By Karin Lin-Greenberg
You might think my name sounds familiar. “Rainy Wilkinson,” you’ll say, head tilted. “Where have I heard that name?” I’ll shrug, say something like, “Oh, it probably just sounds like some other name you know.” People always squint, stare hard at my face for a few seconds, take in its plainness, its ordinariness, and then convince themselves that I’m right, that I’m no one they know.
But this is a lie; they do know me. When I was six, I was on Oprah. When I was seven, 20/20 devoted an entire episode to me. Later that year, an eight-page profile appeared in the New York Times Magazine. When I was nine, I met the President at the White House, and he called me “exceptionally gifted.” I was a child prodigy, an artist who’d sprung up in a small town in Ohio where most people hadn’t seen any art that wasn’t a blurry reproduction of Starry Starry Night or Monet’s Water Lilies sold on a swinging rack of posters at Walmart. The first time I touched a brush was when I was five years old. I painted a pastoral scene, weeping willows and a lake and sheep grazing. “Jesus Christ, Rainy,” said my mother when she picked me up from daycare at Mrs. Baker’s house, “where’d you learn to do that?”
Mrs. Baker held up my painting. I thought I was in trouble. I’d wandered into her daughter Cassie’s room and helped myself to her art supplies. Cassie was at a summer camp near Columbus, working as an arts and crafts counselor, so the room was unoccupied. I was in daycare four days a week at Mrs. Baker’s house because this was back when my mother still worked, when she was still mobile enough to get out of the house. I was scared that my mother would yell at me for stealing Cassie’s art supplies and then on the drive home I’d have to hear about how much money she spent on daycare and how ungrateful I was.
“Marla,” said Mrs. Baker, “this is something. It’s really something.” She shook the painting at my mother, as if the motion would relay the importance of what she was saying. “I’ve run this daycare for twenty years, and I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s like God himself has blessed this child.”
“God, huh?” said my mother. Back then she was skeptical of religion, back before she became a follower of the televangelist Reverend Machover, back when she had a life outside of the house and didn’t spend most of each day collapsed on the banana-colored couch in the living room staring at the television.
My older sister, Paris, wandered into Mrs. Baker’s kitchen. Paris was seven then, two years older than I was. She held up a hunk of Play-Doh, and my mother took it and squished it absentmindedly. Paris let out a wail. “I made you an elephant!” she shrieked, and my mother looked down at the flattened hunk of gray Play-Doh in her fist and I felt, for the first time in my life, a swell of pride. Usually Paris was the focus of my mother’s attention, her favorite, and who could blame her? Paris was beautiful, with a cascade of blonde curls, large hazel eyes, full lips in the shape of a heart. If we were children nowadays, she’d probably star on one of those TV shows about little girls in beauty pageants. My mother had chosen the name Paris because it represented beauty and sophistication and enchantment. By the time I was born, my mother’s life had gone gray, grown cold, her relationship with my father had soured, and it had stormed every day for a week before my birth. For a long time I believed that my mother named me Rainy because of the dismal weather that week.
That day, standing in Mrs. Baker’s kitchen, my mother had eyes only for my painting, and it was then that I understood that my artwork could win me what nothing else could: my mother’s attention. Until that day, Paris had been my mother’s obvious favorite, and this was perhaps okay only because I had always been certain that I was my father’s favorite. Paris might have been more beautiful, but she was loud and demanding, and I believed my father liked that I was quiet and could occupy myself and never asked him to buy me things or admire my outfits the way Paris did.
“You killed the elephant!” Paris yelled, grabbing the Play-Doh from my mother’s hand and throwing it to the ground.
“Now, Paris,” said Mrs. Baker, “you know that’s not okay.”
Paris blubbered, and tears fell as she swooped down to pick up the hunk of Play-Doh from the floor.
“Look at what your sister painted,” said our mother, pointing to the painting Mrs. Baker still held.
Paris looked at it for a moment and said, “Where is that?”
“Nowhere,” I said. At least it was nowhere I’d known. It was just an image that had appeared in my head, and my hand had known how to paint what I could see. If you ask me to explain now how it all worked, I can’t. I can tell you technical terms that I read about in books about color and composition and the difference between a sable and a synthetic brush, but those explanations don’t capture how the paintings happened back then. The best I can say is that they just happened, that I went into a dream-like state with an image in my mind and then eventually the exact image would be duplicated on paper or canvas.
“But it must be someplace you’ve seen before,” said Mrs. Baker. “Maybe you saw it in a photo? Or on TV?”
I shook my head.
“You just imagined it?” said my mother.
I nodded. I’d imagined the whole thing — the sheep and the long grass waving in the wind and the water rippling from the cool air blowing across the lake, and the weeping willows, although I hadn’t known then that the trees I’d painted were called weeping willows.
“Well, isn’t that something,” said Mrs. Baker. “You believe in reincarnation? Maybe Rainy is the reincarnation of some great artist.”
“What’s reincarnation?” said Paris.
“Shush, Paris,” my mother said. “It’s too much to explain.”
Paris’s lower lip jutted out, and she glared at me with cold, hard eyes. Something had flipped for us in Mrs. Baker’s kitchen, and Paris stared at my mother, incredulous. She pulled on the edge of her pink t-shirt, tugging and tugging until the collar stretched and a small rip formed at the neck.
You know how these things go: one thing leads to another. Mrs. Baker’s neighbor was a reporter for the local paper, and once he heard about me, he wanted to write an article. The reporter came to our house, and I painted a picture for him, one of mountains and streams and autumn trees. “Can you paint people?” he asked, and I nodded and painted a quick portrait of him. “My God,” he said. He handed me a twenty-dollar bill after I gave him the still-wet painting. After he left, I gave the money to my mother, who first chastised me for taking money from the reporter, then slipped the bill into her purse. Once the article ran, calls started to come in, and I was on the local news and then, a few weeks later, the national news. I didn’t like the attention, the bright lights, the microphones clipped to my shirt, the never-ending stream of questions that I didn’t know how to answer, the reporters interrogating me about my artistic influences. All of it made me nervous. But I liked painting, and I liked that for the first time in my life my mother paid more attention to me than to Paris and, more importantly, my painting seemed to make my mother happier than I’d ever seen her. She loved going with me to interviews, speaking for me when I lost the ability to talk, when I just couldn’t find the words to answer questions. My father didn’t like all the attention, hid away when reporters came to our house, and wouldn’t accompany my mother and me to TV studios. He even refused to come with us to the White House, and when I was there and scared and Paris and my mother acted like there was nothing nerve-racking about meeting the President of the United States, I wished desperately that my father had come along and that he and I could find a secret, uninhabited room to hide away in.
Soon after the news stories came out, an agent found me and then a manager and then a publicist. And then I was officially a commodity. Once more media outlets picked up my story, my paintings began to sell. The first one sold for two thousand dollars. At the height of my popularity, the paintings sold in galleries and auction houses for fifteen or twenty thousand dollars. For a while, I suppose our family was rich, which was something the Wilkinsons had never been. We had an accountant and a financial adviser. Before, there had been just a checking account at the local bank and a few hundred dollars left over at the end of each month if we were lucky.
As I became more and more successful, Paris became increasingly angry and had outburst of rage toward me, sometimes ripping up my sketches, other times pouring my paints over the flowers in my mother’s garden. My mother screamed at her and Paris wept and yelled, “You don’t care about me!” on an almost daily basis. “Now, now, girls,” our father always said, “you’re sisters. Sisters shouldn’t fight.” Neither of us listened to him, though, bickering until we were exhausted.
Because we had money, our parents made weekly trips into Cleveland to dine at nice restaurants. Sometimes they brought Paris and me along, but we had no patience for lobster and truffles; we preferred Big Macs and French fries. And so our parents would hire a babysitter, some teenage girl from the neighborhood who would pop in VHS tapes of Disney movies for us and then spend the night on our phone chatting with friends. As a result of our new riches, my father had taken a liking to fine wines, which was a change from his nightly three or four cans of Schlitz, and he liked ordering wine at the restaurants in Cleveland. He went to the library and checked out books on wine and declared himself an “oenophile,” which was a word he’d learned from one of the books. The year I was six, he bought three dogs, whom he named after wine. Pinot and Merlot were boys, and Cabernet was a girl. I liked playing with the dogs, but my mother said they made a mess, dragging muddy feet all over the carpets and making more work for her to clean up. Paris said they smelled bad, like the bottom of a swamp, and I asked her how she knew what the bottom of a swamp smelled like. One day, when I was especially angry with her, I painted a scene of a swamp with a monster dripping with algae and glowing red eyes and long fangs holding hands with Paris, who also had algae dripping from her hair. My mother yelled at me for it, but my father smiled and quietly said, “That’s not nice,” and then he took the painting away. I thought he’d taken it out to the trash, but later I learned that he’d hidden it away, saving it.
My father bought a special refrigerator for his wine and plugged it in in the garage. He tried to teach us about wine, about the different types of grapes. “One day, we’ll move to California and start the Wilkinson winery,” he would say, and Paris would roll her eyes and say, “Right, Dad.” We wondered how the other men at the brush factory where he worked felt about having an oenophile among them. We wondered if he gave his co-workers the same talks about tannins and oak aging that he gave us and whether at work these talks, too, fell upon deaf ears. Looking back, I’m surprised my parents both kept their jobs during our time of prosperity, but perhaps even then they’d known that our good fortune could not last forever.
My parents asked if I wanted to take art lessons — we had enough money to hire someone to give me private lessons — but I said no. Even then, I thought lessons would ruin me, would make what had come naturally transform into a task, change art into something like a subject to be studied in school. “But you should at least learn about the materials,” my father said, so he brought me to the library every two weeks, and I would check out books on art and painting and he would check out books on wine. In the evenings I would sit on my father’s lap and he would flip through the art books and read to me about palette knives and solvents. I didn’t really listen to what he was reading — I just liked sitting with him and having him read to me, liked the low rumble of his voice. Every few months, the two of us would go to an art store in Cleveland and my father would pick out new supplies for me. I think the women working at the store thought he was the artist because he knew so much about materials from reading those books. On those trips to Cleveland, we would also go to liquor stores and buy bottles of wine that the small wine and spirits store in our town didn’t stock. It took my father a long time to pick out his three or four bottles, and as he made his decisions, I looked at the labels. I liked the labels best that had animals on them; I especially liked one label that featured a dancing goat. One day I told my father that when he opened the Wilkinson Winery I would paint images for the labels, and he said, “I’m going to hold you to that, Rainy.”
For a few years, it seemed that things were better between our parents. They laughed more, they spent more time together. When I was seven, my brother Mouse was born. His real name was Malcolm, but when he was born four months premature he was so small and pale that he reminded us all of a newborn mouse, and then the nickname stuck. A week after Mouse was born, Paris and I were allowed to visit him in the NICU, and we shuffled into the room wearing paper caps and gowns and booties over our shoes so we wouldn’t bring our outdoor germs into the room. Our father was hunched over the incubator housing Mouse, and we heard him whisper, “C’mon, Mighty Mouse, c’mon.” Paris slipped her hand into mine and we stood watching our father, who folded his hands together and prayed silently, and this was the first time in a long time that I felt glad to have a sister. I’d never seen my father pray before, had never known him to be religious, and seeing him in prayer rattled me because it meant that he didn’t know what else to do. “He’s going to be okay,” Paris whispered into my ear. For a while, the doctors weren’t sure if Mouse would survive, but he did, even though he had asthma, his lungs were compromised, and he was so, so small that he was often mistaken for much younger than he actually was.
Despite Mouse’s ill health, it was mostly a good time during those years. Mouse was smart and sweet and we all adored him. Even Paris doted on him, insisting on pushing his stroller when we went for walks to the park, reading to him every night, and sharing whatever candy she had with him. Our house was full with the five of us and our three dogs and it was a loud and lively time. I kept busy with painting, setting up a studio in the half of our garage that didn’t house our car, and by the time she was ten, Paris had discovered boys, who would give her the attention that our mother no longer did. My dad had his wine and his dogs, I had my painting, Paris had her boys, and my mother — her love for my father reignited and her pride in me swelling — reigned over it all like a benevolent queen, surveying her kingdom that surprised even her with its riches.
Of course this period of relative happiness could not last forever. One night in February, the wind was strong enough to twist up the snow piled on the sides of the road, swirling it through the air so it became difficult to see. My parents were driving home from dinner in Cleveland. My father had consumed two entire bottles of wine himself (my mother was never one for wine; she called it sour grape juice), and the car skidded and rammed into a telephone pole. I was eleven, Paris thirteen, and Mouse only four. Our mother’s legs were crushed and a lung collapsed. I remember the horrified look on our babysitter’s face when she got off the phone that night, although I no longer remember her name. We sat silently while the babysitter drove us to the hospital in her old, wheezy car, and we waited while our mother had surgery on her legs and lung. We found out that our father had broken his arm, which would have a cast put on it, and the doctors would keep him overnight for observation, but he would be fine. The doctors wanted my mother to stay in the hospital for a week so they could monitor any internal injuries. Once our father’s cast was on, Paris and I were allowed to go visit him, one at a time. I don’t know what he said to Paris, but when I went into his room, he smiled, told me to sit in a chair next to his bed. “Rainy, Rainy,” he said, and my name didn’t sound so bad with him saying it in almost a singsong way. “You know I named you, don’t you?”
I shook my head. I had always assumed my mother had chosen my name. I felt betrayed for a moment; why would my father, who I always suspected liked me best, have named me after something people dislike? He looked up at the ceiling. “You know it was raining the first time I met your mother?” he said. “As a kid, after it rained, I ran outdoors and jumped in puddles. I’d come home with my shoes and socks soaked through.” I sat there quietly and looked at the cast on his arm. I wanted to write my name on it over and over again until ink covered all the white plaster.
We all waited a few more hours at the hospital, but then Mouse became drowsy, and our mother was still in surgery, so the babysitter took us home and then Paris watched over us. She cooked for us, a strange meal of the leftovers she found in the refrigerator, a sandwich on English muffins made with meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and pieces of broccoli chopped up small. At any other time, we would have whined, poked at our food, but we were so hungry and tired and worried that we ate without complaint.
“Dad will be home tomorrow,” Paris said. “And Mom will be fine.” She said it with such conviction, and just like that time we waited to see what would happen to Mouse in the NICU, I was grateful to have an older sister and glad that I did not have to be the one in charge, the one pretending things would be okay.
The next morning, our father returned home, delivered by a cab. His arm was now in both a cast and a sling. There were bruises on his face that I hadn’t noticed the night before. He told us our mother had made it through the surgery and she would be all right, but it would take a long time for her to get back to the way she’d been. “You children need to help her out,” he said. He went to his room then, and a few minutes later, I heard Mouse ask, “Where are you going?”
I looked into the doorway of my parents’ bedroom, and I saw that my father was filling a suitcase haphazardly with clothing, flinging shirts into it with his good hand. I stood next to Mouse in the doorway and asked, “Are you going to stay with Mom at the hospital?”
Our father shook his head and continued packing. Paris joined Mouse and me, and the three of us blocked the doorway completely, trapping our father inside. “What’s your deal?” Paris said. “Where are you going?”
Our father looked at us and said, “It’s hard to explain. It’s just that I have to go. I’ve known it for a while, and maybe this was just the sign I needed.” I noticed my swamp monster painting peeking out from under a gray sweater in his suitcase, and I wondered where he’d hidden it all these years.
A few hours later, he left us, the car packed with his clothing and a cardboard box filled with bottles of wine. A week later, I gathered his library books about wine, put them in a paper grocery bag, carried them to the library, and returned them all.
After the accident, my mother took up residence on the couch. I told her she needed to walk to keep her muscles strong. Her breathing was getting better and her bones had healed. I heard the physical therapist who came to our house three times a week tell her over and over that her muscles could only get stronger if she used them. I pointed to the photocopied sheets of exercises she was supposed to do every day that were taped to the living room wall, but she only said, “I’ve been through enough.” She gave Paris the ATM card and told her to walk to the bank and withdraw hundreds of dollars at a time. Then Paris and I were tasked with grocery shopping for the family. We were still children, just twelve and fourteen, and we bought what most children would when given money and no guidance: king-sized chocolate bars, cheese balls, frozen burritos, gallons of ice cream, peanut butter to be eaten by the spoonful out of the jar, sugary cereal, Pop Tarts, frozen pizzas. Everything we brought into the house, our mother ate.
Before the accident, my mother worked at Molinari’s Vacuums and Accessories in town and knew everything a person could ever want to know about vacuums, hoses, vacuum bags, suction, and velocity. After the accident, she quit Molinari’s and watched TV like it was her job. This was when she discovered Reverend Machover, a televangelist from Oklahoma City, who claimed to cure believers of cancer, to make cripples walk, to make the infertile fecund. He filled the screen with his slicked-back black hair, his large bleached teeth, his tan-all-year skin, and my mother’s eyes followed his every movement. She nodded along to his proclamations. “This is bullshit,” Paris declared pointing at the television screen, and our mother shushed her but did not chastise her for cursing. I didn’t know it then, but my mother had begun to donate money to Reverend Machover and his church, writing a weekly check, slipping it into an envelope, and clothespinning it to our door knocker for the mailman to take. She asked Reverend Machover to heal her and to make Mouse grow tall and strong, for his breathing to clear up, for his lungs to work to full capacity. And even though it wasn’t exactly healing, she asked him to bring our father home from wherever he’d run away to. She believed Reverend Machover could fix everything that had gone wrong; she was so impressed with the miracles he seemed able to produce in a world that now felt dark and impossible to her.
Mr. Molinari, the owner of Molinari’s Vacuums and Accessories, came over to our house a few times in the months after the accident and told my mother she’d always have a job there if she wanted to go back, and she said, “We’ll see.” At that point, we still had money in the bank from the paintings I’d sold, but there were still the agent and manager and accountants to pay. My mother was getting some disability payments, but mostly we began draining the savings account that had grown as a result of the sale of my paintings. Soon, almost all our money would be gone because along with the checks that my mother wrote for our mortgage and electric and gas and her medical expenses, she was donating thousands of dollars to Reverend Machover.
One day, about six months after the accident, my mother called me to her side. By then, she’d already put on weight, was maybe about two-hundred and fifty pounds, although she was still mobile enough to go outside, hobbling to the car with her crutches to drive us all to a fast food restaurant or to get ice cream. “Rainy, with me laid up here, I had an idea,” she said. “I was thinking you ought to teach me to paint.”
I shook my head. “I don’t know how to teach you,” I said. “And you’re not laid up. Let’s go for a walk.” But it wasn’t the teaching that was the problem. It was the actual painting. Just as I’d suddenly seemed to understand how to do it that day at Mrs. Baker’s house when I was five, I’d suddenly stopped knowing how to do it when I was eleven. Most people would probably think it was the trauma of the accident and of our father abandoning the family, but that wasn’t true. I’d stopped being able to paint several months before that, but no one noticed because I’d been so prolific the year before that there were plenty of paintings to sell and display.
“Now, I know I don’t have an artistic bone in my body, but I think it’d be a good thing to do. Practice my hand-eye coordination,” my mother said.
“You need to practice walking. Not hand-eye coordination.” I looked at her thighs stretching out a pair of black sweatpants.
My mother sighed. “My legs hurt,” she said.
“Let’s walk,” I said, grabbing her hands and trying to move her from the couch. Her hands were warm, sweaty. She didn’t budge.
“Why won’t you teach me?” she said. She looked so hurt, and I wished I could tell her what had happened. But no one knew at that point that I couldn’t paint anymore. I couldn’t explain anything. I could no longer conceive of the scenes that I had been able to paint less than a year before. Once, I’d been able to completely envision the scenes in my mind. I’d been able to see landscapes and people and buildings that I’d never seen in real life. But suddenly all of that disappeared. My right hand could hold a brush, could apply color to a canvas, but I no longer could picture what I wanted to paint. It seemed that my imagination was spent.
When I was sixteen, when the money from my paintings had run out, when my mother had reached five-hundred pounds and no longer left the house, when we hadn’t heard from our father in five years, when Paris was pregnant with her first child, when Mouse had turned somber and sullen, angry that he was so much smaller than the other boys in his grade and unable to keep up with them in sports, I got an after school job at The Mossy Rock, a store in town that sold small plants, candles, soaps, and terrariums. These were not things anyone needed; they were objects almost exclusively purchased as gifts. Shortly after the store opened, I saw a sign in the window that read CREATIVE SOUL WITH ARTISTIC EYE WANTED. I drifted into the store and found myself surrounded by succulents and moss and driftwood, dried starfish resting under cloches on wooden shelves. It was a place where I wanted to spend time. It was so different from our home, which had fallen into disrepair, with the stained yellow couch, the dirty dog, Merlot, the only one of the trio of dogs still alive, the unwashed, sticky dishes piled in the sink. A woman with short brown hair emerged from a back room of The Mossy Rock with soil on her hands, holding an aloe plant. “Oh, I didn’t hear you come in!” she said. I told her I’d seen her sign in the window and she invited me to sit down in a wooden chair that looked like it was made from the branches of a birch tree. At first I didn’t want to tell her who I was, but when I said my name, she told me there was something about me that seemed familiar. I was about to lie to her, to tell her I was no one she knew, but I liked her store and her dirt-covered hands and paint-spattered apron, and I told her about the artwork and she nodded and said, “Yes! I read about you in The New York Times Magazine!” And then, and I still can’t say why, I spilled out everything to her, told her about the accident and my parents and how I hadn’t painted in five years, but I thought maybe I could do something artistic in the shop. And right there, she hired me without even asking how old I was or checking references.
It turned out that I was hired to be a terrarium artist. This meant that I cleaned old glass containers and then layered them with rocks, horticultural charcoal, soil, succulents, and moss. Once the landscape was created, I could populate it with people, make small worlds frozen in time. In a way, it wasn’t that different from painting. The Mossy Rock purchased miniature figurines — HO-gauge train figures — from Hal Jorgenson, who’d run the model train and hobby shop in town for thirty years. Women from the wealthy section of town bought the terrariums for seventy or eighty dollars and presented them to each other as gifts at baby showers, weddings, and birthday parties. There was a small college in town, and the female faculty members loved coming in and buying the terrariums as gifts for each other for promotions or retirements or any other celebration. I liked to imagine that there was a terrarium I created in the office of every female faculty member at the college.
My boss was named Ella, and she was thirty-two years old, exactly twice as old as I was. Her grandmother, who’d lived in a nearby town, had died several years earlier, and Ella had inherited enough to open the shop. I often wondered whether she’d inherited much more than was needed to purchase the shop because, although the terrariums were expensive, business was never steady. I was grateful to Ella for hiring me because when I made the terrariums I felt something that I thought I’d lost, the sense of being so absorbed in my work that time faded away. I forgot where I was and focused only on the scene inside the glass containers. When I looked at the figurines, I imagined lives for them, and my imagination began to feel ripe and full again, the way it had felt when I was painting. The real world — and my day-to-day troubles — faded away when I worked. When Ella handed me my paycheck every two weeks, I was always surprised. I forgot that I was actually employed at The Mossy Rock; my time there felt more like a fun afterschool activity.
I remember that in the first terrarium I made I placed a man standing next to a grill, and I imagined the red-headed girl flying the kite next to him was his daughter and she was mad that he was grilling hot dogs and hamburgers because she believed in animal rights and was a vegetarian. In the second terrarium, I glued a figurine of a jogging woman on a trail of smooth gray stones, and I imagined she was training for a marathon and hoping to become the fastest woman in the state of Ohio. I was astounded by how easy it was to come up with these stories, and I wondered if somehow building these small worlds might help me find my way back to painting.
Ella left me to run the store whenever she had an appointment to go to, when she had to meet a horticultural distributor or pick up driftwood or scour thrift stores for old glass containers. One afternoon when Ella was out and I was watching the shop and using a pair of chopsticks to manipulate a fluff of reindeer moss into the curve of an old apothecary bottle, the bells on the front door jingled. A woman who looked to be about thirty wearing a pinstriped navy suit and high heels entered. She moved quickly toward the counter, and her heels clacked on the wooden floor.
“Why, you’re Rainy,” she said.
I nodded, but I didn’t know who she was.
“I’m Cassandra. Cassie. Cassie Baker? My mother used to run a daycare out of our house.”
“Oh, right,” I said. I thought about how all those years ago I’d snuck into her room and stolen her art supplies.
“Do you remember me? I was in and out of the house so much in those days.”
“You were an art counselor at a camp in Columbus.”
“That’s right,” she said. “I was in Columbus that summer you started painting. I remember my mother calling me at camp, and I was panicked thinking that there was an emergency when I was called to the office and told my mother was on the phone. I picked up and she said, ‘You wouldn’t believe what little Rainy Wilkinson has done.’”
I forced a smile, but I didn’t want to talk about myself. “You don’t live here anymore, do you?”
She shook her head. “My mother broke her hip. She’ll be all right, but I wanted to stay with her and help out for a week. I just got into town.”
“Where do you live now?” I wondered if I should go visit Mrs. Baker, but then I worried that if I did all she’d want to talk about was why I wasn’t painting anymore. I decided I would send her a get-well card in the mail instead.
“New York City.”
“Do you still draw?” I asked. I knew this might be a dangerous question, that it might lead back to me, but I knew Cassie had studied studio art at Oberlin.
“Oh, no. Not anymore. I’m a producer for a talk show.” She told me the name of the program, and I recognized it as a show my mom liked to watch sometimes. Cassie paused for a moment then said, “I have an idea, Rainy. How about a ‘Where Are They Now?’ show? We could round up a bunch of former child prodigies and see what’s become of them. People would love it.”
I could think of few phrases that sounded worse to me than former child prodigies. I took a step backward, even though a wooden counter separated me from her. I knew that one person who would love the show would be my mother. Maybe it would even be enough for her to get out of the house, to go to New York with me to attend the filming. She was the one who had been the saddest when all of the attention ended. “I don’t paint anymore,” I said.
“Well, that’s okay,” said Cassie. “Then that’s your story. You used to paint. And now you don’t. And that’s fine. You and me, we’re alike. My life is okay without art, just like I’m sure your life is okay too. We could even come film in this store.” She took a look around and added, “It’s super cute in here.”
I wondered how much she knew about my life, how much her mother had told her. Cassie was already gone, finishing college when the accident happened, so the goings-on of the Wilkinson family were likely just hometown gossip to her, nothing that really affected her in any way. I looked down at the family in the terrarium I was making in the apothecary jar, a mother, father, three children, a golden retriever, an orange cat. I stared down and tried to imagine a story for the figurines, but right then I couldn’t. I felt stuck, just like I did when I was eleven and couldn’t paint anymore. My chest felt tight, like someone was squeezing me, and I thought about how Mouse sometimes could barely breathe until he pumped his inhaler into his mouth.
“You’re funny,” Cassie said, tapping her fingernails on the counter. “You’re so serious. Most girls your age would love to be on TV. You ever see those girls with the fluorescent posters that are in the background on the morning shows when the reporters go outside? They get there at 5am and wait to get on camera for a second. Kids your age are dying to be on TV.”
I shrugged. “I guess I just don’t like too much attention.” And when I said it, I knew that had been the problem, even though it was something I should have figured out years before. It had been the attention that had stopped me, so many people looking at me, expecting something of me, interviewing me, listening to me as if I had important things to say, even though I was only a child. When I stopped painting, people stopped hounding me, stopped expecting me to have answers to all their questions.
“Here’s my card,” Cassie said, sliding a business card across the counter. “Think it over and then give me a call. It’d be an amazing show.”
I waited while she perused the terrariums and found one that she thought her mother would like. It featured a painter behind an easel in a forest. I’d made it a few weeks before. I’d imagined the painter creating a new painting each day and then sending it down a stream and wondering whether anyone would find the painting before all the pigment was washed away. I rang Cassie up and gave her a card with directions on how to take care of the plants in the terrarium. “Thanks, Rainy,” she said. “And don’t hesitate to call. You’ll be the most famous kid in town again when people see you on TV. Everyone will be talking about you in school the day after it airs.”
I think now that there would have been only one way that Cassie could have convinced me to go on the show. If she had told me that maybe my father would see me on TV and maybe he would realize how much he missed us, how much my mother needed him, then I would have agreed to go on television, telling the world that I was no longer able to paint. But right then I could think of nothing worse than having everyone talk about me at school. There was already enough to say. I was the girl whose father left, whose mother had eaten her way to five-hundred pounds, whose sister was a slut, whose brother was an asthmatic weakling. I was the girl who once had a bright future but now was just ordinary. I didn’t want anyone to say anything else about me. I waved to Cassie as she walked out of the store cradling her terrarium. Then I took her card and buried it deep in the soil that filled a large jar. I watered that soil, and I knew that soon enough, the card would become pulpy and then would dissolve and then would become nothing.
I looked into the terrarium with the family, the dog, the cat, and after a few seconds a story came to me. The father had been away, but he’d returned. The mother was slim and happy and glad the father was back. The children — two girls and a boy — were happy to spend time with their dog, Rover. The father had brought the orange cat as a gift for the younger daughter, the one who was secretly his favorite because he understood how she was sensitive and fragile and how, sometimes, the world felt like too much and she wanted to escape. He understood about the desire to escape because he had been away for a long time, but he also knew about returning to the people who loved him most. Now he was back and he looked at his three children, his wife, the dog who still remembered his scent, and said, “I’m so sorry. I’ve missed you terribly, and I’ve come back for you all.”
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Karin Lin-Greenberg’s story collection, Faulty Predictions, won the 2013 Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction from the University of Georgia Press and was Foreword Reviews’ 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year in the Short Story category. Her stories have appeared in literary journals including The Antioch Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Epoch, Five Chapters, Kenyon Review Online, and North American Review. She earned an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh, an MA from Temple University, an AB from Bryn Mawr College and has been awarded fellowships from the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, the Wesleyan Writers Conference, and the MacDowell Colony. She has taught creative writing at Missouri State University, the College of Wooster, and Appalachian State University. Currently, she lives in upstate New York and is an assistant professor in the English Department at Siena College.