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The Lost Works of Dernell Hall

by Jackie Gamber

Dernell Hall was born with his eyes open. He came out headfirst like most babies do, splashed into the warm water of the hospital’s birthing pool, and sucked in his first breath just as he was laid on his Mama’s chest, all the while staring up at hovering faces with brown and bloodshot eyes.

“Look at him thinking,” said Dernell’s daddy, stroking his son’s wet spine.

“He’s so pale, he looks like a white baby,” said Aunt Jojo, his mama’s sister, who’d been there watching.

“He’ll darken soon enough,” said his Mama, and lifted her chin to kiss her husband’s mouth. “He’ll get his cinnamon color from his daddy.”

“But not his name?” asked Aunt Jojo.

“This boy is Dernell,” said Daddy. And that was that.

* * *

Dernell scooted his chubby bottom down the carpet steps, listening to the shwoop of his diaper. He was suddenly startled by pain. He’d grazed his thigh over a loose nail in the banister, and a trickle of bright color rose up through a crack in his smooth skin. He touched the color. It transferred to his finger. He pressed his finger against the white wall. It made a mark that looked so much like the bump on Daddy’s nose that Dernell couldn’t help but pat, pat, pat that bright color in a hazy pattern that mimicked the furrows and valleys of Daddy’s whole face. He was just poking a finishing touch at the corner of Daddy’s eye when his Mama came.

“Oh, Dernell! Oh, baby! What have you done to yourself?” She scooped him off the step and turned him over to look at his bleeding scratch. Dernell gurgled, and pointed to Daddy’s face on the wall. Mama just grabbed the phone and babbled hysterically at Aunt Jojo.

* * *

Dernell sidled up to two girls drawing white chalk squares on the sidewalk during recess. When the girls tossed the chalk into the grass and began hopping back and forth across the squares, Dernell watched the chalk, and the way the morning dew speckled the glossy sides of the white stick. Then he pressed the end of the stick to the pavement, and swirled great, wavy lines. Using the dark spots on the chalk to make shadows, and the light parts of the chalk to make highlights, Dernell rendered the snowy peaks of the mountains majesty that came to his mind’s eye whenever he sang his favorite song in school.

The recess bell rang.

“Mrs. Donovan,” wailed one of the hopscotch girls. “Dernell stole our chalk!”

Mrs. Donovan bore down on Dernell like a stalking cougar from his drawn mountains. “Young man, what do you have to say for yourself?”

Dernell pointed to his sidewalk art, but no one was looking at it. They were puffy-faced and staring only at him. He skulked inside.

* * *

“I like to draw,” Dernell confessed at the dinner table. His parents and his little sister all regarded him.

“As long as you keep up with homework,” said Daddy.

“I wondered where all our pencils kept going,” said Mama.

“I like Math,” said his sister. She poked at her mashed potatoes with her spoon.

“I put in a picture for the art show at school,” said Dernell. “I worked two weeks straight on it.”

“What’s the picture?” asked Mama.

“Therese,” he said, pointing to his little sister, who grinned at him. “From last summer when she was blowing bubbles off the front porch. Her lips are all puckered, and her eyes are closed because she’s afraid a bubble will pop and sting her eyes.”

His sister giggled. “I remember that.”

“When’s this art show?” asked Daddy.

“Saturday in the gym. Will you go see it?”

“Of course,” said Mama. “I’ll be real proud.”

On Saturday Dernell could hardly breathe, he was so nervous. He was the first of the family into the gym, his hands clenched to fists so he wouldn’t fidget. He found his picture immediately, and sucked in a breath to see it right where he’d put it, hung between Dory McCallister’s pastel daylilies and Ethan Smith’s oil painting of a sunset. Dernell’s art was all pencil, so it contrasted the others, but he chose it that way. He stared, frozen in fear and anticipation, as his family came up behind him.

“Look at all these pictures,” said Mama. “I never knew you had so much talent in your school, Dernell.”

“I like the flowers,” said Therese, and pointed to Dory’s drawing. “Can you draw me some flowers for my room, Dernell?”

“There are copper sculptures over there,” said Daddy. “I wonder if they sell this stuff.”

Off his parents shuffled, with Therese bouncing between them.

“But...” said Dernell, his voice fading behind them.

* * *

At the school bus stop, a cardinal fluttered to a wobbly landing on a nearby willow branch. It cocked its crimson head and stared right into Dernell’s eyes. Dernell’s hand dipped into his backpack for a notepad and pencil. He met that cardinal’s gaze, and sketched.

“What are you writing?” asked Brittney Cole, her voice coming from around his shoulder, her chiffon-soft hair tickling his arm while she peeked.

“Drawing,” Dernell said, distracted by the challenging angle of the cardinal’s beak.

“You’re an artist?”

His hand paused. He looked at the top of her head, and at the way the sunlight glistened her painted highlights. “I draw, anyway.”

She tipped up her face, and her wrinkled brows. She looked back at his paper, and again to his face. “Draw what?” she asked.

The bus pulled up with a hiss of air brakes, and the cardinal flustered away.

“The bird,” said Dernell, pointing to his sketch, but Brittney was already climbing with silky legs, pale like sidewalk chalk, into the school bus. He looked again at his drawing, ran his fingers over it. Graphite smudged their tips, and he studied it. He put his fingers to his tongue and tasted it. It was there. He was sure of it.

* * *

On Saturday, Dernell had tied himself into a hardware store rope and was dangling against the side of the old penny candy store. The building was more rubble than brick, but situated at the curve of a road that no passerby failed to notice. Dernell had two of Mama’s pocketed aprons lashed front and back around his waist. They were stuffed with spray paint. He swung back and forth, squirting color and shadow against the crumbling brick, determined to create a masterpiece the whole town could see.

The morning sun blazed high and hot, drying the paint almost the instant it touched the wall. He swooped red for a cardinal perched on a soap bubble. He gave short bursts of silver for the shine of those bubbles blown by Therese’s puckered mouth. He pushed off with his feet to sway over the background of purple mountains bursting through suffusing clouds, and layered more cinnamon brown for the skin of Daddy’s laughing face. Perspiration was making it hard to grip the cans, but he worked long into the afternoon anyway.

Then a siren yowled briefly from below, and snapped off. “Son,” said a voice through a speaker. “This is Officer Stanton. Your parents are on their way.”

Dernell drew his forearm across his brow, and gazed down at the blob of uniform beside a black and white police car.

“Okay,” he called. “I was just finishing.”

“They told me they love you very much, and want you to hang on until they get here,” said Officer Stanton into his radio mouthpiece. “Whatever it is, we can talk you through it.”

A grumble of engine brought his parents’ Sonata into view. They pulled up beside the police car, and Mama climbed out first. “Dernell!”

“Hold on, son,” hollered Daddy. “Just hold on!”

“Hi,” said Dernell, and pointed over his shoulder to his 20-foot mural. “Do you like it?”

“What’s he saying?” asked Mama, clutching at Daddy’s arm.

Dernell had thought he might get into trouble for defacing public property or something, but he hadn’t expected the worried looks on his parents’ faces. “What’s the matter, isn’t it good?” he called.

“Yes,” called Officer Stanton. “You’re good, son. Of course you are.”

Mama grabbed the radio piece from the officer and squealed into it, “Dernell, don’t let go! You know we love you baby. Whatever’s troubling you, we’ll get through it together!”

“What?” asked Dernell

More sirens quietly screeched, muffled by distance and treetops, but they were getting closer. Soon an ambulance and a fire truck shambled around the crowded corner and jerked to a stop. Firemen spilled out from the truck like cockroaches, shouting to each other and bustling with equipment.

“I just wanted you to see my art,” shouted Dernell.

“We’ll get you the help you need,” said Mama, tears in her voice. “I know it’s been hard as a black boy in a white community.”

Daddy stole the mouthpiece and frothed into it. “I spent too many hours at the office. I failed you.”

Dernell pulled a paint can from Mama’s apron and waved it around. “I just wanted you to see my art!”

A white ladder burst out from the top of the fire truck. A man, decked in helmet and goggles, waved his arms from inside a large basket at the end. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Let me help you.”

“Isn’t anyone going to say anything about my mural?”

The ladder stopped. The fireman pursed his lips, squeezing his blonde mustache into a furry wrinkle. He eyed the wall, then looked back at Dernell. “Mural?”

Dernell held up his paint can. “I painted it with this.” His sweaty finger slipped, and he squirted a brown fan onto the man’s goggles, right across his line of vision. Dernell sucked in a breath.

The man blinked. Then he smiled. “Eh, right. Okay, son. You did a good job painting, now it’s time to go home.” He pulled Dernell into the basket, and hacked at the rope. Then he gestured to someone Dernell couldn’t see, and the ladder shriveled downward.

“Oh baby!” cried Mama when Dernell touched earth, running toward him to hug him. Daddy squeezed him too, smothering Dernell’s face in the crook of his arm.

“I’m okay,” he muttered.

“Thank God you didn’t jump,” said Mama. “Thank God you didn’t jump.”


“Mr. and Mrs. Hall?” asked Officer Stanton.

They released Dernell and turned. “Standard procedure is to get him to a hospital now. You can take him in your own car, if you like.”

“Thank you, officer,” said Daddy.

“Why do I need to go to a hospital?” asked Dernell. “I’m not hurt.”

“No, you’re not,” said Officer Stanton. “Thanks to Buddy, here.” He pulled over the fireman who’d helped Dernell onto the ladder. The fireman with a smudge of brown paint across his goggles.

“Just doing my job,” said Buddy.

The three shuffled toward their car, Mama crying and Daddy telling her everything was going to be okay. Dernell’s head was spinning. Then he heard Buddy, and he looked over his shoulder to see the fireman leaning toward Officer Stanton to whisper.

“Hey, someone should tell the doc at the hospital there’s more going on here than a suicide attempt. Kid’s hallucinating or something. He was up there trying to deface the building with empty cans of spray paint.”

Officer Stanton turned narrowed eyes to Dernell. Dernell looked away. The car door closed between them.

Dernell laid his head back against the seat. “I just wanted someone to see my art,” he said.

Mama patted Daddy’s shoulder, her fingers trembling. “Dernell likes to draw.”

Copyright © 2007 by Jackie Gamber

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