark and saw it was coming all the way from Indiana—the mail was probably just slow.
But Robert Fawcett was pretty good, too, and the book became my bible. I decided to start with lesson one and work straight through to the back. I took it with me everywhere, even to school. If I worked real fast I could get my assignment done and have ten or fifteen minutes left in each class to draw. Most of the teachers liked me okay because I was a good student and didn’t give them any trouble. And because they knew I was a serious artist, they pretty much let me alone. Except for Wighead. And, naturally, it happened in her class.
* * *
Wighead was Old Lady Ledbetter, the math teacher. She didn’t like anybody finishing her assignments early. It was like a personal insult or something, like she wasn’t smart enough to keep a kid busy for a whole hour. I guess she thought we were on her time, and nobody was going to do anything she didn’t tell him to do. Especially not art. My mom said Old Lady Ledbetter had a “Victorian attitude.” I said she had a “hair up her ass.”
Wighead was tiny and thin and wrinkled like she’d been in the shower for about a month. She got her name because she had a little white wig that was all powdered like a sugar doughnut. We all knew it was a wig because it was always slipping down about an inch on her forehead and sticking out in the back. Then she’d get up and go out in the hall and when she came back it would be straight again. Like just because we were kids we all didn’t know what was going on.
But cripes, she had eyes like a hawk! I swear she could look at you across the playground and tell what color underpants you were wearing. So that day I waited until she made a wig-straightening trip before I pulled out Lesson Nine: Figure Study and slipped it behind my math book.
I thought I was pretty safe. But when she came back in, she took about four and a half steps into the room and stopped. She whipped around and looked right at me.
“David Abbott, what are you doing?” she snapped. “That doesn’t look like math to me!”
I was dead.
“I finished all my problems, Miss Ledbetter,” I mumbled. She had me. Still, to be picky about it, she sure as heck knew what I was doing—she’d caught me at it before, and every single time I was doing the same thing. She stomped over to my desk and glared down at my drawing. But instead of the usual lecture, “Blah blah my class blah blah math is really important blah blah,” she got real quiet. Her eyes started getting bigger and bigger, and they actually bulged out until I was afraid they were going to stick to the inside of her glasses and I’d have to call the school nurse. She started making a funny noise in her throat and her face got about the same color as Jimmy Powder’s candyapple Chevy. It looked like she was having the Big One, as my old man said.
“What … what is this?” she croaked. By now I figured my goose was really cooked. When I finally squeaked out “Art?” I didn’t know if she could hear me. But I guess she did.
“This isn’t art!” she shouted. Shaking with fury, she snatched the drawing off my desk and waved it around in the air like it was on fire and she had to put it out before it traveled up her arm and got to her wig.
“This is A NAKED WOMAN!”
She marched over to the wastebasket—the big one by the paper cutter right in front of the class and crammed the drawing and my book into it like she was dunking the devil himself into a vat of holy water. Then she grabbed me by just the shirt collar and a handful of hair and dragged me down to Principal Stein’s office. It happened so fast I swear my feet only touched the floor about twice on the whole trip. Boy, I tell you, sometimes little people can suddenly seem a heck of a lot bigger when they get pissed off.
It took a while, but after Mr. Stein had poked Wighead down off the ceiling with a stick, they called my mom and Mrs. Bass, the art teacher. One of the secretaries went down to retrieve the evidence from the vat of holy water. Mrs. Bass testified that it really was genuine imitation art. Eventually Judge Stein decided that it wasn’t all that big of a deal and let me off easy.
“Inappropriate but not felonious,” he said. Lucky for me he wasn’t too bad of a guy for a principal, even if he did like to hear himself say big words. But I had to go home for the day anyway. At least I got my book back.
My mom wasn’t happy about having to go get me at school. But I knew the walls were going to rattle when my old man got home. She broke the news at supper and I got the dumb shit lecture.
“You dumb shit, what were you thinking? Don’t you have a brain in your …blah blah blah …embarrassing me and your …blah blah …what are people going to …blah blah.”
I almost made it through. But I guess I must have reached the end of my string for getting yelled at that day. I just couldn’t help it. I felt it swelling up inside my chest and it popped out my mouth before I could clamp it shut.
“Well you gave me the damn book in the first place! Whydja gimme the damn book if you didn’t want me to use it? And if art’s so great, why’d I get busted for copying a picture by a famous dead French guy that’s probably in a museum someplace, for cripe’s sake? You shouldn’t be on Wighead’s side, you should be on mine!”
Silence. Not good. Not good at all.
* * *
By the time the dust settled, I got a good belting and was grounded for three weeks. One week for getting in trouble at school, one week for sassing and one week for swearing. But I knew better. My old man really didn’t mind the sassing or the cussing so much, although he was kind of honked off about school because he thought it was a bad reflection on him. He’d never admit it in a zillion years, but what really got his tit in a wringer was that down inside, he knew I was right.
Funny thing, though. A lot of the kids thought it was pretty cool. Getting thrown out of school, that is. And everybody wanted to see my drawing. Even Melinda Dawson pointed at me the next day in the hallway and laughed. It wasn’t kissing, but it was a start.
# # #
Bob Beach has followed his muse in a number of different directions: as a designer, a film director, copywriter, marketing consultant, web developer, artist and author of fiction. In addition to literary fiction, he has written science fiction, young adult and children’s works. When he’s not writing, he enjoys bicycle touring, tournament chess and collecting art. He holds BSc and MFA degrees from Bowling Green State University and currently resides in Toledo, Ohio. http://BobBeach.com
Photo: Kae Sable