The Only Thing
Chapter One: Noah and the Painting
'Mr Presley, the only thing you're good for is fighting.'
That's what the teacher used to say to me back in school, after I'd get my stripes for having bloodied some kid's nose. Like there was something better I was supposed to be. Like some fancy doctor, or a chef, or a C-E-O.
My daddy, he near shat himself laughing over that one, when I brought the papers what the guidance councillor gave me home.
Daddy was a fighter too. Daddy was soldier.
But ma, she said, 'Don't you listen to him, Noah. Your daddy's a drunk. Don't you listen to him.'
That made my heart swell up see. Because everyone at school said I was dumb. I was an animal and I was gonna grow up and get myself shot. But ma, she treated me soft. She knew how I couldn't help myself. How something ugly puffed itself up in my chest when them other kids called me names and said I was slow.
She said something ugly puffed up in her sometimes too. That it was alright. That I weren't a retard just because I couldn't read a book.
Ma said I was smart in all the ways that counted.
Like how I stopped some of the older kids –the ones with no manners- from doing what they were doing to Kipper. How I took her home and patched her up, stayed awake with her while she called out for her pups.
Or like how when my daddy'd get real upset and shake the house with his raging –and I'd sit inside the bedroom door with a brick in my hand, and ma and Abigail and baby Makayla on the bed. That was my smarts shining through.
And the teachers -they were wrong about me being a retard anyway. I was just quiet because most of the time I was busy listening. And I only spoke so slow because I was looking for the best words to use.
Like I could do math okay. And I was good at memorizing so they always gave me a speaking part in the school play. And I could read books just fine with a bit of practice. I just liked the ones what came with pictures better. Like, ma thought I might grow up to be a hotshot art critic because of what I told her about Das Tal der Stille.
See, with all my fighting I spent a lot of time on the bench outside the Principal's Office, waiting to get my stripes. And I used to just stare at the wall to try and not hear the poor wretch in there getting theirs –snack-snack-snack! So I was getting real good at not hearing all the carry-on from inside the office and just distracting myself with the pits and scuff-marks on the wall, and then one day I come in, and somebody's put up a painting.
I think I was sent up for a nose-breaking. One of the Upper School Kids had come down to the play-yard and tried to start shit with me. They was always doing that by then. I'd got some sort of reputation for being worth a brawl. And this kid, he'd come striding in -slacks all fancied up so you could see the line on them where his ma probably starched 'n' ironed- and started mouthing off about hows my house was really just a trailer.
And I'd gotten pulled off of him and sent to see the Principal even though I was still fuming and could've kept laying into him for his lies –and then I saw the painting. I think maybe Miss Harper put it up there. Because she was always saying I was a brave-thing staring at the wall like I did and not flinching. And she liked how I never put gum under the bench like the rest of 'em. And I dunno, it's just nice to think that maybe she put it up there so as I'd have something to look at.
It was a painting of nuns and the writing on the frame said Das Tal der Stille by John Everett Millais. I was third in line for the discipliner that day and I tell you, I must of stared at that painting for a whole block. Not that it mattered because it was Literature I was missing and Mr Fryer thought I was so far too-dumb he just used me to run his errands all class. Anyway, I stared at that painting until I learnt it perfect. I'd be in Science or something –up the back of the classroom- and listening to the teacher ramble on and understanding everything fine even though I couldn't write none of it down so fast- and I could see every detail of it there in my head –like being in that green-as-green graveyard with those two pretty nuns.
It got so I started instigating fights just so as I could sit on that bench and look at my painting. And sometimes Miss Harper let me eat my lunch in there with her, manning the phones like she did and smiling up at me from her computer, and sometimes giving me an apple to eat because I never had none and she had these fancy ideas about eating fruit all the time.
One day I was staring at my painting and trying to figure out what the words said. I'd been to the public library even though I didn't have a card what lets you borrow stuff. And I'd looked in the French dictionary because I figured only French guys painted nuns and graveyards and made it look so pretty like that –but the words weren't in there and the lady at the counter treated me suspicious-like til I left. So I'd given up on ever finding out when Miss Harper told me.
'Still trying to paint yourself in there with them, Noah?' she asked. She was always asking me that, even though I was too shy to do anything but scowl back at her. This time was no different and I kept my eyes fixed on the wall, staring hard at my favorite part of the picture –the nun who's not digging. She looked like my older sister Morgan who everyone said got a ticket out of this town on the back of her being so pretty. And she's calm a lot like Morgan was calm. Daddy used to get calm looking at Morgan and I think he'd get calm looking at this nun too.
Anyway, this nun, at first I didn't like her –like, she was just sitting and playing with her necklace while her friend did all the digging. And it reminded me of how Coach Letterman would sit on his deck chair and blow the whistle to get us running laps. And also, I suppose I thought she was giving me the stink-eye. But then the more I stared at her the more she looked like… I dunno -like she was at peace with herself and everything inside her was quiet. And maybe I'd be walking down a path towards her –intruding- and because I was too loud all the birds in the garden stop trilling, and the other nun would give me a stern look like you shouldn't be here; but the calm nun, she'd just look at me with those kind, knowing eyes and maybe the corners of her mouth would tilt up in a smile. And I'd say, 'Who are you burying?' And she'd say, 'Come sit with me Noah Presley. Come feel how soft the grass is.'
Yeah. Mister Millais was a real good painter.
So I was all taken-up in my head, with my painting, when Miss Harper came and bent down in front of me so she knew she had my attention.
'You still looking after that poor dog?'
That struck me as funny. Because the way most people remember it is how I left my footprints all over the neighbourhood kids that day, even though they was bigger than me. But Miss Harper didn't ask that. She asked about Kipper instead and that made me happy -thinking about how there might be someone else who cared about Kipper too.
Miss Harper's face broke out into a grin so sweet it made me blush.
The girls in class were never smiling at me. When Miss Harper smiled there were perfect brackets around her mouth and her teeth were clean and beautiful. Miss Harper smiled so big at me that her eyes watered and she had to turn away and grab a tissue off the counter. When she came back she put a book in my lap.
'You're a good boy, Noah. Would you read to me from this book? Only that I'm studying for my degree, you see, and I can't fit all this reading in while I'm typing all day.'
The letters on the cover said: Pre-Raphaelite Paintings. I couldn't believe it. Miss Harper didn't think I was slow. I didn't think I could blush that hard.
So from then on I sat with Miss Harper at lunch and read to her from the book and she nodded so as I knew she heard me even though she was busy tapping away at her computer. And my reading got up to scratch so I ended up taking the tests and moving up to Middle School with everybody else. And then Upper School.
By then there was no one around big enough or dumb enough to want to fight me no more so I had no excuse to be seeing Miss Harper. But I still came and she still gave me an apple and let me sit on the bench and look at my painting while I read to her.
I came to learn my painting had a lot of names. That it was just a copy of a bigger one in the Tate Museum in England. That it was called The Vale of Rest in English and Das Tal der Stille in German -which is why I couldn't find it in any French dictionary.
And I didn't find out until years and years later that Miss Harper wasn't studying for any degree. That she was just a secretary. I suppose she'd just been trying to teach me to read and it worked.
That didn't matter neither, because in my second last year they took my painting down and Miss Harper moved back to wherever better place she came from. Baby Makayla got sick and daddy got so full of poison he burnt his heart out and we were gonna lose the house.
That's why when Capo Diovani stopped me with his finger beckoning out of a slick city-goer car, and offered me the job, I took it.
Because fighting was the only thing I was good for.
And I was gonna get paid for it.