Last year at the art show, Andrew and I had a little booth toward the back of the auditorium. This year, we had a double-wide booth right in front. We also had a projector and sound system doing a little presentation, artwork from the book tacked up on the wall, and multiple copies of stories people could read or bring home or whatever. All printed on that same Literary Society printer Andrew had gotten chewed out for using.
“Casey! Holy shit, bro, look at you guys! You’re giving Captain EO a run for his money! Where’s my 3-D glasses, man?”
Uncle Todd gave me a big hug, one that lifted me off the floor. I felt a little embarrassed to be rag-dolled in public, but it still felt good that he was so proud of me. Lizzie came jogging around from the side of the booth and gave her mom a hug.
“Your boy done good, Liz; look at all this!”
“He’s our boy, Momma.”
Cheryl and Lizzie reached in, and we had a nice little group hug, each of us with our feet on the floor.
“Ma, you gotta see some of this artwork. There’s this one thing where this kid cuts open Polaroids and like smears them before they dry or something.”
“Yeah, that’s Matt Stevens, sophomore. Kid’s good. Yeah, you guys go look around; we’ll be here all night.”
Todd gave me a wink and a smile, and Lizzie led them around the corner to see the other exhibits. We had a nice, steady stream of people in and out of the booth. Big Rich, Artie, and even Bowman came by to check it out. The cute girl whose locker was next to mine came through with her parents. All they said was, “Oh,” so not everybody was a fan. Mr. Clark came through to shake hands and compliment all our hard work. He’d been supportive ever since that day in his office and a big reason Death Man was such a big hit.
When the evening was about half over, I saw Mr. Owens come through the auditorium doors. He made it about halfway to our booth when he stopped and blinked a bit before turning around and flagging down Mr. Clark. They walked up to each other, and Mr. Owens started moving his hands around. His back was to me so I couldn’t tell what he was saying, but I saw Mr. Clark make an easing motion with his hands. I’m not great at lip-reading or hand gestures, but it looked like Mr. Clark was saying, “Look, go over there. Don’t juggle; this is a no-pushing zone. Everyone will get in a circle and grab a basketball. Then we can slap a spider, and everything will be alright.” Like I said, I wasn’t good at lip-reading.
Mr. Owens made his way over and surveyed the booth.
“Casey, where is Andrew?”
“He’s over at the mural, Mr. Owens; he’s been putting the finishing touches on it and talking to people over there. I’m manning the booth.”
“And who put all this together?”
A voice behind me said, “Fucking spazzer did most of it. Steve recorded the music, and I did the video, but Andy designed the whole layout, came up with the concepts, really nailed the whole thing.”
I slapped myself on the forehead.
“Chris, this is Mr. Owens, Andrew’s DAD. Mr. Owens, this is Chris; he put the video together.”
Chris shot his hand out. “Good to meet you, sir; your son’s the shit.”
I slapped my other hand up onto my forehead. Mr. Owens gave Chris a bewildered look and then extended his hand.
“Cool. Case, remember when you shut this down, hit STOP first and then eject, or else the thing will eat the tape. Alright, bros, PEACE! I’m outta here.”
And with that, Chris jogged off, leaving me standing alone with Mr. Owens.
“Andrew really designed all of this?”
What Chris had said was true. Steve had laid down this groovy drum part on that Gretch set he bought back with the money from demoing that house, and then he wrote out these cool horn parts for some of his band friends. Death Man had a theme song. Chris recorded the whole thing, and then he and Andrew put the video together. Chris’s buddies from Video Production filmed panning shots of the comics themselves, some shots of Andrew and I working, then edited it all together with Steve’s music. Chris even modified a VHS tape so it would play in a continuous loop.
“Yup. He worked really hard on all this.”
Mr. Owens’s upper lip sneered as he scanned the booth. Then it moved back into that approving frown I’d seen the other day. He extended his hand and said, “Very nice work. I will say you both obviously gave your best effort, and you should be commended.”
Then Mr. Owens did something more unnerving than any of the other uncomfortable things he’d ever done around me. It only lasted a second, but he smiled at me. It was a weak, little smile, probably on account of muscle atrophy, but it was there nonetheless.
I shook his hand and smiled back at him. “Thanks.”
“Where is this mural?”
“Go back out the doors, keep going all the way down this hallway, past the office, through the cafeteria, and down a little set of steps.”
He turned without saying goodbye, but I was already ahead of the game with Mr. Owens, so I didn’t mind.
The night was drawing to a close, and the crowd was thinning out. I was about to start cleaning up the booth when I saw Jeremy’s mom waddle into the room. She scanned the room for a couple seconds, and then it looked like she was going to turn to leave.
She gave a little jump and then a wide smile. She walked over and grabbed both my hands and gave them a squeeze.
“Oh, Casey(t), I see Andrew, he paint so beautiful. And lookie, all this you do?”
“Yeah, me and Andrew. Well, mostly Andrew, he put all this together.”
Mrs. K’s eye caught a picture of Death Man crashing through a door after he got plugged with a shotgun.
“Oof! Why boys no draw nice picture? Ah, is okay, you do good job.”
“Thanks, Mrs. K.”
She stood there a couple more minutes and looked everything over.
“Alright, I go; you have good night, Casey(t), you be proud.”
She turned and started to walk away. She was halfway to the door when I called to her. She turned, and I walked over to her.
“Mrs. K, you said. . .remember you told me that I helped Jeremy once? What did I do? How did I help him?”
She reached up and put her hand on my cheek.
“Oh, you a good boy. When we move here, Jeremy hate it. He come home from school every day, ‘Why we move here, miss my friends and old house,’ he hate it. Then one day, he come home, he happy. I say, ‘What happen, you happy today?’ And he say, ‘Boy named Casey(t) help me out today, Momma,’ and he hug me. I was so happy; I never ask what you do. He was just. . .happy.”
I rolled over every memory I had of Jeremy, but nothing clicked. Whatever I had done though had helped him out. I reached out and gave Mrs. K a big hug.
“Okay, g’night, good boy.”
Most everybody was out of the auditorium, and kids were taking down their exhibits. I hit STOP then eject on the tape player and started picking up some of the papers and putting them in a box. When I was about halfway through though, I stopped because I hadn’t seen Andrew all night, and I wanted to see how he was doing.
Down the hall, Andrew was still putting little touches on his mural. It looked a lot like the scene from our art booth last year with Death Man standing on a rooftop surveying the city below him. Mr. Clark suggested Andrew paint it.
“Hey, how’d things go down here?”
“Good, had a lot of traffic, lots of people asking questions so. . .still not quite done. How’d it go at the booth?”
“Good, good, lots of people, everybody seemed to like it. Success.”
I watched Andrew paint for a couple of minutes. Then he plopped his brushes on his table and said, “I guess that’s as good as it’s going to get.”
We stood next to each other admiring his work. I took a close look at Death Man’s face. I put my arm around Andrew’s shoulder and said, “It looks just like him.”
He snickered and put his arm around me. “Who?”
We smiled at each other and stood like that for another minute or so, just taking it all in.
“Oh, by the way, my dad shook my hand.”
“Yup, came down here and watched me paint for a couple minutes, then put his hand out and said, ‘Fine work, son.’”
“Did you cry?”
We let go of each other, and I helped Andrew clean up his paints; then we packed up the rest of the booth. The box felt strangely heavy as I carried it to my car and put it in my trunk.
“Need a ride home?”
“No, it’s a nice night; I’ll walk.”
Wished I could have joined him.
Dan Pullen lives in Connecticut with his wife and three children. He writes stories about simple people and their complex lives.