issue six

art gallery
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(2800 words)
This Is a Test
Lori Hahnel
          Mariah Dufty got a framed picture off her dresser, a family portrait. Mariah's mom and Ray stood behind Mariah, blonde, little, smiling broadly but with her eyes closed. Her older sisters stood beside her. They were all dressed in what looked to be church clothes, Easter clothes maybe, out on their front lawn. Diana and Michelle both had long straight hair, Diana glared from kohl-ringed eyes. They looked like the sullen girls from the junior high we saw waiting for the bus across from our school, who'd chew gum and smoke and thankfully didn't even notice us when we walked by.

       "My dad died when I was little," she said. "I don't really remember him. My sisters look like him, kind of dark. Ray's been around about as long as I can remember. Michelle says too long. I was in kindergarten when that picture was taken. That would make Michelle just about my age now, and Diana would have been in grade eight."

       "So they must be done with school, now, right?"

       "They were done with school a long time ago. Neither of them actually finished. Diana moved out when she was sixteen. She lives in Edmonton now with her boyfriend. And Michelle ran away when she was fourteen. Last we heard she was in Vancouver. Mom's kind of worried. Ray says she should get over it, Michelle's just doing it for attention." I nodded, trying to think of something to say.

       "What they don't know is that I know where Michelle is," she added quietly. "I call her sometimes, collect, when Mom and Ray are out. I have her number memorized so I'll never have to write it down anywhere. She keeps telling me to get out, get out now before it's too late. I can come and live with her, she says. Look what happened to Diana, she keeps reminding me."

       Mrs. Keller opened the bedroom door just then. "Donna? Mariah? Would you like to come into the kitchen for some lemon bars?"


       "There's a witch's leg buried in the Dufty's backyard. You've got to run every time you go by their place," Kelly Burke told me on the way to school one morning a couple of weeks earlier.

       I didn't know Kelly all that well yet, didn't know anybody all that well yet since we'd only been in town about a month. She'd seemed all right, as did Tina Kozma and Patty Exner, the other girls I sat with in Mr. Stevens' class. Perhaps it was another new-kid dupe. There'd been a few of them so far, tests to see what I was made of, how quick I was on my feet. Like the one big moon-faced Oliver Richter had conducted on me. He'd walked up to me at recess once and declared that he hated all people from Saskatchewan. "So do I," I told him. He backed off, a frown creasing the broad expanse of his forehead. Well, if you can't beat 'em, confuse 'em.

       I looked across the street at the square bungalow Kelly nodded at, turquoise with peeling white trim, flowerbed full of red and purple tulips in need of deadheading, orange poppies and brilliant white phlox spilling onto the overgrown lawn. And it was true, as kids neared the yard, they'd break into a run and slow again at the alley.

       "Dufty? Like Mariah Dufty?"

       Kelly nodded. "That's her. She's got two older sisters, too, but they don't go to St. Dymphna anymore. Haven't you noticed how weird she is?"

       Now there was a question. If I said yes, she'd ask why I talked to Mariah. If I said no, I'd be branded as an idiot. That Mariah was weird was the first thing you'd notice about her - and was pretty much the first thing you'd notice about our whole class. Our desks were all arranged in groups, but Mariah's was off by itself, a heap of half-read books and elaborate drawings that Mr. Stevens was always after her to clean up. She read and drew and dreamed over in her corner, hardly seemed aware of what went on around her. She was all one colour: her long, pale hair hung around her long, pale face; her eyes, lightest of green, fringed with white brows and lashes, almost faded into it. She was all one colour except for her homemade-looking clothes, and you knew the person who planted the flowers out front of their house made her clothes, too, like the orange and green plaid jumper she'd wear over a mauve nylon turtleneck.

       "C'mon, Kelly. A witch's leg?"

       "Really. You want to be staying away from there, believe me."

       I began to understand that Kelly was giving me a warning. But was she trying to help me? Or giving me a dare?


       I finally agreed, after Mariah asked me a few times, to come over one Friday after school. Her excitement was almost painful to watch. She began planning like it was the gala event of the year. Was there something special I'd like for a snack? She'd get her mother to make it. If it was nice out, maybe she could show me her garden. If it wasn't, she had some books and drawings she wanted to show me, some records we could listen to. I started to wish I'd never accepted her invitation, wished I'd kept making excuses. I could have said I had to help my mother, I had an appointment, we were going out for dinner that night, anything. This constant nattering about my visit was getting to be too much, like nobody'd ever visited before.

       Now that her courage was up, she started to just come up and talk to me out of the blue. Already I could see it wasn't doing me any good socially. One morning as we were lining up to go to the gym, she asked if I liked coconut macaroons or date squares better. I looked over her shoulder at Kelly watching us. Thankfully, Kelly was far enough away that she couldn't hear us. I mean, I couldn't let anyone know about this.

       When Friday finally came I felt a little sick all day, thinking about after school. I'd considered feigning illness and missing school that day, but decided it would be best to get it over with. Mariah wouldn't be put off for long, I was sure. We'd reschedule and reschedule until I'd eventually have to tell her I didn't want to come over, I'd have to tell her to leave me alone. And I couldn't do it, I wouldn't. I'd go to her house, I wanted to see her drawings, maybe I even wanted to be her friend. Only why did she have to make it so hard? Couldn't she see I was doing this at grave personal risk to myself, couldn't she just be quiet about it?

       The one good thing about Mariah's constant and extreme pokiness was that by the time she got it together at the end of the day and we started off to her house, everybody else had long gone. I told her that I absolutely had to be home by 5:00. It gave me some strange consolation to think that every second she poked around meant a second off my visit.

       We came into the house through the side door, and went up three stairs into the kitchen. The counters were covered with stacks of Jell-o packages. Mrs. Dufty stood with her back to us, cooking something. She had the radio on and didn't hear us come in. When she opened the cupboard doors I could see more boxes of Jell-o crammed in every available space, as if she had it on good authority that they were going to stop making it, and then where would she get the gelatinous goodness her family loved?

       "Hello, Mrs. Dufty," I said, and she turned around. Mariah's mom looked much like her; pale and long-faced, though her colourless hair was cut into a practical pixie cut. She wore a dress of her own making, a purple, brown and green mottled pattern which had the unfortunate effect of accentuating the large bruise on her thin arm just above the elbow.

       "Oh, it's not Mrs. Dufty anymore," Mariah cut in. "It's Mrs. Keller, now. She and Ray got married last year. And I got to be the flower girl, right, Mom?"

       "I wish you'd call him Dad, not Ray. Now why don't you girls go and play quietly? He'll be home soon and you know he needs quiet when he gets home. And I have a thousand things to do before he gets here."

       As we started down the hall to Mariah's room, I could see what her mom meant about having a thousand things to do. Like putting all that food away. More Jell-o and other packaged foods were stacked on the dining room table, stacked up on the floor against the walls in the hallway. Tapioca pudding, gravy browning, canned soups. Mariah didn't say anything about them, and I didn't ask.

       "Mom did those," she said, noticing me noticing the framed jigsaw puzzles and paint-by-numbers in the living room and hallway. Something looked strange about them, something I couldn't quite put my finger on. "She doesn't like the colours that come in the kit, so she uses her own paint." I was certain that no waterfall on earth could be the shade of green she'd chosen, unless it was downstream from a Dow Chemical plant.

       Mariah must have had hundreds of her own artworks on her bedroom walls. And maybe thousands piled on the floor, stacked in the closet. Paintings, drawings in pencil, charcoal, pastel, pen and ink. Pictures of horses, winged and ordinary, dragons, unicorns, chimera, castles, knights and ladies. As she explained all about the subjects and the materials she used, I noticed something about her that I'd noticed before. When she talked about her pictures, she was animated, lit by something inside her. She was no longer pale, but luminous. She spoke with her whole body, gesturing, walking up and down the room. Like she was letting me in on the experience she was having because she knew I understood.

       And I'd seen her have that experience before, I knew now. Silently, by herself, at school when she drew. She put everything into her work, became completely absorbed by it, the same quiet glow shining from her eyes. When she drew she was where she wanted to be, needed to be, and she was lucky she knew how to get there. Some people spend their whole lives trying to get there and never find it.

       Later, we sat at the yellow formica kitchen table eating lemon bars and drinking milk. The sulphur smell of whatever Mrs. Keller was cooking, cabbage maybe, took the edge off my appetite. Or maybe it was thinking about Mariah's sister. I didn't want to think about her, I tried not to. I tried to listen to Mariah saying we should walk over to the public library together sometime. But I kept wondering about Diana, picking at my lemon bar, which tasted not at all of lemon, just bland and sweet, and stealing glances at the bruise on Mrs. Keller's arm. It was in the shape of fingers.


       At ten-to-five I told Mariah I had to get going. She disregarded this; calculating how long it would take to arrive somewhere didn't exist in Mariah's universe. I started leaving and she gave me a guided tour of the knickknacks on the shelves that lined the front hallway. She didn't want me to go. But now we were only a couple of feet from the open front door. The gentle scent of flowers blew in on the warm breeze through the screen door, distracting me, calling me.

       Through the living room window I saw a rusted brown truck pull into the driveway. I didn't want to be there when Ray got in. Mariah still nattered on and on, and I scrambled to gather up my books and tie my shoes. I heard the back door open, heard work boots going up the stairs into the kitchen. The radio snapped off.

       This would be my last chance to ask about Diana. "So what did happen to your sister?" I whispered.

       "She had to have an operation."

       I didn't realize I was running until I almost crashed into Kelly. "What in the world were you doing in Mariah Dufty's house?" Her freckled nose crinkled up like she smelled something unpleasant.


       "You went to hang out at Mariah Dufty's after school?"


       "You're kidding. What was it like?"

       "What do you mean what was it like? It was like anybody else's house."

       "What about the witch's leg?"

       "What about it? You don't really believe that, do you?"

       "Sure I do. You should, too."


       After that, I knew the end was coming. It happened pretty soon after the scotch tape incident. I should explain that in Saskatchewan, seen by many Albertans as a communist hotbed, we had to buy all our own supplies - notebooks, pencils, textbooks, everything - while in free enterprise, every-man-for-himself Alberta, the government bought it all for you. A cupboard at the back of the room overflowed with notebooks, pencils, erasers, glue, all for the taking. The point is, I was still in the bring-your-own mindset, so I brought my own tape. It didn't take long for Kelly, Tina and Patty to start borrowing tape from me, and pretty soon I was going through a roll a week. Then Mom said I'd have to start buying it myself. I didn't mind sharing a little tape now and then, but I was not prepared to continue providing these rich Albertans, with their free books and free glue, with tape paid for out of my allowance. Especially since they didn't use it to tape, say, torn pages in books or something. No, they used it to tape pictures of the Bay City Rollers onto their binders, they used it to tape little rainbows they'd drawn onto their pencils, they used it, I finally realized, just to use it up. Another test.

       Mr. Stevens had declared an all-day drama class, as he often did on Fridays. Participation was optional, so while most of the class once again acted out Jesus Christ Superstar along to the record, our group sat at our desks. I was drawing.

       "Donna, I need tape," said Tina, not even looking at me, centering Shaun Cassidy on the front of a notebook.

       "I'm out."


       "I'm out. You guys used it all up, and I'm not bringing any more. Bring your own tape."

       Patty stopped chewing the ends of her hair. "Are you listening to this girl? Bring our own tape?"

       "Next thing you know she'll be moving her desk over there, with Mariah Dufty."

       It wasn't exactly that I'd been avoiding Mariah since the visit. Well, I had been, but not completely. It was just that I had come to know for certain that that my choices were either remaining in the mid-to-low level popularity group with Kelly, Tina and Patty, or joining Mariah Dufty as an outcast. I couldn't have both.

       Mariah heard her name and glanced up from her book. I panicked, could not make eye contact, looked instead for some lost article in my desk. How could I choose? Why should I have to?

       The lunch bell rang, and everyone else left. Kelly turned around and asked if I was coming. "In a minute," I told her.

       "Girls," said Mr. Stevens. "It's time to go." He turned the lights off and left. Mariah sat there alone in the dim classroom and I wondered what went through her mind that she could just ignore the whole world like that.

       "I'm going home for lunch, Mariah. Are you going to read that book the whole noon hour?"

       "I brought my lunch. I'm going down to the gym to eat when I'm done with this chapter."

       "Okay. Well, I'll see you this afternoon."


       No one in our group was very surprised when I hauled my desk to the other side of the room after lunch. Patty just snorted though her nose, Tina told me to have fun. Kelly looked a little hurt, I think, or maybe concerned. It was hard to tell. The green rubber feet squeaked and ground on the floor as I dragged it over, and it seemed to me that everyone was watching.

       The view was different on Mariah's side of the room. I knew I'd like being able to see out the window. Mariah took great pleasure in adjusting her desk so I'd be able to see the board, in clearing away some of the detritus, making room. Then she dug around in her desk, searching for something, and finally produced a roll of tape.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Lori Hahnel. All rights reserved.

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