Marilyn, whose fingers are always blue

By: Amy Dong

Marilyn’s mom has too many dreams and not enough time. She wanted to be an artist, when she was small, and make it big in those fancy galleries, but she dropped out of graduate school to get married and her hands are only good for doing dishes and manicures now. So, Marilyn inherited her dreams instead.

Marilyn’s drawings are always the best in the class, so we always try to get her in our group when we have a project. The teacher always beams at the paper and puts down a big smiley sticker that looks tacky in comparison to Marilyn’s detailed sketches, and that’s good enough for us. But Marilyn just looks sad when we show her the final grade.

She used to live by us, that Marilyn, in a big old red brick house. She used to come out and play during the summer with our neighborhood group, just the gaggle of kids who happened to live by each other and were close enough in age to tolerate each other. We used to play hopscotch under the sun and raid each other's Halloween candy stores and play videogames in each other's houses until the moms yell for us to beat it. But one day Marilyn’s mom walked by while we were doing sidewalk chalk drawings, and she just whisked Marilyn away. Just like that.

Marilyn is going to go to art school, which is just too bad because that means she can’t ever play our games with us. She still lives next to us, that Marilyn. But now Marilyn spends all her time at the art studio her mom put her in, doing paintings and contemplating old fruits, and now we never see her after school or during weekends or any time at all. Whenever we invite her out to catch fish or eat watermelon or throw apples at the principal’s old minivan, she always declines, and over time we just stopped inviting her. Which is a shame, because Marilyn always makes great jokes when she doesn’t look so sad.

I saw her art teacher once, from across the street. He was a large man, with a magnificent beer belly and the longest nose I had ever seen. His hair framed his face in greasy knots, and there was a gigantic vein on his forehead that I couldn’t stop staring at. I saw Marilyn standing by the back of their art studio, and when he yelled at her, his forehead vein pulsed red and purple. Then he dragged her by the ear back into the building and slammed the door, and that was the end of that.

Maybe Marilyn saw me, or heard me whisper about it. Either way, she sat down next to me one day and asked me to keep a secret. She told me that she doesn’t like her teacher very much, and that she gets tired drawing the same fruits every day. He likes to yell at her, and sometimes he shows up too intoxicated to do much more than critique. There’s nothing she can do about it, anyway.

She says that everything will be worth it when she gets into art school. Then she can get her commissions and get away from here. But I can see in her eyes that her words are her mom’s, and that she might really never get away from this place, with the adults that scream at her and the assignments that chip away at her fingernails. Her nose is raw from inhaling fumes every night and her feet are sore from standing to sketch every day.

“She’s going to die, that Marilyn,” my mama clicks her tongue on occasion, when we watch her totter down the sidewalk after school hours. Her face will be smudged with some flammable substance, as always. “Her hands will turn to dust and her mom will frame their ashes on a canvas for the funeral. Really! What a despicable woman.” She shakes her head, when we look at Marilyn’s mom strut down the street with Marilyn in tow. “A despicable woman indeed.”

Marilyn, whose nails are always hurting from gripping the charcoal too hard, once told me that the starving artist is just a myth. They don’t really starve, she explains, not any more than the rest of us. I don’t tell her that myths are ingrained in truth.

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