Jack had memorized not only his walk home from school, but who he would see: Mario as he kneaded his freshly made dough and covered it in sauce and cheese, or Sonny on his daily library, coffee and donut run, or Martha who always seemed to be ready to offer him a small piece of chocolate which he would either take or politely refuse. Today he only saw Mario who was sliding a pie into his brick oven, and Martha who offered him a piece of her newest creation, chili chocolate her ‘spicy sweetness’ which he took and, to his surprise, liked.
Jack’s bag falls against the eggshell white wall as he opens the door to his house and makes a beeline for the kitchen pantry. The A/C is blasting inside Jack’s house, managing to cool the first floor. The sun, still high in the sky, finds its way into the kitchen making an unusual pattern of shade on the table. He pulls down the shade knowing his mom didn’t want too much sun on the azaleas she had picked from her garden and arranged on the table only a few days ago.
He grabs his bag and runs up the stairs to his room. His bed isn’t made and his clothes are strewn about in piles of never worn, worn, and really worn. Only a small square of his desk is visible, while the rest is hidden below stacks of drawing paper and pieces of post-its with small doodles. His desk chair is sitting at the perfect height for Jack’s average size. He leans back in the faux leather chair and opens his books. His work is monotonous yet he’s able to finish it quickly and relax until his parents come home. He looks at the clock, which tells him he’s been home for a few hours and he knows his mom will be in the kitchen starting dinner in a half hour. His dad will walk in just as the meal is complete, if no extra work holds him up at the university. Just as he predicted his mom gets home and is immediately chopping vegetables and boiling the pasta. His dad is early tonight though. When he walks through the door, his wife is still waiting for their dinner to finish cooking. Jack is called down to a delicious dinner. His day at school is heard about. Problems at his father’s job and office stories from his mom. The usual. They finish clearing the table as his dad takes out his glasses.
Jack takes this as a signal that he can retreat to his room.
The chandelier hangs at a perfect height above the kitchen table. The dishwasher hums cleaning off the lasagna they didn’t finish from the handmade ceramic plates they bought years ago on one of their first trips to the cape. Jack’s parents sit at the wooden table, this month’s bills spread out in front of them, calculators and pens in hand. From his room at the top of the stairs he can hear the scratching of the worn out pens as his parents sign checks for his sister’s tuition, the local university and all the other organizations they give too. The manual clock that sits on the wall slowly ticks away the time. His mom looks up, an important chore is remembered.
“Don’t forget to sign Jack up for that class. You know the one over at the art studio.”
“I will. The next time I pass by,” His dad’s eyes don’t stray from the cable bill he’s looking over, signs a check for and places on the ‘finished’ pile.
“Remember last time. He missed the class sign ups altogether. Make it a priority.” she leans in and places her hand, softly on her husbands. “Please.”
He stares out in the direction of the bills, and pushes the pile he was supposed to work on towards his wife. He gets up and takes his briefcase and signature red pen into the living room.
“I know what my son’s priorities are.”
The silence again covers the house until Jack’s door opens and closes. A size eleven foot delicately places itself on each stair, then along the carpet until they reach the doorway of the living room.
Jack’s voice hasn’t yet changed into the booming professor’s voice his father promises he’ll have, his is still soft and high.
“I need you to sign my project grade”
“Uh-huh” his eyes don’t stray from the test he’s marking with red pen. “Which project?”
“Just something for art class.” The apprehensiveness is apparent in Jack’s voice. When his father doesn’t look up from his work, Jack holds the paper as close to his father’s right hand as he can without it getting in the way, and rustles it a bit to get his attention. His father’s hand pauses in the middle of crossing out an answer and shifts over slightly to place a scribble on the corner of Jack’s paper. Jack looks at the paper. Then at his dad.
He moves silently out of the room.
“Oh Jack” he turns slightly in his chair to see his son “did you get that math test back yet?”
“No” Jack’s dad turns around fully.
“Please ask your teacher”
“Yeah. ‘Night dad”
His father’s head is already facing his papers yet again, but his pen isn’t moving.
“Night Jack” he clears the calculator as his pen starts to move again.
Jack brings himself to the kitchen to see his mom now working on the last few bills.
“Night ma,” he answered.
She looks up from her bills, glasses perched on the bridge of her nose and smiles.
“Night sweetie. Is that your art grade?” her eyes staring at the paper in his hand. He nods. “D’you need a parent signature?”
He shakes his head and shows her his dad’s signature. She breathes in deeply and gets up to give her son a small kiss on the cheek. He goes up to his room and lies awake, orange light flowing in from the streetlamp below his window. Colors flashed through his mind. Paints on canvases appeared. For some reason he couldn’t stop thinking of a certain memory from his favorite place.
His grandfather had taken him and his sister to the beach while his parents relaxed with his aunts and uncles. The grandfather had chosen a spot between the twelve year old granddaughter trying to get some color before school the next week, and the small eight year old, who was sitting in the sand building a castle without the help of all the toys they brought. The picnic the kids packed is sitting, half eaten, on a brightly colored towel in the shade of the umbrella. The grandfather watches the eight year old with admiration. The eight year old has already built up an impressive castle, but decided it’s not nearly done. He takes some sand in his small hands and plays with it, softening it, before placing it on the structure and molding it just right. His grandfather too picks up some sand and plays with it, moving it from hand to hand, squishing it, and letting it fall through his fingers.
“Hows school Jackie boy?” His grandfather turns to look at the small boy.
“Grandpa I’m not a baby.” His voice is high and whiny but he the grandfather knows he likes the nickname.
“Course not. Course not. You’re right.” he shakes his head reprimanding himself which makes the eight year old laugh out loud. “How’s your art coming?”
This time the boy looks up and sits straighter. His smile is missing a few teeth but it’s bright and broad.
“Really good. My teacher says im getting much better”
“That’s great Jackie. Have you thought about those other programs at your school? I know your sister loved the math one she did.”
The eight year old head turns, not to his sand creation but the never ending water rising up and foaming at the top.
“Yeah. I’ll probably do it next year” he rubs his eyes with the back of his hand.
The grandfather nods, knowing he’ll get nothing more out of his grandson.
“You know Jack, I’d love to see your some more sketches.”
“Yeah?” the grandfather nods “I guess that’d be ok.”
“Ok. You know I’ve heard you’re a terrific artist. I’m glad you’ve found something that makes you this happy.”
Jack squints as he looks the old man sitting in front of him, the sun shining brightly from behind the old man’s head, his white hair thin from years of running his hands through it while trying to explain concepts to second year college students. His eyes still had that glimmer of knowledge Jack only associated with his grandfather. They way he looked at Jack made him feel that his grandfather truly understood.
Thinking of the ocean thrashing back and forth and the sun falling far below the horizon, His eyelids grew heavier as he fell into sleep.
The ride back from the airport was usual of Jack’s family, a happy reunion, though the need to go to the airport in the first place was too sad to think about. His dad and sister had taken time to shove all of her suitcases into the trunk, though she’d be home less than a week. Periodically Jack’s mom would turn around and just look at her kids. She would turn in her seat so she was facing them and just stare.
“How was flight hun?”
“Good mom” she put her ear buds in and shuffled her music.
“Did you hand that lit paper?”
She pulled her earbuds out, “yeah mom,” and put them back in.
“How was your math test?”
Her earbuds stayed in, “good.”
This seems to be the only time Jack’s father had listened intently to the conversation. He looked at his daughter through the rearview mirror at the front of the car and smiled proudly.
“That’s my girl”
She smiles quickly and turns her attention to her iPod then to the familiar scenery rushing by her window.
Jack’s family always sat in the same spots in the car. His dad in the driver’s seat, his mom next to him, his sister behind his mom and Jack got the seat behind the driver. Stuff that couldn’t fit into the trunk was wedged between Jack and his sister. Currently this space is filled with extra clothes his sister brought to store at home and a present for her best friend who happened to also be back home this week. She had packed mainly for her visit home. Jack leans back in his seat resting his head on his window. He is able to picture the white hospital room perfectly, the ugly orange visitor chairs in the corner, the constant beeping noise coming from the heart monitor and the dripping from the IV. Yet he can’t see the man in the bed. He can’t picture the pale weak man lost among the bleached sheets. He can’t think of his grandfather.
His sister keeps moving, trying to find a comfortable position in her chair, to get some sleep as her grandfather is in the bed they surround. His mom is reading her book, yet she keeps having to flip back and reread the same sections. His father is sitting up close, by the side of his grandfathers’ hospital bed. His eyes focused on his father, watching him breath, jumping when he snores lightly. As soon as they arrived, Jack situated himself in the chair by the door far away from his grandfather, but at the right angle to be the first one his grandfather would see if his eyes were to flutter open.
Jack couldn’t sleep, he finished his book a while ago and he couldn’t bring himself to look directly at his grandfather, so helpless in bed. He reached into his bag and pulled out his sketchbook and grabbed a pen from the depths of his bag. The sketchbook has markings on the front from when he taps the cover waiting for inspiration. The sides of the pages are curled in and ripped from always being shoved into a bag or being played with, as he fixed and re-fixed his shadowing. Uncapping the pen a picture swam into his head from memory. The five of them sitting on the couch, on one of the many nights his grandfather up and decided to pay them a visit. Jack remembered seeing his family’s reflection in the mirror to the side of the TV. All their faces captivated by the screen. His hand started to move as if it had a mind of its own. Jack found himself seeing that moment perfectly, the faces of each person were so clear in his mind. The pen’s markings begin to take shape on the paper. The arm of the couch holding up his father’s hand, his sister’s legs crossed on the carpet in front of his mom. His head lying perfectly in the crease of his grandfather’s lap.
His father’s eyes flew from his own father, to his son drawing in the corner of the dark room. He found himself wondering what his son was drawing. He noticed his son’s hand traveling gracefully across the cream paper, wondering where he learned to create like that. Hadn’t he raised his son with the idea that in most ways of life, like his, there were only answers? There was a yes and a no. Where did his son experience this idea of creation and interpreting other people’s creations? Was there something wrong with the ideas he had taught him? He couldn’t understand why Jack was more interested something that was so open ended, where would that logic get him?
From where he was sitting he could make out most of his son’s picture. He was drawing the five of them. It took him awhile to place the memory but it soon came to him. He thought of that night as he watched his father’s breathing get slower and slower.
The funeral was the next week. It was a short service. Not many came, just the way he would have wanted it. The black darkens the inside of the church Jack was lost in his own world, not wanting to believe where he was. It was followed by a trip to the cemetery. The pastor spoke shortly and people started to leave. It came down to Jack and his family. His sister walked towards the coffin laying a rose inside, one tear rolls down her face, followed by another, then another. His dad stood back taking it all in. He was remembering that one time with his father.
His son walked towards the coffin but he didn’t grab a flower. He fingered something in his pocket before pulling out that familiar piece of cream paper. He placed it gently into the coffin before wiping his eyes. He walked away into his sister’s arms. Jack’s dad couldn’t move. He remembered seeing Jack’s picture. He remembered the night too. His father always asked if he was interrupting, and even if he was Jack’s father would invite him in. That night was no different. He remembered looking at his family. He thought of Jack placing his drawing into his father’s coffin. He couldn’t make sense of what it all meant.
They drove home in an uncomfortable silence. Jack’s father who always had a thought in his head looked out at the gray road ahead. What was there to say? The door opened as it always did and let them all in at once. Jack fell down onto the couch. His sister wanders up to her room, probably to call her friend to talk. His mom checks the messages on the home phone, everyone calling to offer their shoulder and share their pain.
Jack walked the same way home everyday. Today he walks home with a piece of extra dark chocolate in his hand courtesy of Martha. He counts the steps leading up to his front door, five. He walks inside the A/C greeting him like it does every day during the warmer months. His sister is sitting on the couch, in her usual spot drinking ice tea. She hands him an envelope.
“Dad told me to give this to you.”
He takes the envelope from his sister, who returns to her tea and magazine.
“D’you know what it is?”
She shrugs and circles something in the magazine.
His finger stops in the middle of slicing open the glued seam.
Rose Cytryn, Age 14, Grade 9, NYC Lab High School for Collaborative Studies, Silver Key