David Barringer
At nineteen he learns to draw motorcycles and nude women for cigarettes.

Prison is a spiteful teacher. It mumbles to itself in cement and steel, barks its lessons in boot-toes and knuckles. Paul draws ink tattoos on bare arms, and they leave him alone at night.

Paul's boredom led to crime: robbing suburban houses. Prison leads to Harleys and naked women, which are a desperate art.

For the community-service part of his sentence, Paul works as a janitor in a high school in Pontiac, Michigan. High school is a pillowcase full of kittens knocked out cold. Paul is twenty-one.

After a day's work, he draws pictures of what he thinks American Indians are about. Eagle feathers, warriors, drum dances, quivers of arrows, elks pushing their black muzzles into the snow. His mother was an Indian who lived on a reservation. His father never said what tribe. His father was not an Indian, he was white, and he did not marry his mother.

Instead, when Paul's mother died early, he brought Paul, legally, to Michigan, to school. Paul draws pictures of smoky braids in rain, and moccasins drying near embers. In his mind is an empty throat. It does not speak of anything he knows as himself. It only breathes in harder when he thinks harder. He creeps up to its edge, at night, and by morning, when he must somehow draw away, he sees the back heels of desire, which are what being a janitor in a high school teaches him to fear -- his own feet walking away.

Paul does not regret his decision to stay on as janitor after completing his community service because he did need the money, and because anyone can learn from being a janitor for a few months.

Paul attends a high-school ceremony. He helped prepare and is supposed to clean up afterwards. He watches from a door in the back of the auditorium. An old janitor is retiring after thirty years of service.

Paul knows this janitor, name is Walter, was trained by him, worked with him, played cards and ate hot dogs and beans at his apartment. Paul used to chase the kids who teased Walter about his bald head, his potbelly, mocked the advice he used to give about using your schooling instead of wasting it.

"Take me," Walter used to say to the kids or to Paul. "Take me. I'm the negative argument."

Walter's name is announced, and he is asked to come to the stage. His official retirement is an early part of the larger ceremony. There are a line of speakers, tables on either side of a podium, and a microphone.

Walter stands uneasily to receive his congratulations. They give Walter a gold watch. The audience claps loudly, cheers. A gold watch equals thirty years of sweeping floors and scrubbing toilets. Walter's smile tries to hide a thirty-year hurt which the smile does not yet understand. Walter walks down the steps of the stage, out into the audience.

Paul wants only to leave. Not to escape, but to move on. He walks out right then, going somewhere else to continue what he cannot continue here, and he is running on the balls of his feet.


He wants a quiet street corner. Even on a cold October afternoon, Flint refuses to oblige.

"Looks like shit," snaps some kid, who is nervous and wears a leather jacket. "But freedom of expression, right?"

Painting, Paul only nods. He doesn't believe this kid has it in him to be a mugger.

Paul paints whatever is around him now: street corners, dumpsters, alleys, railroad tracks. He paints Flint because anywhere is worth painting, no more so than anywhere else. Sometimes thinking this way becomes a crime at the expense of his soul, because he doesn't really believe it. Even if it snows, he is outside painting. He has cut holes in his gloves. If the paint freezes, he gives up. Otherwise, he can't afford to. He can't afford to stop painting or to move to another city.

He is twenty-five, pays for rent and food by selling his work, loves to hunt and fish, owns cowboy boots and a rifle, and every morning, easel under his arm, he walks to some unexamined nook of the city and paints.

He is grateful for being this focused. He remembers when his father first brought him to Michigan. They lived up north somewhere. He has scratched the name from his memory, as one scratches a record until it cannot be played. To nurse his heartache, he took drugs. Once, high on crystal meth, he ran a stop sign and, with a cop in pursuit, steered his father's pick-up toward a fifteen-foot drop into a grassy field. His memory bails out there.

In the morning, his dad dragged him into the yard. Half the rear bumper was bent at a right angle, and thirty feet of chicken wire trailed off the rear axle. "Cool," Paul said, impressed. "Not cool," his father corrected, and kicked him out of the house.

Frustrated, Paul stabs his canvas. It's expensive, and he immediately regrets it. He usually uses plywood. He can steal another canvas, though, from somewhere. This settles him somewhat, but he is still nowhere nearer to achieving the color he wanted.

The shadow on the cement is blue, black, grey, what? The street diminishes in the distance until the motion is picked up by a tree. The motion is then delivered by branches to an awning on the storefront opposite, where it falls off into the pool of the shadow from the stop sign. The shadow must be the right color to accomplish the continuity of motion. Disgusted, he packs up and leaves.


A few days later, an old homeless man pops his head above the plywood.

Paul is painting a 1950's-looking diner across the street. The people inside look colorless, weary, like zombies. The homeless man like Old Man Winter appears above the painting. He has a short dark beard, spit frozen in it. His cheeks are bright red. He's panting. The cold air turns his breath to clouds, and they are moving down into the frame, swirling above the diner's roof.

"Indians are coming," the man warns. "The goddamn Indians are coming, and the President don't even know where the goddamn trailers full of dynamite are!"

Paul brushes him into his landscape for surreal effect. He paints one version of him peering in through the diner's windows, smearing them with his fog. He paints another version of him tugging on the door which the zombies have locked. Sticks of dynamite poke out from his coat pockets. He considers painting a third version in which the old man lands on top of the diner in a spaceship, then leads the space people into the diner where the President is being honored in a zombie banquet.

The old man is growing impatient. He has national security on his mind.

"Come on, Boy," the man urges, making to grab Paul's arm. The man's fingers only brush Paul's sleeve. The man runs down the street. "Get the horses! Spread the word!"

Paul watches him a long time, marveling at his desperate energy, until he recreates the man as a mysterious figure whose flapping coat is daubed with black and brown. Paul freezes him in flight beyond the diner, where his function is to hold down the uncertain edge of Paul's horizon.

David Barringer has written stories for Epoch, Nerve, Wisconsin Review, The Paumanok Review, Tatlin's Tower, and many others. His second collection of short fiction, The Human Case, was recently published. He lives in Michigan with his wife and two kids. He maintains a website at


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