(Note – This is a more finished version of two stories that I posted here several years ago. It is in my book of short stories Seasons of Imagination.)
The bustle and buzz emanating from the hall announced the arrival of the kids long before they’d actually entered the classroom. They usually drove together from the high school, arriving en masse, a little gaggle on their own. The energy level of the room rose even though the small tribe was still in the hall.
Paul glanced over at the other students. He wasn’t sure if it was the early time of day or just the nature of the class, but all of the others were retirees. The five of them, Margret, George, Shelley, Ellen and Marilyn, though friendly enough, seemed to keep to themselves, their easels huddled to one side of the room as if afraid the high school kids had some type of contagious disease.
Paul, a young computer programmer and so a member of neither group, set up in the middle of the room, a firewall between the volatile youth and the more sedate retirees. Sarah Graudot, the drawing instructor, was Paul’s contemporary, give or take a few years, but was different. She had the ability to treat all equally and the instinct to understand who needed her help.
“Hey Mrs. G, guess what?” Paul turned to the door to see Shawna entering followed by her groupies. “The academy accepted me! I’ll be going to New York next year.”
“Congratulations, Shawna. I know you’ve worked hard for this,” Sarah said. Although he wasn’t sure, Paul thought Sarah knew Shawna’s family and acted as a mentor for her and her sister, Ruthie. Sarah never let this relationship distract her from her duties as an instructor to the whole class, but there was a hint in her voice as she talked to the two girls that the relationship was deeper.
Shawna nodded as she started to unpack her equipment. She pushed a strand of ironed straight, jet black hair from her face revealing the small, angular glasses.
At first glance Shawna seemed to be the essential nerd, but this went to such an extreme that it became edgy. Her whole style shouted out in muted tones that she was newer than tomorrow. The trend setters would discover her fashion next week, but by then she would be beyond it and exploring something different.
And yet, for all of her edgy-middle-of-next-week look, Paul thought she would fit in perfectly with a group of Beatniks from the late fifties or early sixties.
Shawna’s four groupies set up around her. They all tried to copy her style but it came out looking forced on these kids while for Shawna it seemed to come naturally.
Paul took it back. He had included Jason in the group while this young man stood out in his own way. Unlike Shawna, he hadn’t won any awards and didn’t have quite the recognition for his abilities, yet his talent was obvious. He was also the only one of the kids that took an active interest in the adults’ drawings. The retirees would chat with him but felt a little uncomfortable when he studied their work. Understanding this discomfort he usually spent most of his walking around time watching Paul.
At first Paul felt a little paranoid, but soon discovered that Jason had a very good eye. In just a few words he could convey exactly what Paul was after and give pointers on how to better achieve this aim. Paul could tell that Jason really enjoyed watching other people’s work take shape in front of his eyes and guessed he’d end up as an art instructor some day.
“Oh, hi Ruthie,” Sarah said. “Come on in, there’s a place to set up right here between Jason and Paul.”
Paul turned to see the girl with a deer-in-the-headlights expression standing in the doorway. She mumbled apologetically about the ladies’ room as she put her stuff down on the table behind the easel next to Paul.
Paul said, “Hi.” She returned his, “Hi,” but didn’t look at him.
Ruthie was a high school sophomore, two years younger than the other kids, and while her sister, Shawna, appeared to be 25 instead of 18, Ruthie looked closer to 12 than her real age of 16.
Pencils and drawing pads laid out on the table, Ruthie scooted the easel back, setting it up almost directly behind Paul. She always kept to herself and didn’t like other people to see her work.
Unable to help himself, Paul glance over his shoulder to steal another look as the young girl set up.
Ruthie was a contradiction of sharp features with a fuzzy appearance. The unruly mass of shockingly dark hair was pulled from her porcelain face with a single tie in the back, the thick kinky strands cascading to her beltline. She was beautiful in an old fashioned sense and seemed to have stepped out of a 19th century painting. The word “Romantic” passed through Paul’s mind.
“OK class, let’s get going,” Sarah said. “I want you to do a few quick sketches of this arrangement before making a nice finished drawing. Please include everything you can see. I want you to think about the composition, the interrelationship between all of the objects, no matter how far apart they are. The finished drawing needs to show the unified whole of the composition.”
Looking at the seemingly random arrangement of flowers, fruit, vegetables and household objects on the table, Paul began to block out a sketch on his pad of newsprint. The world soon collapsed down to his paper, pencils and the still life. The Zen state he entered while he worked was almost as much of the reason Paul took the classes as his love of art and his desire to get better. Although he occasionally entered such a state programming, in his professional life there was always a background tension while the Zen state of drawing released the stress of the day.
“Hey Mrs. G, you should see what Shawna’s doing.” It was one of the groupies; the girl. Paul never could remember any of their names and so just thought of them as “the girl”, “the big guy” and “the kid”.
Looking out from behind Marilyn’s easel Sarah said, “Show me.”
Shawna turned the easel giving the whole class a view.
Everything was drawn in exacting detail with crisp, clear lines and yet none of the objects seemed to exist as “things”, instead appearing as abstract parts of a larger pattern. The effect was fascinating, though sterile.
“Great start. I’ll be around in a bit to take a closer look,” Sarah said before returning to Marilyn’s drawing.
Paul looked at his own work. The page was full of construction lines. All of the edges were drawn in with multiple strokes giving the whole thing a rough appearance. He frowned. The composition was just a jumble, not integrated. He took out his eraser and started to make some changes.
“Anything else?” Sarah asked.
“I’m all set,” Paul answered. “Thanks for the help.”
Sarah smiled and turned her attention to the next easel. “Looking great, Ruthie,” she said.
Paul put his attention back to his own drawing pad. Sarah had given him several suggestions that he’d see if he could incorporate into his work. His mind began to focus, the rest of the room faded. Soon it was just him alone with the drawing.
“Don’t worry, things will change soon enough,” Sarah said.
Paul was snapped back to the present. Although he had missed the art lesson part of the conversation as soon as they started whispering he couldn’t help but listen in. He didn’t want to, yet somehow his attention was lost even more than if they had been shouting.
Ruthie said something unintelligible. She was almost directly behind him, no more than three feet away, yet spoke too softly for Paul to hear.
“I know,” Sarah answered, “it can seem unfair at times. She works hard and you can’t deny her credit. Perhaps it was always her destiny and you just helped to push her into it.”
His own work completely forgotten Paul strained. “But she took the only thing that was really mine,” he thought he heard Ruthie say.
“No, no my child,” Sarah answered at the threshold of hearing, “she didn’t take it away. You still have it. Perhaps she’s currently getting the attention, but she didn’t take your ability. Don’t worry; you won’t always be compared to her. Call me tomorrow evening. We’ll talk.”
Sarah then continued in her normal speaking tone, “OK, give it a try. I think it’s coming along great. Any other questions?”
With the whispering now over, Paul brought his attention back to his work and noticed a glaring hole in his composition. He took out a 6H pencil and started to block it out, the classroom fading into oblivion once again.
Toward the end of the session, Paul left the class to use the men’s room. On his return he stopped behind Ruthie, amazed at her picture.
Like her sister, Ruthie had drawn all of the objects in precise, sharp detail. Unlike her sister, the objects seemed to exist on their own, each with its own life, and yet the composition gelled with every object caught in the same web contributing to the whole.
It wasn’t just that the objects had their own lives, they also told their own story. The little scream of delight as the wife received those flowers was shown as plainly as the petals. The caress of the farmer as he picked the peach and the soul the potter spun into the vase were visible.
“You put so much love into your drawing, into each detail,” Paul said before he realized he was speaking.
Ruthie, just noticing the man behind her, turned red and quickly closed her drawing pad. She paused, regained her composure, and then started to methodically put her pencils and other supplies away.
Paul went to his station and started to clean up. He was a little embarrassed both for his comment and for the effect it had on the young girl.
How he wished he could say something to her, anything. He wanted to hold her and reassure her. He wanted to let her know she had a classic beauty her sister would never match. But he knew it would be unwelcome. He was a strange old man. At what point would his reassurances be construed as an adult flirting with a child? Or worse.
The class gathered around Shawna’s abstract drawing with its cold, bold lines and exaggerated patterns. It was as distant from Ruthie’s romantic picture as possible yet held its own. Paul admitted that it was pretty cool.
Everyone was still admiring Shawna’s picture as Paul left.
When he first discovered the girls were sisters he assumed that either Ruthie wanted to tag along with her older sibling or their parents made her go. Piecing together the story from fragments of conversation he soon discovered the truth.
Shawna was a piano prodigy. Ruthie was expected to play, but could never catch up to her older sister. She hated living life in Shawna’s shadow so, trying to find something she could call her own, she discovered the visual arts. She found her home, her niche. People took notice. Jealous of the attention her shy little sister received, Shawna had to try. And it wasn’t just trying. No matter what Ruthie did, Shawna had to prove she could do it better.
As Paul got into his car he thought about Ruthie’s drawing, of the care and tenderness she showed each individual object. Would others see it or would they just yawn and say such romantic renditions had no place in the modern world? Was her drawing too sentimental for this jaded, Post 9-11 world? In her chest beat the heart of a true artist, yet he feared she would always be categorized as “merely” a decorative artist, not a serious or fine artist.
And no matter what Sarah said, Shawna’s shadow would always lie across everything she produced.
“Goodnight, Ruthie,” Paul said to himself as he started his car, “goodnight and good luck.”
“Are there any other questions?” Paul asked as he scanned the faces around the table. Seeing only smiles and head-shakes he said, “Great. I’ll get started on the program right away and will be in touch in a couple of days. I just have to say that I’m excited by this project and look forward to working with you.”
Dr. Fremont, the head environmentalist at GBEG, said, “The feeling’s mutual. We really like your work and think you’re a good match for our company. I’ll talk to you in a day or two.”
Paul felt great as he walked out of the room. He’d worked very hard for this contract. It was exactly what his little company needed. He had already started looking for another programmer in anticipation.
“Hey, Mr. Gibson,” a woman said as he headed for the exit.
Paul turned and saw a good looking woman in her mid to late twenties, Dr. Weinstein, the junior environmentalist at GBEG, approaching. Dr. Weinstein usually hid in the corner at their meetings and rarely spoke, so Paul was a little surprised she called out to him.
“It seems you don’t remember, but we know each other,” she said.
The woman brushed a shock of unruly, deep black hair from her porcelain face. With a start Paul recognized her.
“Ruthie?” he asked. Blushing, Dr. Weinstein nodded.
The woman across the table from Paul at the coffee bar had an old fashioned, romantic beauty, yet looked up to date in every way. Maybe she always had this modern side, but he could never look as closely at the 16 year old Ruthie he had known as now could with this high level young professional.
“I really expected you to be a starving artist living in some New York loft apartment,” he said.
Ruthie laughed. “You have the wrong Weinstein! My sister was always the artist.” She pronounced the word as “are-teest”. “I just use my art as a release from the real world, a hobby.”
“Truth be known,” Paul said, “I always thought you were a better artist than, what was her name? Shawna? I always liked your work better than hers.”
Ruthie blushed, but looked uncomfortable. Paul decided to not press it and changed the subject.
“I guess you must practice your environmental biology with real artistry,” he said. “It seems like an interesting field. How long have you had your doctorate?”
“About three years,” Ruthie answered. “I do love it. In some ways my parents were shocked to find a scientist in their family, but then my Uncle Arthur is a mathematician so they shouldn’t have been too surprised.
“It was a really tough program, but I’m glad I stuck with it. Working for GBEG has been great.”
“I guess you don’t have to worry about Shawna suddenly deciding to become an environmentalist.” Paul instantly regretted the comment. “I’m sorry,” he said. “How long have you been with GBEG? They seem like a great company.”
“I interned with them while I was going to school and had the best experience imaginable,” she said. “When I finished my grad school they gave me a permanent position. They’re great.
“And you, I guess I never realized you owned a software company.”
“Well,” Paul said, “back then I was working for someone else. It was a pretty good job and they allowed me to work very flexible hours. Did you ever wonder why a normal working guy was able to take a three o’clock art class?”
“To tell you the truth,” Ruthie said, “I never thought about it. For the most part I tried not to think about you at all. Excuse me for saying this, but I thought you were a little creepy. You’d sometimes look at me funny and I often felt you were listening to my conversations.”
Paul could feel himself turning red. He didn’t intentionally spy on the girl, but he did overhear some conversations that were definitely not meant for his ears.
“I knew you were just being nice but I was young,” she said. “I was living in my own little world back then and the big outer world scared me.
“Anyway, when did you go into business for yourself?”
“It’s been about five years, almost six,” Paul answered. “Two of us started it. Gerry dropped out after a year, but I now have a half a dozen people working for me. It’s been a great run. Unfortunately the business doesn’t leave me enough time to draw, let alone take classes.”
“That’s a shame,” Ruthie said. “I always liked your work, better than an of the other old-people’s art. Sorry, but that’s what we all called you guys. But, yeah, I liked your drawings and didn’t mind watching them as they grew. You need to find time to at least practice. I’d hate to see your talent go to waste.”
“Thanks.” Ruthie may have just been being polite, but the comment gave Paul a warm feeling from head to toe.
“I have to get back to work,” Ruthie said. “It was great running into you and catching up. I’ll see you soon.”
Paul was a little surprised that when he was shaking her hand Ruthie gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.
“Is Dr. Weinstein out today?” Paul asked. He was meeting with the full group for the first time since he started working on the program.
“No, we only needed her input during the preliminaries,” Dr. Fremont answered. “She’ll actually be away for a few weeks doing some field work.
“So, Mr. Gibson, let’s go back to my office and I’ll give you that material I mentioned earlier.”
Paul hadn’t realized how much he had been looking forward to seeing Ruthie again until he confronted his disappointment for missing her. –
Back in his office Paul decided to open the tube Dr. Fremont had given to him. From the size he thought it must be blueprints or a site plan. Part of the program was a database to store these types of diagrams and he assumed they gave him a hard copy sample.
A piece of high quality 24 x 36 drawing paper came out of the tube and unrolled on his desk. Paul involuntarily gasped. On the paper was a portrait. Not just any portrait, but a picture of Paul himself, drawn in loving detail by the 16 year old Ruthie. He was sure it was drawn during their class since it was signed and dated “RW – Spring 2003”.
After staring at the picture for several minutes he turned the page over. He had thought he’d seen an inscription on the back and wanted to check it out. Sure enough, there were two short paragraphs.
“This was drawn over many sessions from my favorite spot right behind you. Do you remember your remark about the love I put into my drawings? I hope you enjoy it!
“Seeing you the other day I have discovered schoolgirl crushes slowly fade away while sibling rivalries can grow into real sisterly love. Thank you for the reminder.
“My best – Ruthie Weinstein, 20 May 2014.”
Paul turned the paper back over, portrait side up. For a moment his heart ached for the vulnerable young girl that was and the beautiful lady she had become. He took out a sheet of printer paper and did a quick sketch of the young, Romantic Ruthie from memory.
After a moment his hand started moving with a life of its own, his mind funneled into the paper, the outside world forgotten as he entered the Zen state. He knew that when he returned home that evening he would dust off his art material and start drawing again.
He hoped he’d be able to thank Ruthie in person someday.
— — —
This story is in my book Seasons of Imagination. You can pick it up on Amazon. Here are a few links:
It is available on other Amazon sites too! You can ask me for the links or search your country’s amazon site.