The text below is copyrighted 2020 by Donna Miscolta, from the short story collection Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories, published September 21, 2020 by Jaded Ibis Press, submitted with permission from Jaded Ibis Press.
Excerpt from “Guided Tours in Living Color,” a story from Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories
The Blue Boy. Angie stared at the painting, understanding it was a masterpiece, feeling the weight of its history, feeling also the weight of all she didn’t know about art and history and the world, feeling as if the weight could squeeze her heart.
In the Huntington Gallery, she and her classmates stood before Gainsborough’s opus fittingly awed as they knew they should be. Some felt required to chorus their worship or at least their own hip assessment of a pompous boy in blue glad rags. “Cool,” they said, nodding, heads tilted. “Mod,” someone snickered. But in the echo chamber of the hushed gallery, only the “ooh” and “ah” sounds were picked up by the walls and ceiling to be shot back into the air and in their ears, its tenor changed to something ghostly and disturbing as if contesting their sincerity. Some of the students giggled and moved on to the next painting. Other visitors glided in to fill their spots, prepared to appreciate art better than a bunch of high school kids, despite their being Kimball Park High’s best as Mr. Otto often told them, even if at times, it sounded like a plea.
Mr. Otto’s tradition was to take his Advanced Language Arts and Literature class to Los Angeles for a weekend to be exposed to its cultural and historical sights. All year, Angie had looked forward to this trip, her first real trip away from Kimball Park and into a world of big ideas, expansive buildings, and exalted accomplishments that made her feel ridiculously small and under-schooled and impatient to catch up. She was anxious too about her procrastination of the assignment due in just a few days.
“Consider this your magnum opus,” Mr. Otto had weeks ago told Angie’s class, referring to the eleventh-grade English requirement to write an autobiography. The meeting of his bushy eyebrows signaled his uncompromising seriousness, which required Angie to hide her eye-roll behind her book. When Mr. Otto caught an eye-roll or a smirk from one of his students, his hurt was so apparent it made them all squirm. It seemed that a grown-up should be able to suffer adolescent eye-rolls with greater self-possession. If Angie had any goal in life, it was that.
When she thought of her life thus far, the last thing Angie wanted to do was commit it to paper for Mr. Otto to read and grade. What experiences worthy of inclusion in a form as self-important as autobiography did a sixteen-year-old in Kimball Park have? Especially the sixteen-year-old that was her—Angie Rubio. It’s not as if she hadn’t tried to have experiences. They just seemed elusive or inconclusive. And now she was expected to package them in a neatly inked, three-hole-punched narrative. She wondered now if she was meant to include something about Blue Boy in her autobiography, with whom, at the moment, she was utterly baffled.
Nudged aside by the newcomers, she studied the painting from the periphery. It was European, so it was supposed to be important. She looked at the question on the mimeographed sheet Mr. Otto had passed out on the bus. “What can you say about the light and color in Gainsborough’s most famous painting?”
She stood like a spy off to the side of the knot of people and listened to them murmur about the painting in knowing, assertive terms, which wrapped themselves around the nib of her pen as she scribbled in her notebook. “The background is dark except for the patches of yellow at his back so that the blue boy appears to emerge from the painting with wings. The different hues of blue give the richness to his clothes. The light on his forehead and cheek warm the sullen mouth.”
It didn’t matter that the words weren’t exactly hers. She believed she might have been thinking them. They were just buried deep inside her or floating around in a random sea of inklings and ideas that were waiting to coalesce. She wandered past other paintings, her eye registering them only fleetingly, her mind still occupied with the color blue, with the seemingly winged boy, with the push and pull of dark and light, near and far, balance and asymmetry, and with the looming deadline for her autobiography. She settled herself on a hard, low bench and scribbled and scratched out and scribbled again until she was satisfied that, among the blots and do-overs, there were sentences that combined to make sense, maybe even a story.
The summer I turned five I watched my father remove the training wheels from my bike, thinking how forlorn they looked tossed on the grass. I straddled the bike, my feet planted on the sidewalk. My father held the bike while I moved my feet to the pedals and lifted my bottom onto the seat. I was balanced only because of my father’s grasp.
“Pedal,” he said.
I pedaled and the bike wobbled.
I remember my father’s hand on the back of my bike seat, a cigarette in his other hand. His sandals thwacked the sidewalk as he jogged alongside me, the bike still wobbling. I knew he would let go and I waited for it, waited for the fall. I didn’t expect that tiny moment when I was balanced on my own and I felt something close to flight, but also abandonment. When I crashed to the earth and lay on my back, my head just scraping the trunk of a tree, I listened to the wheels of my bike spin on their own, humming without a care. I stared at the blank blue sky, then watched a bruise blot my elbow. My father came and picked my bike up and held it for me again. Sullen, I picked myself up and pretended to limp. He pretended not to notice. This time I pedaled hard and away from him—for just a moment longer than the last time.
When the students had been asked to raise money for their trip to L.A. by selling chocolates, they groaned at the intrusion on their time. Angie hated selling things, though she did manage to coax Nelda into buying most of her allotted inventory for her clients. Nelda had found her calling as a real estate agent and her sudden and undisputed success had allowed her and Little Eddie to move to a charming house near the beach within bicycling distance to a private school.
Angie’s trip to L.A. was measly compared to the trips Little Eddie took with his class (botany tours on the Baja Peninsula, Broadway samplers in New York City, New Orleans blues festivals) which didn’t require selling boxes of mixed chocolates with gooey insides when most people preferred nuts.
When the class failed to sell the requisite number of chocolates, putting the trip in jeopardy, jelly-hearted Mr. Otto came through with his personal funds to make up for the students’ shortfall. Although his generosity was met without overt graciousness, Angie for one, was grateful, if also embarrassed at Mr. Otto’s softness for his students, his weak desire to give them something they hadn’t entirely earned.
The Huntington was the third stop on their tour that first day. They had begun with the Farmer’s Market and its famous clock tower inscribed with “An Idea,” under which they took turns posing for photographs. Angie was the last to take her place under the sign, by which time everyone else was wandering off to another part of the market. She was embarrassed when Mr. Otto offered to snap the photo. She handed over her camera and stood pigeon-toed, one hand clasping an elbow behind her back, looking past Mr. Otto’s ear, not wanting to look directly into the camera, but also hoping to achieve a faraway look suitable to the caption that would appear above her head. After Mr. Otto clicked the shutter, she mumbled a thanks and took back her camera, trying not to make contact with his furry hand.
Then came a quick visit to Grauman’s Chinese Theater where they measured their feet against those of Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. The students briefly acknowledged the authentic Ming Dynasty Heaven Dogs guarding the main entrance, only because they were the subject of the question on Mr. Otto’s History and Culture of L.A. worksheet.
After the students completed their worksheets of the Huntington art gallery, they scattered like marbles through the various gardens on the property. They played a rowdy game of hide-and-seek, concealing themselves in or behind trees, statuary, or copious-leaved shrubs. Angie had not been invited to play and so walked the gardens alone as squeals of discovery burst alongside a path or in the distance across a bridge or a pond. It was time to get back to the bus, but Angie, seeing no-one else heading in the direction of the parking lot, continued to stroll the manicured paths. Her last sighting of a chaperone was of Mrs. Wiekamp in the gift shop being rung up for items that Judy had plonked on the counter. Before that, she’d seen Mr. Otto heading into a men’s room. She’d last observed the other chaperone staring into the depths of a gargantuan tropical plant. It was Ms. Otto, Mr. Otto’s sister. She insisted on Ms. rather than Miss, which made the students snigger at the made-up word. Even Angie, who believed in the reason behind the new abbreviation, felt unsure at the sound that came from the back of her throat, a deep hum that itself felt rebellious. Of course, Mr. Otto called her Bernadette. She called him Billy.
Angie was in the Shakespeare Garden at the pomegranate tree from Romeo and Juliet, whose lines she could still recite from ninth-grade English when she saw Mr. Otto darting down the path toward her. Even from a distance she could see the pitch of his eyebrows making a steep climb toward his hairline. He was like the White Rabbit, checking the time and muttering, Oh, dear.
“Angie, where are the others?” he asked, panting. She could tell he was working hard to contain his irritation. She wished he would just explode in anger. Sometimes she feared for his heart. Feared the mess that would result from his ruptured insides.
“I don’t know,” Angie said. “All around.”
Just then Ms. Otto strode up. She was robustly built like him but imposing not so much for her size but for her no-nonsense manner, which contrasted with her brother’s shy dithering. Lacking enough parent volunteers, Mr. Otto had recruited her to help shepherd the students from place to place and to keep them out of mischief, which she did by appearing suddenly out of nowhere to gesture them back to the fold or send a searing glance into their midst or lasso them with a whistle, which she did now by putting two fingers to her mouth and piercing the air.
“Really, Bernadette,” Mr. Otto said.
A moment later Angie’s classmates began materializing on the paths that intersected with the one where Angie stood with Bernadette and Billy Otto. The Ottos herded them all back to the bus, its engine idling with Judy and Mrs. Wiekamp and Silvia Rico already aboard with packages on their laps.
“Goodness, we thought we’d lost you all,” Mrs. Wiekamp said.
When they were settled in their seats, Mr. Otto remained standing as the bus made its way through the parking lot. His face was grim, his hair wild from all his herding and scurrying and stumbling. They waited for his lecture, a proper dressing-down. They watched his mouth open and snap closed. They listened to him sigh as he surrendered to their stares and sat down without a word.
They ate at Bob’s Big Boy for dinner. When their stomachs were heavy with fried and creamy foods and hunks of pie for dessert, they checked into a motel where they split into pre-arranged groups for room sharing.
While Angie hadn’t necessarily looked forward to sharing a hotel room with Judy, Silvia, and Judy’s mother, she had convinced herself that it would be an opportunity to reestablish if not a friendship, perhaps a comradeship. At least goodwill. Or what she really wanted—acceptance. But when Angie lined up behind Judy and Silvia as Mrs. Wiekamp fitted the key into the lock, Ms. Otto popped her head out of the room next door. “Say, I have an empty bed in here. Send one of your girls over so you’re not so crowded in there.”
Angie waited for Mrs. Wiekamp or even Judy or Silvia to say four in a room was not a crowd, they were just fine, thank you. But Mrs. Wiekamp, having finally jiggled the key enough to unlock the door called out, “Thank you, Bernadette!” and went inside, followed by Judy and Silvia and the closing of the door.
Angie picked up her overnight bag and shuffled next door. She stood at the doorway, not knowing where to put her bag, wondering if she should claim a bed. Ms. Otto had disappeared inside the bathroom, so Angie waited though the noisy swivel of the toilet paper dispenser, the flush of the toilet, and the running of the faucet. When the bathroom door opened and Ms. Otto emerged, Angie studiously absorbed herself in the watercolor on one of the walls.
“What do you think?” Ms. Otto asked.
“Oh, the painting?” Angie said, feeling stupid at having been caught pretending interest in motel art. “Well, it’s not Gainsborough.”
Ms. Otto hooted. “Pick your bed.”
Angie dropped her bag on the one nearest her, though she would’ve preferred the one nearest the bathroom.
“Well, I’m going to read before lights out. You’re welcome to the TV. It won’t bother me.” She stretched out on the other bed and rested a fat book on her stomach, which rose with each breath just audible above the street noise.
Angie didn’t want to watch TV with Ms. Otto in the room reading some important book. Anyway, she needed to work on her autobiography. She sat at the little table under the big globe of light that hung on a chain from the ceiling like a misplaced moon. Unsettled by the idea of “lights out,” she wished she could let it shine through the night, imagining that somehow Ms. Otto would be able to discern her thoughts in the dark, see through the black curtain of her dreams and find them lacking. The way she herself found her words lacking as she intermittently and with great effort scratched some onto the page. Through her start-and-stop scribble she heard the occasional turn of the page by Ms. Otto’s index finger. The anticipation of that soft flick stalled her thoughts, so that amid the many inked-out lines, only a few survived intact.
At my First Communion party, I received a child’s prayer book, a scapular, and a rosary. I used these piously for a while, the way I was taught by the nuns in their black, floor-skimming robes. I went to confession regularly, the way I was made to in that airless, darkened closet. I recited my penance and fasted before communion, my hunger a perfect, round pit. But I told nobody about the giant black hole that was opening up between what I said and did, and what I actually and truly believed.
At ten, Ms. Otto took her tall, large-boned self to do a bed-check of the other rooms. As if that would guarantee anything, Angie thought. She wondered what the other kids had been doing in their motel rooms—watching TV, telling dirty jokes, sneaking a beer or a joint, carving their names on the underside of the table, already stuffing the tiny shampoo bottles in their luggage. Whatever they were doing, they would continue to do after Ms. Otto’s curfew check.
With Ms. Otto out of the room, Angie peed, changed into her pajamas, and brushed her teeth, skimping a bit on her molars in her hurry to finish her personal hygiene while she was alone. By the time she heard the key in the door, she was in bed with the covers up to her ears pretending to be asleep. It would’ve been too embarrassing to exchange goodnights with Bernadette, which is how Angie had given herself permission to refer to her roommate.
The next morning, while Bernadette tidied her side of the room and hummed “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” Angie dressed in the bathroom. Angie’s mother had bought her some new outfits for the trip. They were ill-fitting as were most clothes Angie wore, sagging off her shoulders, bagging around her waist, drooping at the crotch. And while not exactly ugly, neither were they mod or hip or cool. Angie knew her mother meant well and she did appreciate the gesture, but her mother’s taste in clothes were not her own, though she had yet to determine what her own taste was. She only knew it did not include striped pantsuits. Nevertheless, they were folded neatly in her overnight bag. Her mother had laid them out on Angie’s bed the night before the trip and Angie had packed them, liking the idea of new clothes to match the new vistas Mr. Otto promised awaited them on this trip.
In a sudden fit of optimism about the day, Angie had decided to wear one of the pantsuits. She chose the navy blue with red pinstripes. The pants were loose at the waist and slack in the butt, but not excessively so. The jacket covered or at least camouflaged a bit the failings of the pants. Or was it the failings of her butt? Either way, Angie thought she had adequately addressed the hitch in her wardrobe. She raised herself on her tiptoes to try to see the full effect of her outfit in the mirror above the sink. Navy-Blue Girl, she pronounced herself. With red pinstripes, she added, as she offered the mirror a sullen smile.
“That’s a very fine ensemble,” Bernadette commented when Angie came out of the bathroom.
“My mother bought it,” Angie said, wanting to dissociate herself from any responsibility. Even with the few steps she had taken across the bathroom threshold, Angie felt the roominess of her pants at her waist and her bottom. Loose was better than tight, she assured herself. Though she did have to wonder why pants didn’t exist that fit her just right.
“Well, ready for another big day in the big city?”
Angie nodded, hoping it would be a big day, mind-blowing and revelatory even. She followed Bernadette out of the room, feeling the slouch of her pants with each step.
The problem with not being in a room with any of the other students, aside from the obvious one of being left out of any unchaperoned shenanigans, was Angie couldn’t see what the other kids were wearing. Now as they gathered for breakfast at the nearest Bob’s Big Boy, she could see that with the exception of Judy and Silvia, all the other kids were casually dressed, not even school-clothes casual, but play casual. Nobody else was wearing an ensemble. Judy and Silvia were wearing A-line shifts and lightweight cardigans. Angie hung back so as not to be noticed. She realized she would have gone unnoticed had she worn something they’d all seen before. Sure, they would’ve seen her. They just wouldn’t have noticed her the way they did now with smirks and sidelong glances. She was glad when they were all seated in the restaurant and most of her was hidden by the table. She wished she could sit there all day, except that she found herself sitting next to Bernadette as if they had overnight formed a club of two.
“Well, Angie, you were quite industrious last evening.”
“Yes,” Angie answered. She could not let on to her teacher’s sister that she was furiously trying to finish a class assignment. She put a forkful of scrambled egg in her mouth to discourage further expectations of conversation from her.
“And you make a very agreeable roommate.”
Angie nodded. “You, too,” she mumbled through a mouthful of egg.
On the bus Angie, still feeling conspicuous in her pantsuit, sat alone, though she wasn’t the only one. Some of the kids who had stayed up late despite bed checks and lights-out curfew had eaten breakfast with their heads in their plates and were now spread across the bus seats catching some winks. Mr. Otto, his eyebrows in a panic, nevertheless pretended not to notice, while Bernadette every so often would exclaim in an operatic pitch at some landmark or attraction (look, another Bob’s Big Boy!), startling them out of their snooze. They were headed to Occidental College for a tour. None of them had ever heard of it.
“Looks like a bunch of museum buildings,” someone said when the bus pulled up.
Mr. Otto stood at the front of the bus. “You’ll be applying to college soon. Think about what you want in a college experience. Here’s your chance to ask questions.”
“Where’s the bathroom?” someone asked, inducing guffaws from the bus and a pained what’s-the-use shrug from Mr. Otto.
Really, what’s the use, Angie thought. Most kids at their school who went to college ended up at the local state or junior colleges. This college was a million miles away.
Mr. Otto had them count off into two groups for the campus tour. There would be no freely roaming students here, no need for Bernadette to whistle them back, no need for Mr. Otto’s face to bulge with suppressed fury. Before he released them to the tour guides, Mr. Otto warned them in his deep, beseeching baritone, “Remember who you are. Be good representatives of your school. Make your parents proud.” He watched them file off the bus, his eyebrows slanted toward each other as if grasping for reassurance, his eyes bulging with hope and encouragement at the students who slid past him, indifferent to his clenched face. Angie found herself mincing her steps to minimize the distraction of her waistband that hovered rather nonchalantly above her nearly nonexistent hips.
Mr. Otto trailed one group and Bernadette trailed the other, which was Angie’s group. Despite the discomfort caused by her outfit and the snickering that followed her, Angie moved to the front of the line where Judy Wiekamp and her mother were already swamping the guide with questions while managing to insert casual mentions of Judy’s GPA, extracurricular activities, and leadership potential.
Jessica, the guide and herself a student, bobbed her blonde head and smiled, her teeth a perfect complement to the gleaming white buildings of the campus.
Angie wanted to casually drop her own GPA into the conversation, though any references to her extracurricular activities would consist of her attempts at figuring out how to have extracurricular activities. As for leadership potential, she could always claim to be a leader in the follower department. Though when it came down to it, she was rather bad at following as well. She was a drifter, she decided. Like tumbleweeds or dandruff. Propelled by wind or gravity, or someone else’s momentum.
They visited the library, a dorm, the commons, and an empty classroom where they were invited to have a seat. Angie slid into one of the chairs, thankful for a moment to partially conceal herself and her pantsuit beneath the desk. She tried to imagine herself studying here in one of these gleaming buildings amid gleaming students like Jessica.
Bernadette sat down beside her. “Does it feel like a fit?”
Angie straightened, then slumped, then straightened again, her pants sliding around her waist as she did so. “It’s just a chair.”
“I mean, all colleges have chairs.”
“Bernadette,” Angie said, and then blushed. “Ms. Otto,” she began again, “which college did you go to?”
“Wellesley. In Boston. A women’s college.”
Angie nodded at these three facts as if they meant something to her, though, really, they were as familiar to her as the white porticoed buildings with red tiled roofs that surrounded them, the kind seen on picture calendars of the Italian Riviera.
The tour guide was leading them out of the room. Angie waited until the others left, then hitched up her pants and drifted after them, turning back once to look at the empty seats, trying to imagine herself there, a college student amid other college students, but the empty seats refused to be populated.
Donna Miscolta’s previous story collection, Hola and Goodbye, won the Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman, an Independent Publishers award for Best Regional Fiction, and an International Latino Book Award for Best Latino Focused Fiction. She is also the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced, lauded by Antonya Nelson for its “pitch-perfect prose.” Recent essays have appeared in Atticus Review, McSweeney’s, and Los Angeles Review. Her work has been supported by grants and fellowships from 4Culture, Artist Trust, Bread Loaf/Rona Jaffe Foundation, Jack Straw Foundation, and Seattle Office of Arts and Culture. She has been awarded residencies at Anderson Center, Artsmith, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Hedgebrook, Mineral School, Ragdale, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Whiteley Center. Her new book is Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories.
Music by Catlofe
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