An Artist in the Family

by Peter Obourn

We lived in a small town.

My dad had eight fingers.

My mother was beautiful.

My brother, Sam, was trying to figure out where dreams come from.

We were sitting around the kitchen table, having a family meeting. Sam had just managed to flunk eighth grade—every course except art. Sam wasn’t that bad a student. The school referred to him as challenged. Sam did have some problems. The school said Sam had ADD and ADHD and all those acronyms for things that gave kids unlimited time on tests and other special privileges. But he had been doing okay, at least passing everything.

“How could you flunk everything?” said Dad. “How could you flunk physical education? No one flunks gym.”

“I didn’t flunk everything. I got an A in art,” said Sam.

“Don’t you want to be smart like your brother? Get good grades? Go to college?” said Dad.

“No,” said Sam, “not really.”

“It’s OK, Sammy,” said my mother, “you try hard.”

“It’s not OK,” said Dad. “No son of mine is going to work in the car shops.” He held up his hands, missing his right index finger and his left pinkie, lost to the cables on the overhead hoists on two separate occasions. The car shops made railroad cars. It was the only industry in our town—dirty, noisy, dangerous, and unhealthy. Both our grandfathers had worked in the car shops. One had died at age fifty in an assembly line accident and the other of emphysema, just by breathing at work for thirty years.

Mom just sat and smiled at Sam. I didn’t say anything. “Pops,” said Sam, “I’m going to be an artist.”

Dad looked up. He looked at me, then at the ceiling. Then he looked at Mom, who looked back at him. Finally he looked back at Sam. “That’s good,” said Dad. “That’s OK, you be an artist. You be whatever you want to be. But things are going to have to change. Right, Sam?” He ruffled Sam’s hair.


“How could you flunk gym?” I said that night, as soon as we were in bed. Sam and I shared a room in our two-bedroom house.

“I just didn’t show up. That’s how. I was getting special help in art. And you know what? Some days we went in a canoe that’s hidden down by the creek.”

“You went canoeing with a teacher?”

“Yeah, a few times,” Sam said as if it was nothing. “We took our sketch pads.”

The junior high art teacher, Miss Mirabell was pretty and young, twenty-five at the most. I was lying in bed, listening to my little brother, picturing him and the beautiful Miss Mirabell going to sea in a pea-green boat. And she gave him an A. I was instantly jealous. “What on earth are you talking about?” I said. “You’re fourteen. She’s at least ten years older than you. She’s your teacher.” If Miss Mirabell was in love with me, that would be something else. I was much older than Sam.

“Not her, you dummy, him. Mr. Ambrosia, the high school art teacher. Miss Mirabell has me working with him now. I do it during gym class.”

“Sam,” I said. “Not Mr. Ambrosia. He lives with another man. Do you understand what that means? And you’re going off in the woods with him.”

It was quiet in the bedroom for a full minute. Then Sam said, “Bill, I know I’m only fourteen, but I am well aware that Mr. Ambrosia is gay, and I am also aware that you and your pals and your teammates seem to find this hilarious. Now, what I want you to tell me is what that has to do with anything. So please just shut up.”


Our parents met with the principal. There was no way around it. Sam would repeat eighth grade.

Summer turned to fall.

We had a dining room but we never ate there. It was the study room for Sam and me, and the dining room table was piled high with our school books and papers.

I was studying calculus and Sam had an open history book on the table, but he called me over to the back window. The trees in our yard had turned bright yellow and red. We lived on Walnut Street, but I knew the trees were maples.

In our town washday wasn’t necessarily Monday, but whatever day the wind was right, so the soot from the car shop chimneys didn’t drift down on the clothes hanging to dry. Mom, an expert weatherman out of necessity and experience, was hanging the sheets, reaching up, pulling the line down, folding the edge of a sheet over the line, and pushing down a clothespin she had been holding in her teeth. The wind blowing the car shop soot away was blowing her hair and pushing her housedress tight around her still-slim waist. The damp sheet was almost touching the ground. She bent and hooked a thin, weathered clothes pole with a rusty hook under the line and raised the hem of the sheet more than a foot above the green grass. As she reached for the next sheet, the sheet on the line billowed and cracked like a whip in the wind.

“That’s where dreams come from,” said Sam.


“Dreams come from the things we see and things we hear that make an impression on us. Maybe we don’t even know it. Like this scene.”

“What scene?” I said. “You mean Mom hanging laundry?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Exactly. Mom hanging laundry. A scene that shows what it’s like to live in a town like this.” I glanced once more. Now there were four sheets flapping gracefully in the wind, testing the thin, gray clothes poles, Mom in her blue housedress, and a red maple next to the back fence. On the table next to Sam’s history book was a pile of pencil sketches of billowing bed sheets.


A week later Sam and I were sitting at the dining room table. I was writing an essay on the Renaissance. I looked over and Sam was staring at a piece of paper. He had papers all around him covered with scribbles and cartoons and pictures and blobs. He was poking at the paper, attacking it, gesturing at it, just playing, fooling around. He had a red crayon in his hand and a red crayon mark on his cheek.

“Sam,” I said. “Listen to me. If you really want to be an artist, you have to work at it, and you need to focus, at least some of the time, on those other subjects.”

He didn’t even look up. He just kept playing with his crayon. “This is everything,” he said.

“No, Sam. Look at Michelangelo’s David. You think he did that with crayons? How about the Sistine Chapel? Did he just poke at it the way you’re doing?”

He put his crayon down. “No, he didn’t, but, well, I think maybe you’re confusing art and craft. The craft part is important. I’ll learn that. That will be hard. I understand that. But art is something different, something more.”

I didn’t know what he was talking about. He was smiling. “Take your pencil and draw a circle,” he said. “Go ahead. Try hard. Make it as good as you can. Any size.” I tried. I took my time. It only took about two minutes and it was pretty good. When I was finished, I held it up and showed him. He took his red crayon, looked up at me, closed his eyes, and did one in one second with a twitch of his wrist. It was perfect.


The next day I was still working on the Renaissance. Sam brought a folder into the dining room and set it down next to me. “Mom saved these. This is our best work, you and me. This one is mine. I was seven.” It said “DAD” in black crayon and was signed “Sam” in red crayon, and it was a man, with dots for eyes, standing in front of a huge, dark factory with smokestacks belching smoke. The man was clean and bright, as if the sun was shining on him. Dad did not have eight fingers. He didn’t have any fingers. Instead of hands he had little pink circles.

Sam left the folder on the table. I looked at the picture I made that Mom had saved. It said “MOTHER.” Her hands looked like claws.


Then there was another crisis. A letter came. Sam had ten unexcused absences from gym, and it was only the middle of October.

“You need to talk to the principal,” Mom said to Dad.

Sam said not to do anything or we’d get someone in trouble. Who, asked Dad. Well, maybe Miss Mirabell, said Sam.

“Who?” said Dad.

“My art teacher,” said Sam.

“Dad,” I said, “I’m thinking of taking an art course next semester.”

“You? But you’re taking science and math. You’re going to college,” said Dad.

“I am,” I said. “So did Miss Mirabell. Art is really important, Dad. If I get an A in art, that will mean a lot on my college applications.”


That night Sam said, “Are you really going to take a course from Mr. Ambrosia?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I am.”

“Better watch out. I hear he likes soccer players.”

“Shut up,” I said.


So Dad, with a new interest in art, went and talked to Miss Mirabell. “A nice young lady,” said Dad. “Smart.” He spread his eight fingers on the kitchen table. “She said she’d talk to the gym teacher, and it would be no problem. But I think we need to talk to the principal.” Dad started to stand up.

“I need to show you something, Pops,” said Sam.


On this particular October day, which was a sunny, beautiful fall day, the trees were at their peak of autumn color. Sam insisted I go along. It was a long walk, halfway across town. Sam took Dad and me down the steep hill to the valley where the creek runs past the dump. “Why are we at the creek?” asked Dad. Sam didn’t answer. We walked through the tall grass and weeds along the shore. There, hidden in some bushes, was a canoe and two beat-up paddles. Before Dad could say anything, Sam said. “Pops, don’t ask me anymore. Don’t ask about the canoe or any more questions about Miss Mirabell. Just watch, listen.”

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” I whispered to Sam.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I just know I have to show this to Dad.”

Dad was just standing there, staring at the creek. “I can’t swim,” he said.

Sam, without taking off his shoes or rolling up his pants, just walked into the water to the middle of the creek. It came up to his knees. “See. It’s just a creek—only a foot deep,” he said. Sam and I took the paddles, me in the back, and Dad sat in the middle. “Just sit still. Trust me, Pops,” said Sam, and I saw Dad’s death grip on the gunnel relax a bit. We started floating down the creek, past the dump, and then around the first bend. The creek wound its way around the edge of the village and eventually found its way to the river. There were other villages and towns around us—suburban sprawl—but we couldn’t tell during the whole afternoon in the creek. We never saw a road or a house or a even a tended field—only the natural world the creek meandered through. We let the current move us slowly. Autumn leaves and sticks passed us by, so it seemed we were moving even more slowly, because the current was faster than the canoe’s progress.

Even though it was flowing, the surface looked still, a black mirror, but only a partial looking glass because through the looking glass was the green grass on the bottom of the creek, waving in the current. The water reflected a different color sky, a black sky, but the clouds were white. The sun was high, the trees reflected in the water, and the sunlight bounced back onto the overhanging trees, whose branches shimmered with the reflected light.

The banks were sand, red sandstone, and some bedrock, an earth-colored world, greens and ochre and browns, all reflected crookedly back to us as we floated through it.

The quiet was so natural I began to listen to the leaves in the trees and the drone of insects, a continuum under the occasional chatter of the squirrels and birdsong. We could hear our paddles cutting the water and even the tiny insects darting across the water.

Around a bend we were in a pond in the middle of the creek—still, open water. A fish jumped. We didn’t see it but it startled us, and we saw the circle of the splash and then endless concentric circles moving outward—then something huge in the water. We looked up. It was the reflection of a massive oak tree standing alone—as if it had cleared the area around itself by its own power, a perfect circle of tangled branches and leaves.

The oak leaves had turned to a deep reddish-brown. Only a few had fallen but they were ready. A gust of wind released an explosion of leaves from the giant tree, which swirled and floated and fell in slow motion. Many of them landed weightlessly on the water and floated along with us.

As Sam turned us slowly toward home, he said, “Pops, this is a song we are in—a song about us, about the pond, about water, and about what is happening now. Can you feel it? Can you see it?”

“I’m trying, Sam,” said Dad. “I’m trying. Honest I am.”

“Don’t try,” said Sam. “Just feel it.” And as we slid into the shore, he added, “Don’t worry, Pops. It’s okay. The world is a song. You’ll feel it.”


We stashed the canoe and walked home in silence

At dinner at the kitchen table, nothing was said about our voyage. Dad reached across the table, took Mom’s hand, and announced that he had decided not to meet with the principal. “What good would it do? She’s a nice young lady.”

“Pops,” said Sam, “I figured out today that dreams and art come from the same place.”

“How’s that?” said Dad.

“I don’t really know, Pops, someplace inside us, somehow, but when they come, they mean something and they, they, I don’t know how they do it, but they grab us. You know, they demand attention. You know what I mean, Pops?” Dad looked at Sam but didn’t say anything. “Pops?” said Sam.

“I’m trying,” said Dad.

I left them, walked into the dining room, picked up a pencil and my Renaissance notes, went outside, and sat on the back steps. I turned a sheet over and tried to draw on the back—a few circles, the maple tree, the back fence, a cloud lit by the late afternoon sun, my hand holding the pencil.


Peter Obourn’s work is forthcoming or has appeared in Bombay Gin, CQ (California Quarterly), Crack the Spine, descant, Forge, Gastronomica, Inkwell, Kestrel, The Legendary, Limestone, The Madison Review, New Orleans Review, North Atlantic Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Oyez Review, PANK, Quiddity Literary Journal, Red Wheelbarrow Literary Magazine, Riddle Fence, The Round, Saint Ann’s Review, SNReview, Spillway, Stickman Review, Switchback, Viral Cat, Wild Violet, The Write Room, and The Blueline Anthology 2004. His short story, “Morgan the Plumber,” which appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

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