The curtains hung like Spanish moss in the darkened room. They were transparent, the fabric irregular and patched, the holes casting a dappled pattern on the bedroom walls. Blurred shapes of light moved lethargically across the sparse bookshelf, the simple wooden cross, like puffs of cigarette smoke.
Moving slowly out from under the covers, the son gazed at this mottled glow, observed the sun as it seeped into the room as if through layered cobwebs. It was very quiet in the apartment, very still, but that was not uncommon for 3B. There were two that lived here, the son and the father, one becoming grey-haired, the other wrinkled and hairless.
Life here was sluggish but not leisurely. It was slow and rough, really, like a dried up sunflower sinking towards the parched ground by the weakness of its own stem, all the while turning away from the sun. Life here was lived in terms of Campbell’s tomato soup and cold coffee. Each day promised a slow walk around the block, perhaps a trip to the 24 Hour Corner Grocery, not much else. A brief hallway conversation with neighbors, the father talking, the son silent and distracted. A rest on a park bench amongst the ragged pigeons, who pecked and fluttered at the two pairs of scruffy shoes. Trips to the pharmacist to fill the endless torrent of prescriptions.
The son moved heavily across his bedroom and into the living room, trailing a blanket across the threshold. His movements were lumbering: heavy footsteps, arms that swung gracelessly from slouched shoulders, a furrowed brow framing a face that contorted and relaxed spontaneously. Scruffy facial hair denied whatever boyish qualities the man might have maintained in his underdevelopment. He wandered over to a potted geranium next to the couch, brushed the glossy leaves with unusual concentration. Picking up a jar half full of water, he watered the flowers, missing most of the time, sloshing the contents across the floor. The son trudged over to the window, where he surveyed the grey city landscape, the bleak concrete buildings smeared with graffiti, the progression of red-lighted cars one way and white-lighted ones the other way, the street’s consistent and reassuring flow.
In the son’s mind, the days took on inseparable colors. They helped him translate the chaotic abstraction he felt inside into succinct conversation. But he only talked with his father, and even that was limited. He never spoke to neighbors or even relatives. They didn’t understand the mumbles, the attempts. Moreover, they wouldn’t understand the difficulties, the small triumphs, and, most importantly, the colors. And the colors were what mattered.
Today had the atmosphere and appearance of Bleached Shadow. Yesterday had been Tarnished Maroon, and the day before that, Cotton Whisper White. A good Thursday last week had been Hidden Meadow; a trying Monday had had a Climbing Ivy tinge. The son’s vocabulary had developed by means of Crayola crayons and Benjamin Moore paint samples from the hardware store. An understanding of primary and secondary colors, developed late in his life, had become an unusual obsession, leading him to pursue the more sensitive colors of the rainbow. Every night, for the past couple of decades, the father read to his son the names of each crayon in the tin, each paint sample in the stack. The son liked the smell of crayons, that waxy dryness, that piercing, dependable aroma. He didn’t draw with but rather experienced them. He would lay out the paint samples on the bathroom floor, each in their own large tile, and look at the swaths of color for hours on end. He arranged them in terms of coolness and warmness, in lines or even diagonals.
“It helps ground him, you see,” the father had said quietly to the man at the hardware store, having had to explain their frequent visits for the free paint samples.
“It’s no problem, mister.” The man replied, watching half-sympathetically, half-apprehensively as the son lumbered through the aisles of nails and chains and hammers. The son had that effect on people: they felt badly, but easily became nervous.
“He’s a sweetheart, the poor boy,” the woman of 3A would tell her husband, “but quite a handful, and I don’t know how the old man does it—a stubborn veteran, I guess.”
“Maybe he’ll get better.” The husband replied, cracking open a beer.
“Well, it isn’t like he’ll wake up one day and talk and walk like the rest of us!”
“Luke 5:24,” the grandmother interjected from the corner, “Jesus said to the poor paralyzed man, “Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.” And he did, he sure did.”
“Yes, Mama. But I don’t want the man coming near. He makes me uncomfortable.”
In 3C lived a large, noisy Italian family; the children passed the middle-aged son in the hall with curious stares, or flattened against the wall as they watched the slow procession of the old man and his hulking son climb up the stairs and into the apartment. Once they had watched the grocery bag of the old man rip on the third flight, and had seen a can of tomato sauce roll down the stairs, thunk, thunk, thunk, all the way to the bottom. The father, bent over the bannister to support his frail legs, had commanded his son to retrieve the can. The son didn’t understand, didn’t respond, simply waited at the door. “Get it, son. Get it. The sauce. Go on.” The son jiggled the apartment door impatiently, paying no heed, or comprehension, to his father. The children had watched as the father’s tired face twisted into one of exasperation and then humiliation. One offered to get it. “No, no, don’t worry about me.” The father returned down the stairs, step by step, grimacing, retrieved the dented the can, and ascended again, slowly. It was the only time the children had seen something of a tear in his steely eyes. They had scurried outside, silent for once.
Yes, today was Bleached Shadow. The son turned away from the window. He was hungry. Father. Where was he?
The father’s room was dark; the curtains were still drawn, restless in the morning breeze. The son stood quietly in the room, hunched over. The familiar wrinkled face of the father loomed out of the darkness, still half under the bedcovers. The son lumbered over to the bedside.
“Bleached Shadow,” he offered loudly, a greeting.
The father was unresponsive. The duvet did not flutter up and down as it should have, the hand atop the blankets looked stony in its arrangement. The son shook the old man by the shoulders: nothing. He wandered out of the room, unaffected, famished. Peering into the bare cupboards, the son retrieved the last box of crackers, ripped open the packaging, and ate the contents. But there was nothing else to eat. Mugs with dried coffee rings were piled up in the sink. Empty medicine bottles lined the countertop, waiting for refills.
The son was slumped on the living room floor next to the window. He had been lying there for four days now, in a state of frail delirium.
The colors were extraordinarily vivid now: the room, seen through his half-open eyes, seemed to be pulsing with intense, swirling pigment. No longer were days simply colors; all the organization of color there had ever been was fractured, and the hues were coursing through the heaving room. Bloated circles of Pacific Sea Teal roamed across the ceiling, interlocking with splotches of Mystical Grape and Fresh Yolk; the windows dripped Ripe Lime, and the stove was washed in Eggshell Cream. Fumes of Blizzard Blue rose from the floorboards, colliding with Burnt Maple Leaf clouds and Atomic Tangerine swirls. Iced Mauve danced across the sofa and careened into an armchair. The harsh early morning sunlight that streamed through the window seemed to be tinted Laser Lemon; Carolina Parakeet fell from the ceiling like dry plaster.
The room’s temperature was increasingly hot, the walls seemed to be caving in. The son’s cracked lips trembled; his eyes quivered under chalky eyelids. He shook suddenly, racked with a convulsion that surged through his body.
Abruptly, the colors left, pushed violently out the window and through the cracks under the door. There was nothing; and then, slowly, the room filled with cool air, like the wispy underbelly of a cloud after a summer storm. The son heaved with raspy breath, and slid further down onto the floor. He crumpled onto the unforgiving wood. Silently, he slipped away from his body, leaving behind nothing but a simple bleached shadow.
Eliza Fawcett, Age 15, Grade 10, Bard High School Early College, Gold Key