Fred the Painter

by Robert Warren Cornell

____Fred came home with a note from his kindergarten teacher requesting a conference with his parents. She was concerned that Fred might have a serious problem. When his parents came to the school, Fred’s teacher told them, to begin with, that Fred was one of her best pupils, that he was a delight to have in her class and that he seemed very bright and was way ahead of the other children in his numbers and letters.
____“Fred has a wonderful ear for music,” she continued, “his drawings show that he is very observant of the world around him. And he often exhibits a lively imagination. Why he even shows a remarkable understanding of perspective for a child of his age. At story time…” Mrs. Quilliver gazed into space at what must have been a beautiful image for her. She paused in wonder and then went on: “At story time Fred sits on the floor, his legs crossed, his elbows on his knees and his smiling face cradled in his hands and listens with wrapped attention and excitement. Then, when he has his turn to make up a story and tell it to the other children…why, I find that he has cleverly combined characters and plot elements from different stories I had read to the class and created an entirely fresh composition that….that…” she hesitated, a hint of regret shading her wondering face. “I’ve often tried writing stories for children myself, but, well… I’ve never written anything half as good as the stories Fred comes up with.”
____Fred’s mom and dad glowed as they stared at Mrs. Quilliver, basking in her heartfelt admiration of their son. Without taking his eyes away from Fred’s teacher, John slowly turned his head in his wife’s direction. “Sara…?” he said quietly, still staring at the teacher out of the side of his face as if he were afraid she might do something dreadful if he took his eyes off her, “Sara…didn’t she say there was a problem?”. Mrs. Quilliver’s face darkened — she was so absorbed in her own thoughts that she hadn’t actually heard Fred’s father speaking.
____“I’m worried,” she said with gravity, “that Fred may have some deep seated problem he hasn’t been able to share with us.” Her shoulders dropped as she exhaled, perhaps for the first time in many sentences.
____“You see,” she said, “each week I have all of the children do a painting with the poster paints. And Fred… well, he never uses any colors. He always paints entirely in black! Oh, they’re wonderful paintings you understand, full of vibrancy and light, but I’m concerned that he never chooses any of the many wonderful colors we have. I’m just wondering if he might be repressing some traumatic experience that he can’t bear to bring to the surface. Has there been any experience of this sort that you know of? An accident? The death of a friend?”
____ “Well, he was pretty upset when his turtle Little Freddie died,” the father said, “but he seemed to get over that in good time.”
____“Gee, I can’t think of anything,” said Sara. “He has one of those boxes of 96 Crayolas at home and I think he’s used just about every one.”
____Mrs. Quilliver had removed a stack of Fred’s paintings from a drawer and placed it ceremoniously on the desk in front of Fred’s parents. One by one she slowly turned the sheets over while they talked.
____Sara had always loved sculpture and painting. Even though she had been raising a child and working almost full-time with practically no free time to herself, she still subscribed to one or two of the art magazines, and dropped in at the galleries and museums whenever she had a few moments to spare. She was well informed, having studied painting a bit in college and taken some courses in art history. She almost never read the reviews of gallery openings in the local papers simply because they made her painfully aware of how much more insight she herself had as an amateur than any of the reviewers revealed in their clever wordy attempts to generate controversy where there usually was none. The only thing the ‘Art Experts’ could do for her was to spoil a show—when she finally got to see it first hand—by making her so angry that she couldn’t enjoy the artist’s work.
____Sara was astonished by the paintings she saw revealed to her as they were leafed over one by one crackling to rest in front of her on Mrs. Quilliver’s desk. For one thing, they were better—far better—than any of the drawings Fred had brought home from school or the doodlings she had seen him do at home. The paintings were so emotionally charged that they took her breath away. It crossed her mind to make some joke about this being Fred’s “Black” Period but she did not dare intrude on the austerity and seriousness of the silence in the room. She was also properly worried. The paintings showed a depth of emotion she had never thought possible in a five year old. One of the paintings was a portrait of a classmate of Fred’s whose mother had recently died in an automobile accident. The outline of the face occupied less than a quarter of the area of the large newsprint sheet and had been created with only a few stokes of a smallish brush. It was clearly a three-quarter view, the subject gazing into empty space to the left of the viewer. It reminded her of some of the sketches of Picasso which seemed to describe an entire human personality with just a few pencil strokes. The mouth was a single brush stroke with one end turned just slightly down, but that single stroke was the mouth of a completely hopeless and innocent little boy who had lost all joy in his life—a boy who it seemed would never find joy in his life again. The eyes as well were each just a single stroke from a small supple brush, a bit like commas the wrong way around, or perhaps a semi-colon lying precariously on it’s side. Although Fred had made no attempt to represent them, Sara was certain that there were tears streaming down the sad cheeks. All around the face the paper was almost entirely black. This infinity of colorless despair Fred had created with bold, angry, slashing stokes from a wide brush.
____ “Well, thank you very much.” John’s words shook Fred’s mother out of her agonized reverie. His voice was the monotone of total shock and uncertainty. It was as if he could barely understand the problem much less where anyone might begin to look for a solution. “We’ll certainly do everything we can to find out what might be bothering our son,” he concluded.
____Fred was immediately engaged in weekly sessions with a therapist during which he alternated between yawns of boredom and scowling at the odd questions. The one beneficial result of the sessions was that it came out that Fred thought Mrs. Quilliver a bit strange and he eventually felt perfectly justified and comfortable with these feelings. While the therapy continued without any obvious promise of unraveling Fred’s problem, all sorts of alternative avenues were explored. The minister was consulted and he provided an ample quantity of words but not much helpful advice. Some medical tests were done under the theory that perhaps the problem was not of a psychological nature, and if there were some physical disorder the sooner they found out about it the better. This included a full body CAT scan, and unlike most adults, Fred thought that sliding in and out of the hole in a giant donut that had little blinking lights and something inside that went “bzzzzz bzzzzz bzzzzz” as it moved around him…well, it was the most fun thing he had done in weeks.
____On Saturdays if the weather was good for sailing, Fred’s father would go to the yacht club and race his Lightning in the regattas. Saturday was the single day in the week that Sara and Fred could have together— just the two of them—all to themselves. One Saturday she made grilled cheese sandwiches, Fred’s favorite. The sandwiches had to be just a little dark brown in a few places on one side and they were best with exactly a quarter of a dill pickle sliced lengthwise lying on the plate next to the sandwich. The best part was the one corner that got a little soggy on the bottom from the pickle juice. Sometimes Fred ate that part first but sometimes he disciplined himself to save it for last. It was a wonderful game to balance the bites of sandwich and pickle in just the right proportion so that they came out even in the end, and left just the right sized bite of one or the other to be relished and savored as if it were some elegant desert.
____Sara Zimmerman was a cautious woman. She had been very careful about not pressing Fred too hard about his problem but this moment of intimacy with him seemed like a good time to feel him out. “How have your visits with Dr. Jablonski been going?” she asked.
____ “O.K.” said Fred absently. He was heavily engaged in examining the variety of golden, buttery, toasty colors on the surface of his sandwich.
____ “Did he ask you about Freddie?” she inquired.
____ “Yup,” he said with little interest.
____ “Did that make you feel sad?”
____ “Nope. Freddie was old, Mom. I knew he had to die sometime. I was just sad a little time when I missed him too much.”
____ “Did he ask you about your painting of Billy after his mother died?”
____ “Yup. But I don’t think he understands about pictures. I had to tell him that Billy was supposed to look sad because he was sad.”
____Somewhat frustrated, Fred’s mother felt she had held back long enough. She just had to come right out and ask.
____ “Fred?” she ventured cautiously.
____ “Yes Mom?” Fred mumbled between bites.
____ “Why are all the paintings you do at school done only with black paint?” She tried to ask the question with a bit of a lilt in her voice so as not to reveal how gravely worried she was.
____ “Well,” Fred said as he continued to examine his sandwich appreciatively. “When we do painting we have to go get the paints from the big cabinet. We have to line up by alphabet…” he explained as he took a bite and watched a long thread of cheese stretch slowly away between his mouth and the fresh notch in the corner of his sandwich.
____Sara’s eyebrows stretched up as far as they could possibly go as her expression was transformed from abject seriousness to playful mirth. Zimmerman! She had guessed what was coming next. In a matter-of-fact tone Fred continued:
____ “…And by the time I get there, there’s nothing left but black. I don’t mind really. I like to paint black. I can pretend I see colors.”
____Sara’s eyes had turned to little smiles and she held up three fingers covering her mouth, almost in embarrassment of the roar of laughter that was welling up inside her. Suddenly she erupted into uncontrolled and contagious hilarity. Fred was too young to appreciate the contrast—unable to know the weeks of adult anxiety that had preceded this moment. But he was not too young to see that there was a good joke here and join in the fun. They laughed and laughed until they could hardly catch a breath and tears were running down mom’s cheeks—tears of a joy she would treasure forever.

Thanks to my sister Katie for the idea that inspired this story.


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