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End of the Rainbows

Back Alley Arts

Lenny’s brother, the one they called Happy even though he cried all the time, is the reason that I stopped drawing pictures of people. I was rather good at it, and you get so much out of portraits or social scenery, but if you draw them too honestly people get offended. It is as if what people see on the canvas is somehow not really them, even though it looks so convincingly that way. I used to think to myself that people have a hard time understanding what they look like, but then I think again that these people must look in the mirror everyday. When they shave, or put on make up, or cream a wrinkle – what exactly do they see? And I think about all those photographs and home movies that they have. Why don’t these portraits offend their vulgar eyes?

I can tell you why. The answer is simpler than you might expect, simple I say because even Jules – that’s Lenny’s brother – knew it when he was only seven years old. The reason why people get offended by drawings is because they can see that you see them a little differently than they see themselves. When they look at an honest picture, when they see the still life of their imperfect eyes, they’re afraid that you hate them, or they panic that you might know them, or a combination of both. It’s better to tell people what you think than to show them. People don’t listen to words anyway; words don’t mean anything, like pictures do.

There’s one picture I’ll never forget. I got it the first time I saw Jules. He snuck up on me and Lenny playing in the backyard. He was so quiet he scared the smile out of me. In his hand was a piece of paper that he held out for me.

"That’s my kid brother, Jules," Lenny told me, "Don’t mind him, he’s dumb."

I looked down at Jules curiously. I was surprised by how small he was, reaching only as high as my shoulder, and his arms skinny like crayons. Lenny, by comparison, was a good couple inches taller than me even, and the strongest kid in our class. If you saw him and Jules together you’d think that Lenny had been hogging all the food in their house or something. And unlike his brother, Jules was silent and awkward, most of the time staring downward at his untied laces, or pulling at his shirt, which was much too big for him. His body just looked unnatural, like he was waiting patiently to grow into his own clothes. But what I most remember about Jules is his eyes: such a pale-blue, his eyes must have worn out at an early age.

I looked at the paper he had given me, which was in fact a drawing of me and Lenny, but with horribly big eyes and small hands.

"Thanks," I said. But Jules didn’t say anything.

"He’s deaf," said Lenny. "He can’t hear you. Just shake his hand and he’ll go away." So that’s what I did and just like Lenny had said, Jules turned around and walked back into the house as quietly as he had come.

"Has your brother always been like that?" I asked.

"Nah, just since last year. He can talk I’ll bet, he just doesn’t want to. He got kicked out of kindergarten, you know."

"No way! What for?"

"He drew funny pictures. They said he was crazy."

"Like what? People with three heads and blood all over?" I knew a kid named Kevin who drew a picture like that. He said the creature was from Greek mythology, but that didn’t save him from getting in trouble. They give us red paint in school and it smells like raspberry. But there’s no way to keep the raspberry smell once it looks like blood on the paper.

Lenny said that Jules’s pictures weren’t like that. "But you know what, I don’t know what they were exactly. My mom and dad had to go to all these meetings with the school about it. I think he drew the teacher or something. Teacher made him throw it all away."

"You can’t get kicked out of kindergarten for drawing the teacher!" I said.

"Can so," said Lenny. "Jules did."

Lenny and I were good friends, the best of friends, and we used to play every day after school. Sometimes Jules was there and sometimes he went to see the doctors to make him better. But every time he would see Lenny and me playing, he would draw us a picture. I would say thank you, shake his hand, and he would go away. He smiled sometimes, but he seemed like a serious kid. He was opposite from Lenny in every way.

I asked why the other kids called him Happy, and Lenny said, "It’s from kindergarten. He used to cry a lot and the teacher would sing this song to him, ‘Happy day! come and play! sun is here and clouds away!’ All the kids just called him Happy after that."

I didn’t know any other kids with nicknames so it was hard for me to call Jules that. Besides, Happy didn’t seem to fit him. I heard some neighborhood girls on the street tease him with the name, though. "Happy," they’d call, "can’t you stop smiling for a second?" And another would tease, "Happy rhymes with crappy!" But what does that mean anyway? Glad rhymes with sad. And bad.

After about a year Jules starting speaking again, although you had to look right at him when you spoke, on account of his deafness. He was still the same old Jules though, and even though he did speak, he didn’t do it too much. I think that drawing pictures had taken the place of speaking words with him, and he just stuck with it. His drawings got better, too, although he never drew people anymore. Jules was an artist, from the first time I met him. He went back to school, too, a private one on the other side of town with different kids and a different teacher. People stopped calling him Happy.

One day, I remember, when I came over after school Lenny had fallen ill and was too sleepy to play anything. His parents told me that it was all very serious and that maybe I should go away. But Lenny wasn’t a serious kid so I couldn’t believe that any disease he had could be serious either. So after they closed the door on me, I went around the back. Jules was sitting on the patio floor, a wet concrete that was surely cold. He was looking right at me when I turned the corner. It was like he was waiting for me. And without even asking, he opened the back door and I went up to see Lenny.

He was asleep, just like his parents had told me. But he didn’t look anymore serious than any other kid sleeping. He was probably dreaming something funny. Lenny always had exciting dreams.

I didn’t want to wake him so I started to back out of the room. But on the edge of the bed I noticed a drawing that Jules had placed at his brother’s feet. The picture was of the bed in Lenny’s room, all colorful with a big heart cut into the headboard, crying. The picture was very well done. The colors looked alive and every stroke from Jules’s pen had landed where it was supposed to. Nothing ran outside the lines. Jules kept everything inside.

But the heart weeping was too sad. It seemed exaggerated. I thought it might bother Lenny in his sickness, so I took the drawing back before Lenny could wake up. I returned down the stairs and out the back. Jules was still on the cold concrete. I asked him why the heart in the picture was so big.

"That’s how it is," he said.

He was never one for words, that Jules. I kept the drawing for myself and headed home. I still look at that picture often.

When I got home things were like usual. My mom was in her room on the telephone. She always had a lot of friends. But they didn’t talk about the same stuff that Lenny and I talked about. Lenny and I always laughed a lot when we spoke. It didn’t matter what we talked about. But mom was different. She always talked about the same thing. She talked about dad. And she never laughed.

I knocked on her door because I wanted to tell her about Lenny being sick. She told me never to interrupt her unless it was important, but I was sure this time. How could Lenny’s sickness not be big enough? But she shooed me away anyway and told me to tell dad instead. "It’s just my son," I heard her sigh into the phone. "He wanted to tell me about one of his little friends." Then she closed the door behind me and I couldn’t hear her anymore. I really like the sound of my mother’s voice, even if I’ve most often heard it muffled by a wooden door or behind a wall.

Dad wasn’t at home. He didn’t come home usually until very late. He said it was because mom didn’t make dinner anymore. He was right about that. But although I promised him I’d learn to cook him dinner, he never came home early. Instead he went out with his friends after work. "They’re my boys," he told me. "Daniels, Walker, Mr. Bombay. They’re always there when I need them." I wish I could have gone to work with my dad to meet his friends. Dad always apologized that he couldn’t take me along. But he worked strange hours; sometimes he wouldn’t come home until after I’d fallen asleep. Also, you have to be twenty-one years old to go there. It’s not his fault though. I never did learn how to cook anything for him.

Lenny’s sickness lasted longer than anyone would have ever thought, and since Lenny couldn’t do anything, I took to playing with Jules. I would chase him around the house like I was going to catch him and eat him. He would yell and howl so loudly I became convinced that he surely was deaf. More importantly, if I kept it up I would have become deaf in a quick minute, too.

If I caught him, which was rare, he would wrangle and swivel and escape me, his body so wiry and flexible that it would have taken more energy than I had to keep him. And the chase is always worth more than the short moment of victory, isn’t it? Eventually I would collapse onto the floor somewhere, completely spent. And he would shake his head at me, not disappointed, but not smiling either. And he would take off running again. When he was sure he’d won, he’d go back outside and sit on the patio concrete. I always found him there staring at me like he knew I was coming. With Jules there never really was a victory. Whether you looked into those pale eyes with fear or with fire, you always saw your own reflection, but never his.

The one place that I was never allowed to chase Jules was into his room. He kept the door shut, and a key latched to a string tied tightly around his lower calf and down his sock. I thought it odd that his parents could so readily give privacy to such a young kid, but maybe his freedom was earned somehow. I’m not sure exactly when that key appeared anyway. Jules’s parents didn’t pay him much attention since Lenny had gotten sick.

Sometimes I thought I could get at the key when I caught him, but he defended it with such a frightening possessiveness that I considered it best not to provoke him. With Lenny getting sicker, Jules became a valued friend.

Sometimes I brought Jules over to my house to play. I figured that it would be easier to catch him that way. I knew my house better than I knew his, and he wouldn’t have anywhere to hide. But I quickly realized that in my house there were more places off limits than just that one room in Jules’s house. We weren’t allowed to play in my mother’s room. My dad kept his room locked because he was away for days at a time. And of course I didn’t even have a room. I’d been sleeping on the sofa ever since mom had taken my room to be away from dad. She said she needed space for herself.

We still had fun in my house though. Occasionally my mom would step out of her room to tell us to quiet down, but she didn’t have the energy to force us. And anyway she was too busy with her friends on the phone. My family, at the time, was a very friendly family. Mom had hers, dad had his, and I had Jules.

It wasn’t until the next summer that I got to see Jules’s room for myself. It was on the day Lenny died. It was my habit to go straight to Lenny’s house after school, check in with him and tell him about the day’s news. Then I’d go play with Jules until his mother called him in for dinner.

When I came there after school that day I saw an ambulance out front. I ran inside but it was too late. Lenny had died that morning; his heart had given out. It was just like the heart in that picture Jules had drawn when Lenny first became sick. His mom and dad were crying on the living room couch, but I couldn’t have said anything to them then, I couldn’t have said anything at all. At least I would have liked to draw them a picture, but I was no artist like Jules was. The ambulance didn’t even drive away. Lenny must have died before they’d gotten there.

I sneaked upstairs quietly to Lenny’s room, but he wasn’t there. I don’t know why I thought he would be. Maybe I wasn’t looking for Lenny. Maybe I was looking for Jules. But Jules couldn’t be found in any of our usual hiding places.

I was about to head back down when I noticed that the door to Jules’s room was slightly open. I thought he must have forgotten to lock it, and for a second I considered closing it. But then I heard him crying and I knew he was inside. "Jules?" I said, but of course he couldn’t hear me. I knocked on the door thinking that I could push my way in, but to my surprise he actually opened it.

His room was just how I expected it to be, but somehow wrong. It was neat and orderly, his bed tiny and made up with a storybook comforter. All around were drawings that he had pasted up on the wall, of dogs and cats and rainbows. It looked like the room of a young artist. But the drawings did not look like his own. Jules’s room would just not have drawings like these.

He had stopped crying when he saw me. Just like that. I’ve never understood how he had such control of his emotions. My mom told me that you can’t control how you feel. And my dad was living proof of what my mom said. He would yell at her and then apologize to me. "I just don’t know any other way to act," he’d say. It wasn’t his fault. Maybe mom and I didn’t listen to him unless he yelled.

But Jules never yelled. He hardly spoke. And he knew his emotions more than most people do. He knew how to keep them inside so they’d never escape. Or at least they never came out when anyone was watching.

"Hey, Jules," I said looking at my reflection in his eyes, "how come your door’s not locked?"

"It doesn’t have a lock," he said.

I didn’t know what to say. I felt very stupid. It didn’t seem like we should be having this conversation now. We should have been talking about Lenny.

But I just had to know. "Then what’s the key for?"

He didn’t answer me, he started rummaging through his closet and pulled out a black chest the size of his tiny arm. It was without ornament, plain, with a small keyhole in the front. He took off his sock and undid the string around his leg, freeing the key and unlocking the chest. Inside it were tens of papers, some crumpled up and others in perfect condition.

"What are those, Jules?" Still he said nothing, just handed me the one on top. It was of Lenny. I could tell it was Lenny because he was in bed, and his heart was bigger than the rest of his body. That’s exactly what Lenny is like. In the portrait Lenny was waving to a small figure with large blue eyes at the edge of the bed. That figure was waving back.

"That’s me," he said pointing to the smaller boy.

Of course it was. That’s just what Jules was like.

I flipped through some of the other drawings in the chest. Jules let me. All of them were pictures of people. You could tell who they were even though mostly they were only stick figures. I can’t say just how, but you just could tell. It was in their blank eyes, or enormous hands, or large mouths. Every drawing was clear, every person perfectly captured. I saw pictures of the kids teasing him. I saw Jules’s teacher. I saw the meetings with the parents. I saw Jules crying and tearing up his drawings. There were many of Lenny, too, in the backyard and in his bed. There were even a few of me. I know it was me because I was always the one next to Lenny.

I started to cry, I did, because I realized that I never got to wave goodbye to Lenny, like Jules did. He put his arm around me, and I looked into his eyes. There was too much age in those eyes, there was too much knowledge.

"You know, I heard him say goodbye."

"What, Jules?" I stopped crying, almost as fast as Jules could. I didn’t understand. Jules stared at me quietly, he spread out his arms for emphasis.

"It was the loudest sound," he said.

"But you can’t hear, Jules, can you?" But he turned away from me and then he started crying. "Jules, Jules!" I said, trying to comfort him. When I think about it now, though, I know he must have cried only to make me stop. I think he was crying for me.

"Have your mom and dad seen these drawings?" I asked. He just shook his head and shook his head, and he wouldn’t talk about it anymore.

"Look at these," he said, his lanky arm pointing up to the happy pictures on the wall: the sun smiling, the sailboats, and the rainbows. I threw my eyes at those pleasant scenes trying to see something that simply wasn’t there. But I realized soon enough that Jules was just trying to make me forget about the pictures of people, those pictures in the chest which he had somehow hidden while I was looking at the wall. It made me sad. Jules draws the way it is, but up here on the walls were only lies.

"Jules," I said, "Why do you draw these things if you know that it’s not the way it is?"

But he just looked at me with his extraordinary eyes, and said, "Because they don’t have meetings about rainbows."


© 2002 by b.z.