The Picture and the Dream
“Here we are,” Buck says.
Matthew leans right as the pickup trick turns sharply into a long gravel road that slopes down into a thicket of trees.
“This is River Road?” He looks at the road doubtfully. It’s narrow, barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other by. Large gashes where the gravel has been stripped away are half-filled with dirty, stagnant water.
Buck snorts, amused. “Someone just outed himself as a big city boy.”
“Guilty,” Matthew says.
“It ain’t so bad. It gets useless pretty quick if we ever get snow, since it’s kinda hard to plow gravel. On the other hand, parts of it don’t even have gravel nowadays.”
“So it’s a dirt road, with occasional patches of rock.”
Buck laughs. “I guess. But most of us drive trucks, so that’s all right. And the trade-off is we get to live by the river.”
They pass the treeline, and Matthew has a sudden memory of sharp, whip-like branches lashing out at him. He tenses, but the memory fades as they drive into a twilight world of trees and houses. It’s a forest of silver birch, willow oak, and white ash all mixed together, reddish-brown and cinnamon red bark intermingling with light gray and grayish-brown. Branches overlap and crisscross to form a canopy over the road.
“Is it always this dark?”
“Nah,” Buck says, “at night it’s even darker. We don’t have street lights down here. City Council thought about putting ‘em in… I think that’s the only time the neighborhood showed up in strength to a meeting. We told ‘em we were making a courtesy call, and if they didn’t drop the matter we’d show up armed at the next one.”
“I see,” Matthew says. “I bet the sheriff thought that was pretty funny.”
“He did not,” Buck says.
“Honest to God,” Buck continues, “you’d think he was my pa the way he lectured me that night.”
The houses tend to be simple one or two-story structures, almost all with a truck and sometimes two parked out front. Trees cast shadows across them, the red glow from the setting sun diffusing through the branches, giving the shadows indistinct, red-gold edges. Just beyond the houses the treeline breaks, and Matthew sees the river.
“Water’s pretty close to the houses,” he notes.
“Yeah,” Buck agrees, “and the insurance companies really don’t like it. This is all technically a flood plain. I’ve never seen the river rise high enough to do any damage though, and it’s not like we’re living on the Mississippi or anything—this river is pretty small. Still, a few years back our insurance company tried to drop us.”
“What happened?” Matthew asks.
“My lawyer happened,” Buck says, smug with satisfaction. “He writes a pretty mean letter. Hey, here we are! Welcome home.”
The truck abruptly turns into a dirt driveway, rolling to a stop in front of a modest two-story house with a detached garage.
“Thanks for putting me up,” Matthew says. “The motel was really getting to me.”
“I’ll bet. It’s not a big deal. We have the room, and Ellie’s been wanting to meet you anyway.” Buck grins mischievously. “Heard all about you through the local gossip.”
Matthew sighs. Buck slaps him on the back.
They step out of the truck and into dim twilight. Matthew grabs the bag containing his few belongings—slightly more than he had when he arrived, but still meager—and looks at the house with interest. The first floor is brick; the second, slightly smaller in size, has aluminum siding. Windows are spaced evenly along the front, the curtains are drawn but light peeks through the edges on the first floor. Steps lead to a small porch and a door with a porch-light shining over it.
“Built the second floor myself,” Buck says with obvious pride. “A one-floor cottage is fine when it’s just the two of you, but after Jake and then Catie—that’s my little girl, you’ll meet her soon enough—we needed a little extra room.”
“It looks nice,” Matthew says.
“Thanks. Come on in.” Buck steps up to the porch and opens the door, stepping through with a cheerful “Hey!“ to the inhabitants within.
The living room is comfortably furnished and cheerfully lit. A couch sits against the outer wall, a love seat against the interior, and an overstuffed easy chair angles between the two. On the far wall is a large bookshelf and flat-screen television. Stairs to the right of the front door lead up to the second floor, and an archway on the inner wall, set between the love seat and the bookshelf, leads to the dining room. Blocks and puzzle pieces lie scattered across the floor.
A small girl races through the archway and throws herself into Buck’s arms. Buck laughs fondly, lifts her up, and spins her around. She shrieks gleefully as he completes the spin and gently sets her back down. When she sees Matthew, she falls silent, suddenly self-conscious.
“Hi,“ Matthew says.
She is very young—perhaps five or six—and wears blue denim coveralls and a smudged yellow short-sleeve shirt. Her dark brown hair is braided into thick pigtails. She stares at him with wide, unblinking blue eyes.
“This is my Catie,“ Buck says. “Catie, this is that artist I was telling you about. He’s going to stay with us for a bit.”
Catie remains silent a moment longer, staring at Matthew thoughtfully. “I draw too!” she announces, then races back through the archway, disappearing from sight.
Matthew glances at Buck uncertainly. Buck grins.
“No around kids much, are you?” Buck asks.
Matthew shakes his head.
A tall, slim woman with dark blonde hair and clear green eyes enters through the archway and smiles at Buck warmly. “Took you long enough,” she says. Her hair is pulled back into a wispy bun, revealing sharp features softened by a kind smile. “I thought maybe I’d have to call the Sheriff.”
Buck grins, draws her close, and kisses her. Turning Matthew he says “this is my Ellie. Ellie, this is the man himself.”
Matthew shifts awkwardly. “Hello Mrs. Gardener. I appreciate you letting me stay here.”
“‘Mrs. Gardener’?” The corners of her mouth twitch. “That’s what everyone calls Buck’s mother. Call me Ellie. And of course you’re welcome here. This is my chance to get ahead of all the local local gossip.” Her eyes sparkle with mischief.
“Feel like a slab of meat yet?” Buck chortles.
“Hush,” Ellie says, “and wash up. Dinner’s about ready.”
Dinner consists of roast beef, gravy, mashed potatoes, and black-eyed peas, served with milk for Catie and sweet iced tea for the adults. It’s delicious, and Matthew is hungry. Ellie watches Matthew dig in with some amusement.
“You eat like you’ve been starving yourself,” she says.
Matthew grins self-consciously. “I’ve been living on a lot of pizza since I got here. And eating at Sally’s too, but mostly pizza. It gets old after a while.”
“Why didn’t you eat at Sally’s more?” Ellie asks. “She can’t stop talking about every time you show up. According to her, every time you walk through her door something exciting happens.”
“I think the sheriff thinks the same thing,” Matthew says. “He’s paying for the motel and meals until they find my car, but he only pays for meals if I order in.”
Buck chokes on his tea.
“Sheriff Dobbs is a good man,” Ellie says. Buck starts coughing, covering his mouth with a napkin to try and hide his mirth. Ellie glares.
“He’s not the worst lawman I’ve ever met,” Matthew says. “I even almost like him. But he still wants me to leave town before I kick over any more beehives.”
“Too late for that,” Buck says. “You already kicked over all the big ones. Might as well stay!”
“How long do you think you’ll be here?” Ellie asks.
Matthew shrugs. “At least until I get my car back, or everyone gives up on it. But maybe longer than that. I want to take a look around. I think I want to paint something. I don’t know what yet, I just feel like there’s something here to paint.”
Catie has been silent all dinner, mostly staring at and playing with her food, listening to the adults talk and rather bored by the whole affair. But at the mention of painting she perks up and stares at Matthew with interest. “What are you going to paint?” she asks shyly.
Matthew stares at her in surprise, and seeing her blush from his reaction quickly rushes in to answer the question. “The bridge, for one thing. And maybe Bridge Road Park.”
Catie is still blushing, but encouraged by Matthew’s response she chances a second question. “Why?”
“Well…” Matthew shrugs, then seeing her wilt a little from the non-answer, puts on his most thoughtful expression. “I like the way they look. And I think they’d look good in a painting.”
She looks back down at her food, not quite satisfied. In a flash of inspiration, he adds “when we first met you said you drew. Can I see some of your drawings after dinner?”
Catie’s blush deepens, but she also smiles, looking pleased. “OK.”
“Oh, you have a friend for life, now,“ Buck says. He also looks pleased.
After dinner Buck collects the dishes while Ellie brings out three cups of strong, black coffee and four slices of cake. The adults drink their coffee and talk amiably about nothing important. While they talk, Catie toys with her cake and grows ever more impatient, swinging her feet until they hit the legs of her chair with a rhythmic thumping noise. Buck and Ellie watch their daughter’s impatience with growing amusement.
Ellie is the first to relent.
“I think she wants dinner to be over,” she says, suppressing her smile.
“Well…” Buck scratches his beard, considering. “I guess I’ll go outside a bit. Catie, why don’t you show Matthew your pictures here at the dinner table so he can finish his coffee.”
Without a word, Catie bolts from her chair, clambers out from beneath the table, and dashes into the living the room. Matthew hears the thump thump thump of her feet as she runs up the stairs.
Buck laughs as Ellie’s expression dissolves into a fond smile.
“She’s been wanting to do this ever since I first mentioned you,” Buck says. “She adores drawing. I think she’s pretty good, too, but I just might be a little biased.”
Buck pushes his chair back, stretches, then stands. “I’ll be in the shop.” He stomps off to the kitchen, whistling cheerfully. Matthew hears the bang of a screen door slamming shut.
“I’ll be in the kitchen,” Ellie says, “washing up.”
Matthew stands, offering to help, but Ellie waves him down. “You have something more important to do,” she says, smiling.
A minute later Catie walks back into the dining room, clutching a stack of cheap, yellowed drawing paper to her chest. She’s still blushing furiously.
“Are those your drawings?” Matthew asks.
“Well, let’s take a look,“ he says.
Catie walks over and holds out the stack of paper. Matthew takes it gently, and smooths it out on the dining room table. Catie climbs up into the chair next to his, kneeling on the seat so she can see over the edge of the table.
“You have to tell me what I can do to make it better,” she says.
Matthew looks at her in surprise. She stares at him earnestly, all signs of embarrassment gone.
“Promise,” she says.
“OK,” Matthew says. “I promise I’ll try.”
Catie nods, satisfied.
He looks over the first drawing and is immediately impressed: she has talent. It’s a picture of their house, but instead of the standard “square with squares inside” that’s a typical product of children her age, Catie has tried to make the shape proportional to the actual house, place the windows and door in their proper places, and even differentiate between the brick of the lower floor and the aluminum siding on the upper floor. It isn’t a very close approximation, of course—she’s had no formal training, and the things she’s trying are, judging by all the smudge marks and eraser tears on the paper, painfully unfamiliar to her. But she has great instincts, and she’s trying to use them.
“This is good,” Matthew says. Seeing the look on her face, he ads “it really is. Honest. But it’s not the picture you want, is it?”
Catie shakes her head. “It looks wrong.”
“Well,” Matthew says, “you’re trying to do a lot of things here. I see you’re trying to draw the brick, the aluminum, even the trees. And you see that they all have little details, and you’re trying to draw all those little details too. Am I right?”
“Yeah,” Catie says. “But it’s bad.”
Matthew shakes his head. “Not bad. Just too much. There are so many little details to keep track of they’re making you confused. Keeping track of details like that takes practice. So practice drawing smaller things for a while. Like a chair, or this table. Pick something small and try to put as much detail as you can into it. And if the thing you pick still makes you confused, pick something even smaller than that. Eventually, when you learn to draw the small things, you might find that the big things are really just a bunch of small things all put together.”
Catie thinks over his advice. “I don’t want to draw one small thing,” she says. “I want to draw bigger.”
“Yeah,” Matthew says, and smiles at his kindred spirit. “I do too.”
Looking through more of her drawings, Matthew remembers when teachers started calling him talented—he was twelve at the time, and had been drawing for years. In some ways, Catie has already surpassed that twelve-year-old boy. She draws objects better than she draws people, which isn’t surprising, but even with people she takes pains to keep faces and bodies proportional, even though it’s clear she doesn’t quite understand what those proportions are. She even tries to show light and shadow, though most of that is completely beyond her at this point.
Matthew tries to come up with simple suggestions for each drawing, something she can practice now that will help her improve without introducing concepts she isn’t ready to learn. They’re very minor suggestions, but each time he makes one she nods, satisfied that he is keeping his promise.
When he gets to the second to last drawing, he stops and stares at it in shock.
The picture shows a stone jutting out of a hill. The stone overlooks a valley, and in the middle of the valley is a tower, rising six or seven stories into the air. The picture is very simple, and lacks detail, but the lines are clean: there is none of the hesitation or struggle he sees in any of the others. It’s a quality line drawing of the tower he saw the day he had his seizure.
Matthew looks up at Catie. She stares back calmly. Looking past her, he sees Ellie in the kitchen, washing dishes in the sink.
“What’s this?” Matthew’s voice is hoarse.
“I mean, where did you see it?”
“I had a dream,” Catie says. “A dream about a baby who stopped crying. That’s the last one.”
Hands trembling slightly, Matthew slides the drawing aside to look at the final picture in the stack. It’s a picture of the foot of the tower, and standing at the entrance is a man and a woman. Again, the structures are drawn with the same clean lines. The man and the woman are drawn in a cruder fashion, but there’s enough detail to show that the woman is carrying a baby.
“You dreamed about this?” Matthew whispers.
Catie nods solemnly. “The baby wouldn’t stop crying,” she whispers back. “Then they sang a song, and the baby never cried again.”
Matthew stares down at the picture, remembering the song. “I had the same dream.”
“I knew you did, maybe,” Catie says.
Matthew looks back at the picture, gaze drifting from the man, to the woman, to the child. “We had the same dream.”
“Yeah,” Catie says.
“Do you think… do you think it was a good dream?”
Catie frowns, stares at the picture, and shakes her head.
“Babies are supposed to cry,” she says.