The weather was so fine that day that when my afternoon art class (eighteen first-, second-, and third-graders) begged to have class outside, I agreed. I told the boys to get mats from a cupboard to sit on, wrote a note on the chalkboard of where we would be in case anyone came looking for us, and herded a noisy gaggle of young boys, eager to spend a spring afternoon outside, from the art room to the school grounds. Goodwin Academy was located outside of Louisville, close enough to the city that many parents could visit their boys every weekend. The ages of Goodwin students ranged from six to thirteen; thanks to some severe bullying incidents a few generations before, we kept the boys mostly separated by age except for meals. My art classes were one of the few instances when several grades would meet together, which meant that two of my lover’s sons, Alan and Frankie Davenport, were both in the class.
As we left the tidy gardens for the woods just beyond the school grounds, the boys ran ahead except for Alan, who had volunteered to carry a folding wooden chair for me, and Frankie. He was only six and still shy around other bigger boys unless Alan was was nearby, and tended to stick close to his side.
On this walk, though, he stuck close to me, and his hand slipped into mine that wasn’t holding my cane. “Mr. Malcolm?”
“Yes, Frankie?” I answered.
“Um,” he said and looked at Alan, who was walking by my other side with the folding chair awkward in his arms. “Can I carry your satchel?”
I started to say no, I could handle it, but then looked down at Frankie’s hopeful face. He had his father’s dark eyes and hair and olive skin, but had inherited a dusting of freckles from his mother. “Sure,” I said and stopped long enough to drape it over his shoulder. “Thank you.”
He grasped the strap with both hands. His walk took on a little bit of a strut, and I hid my smile. I tried not to show any favoritism to the Davenport boys no matter how often I fucked their father, but it was hard not to favor them when they were so sweet.
I had told the boys to wait at the dry creek bed, so by the time I reached it they were gathered on the banks, their mats and pencil case abandoned on the grass as they chased each other in an impromptu game of tag. I had them sit and thanked Alan for setting up the folding chair for me, and eased into it, my bad leg stretched out in front of me.
“All right, boys,” I said, “today’s assignment is to take ten minutes and find one thing — a branch or a leaf or a rock, something small — and draw just that one thing. Now, now,” I said, holding up my hand at their groans, “I know you like drawing battleships and airplanes and what-not. Later. Master the little things first. Then you can move onto the bigger ones.”
Off into the woods they scampered. I shouted, “Ten minutes!” and noted the time on my wristwatch so I could call them back.
I had no illusions that any of my students would become artists. The most talented might become graphic designers; there might be future engineers or architects in my classes, but most of them took art because they had to, not because they enjoyed it, and would do little more in twenty years than occasionally doodle on their blotters as they invested money or practiced law. I had been praised for my talent since I was small, but even I taught high school French before the war rather than try to make a living painting or illustrating.
Sometimes I toyed with the idea of going back to Europe and studying art properly in Paris, but that seemed like a pursuit for men whom the war had left whole, or at least less visibly broken than me.
As I waited for the boys to return — one ear cocked for sounds of trouble — I took my own sketch pad out of my satchel and opened it to a blank page. My classroom sketchbooks were sanitary to the point of dullness — studies of hands or faces, copies of Old Masters, the occasional stiff life — and I decided to do the assignment along with my students. Things I actually enjoyed drawing stayed in the sketchbooks I showed no one, carefully locked away in my rooms.
The boys began to trickle back, and many of them proudly showed me the pretty leaves or interesting rocks they had found. With Alan’s help, Frankie even found a stick with a caterpillar crawling up it, which we carefully set up in a clump of grass so the caterpillar would want to stay long enough for Frankie to draw it.
When ten minutes has passed, I shouted, “Time’s up!” and left our little group to gather the rest of the boys. I did a quick headcount once they were seated on their mats, and all eighteen were soon bent over their drawing pads, pencils or crayons grasped tightly in their fingers. I walked among them as much as the uneven ground would permit me, using my cane for balance when I needed to stoop down and talk to the boys.
I was advising one of the boys on how to capture a particularly complicated vein in a leaf when Alan said, “Mr. Malcolm, I hear shouting.”
My hearing hadn’t been the same since the war, so it took a moment for me to hear it too — a voice that sounded like the headmaster of the school, Archie Goodwin, shouting, “Malcolm! Malcolm Carmichael!”
“Stay here, boys,” I said and climbed up the path that led from the creek bed to the woods beyond. I saw Archie on the main trail with two other teachers, and waved to them. “Is something wrong?” I said when Archie came puffing up to me.
“I need to talk to you alone,” he said and gave me a quick smile that wasn’t as reassuring as he intended it to be. We all went down the path again, and Archie told the class, “Boys, we need to cut art class short today. Go back with Mr. Douglas and Mr. Vincent. Don’t complain,” he said at their response. “You’ll get to finish your projects in the dining room.”
The boys gathered their mats and packed away their pencils, and went dejectedly back up the path, herded by the two other teachers. Both of them gave me sympathetic looks, which didn’t tell me anything helpful.
Alan Davenport lingered at the back of the line. “Mr. Malcolm? Who’ll carry the chair for you?”
“I will, Alan,” Archie assured him. “Go on, now. Don’t keep the rest of your class waiting.” He watched until Alan was far up enough on the path that we could no longer see him, and then turned to me.
I’d never had a premonition in my life, but at that moment I knew exactly what had brought Archie out in the middle of the afternoon — I didn’t even need to look at the telegram he held out. I covered my eyes with my hand and began to sob.
Archie said, “Would you like me to read it to you?”