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Authors: Jenelle Jack Pierre

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BOOK: A Mural of Hands
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I took in a deep breath. The air smelled limitlessly clean.

“I realized you loved the water. Now it seems you have a thing for being in the air too. Is life here on earth so bad?” 

“Not when I can walk next to you.” We passed a pizza shop with a brightly colored mural on the wall, a scene of children playing in a grassy field with flowers.

“Fantastic, isn’t it?”  

“Uh huh.” I nodded my head. “The integration of colors, the way the muralist brought out the different shades of the children’s brownness is great.” Only a local would be able to depict a society of mostly African and Indian descendants so sharply.  

Natalie turned her head toward me and arched an eyebrow. 

“I’ve always liked painting,” I went on. “Art is sometimes unappreciated here, unless you can sing soca or dance.”

“You have many interests, Mr. Antonio.”

“I guess.” I examined the mural. “Just look at this. The colors alone are something.”

Natalie nodded.

“If everything was suddenly only in gray, we’d long for color. Rembrandt is my favorite painter,” I confessed. “I love his self-portraits.” We walked again. Something was stuck in the sole of my Nikes, and I stopped Natalie, putting one hand on her shoulder for balance while I pried the small stone that I found out with the other.

“That’s a bit strange, choosing to create art of yourself.” Natalie folded her arms.

“A person would really have to know what kind of impression his face made to paint it with any sort of truth.” 

“Or they could just be narcissistic.” Natalie took my hand and squeezed it. “I didn’t know you thought about things like that.”

I could feel my eyebrows furrowing. “What do you mean?”

Natalie pulled a rubber band out of her purse, then put her hair into a ponytail. “The whole art thing.”

“Mechanics read, have hobbies, can know about art.”

Natalie glimpsed at me sideways. “I didn’t mean it like that.” She sighed. “That

probably didn’t come out right. I think I meant that you never know what to expect

when you meet a person.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because sometimes you look at what you think someone’s going to bring to the table, and you get less.”

“And sometimes you get more.”

“Yes, sometimes.” 

I glanced at the sweat trickling down her neck in the direction of her breasts. “We haven’t reached the post-office. But if you want we can turn back now.”

“Let’s do that. We can always walk here another time. Later in the day, when it’s a bit cooler.” Natalie looked happy, mirroring how I was feeling inside.

We stopped, staring into each other’s eyes. I wasn’t that into public displays of affection. But the idea of regretting that I hadn’t kissed her when I had the chance made me brave.

I leaned into Natalie, my face inches from hers, then closed my eyes, and kissed her. Her soft lips tasted like the peppermint she’d eaten after lunch at the restaurant. A car horn honked as the driver whizzed by. A few more honks sounded around us, causing me to back away. Natalie blinked, her lids low, before she turned away, her cheeks a shade brighter.

I moved to her side and we stood, absorbing the moment, gazing at the street. A puddle of water showed a reflection of an oddly barren tree. A car in the outer lane drew closer, then switched lanes. It sped past the puddle, sending ripples through the mirrored tree branches.

* * * *

After going out for weeks, Natalie and I gradually got closer and became a couple. Yet, I felt like something was missing. Natalie seemed to be fine, telling me how I was the most attentive boyfriend she’d ever had and that she always looked forward to our dates. Though I didn’t want to think about it, it was hard for me not to realize that I’d introduced Natalie to most of my friends, and to my brother during a soccer match at the national stadium. But except for the run-in with her cousin, Natalie showed no interest in including me in other parts of her life.

I didn’t know if it was because I had no money, or if her parents would disapprove for some other reason. My life was a mixture of hard work and dreams. It was true I had only gone to trade school, but it was a lot cheaper than the university, and I loved being a mechanic. Besides, university wasn’t for me. I’d never liked sitting in a classroom anyway, except for art class. I would’ve loved to have become a painter, but the supplies were too expensive. The canvasses alone would’ve set me back. And since there was always a car to be fixed, and I knew I could make a decent living, I decided it was the way to go. But, I started to wonder if Natalie’s parents even knew I existed.

I wondered also if I was over-thinking things with her and kept my suspicions to myself.

* * * *

“Hey, Natalie.”

We were reading the event poster stuck against the wall by the KFC in town, and we both glanced around. A tall guy, about Natalie’s age, nineteen or so, stood smirking at us. He wore a bright yellow Adidas jacket over a t-shirt, although it was in the nineties, and a matching logo baseball cap. Curly hair peeped through above his ears.

“Gunther,” Natalie said.

He nodded at me. “I tried calling your house this morning, but nobody answered. What time is your mom having dinner tonight?”

I swallowed my saliva, feeling a bit awkward listening to these plans. But maybe Gunther was another relative.

“It’s at six-thirty.” Natalie took a quick glance at me. “Antonio, this is a friend of mine from school.”

“We’re back in the saddle next week.” Gunter adjusted his hat.

Natalie sighed. “Yeah, I know.”

Gunther glanced at his watch. “Yeah, so dinner. Do you think she’ll want me to bring anything?”

“Not really,” Natalie replied. “Everything’s covered.”

Gunther rotated his shoulder. “Okay.” He looked at me. “Your mom said it was a casual thing. I’m bringing Elaine.” He hit the side of my arm. “Is your friend coming?”

We both looked at Natalie, who fidgeted with the button on her black blouse. Gunther cleared his throat, suddenly seeming in a hurry to go somewhere.

“Do you want to come over?” Natalie asked me.

I wasn’t sure about this impromptu invitation, but I agreed, wanting to spend time with those who knew Natalie.

* * * *

I arrived at the gate on time with a bag full of golden apples, half ripe calabash mangos, and sapodillas. I pressed the buzzer by the entrance and waited until the front door and gate opened. Natalie appeared on the steps, a light breeze wisping her hair. Her yellow halter dress was stunning against her skin. Somehow, Natalie always seemed put together. I hadn’t seen her in any outfit more than once since we’d begun dating, though she’d seen my clothes rotate. I touched a button on my dark blue shirt and was glad I’d bought it, as well as a new pair of tan slacks, earlier in the day. I was excited to meet Natalie’s family and hoped that we’d get along well.

Inside, the foyer was wide, with Afrocentric ornaments placed in the corners. A large oriental rug filled the center of the space.

Four large mirrors lined one wall, making the space seem even bigger. We walked into the dining room, where eight people were already seated around a large mahogany table. Everyone was mixed up in various conversations, but these ended when I entered. I thought that was because I’d been the last to arrive. Gunther signaled hello with a slight wave of his hand, then swung his arm casually around his date’s shoulder.

Natalie briefly touched my elbow. “Relax,” she whispered. She introduced me to her parents first. Her mom was surprisingly short and seemed like she put a lot of effort into her appearance. She wore a lot of makeup and her dress, white and sharply ironed, looked like she’d just gotten it back from the dry cleaners. Natalie’s dad got up from his seat and shook my hand. He was tall, round in the stomach, with warm gray eyes. His head was balding, his moustache carefully shaped, and he wore all black, which somehow enhanced what his wife was wearing. Her younger brother was fairer-skinned than the rest of them, with a cheerful disposition.

“I bought you some mangos and sapodillas,” I told Natalie’s mom. I wondered if it might’ve been better to buy flowers or wine.

“Oh, thank you.” She reached for the bag. “Natalie must have told you I just love sapodillas. The pulp inside’s so sugary. It’s like having a treat without the guilt.” She touched her waist.

A few people laughed at the table. They were all well dressed.

“It’s nice to meet you,” I said, stretching out my hand.

She turned from me. “I’ll just set this down in the kitchen.”

Natalie showed me my seat, which was to her right. A cool draft blew through the open windows, causing the white curtains to flutter around, sailing and twisting. The sun was fading, coloring the sky in shades of intense red and orange.

Expensive-looking china sat on top of the white tablecloth. Purple bougainvillea sprouted from a clear vase in the middle of the table. Rectangular plates, along with glasses and silverware, were set at each place. Everything looked so formal. The tablecloth above my lap moved when Natalie shifted in her seat. Natalie, who had come into my world suddenly, like an unknown secret finally told, had become important to my life. I glanced at her so that I wouldn’t feel so intimidated. I thought that having her by my side would help things run smoothly, but Natalie avoided eye contact.

I smelled the sautéed garlic and onions in the stewed chicken piled high on a ceramic plate. Besides the chicken, there was a steaming bowl of oxtail, thickly-sliced boiled plantains, rice and peas, a macaroni pie, and coconut tarts. Two large crystal pitchers of pineapple juice, ice cubes floating at the top, were placed off to the side.

Natalie’s mom returned. “We knew Natalie had been seeing someone. She’s been out of the house all summer. Finally we get to meet the gentleman.” She had a tight smile and looked at her husband. “I forgot to tell you, since you got in late again. The gardener said he’ll plant the tulips tomorrow.”

He nodded.

She sat down at the head of the table, nearest the kitchen, her husband occupying the chair at the other end. “My garden has blue iris, purple tulips, and green poms,” she said, her attention focused on me. “I just love my garden.”

She removed the silverware from the napkin, then shook the folded linen free and placed it on her lap. “I work hard on it. Even after a long day at the office, it’s my garden that I go to when I need to unwind.”

“I’ll have to see it the next time I come,” I said, smiling. It would be nice to spend time talking to Natalie’s mom. Maybe I’d get a clearer picture of her daughter as well.

Natalie’s mom placed an elbow onto the table and leaned forward, her palm partly covering her mouth, yet she smiled. When she moved back, the smile was gone. “It’s all about the color harmony. Red roses and yellow chrysanthemums just won’t look right.”

She sighed. “The rain we’ve had has been getting in the way. It’s a little too much. I’ll have to wait longer for my garden to be finished.”

I didn’t get why red and yellow flowers couldn’t look good together. Then again, I knew nothing about gardening.

Natalie’s mom pulled her chair closer to the table and leaned in, looking at me. “But some things we don’t exactly expect.” She sat back once again, fanning her hand dismissively. “At least it’s only temporary.”

There was a slight iciness in her voice. I slid my arms off the table.

Natalie’s dad gave his wife an odd look. “Adding other flowers to your garden wouldn’t be a bad idea.” Then, he addressed the table. “And who can control rain?” he asked us, opening his arms as if giving up.

“Now that our last guest is here, it’s time to say grace,” Natalie’s mom said.

Everyone bowed their heads, but somehow, I felt uneasy. I shifted in my chair, scanning the people at the table before lowering my head.

Looking down at my hands, a thought suddenly pricked me. Not one person at the table was darker than a cup of medium-roast coffee with two teaspoons of sugar and a couple tablespoons of cream. My stomach grumbled. Not from hunger pains, but from a faint anger at myself for not realizing, maybe even ignoring, the reason for Natalie’s hesitancy. The prayer ended, we raised our heads, and hands gingerly passed around the bowls of steaming food.




Read more short stories by Jenelle Jack Pierre today!


About the Author: Jenelle Jack Pierre grew up in Maryland. A graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park and the MA in Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University, she writes young adult fiction and contemporary short stories.

BOOK: A Mural of Hands
13.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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