I am currently and FINALLY seeking representation by a literary agent for my newest completed manuscript. It will be two years in November that I have been working on this one, and I am beyond excited to be querying agents. I have also started up a writing blog with my friend Matt Keenan. We're currently posting chapters of our story, We Keep On, on Tuesdays and Fridays. The blog is called Plot Brownies, because our stories are short and sweet! Check it out here: PlotBrownies.com
I am also back into the swing of college life, and enjoying it again this semester! If you're curious, I attend the University of Maine, and am majoring in Business Marketing.
Lastly, I am working on my seventh novel, and am about 15,000 words into it now. For those of you who don't speak in word count, that's approximately 60 pages in book form. This novel is more on the contemporary side than anything I've written before, but has a spin of thriller in it. I'm SO excited about this one, and can't wait to see where it goes.
Now that you're all updated... today's post is a short story! I don't think that I've ever posted any of my fiction on here, so this is something TOTALLY different from anything I've posted in the past. It's a story I wrote a few months ago (when I say few, I mean like six). I was going to submit it to magazines for publication, but decided to put it here for you all to read for free! Without further ado, enjoy The White Bench on the Left, a story that I hope will make you smile.
The White Bench on the Left
Winter seemed much sadder than the summer, because the old man with the paints and the bucket hat didn’t sit outside, and his lawn wasn’t mowed, and I couldn’t dream about what kinds of things he was painting. By the time the sunny season rolled onto the calendar, I had all but forgotten about the old man, but then there he would be, painting away, adding a few wrinkles to the collection on his face. I once asked Mom if we could stop and talk to the old man. She told me that we couldn’t, because she had errands to run and things to do, and we didn’t want to bother an old man, because his time and his paintings were none of our business. I am going to tell you that I was not one to question, nor disobey my mother. I came home when I was supposed to, I didn’t sneak out when I got older, and I ate all of my vegetables, even if they happened to be brussel sprouts and peas. However, when it came to the old man with the bucket hat and the paintbrush, I couldn’t let the idea of him get away. Going to the old painting man was the first and nearly the last time I ever disobeyed my mother.
It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon, and I was supposed to be biking to my piano lesson. I was eight years old, and my instructor was close enough that I could bike to her, but not close enough to walk to. My mother was gone running her errands—probably picking up more brussel sprouts and peas, I’m sure I thought—and she wouldn’t be back until just before dinner. I was scheduled to leave at 1:15 to get to my lesson on time, and instead I left at 12:50. I buckled on my black helmet, pulled on my white sneakers, and biked my pink bicycle to the old man with the bucket hat. The sun beat down on my freckled shoulders as I biked, the sounds of birds chirping and cars speeding past me an orchestra in the summer air. I could feel my heart thumping in my chest, more at the notion of disobeying my mother than at actually meeting the old man. I nearly biked right past his house, but felt a burst of courage at the last moment and pulled my breaks. Dust flew up behind my back wheel as I skidded to a halt, and I nearly toppled over, catching myself at the last moment. The old man looked up at me over the easel, the paintbrush paused in his hand. He waved with his other hand, and I waved back. The moment of truth, the saying second: To go, or not to go? I put my kickstand down, looked behind me to make sure that Mom hadn’t followed me, and walked right up to the old man.
“Hello.” He hadn’t smiled yet, but looking back, I think it’s because I may have scared him.
“Hi.” My voice was a squeak, but it made him smile. His teeth were too white and straight to be real, but they made me smile back.
“Where’s your mother, child?” He had set his paintbrush down at that point, and was resting his hands on his knees. Since he was sitting down, I was taller than him, and I wasn’t used to being taller than adults.
“She’s getting peas and washing the dog,” I said.
He laughed. “Well what are you doing here?”
“I came to see you,” I said.
“Did you?” he asked. I nodded my head, because that was indeed what I had come to do. Like I said, I wasn’t much for lying. “And why is that?” For an eight year old, I was rather intuitive, and thought that it may be insulting to say that I’d been watching him every time I rode past in my mother’s blue mini van.
“Because I wanted to see what you were painting,” I said. “I like your hat,” I added, because I knew that compliments could make people happy. It was the truest compliment that I had to give him.
“Well I like yours, too,” he said, smirking.
I giggled back. “It’s not a hat, it’s a helmet. It’s so I don’t crack my head if I fall off my bike.”
“I’m sure it is,” he said. “When I was a kid, we didn’t need helmets. We had heads as hard as the ground.” He knocked with his fist on the bench. I couldn’t tell whether or not he was being serious, so I just smiled back at that old, weathered face, realizing for the first time that the old man smelled like ivory soap and vanilla.
I put my hands in my pockets. “What are you painting?”
“Would you like to see?”
“I would,” I said. He smiled that white smile again and beckoned me over. I had been standing about five feet away up until then, but I closed the gap pretty quickly. Back then it wasn’t a common thing to be weary of talking to strangers. Back then there wasn’t much to worry about. From closer up, the white bench wasn’t as immaculate as it was from a distance, but I almost liked it better that way. It was more beautiful. It was chipping at places, but there were intricacies that I had never noticed before. The back of the bench was filled with little diamond-sized carvings, and the bench was crisscrossed metal that was pealing where the old man sat. The tree that the bench wrapped around was huge, and seemed much taller close up than it did driving past. The old man patted a space next to him on the bench, and scooted over to make room for me. I plopped right down on the bench and unbuckled my helmet, setting it on the cool metal on the bench beside me. The leaves of the tree shaded us perfectly, and it was a little escape from the afternoon’s heat.
I had always imagined what the old man was painting. Every day I drove past, I thought of something new. I thought perhaps he painted his family, or the bark on the tree, or the white bench—I’d imagined paintings of the white bench many times—but that’s not what he had painted. On the easel was a painting of the road in front of his house, but it wasn’t the road that I saw when I drove past it every day. It was more beautiful than that. The sky was a blue that you could only get out of a paint tube, and there were no cars driving by. There were birds in the air—those birds that chirped all afternoon long—and there was a pretty lady with a red bow in her hair pushing a baby carriage. You could barely see the smile on the little baby’s face, but he’d painted it there in a small black curve. Along the side of the road in yellow were asters, buttercups, dandelions and tulips. Purple lupines intertwined with the yellows, and white Queen Anne’s Lace peppered the bouquet of wildflowers. Daises, sunflowers and cosmos were painted around the wheels of the baby carriage, like the baby carriage had sprouted from the petals of the flowers.
“It’s pretty,” I said.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Do you paint the same thing every day?”
“Is the world the same every day?” he asked.
“Depends how you look at it,” he said. I frowned, because I didn’t understand how the world could change from day to day. At that moment, I remembered that if I didn’t show up to my piano lesson, Mrs. Clark would have a tizzy and tell my mother, and I knew that would be very bad.
“I have to go to my lesson,” I said.
“I’m sure you do,” he said, picking his paintbrush back up.
I buckled my helmet back on. “Can I see your paintings again?”
“If you would like to,” he said.
“I would,” I said, feeling like I should know the old man’s name. “What’s your name?” I asked.
“You can call me Mr. Walter.”
“Okay. I’m Marie.” I’m sure if my mother knew that I was telling my name to a strange old man that lived less than a mile from us, she wouldn’t be impressed. “Will you be painting tomorrow?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”
He smiled. “Okay, Marie. I’ll make some lemonade for when you come.” That sounded lovely, so I smiled and turned around, thinking about how pretty the flowers in that painting were. I hopped onto my pink bicycle, made sure my black helmet was snug, and biked away, looking closer at the wildflowers along the road than I had ever looked before, and looking for a pretty lady with a red bow pushing a baby carriage.
The next day I waited until my mother had left to go meet with the ladies in her book club—my mother always talked like this was the most important thing of the week—before going to Mr. Walter’s. I wondered if he was painting baby carriages and red poppies.
I stopped my pink bicycle much less dramatically this time, and rolled it up to his easel.
“Hi, Mr. Walter,” I said. He was wearing the same suspenders and white bucket hat as he had worn the day before.
“Hello, Marie.” He smiled his straight white smile. He had set up a sturdy wooden table next to the easel, and on it were a pitcher of lemonade and a platter of sugar cookies. “Pour yourself a glass and take a cookie,” he said. I did, and was licking the sugar from my lips and taking a sip of the ice cold, sweet lemonade when I sat down. The canvas was blank.
I frowned, nibbling on my sugar cookie. “Are you not painting today?” I asked.
“I thought that you might like to paint today,” he said. I had never painted besides when I was a child, because my mother had told me that I should spend my time with arithmetic and history, and practicing piano. She told me that a person only had room enough for one art form in her life. Mine was piano and hers was reading books. That day was the second time that I disobeyed my mother.
“Yes, I would,” I said. That afternoon Mr. Walter told me to look at the little things, the things that were more beautiful and that tried to hide from our eyes. At first I just drew the grey curve of the road and the blue hue of the sky, until he told me to really look closely at what was around me, because the earth was always changing. When I did this, I noticed that there was a blue bird sitting on the building across the street. I also asked Mr. Walter if I could paint the pretty yellow of the lemonade, and he told me that I could. So I painted a pitcher of lemonade right on the deck of the house across the street, and he showed me how to paint little blue ice cubes in the lemonade. Mr. Walter patted me on the shoulder and told me that my first painting was better than his first painting, and that if I worked hard enough, I could paint just as well as he could.
“But can I still play piano?” I asked.
“Of course you can,” he said. “The world is a lonely place with just paint and no music.” I smiled, because this meant that I would at least be able to see Mr. Walter a few times a week. I could see him before my piano lessons and during Mom’s book club meetings where she talked about mocking birds and two cities.
I in fact saw Mr. Walter much more than twice a week, however. It helped that Mom was often gone and I didn’t have any siblings, because there wasn’t usually any one home to tell me that I had to stay home, do the dishes or practice my multiplication and division. On the second week of my painting lessons, Mr. Walter sent me home with a pad of thick white paper, five different color paints, and a paintbrush that fit perfectly between my fingers. I practiced painting every second I had, and tried to do as Mr. Walter said and see the beauties in the simplicities of things. I painted the dirt on my piano keys, the divots in the wooden floor in my bedroom, and the way the moon looks when it’s hiding half of its face. I brought each painting to Mr. Walter. He told me what was good and what wasn’t about each painting, and he showed me how to not just see the dirt on the piano keys, or the divots in the wood, but to see the most worn keys that had been played the most, and the spots on the wood that were the dullest. He told me that if you could find those little spots, you could find the paths that humans found the most happiness in, and he told me that if you could find those spots, you yourself could be your happiest.
Five years later, I was thirteen years old. I was playing Fur Elise, Moonlight Sonata and Canon in D Major on the piano. I was also painting the wiggly lines around people’s eyes that said that they smiled a lot, and the cracks in melting ice cubes. We were still drinking cold lemonade and eating sugar cookies during our lessons. My mother still didn’t know that I could paint better than any of her book club friends could paint, and she still thought that my one love in life was piano. I had traded my pink bicycle in for a black bicycle with thick tread on the tires.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Walter,” I said after I parked my black bicycle. Mr. Walter stood from the white bench on the left, a little more slowly than he had five years ago, and gave me a hug, still smelling like ivory soap and vanilla. I was taller than him by then, and his white bucket hat brushed my ear.
“Afternoon, Dear.” He smiled his white denture smile and sat back down on the bench, patting the place next to it. I was pouring myself a glass of lemonade.
“Yes?” he asked. He wasn’t looking at me, but was working on his painting of the day. He was painting only the sky. The canvas was a blue mass with fluffy clouds and white streaks of airplane tails. Hidden in the sky were the small beauties most people missed: A bird with a damaged wing and a worm in its mouth, the tiny speck of a butterfly in flight, and the tips of the pine trees. Dandelions floated on the bottom of the painting, which he was working on while I spoke to him.
“Do you have a wife?” I asked. In the years that I had known Mr. Walter, he had never spoken of family, and I had never seen them. I had never asked of them, either, and he had never asked about my family. We simply talked about painting and the small treasures in the world.
I sat down next to Mr. Walter, expectant of an answer. He set his paintbrush down and looked at me through his cloudy eyes that were once sparkling blue. More liver spots speckled his cheeks than when I first met him, and his white bucket hat had a few tears in it. The shade of the big tree stretched a bit farther than that first day I met Mr. Walter. We had just repainted his white bench the week before, so that looked fresher than it had the first day I met him. I had sanded the old paint off and we had painted it together.
“Remember how I told you to find the little beauties in each thing?”
“Yes,” I said.
“She was the one who told me that.”
“Your wife?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“And she’s…” I couldn’t finish the sentence. Mr. Walter just smiled at me for a moment, like we had all the time in the world. Someone started up a lawnmower down the street.
“She’s gone, sweetheart.”
“Oh,” I said. I had figured that much, but for Mr. Walter to say it made my stomach hurt, and I suddenly wanted to cry. Mr. Walter put his arm around my shoulders.
“She went softly, darling,” Mr. Walter said. “I paint for her. She liked me to paint. Said that it softened things.”
I wiped my nose. “But why do you still do it if she can’t see your paintings?”
He smiled at me again and took a sip of his lemonade. I heard the ice cubes bump against his dentures. “There are still a lot of treasures left to uncover, Marie. If someone doesn’t paint them, then nobody will ever know them.”
I looked into my lap at the glass of lemonade in my hands. “But why is it important if the only one seeing them is me?”
Mr. Walter looked at me again, frowning a little. “I was painting my last painting that day you rode up on your bicycle. My wife had passed that morning, and she had made me promise that I would paint the small treasures I saw that day, and that I would find something to keep those small things alive.
“Marie, I hadn’t planned on painting ever again after she passed, but you were the small beauty that needed to be shown the other small beauties in life. I think that I would be doing a disservice to this world if I didn’t give you a chance at looking at little closer at the world.” My eyes got cloudy then, not because I was sad, but because an old man had decided that I was his muse, and that I had to be shown the small beauties in a place that was beginning to lack them.
Mr. Walter passed a year later. We had painted the afternoon before he died. I read about it in the newspaper the day after. A newspaper staff person had written the obituary, because Mr. Walter had no wife and no children to write it for him. He was eighty-five years old, and the obituary said that he had died peacefully in his sleep, surrounded by his life’s work. It didn’t specify what his life’s work was, but I knew that it was his paintings. I cried over the newspaper by myself, because no one but me knew about Mr. Walter, and no one but me knew what he had brought to this town and what he had meant to me. By the time my mother had gotten back from her book club meeting, my eyes had dried and I was practicing piano, just as she would have liked me to be doing.
About a week later I received a letter in the mail saying that Mr. Walter Jay Milton had awarded his property to me, thirteen-year-old Marie Clarice Bennett. My mother said that it had to have been a mistake, because we didn’t know a Mr. Milton. However the papers were in order, and my parents kept the property until I turned eighteen and could move into it. When I turned eighteen, I sat on the white bench every day that I could, paying attention and painting the things that most people didn’t see.
I am nearly Mr. Walter’s age now, and am writing this from the white bench on the left, to tell you that sometimes it is the smallest things in life that are the most beautiful, and sometimes, just when you are about to stop seeing the little beauties, something can arrive to make you believe in them again.