*A Stroke Apart

(The asterisk denotes a story that I would especially recommend reading.)

A Stroke Apart

Kenneth Burchfiel

The sound was beginning to stick to his paint. Vogel could tell. Bits of applause were mixed up in the white coloring; gooey chunks of band music stained the green; the blue had turned brown from all the names. He couldn’t paint with this kind of noise. His art had to be pure, untouched by anything that might cause him to turn away.

He shook his head and looked up at the building. This was where he needed to focus. this was where his future lay, here on the brick walls of Southwest.

Vogel painted harder, pressing the brush into the brick and scraping it along the wall. It left behind a stark white line.

For a second, he looked back. The football field, just a few blocks away, gleamed with a towering light that flooded the nearby street; drivers slowed down out of curiosity. The bleachers, weighed down with the pride of 400 parents, shook from all the clapping; each name received applause worthy of a touchdown.

Maybe his own parents were there. Maybe they still had hope that he would be there with all his old friends, clutching his diploma and flashing an unconscious smile.

Vogel turned, eying each brush stroke on the wall. There wasn’t much left to paint; the left wing was complete, and most of the right was outlined—just not filled in. It was a simple enough design; all of his were, as the police moved pretty quickly around these parts and Vogel rarely had time to paint anything complicated.

On a good night of street art, he would only see the painting and the wall. Everything else—the cars, the buildings, even the sky—would slowly dissolve, reappearing only when he finished. On an even better night, his usual thoughts would drain away, too, leaving him in a state of perfect awareness. That wasn’t occurring tonight; he could barely focus enough to fill in the outline.

If only that noise from the school ceremony—if only he could turn it off, somehow. It was muddying up his colors, making his hand shake a little, forcing him to jerk his head over and stare. He couldn’t see the school, couldn’t feel it, couldn’t relate to it, but the sound made him wonder if he still belonged there. Much as he tried to paint over that thought, it stuck.

Turning again to the wall, he painted fast, heavy strokes inside the right wing. They were two opposite paths, that school and this art, and to straddle them meant living as two separate people, two halves that fell short of a whole. And yet, as much as he tried to shove the football stadium out of his mind, the noise continued flooding into his paint, bursting holes in the cans, bursting holes in his head…

Vogel slammed the brush into the wall so hard that it broke. One piece fell into the paint, where it bobbed up and down.

He heard especially loud cheering and turned to see tassels and mortarboards breaking into the night sky. Emotionless, Vogel took one more glance at the wall, eying the scratch the brush made in the brick. The bleachers would be empty in half an hour, and he would be able to think again. His paint would become pure again.

He could never straddle that line between him and the school. This was his side, this was life; that school was in the past, empty, distant. It hadn’t been easy, crossing over.


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