The Wakening ‘Switch’
By Dan Brady
The string attached to the spine was longer than a foot. “This is the largest piece I’ve ever had to use,” Justine Donegal said as she removed her glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose. Her desktop, askew with scattered pieces of twine, and tiny cut-out fragments of colored paper, looked more like the result of the rage of a tiny tempest. Miniature scissors, tweezers, and a bottle of Elmer's glue leaned against the base of a fly-tying vise with a magnifying glass attached.
Erin Keagan, Donegal’s newest intern, moved closer with the tray of assorted tea bags, a porcelain pot of hot water, and several scones. “Doctor Donegal, do you want the tray on your desk or the side table?”
“Put it on the table, please. How much time do I have?” Donegal stood the hard-bound book upright and turned it toward Keagan. The paper figures stepped out from the pages. “How does it look, Erin?”
"It's beautiful and meticulously kept to scale. In forty minutes, you'll be needed at the Robert Kennedy Hall.”
The porcelain pieces rattled as Keagan set the tray down and prepared a setting for one.
Donegal got up from her desk. “Why don’t you join me, Erin?”.
“Thank you,” Keagan said and moved another chair to the table and waited for Donegal to be seated first. But, instead, the professor started for her private office bathroom. "Go ahead and start, Erin. I'm going to wash my hands."
A paper towel dispenser crunched three times, Donegal came out and sat across from Keagan. “There is a storm coming. How come you’re still here?”
“I don’t mind. I take the train home, and my dad picks me up at the station in Dover."
“He doesn’t have any trouble driving in the bad weather?”
Keagan chuckled. “Mom and dad have Land Rovers. I mean the real ones, the British Leyland. They act like children driving around in the heavy snow.”
Donegal smiled, chose an Orange Blend tea bag, and dropped it into a cup. Keagan poured hot water nearly the top. “Is that enough?”
Donegal lifted the tea bag up and down, turning the clear water into light bronze. Orange scents mingled with the steam floating up. “That’s perfect. Thank you.”
Erin took a bite of a blueberry scone, sipped her tea, then set the scone down onto its plate. “Doctor Donegal, can I ask you something?”
“Of course,” She grinned. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to answer it.”
Keagan blushed and pointed to the shelves behind Donegal. "Oh! It's only about those books you create."
Donegal reached across and patted the top of Keagan's hand. “I was kidding, Erin. Go ahead and ask.”
Keagan shifted and leaned toward Donegal. “Everything is connected to one string. The complex mechanics would push M.I.T. Engineers to their limits. What compels a Professor of Modern Literature to venture into such complicated endeavors?”
“It’s not an endeavor for me, Erin. All art is literature in one way or another, and those books are my own calming expressions of art.”
Keagan's forehead wrinkled. She took another sip and held the cup close to her face to collect the scent of the mint. “How do you mean?”
Donegal smiled and took another bite of the scone, and moistened the dryness with a small sip of tea. "Erin, when you view a Rembrandt, what are you seeing? People, animals, and floral life are telling a story belonging to that time period.”
Keagan nodded. “Great artists beckon us into their scenes."
Donegal took another sip and gently placed the cup into the saucer without looking at Keagan and said, “Exactly. What else do they do?”
Keagan stared into her cup for several seconds. “They are speaking to us? Poking at our curiosities? The artists want us to touch the subjects with our hearts so we can become a part of what’s going on?”
Donegal smiled. "Very good, Erin. A sculpture, a painting, or a poem, they’re inviting you to become a part of them. The flowers dance and bend so we know there is a wind. The plowmen trudge behind the straining horses.”
Erin placed her cup back into the saucer. "That's beautiful, Doctor Donegal. From time to time, I think I felt what you're talking about. But I never knew how to define it. It's like the spices tossed into a beef stew. You don't even think about what they are and only focus on what the Beef Stew is supposed to taste like.”
“It’s not your fault, Erin. Western learning stresses the importance of things like Reason, Logic, and Mathematics. Educational facilities need to knock the car off the tracks from time to time.”
Erin’s eyes widened. “I think I get it! When I look at your dad’s paintings of the Ritz Carlton and the Boston Common, I’m not just looking at buildings and figures. I’m seeing people’s stories as well as what’s happening all around them.”
Donegal smiled again, took a deep gulp of tea, and poured more hot water over the same teabag. "Take a look at the book, Erin." Donegal pointed to the open pages. "Whatever you see, make it your story. It’s your song. Take your time. I got twenty minutes."
Keagan put her cup down and focused on the pages with paper people, trees, and motor vehicles jutting out. Donegal waited for Erin’s smile, then leaned back into her chair and watched.
“Can I tell the story of these people?” Keagan asked.
“I’m going to start with man and go from there.”
“Go for it, kiddo.”
Melvin looked around and thought. The snow isn’t supposed to arrive till much later. He tugged at the collar of his light jacket, hoping to block out some cold. All around, taxis tooted while busses groaned through heavy wakes of diesel exhaust splashing brown slush, remnants of the last storm, into the gutters. Boylston Street honked and growled with travelers scrambling to sneak out onto U.S 95 and avoid getting trapped inside the city.
Boston’s winter is gray and brown, but the brilliant Christmas lights affixed to street posts and shop-fronts and the old Back Bay Brownstones' bright holiday dressings quarrel with the dreariness and bitter cold.
Melvin often set an easel up in the park across from the Ritz Carlton. Momentarily, he forgot the cold and wished he’d brought his equipment. A true artist, Melvin’s mind traveled faster than his actions. The cold salty North Atlantic gusts are soaking Boston. How can I put the frigid dampness, salt and all, on canvas?
"Where you going, Melvin?" a voice shouted.
He turned to see his neighbor, Carmen, zipped all the way up in her wool coat, wrapping a red and white scarf around her neck and face. Melvin waved and smiled. Carmen is always there for somebody.
She ensured that his cat’s litter box stayed cleaned and checked to see if he put the proper groceries in the refrigerator. After a snowstorm, Carmen always joined in with shoveling out the front sidewalk for the older tenants.
Carmen walked over. “There is going to be a storm, Melvin. They say it’ll start with rain.”
Melvin looked up at the sky. "It's the middle of December, and they say we're gonna get rain?”
Carmen adjusted the scarf to make her voice clearer. “Yup. Can you believe it? By the way, what are you doing out in this weather with a spring jacket on? You have winter clothes.”
“I was only going to run down to Habib’s.”—The neighborhood, seven-eleven.
Carmen slammed her arm around her torso several times, hoping to generate some body heat. “Oh, I think you missed a turn.”
Melvin smiled. “Carmen, I was thinking about the salty wetness of Boston.”
He sometimes struggled to complete topics and sentences, so to try to keep him on track, Carmen stepped closer. "Mr. Habib! Isn’t he a wonderful man? You know he gave Gertrude, in the basement apartment, store credit when her social security got messed up after someone stole her identity.”
“I didn’t know that. I’m just glad someone took over the store when Arthur died.”
Carmen nodded. “It sat idle for more than a year. I guess his kids didn’t want it. We had to travel to the Stop & Shop next to the train station. It wasn’t easy for people like Gertrude.”
A blast of wind lifted sections of an abandoned newspaper, an empty Starbucks coffee cup, and a lid, and bits of the loose sand that was spread across the icy sidewalks to prevent people from slipping. The sand stung Melvin's cheeks, and he gripped his jacket tighter.
“So, what about the wet-salty air in Boston?”
Melvin said. “I have to put it on a canvas next time. What color gray does everything look like to you?”
“A mild slate, perhaps the color of some of the worn tiles on the roof of Phanuel Hall.”
Melvin looked all-around, studying the colors. "I think you're right. Six parts white, one part black. I'm gonna start with that.”
"Melvin, why don't you take my scarf? I don't need it. I just came outside for a minute to get some air. I'm going back in right away."
Melvin shook his head and stared at his feet. “Carmen, you’re going to need it when you get out of work.”
“Melvin! Look at me. I will not need it. I’m gonna catch the bus right there.” She pointed at a bus stand six feet away. “It’ll get dropped off right in front of our building.”
Carmen unwrapped her scarf, stepped in front of Melvin and wrapped it two times around his neck, unzipped the light jacket, and stuffed the rest against his chest, then zipped it up and patted down the bulge with the flat of her two palms. “There! That’ll hold you till you get home.”
As Melvin adjusted the scarf under his jacket, Carmen asked. "Do you have bus fare? You need the correct change, you know." She shuffled her feet to shake the coldness out. “Wait right here. I’m gonna get you the correct change.”
"I can't take your money, Carmen."
She spoke back over her shoulder while walking away. "Pay me back when you see me again. It's only a dollar-fifty. I know you'd do the same for me. Wait here. I'll be right back.”
Carmen rushed into the Ritz Carlton, stopping at the Concierge's desk. "Daddy, my purse is in my locker. I need some bus coins for Melvin."
Sean grinned, reached into his jacket, and pulled out a change purse overflowing with quarters and dimes. “Here, take what you need. He doesn’t have his easel set up today, does he?”
“No, he just wandered over while his mind was on other things.”
“The employee’s vending machine is working now. Take some extra coins and get him a hot chocolate or something.”
Carmen stretched to the tips of her toes and kissed his cheek. "Thanks, Daddy.”
She returned and dropped twelve quarters into Melvin’s jacket pocket and handed him the hot chocolate. “This comes out of our vending machines. It’s not the best, but it ain’t the worst either.”
“Thank you, Carmen. Where do people like you come from?”
Carmen, blushing, touched Melvin's elbow. “Don’t be silly, Melvin. Boston’s full of nice people.”
Melvin removed the lid and wrapped both hands around the cup, and blew across the top. Steam shot up, fogging his glasses, making it difficult to judge the distance to rim the cup. He took a sip and brought the cup back down and dark liquid dripped from the tip of his nose. Carmen laughed and touched it with the end of her index finger. "What are you trying to do? Drink it like an elephant?"
Melvin laughed. “Ya know, you got a laugh that elephants would understand.”
Carmen chuckled. “You’ve been playing too much cribbage with Mr. Belton.” Bill Belton, wheelchair-bound, and another building tenant spent thirty-five years working with elephants in various circuses and zoos.
Melvin grinned and recited Belton’s words. “They’re smart, noble critters. Their brains are larger than ours, and they are full of passion for one another.”
Donegal startled Keagan with a soft touch to her shoulder. “Did you have fun?”
“Oh my Gosh! What a beautiful way to look at art.”
“Erin, You’re a Fulbright Scholar. Don’t be afraid to be invited in by the characters you stumble across on canvas, in sculptures, or from the people of letters."
Erin sat quietly for almost a minute, although it seemed much longer. Then, finally, she took a napkin off the tray and wiped her eyes. "Doctor Donegal, I am so honored to intern with you."
Donegal reached over and patted Erin’s hand one more time. "Erin, it's my honor. Someday you'll become famous, and I'll be able to brag to my cohorts that I was lucky enough to have you intern for me.”
Wallen, weeping openly, said, “I don't know why I'm so sentimental about a winter scene."
“It happens. Do you want to try to close the book?”
Erin’s eyes widened. “I don’t want to break anything. There must be fifty strings attached to the closer.”
Donegal moved the book, still standing up on its sides, closer to the Keagan and grinned. “Ah, give it a shot. It has got to be done sooner or later.”
Keagan gently pulled at the long string. Melvin’s arms twisted across his face and collapsed at the knees. Carmen separated into pieces and slid to the corners of the page. Her dad folded in half. The Boston Common split into several sections capturing the busses and automobiles and the brownstones. The trees shrunk, taking the shop-fronts with them. The book closed impeccably as the icy rain pinged against Donegal’s office window.