The Painter


The Painter

Determination pays off for this polite young girl. (1/2006)

 

A chill ran down Jane’s spine when the shopkeeper handed her the paintbrush. She had saved up for almost six months, stashing pennies and nickels and dimes under her mattress.

When she first saw the paintbrush in the window of the store, she gasped and slowed to see it. Her mother, who was holding her hand as they walked, practically yanked her arm out of its socket.

Hundreds of times since, Jane had snuck visits to the store and stared longingly through the window. The shopkeeper noticed her and thought she was up to no good. Standing at his counter, he glared at her through the window. He even went outside once and asked if she was “going be trouble”. She’d been so scared, she ran away without saying anything.

Now, six months later, she dumped her pile of coins on the man’s counter and waited silently while he counted it all. She prayed that she hadn’t miscounted. Finally, he handed over the brush. She almost fainted when it passed from his long, manicured fingers into her small, grimy ones.

“Thank you, sir,” Jane said. Though filthy from head to toe and wearing a second-hand dress, Jane was taught by her mother always to be polite.

The shopkeeper couldn’t help himself. He smiled a wide grin that showed two rows of perfect teeth.

“You are welcome, young lady.”

Jane beamed a smile back, revealing a mess of crooked, yellowed teeth. Somehow, it was the prettiest smile the shopkeeper had ever seen.

Jane walked out of the store, turned toward home, and began to run. Her mother would be angry with her if she didn’t get back to peel the potatoes, string the beans, and shuck the corn. Just thinking about all that food brought back her almost-constant companion, hunger. They would take the prepared potatoes, beans, and corn to the McNaulty Estate later, making a few cents.

Jane was sprinting down the street when it happened. Four boys popped out from behind barrels of herring outside the butcher shop. They were all wearing blue pants and starched white shirts, the uniform of the local private school. Jane was too poor to attend the private school, and was too busy helping her mother most days to attend the town’s shabby public school.

“What’s that, Plainy Janey Waney?” one of them taunted, pointing at her new prized possession.

“It’s a brush for Plainy Janey Waney to scrub toilets with,” another said.

“A brush with which Plainy Janey Waney can scrub toilets,” said another boy, mimicking their teacher, known for her grammatical nitpicking.

“Please leave me alone,” Jane pleaded.

In a flash, one of the boys snatched the paintbrush out of Jane’s hands.

“Please give that back,” Jane pleaded.

The boy who took the paintbrush waved it around over his head and did a jig. Another made up a song and the other two clapped along.

Jane felt her eyes tear up. One tear burst through the dam and traveled like a river down her left cheek.

“Please may I have my paintbrush back?”

“Yours? Ha! You stole it, didn’t you?”

“She did no such thing,” said an authoritarian voice from behind them.

All of the children spun around to see who was behind them. It was the shopkeeper.

“Stay out of this, old man,” dared the boy who had taken the paintbrush.

“Hand her back her paintbrush and be on your way,” the shopkeeper said calmly. He took a step toward the boys. At 6’4”, he towered over them.

The boys exchanged glances and nods. Without a word being spoken, they agreed to go.

In one last stab of rudeness and disrespect, the boy with the paintbrush flicked it down in front of Jane. It landed right in a puddle of mud. The boy sneered at Jane, then at the shopkeeper, and then turned and ran, laughing. The other boys followed him.

When the boys were gone, Jane crouched down and plucked her paintbrush from the mud. She was crying.

“Are you going to be all right?” the shopkeeper asked.

“Y…y…yes, sir. I’ll be fine. Thank you, sir.”

“My pleasure, young lady. Lucky I happened to be heading this way for lunch.”

“Yes indeed, sir,” Jane replied. Then, remembering all the work she had to do for her mother and realizing how late she was, Jane added, “I really must be going, sir. Thank you again.”

Jane ran off, paint brush gripped firmly in her hand. She didn’t hear the shopkeeper say, “You’re welcome, dear girl.”

~~~~~

Jane ran home as fast as she could. By the time she was home, she was sweaty and hot, but she went right to the kitchen to tend to the McNaulty’s vegetables after quickly hiding her paintbrush under her mattress.

Three hours later, she was almost done. Her mother arrived home in time to help her finish and then Jane and her mother loaded the baskets onto the cart. Jane’s mom hitched the cart to their horse.

“I’ll be right back, Jane. Please set the table and get started preparing our dinner. I should be back in time to help.” And with a “hi-yah” directed at their old mare, Jane’s mother was off.

Jane set the table, then peeled and cut up a few small, rotting vegetables. Her mother had taught her well: she never took any of the ripe, juicy, delicious, fresh vegetables from their customers’ baskets; Jane and her mother made do with what they could afford, which wasn’t much. Jane then carried out all of the peelings to the compost.

Jane had put a pot of stew on the fire by the time her mother returned. When it was ready, Jane’s mother tore off a few pieces from a loaf of stale bread and brought the food to the table. Jane’s mother said grace, and they began to eat.

“How was your day, sweetheart?” Jane’s mother asked. “Were you able to talk to Mr. Cleavers and Mr. Johnson?”

“Yes. Both are interested. They would like you to call on them, but I think they both will want us to work for them.”

Jane’s mother smiled, something she rarely did since Jane’s father passed away nearly two years earlier. Having Mr. Cleavers and Mr. Johnson as clients might mean having meat more often than once a month, might mean fresh vegetables once or twice a week.

Jane and her mother finished eating. Jane cleared the table and washed and dried the dishes. Then she joined her mother at the sewing table. In addition to preparing vegetables for the wealthy families in town, Jane’s mother—and hence Jane, too—sewed and darned their clothes as well. While Jane’s mother used the sewing machine, Jane hand-sewed a tear in an elegant egg-shell-colored gown. The whole time, her mind was elsewhere.

She had saved for so long and now had a paintbrush. She would have to clean the mud out of it, but that wouldn’t be too hard. She thought about how she would use the small pieces of eggplant rind she’d saved to make purple, sunflower to make yellow, coal to make black,…

“Jane? Jane? Are you all right?”

Jane snapped back to reality. “I’m okay mother. Really.”

“Well then finish up that dress, and then say your prayers and go to bed.”

Jane did what her mother told her. At least the first two directives.

For the next two months, Jane painted. She painted at night, after her day’s chores were complete, after dinner, after clearing the table, after helping her mother with whatever work lasted into the evening, after saying her prayers. Some nights, she painted by the light of the moon. Some nights, she painted by the dim light of a small beeswax candle she’d found in someone’s garbage.

When her first painting was complete, Jane carefully rolled it up and put it in her sack. She waited for a day when she needed to be near the shopkeeper’s store. For the first time since the day she bought the paintbrush and the shopkeeper helped her with the four bullies, Jane stepped into the store.

Looking up from his ledger, the shopkeeper saw Jane enter, and said, “Welcome back, young lady.”

“Hello sir.” Jane suddenly felt shy, even a little foolish. What was she thinking?

“May I help you?” The shopkeeper asked.

“No. No thank you sir,” Jane answered. Then summoning her courage, she added, “I brought you this.” She reached her hand into her pack and pulled out the canvas. She looked up at the shopkeeper and handed it to him.

Wordlessly, the shopkeeper unrolled the canvas. He was overwhelmed by the powerful, vibrant colors that leapt off the canvas. There were bright yellows, reds, and purples; complex whirls of green, gray, and black; subtle shades of lavender, pink, and turquoise. On the eye-catching background design, Jane had carefully printed “General Store.”

“I don’t know what to say,” the shopkeeper said. “It’s wonderful. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, sir. I wanted to say thank you for helping me that day.”

“Well, you have done more than that, I should say.” The shopkeeper ambled to his desk, reached around and grabbed some tape, then walked to the shop’s window. A minute later, the new sign was up, immediately drawing new customers into the store.

“What’s your name?”

“Jane.”

“Well, I’m pleased to officially meet you Jane. My name is Mr. Wilson, and I have a proposal for you…”

~~~~~

Six months later, Jane had completed her tenth poster. Mr. Wilson, the shopkeeper, had provided the paintbrushes, canvases and real paints for free. Word got out after Mr. Wilson put up his new sign, and he informed anyone who asked that his partner, Jane, was available. At a price, of course.

With the extra money Jane earned from her paintings, her mother no longer had to sew and darn in the evenings. And, now, when they peeled and cut fresh vegetables, it was for their own dinner, not someone else’s.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *