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BLANK CANVAS by Jonathan Phillips

Molly sat in the bathtub, her legs extending over the back edge, her foot guiding a path for a wayward drop along the backsplash. The water had long since drained, and the only thing that remained was the occasional drip left over from the faucet. She had focused on the drops, the way they emerged slowly like forgotten memories, then stretched into a tangible reality before disappearing just as fast into the tub below. She hadn’t felt this alive in a long while and couldn’t tell if the bath was a continuation of that exuberance or a necessary cleansing to wipe away the shame.

And it was all Charlie’s fault, as usual. The son who was as much a reason she and Mark still saw each other amicably since the separation and subsequent divorce was also a big part of the reason they were apart in the first place. Though they saw each other regularly, they were never alone, avoiding any awkward touching. Then last night, after returning from the hospital, Molly did what she had done so many times before when they were dating and she wanted him to stay over. She invited Mark in for dessert. When he asked what she was serving, she let her coat trail off of her to the ground as she entered the house and told him it depended on how hungry he was.

She had always known how to get to him, but this encounter left many more questions than it answered. Was she still beautiful to him? Was that what last night was about? Or was it simply two desperate souls clinging to each other in a life moment wherein all other things but their lost dreams and dashed hopes coalesced in a tempest of transcendent denial. She almost hated Charlie for a split second, but as soon she touched that emotion, she guiltily tucked it back where it belonged.

She soon found herself in her robe, head resting on the backs of her hands, her fingers interlaced, still fixated on the dripping faucet. It was a rare moment of respite, but one she feared would now become something regular. She noticed the wrinkles zigzagging through the backs of her hands, like woven highways of fabric that were now suddenly fraying in between the freckles and additional beauty marks of age. She felt a connection to her body as her robe fell open, as if all the areas of her skin at once were being stimulated and she could feel each sensation. It was like she was experiencing an internal volcanic eruption, with the emotions of fear, shame, embarrassment, resentment, remorse, and anger breaking through her own protective lava dome.

Drip, Drip. Drip, Drip. She was back to the drops again. At the hospital, Molly lost herself in the drops of Charlie’s IV. The doctor’s voice had disappeared in a muddied damp as he discussed the hopelessness of Charlie’s situation. In between words like “vegetable” and “brain death,” Molly vanished in perfect syncopation of the drops while Mark took in the prognosis. All she heard were the words echoing in her mind, the same ones she had spoken in countless lectures and private sessions with patients.

“A child is a blank canvas on which we paint our own experiences.”

Her most recent book on parenting, Painting the Blank Canvas, was premised on the very same sentence. Heavily influenced by the theories of Melanie Klein that put forward parental influence as the single most important thing in a child’s life, Molly now wondered if she’d been misled. She watched another drop emerge, fall, and explode again.

Mark hadn’t known how to make a clean exit that morning. He made Molly a cup of coffee and a bagel like he always had, and the two of them sat in the kitchen amid the weight of the day, shared a few deep sighs, a few knowing looks, and a quick kiss goodbye. They would reconvene at the hospital at three-thirty. So she left things hanging, as they had so often done in their marriage when the seas turned rough, and instead of turning into the wind, she had turned away and avoided the awkwardness.

Was this why Charlie was laid up in a hospital bed, attached to a monitor, IV drips, a catheter, and feeding tube? Had she only been direct with him when it was convenient? She remembered when he had swung by the house the night prior to the party to pick up his hat, one of the remnants that Molly still had at her place. She remembered admonishing him ahead of time for any stupid thoughts of taking drugs, or getting a girl pregnant, or driving drunk. And she remembered the wrinkled brow he’d given her in response and a big, “Why are you always so worried about things that don’t matter?” as if he’d ever done a single thing wrong in his charmed life. Charlie didn’t even hang out with the kinds of teens that sought out alcohol. Molly knew her son to be smarter than that. His friends were intellectuals, the kind of guys who spend time researching and inventing something to get other people high rather than using themselves as the guinea pigs.

* * *

On page 24 of Molly’s book you’ll find this description of the first color of the palette, red. The excerpt goes like this: “Representing fire and passion, as a parent you need to be passionate about not only your kids, but about engaging with them in active playtime, eye contact and physical connection at an early age, with a transition to more active listening skills and oversight as your child grows. Red is also a color of raw emotion, especially anger. While you must be passionate about disciplining children and directing them, it is also imperative to control your own fears and anxieties so they do not find their way into your child’s psyche.”

* * *

“Get back here, you little shit!” Molly tried to prevent the words from escaping her mouth, but in watching her three-year-old son run away with her manuscript, she had lost all ability to control herself. “Mark!”

Her husband came running from the living room and they both chased after Charlie.

“I ask you to watch him and you can’t do that simple thing?”

“We were watching the game. I went to the bathroom,” Mark replied sheepishly.

“Well that’s probably where some pages of my manuscript are headed.”

Molly caught up to him in the middle of the stairs, his little feet still chugging along, and a big wide smile stretching ear to ear. He was clinging to the folded pages loosely, enjoying the paper jet stream it had created behind him.

“Let go,” she coaxed. “L-L-L-E-E-E-T-T-T G-O!”

The toddler relinquished his grip, the copy now bending and stretching within the wrinkles of the pages. He looked at his mom directly, a realization apparent in his bright green eyes.

“Mommy, come,” he said sweetly enough.

That’s when she noticed it.

“What happened to his eye?” she asked.

“He hit the corner of the teacher’s desk with his head last week.”

“And you didn’t tell me?”

“What was there to tell? It happens. You haven’t exactly been around either.”

“Mark, that’s so unfair. No matter what I’m doing, I still want to know what’s going on with Charlie.”

“Mommy. Come.” Charlie pulled on her arm.

“Go ahead, Mommy,” Mark said knowingly. “Come.”

“I have a deadline,” she said.

Molly pulled her arm away and retreaded her way back to her office, collecting the pages of her book as she went.

* * *

Molly presently stood before her open closet, staring at a vast array of business suits, cocktail dresses, and party gowns. There were a couple of skin-tight, sheer cotton dresses she had bought just after she and Mark divorced. It was a time where she was so aware of her body again, and everything she wore was designed to motivate her to be proud of it. And if she wasn’t, she hired a trainer for a few weeks to work that specific area. Now, she saw them as the mistake they were. They offered a few evenings of great food, forgettable conversation, and some tension release. She had a few casual outfits that she wore, but never had been comfortable in them. Jeans weren’t her thing. She never was quite sure how to wear a button-down white Oxford, or a denim shirt draped open around a patterned or white tee. There were plenty of outfits for every occasion. Every occasion, that is, except this one. She threw on a pair of khaki slacks and a pink blouse, a color she relegated to the back of her closet with the clothes she felt made her look too young. Maybe in some shadow of her mind she hoped her once favorite color would emanate some positivity and cheeriness, disguising the amount of anguish that was written over every line of her body.

The priest was called on the previous afternoon, but she hadn’t been ready to do it then. He had administered the last rites, as if Charlie was a devout Christian man and was just one step away from sainthood. Molly somewhat appreciated the fact that religion, during a time such as this, could wipe away the transgression of your life so that a man who hardly knew you could prep you for entrance into God’s eternal kingdom without so much as a question.

Not one, “Are you sure he didn’t do drugs?” Or, “You sure he wasn’t a bully?” Or, “Wasn’t he the drunk driver of that accident last weekend that took the lives of three people?”

Hell wasn’t a concept Molly had pondered much. It felt stupid to her. But when Charlie decided to drive that night, she had questioned that resolve. Maybe there was some kind of Satan here on earth taking good people and thwarting their cause. She knew it was cliché, but Charlie was a good kid, a bright kid, and yes, a sometimes angry and neglected kid. But she had assumed that with all the difficulty of his teen years now past them, things would kind of just fall into place as they had with her. Instead, Eugene and Charlie turned to spray paint and what to an outsider would have been just an innocuous video head cleaner at the party that night when all attempts to procure drinks had failed. Two full cars and a motorbike had found their paths intertwined eternally that night. There had been choices that night. Why had he failed to make the right one?

* * *

On page 43 of Molly’s book is a paragraph delineating how the color green plays such a huge part in child rearing. “Used often to portray envy or jealousy, green is a vital color in the parenting spectrum because a parent should be as envious of their child’s comings and goings as a jilted lover, and want to know even more. What a child does and where the child goes is not only up for discussion, but it is the one area of control a parent has, because after that everything else is simply reactionary.”

* * *

“It isn’t the end of the world,” Charlie said.

“It isn’t the end of the world?” Molly repeated looking at him. “You took my car without my permission and wrapped it around a lamp post, and it isn’t the end of the world? You do know what it is the end of? You, driving, for the rest of the school year.”

“That’s ridiculous. Sherri needed a friend. You know, a friend, something you have very few of.”

Molly now was seething.

“You are a spoiled rotten brat. Everything is about you.”

“See, that’s funny. This wasn’t about me at all. I just knew you wouldn’t let me drive in the rain.”

“For good reason it appears.”

“Yeah, well maybe if we ever had a discussion…”

“The only things that require discussion are things you don’t like.

“That’s right. I’m sixteen. And it dawns on me I don’t remember the last time you had an actual conversation with me that didn’t involve me talking to you through your office door. Sherri suffers depression, might even be bipolar.”

“Who told you that, Sherri?”

“She sees a psychologist. There are others out there besides you.”

“She sees a hypnotist, a New-Age whack job.”

“Right, if they aren’t doing things the way you say, then they’re whack jobs.”

“Sherri’s a whack job.”

“I didn’t ask for your opinion. She’s depressed and going through something a lot of us suffer when our parents are more concerned with book writing than their children, or marriage, say.”

“You little ingrate. My work and my writing have put you through the finest schools. Given you access to the finest lifestyle. Who else was going to do it? Your father, the semi-employed musician? I made these choices for you.”

“Please. You’re the one at the podium on book tours, you’re the one accepting the awards proudly, doing the interviews. The only one you did this for is you. I never asked for any of it. And as for the lifestyle, I don’t give a shit. In fact, I’m giving it up.”

“What do you mean you’re giving it up?”

“I’m going to stay with Eugene and his family. Mrs. Milford has been more of a mother to me than you have ever been.”

And with that Charlie walked out and didn’t return.

* * *

Charlie’s friend, Eugene Milford, was the type of kid Molly thought was the perfect friend for him. He was a bit of a wunderkind, but charming, well mannered, and even good looking. He was popular not because he was a jock or a ladies man, but because he was just well liked. “Genial,” as he was called, could make a computer do almost anything he wanted. He excelled in sports, but it wasn’t his thing and he was man enough to leave this talent behind because it was something he had no passion for. But he did have a passion for chemistry and adrenaline, two things that really didn’t mix. Molly had never heard of “huffing” until the accident. She didn’t really understand it, especially as something that would pose a risk to a group as smart as these boys. But in life, choice was always where unpredictability lay.

Ironically, she was drawn to the memory of a time when Charlie’s friendship with Eugene almost ended. It was discovered Eugene had been held back a year and couldn’t compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee as he and Charlie had planned. No one had known about Eugene’s age difference, particularly Charlie. Eugene figured Charlie would drop out of the competition, and Charlie came home crying, unsure of what to do.

Was that the last conversation she had face-to-face with her son? She recalled his tears at having been caught between going for a competition that meant the world to him and isolating his best friend. Molly had counseled him that he had to do what was best for him, and that any real friend would stand by him even in the worst of circumstances. Charlie decided not to enter. Molly didn’t approve.

Molly now found herself downstairs in the kitchen whipping an egg in a bowl with a spatula, but couldn’t remember how she had gotten there. And now she was certain her keys were missing. Ever since the accident last week, her memory had begun to fail her. Before, she had been perpetually working on her first novel, a psychological drama about a physically abused wife now suffering from early dementia due to her head injuries, who vows to make each one of her attackers pay by manipulating them into confessions or killing them. Molly had been tireless in her research and found she could remember the names and dates of nearly every case trial that was on record, as well as articles she had found in the annals of old newspapers. Yet now she couldn’t locate her keys. And she couldn’t remember the last time she and Charlie had actually hugged. She hadn’t hugged him goodbye after he picked up his hat that last night. She wanted to, but she hadn’t. Why hadn’t she?

* * *

On page 99, Molly delves into the colors blue and purple. “One being an element of the other, both are cool and introspective colors. As a parent, there is the inevitable time where your child will be right and you will be wrong. It takes a certain measure of bravery and compassion not only to permit yourself to have such a realization, but to allow for a self-assessment of your behavior as it respects your child. A parent’s knowledge base is a sense of pride in the early child-rearing years. The child looks to the parent as an encyclopedia of everything. This omniscience is something all of us as parents wish we didn’t have to give up. Yet, as a child asserts his or her independence in their pre-teen and teenage years, there comes a realization that parents are fallible. Often, it is only the teen that accepts it.”

* * *

Molly spied Cassie Milford in the produce section. It wasn’t an intentional meeting, but a fortuitous one, she thought. Just two weeks after Charlie had moved out, and here was the mother who hadn’t seen fit to send Charlie home, or even have him call.

Cassie was dressed understated as always, relaxed-fit slacks and a cashmere sweater, but Molly knew Cassie as a well-educated, thoughtful woman from PTA meetings and neighborhood council gatherings. Cassie was a good diplomat, and for some reason this ate at Molly. Not that she would admit it out loud, but Molly had always wanted to leave her mark as being wise. She felt her book was a step in that direction. Cassie didn’t feel the need to extol her own virtues, as if she knew how wise she was already. As Molly watched Cassie sniff a fresh cantaloupe, she slid over to her.

“Don’t bother,” she said, “Charlie doesn’t eat cantaloupe.”

“Really?”

“Yes, or most melons.”

“Strange, all evidence to the contrary. He inhaled it when it was in my fruit salad,” she replied.

“Well, maybe he shouldn’t be eating your fruit salad. Maybe you shouldn’t be feeding him at all.” Molly took the melon out of Cassie’s hand and placed it back on the stand.

“Molly…”

“Mrs. Topel.”

“Sorry, Mrs. Topel,” she paused, “I didn’t invite your son to stay with us. He is doing so because I won’t see him live out in the street.

“Oh, so he told you I kicked him out? He left on his own because he didn’t like the rules. And maybe the rules in your house are up for discussion, Mrs. Milford, but rules are rules for a reason.” Molly felt herself getting emotional, something she had sworn not to do, particularly in this situation. It required inner strength and fortitude for her to stand up to her son and what she believed in. And here she felt the blame all over her. She wouldn’t just accept it.

“You’ve taken my son away from me,” she blurted out. “Can’t you see what you’ve done? What has happened to my family?”

“He didn’t say he was kicked out.”

“Sure he didn’t.”

“Our sons have been friends for a long time and I’ve always agreed with that friendship. Charlie’s got a solid head on his shoulders, a reflection of his good parenting. He could have gone and lived with his father. As I understand it, they’re on better terms right now. But he seemed worried about what it would do to your relationship with his dad.

“Why don’t you try calling your son? As bad a person as you may think I am, I haven’t put a block on our phone…yet.”

And with that, Cassie reached back over for the cantaloupe she had chosen, placed it in her cart, and sauntered off.

* * *

On page 143 of Molly’s book is an in-depth look at the color black. “Science refers to it as a lack of color, and the advice goes as one might assume, that black is an inevitable part of painting your child. While the color white might encompass all that’s good and unique about your child, each coin has two sides. Sadness, anger, defiance, disappointment—these too are important parts of understanding the entire painting. Because without sadness, happiness is unrecognizable.”

* * *

The sheets of rain plunked loudly off the windshield of Molly’s car, causing a complete blur of her surroundings. She had been parked outside the Milford residence for twenty minutes, just trying to breathe. They had been kind enough to call. She had seen them at the funeral. It was a relationship now bound by mutual strain instead of antipathy. As Molly approached the front door, things seemed to be moving in slow motion, the people coming out of the ad-hoc memorial all seemed to meet her eyes accusingly, the dripping water from the eaves on the roof and the raindrops falling no longer seemed to touch her, as if she waltzed between them, even though it was clear her face was wet. If this was a romantic movie, it might be the perfect scene where the female love interest approaches the door, having made the decision she will no longer let anything keep her from her beau, and in a beautiful moment in the rain, they reconnect, a fresh start for both of them. But this was neither. This was emptiness, a vacancy that might find some temporary tenant in the meeting of two mothers mourning.

Cassie answered the door in a form-fitting black dress, her hair adorned with a black lacy veil. She wasn’t smiling. At seeing Molly, she almost appeared to grimace until she recognized the face and made a connection.

“Oh, look at you, would you get in here?” she beckoned her.

She leaned over to Molly to take her coat. And Molly hugged her, though it felt more like two humans clinging to each other. When they broke, Molly felt as if she had been reunited with a long-lost sister. She wanted to know her that badly. It was almost like two best friends that had known each other forever but hadn’t seen each other in years.

“I’m surprised you came by,” Cassie said. “It took courage.”

All Molly could do was meet Cassie’s dark loving eyes, and cry. For the first time since the accident, all of her emotion came rushing forward, unapologetically and mournfully, and all of it at once. She was Charlie’s mom once again, something she hadn’t seemingly been for so long. And Eugene’s mom, mourning with her, wasn’t her adversary. She was a mom too. Cassie showed her into the living room and sat her down.

“I would like you to tell me about my son,” Molly said. “Then I have a request.”

* * *

In the Epilogue of Molly’s book, page 225, there is this revelation: “The job of a painter is not to render perfection. Even the greatest masterpieces have flaws if you look closely enough. Rather, it is how the flaws are seamlessly woven into the final work by the maestro that makes it a masterpiece. Any painter knows that perfection is a flawed idea. So, too, is parenting. It is not the notion of this author or any psychologist to believe that you will paint perfectly. The key is to be open to the idea that all of the colors are at your disposal, and rather than decide on a set outcome, be present enough in the moments of life to recognize and adapt to changes in the portrait you are sharing, whether it be a shifting background, changing facial features, or expressions. Incorporate them all as best you can, and may you be blessed in your painting endeavor.”

* * *

Mark was waiting for her in the lobby. He gave her a warm hug, and the three of them made their way up to Room IC-719. The team of doctors met with them to go over the process and document the decision. Mark then shared a few stories about Charlie that they remembered from when he was little, Molly read a brief letter to Charlie through her tears, and Cassie Milford was given a moment to recollect on Charlie’s last few days with her family.

Molly’s eyes focused in on the drops again as Cassie spoke. They seemed clearer than before, as if there was less to them now. The dripping was slower, even plodding, less rhythmic.

There weren’t any more colors of the palette to choose from. No more paint to be spilled or applied. It wasn’t a masterpiece for certain. But for Molly, Cassie being there was a final stroke of the brush that she could provide as a loving parent.

Molly pulled herself out of her haze as more tears came.

And then the dripping stopped.

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AUTHOR BIO:

Jonathan Phillips was inspired write by his cousin Mike at age 18, but was terrible. His fiction professor in college hated all of his short stories except one. And for some reason this gave him hope. Since moving to Los Angeles in 1992, he has co-authored six film projects and two television pilots with his aforementioned cousin, as well as four stage plays, two of which were staged. He has also freelanced doing fantasy sport analysis and journalism. Those columns have been seen on TalentedMrRoto.com, SI.com, Rotoexperts.com and DFSEdge.com, as well as other various websites. His short story “Speck” won the Silver Pen Association’s 2016 Write Well Award after appearing in Carrier Pigeon Magazine and online at Front Porch Review. He is the proud, married father of two boys.

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WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Blank Canvas”

“Blank Canvas” is story that asks more questions than it answers. What should I have done differently? and Where did I go wrong? are at the top of the list of questions posed.

But it is far more than a question-filled story. Author Jonathan Phillips deftly paints his characters with broad and delicate strokes of words to craft this heart-rending piece. We especially liked the parallels between what Molly wrote in her book and the real-life situation.