Palo Alto Weekly 22nd Annual Short Story
Second Place Young Adult
Unless Corn Colors the Candidate in Candor
by Molly Bolten
The fence on Alameda has a wooden board nailed to it that reads “corn.” This fence encloses a bright yellow house with a sea foam door, behind which are some normal house things—a living room with a comfortable sofa, a kitchen with a stack of miscellaneous papers and an annoying collection of things with which one never seems to know what to do, two lived-in bedrooms, two bathrooms, color and patterns everywhere. There is also a man (an artist), a woman (a restaurant owner, an artist in her own right), and a three-year old boy named Luca. The yellow color on the outside of the house is not a shy and sensible pastel—it is a bright sunshine color that is brave, that speaks in truth.
A man driving by, not old (twenty-six maybe?), sort of thin, sort of tall, sees fence, reads word, subconsciously slows down a little and is shoved back into reality by a loud honk from the driver behind him. The man’s short-ish but shaggy brown hair is messy and his roman nose makes him look stronger than he is. Could you call him a man? He is not a boy. He is almost grown up. He recently read (while standing between the shelves in the bookstore) part of a book about how corn and corn products are in nearly everything we eat. But what about steak? he wondered as he was reading. Steak is just steak. How can one thing be in everything we eat? The man sees the fence; it is painted yellow; the word “corn” is painted on it; the man remembers his book; the house is painted yellow; the man wonders if the people inside it are eating food, and if so, does the food have corn in it? The man is on his way to the grocery store before driving home to his green house in the city. He is thinking, perhaps he will buy some corn.
Today the word on the fence (and “the word on the street,” for that matter, literally because the fence faces the street) is “candidate,” painted in orange print lettering on a royal blue background, opposites in the color wheel. The man and the woman living in the house discuss the political parties and the many candidates running for president, their good and bad qualities. Luca sits on the living room floor playing with a toy spaceship and listening to his parents’ conversation. Does the president have a spaceship? he wonders. Because if he did, then he could go on trips to the moon with his dog. Sometimes he would take his family too.
The man is driving by again today, this time on his way home from work. He has two pets named Dog and Cat. Dog is a dog and Cat is a cat. When he gets home, Dog and Cat are lying on the sofa, somehow taking up the entire piece of furniture. After feeding Dog and Cat, he turns on the TV and gets ready to go out to dinner with recent girlfriend. Candidate coverage is on the six o’clock news. He watches part of a debate between the main Republican and Democratic candidates. He doesn’t want either of them to be president. He wonders, how much time does the president spend on vacation? Girlfriend calls and cancels at the last minute, so sorry, a good friend from high school is in town for just one night, he can come if he wants, no, he doesn’t want to intrude, have fun, see you on Saturday. He goes out for pizza instead then comes home. He has a dream that he is riding on a spaceship to the moon with the two Republican and Democratic candidates and they get in a fight and kill each other, so he becomes president accidentally. But why waste a trip to the moon? So he continues the voyage to the moon and experiences having very little gravitational pull on his mass, then turns around and goes back to be welcomed as the accidental president of the United States. That’s how we do many things anyway, he thinks, on accident.
“Color” is painted on the fence in red writing over green. When Luca’s pre-school teacher asks him what his favorite color is so he can do a finger painting in that color, Luca says his favorite color is yellow, blue, red, orange, purple, green. The teacher says he has to choose one. He says he likes yellow, blue, red, orange, purple, green. They go back and forth like this for quite a while. Luca can’t decide. The teacher begins to get annoyed. In the end, the teacher makes the decision for him and he goes with the yellow because that is the first one that he listed. Luca paints a picture of his house. When he gets home he shows the picture to his father and mother. Oh! See, it’s the color of our house! The father puts Luca’s picture up on the fence next to the word “color” painted big. There, you’re an artist too.
The man is driving by, now on his way to work. A brisk, gray morning sits on the suburbs and more stubbornly on the city. The man reads the word “color” and it reminds him of a story he saw last night on 60 Minutes. Apparently, a woman, a former trucker who likes gambling and drinking beer, bought a painting at a thrift store as a joke for five dollars as a birthday present for a friend. She never liked the painting. She was selling it at a yard sale and a high school art teacher looked at it and told her he though it was a Jackson Pollack painting. Who the hell is Jackson Pollack? The art teacher explained to the woman who Jackson Pollack was. As it turns out, this is true. The woman took the painting to an art forensic specialist, who matched a fingerprint on the back of the canvas to a fingerprint on a paint can in Pollack’s studio-turned-museum. She thinks the painting is worth fifty million dollars. One art collector offered her two million for it, but she politely declined. The man thought this story was very frustrating. Does the fact that the painting is a masterpiece have any effect on the truckdriving woman? He guesses some people don’t care about art, they care about fifty million dollars.
“Candor” is painted on the fence today, slightly messier, by Luca (with a little help from his dad with the letters and the spelling). The dad held Luca’s hand around the wide paintbrush as he made the strokes. Luca’s name is signed in the bottom right corner. Today he learned what candor means. His dad said, Candor is the language that art speaks.
The man, driving by, sees the sign painted by Luca. Candidates surely do not speak candor. The man has been trying to write something true for a long time. He works in a law firm. Is he another one of those people whose words aren’t really the ones they mean, but they are a hard shell guarding the ones they really mean? Does he speak candor? A panic attack sets in. What if I just tell lies? He thinks he needs a new heart. The man pulls over to the side of the road abruptly and the driver behind him honks loudly. Even when he does try to write something true, is it really true or is it the fake true, the kind of true that is influenced by the people around him? Why can’t he write the real truth? Where are the raw truths that don’t change unless people change? He asks this question while out to dinner with girlfriend. She doesn’t know, what is he talking about? Why is he asking all these questions? She laughs. You’re such a strange boy! Is he a boy? He is not a man. How do you find candor, the truth that does not change unless people change, the one that is not influenced by anything?
On Saturday, Luca and his dad are painting “unless” in yellow paint on green background. They paint this at seven o’clock in the morning, when the sun is warm on their backs but the air and plants are still full of dew like so many corn kernels! The father says this is the best time of day to paint, when your eyes and head are clear and haven’t been influenced by anything. This is when you can paint CANDOR. The night before, he had read a book to Luca. It had wispy, colorful illustrations and the story involved a very short old man with a long beard. The very short old man with the long beard lives in a forest of wonderful trees, then a tall man with no beard comes and cuts down all of the wonderful trees to make into so many useful things to sell for fifty million dollars. But oh no, the trees have all been cut down and what do we do now? The old man cannot bear to see his forest reduced to fields of nothing. Everyone is guilty, very guilty. But wait, a single seed left on a tree stump by the old man with the long beard! Above it written in a cloud, the word “unless.” At the end Luca clapped. Oh, such a good story!
It is Saturday. The man is driving by, but it is Saturday, he doesn’t have to work on Saturday. To tell the truth, he drove here because he wanted to see the fence. This pilgrimage, a voyage to see what the truth is today, in the form of a word on a fence. A Mecca, in the form of a fence. He drives by as Luca is painting the “l” in “unless.” A wave of connection comes over him and he pulls over a little past the house, gets out of the car, and walks up to the three-year-old boy and his father. A second before Luca notices him, the realization comes to him that this is going to be an awkward meeting. Luca says hello very loud, and the father turns around. He looks at the young man, standing on the sidewalk in his jeans and yellow t-shirt, his hands in his pockets, his boxy shoulders slightly held up like a tall person trying to make himself shorter. Um, I’ve been reading your fence every day, and. Why did he do this? And it makes me think a lot…I. The father smiles. Would he like to paint? The man’s eyes open wide. A short silence, then, Yes, he would like to paint, thank you. Luca says to paint the “e”. Your shirt is the same color as my house! Luca is excited. The man paints the “e” next to Luca’s “l”, which is next to his dad’s “u-n”. He starts the letter trying to make it perfect then with a great swoop of his arm he paints the round, outside part of the “e” fast and free. He paints it BIG. Luca paints the “s”. His dad says to the young man, the last “s” is yours. The man paints the “s” in one huge sweeping motion. You made candor! shouts Luca, and the father laughs. The man made candor! He is not so strange a boy! Is he a boy? Yes, he is a child, and he speaks in candor. This is truth. This is the truest thing he has ever written. The child smiles.