'Equus'
Equus, Jim Davis-Rosenthal and Emmmanuela Copal de León, 1999.

 

How Bad Things Are
W.D. Wetherell

 

She had drawn a perfect pony at the age of five, and she'd been drawing perfect ponies ever since. In kindergarten it was palomino-colored, gawky, with spindly legs that barely held it upright. In third grade she added white patches over the hooves, freckles, a lacy white mane; in fourth grade, after much experimentation, came the red blaze down the forehead. By the time she was a teenager she had developed the brown button eyes, the pert lively expression, the adorable incut wrinkle of a mouth. In high school, rebellious, she tortured it into a dozen different distortions...a pony with hair like a hippy's, a pony with biceps, a pony with breasts...but this had only been a phase, and by the time she was in art school she was drawing the pony perfectly again, but this time in secret, as a relief from the abstract stuff, showing him to no one lest they sneer.

Because she drew perfect ponies she had done well in school. Because she drew perfect ponies she got a job in the art department of a leading children's magazine. Because she drew perfect ponies she met an advertising director, fell in love, fell out of love, got divorced, moved to the country, lived alone. Because she drew perfect ponies her books earned her royalties well in excess of six figures. Because she drew perfect ponies, dammit, the phone rang in the middle of what otherwise was a lovely spring afternoon, and she was invited to judge a children's art show at the local elementary school, reception afterwards, lunch included, proceeds to the local PTA.

It was the principal who called, a Mr. Lunsk. "The children will be so honored to have you, Miss Marsh. They all love your books. Unless we hear otherwise, we'll expect you bright and early on Friday next."

His presumption made her angry — angry enough that she poured herself a bourbon and took it to the porch. What was the use of carving out a reputation as a recluse if no one honored it? There was a political correctness in solitude just as there was a political correctness in any other lifestyle, and the principal stood in violation. A children's art show — well, she knew what that meant. A week of anxiety about what to wear, how not to offend anyone, the usual sleeplessness, bad days at the drawing table...Just the thought of these was enough to make her fill her glass a second time from the decanter that rested on the rail behind her deck chair, gathering in the sun's rays like an ornamental globe set there for that purpose, smoky, mysterious, the only solace she had.

What did you call shyness when it got to be middle-aged? Misanthropy? From the porch she could look down over the fields she had purchased to keep anyone from living within earshot, and across these fields, above the dip where the river curved south, she could make out the squares and rectangles of the distant town. When she first moved there she had planted willows to block the view entirely, but the town kept spreading past it. There on the left was the tarnished penny of another new satellite dish; on the right, the waving vinyl pennants of a recently opened mall; in the gap where the willows blew apart, the sandy gouge of a fresh excavation that hadn't been there the day before. The town leaked — leaked out of its natural boundaries; leaked out of any attitude she could devise to contain it.

In the winter she would have said no. Definitely. Now, with the warmth of the spring afternoon, the kindliness of the bourbon down her throat, she felt an unexpected moment of tolerance, even generosity. She would judge their bloody contest, suffer whatever fools went along with it, and then if she was lucky none of them would have the nerve to call Laura Seton Marsh again.

The week leading up to the art show went better than she anticipated, at least at first. The blues were in for her new book, and she was so busy correcting them she hardly had time to worry. When she did start worrying, she coped by spending longer hours on the porch, the bourbon replaced by the gin she always switched to once May came, the mellowness of the season even more advanced, so she was able to stare toward town and the brick school rising in its center with at least a measure of equanimity.

Naturally, this was of no help to her when it counted: Friday morning at six, the alarm on the dresser waking her with a supercilious buzzing that left her feeling defeated even before she got up. In her grogginess, it was as if the bed was surrounded by children already, all of whom saw through her talent and openly despised her. She made a wild motion with her arms to brush them back, groped for her robe, then stumbled into the bathroom and the relative safety of the shower.

The night before she had lain out a navy-blue suit, but it seemed too severe and formal now, and after frowning at the mirror for twenty minutes, she undressed and put it back. Most people expected a children's illustrator to dress like Shirley Temple, but some expected Grandma Moses, so half the people you met were already pissed at you before you even opened your mouth. She took down a dozen outfits, changed a dozen times, and just before it paralyzed her entirely, she made herself stop, went to the kitchen, broke some eggs into a pan, and then while they were cooking, poured herself a glass of gin, colored it with orange juice and forced herself to remain immobile for the time it took to swallow it down.

This steadied her, at least a little. When she finally chose a dress, it was an old cotton one that was far too flouncy, but it was late now, there was no time to change again. She took a last swallow of gin, straight this time, then groped in the tool drawer until she found the cigarettes she saved for those moments when her panic was so bad it demanded props.

She took the long way to town, half hoping something would happen and she wouldn't get there. She made the trip so infrequently that everything struck her as new. The billboards, for instance. Weren't billboards supposed to be illegal now? There were more than ever, planted right there in the shady, quiet places; the only thing different about them was that they didn't carry advertisements anymore, but warnings. Warnings about drugs, warnings about sex, warnings about child molesters — there was a whole brutal barrage. What was it like to be a kid and face these every morning on the drive in to school? In her day it had been warnings about nuclear attack, but scary as these were, the threats never materialized, and yet all these warnings were real, the bombs were falling now; there was no balance of terror when it came to these problems, no treaties to hold them off.

From the distance the school seemed dignified, even regal, but from the parking lot it was neglected and shabby, all except the roof which was crowded with a glittering arsenal of satellite dishes and antenna. She found a space as far away as possible, then, reaching down from the cigarettes, lit one and walked across the pavement under the canopy of its smoke.

There was no one to meet her, not at first. "Yes?" a secretary said, smiling up at her from behind a transom.

"I'm here for the art show."

"Are you a parent?"

"I'm the judge."

It sounded ridiculous, but the secretary smiled again. "Laura Seton Marsh? Just a moment, Miss Marsh. I'll call down and see if the delegation is ready. If you like, you can take a seat."

Delegation? It was worse than she thought. Against the wall was a bench wide enough for a four-year-old, but she sat there anyway, her knees all but touching her chin. They were a long time in coming. She stared up at the wall and the row of tile that ran along the ceiling. Whoever had lain it had done it skillfully, weaving plus and minus and times signs into one abstract, happy-looking frieze. More and more, she was attracted to backgrounds and fringes in her own work — the narrow panels that ran around the sides and tops of the page, serving as a running counterpoint to the main story; not her own invention, but one she used gratefully. There were only so many plausible situations you could get ponies into; it was only in the background, in the hidden corner of things, where an ironic vision did you any good.

"Miss Marsh? Hello, I'm Jim Lunsk. It's a real pleasure to meet you at last."

She stood up too quickly, caught in the act. The principal was a husky, sleepy-looking man, with dark eyes that held yours for a long time and enormous hands like a troll's.

"I'm sorry I'm late," he said, after they started down the hall. "The boys and girls were arguing over who would get selected to escort you down to the cafeteria, so to prevent bloodshed I had to step in. They all adore your pony Thistle."

"Thimble," Laura mumbled.

"I'm sorry?"

"His name is Thimble."

The principal nodded. "Of course, of course. We must have you back someday to speak to the whole middle school."

He smiled when he said it, but still it came out like a threat. The whole middle school? What had she done to deserve that? He put his hand on her arm, pushed her gently but firmly into the first classroom they passed.

"Before the festivities get started, I'd like you to meet Janice Hopkins. Jan, our guest of honor."

Another smile, another sincere handshake, this time from someone who was absurdly young for a teacher, with short frizzy hair, an outdoor complexion and the perfect cheekbones of a doll.

That she was the art teacher went without saying — the room smelled of brush cleaner and chalk. It was empty now, thank God; in the school twenty minutes, Laura had yet to encounter a child.

"My fourth graders admire your work so," Miss Hopkins said. "They all imitate your ponies. Of course the imaginative ones have moved on to something else."

Was it meant to be smart? Laura looked at her more carefully, but it was hard to tell. If she had to classify the art teacher's expression it would be in the so-this-is-the-great-Laura-Seton-Marsh category — skeptical, but not unkindly so.

"I've seen your own work in the library," Laura said. "Are you the one? I stumbled in one day to get the latest Updike and I was astonished. Those brilliant watercolors. I've never seen brushwork so economical and to the point."

Now it was the art teacher's turn to act embarrassed. "It's mostly work I did in grad school," she said. "I don't think—"

"No, no, it's really fine stuff. Have you exhibited widely yet? Ever done any illustrating? There are names I can give you, people who should know about your work."

This was absurd of her, playing the generous pro, promising too much. Why not come right out and bribe her? Don't give my secret away and this too can be yours."

"But anyway," Laura said, her voice faltering. "Let me know what you're working on, keep me posted."

Mr. Lunsk tapped his watch. "I'm afraid there's a test I have to monitor, so I'll leave you in Miss Hopkins's capable hands."

The art teacher led her down a long hall past classrooms where students, hearing footsteps, leaned forward over their desks to see what was up. The cafeteria, on the lower level, was open and airy, with honey-colored trim, fluorescent lighting and long oak tables that were a hundred times more attractive then the horrible, beet-smeared trestles she remembered from her own days in school.

The walls were covered with rectangles of construction paper, children's drawings. This confused her — was she supposed to start judging now? — but Miss Hopkins kept on toward where the cafeteria widened out into something like a terrace. As brief as the glimpses were, Laura sensed there was something different about the drawings, something unexpected, but she was too rushed to really look at them, and their blur of color only worried her even more.

At least there were actual children now — on the right near the food counter, bent over milk cartons, sucking away. A barrier of yellow and black cones was set on the floor to keep them apart from the terrace; on the terrace itself, milling about self-importantly like guests at a gallery opening, were thirty or forty adults.

"Our finalists are hung out there," Miss Hopkins said, pointing vaguely. "But perhaps you'd like to chat with the parents first?"

Oh my God, Laura thought — I take back everything nice I said about your work. But it was too late to retreat. The parents had spotted her; their conversation broke off so suddenly the hush was like a trapdoor opening beneath her feet. They stared at her, really stared, and this time rather than glancing bashfully away she stared right back. This moment of course made her feel reckless, even giddy. Principals, parents, teachers. Let them come! They wanted Laura Seton Marsh and who could imitate Laura Seton Marsh better than she?

And so she spent an hour standing there talking to them all, counting to twenty under her breath, remembering to automatically smile every time she got there, nodding at any change in inflection even resembling a question, signing books, signing pictures, spending too lavishly what little adrenaline she had. A woman with red hair explained how harmful competitions were for children of that age, the psychological carnage they caused, then in the very next sentence began raving about her daughter's art, hinting very strongly which picture was hers. Another woman, this one at the back of the circle, stuck her head in long enough to say, in a voice wet with coyness, "I knew your ex," then was immediately replaced by a father who wanted to talk to her about doing a no-drugs poster for the Kiwanis. Before he finished, another woman started whispering in her free ear, warning her about the redheaded woman's child who wasn't a true artist at all, but only interested in resume building, and then after that came the usual flatterers, twenty minutes' worth, and then those starers who wanted to study a children's illustrator up close, see living proof that it was possible to be an adult and yet retain childhood's vision...and then there only remained the sincere ones who lingered on the edge of the crowd, shy like she was shy, but direct and simple in their remarks once their turn came.

Toward the end a boy of about eleven managed to sneak his way in. He was dressed in a suit that was bluer and more expensive-looking than anything the fathers wore, and he had an air of aggressive self-confidence Laura found repellent.

"Laura Marsh?" he said, coming right up to her.

"Yes?"

"Tom Kent," and he stuck out his hand.

Laura shook it, gingerly. Was this the resume builder she'd been warned about? No, that was a girl. Who was this then? He stood there with his hands over his hips, shirt collar fashionably unbuttoned, hair over his pimpled forehead in a manicured sweep.

"I want to tell you how honored we students are to have you here," he said smoothly, talking loud enough that all the parents could hear. "We know you're a world-class illustrator and they're damn scarce — we know that, too. It's an honor; I truly mean that, ma'am."

Laura looked about for help, bewildered, but the boy was already moving closer, lowering his voice. "I entered the art show," he said, whispering now, suddenly kid-like. "Mine's the—"

"Tommy!"

It was Miss Hopkins, just in time. She frowned at him, pointed him back toward the barricade; grinning obnoxiously, he strutted off.

And then, mercifully, just when her energy was gone entirely, there was only one woman left to meet. An older one this time, dressed nicely enough, but with a posture that was crone-like and bent — the wicked, apple-bearing witch in Snow White.

"Hello, Laura," she said, winking in a familiar way that wasn't unpleasant. "It's good to see you again. I thought with all the excitement you might be in need of something to wet your whistle."

Wet your whistle — Laura hadn't heard that in years. Smiling, she reached for the proffered glass and the berry-colored fluid it contained. She drank it down, hardly bothering to notice the taste until it was all swallowed. Even then it wasn't the sweetness she was conscious of so much as the bitter warmth that underlay it. Gin! and not the cheap stuff either.

It was too late to thank the woman — she had already disappeared back into the bodies leaning over the refreshment table. But Laura remembered now where they had met: a fund-raiser her neighbors the Pillards had hosted last summer where she, Laura, had made something of a fool of herself over the open bar. Mrs. Jacobs — was that her name? Mrs. Jacobson? Something biblical, something with a J.

In any case, the warmth made her feel better about things. She reached into her purse for the cigarettes, not from nervousness this time but relief.

"Uh, there's no smoking in school," Miss Hopkins whispered, her pretty eyebrows arched together in concern.

"Well that's all right, dear," Laura said, bringing the cigarette to her lips. "I admire your honesty in speaking up."

The finalists were hung out in the hall. Walking there, Miss Hopkins suddenly turned talkative, going on and on about which artists her students admired and which ones they didn't, trotting out Bettelheim and Sontag and in general trying to prove God knows what.

"For instance," she said, "take the work of Robert McCloskey. I think his Make Way for Ducklings is a classic, an absolute classic, though somewhat sexist and—"

Laura stopped. "McCloskey? Bob McCloskey?"

"Well, yes," Miss Hopkins said, a bit tentatively.

"I knew Bob McCloskey," Laura said. "We drank together — Manhattans by the bucket." She pressed her fingers together. "Bob McCloskey and I were like this."

Put in her place, the art teacher could only gesture meekly toward the wall. "Our finalists. We had well over three hundred entries, but these are the six that survived the preliminary judging."

"Fine," Laura said, nodding briskly. "I'll need to be left alone with them for fifteen minutes."

The pictures were beautifully hung, with track lighting that illuminated them from below, mounts on the wall with their titles, and little numbers pasted unobtrusively in the corners so the judging could remain anonymous. Laura, sliding her glasses down to the tip of her nose, taking a deep breath, moved in to study them more closely.

Picture one. A planet, the planet. Be Nice to Mother. Blue ocean, gray continents, done skillfully in flat tempera. A few countries sketched in impressionistically, but little attempt at geographic precision. Every inch, every blank spot, filled with representations of garbage. Billows of smoke, mountains of diapers, burning nuke plants, rotted automobiles, ruined forests. Done...Laura noticed...joyfully, not in resignation or anger. Joyfully. The brightness of the colors, the exuberant way the devastation was drawn. Not lamenting the trashing of the earth, but rejoicing in it, someone wanting to throw stuff, get in on the fun, one typical detail lower left: a smirking boy squatting to set afire a Lake Michigan of oil.

Picture two. Untitled. Charcoal portrait of a rabbit. Head and shoulders, mostly head. Velveteen fur, clever brush work with tip. Stringy ears—anorexic ears. Below it, the face much fatter, satisfied, smug; scrofulous cheeks, wart-covered nose, one eye closed in lecherous wink—a rabbit with syphilis? Drawn by...Laura looked down at the label...a sixth-grader, age eleven.

Picture three. Can You Tell Me How To Get. The familiar Sesame Street characters, reproduced so skillfully she thought at first she was looking at a photo. All those uplifting yellows, those right-thinking blues. From a distance. Up close, perspective changed, subtleties emerged. The male puppets with bulges in their pants, enormous stiff ones, third legs; the female characters all obviously pregnant; every adult with massive, tentacle-like hands resting possessively on the wrong parts of children. Step back and they all looked normal, none of this apparent, drawn with the same kind of leering wink that's on the rabbit.

Picture four. Heroes of Desert Storm.

Laura closed her eyes, walked on.

Picture five. No title. Twice the size of the others, in comparison. Subject? Hard to say. Mostly blackness—a rich deep black, done with crayon-like wax that seemed burned in rather than drawn. Nightmarish black—the actual color in which nightmares arrive. Within, various figures. Monsters, skeletons, enormous snakes. Not doing anything, but waiting, monsters on hold. Further to the right, separate section of spare parts. Disembodied fangs, stockpiled talons, forked tongues rolled for convenience of storage, bat-like wings. Chilling in its power—an actual shiver came over her as she stared. The kind of picture to look at between pried fingers, hands in front of your face.

Picture six. Our Town. Like it said. The town done in water colors — a naive primitive style that was most attractive. White houses, blue garages, red schools. Lots of gates. Gates to everything, every driveway, every path, every road. Closed gates. Lots of barriers. Barricades. Hedges. Walls. Peepholes. Paths leading nowhere, sidewalks with trip wires, shuttered windows, pulled drapes, every house a fortress, every road a maze. No people. Paint still seemed wet...Laura stuck her finger out, gingerly touched it...as if the entire town sweated with the effort of staying hidden, staying closed.

Her brief moment of confidence was gone now; standing there, she felt leaden and old. These were the six best? She tried telling herself it was all a mistake — that the art teacher or whoever judged the preliminary round had deliberately played a joke. But no — she remembered seeing the other pictures on her way into the cafeteria; they were of similar subjects, and, even in passing, had brushed her with exactly this same dark atmosphere of knowing.

There were still five minutes left in her judging time. She lit another cigarette, inhaled deeply, then stumbled up the hall hoping to find Mrs. Jacobs. Instead, she came upon Mr. Lunsk and the art teacher, standing beside each other near a trophy case outside the gym. There was a feminine laughing sound, hands coming together like in patty-cake, and then...when the cigarette smoke caught them...a startled little pushing motion, Miss Hopkins moving away from him, smoothing down her skirt, blushing furiously.

"Ah, there you are!" Mr. Lunsk said, instantly in command. "Do we have a winner?"

Laura glanced back down the hall; with a great effort, she managed to nod.

"That's fine! Just write down the number here on this paper...There!...Now I'll just seal it in this envelope...and presto, we're set! Are you ready for some well-deserved luncheon?" He took her arm. "You know we really must get you back to talk to the entire middle school, Miss Marsh. Let's firm up a date before we let you go."

They had rearranged the cafeteria for lunch, making a wall out of portable blackboards, pushing a table against it as a dais. There were more people there than before, parents and grandparents and school-board members; even kids this time, the finalists sitting at a special table looking well-groomed and well-nourished, healthy, untroubled, even bland, so stare as Laura might, she could find no connection between what she saw in their faces and what she saw in their art. She sat at the head table between Mr. Lunsk and a round-bellied man with so much dandruff he looked dusted in flour: the superintendent of schools. The two men talked around her during lunch, but she was kept busy with people coming up for autographs, so it didn't matter. At one point, she thought she noticed an arm jutting toward her from behind instead of in front, and then a few seconds later she caught sight of someone waving from the table furthest in back. Mrs. Jacobs! She seemed even more bent over and haggard than before, but with the same sympathetic smile on her face; she was pantomiming someone pouring a bottle, pointing to herself, nodding vigorously, go ahead, go ahead!

Laura, reaching for her juice glass, took a long swallow. It was pure gin this time, and she all but sobbed in relief as it went down. She took a few bites of cole slaw as camouflage, then waited for the confidence to come back, but what was maddening was that this time it didn't come back; this time the booze only exaggerated her mood, so by the time she finished the entire glass she felt even more depressed than before, dizzier, more confused.

Main course, dessert, coffee — they went by in what seemed seconds, and then Mr. Lunsk was already well into his speech, already reaching into his pocket for the envelope.

"And among these fine pieces of art, Miss Marsh after much debate has selected as our winner...The envelope please!...Let me just tear it open and...The winner in the best picture in show category, twelve years and under, is...Thomas W. Kent's Be Nice to Mother!"

Immediately, from the table of finalists, up popped the boy in the suit who had accosted her before — the one who looked like an anchorman. Laura, her head swimming now, cursed herself — she all but struck him when he patted her familiarly on the back in thanks. But even this, horrible as it was, wasn't the worst of it. Mr. Lunsk, as the boy was seated again, began launching into an introduction of some sort, and through the fuzziness she realized she was being asked to get up and speak.

People were applauding, the principal was bending over her, pulling back her chair. Feeling like nothing on earth, she managed to stand; she groped her way to the lectern, steadied herself on its edge, and then with great effort brought her head up to face them.

"Yes," she said, when the noise dropped away. "Well yes. It's...uh...very nice. Yes, very nice to be with you all this afternoon and have...the opportunity...yes, the opportunity to see so much fine art work by such splendid boys and girls."

There was applause at this — could she sit down now? They looked like they wanted more. She stared down at them, really squinted this time, saw the upturned, open faces wanting to hear what she had to say, sincere in their admiration, wanting...what?

She had no speech prepared, no remarks saved for just such an occasion. What she wanted to say was something else again — what she wanted to say came easily, the words rushing like a gin-colored current through the slushy rear areas of her brain. I have looked at the drawings done by your daughters, your sons and grandsons. I see by their evidence that things are a lot worse even than I thought.

"And it's so nice to be here," she said, forcing the current temporarily away. "This is such a beautiful school, and the morale among the staff is obviously so high..."

The gin held her erect through the sheer rush of its lucidity. There is no joy in any of these pictures, she wanted to say. No joy except in destruction. Monsters and mutants and perversities are all your children know how to depict. There is no innocence in these pictures, no play. I see no lambs gamboling across waving hayfields, no butterflies with outspread wings. These are the pictures of jaded maturity, not youth. Theirs is a vision that is entirely black.

"And in the spring particularly, when there are so many beautiful flowers. Daffodils. Tulips...."

There is no hope in these pictures. No small little spark that nourished properly, encouraged, will one day blossom into the unquenchable spirit that keeps us on. We have to do more for our children. Now, before it is too late. We are losing them, the future they represent. The spirit of our children is pouring unnoticed through our hands.

Was it out loud now? Had the current gotten away from her, spilled over? For all she knew, she had been speaking out loud all along. She couldn't tell the difference anymore, so she stared at the people sitting in front of her, trying to judge by their expressions...They all looked troubled, horribly worried, their mouths open so she could look right down the hooped-shaped caverns at the back of their throats...so perhaps she had flubbed it after all.

"These paintings, the message they send...."

It was too much for her. She turned around, groped in the tray that ran along the blackboard's base until she found a piece of chalk, brought her hand up to the board, pressed it there until the dizziness passed and she was able to begin. She drew the flanks first, with a few practiced strokes, then looped in the tail, making it lacy, then the hooves with their famous white patches, and then the head, the blaze down its center, the perky ears and button eyes, the adorable incut wrinkle of the mouth. Finishing, she let her drawing hand go limp, then turned back to face them — and yes, they were smiling now, applauding, pointing to the pony on the blackboard and cheering themselves hoarse. It was the only answer she had, the only answer she had ever had, and simple and small as it was, she was human, she had nothing better, and it would have to hold them until the day came for her to lay aside her pencils, find something ratty to wear and descend from her mountaintop once again.

 

 

 

Text © 1995, 1999 by W.D. Wetherell
"How Bad Things Are" first appeared in Many Mountains Moving, Volume 1, Number 2. The work appears here by permission of the author.


Original Graphic Image "Equus" © 1999 by Jim Davis-Rosenthal and Emmanuela Copal de León


Many Mountains Moving Tribute Page

Fiction Contents Page

STANDARDS Home Page

Contents by Genre

Call for Submissions

About STANDARDS

standards@colorado.edu