When reading aloud in history class, each student was required to continue until they had encountered four new facts, which meant that the raptly attentive Arnold and Andrew would read almost a page apiece before stopping for the next student to pick it up, and conversely Judy from New York usually wouldn’t have to finish a sentence before Dennis, who sat behind her, resumed. The students were arranged in four columns of seven, and after completing a chapter each column would move into a circle and decide which of their aggregate facts were the five most significant. Mary, who was from Texas, was the lone-star voice of southern pride, and during the chapters on the civil war she spoke over her column’s scribe, Matthew, who was so bewildered by her outburst that the only thing he could think to do was continue to meekly read aloud from Column Three’s Five Most Important Facts.
“Fact number three-“ Matthew began.
“Southern industry drove the nation’s economy!” yelled Mary, standing at the back of column three.
“Mary – sit down, please – we must remember that slave-“
In the confusion, Matthew continued. “Gin dramatically improved the efficiency of cotton picking. Fact number four-“
“Fact number four! The founders had considered slavery a necessary evil!”
It was after this scene – for History class was the designated venue for such deliberations – that, in a unanimous decision, after giving her the usual buffer zone of two weeks since she had moved into town, the class officially found Mary weird. After all, she knew things about horses. Earlier that day during recess, Cecil approached her and Dennis playing.
“Horses are really pretty,” Dennis pondered, looking at a poster on the wall.
“Gross up close. They poop in the shower,” Mary dismissed.
“Well of course – it’s their raison d’etre!” Cecil had overheard them.
Mary and Dennis glanced at the whiteboard then looked back at Cecil.
“It’s French, it means raisin de-eater.”
“Dad gummit, horses don’t eat raisins!”
“Of course not, they de-eat them.”
“It’s a metaphor.”
Mary’s hand groped for the fire truck.
* * * * *
Dennis thought that he had had a wonderfully humorous school day, and on his walk home, during which he enjoyed avoiding the irregular cracks between sidewalk tiles and feeling the warm sunshine on his bare, inclined neck, he replayed the day’s scenes, adding in his own details, like Matthew’s voice frequently cracking during History, and a breeze blowing the teacher’s scarf over her paper again and again while she attempted to write her notes, but in vain. Home was five miles from school, and Dennis would rather walk than take the bus with Cecil, so he gave his mother the impression that he was enrolled an after school program, the Checkers Club. As he just emerged from school property onto Route Twenty-Seven, a van passed by with a banner that read: “Art Mechanic.”
This van was headed right towards Dennis’s home, where his mother, Leenie, sat nervously tapping her slender fingers on the kitchen counter, and jumped up to greet the Art Mechanic when he knocked a short rhythm on the door. Fixing her hair in the mirror, Leenie studied her deep-set eyes, and wiped a piece of oatmeal from her neck, and gave her large, right-slanting nose a reproachful look. She opened the door for the man and backed behind it to let him in. He was a tall, thin, gray figure representing a ghost in all respects except that instead of hovering, his feet seemed magnetically pulled towards the floor and as a result dragged so forcefully on the carpet that Leenie was afraid of a static shock when she shook his hand, which was abnormally small and surrounded at the fingers by minute, raisin-like warts, and made her own hand smell like the back-lot of a bread factory.
“It’s this one,” Leenie brought him to the five-by-three portrait of Tommy DeVito on the stairs landing.
“And you said you can’t quite put your finger on the problem?”
He approached the painting carefully, slowly putting his toolbox down without removing his intent gaze from the rock star’s tie. Leenie held her breath, which tasted like brown sugar and oatmeal from breakfast.
“The trick with this sort of thing is to examine the texture of the piece in question. Everyone talks about framing, or there might be an indistinguishable stain somewhere, or maybe the material’s dulled, but the trick –“ he paused to kneel at the right corner where Tommy’s shoulder ended – “the trick is in the texture. Texture is the trick.”
And softly, he ran his spotted thumb down the edge of the paint. He sighed, and raising his face to look up at her, he blinked three times, sighed again, and closed his toolbox, still fixing his eyes on hers, which were by this time bubbling forth from their caves in breathless agony. “It’s flat.”
“What?” Leenie gasped, and, running to the portrait herself, she pressed her open palm to Tommy’s hair, recoiling from the unexpected smoothness. The entire portrait, originally in oil, now shone with an eggshell flatness that seemed to refuse any friction imparted by an intent viewer.
“I’ve seen it before. Paintings just get flat. The tech you’d need to fix this kind of thing isn’t really available. For all intents and purposes, though, there’s nothing to worry about. It doesn’t get much worse from here.”
* * * * *
The door opened and shut – Charlie was home from work, finally. Charlie’s alarm is set to go off at five in the morning and again at five thirty, so that he can make an early train into the city for his job at GlobalTelos, whose logo is a red arrow circumnavigating a simplified globe. This logo is in the background of his ID card, which reads: SENIOR ANALYST. Leenie wanted to discuss the problems with the Tommy DeVito piece.
“He says it’s flat and it’s going to stay that way.”
“Well I think we all feel some attachment to the thing. It’s been here since Dennis was born, and we all know how you love Tommy-“
“It shines, like a poster. Not a painting, a poster.”
“And you’re sure it wasn’t flat when we got the thing? It seems odd for this to happen all of a sudden.” And what is it about Tommy DeVito that’s not allowed to be flat? Charlie wondered.
“Look, Chaz,” Charlie’s eyes narrowed, and he rested his head against his hand, supporting himself on the red-and-white-checkered kitchen table by his elbow. “You’re not a mechanic, alright? He says it can’t be fixed. I’m getting rid of it.”
“Just– look, let’s just ask Dennis first.”
“I think Tommy’s kind of outdated.”
So Dennis was sent to his room and the Tommy DeVito portrait was thrown into the garbage. After everyone went to bed, Leenie crept out in her pajamas and tore the canvas from the frame, rolled it up like a poster and hid it between the heater and the wall in the basement.
To be continued