Palo Alto Weekly 34th Annual Short Story Contest
Adult Honorable Mention

Vignettes

by Paige Walker

Author Bio

Paige is from Stockton, California and attends Foothill College. In her free time she likes to paint and sew.

Inspiration

After experiencing a creative block, I felt inspired to write a story that explored the ways a person's circumstances might affect their creativity.

I sit before a blank canvas. Its white veneer taunts me. For the first time since I took up painting, I am at a loss for ideas. Images that would once imprint themselves boldly in my mind's eye have vanished. Glimpses of colors, faces, and moments in time flicker in their place. Like vignettes projecting dimly in the back of my mind, each of them disappears too quickly to form a coherent idea.

I set down my paint brush down and shift towards the sun, my eyes close as the morning light dapples my cheeks. If I focus, I can feel a knot tighten inside me. It occurs to me that no one knows where I am. Earlier I had been struck by an unusual burst of spontaneity and decided to hike to the summit of Black Mountain Trail to watch the sunrise. It seemed logical at the time. Sunrises have long inspired a sense of awe in me. Certainly, I had thought, the beauty of an unobstructed sunrise sweeping across the bay would leave me no choice but to paint its likeness. I was mistaken; today the vibrant colors of the sunrise have rendered dull. My well of ideas remains dry.

The warm hues melt off the sky and a familiar blue settles in their place. The backs of my legs begin to blaze with the itch of the yellowed grass beneath them. That's my cue; it's time to leave. I fold up my easel and carefully slide my still-blank canvas into my backpack. As I trudge down the trail, my usual alarm pings in my pocket. I shudder before I remember —I am not late for anything. I have no classes to attend. I am officially a dropout.

It hadn't been an easy decision. It never is. I entered college with a plan. I would leave with a degree and solidified spot in the middle class. I would finish what my mother started; there would be no two ways about it. And in the beginning, fulfillment of that plan seemed all but inevitable. I studied diligently. Textbooks were pored over, essays were written. Midnights were at the library and mornings were coffee-fueled. Of course, there were parties too. There were drunken rituals to partake in, but that was part of the experience. When I began to weep every morning before class, I told myself that was part of the experience too.

By the time I reach the parking lot, beads of sweat adorn my hairline. My '97 Honda sputters to a start, and for a moment I feel a grim sense of kinship with my feeble car—both of us drained, but too stubborn to surrender. When I return to my cramped student housing, it's tidier than I left it. The paintings I'd strewn across the carpet the night before are now stacked in cardboard boxes I'd been ignoring. A not-so-subtle hint on the part of my roommate.

I slump over my desk and naw on the insides of my cheeks as I sift through the mail. After having tossed three quarters of it into the recycle, I come upon a fat, business-like envelope. It's from New York. Stamped across it are the words "Admissions and Scholarships." I flip it over and gently run my fingers across the seal. A familiar ringtone interrupts my daze. I glance at my phone, the name "Kerry Williams" pulsates on the screen. I hesitate.

In truth, it was Kerry who had given me the impetus to leave. When I first met him, he worked as a curator at an underground museum in the city. He hid his glasses and lanky frame beneath long hair and thrifted flannels. He was only a few years older than me, but seemed decades wiser. He introduced to me to Nirvana and slam poetry. He coaxed the paint brush back into my hand long after I'd deemed my art irrelevant. He dragged me off the floor of my darkened dorm to attend exhibitions of up-and-coming artists, and eventually turned me into up-and-coming artist when he exhibited my work. By the time I was offered an apprenticeship with an oil painter in New York, he was already there, this time with a crew cut and contact lenses. He encouraged me to apply to the art program he had completed a few years prior, and assured me I would always have a couch to crash on. Though his support seemed to know no bounds, an air of anxiety punctuated our most recent conversations.

I bring the phone to my ear and muster a cheery, "Hey, what's up?"

"Gray! Glad I caught you. Just wanted to check in, I was meditating on some stuff and it got me thinking of you."

"Course you were," I reply, cheekily. He knew I'd long dismissed his meditation as hippie hocus-pocus.

"Hey, don't knock it 'til you've tried it!"

I chuckle, "Yeah, I—"

"So, what are you up to today?" he interrupts.

"Oh, nothing much I guess. I've got a shift in an hour. . .then I have to go to some dinner party my mom's hosting." I fiddle with the string of my hoodie as the words wander out of me.

"Hmm, so have you told her?"

"Not exactly."

"Gray, come on man. You're leaving in three weeks and she still doesn't know?"

"I know, I know. I'm telling her tonight, I swear. I just got the letter with scholarship info. I'll bring it over. I just want her to know that everything is taken care of, you know how mothers are."

"Okay, I'm holding you to that though. Trust me, it's better to be honest. People respect that."

"Okay."

I swing my head back as I hang up. My eyes drift to the window before settling back on the letter. I pause before cramming it into the front pocket of my backpack and forcing the zipper closed.

- - -

My footsteps echo off the hollow stairwell of mother's apartment building. Lemon tart in hand, I knock gently on her brittle front door, its paint warped with age. "Come in!" A voice shouts from the back. The door clunks open and I shuffle to the kitchen, where I find my mother arranging a cheese platter.

"You're late," she says, still focused on cutting cheddar cubes.

"I got off late."

She spins around and looks at my lemon tart quizzically. "Store bought? I thought you had a kitchenette in your dorm."

I start to explain that a microwave and a mini-fridge hardly qualify as a kitchenette, but I'm interrupted by a knock. She scuttles to the door.

The guests trickle in and my mother is whisked away by matters more engaging than my store bought dessert. I make a modest attempt at mingling before resigning myself to the floral couch she'd acquired when her mother died. As I absentmindedly twirl a lock of my overgrown hair, I can't help but notice the wallpaper curling off the drywall. Has that it always been like that? I couldn't be sure.

My eyes shift back to my mother. Through the doorway to the kitchen I can see her telling a story with the level of animation one would expect from Mickey Mouse. I'd always admired her ability to host people, despite our circumstances. There was no stain, scratch, or missing piece that would prevent her from inviting everyone she knew to a party, though I always knew she would have preferred things to be different. She could spend hours studying Martha Stewart magazine. Carefully clipping out her dreams, she spent my childhood tacking the glossy images of rich peoples' homes to the fridge. She used to point to her cut-outs and say, "Work hard, and this'll be ours someday." I didn't doubt her, but nothing could make me understand why we would want to live in the eerily polished home of a stranger.

- - -

When the last guest finishes lingering in the doorway, my mother flits to the kitchen where I'm scrubbing encrusted onions off of a cast iron pan. She nestles into the breakfast nook and combs through the mail silently. For a moment I am swept back to the nights in which she had washed the dishes while I sat in the nook, scribbling away at homework that seemed to defy logic. She always finished the dishes before I finished my homework, but she wouldn't leave the kitchen before I answered every question and solved every problem. She cooed words of encouragement when I edged on resignation. She never let me surrender. My work was hers.

Immersed in memory, I keep my head down as I douse plates in soapy water. When the last dish is carefully stacked in the drying rack, I glance over at her. Her eyes are glued to the table in an apparent study of the mail.

Maybe tonight isn't the night to tell her. I could tell her in the morning, over the phone. I wouldn't want to break her focus. On some level I know I'm making excuses, but the lure of a painless goodbye is strong. I snag my backpack off the hook and chirp a soft goodnight as I march towards the door.

"Gray?"

I bite my lip, "Yes?"

"Don't you have something to tell me?"

I turn around. She holds up an envelope, its contents splayed out on the table. My heart sinks to my stomach. I pull my backpack forward and see the front pocket is unzipped.

I hesitate, "Were you going through my stuff?"

"Don't lie to me. I already know you dropped out."

My cheeks flame red, "I'm not lying."

"You were about to."

"Well then you already know what's going on, so why even ask?" I retort, my agitation palpable.

"There's no need to raise your voice."

"I'm not." I cross my arms.

My mother exhales loudly, "Gray, look at me, you don't have do this. Think of how hard you worked."

"It's done, Mom. It's done. I got an apprenticeship in New York, do you know what the odds of that were? There's a scholarship. I—I'm not going to have another shot at this." I want to say more, but the knot in my stomach wrapped itself around my throat.

"Think of your future!" She's raising her voice now, "Everything was going so well. I just—I just don't understand how you could do this to me."

I grit my teeth, but it doesn't stop the words boiling deep inside me from bursting to the surface, "This has nothing to do with you!"

There it was. The line I withheld in many arguments past, laid bare before us now.

She pauses, "I didn't know that," her voice cracks into a whisper.

The tears are rising, searing the insides of my already reddened cheeks. "It's not. . .it's not like that. I was fooling myself with poli-sci. I never painted—"

"I never asked you to stop."

"Mom, listen to me, I didn't paint. Not at first, but when I finally picked up my paint brush again it—it was like the pulse of my own heart poured onto the canvas, and with it came all the life and emotions I'd been holding in all this time. . . I have to do this. If I don't, I'll rot from the inside out. It's the one thing I'm sure of." My body trembles under the weight of my own words.

"How are you going to make money? I don't want want you to be poor for the rest of your life."

"I will definitely be poor for the rest of my life if I can't get my out of bed in the morning. That's what I was doing before. I don't want want to go back. You have to believe me when I tell you that I will be eaten alive if I don't do this."

A silence creeps in.

"Sit down," she says, breaking the quiet.

Reluctantly, I oblige. As I fold my hands on the table between us, she outstretches hers. I surrender to the tears, they stream hotly down my cheeks as I lift my head. For moment, our eyes meet. She looks softer, the silver streaks in her hair seem to shimmer under the florescent light. Her weathered fingers lace with mine, she's crying now too.

- - -

Once again, I find myself before a blank canvas. This time there is no sunrise, no itchy grass, and no panoramic view. This time there is only me and the barren walls of my shoebox apartment. I close my eyes and inhale, listening intently to the rhythmic hum of the city I now call home. As I breath out, the canvas no longer feels blank. Colors dance before me, begging to be made tangible. The vignettes that once flickered dimly in the back of my mind have crystallized, forming an image so sharp it has no choice but to bleed into reality. I lift my paint brush. Relief swells in my chest. With each brush stroke I am washed anew.