The Friday Fictioneer challenge is to write a 100-word story based on the photo. My story turned out a tad longer than the challenge limit, by say 1,800 words or so. Some days, some stories are just like that.
“That old man’s crazy,” Angie said. “Paint the side of that old building? They’ll just tear it down.”
“True, but who knows when that will be.” Raymond looked up at the old apartment building, where he used to live. It was a dump when he lived there and now most of it was gone. He wondered if that made it more of a dump or less of a dump. Either way, it was an eyesore. Someone had started tearing it down and then stopped; they took away their machines and never showed up again. That was two years ago.
“We should listen to him; see what he has to say,” Louis said. “Maybe he needs a chauffeur or something.”
Angie rolled her eyes. “Louis, you can’t even drive.”
“Okay, but maybe he needs stuff done, stuff besides painting, you know.” Louis was hopeful.
Louis was so predictable, Raymond thought, always trying to figure out the next hustle, what the next plan was. And with good reason: someone had taken Louis’ mother to the hospital one day and that was the last he had seen of her. Soon the apartment’s electricity was cut off and the door was padlocked. At 17, Louis was homeless. Raymond and Angie weren’t much better off, but they shared what they had with their friend.
The old man had approached them about painting the side of what remained of Raymond’s apartment building. “I’ve seen your graffiti, and that’s not what I want to see when I look out my window. Don’t worry. I’m not calling the cops on you,” the old man continued. “I’m not wasting my time on that.”
They didn’t know what to think about someone who had seen them vandalizing property without calling the police. And they sure didn’t know what to think about an offer of actual work.
“I’ll buy the paint supplies and pay you at the end of each day,” the old man said, “but that means a full day’s work, six days a week. I’m not interested in chasing after you hooligans if you get caught stealing candy or whatever from the market. You work for me without any funny stuff on the side. That’s the deal; take it or leave it.”
Crazy or not, the trio decided to accept the old man’s offer. The next morning, the old man, Mr. Kyle, as he told them to call him, met them at the corner of the building and showed them a sketch of what he wanted.
“What are those?” Angie asked.
“Orcas,” Mr. Kyle replied. “Killer whales. Beautifully fearsome,” he said, tracing their outlines on the paper. “When I was your age, I was working on a fishing boat off the northwest coast. Out on the ocean, every day was an adventure, even dangerous. Sometimes I wondered if we were going to make it back to the dock.”
Raymond wondered how anyone who had ever lived somewhere else could end up in a city in the middle of the desert, with half-demolished buildings as their view. Raymond, Louis, and Angie wanted to get away, to be anywhere but there, but didn’t know how to make that happen. They were stranded, drowning in poverty and abandonment in the middle of nowhere, going nowhere.
Mr. Kyle made them draw up a plan before they started. Turns out painting a mural was nothing like graffiti. They created a grid system for transferring the image onto the building. They discussed color tone, value, and hue; line contours and perspectives. The planning took over a week.
Once the painting started, Mr. Kyle showed up every morning with comments about the previous day’s work. Sometimes they had to redo a section. They liked it best, however, when he approved their work and let them move on.
“Where’s Mr. Kyle?” Louis frowned. It was mid-morning and Mr. Kyle hadn’t shown up. They’d decided to continue to the next section of the mural in the absence of any contrary instructions. As they painted, they took turns looking over their shoulders to see if the old man had arrived. The next morning, he was still missing.
“Raymond, go find him. Figure out what’s going on,” Angie said. “We’ll keep working.”
Raymond knew which floor of the next building Mr. Kyle lived on, as he once had pointed to his window to explain the angle of his view of the mural. After knocking on a few wrong doors, he found him.
“Mr. Kyle? It’s Raymond. Mr. Kyle?”
The door opened and a man stood there, not Mr. Kyle.
“I’m looking for Mr. Kyle. I’m Raymond.”
“Come in. I’m Gary, from down the hall. I’m just checking on Kyle. He had a seizure. The hospital let him come home, way too early in my opinion, but they said they needed the bed for serious cases.”
Leading Raymond into the bedroom, Gary said, “Kyle, I’ll be back to check on you later. Call if you need anything sooner.”
Raymond stood just inside the doorway, but even from there he could see part of the in-progress mural through the window.
“It looks a lot different from here, don’t you think?” Mr. Kyle was sitting up in his bed.
“Yes, a lot different.” Raymond looked around the room. He noticed a conch shell on the dresser.
Mr. Kyle saw Raymond’s interest and gestured towards it. “Pick it up. Put it next to your ear.”
Raymond walked over and picked it up. “Put it next to your ear,” Mr. Kyle repeated.
“What does that do?” Raymond asked, not really wanting to do that.
“Put it next to your ear and you’ll see. Or hear, rather.”
“Oh,” Raymond said, as the shell covered his ear. “Oh.”
“The sound of the sea, that is,” Mr. Kyle explained as Raymond listened to the soft rushing hum. “It’s the only thing I have left from the ocean. Sometimes I can almost smell the saltwater if I close my eyes, be real still, and listen to the ocean in the shell.”
Raymond noticed how tired Mr. Kyle looked. “Are you okay?” Raymond was embarrassed he hadn’t asked when he first arrived. “We didn’t know where you were.”
“Yes, I’m mostly okay. A small seizure, that’s all.”
“Is there . . . do you want anything? Need, um, something?” Raymond stumbled over offering help.
“No, no, I’m good. Gary’s got me all taken care of.”
“We kept working. We thought . . . we thought that’s what you’d want.” Looking out the window, Raymond could see Angie and Louis painting.
“You’re right, I do. Now more than ever.”
Raymond wondered what that meant: ‘now more than ever.’
“I owe you for yesterday’s work and today’s. Come back after you finish this afternoon and I’ll give you the money for both days.”
Raymond returned to his work. Later, after collecting their money, he met Louis and Angie on the corner, giving them their share.
“You should see the mural from up there.” Raymond looked up at Mr. Kyle’s window. “It’s, like, way different. You can see the orcas taking shape. And the waves.”
“I knew it,” Louis said, scuffing his shoe against the curb. “The old man is sick and he’s gonna change his mind. He’ll need money to pay for medicine and stuff. We’ll be right back where we were before.”
“Oh, Louis,” Angie sighed, “he’s paid us every single day. Even if we stop working now, we have more than we’ve ever had.” She knew she was right, but she worried about the old man’s condition as well, even if she didn’t want to say so out loud.
The one thing all of them knew is that working and getting paid was a reality they wanted to hold onto. Before meeting Mr. Kyle, they’d had no hint there was a possibility of anything in their future except more of what they already had: nothing. They didn’t understand why he wanted to create an ocean view in the middle of the desert, what his fascination was with killer whales. They didn’t understand him, but they came to accept him.
Mr. Kyle recovered some but he was not mobile enough to leave his apartment. They established a new routine: Raymond visited the old man every afternoon, picking up their pay. Mr. Kyle reviewed their work through binoculars, giving Raymond instructions for the following day. Sometimes Mr. Kyle would tell Raymond stories about his youth in the northwest. Some things Raymond couldn’t imagine, like being out on the open water during a winter storm, ice crystals forming in the men’s beards, causing them pain when their hair clumped and tightened. Mr. Kyle liked reminiscing. “I was miserable working on that boat, but I miss it a little now.”
The work on the mural continued. It wasn’t long until they could see they’d finish soon. Every day Raymond and Mr. Kyle discussed their progress; every night Raymond gave Louis and Angie an update on Mr. Kyle: he was getting worse.
Raymond and Gary moved Mr. Kyle’s bed next to the window, as some days it was too much effort for him to walk across the room. He refused to go to the doctor or the hospital. “They kicked me out once. They’d do it again.” He laughed hard and brought on a coughing fit that lasted a few moments. “Lying in bed all the time isn’t good for your lungs, Raymond. Try to avoid it, if you can,” Mr. Kyle chuckled, then wheezed.
Angie, Louis, and Raymond worked mostly in silence, knowing the project was almost complete, wondering what came next for them, afraid of what came next for Mr. Kyle.
“Looks like you’ll finish tomorrow,” the old man said. “Bring Louis and Angie with you when you come up next time.”
The three friends stood in Mr. Kyle’s bedroom, looking out across the street. The orcas were immense, the blue water startling in contrast to the surroundings. The building looked as if it had been attacked by an orca pod, the jagged demolition edges resembling giant bite marks.
They looked at Mr. Kyle. He looked older, so much older than just a few short months ago when they met him.
“I miss the ocean,” he whispered. “Raymond, get the envelopes on the dresser.” He had written their names in tiny, scraggly handwriting. Raymond gave Louis and Angie theirs, stuffed his in his pocket. They stood at the bedside and wondered at the old man who had sailed on the ocean in his youth, ice crystals in his beard, orcas alongside the boat.
Louis looked at the mural. He must have known he was sick when we started, he thought. It doesn’t make sense for someone to spend so much money on something he wouldn’t see for very long, if at all. Louis looked at Mr. Kyle and for once, dropped the “crazy” and “old,” looking through to the man. Maybe it was just an excuse to try to save some hooligans with nothing better to do than getting into trouble. He knew this was his last chance to say anything, so he leaned over the bed. “Mr. Kyle, thank you.”
Raymond looked around the room and saw the conch shell on the dresser. He brought it over to the bed, tucking it next to Mr. Kyle’s hand. “The ocean is always within reach. Just listen.” Louis, Angie, and Raymond left the apartment, leaving the sick, old man alone.
Outside, standing under the mural, they opened their envelopes. Inside each one was a bus ticket to the northwest and one thousand dollars cash.
Angie, Louis, and Raymond left the next day, the first day of their adventure.