Washed Gravel

By Lorraine Jeffery

“Paul Stringham’s dead,” Mary Gardner said reaching across the table for her daughter’s hand.  “I’m sorry Shannon. I know you were friends. Marge called about an hour ago, but I thought I’d wait until you were up.”

Shannon didn’t move. “How?” The word rode out on a tiny puff of air. 

“Overdosed. His folks just found out yesterday.”

 Shannon nodded, looking down at the breadcrumbs next to her round, cornflower blue plate and felt warm tears sliding down her cheeks. Sure, kids drove too fast, messed around with drugs, and did dangerous things in Gunnison, Utah—but nobody died from those things. 

Mary released Shannon’s hand and passed her a tissue. “His parents didn’t hear much from him after he left for Los Angeles. Did you?”

Shannon shook her head.

Her mother looked at her, expecting something. Shannon swallowed and asked, “Are you sure? I mean about him overdosing?”

“Well, that’s what the police said, and I don’t suppose they say things like that to the family unless they are pretty sure.”  She looked at her daughter’s stricken face. “Did you know he was on drugs?”

“He wasn’t on drugs,” Shannon stated. “At least not when he was here.”  

“He always was kind of different,” Mary confided. “I mean, I feel bad it happened and all, but he was kind of, well, a little odd or something. You couldn’t see it coming of course, but I suppose most people won’t be totally shocked.” 

A sick, lonely feeling began in Shannon’s stomach and seeped through the rest of her body. She put her head down on the table. 

Her mother stood up and cleared her throat. “Marge asked me to tell Barb, so I think I’ll just run over.” 

When Shannon heard the backdoor close, she raised her head and stared at the yellow tabletop. Yellow. She would never have thought about yellow if she hadn’t known Paul. He had told her about yellow—and red and blue and all the shades, hues and blends she had never really seen before.

Although they had attended the same high school, Shannon had had only a nodding acquaintance with Paul. She remembered him as a thin, nondescript boy, whose parents owned the only hardware store in town. She had always wondered if he had to pay for things he wanted from the store but she had never asked him. It seemed that all through high school they had never been in the same place at the same time.

That changed after graduation though. She had run into him on her way home from the offices of Boskfell and Hendley. Her parent’s house was only a few blocks from the law office where she worked as a secretary, so she usually walked home from work, past the small park and some abandoned buildings that had once had been a gasket factory. 

Paul had set up his easel in the park and was doing an oil painting of the decrepit old building across the street. Shannon looked at the building, with its sagging shutters and rusty façade. Why would he want to paint an ugly building? She had to see what he was doing. She walked into the park, came up behind him and stood watching him paint, seeing colors, hues, tints and warmth she decided must have come from him, not the building. He turned and looked at her quizzically.

“Do you like it?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she answered honestly. “It doesn’t look very much like the building, but maybe I like it better.”  

He studied her a moment and smiled. He told her about colors, about their ability to flow and blend—about their feel, taste and smell. He told her about the music of shades, their marriages and the strength of their unions. Shannon just listened and marveled as she realized her experience with colors had always been flat and visual—narrowly visual at best. Everything looked different after that. Red roses became vermilion, scarlet, crimson, titian and cerise. The washed gravel of her parents’ driveway became pearl, slate-gray, steel and she even noticed russet-colored agates in the mix. 

Paul had fascinated her, but she often wondered how he would get along in the real world of Boskfell and Hendley. There was something naïve and childlike about him. Something she thought she might have lost long ago. But then she was not quite sure she had ever had it in the first place. 

She never dated Paul. She wasn’t even sure he dated at all. But they had talked, walked and gone on some picnics together. Always, they had talked about his paintings.

He seemed so intense when he painted. Shannon was always looking for the joy that she thought painting should bring him but she didn’t see it in his eyes. “Does painting make you happy?” she asked one day as they sat at a picnic table. 

He considered her question. “Yes and no. I’m always trying to get it right. Once in a while I do and it’s . . . it’s such a incredible high I can’t even describe it. But most of the time I feel like I’m just missing it somehow, and then . . .” He shook his head. He stared at the unfinished plank table and then his eyes brightened. “You play the piano don’t you?” 

Shannon nodded.

“Are you good?” 

“I don’t know,” she said slowly. “Good enough to play in church sometimes.”

“But don’t you ever wonder if you could be really good? I mean, famous or something? If you went to college, studied piano and practiced day and night, don’t you ever wonder if you could be really good?”

Shannon stared into his coffee-brown eyes and then shook her head. “I’m not that good.”

“But don’t you wonder if you could be?” he persisted.

She shook her head. “Not really.”

Paul studied her intently and then looked past her at the massive green maples in the park. “I want to paint colors no one else has ever painted,” he said softly. “Brian Crabtree told me that he saw colors he had never seen before when he was high on LSD.”

A feeling of alarm rose in Shannon’s chest. “You don’t do drugs do you?”

“No,” he said. “But I would like to see those colors.”

She had worried about his statement long after she had returned to the safety and quiet of her parent’s home.

Paul was painting a fall picture with saffron yellow leaves on sepia trees when he told her he was going to Los Angeles to see if he could become a recognized artist.

“That’s important to you, isn’t it?” she asked.

His answer was slow in coming, but he finally said, “Yes, I think it’s very important. I have to know if I’m good or not.” She looked at the painting, trying to decide if he was good, but couldn’t tell what she was supposed to be looking for.

“What if you’re not? What then?” she asked. 

He looked off into the distance at the cobalt blue mountains and shrugged his shoulders.

“You could always work in the hardware store,” she suggested.

“No,” he said. “My dad would like that but it’s not an option.”

# # #

Shannon heard the bang of the back gate. She was still sitting at the table when her mother returned to the kitchen.

“Barb is going over to stay with the Stringhams, if they need her,” Mary said.

“That’s good. Are they taking it very hard?”

“Well, I’m sure they are,” her mother said in an exasperated tone. “He was their only boy, you know, and he could have had a very secure living with the hardware store. But he never seemed to like that much. Now he’s broken his parents’ hearts. How could he do such a thing?”

Her question was directed at no one, but Shannon felt compelled to answer. “I don’t think he meant to hurt them. Most likely he wasn’t thinking about them.”

“Well then, what was he thinking about?” demanded her mother.

“I don’t know. Probably his painting.”

“You’re safe on that guess. What did the two of you talk about anyway? I never could understand what you saw in him.”

“We mostly talked about colors and his paintings,” Shannon said. “It was terribly important to him to be a really good painter. Maybe he decided that he wasn’t.”

Her mother looked at her sharply, “What do you mean by that?”

“Nothing,” Shannon replied. “He was different and yet…and yet there was something about him that made me wish I could be more like him. 

“Good grief, and overdose on drugs?”

“No, not like him in that way,” Shannon said, brushing the breadcrumbs from the table. “I liked his yellow.” 

Smiling at her mother’s bewildered glance, Shannon rose and walked out into the bittersweet sunshine, in a town that would easily forget colors. 

                                                       *   *   *

Lorraine Jeffery has published over hundred poems and her poetry book titled, When the Universe Brings Us Back, was published in 2022. Her prose has appeared in many publications, including Persimmon Tree, Focus on the Family, Elsewhere, Ocotillo, War Cry, Exponent II, Segullah, Plus, Utah Senior Review and Mature Years. 

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