A Hundred Cans of Paint
If you look out your window on any given morning, it is likely you may see a boy in sweats, running. If you follow him, very closely and very quietly, you can see where he goes. Over on East Avenue, just across the small candy shop where all the delinquents–criminals in training– gather, there is a large brick wall. This wall is no ordinary wall . This wall has vision. It is covered in the ideas of many, but it has not been touched in years. If you look closely, you can see that what is drawn on the wall tells a lifetime of stories. There are words, initials, flowers, initials, skulls, rainbow-bubbled swirls, testaments to people–people represented as leaders, as failures. The boy passes this candy shop and ducks in the alley to a secret forgotten pocket, isolated from the world.
The boy in the sweats wakes up at precisely 4 AM . He gathers his spray cans and his copper-colored hoodie and leaves his home. I wake up and examine his passing my window every morning, every day. His colors in the cans correspond with the days of the week. On Sundays, they are primary colors: golden sun yellow, heat rising red, mysterious indigo-blue. On Mondays and Thursdays his colors are dark and sad: moss green and bitter violet. Occasionally the color of combed velvet. It’s a serious style of work.
I don’t know the boy anymore, but I know that he runs to the wall when he needs to. I’ve seen him cry for reasons that cannot be explained with even the most absolute description of words. I know that he is alone and in pain. This wall is his only mode of expression, and he is looked at as a vandal. He receives no credit and no praise from anyone. I want to help him but I feel he would push me away. He doesn’t even show his face in public. He wears his hoodie pulled deep over his face allowing him to see out, but no one to see in.
Why do I care about him?
We met in third grade. He was my only friend. He was the only one I could turn to when everyone else turned away from me. On that first day of third grade, I had noticed there was always this one boy who always had his head buried in his desk. His oversized hoodie covered practically his whole body. He was extremely skinny and had the darkest brown eyes, nearly black. He was in that class for really stupid people. But this boy was not stupid. He watched everyone closely, but no one paid attention to him. He had no friends, just like me. I couldn’t help but feel sad for him, though he probably didn’t feel anything for me. He seemed to get along just fine without what any third grader would die to have: a friend. It was unusual, but that’s what I liked about him. He was different.
I remember that one day, a couple of months after school started, we had to bring in something for show and tell. After everyone had gone, the boy finally got up in front of the whole classroom to present what he had brought. Not many paid attention, and when they did, they hardly paid any. I watched him closely though. I remember that day like I remember my name. His story was unique, crazy, and weird. He spoke softly, his eyes looking at the floor, not daring to even look at the teacher. It went like this:
“I brought in something very special for show and tell. It may seem like nothing to you, it is like a valuable treasure to me.” He held out the spray paint can to show the class. It l was empty and caked with dirt. My eyes started to widen and I started to get small shivers up my spine. It was then when I started to get a real interest in the boy. He continued “I am-er, I once knew this boy, who everyone ignored. He was alone, had no one. Had no family and knew no one. This boy would always run to…to escape. He had experienced a painful time. There wasn’t much to say about him. He seemed to live on the streets, since he was always there rather than his house. He practically lived off small sandwiches from the nearest convenience store, paying for them by frantically searching through the roads for small change or under the large vending machines and soda pop machines. He was barely surviving. He was malnutritional, I think that’s how you say it?” He looked at the teacher for assurance. Mrs. Livy was in tears. “Malnourished” she corrected in a whisper. The boy paused a split second, then continued “You might ask ‘why won’t he just tell someone? Then he could be happier, get himself fed, even go to live with a foster home?’ ” He paused. Everyone was looking at him now. I was too. “But he only has his cans.” He finished, abruptly. Then, he took his seat and put his head down on his desk.
I waited until lunch to talk to him. Everyone else just ignored him, like nothing had even happened. I sat down next to him and looked at him closely. His skin was dry; his eyes were bloodshot, like he had been crying. He didn’t pay any attention to me, just fidgeted with his tuna sandwich on stale bread that he got from free lunch. I started “What cans?” He looked at me suddenly, like he had just been accused of murder. His expression, I could tell, was a mix of worry to who I would tell, hatred of the world, and surprise from how sudden it all seemed. He shook his head and got up to leave but I pulled him back in his seat. I knew he wouldn’t do anything to fight back because I knew that was not who he was. Tears started to spring in his eyes, but he blinked them back and walked back to the classroom. Our conversation was over. The rest of the kids went outside for recess, but I know that seeing other kids laugh would just make him want to be alone, isolated away from the others.
I walked home. I have ever since I was in first grade. We lived near the school and my mother did not mind me doing it as long as I came home in time, but that was never a problem. I walked home with my hands in my faded jeans pockets, pushing rocks out of my way as I went. I was looking at the ground until I felt a sudden swift rush of wind and a tug at my arm. It was the boy. He wordlessly led me over to the fence near the playground. We walked along a long narrow and dusty path for quite a long time until we reached an old beaten down rusted shed. He pulled me inside. It was pitch black and I didn’t move because I was too busy feeling scared. I didn’t know what he was going to do to me–not like rape, or hurt me. It was weird.
The room suddenly brightened as he pulled a stained cloth away from the window. I turned to look the boy. He was grinning wide, as if he took pride in this rusty old dump. He finally answered my question before I could ask another one “These cans” he pulled a large sheet off the large table. Once he did, I understood why it would be something to be proud of. The table was COVERED in cans. Cans of spray paint of every single color that ever existed and more. There must have been thousands on the table and the floor.
Instead of asking questions, I just stood there, open-mouthed. The boy looked at me, still smiling. I walked over to some of them and read the colors aloud “Popping purple, roasting red, jungle green.” There were some weird names, but it was kind of fun reading them. I looked at him again. He was examining some of the cans closely. I asked “What’s your name?” He turned to me in all seriousness. “Drew” he said.”What’s yours?” I smiled at that because he sounded like he really wanted to know. “Marcus,” I answered. He nodded and sat down on the chair next to him. “So, you want me to tell you what these cans are for? They kinda have a big secret.” “Like you?” I said. He looked at me, a little shocked but he didn’t do anything to stop it, almost like he had known it was coming. “Yeah..” He nodded. “So what are they for?” He told me that the cans were his pencil, the walls his paper, and that he was telling his story.
He said that when he got older, he would draw amazing things that everyone would love, things that no one would have ever seen before. I asked him if he was worried about getting in trouble for the graffiti. He shook his head and said “It’s not graffiti. It’s vision”
He pulled out this dark folder from under a large pile of paint cans. He showed me some of the drawings he had been working on. He said he needed to choose the right spot, a place where people would see the difference between vision and graffiti. His pictures were detailed: sad, happy, silly, perfect, and wrong. There was a mixture of emotions I can’t explain, but overall it was absolutely wonderful. Then he changed his story. He told me it wasn’t such a big deal; he didn’t want me to tell anyone about his pictures. But even with this secret, he had let me in. Finally I had found a friend. For the next five years we were inseparable.
Freshman year, Drew’s grades started to slip. He had barely passed third grade, but after that he and I always worked together on projects and homework assignments. I kept him alert and helped him keep his grades high enough pass. But during his first year of high school, he just stopped caring. I never understood why. It hurt me. Back then we were close and we never kept secrets. It felt weird that he was shutting me out. Drew said that he couldn’t take the stress from school anymore and dropped out. I wish I could have done something about it, but I didn’t know what to do. Freshman year was rough for me too though and I never had time to see him after school. Our friendship had started to fade.
When Drew left school, I was once again alone. At lunch, I sat alone at the table farthest away from everyone. It was terrible for me, but I spent most of my time worrying about Drew. I had always wondered how he managed to take care of himself as a child, but as we grew I didn’t think as much about it. Now I worried about him all the time. But whenever I would walk home and see him running, I never said anything. It was like we existed in different worlds.
When I was younger, I really wanted our friendship to last; in fact, part of me still does. It is weird. I don’t see him much anymore. I am now a senior. I miss him. The thing is, Drew meant a lot to me. He was the brother I never had. We talked a lot about what we wanted in life–girls, jobs, family, dreams. We were never embarrassed to admit anything to each other. We went into depth a lot. Sometimes we were really emotional too. When we got upset, we would go to the shed. There, in private, he would cry on my shoulder and I would cry on his. We acted like kids but we didn’t care. We were best friends.
But now I don’t know him.
I get up every morning to see him run. I don’t know if he sees me looking out the window. Once I followed him, to look at his ‘visions’ on the wall. They were intricate: a life story in paint. It reflected all that was him–happiness, sadness, disappointment, grief. It was no secret that he had accomplished what he had wanted in life, or what he thought he wanted: fragments of childhood ignorance. He lives with no one, but I don’t know how to affords to live at all. He doesn’t have a job, or education, or a focus in life.
Once caught up to him and told him that if he didn’t get a job or get an education, he was going to go nowhere in life fast. He just shook his head and ran away. I don’t even know him now; the Drew I once knew is gone. I only know him from his visions now. The visions I won’t tell. Visions that are constantly under revision.