The night of the day I turned ten, we all got to go out to supper at a place that printed a quarter page of half-off coupons every other month in the weekly paper and invited kids to step on this big carnival scale before they ate, then again after they were done, and the only thing their parents would be charged was one dollar if any amount of weight gain over a pound was registered.
Once I finished what I could of the Southern fried chicken, the French fries, cole slaw and decorative sprig of parsley, and after I blew out the white twig of a candle jabbed into the thick-skinned Boston cream pie slice, the waitress held out a red velvet grab bag brought out only for special occasions like mine.
I stuck my right hand in and felt my way around the obvious: the butterfly net, the hairbrush, the alleys in their net sack, some kind of floppy stuffed animal staring through the dark with bulging glass eyes. I considered the plastic hammer, the rolled-up paper kite, the doll's rough yam braids, and what was either a magnifying glass or a hand mirror. I spent a whole lot more time rifling through that bag than I think anybody expected me to. But that was because nothing in there really caught my great interest.
Until I came to the box.
Slowly, I ran my fingers along its edges and determined that it was not very large. When I gave it a shake, I found it to be not that heavy. But it was a box, and boxes hold the promise of containing many pieces that might connect together to make one big fantastic surprise. Greedy, I pushed aside the coiled-up Chinese jump rope, got tangled in the strap of the tiny binoculars, scraped a knuckle on the lucky horseshoe, then pulled out the unknown.
On the way home I studied the parchment-colored carton in the quick few seconds of light spared by each streetlamp we passed under. I placed my right hand over the delicate one that was sketched to decorate the lid, and I mimicked those fingers that so gracefully held a pencil over a sheet of paper blank except for all your imaginings. I was the first one out of the car, the first one at the door, and the first one inside the house. I ran straight to the kitchen table, yanked on the light string, pulled the cover off the box, and examined the contents: a black fat-leaded pencil already sharpened to a perfect point, a cold and golden metal sharpener for when it wore down, a rectangle of pink rubber eraser, a slim pad of smooth newsprint, and a small white sheet of paper with the title "Instructions."
"Take the pencil in hand," the first sentence told me, "and draw a line."
I took the pencil in hand. I drew a line.
"Draw a circle."
I drew a circle.
"Draw a square."
I drew a square.
"Have you completed all these commands correctly?" the page asked, and it offered a picture of each thing, just in case I needed a reminder of what they were supposed to look like.
I studied my line. I studied my circle. I studied my square.
All appeared to me to be as good as what I saw printed next to directions, though maybe not as sharp and bold and exact -- but I hadn't used a ruler or a compass or anything, so what would you expect?
"Are they just as they appear in the illustrations?"
I checked again. I had done what I was supposed to.
"Then we wish you sincere congratulations!" the words told me. "Now you are an artist."
And from that day, that hour, that minute, that second, with the kitchen light swinging overhead and me still standing at the table in coat and dripping boots, big green mitten forgotten on my left hand, new pencil sharp and ready in my right one, I deep down truly have never thought of myself as anything but.
That is it, the longest and the most detailed version of the reply I give people when they ask me when and why and how I got started in all this. I am out in the world doing my work when the most curious ones stop to peek over my shoulder. They might stare at the placement of my hand, at the wrap of my fingers, at the movements of my brush or my pencil, at what any one of those might be leaving in its wake, while I give them the long or short of it, whatever I feel like relating that particular day. Sometimes our eyes never really meet, and those times, even if you offered me money, I couldn't tell you what these people looked like. I am busy and I have a job to do, and I answer as I continue to make a line or mix a color, my words the soundtrack to the things I am making out of nothing right before their eyes.
I hear them breathing. I feel them inches from me. At some point I realize they are gone -- usually right after they say something like how they wish they had some talent. Right after they tell me they couldn't do what I am doing. And just before there is a chance for me to ask them what is it that they are able to do. I'm not just saying I would -- if time allowed, I truly would like to find out. Because everybody can do something. It's just that most people don't have that something come right out and tell them what it is, as was the case with me. They might have to fish around a bit. Sometimes it even takes years. Or a whole life.
As for me, life so far has consisted of thirty-nine years. And for twenty-nine of them, I have joined together line and circle and square and have made for you whatever you have wanted. Because I am an artist. That is what the instructions told me. That is the title under the lily of the valley flowers that so fittingly frame the name Lily Wilk on the pale green business cards I hand out from the zippered compartment of my pocketbook. It is what that same card, enlarged fifty percent, tells readers who spot the ad I run every other week in the Pennysaver, inviting all to contact me for their artistic needs. It is what my friends and relations tell everybody I am. It is what I tell myself, silently in my head, when somebody who sees the ad calls to say it doesn't matter what I paint for them. Just make sure it includes a lighthouse, and that it fits this frame they got on sale, and that the color of whatever I end up with comes as close as possible to matching their wall-to-wall.
I must remind myself of my true occupation when somebody requests a caricature of every kid who'll be at their own kid's birthday party, and I spend an eternity of an afternoon fending off a pointy-hatted shrieking mob of sugar-fueled brats who knock into me and steal my pens and throw up on my drawing board. Or when I am asked to fit on one single glass door the neat capital letters that will spell out how this particular place of business is the best, the newest, the oldest, the biggest, the cheapest, the tastiest, the fastest, the one that can make and deliver your custom order within twenty-four hours. Sundays included.
No, my work is not in any museums. And as for galleries, I don't know if you'd think this counts, but for years I've been bringing paintings down to Mrs. Sloat at the post office, and she so kindly displays them prominently. A couple times a year, somebody falls in love and buys something like Lis' Cafe and its glass-brick front all glowing and ready for twin lobster night. Then I bring down another piece to hang in its place, on the nail pounded into the wall above the stamp-licking table, next to the recyclable-paper bin and the clipboard displaying the Ten Most Wanted.
If I am asked, I tell people I've exhibited widely. But I don't get into the specifics of how that mostly has been at the occasional amateurish local festival, where I must cautiously stand guard as people slosh their beer and point with greasy fried dough at the small display of the paintings I really want to make, and sometimes manage to pull off in my rare spare time. Local subjects: The egg carton factory billowing steam at first light. The dark huddle of buildings that is Main Street. Men, old and young, hunched playing their cards down at the AmVets. A woman reaching to hang her wash while the wind whips the linens around her like a fancy gown. The smoking remains of the vacant mill the day after the sad juvenile delinquents lit a fire in it to keep warm, and then fell asleep until they heard the sirens. Real things I've seen and have felt honored or touched to spot and take in through my eyes, out to my hand, and onto paper the way maybe only I, out of everyone in the entire world, see them. Not all greeting-card pretty, but why do things have to be neat and perfect to earn a place on your wall? Once in a while somebody at one of these festivals agrees with that. And before walking away empty-handed, they'll go on for a bit how that one over there's the painting they'd get if they ever found themselves rich enough to blow good money on junk like art.
Unlike my fellow vendors, who do a brisk business in lace hair accessories or wooden garden ornaments painted to look like the rear view of a wide person bending over, I am rarely able to earn back the rent of my twenty-five or fifty-dollar space. My particular take on beauty has not turned out to be what people want from me and has never gone far in paying for my rent, utilities, health insurance, car, food and sundries. What does bring in the money is something with a function, a purpose, a tangible usefulness that justifies the cost. If I'm going to paint, people want me to do so on simple wooden rectangles that will read "Welcome," "Come Back Soon," "Keep Out" or "Police Take Notice." On bone-shaped signs for doghouses that shelter Neptune or Itchy or Gus, or just plain old Dog. On boulders at town lines, where a community's official seal looks so, well, official. They want "Detroit Debris" scrolled across tailgates. Circa-whatever on the fronts of homes so old that the vintage deserves to be announced to all. Once, and only once, I was asked to tell the story of a couple's meeting, courtship, engagement and impending marriage, all illustrated on the ten fake nails of the ten lumpy fingers of the one anxious bride-to-be who shook so much the night before the big day that I had to wait until she passed out from her sixth rum and Coke so I could finish the flat left thumb that held the critical scene from the love story: her groom-to-be and his then soon-to-be-ex signing their divorce papers.
I had a different life envisioned for myself back at age ten, when I grabbed every spare stretch of paper and practiced careful rows and rows of the lines, circles and squares that I saw as the bones of all the landscapes and still lifes and portraits and other masterpieces I surely would go on to create. Fields of them stretching toward the great horizon that was my mysterious destiny, one big rainbow arc of pictures adorned with fancy medals and ribbons, all being admired by people in berets and bow-tied smocks who couldn't help but swoon and gasp in foreign accents as they walked past my easel, where I, the artist, stood with palette and brush and pencil and golden sharpener, and strung together line and circle and square to make the world as no one before had ever viewed it.
Someday, I for years have told myself silently in my head, I will make something that people everywhere will stand in line for hours just to look at and study and be struck by. Then, satisfied beyond belief, they will travel all the way home in stunned silence, reflecting how they have been changed in some vital way by the sight of a thing made by my own right hand.
I have yet to get around to creating that particular piece, and if I have to give you an excuse, the one I offer is that I, for years, have been busy from morning to night -- even if it has been on jobs far from what I really want to do. Whatever you want -- that has been my mission ever since I turned ten and Valentine's Day was approaching and somebody in the Ladies' Guild complained about the high cost of paper tablecloths with hearts printed on them, as opposed to plain white ones with no such seasonal embellishment. And my mother piped up, "Why don't you go buy the white ones, and why don't I have my daughter decorate them for you -- she does things like that for me all the time. She's an artist." So that's what I did, and that's what I am. An artist. Somewhere along the way, though, quotation marks sprouted up on either side of the word.
I always used to say I'm glad not to be as bad off as the many people I know who hate what they do for a living. Like Billy Doyle, who, back when I was his girlfriend and he started his first real job right out of high school, loathed it so much that he asked me to paint on a big dartboard a picture of the frozen-food warehouse where he would be wearing long johns all seasons of the year, struggling to list inventory with a pencil held in a shaking insulated glove. Or like that woman, Helena, down my street, who drives very slowly to and really fast from her day at the mascara wand factory, her sky blue Plymouth Horizon zooming dangerously through the curvy underpass in Cheneyville each weekday afternoon just after three, that homemade voodoo doll of her lecherous shift supervisor swinging wildly from a small noose tied to her rearview mirror. I'm nowhere near as flattened by my work as they were and are, but I have arrived at understanding some of how it feels to be giving so much of your life and time to what you believe you maybe were not put here to do.
Like how I maybe was not put here to stand on an oversized potty chair and dodge the dangling row of fake legs being shown off in the sunny window of the surgical supply store on Main Street in Ludlow. But that was me all this morning, stepping around empty oxygen tanks so I could apply the finishing touches to the words "ANNUAL HALF OFF ALMOST EVERYTHING SALE" I'd painted big and backwards across the inside of the glass, each of the letters being snipped in two by a large, steely pair of scissors. Maybe I was not put here to carefully paint the words "Adam" and "Eve" onto the respective restroom doors down at the Parish Center. But that was me at lunchtime, underlining each name with a branch of fig leaves and, finally, adding accents of tiny and irresistible apples. Maybe I was not put here to apply one final coat of Industrial Red #6 to the fire hydrant down near the French school. But that was me just around supper, all because I once again said yes when Frannie the highway department called and asked me if I, once, was interested in taking that on.
Somebody yelled this from a car roaring past. I didn't look up. Over the years hundreds of comments have been hurled at me from passersby, so I'm used to it. Usually they are alerting that I missed a spot. Usually I ignore them, just like I did then.
"Just tell 'em to shove it."
An older woman in a pale pink windbreaker shouted this from behind me as she raked her front yard with choppy but efficient strokes that left the grass looking like a well-combed head of hair. "They'll be selling postcards of that plug once you get your big break."
"Right -- sure -- that'll happen someday," I told her.
I heard only more bits of raking; then the woman yelled back:
I finished my favorite part of the project, the last link on the silver chain that minds the hydrant's cap once it gets unscrewed in a hurry during a fire. Then I turned to wave away her joke. But when we met eyes, her expression was nothing but totally serious.
I knew maybe four things about this woman: That her first name was Lorraine, which had been written on the badge she used to wear on her blue-and-yellow smock when she worked in the Fotomat booth back when we had one in town. That Chunglo, was her last name, the one spelled out in bronze reflective letters on her black plastic mailbox. That she owned all the know-how and equipment to decorate elaborate cakes for your most special occasions. That once a year she was invited to be guest speaker at one of the Brown Bag Lunch meetings out at the old academy in Brimfield, and the following Thursday the paper always ran a couple photos of her demonstrating how you can doll up even the cheapest box mix by squeezing out a gorgeous and edible bouquet of the most exotic frosting flowers.
But there apparently was more to learn about Lorraine Chunglo:
Like that she was a psychic.
She had to be. How else could she have had any idea that this actually was a big someday for me? How, because of a phone call I placed that morning, the next day I would have an appointment at New Directions, where for one full-hour session I would speak in person with the career counselor who, for many years, has run an ad two spaces to the left of mine, just past the one for the dry ice company and right up against the stump-grinding service.
"Together, we will find your true path," reads the line beneath a drawing of a compass and the digits of the big black phone number I'd finally dialed.
"You're good," I said, turning again to compliment Lorraine Chunglo. But she must have gone inside her house.
Probably to laugh at me. Because the someday she had referred to was an entirely different one -- this I realized only after I unlocked my back door that late afternoon and heard my answering machine capturing the words "Mary Ziemba calling."
The voice was continuing: "I'll spell that for you..."
It had to be a joke, somebody with nothing better to do putting me on. But just in case it wasn't, I jumped at the phone. Whoever was providing them, I didn't need the letters. Around my town, Mary Ziemba's name was as well known as God's.
She was one real bigshot -- the owner of the Grand Z chain of grocery stores that almost exclusively fed our half of the state. You either bought your food there, or you grew your own, or you starved. And it was people's natural need for food, combined with the lack of any real grocery competitors since death of Food Basket, that long ago had made Grand Z a household word and Mary Ziemba the richest local woman anybody could think of. Her business story was legend, and shoppers entering each of the eleven Grand Zs were greeted by a wall-sized photo of her as a young, skinny immigrant in a long, dumpy dress, sleeves rolled up to reveal the surprising Popeye forearms with which she, all by herself, long ago pushed around town a cart of her homegrown vegetables.
That town was mine. It was where Mary Ziemba first had settled, it was where she since had lived, and it was where she had retired a few years ago, on top of a pine-treed hill edging the valley that, thanks to her great and unbridled generosity, for ages to come would echo her surname. Everybody around here was born in the hospital's Ziemba Wing. Everybody borrowed their reading materials from the Ziemba Public Library or its roving bookmobile. Everybody learned to swim in the tepid little lake at Ziemba Park. The most selfless among us were named Ziemba Volunteers of the Year and got fine cash awards and the chance to be first in the buffet line at an annual recognition breakfast. The hungriest among us grew up strong and healthy on free groceries from the Grand Z Food for All program, founded decades before handing out dented canned goods was something rock stars did for photo opportunities. The neediest among us vied for the Ziemba Grants that propelled winners free of charge through four entire years at the colleges of their choice. The most directionless of all of us learned marketable skills in the fancy carpeted Ziemba Pre-Release Center up at the new jail. When we were kids pestering my mother for some money to go downstreet, shed complain, "Hey -- who do you think I am? Mary Ziemba?" And we'd all crack up at the thought of something that would have been so wonderful, but that unfortunately was not true.
And I haven't even gotten around to the most important fact about Mary Ziemba: She had a thing for art. At least for art made by people that most other people have heard of. I was back in high school when I clipped and saved a newspaper story about her small and cautious but enviable collection of American artists, and it always had thrilled me to know that within only a few miles of my own door hung a Cassatt, a Homer, two works by the first two Wyeths, and, side by side in what the story described as "a reverent alcove," a Stieglitz and an O'Keeffe.
"Yes?" I managed that much into the telephone. "Hello?"
"Yes, I heard you; I just came in." I said that every time I picked up on somebody I decided I wanted to talk with after all, but this time it was the truth. To underline that, I added, "I really did."
"Well then, I'm glad I caught you," Mary Ziemba said in a voice that, well, actually could have belonged to any regular person. "You know, I wanted to tell you I've admired your work for a long time."
How could I have known that? What had she seen? I lowered myself onto the arm of the wing chair next to the telephone table. "Really?" I asked this too quickly, I knew. "I mean, thank you."
"No -- thank you," she said firmly, putting the emphasis on me. "I've been meaning to speak to you for a while. Now here I am."
Neither of us said anything for a moment, and both of us could hear the ticking of one big clock somewhere on her end line. It was the same sound I figured the Cassatt could hear, and I felt closer to greatness just listening. Then came the interruption, of that moment, and of my life as it had been rolling along less eventful with each passing year:
"I need you to make me a painting," Mary Ziemba said to me. "I'd like it to be a watercolor. I need it completed by Christmastime. When there will be an exhibition. You may name the fair price."
If I had to take all my thoughts right then and line them up in order of how they rushed onto the big movie screen of my brain, I'd have to be honest and say my first was the image of that Grand Z turning into one Grand S with two big lines running down the middle of it. One enormous dollar sign that could dwarf an entire Grand Z store and parking lot put together. Electrified and visible for hundreds of thousands of miles around. People up in Canada would be able to look down and see it. People in Mexico even. Astronauts orbiting. All would remark, in their respective tongues, how truly fantastic it was that I finally was getting the big break that each and every one of us deserves at some point in our individual lives.
The things the money would make possible were the next to flash. There were obvious benefits, the biggest being the overflowing bank account and the many people I regularly owed being flabbergasted that I was paying my bills without having to be sent another one of those pink warning notices. Then came the parade of splurges, led by an entire rainbow set of egg tempera and some of that watercolor paper I recently had read about an order of silent monks in the Berkshires pressing by hand and selling only one month out of the year.
Then arrived the staggering reality, that I could purchase myself something even better than anything I could ever carry off in my hands. And that was time.
Finally the time to do nothing but draw and paint the things that I alone wanted to draw and paint. Without a single worry as to would they ever sell or was I just wasting my time. The great desire of anybody who correctly or incorrectly calls themselves an artist: to make something just for the pleasure and the challenge and the heartache of the experience. The idea that this could happen to me made me slide from the arm of my chair to the actual seat.
Then everything suddenly blew away like somebody had opened a window in March, and before me I could see the exhibit. My exhibit. My very own personal one. Of this painting, and nothing else. People in their finery, good wine in two colors and real glasses, strange little snacks on crackers being passed around by waiters in tuxedos who offered helpful descriptions of the ingredients that made up what you were about to eat. Everybody from everywhere coming there to view what I had done, all of them saying they had never seen the beat of it. They would stand in line for hours just to look and study and be struck by my painting, and then would travel all the way home in stunned silence, reflecting how they had been changed in some vital way by the sight of a thing made by my own right hand.
There was one last thought before I got sucked back into reality, and there was no avoiding it: the fact that Jack, if he ever got wind of this, would not be amazed at all. For everything he had lacked as a perfect husband for me, nobody I knew ever came close to topping him in the cheerleading department, in his great and unwavering faith in what I could do with my talent.
He was the one who, even back in high school, always thought my time would come. I might have to wait a while, say, but one day, because of what I was able to do, things were going to happen that would send my head spinning.
"You are a treasure," is how Jack put it, and he ended every card and note to me with those words. Even from the first one when we were fourteen and my acrylic of a single, stark white eggplant beat out his Dali rip-off melting watch for first place in the freshman art show. Even down to the last thing he wrote me five months and four days before Mary Ziemba's phone call, when I was spending a gorgeous April day painting a seven-foot-long banana split onto the side of Rondeau's Dairy Bar. While Jack was back in our apartment packing all that belonged to him and Little Ted for his big middle-of-the-day coward-sneak back to the first wife he still loved after four and a half years of supposedly feeling that way about me.
"I am nothing," he printed neatly and correctly on the back of an oil bill we'd yet to scrounge up the money for and that, just before I finally did go downstreet to pay, I had to coat on the back with white paint just so Hedda behind the counter wouldn't be able to make out the message. I painted over those three words, just as I painted over the five in the line he added before signing his name: "But you are a treasure."
Now, it appeared, somebody finally had come to dig me up. And for the first time in the five months and four days since Jack ran off, I not only had a genuine full-sentence thought about him, but it actually had nothing to do with wishing him harm. The night was getting stranger by the minute.
There was no big clock in my house to fill up the background as Mary Ziemba awaited my reply. In my home now, there is only me. And, until I put on the radio or TV or I have somebody visit or I make some kind of clatter myself, there is only silence. But right then, faint but getting stronger by the second, came the slow and steady sound of something big and important steaming my way.
When you've never heard the sound of something, you can imagine that it's anything you want it to be. And that's what I did, right there -- I thought I knew that this was the sound of what was going to happen -- that with this one painting I was going to make my mark. That I finally would be doing for a living what I was supposed to. But, unlike Lorraine Chunglo, I know as much about the future as most of the rest of us do -- which, I many times have lamented, is absolutely nothing. So I stopped the predictions right there to give my answer, before Mary Ziemba, or I, had any chance for second thoughts.
I said this to her:
"I can make for you whatever you want."
Copyright © 1999 by Suzanne Strempek Shea