“A really companionable and indispensable dog is an accident of nature. You can’t get it by breeding for it, and you can’t buy it with money. It just happens along.” E.B. White, American, 1899-1985
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Here is Part Two of STILL LIFE OF DOG WITH RED COLLAR. This story was inspired by the beautiful statue created by scultor Brian P. Hanlon from Toms River, NJ, and is located on the riverfront of Windward Park in Brick Township, NJ. Please note that as are all the stories in the collection, this story is a work of fiction. Please see previous post for Part I.
STILL LIFE WITH DOG IN RED COLLAR (PART II)
…The following day in the art room, I worked with a new energy. Prepping a canvas, I began my preliminary drawing. Mrs. Turner smiled and nodded in my direction. But my newfound enthusiasm faded as I rehashed the previous morning’s confrontation at home.
Scribble, sketch, scribble, and sigh. My inspiration drained as the classroom clock methodically ticked away the minutes. Safe-sound, safe-sound, it taunted, delivering a message from my father.
My change in mood hadn’t gone unnoticed by my teacher. “Kevin, you have a tendency to discourage too easily. You see your work finished before you’ve even taken the time to lay the foundation.”
I put my brush down. I would try again later.
“Keep your eye on the big picture and worry about the details later,” she offered. “Don’t worry so much about the final result. Things have a way of working out.”
I knew she was right, but the next few days weren’t much different. I was beginning to think like my father, stuck in a negative place.
To get out of my funk, I returned to work at the place that had inspired me; at the riverfront in the park. It was the first day of autumn and with the cooler weather, the park was nearly empty. But the slight chill in the air served as a reminder of my approaching deadline.
Before I set up to work, I walked up to the statue, really looking at it for the first time as more than just my subject matter. Carefully reading each name etched on her pedestal, I traced the raised letters with my fingertips.
One man’s name stood out. A financial advisor, he had been the uncle of one of my classmates. A talented photographer, I recalled reading in his obituary he had hoped one day to pursue his real passion to become a full-time photographer. I was struck by the realization that his “one-day” would never come.
I walked down to the sandy edge of the river. A thicket of sumac cast a crimson blush on the water, its surface smooth like a mirror. From across the river, a woman called her family to dinner, a dog barked and lights slowly came on in windows like tiny candles. At that moment, my mind was as still as the water below me, and the statue that loomed behind me.
I was holding my breath. When I stooped down to examine the image of my face, I exhaled slowly causing a slight ripple to run across my reflection. With my finger, I traced the outline of my likeness in the cool water, as I had done with the names on the statue. I realized now that despite my father’s well-meaning concerns, in today’s world, there was no such thing as a safe choice. I knew then that this would be the start of my “one-day.”
Returning to my easel, I discovered someone had placed baskets of orange and white chrysanthemums near the base of the angel’s pedestal. Amid the faded summer-weary Impatiens and geraniums, their freshness stood out.
I started to paint with a purpose. I don’t know how long I worked, but when I looked up from my easel I noticed that the black dog was now sitting among the flowers at the base of the pedestal. He looked directly at me as if posing.
“What is it boy?” I asked. “Do you want to be part of the picture, too?” He sat as still as the statue beside him as I sketched his likeness.” When I was finished I looked up, but he was gone again, like a phantom.
This dog seemed to be searching for someone who would never arrive. I thought about all the dogs that had waited at home that day after the tragedy in downtown Manhattan, never knowing why their humans had never returned for them.
I recalled reading about the brave search and rescue dogs that had helped in their own special way at the site of the collapsed towers and during the days and weeks afterward. Over three hundred of them; used in the largest canine search and rescue mission in the nation’s history, Dobermans, shepherds, retrievers; reaching places where humans could not, tireless, brave, fearless. And when their work was done, offering comfort to their human partners and giving hope to those waiting for some news at home.
I collected my materials and put the canvas away. Looking around, I saw no trace of the dog. I headed home with a renewed conviction about the choices I would now make.
Later that evening, after dinner, I went through the motion of thumbing through slick college catalogues filled with smiling students walking through perfectly landscaped campuses. I even filled out several applications for good measure.
Then, in the privacy of my room, I quietly filled out the form for the art school scholarship I now wanted more than ever. I pictured myself rambling through the gritty streets of a city like New York, portfolio in hand. That image would buoy me during the battles that were sure to come as I stood my ground.
The next day, I approached my work with a newfound energy that would continue throughout the day. Mrs. Turner must have sensed it because she kept her distance while keeping a watchful eye on me.
At the end of the room, Mr. Ed, the custodian, began clearing the old murals from the room’s window. The vinegar scent of window cleaner traveled toward me. “Make room for the new,” I heard him mutter to no one in particular. With each swipe of his squeegee, he erased a little of my past, where soon some bright new talent would leave his or her mark.
I was so focused on my painting I hardly noticed the acorn that shot through an open window. It bounced off my canvas landing at my feet; a tiny smudge of yellow paint covered its tip. I knew who had thrown it without looking up.
“Hey Picasso!” a voice called. It was Tommy. “How’s your masterpiece coming? Let’s have a look,” he said pushing half his body through the window.
But I wasn’t ready to share my work. I took a break and went over to him. He told me about all the fish he and John had caught the day before and their plans to go surfing after school. “Come with us. We’re heading out now.”
“No thanks, I’ve got something to finish,” I answered.
“Well go kick some scholarship butt, Van Gogh,” Tommy said, quickly moving on.
That was good, because I had finally come to the part I still loved best, working on the details. With a tiny brush loaded with burnt sienna, I put the final touch on a pot of chrysanthemums near the angel’s knee. But my eye went to the figure of the dog; something was missing. I painted a red collar around its neck. He had now become an official part of the picture, finding a forever home and a place of honor for his fellow canines there on my canvas.
When my painting was finished, I signed it in the lower right hand corner. Then I sat still, silently thanking the sculptor whose own inspired creation had given me a new outlook on life. I offered a moment of silence for those memorialized by this angel, and the thousands of lives lost, or changed forever on that day.
From the back of the room, Mrs. Turner quietly hummed a tune as she shuffled around the room preparing for her next class.
That night I completed my official entry form for the scholarship judging process. On the line requesting the painting’s “Title” I neatly printed, Still Life with Dog in Red Collar.
If my father asked me again what I had been learning in that art room, I still didn’t know if I could put it into words. But it didn’t matter; in my heart I knew. Exactly.