It was impossible, the color, but it was done. They came in and imposed their own signature right away, no questions asked. The only place on two blocks that stuck out. Every other house facade was a dingy whitewash or worn rusty brick. The street held a tinge of neglected gentility; its uniformity appealed to Winnie and her neighbors.
Of course they were artists, that’s what Simon told her and he should know as the owner and chief barista at Foglifter Coffee Bar. People stopped by on the way to city center, caught up with each other while in line, then again on the way home to savor the last caffeine of the day. She enjoyed it more when Simon had a free moment.
“Who?” Winnie asked. “Why?”
“I don’t know, they seem to be well known in some circles, mainly Marty’s.” He finished up an order then leaned on the counter. “As to why, I suppose they felt they could do what they wanted, having bought it, you know. We get to put our stamp on things a bit.”
“You don’t have to face a blaring bright house each day like I do. Marty likely talked them into coming here, he does get around–have trumpet will travel, our local troubadour. I’ll find out more.”
“You always do,” Simon agreed and winked at her.
You’d think she and Simon were true friends but often she found him distant or a tad overbearing, depending on time of day. It worried her it might be herself, but she’d decided it was how much caffeine he’d imbibed or how busy things got. She liked his cozy, packed place and often wondered about him. As she did everyone. Winnie didn’t realize they developed a tolerance of her meddlesome nature, tempered by a degree of fondness.
She was a second grade teacher, a formidable taskmaster; her students complained. Their parents were glad of it. She wasn’t the best-liked but the children all knew essentials backward and forward and much more before they were moved on. Every now and then there was an exceptional pupil and he or she would make all her efforts worthy of the good regard. Still, she felt another function in the community was to keep abreast of what was happening. No one else paid that much attention. They knew the information would be forthcoming from Winnie. That it was wrong at least a good thirty percent of the time was irksome but understandable. It was surprising, though, that she had missed the paint job.
Simon watched her sway across the street, as if she had all the time in the world even though he knew she kept a hawk eye in all directions. He thought she wanted to dance her way through life in a world of common walkers–but she hadn’t quite found her rhythm yet. Yes, she had potential, and he waited for it to happen. Meanwhile, he did expect she would stir up some fuss about the Darlton’s place. Taking a pen from behind his ear to jot down an order, he smiled. If there was one thing Winnie didn’t take to, it was the unexpected. If only all could happen in an orderly manner with fair warning, barring weather and other acts of God. He, on the other hand, thrived on surprise, the lively commotion of it. He looked forward to meeting the new couple who felt compelled to cheer up the district. It had been a week but they hadn’t joined the coffee crowd yet.
As the day came to a close, Winnie sat by her front window and studied the freshly painted, shiny pine green door across the street. She willed it to open. They had moved in without her witnessing it, the one weekend she’d visited her cousin at the beach. She had to know who would take a perfectly good building and alter it so that is stuck out like a pesky dandelion wagging its colors at ubiquitous uniformity. If they were going to paint without asking first, what next? Would they wear wild get-up or have crazy parties into the wee morning hours? Would they talk with theatrical mannerisms or look down their noses at people like herself ? Artsy types unnerved her. Entirely. They just seemed…unseemly. This was the one thing unnecessarily irritating in her quiet and pleasant life.
Was that door ever going to open so she could lay eyes on them? Then she would hurry out with her strong handshake and investigative mind. She’d have to look them up on the internet if all else failed but firsthand was always more accurate, in her opinion.
When it did open, out shot Zachary Tomason. One of her students. Of course he might meet them; he was a nut about art, the only thing he really liked. He carried a lack satchel, the same one he took to school, though it looked light under his grip, held something else. He glanced her way; she waved. Zach may have seen her but he kept on, with daydreams crowding out civility.
Winnie heard the soup simmering on the stove top, vegetables with meatloaf leftovers tossed in. The hearty fragrance lured her and reluctantly she left her post.
Zachary came to the corner and looked both ways. He had visited the new people after his mother had talked with them when they moved in. When she said they were artists and made things out of stained glass and painted large pictures and made other things, he was excited. He asked his mother to take him to meet them. She raised a finely arched eyebrow then said why not, it only made sense he get his foot in their door. Mrs. Tomason knew her son had a gift for drawing but she didn’t know what to make of it yet. Maybe these new people would. So they’d gone to meet them and now Zachary was headed home while his mother stayed a bit.
It was like a miracle, he decided, and wished he could tell his dad who was salmon fishing in Alaska. It would be awhile before Zachary could share much of anything with him, but there was his mother and Simon, really his second dad as Simon was his real dad’s best friend. He was made his way to the Foglifter Coffee Bar. When he pushed open the red door, he came up against lots of legs, hands and elbows.
“There he is– Zach, this way!”
Simon came around the end of the counter, then they entered Simon’s office where the crowd’s murmuring quieted. The barista sat with hands on thighs and his bald head tilted. The boy was gaining an inch here and there, he looked heartier this year.
“Well? What did you think?”
“Did you know the Darltons have been to other countries to paint? And they have a few things in museums? Mr. Darlton makes things out of stained glass, he has a work place downtown with Mrs. Darlton and she has a small studio in their third bedroom, the light is good there, she says. For designing stuff and making small drawings. For imagining ideas, I guess.”
Zach paused for a breath as Simon tapped a finger on his lips.
“I did know some of it but not about a third bedroom being a studio. That’s cool. Did you talk shop with them? Did they ask to see your art?”
Zach frowned. “How can I talk shop when I don’t have one? But they did ask to see my stuff or draw with them sometime. So I’ll show it to them.” He looked around the room excitedly then settled on Simon’s forehead, where his glasses were. “They’re awesome, Simon. They know everything, for sure. Real artists just a block away from me!”
Simon ruffled the boy’s straggly hair . An employee stuck his frantic face inside the office.
“Gotta go, Zach. I can’t wait to see what you’re going to show them. Later, now.”
Zach wanted to tell Simon what was in his satchel but he left the coffee shop and ran home. Hi mother was just ahead so he caught her hand.
“Really nice people,” she said. “We’re going to be friends, I think, you and me and the Darltons.”
She laughed. “Well, maybe if Tony Darlton likes to fish! No, you’re right, Dad likes some art, too. I know he’ll be interested in the stained glass studio.”
“Me, too. I’ve got to see that.”
“What do you have in your satchel?”
“Just some junk Mrs. Darlton said I could have, you know, pencils and erasers and stuff.”
His mother squeezed his hand three times, the I love you code.
But what he had in his bag was better than just those things. He had admired a big sketch the new neighbor had made but tossed aside unhappily. Zach got the courage to ask if he could have it after he studied it closely. She said why not and he’d folded it up, put it in his bag: a picture of the street with all their buildings shadowed except for their townhouse which was left white, blank. All the neighbors were inside, he figured, asleep, just like he would be in a few hours. Dreaming of all the wonderful art that was being made in the world. Of what he wanted to make next. He jumped up and down then sprinted to his house, his mother running after him.
The light filtered through her pink and green floral curtains but Winnie couldn’t bear it. Instead, she saw refractions of an internal light, sharp zigzags of it radiating about a tunnel of black. Migraine. She covered her head with her bedspread, then reached out for her phone to call in sick. Wait, it was Saturday, a small blessing amid a descent into agony. She succumbed to a swirl of dizziness and pain that encroached upon her being, floating in a dystopia of nervous system rebellion.
When the doorbell rang, she had been lying between sleep and the netherworld a long time. The visual symptoms has passed quickly but the headache, a jack hammer in her brain, had taken charge. She pressed hands to ears and turned to the corner, tried to rest more. Hours passed as she drifted, her mind filled with unsightly patterns and movement. She blamed the color yellow across the street, having stared at it too long in the intense sunlight. She blamed the Darltons for painting it such a lurid color in the first place. Winnie blamed the boy for liking only art and acting bored in her class and her cousin for being broke and needy and her having to look after the neighborhood because nobody else bothered to keep track. Last summer she had called in a thief before he managed to steal a bike. The police had taken her information and thanked her. Simon heard about it and asked her if she had thought of being their full-time security detail. It had taken her a minute to realize he was poking fun at her. That had hurt her feelings but she had laughed along with him. He was, after all, a man she could admire.
She thought of the boy, Zachary. His astonishing talent. Because she knew that was what he had, an abundance of it. She never liked art or had any feel for it, herself. Her mother with her waist-length black braid and caftans that identified her everywhere had been a big project person. She let it take up the dining room table and garage, take up her time and their meager extra money. She had wanted to be famous for her tiny birds painted on teacups, her useless hand-woven baskets, the ugly hand knitted sweaters she insisted they wear to school, the dresses that Winnie had to wear and then stuck out among the other girls. So she went to college out-of-state and never moved back. She could finally be who she was meant to be, a teacher. An ordinary, suitable, dependable person who helped mold children with simple but mighty rules of learning and living. It worked most of the time, this cohesive identity, and she rarely thought of her childhood days.
But then the Darltons came, likely dragging in unruly intensity as a penchant for vivid yellow indicated. And Zach’s education of all good things would be interfered with somehow, she knew it.
Winnie moaned and clutched her forehead. Curled up into a clump of misery and let darkness fall about her like a cool embrace.
“I brought them,” he said to the Darltons. “My drawings.”
He opened his satchel and held them out as his mother took a seat at the circular wrought iron table. They were all out front on Sunday morning. Winnie could just make them out through her curtains and open window, hear a few words. There were now white lights strung around the door and the windows, their idea of holiday joy. Winnie didn’t usually put lights up, too much bother for a short event. Further additions of a purple painted wrought iron table and chairs were set close to the townhouse, leaving barely enough room for walkers and bikes to pass by, how foolish. Cars would eventually crash into their decor, she was sure.
Purple and yellow! She squeezed her eyes shut. The pain had left a ghost of irritation but she was better, well enough to keep an eye on things a bit. Zach looked her way as she opened the window sashhigher. He waved first and she waved back, then drew away.
In another few minutes, her doorbell rang twice, then again. She got up just to avoid having to hear it again. She needed to disable it and put a knocker on the door. When she opened it, she pulled her robe close and squinted up at the man who blocked out the light.
“Oh, Simon… what on earth are you doing here? I just got over a migraine last night.”
He held a to-go paper cup of coffee in his hand and offered it to her. She took it eagerly; it might help diminish the migraine residue as it sometimes did.
“I’m sorry to hear it. But coffee will perk you up. I thought you should come meet the new folks. The Darltons. Just for a minute. Why don’t you see if you can find the strength to chat with us? If not, I’ll explain you aren’t well.”
“No!” Her voice surprised her. “I mean, no, don’t tell them that. I’ll clean up and put on sunglasses so I can at least say my hello.”
“Nice, I thought you would,” he said, grinning down at her in that teasing way of his.
When she got there with stomach clenched they had moved inside. She felt she might be better off going home and sipping coffee there but Simon answered and led her into a warm brick-hued foyer, fancy tiles on the floor. Then a turn and into a rich blue open kitchen and dining area. There was a garden outside a wall door that had been opened and a butterfly looped about, then out where Mrs. Tomason was admiring flowers.
“Hello there, I’m Rima and this is Ivan.”
The woman’s hair was sleeked back into a ponytail and she wore black pants and a white shirt. She offered her hand like a beautiful pale flower. Several rings sparked and glowed in the sunshine that poured through the windows and open doors. Winnie was glad she had her sunglasses on.
A medium-built man rose to his feet and nodded at her, indicating a chair. His black and white plaid shirt was open with a black Tshirt underneath. He wore jeans and finely made burgundy-hued loafers without socks. Winnie tried to not grimace. This would be a short visit, she thought, but responded with her greeting.
“Hello, I’m glad to meet you at last.”
“I think we missed each other on moving day, and it was painted right away. What do you think?”
That Rima was a chatty gal, she got right to the point. Winnie was caught off guard and coughed due to her unease.
“She doesn’t like it,” Zach said. “She likes things quiet you know, browns and beiges and grays not primary colors.”
“Well, that’s not entirely true, Zachary! I have a blue car. I like to wear pink and pale green.”
Mrs. Tomason joined them. “That’s true, you like blue and also dark green, I’ve noticed.”
Zach looked up at the ceiling where there was a new pattern of vines snaking through geometric shapes. She followed his gaze and felt the echo of the migraine in her brain. She thought how her mother would love this place, then though why was she thinking of her again, that was another time, another life.
The Darltons and Simon were waiting for her answer.
“I admit I did find it a shock. I guess I’m used to what has always been. I’ve lived here sixteen years now, the longest anywhere in one place.”
“That is something,” Rima agreed. “We tend to move every four years or less. To find new inspiration, I suppose, and to work on commissions. It gets easier to adapt when you find yourself in situations so unfamiliar. But we’re here to stay awhile now. I have a job at the university and Ivan found a great studio.”
“Ah,” Winnie said and gulped her cooling coffee.
“And you? You aren’t’ in the arts, are you?” Ivan asked.
“No, she’s a respected teacher, remember? A good one,” Mrs. Tomason, said.
“I’m Zach’s teacher, second grade. Twenty years now I’ve been doing this. It’s worked out well.”
Ivan nodded, his expression indicative of surprise that someone would love teaching children so long but he was glad for her.
“She’s a cornerstone of our community,” Simon added. “A people person, someone you can count on to have a good ideas. And an ace teacher.”
Winnie didn’t dare look at him in case he was mocking her. but then he came over and put his firm hand on her back and gave it a little pat. She felt the warmth of it and she suddenly found the room airy and inviting. Not chi-chi enchanting, thank goodness, but lovely in a gentle way. Simon removed his hand but she could still feel it there.
“You know, my mother liked to make things,” she found herself saying. “The house was always a mess of her projects, it aggravated me. But she was happiest then, I guess, making her arts and crafts. I just never got into it.”
“Well, maybe one day you’ll give it a try. Art is a sure bet for entertainment, if nothing else, don’t you think? We’ll have open houses, you can all come see what we’re up to, Maybe we’ll offer a workshop now and then at the community hall.” Rima’s smile softened her angular features. “You must know about Zach’s artistic abilities. He has a real gift, you know.”
“Ah, yes, his drawings and so on. He’s a very good student–or he tries to be when not daydreaming. I don’t know as much about his art as some.”
“Well, I just made something for you,” Zach said. “We did some painting yesterday. Acrylic?” He checked with Ivan who nodded. “I thought you’d get more used to bright yellow if you put it in your house and looked at it every day.”
He went to a broad table by the garden doorway and came back with a large piece of canvas board. He held it up in front of her to view.
Winnie’s right hand went to her chest and he left went to her mouth.
It was a painting of a tall, thickly outlined sunflowers, their perky faces turned to a bright sky, and sitting in the middle of that field was Winnie in her navy blue dress, the one she wore on Mondays. Her legs were crossed and she sat with hands in lap. A straw a straw hat covered her grey curls. Her round blue eyes were bright blue and gently smiling, a sort of bittersweet look as she gazed at the painter or observer. The world. This is what Zach thought, this is how he imagined her.
“What do you think?” Simon asked.
“We helped him out with pointers but it was his idea and his work,” Tony said.
“It’s his interpretation of you,” Mrs. Tomason admitted. “He’s fond of you, Winnie And he even signed it, see?”
Zachary placed the painting in her hands. “You like it okay?”
“I have never been given anything more beautiful, Zachary…thank you, dear.”
“Good, you can keep that one!” And he sat down in front of a plate of cookies and ate one.
Simon sat down beside Winnie. “I’m taking stained glass workshop after Christmas from Ivan. Why don’t you come along, try it, too?”
“I–I couldn’t, I’m all thumbs, I don’t have any talent at all! My mother despaired over me.”
Simon looked at her a long moment and knew she was wrong. She had lots of talents she didn’t even know were impatiently waiting to be excavated from beneath all that order, the monotonous sameness of her life. The mix of human fears.
“We’ll see,” he said. “There’s time to talk about it, get more information.”
Winnie sighed from her toes up. The migraine was behind her but she felt there might be more challenges coming her way. Not entirely unwanted ones. “Well, I do know I could use help framing and hanging this in my entryway.”
Simon, Zach and the Darltons gave a little cheer and said they’d help her soon. They brought out more cookies and a plate of scones and coffee for an impromptu first party, then opened the front and garden doors wide.