The Ugly Duckling

Charles Haddox

My fellow after-school art students and I had been assigned our task. We were to draw one of the Victorian houses that faced the stately Schiller Museum across a street that had once been populated by the founders of our town. Their children and grandchildren had long since abandoned the neighborhood for the suburbs, and the quarter had begun to show its age. Unkempt, towering cypresses grew behind tall iron gates, and partially hid the weather-beaten windows of those formerly impeccable homes. Despite the years of neglect, they still stood like an honor guard for the Neoclassical Schiller mansion, which was much bigger than they and a little older as well, a white marble and cream-brick temple with two outstretched wings. It had been left to the city by the last of the Schiller family, and was now an art museum. Cypresses also lined the busy street that had once been a gas-lit boulevard echoing with the sound of horses’ hooves and carriage wheels. Over the years it had become a major east-west artery, full of shiny automobiles and the smell of leaded gasoline. Our class sat on the sloping lawn of the museum, sketch pads in our laps, charcoal pencils in hand. We had not been allowed to use charcoal before that afternoon. All of our previous drawing attempts had been with a pastel-crayon hybrid that bore a name both appropriate and stupid: the “craypas.” I vigorously scratched paper with charcoal that afternoon, happy to be freed from the restraints of the smudgy and insipid “craypas,” as we balanced our drawing boards on our knees under a calm spring sky. I was attempting to capture, in timeless art, the narrow two-story house with five sweeping, pointed gables that stood directly across the street from the museum. The house was a series of verticals, and built of dark brown brick. The wood trim that traced windows, gables, roof and second floor balcony was painted in a combination of pale yellow and pink, terrible colors that were nevertheless somehow suited to the time, the late nineteen-seventies. The house appeared as though it had been squeezed onto the lot where it sat, or had magically sprung up there, and, like a sunflower, been slowly and steadily pulled skyward by the sun. In my drawing I exaggerated its narrowness, attenuating it until it defied the laws of physics. I nervously awaited the critical judgment of Mr. de la Mordaz, our instructor. He had little patience for the limitations that the facts of our being fourteen and without prior artistic training might cause us to display; every failure of composition or perspective was a personal affront.

The class drew to a close and the sun sank low in the sky, throwing on our subject a light as clear and pale as watered-down tea. New shadows appeared that we had not previously incorporated into our drawings, as if each moment brought us a new and different house to capture with our pencils. Mr. de la Mordaz was suddenly at my side—having made his approach with the stealth of a cat in the tall grass—and speaking to me in his strange, rapid version of English. The smell of cheap cologne steamed off of him like poison in the late afternoon heat. His perfectly pressed black suit and arrogant manner made him look like a walking coffin.

“Your father is not on time today. When the class is over, you just have to wait. The museum close at five-thirty, so you just going to have to wait outside for him when he come.”

“Did he say when he would be here?”

“Six-thirty. He have a meeting or something.”

He looked at my drawing and shook his head.

“What the hell you do to that building?” was all he could say.

The last student met his ride and Mr. de la Mordaz departed in his angry red sports car. I was left alone, and I sat on a low wall at the edge of the lawn that spread out in front of the Schiller Museum. Rush hour traffic whisked by and a soft little breeze blew up out of nowhere. The young evening was fecund as silver, patiently waiting to give birth to the artist. I looked up at the Neoclassical façade of the former Schiller home. Above a row of Corinthian columns a white marble scroll gravely unfurled, etched with the motto: “Numen inest.”

“Are you waiting for someone?”

I turned and found a tall girl about my own age standing in front of me. She wore a gray jumper and white blouse. I recognized it as the uniform of a private school that operated out of a church in the vicinity of the museum.

“Oh, nobody,” I answered guardedly.

The girl hesitated for a moment before sitting down next to me on the wall.

“I’m not waiting for anybody either. I’m supposed to be walking home from my dance class at the Y.”

“Actually, I am waiting for a ride.”

“I’m Tricia,” the girl said as she extended her hand.   

I took it timidly and shook it.

“What’s your name?” she asked me after a moment.

“Charles. Everybody calls me Charlie, though.”

“What have you got in your hand?”

“Oh, it’s just a drawing,” I answered without showing it to her.

“Did you draw it?”

“Yes. It isn’t very good.”

I stole a glance at the girl’s face. It was white and round and covered with freckles. She wore granny glasses, and her mouth was small. Her lips protruded a little, giving her a tiny red beak. She wore a blue and white paisley scarf. Strands of her wispy dark gold hair had escaped out from under it and played around her face in the gentle breeze.

“How do you know that your drawing isn’t very good?”

“I did it for an art class, and that’s what the teacher said.”

“People really suck sometimes, don’t they?”

“You mean the art teacher? Yeah, he does, all the time.”

“Can I tell you about something that happened to me the other day?”

“Sure.”


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