Vignettes Regarding the Artwork of Brendon Kotes
Summer between seventh and eighth grade went by achingly slowly. Thirteen years old. Too young to go driving about. Too old to be playing kickball with the neighborhood kids. Just old enough to want and want, but not know exactly what to do about it. Not really.
Robbie brought Tori Kel down to the wharf where they played footsie off the piers. He brought her to the park where they swung at dusk and played a touchy-feely game of tag with the other kids right outside the forest. He did not bring her to the car graveyard. Not ever.
Two weeks before eighth grade started in earnest, soccer practice already going in full swing (as attested by Casey’s every-present shin guards and cleats), a group of middle-schoolers took to lingering under the second pavilion, the older one closer to the basketball court where boys taunted Brendon for not playing.
Tori Kel came with Robbie and sat down next to Brendon with a book of her own. Hers was a school book. Summer read they were sure to be tested on first week back, though next to none of the others had likely even glanced at the pages. Brendon certainly hadn’t.
They sat in silence for a time, pages of The Chocolate War fluttering while his pencil scratched over a rough sketch sheet. The rhythmic pound of the basketball echoed up toward the tennis courts and sneakers shed rubber off crumbling black-top.
Casey was out there, shirt off, thrown into the heaps in the grass. Skin red across his shoulders from a recent burn but tanned heavily down his arms and from about mid-thigh to mid-calf. Like he wore that soccer uniform every which way past Sunday.
Sketchbook kept tipped just so, Brendon worked the line of Casey’s back and further down, shading the folds of his shorts, but the torso was disembodied. Could have been anyone’s. Sort of. If that anyone wasn’t dark-skinned like Jakob or Ty. If that anyone did not have a bit of extra fatty tissue like Dylan or Stevie. If that anyone didn’t have long hair like Chad or a mottled birthmark like Patrick or still have his shirt on like Alec and Robbie.
Brendon kept the sketchbook tipped just so, just in case.
In the corners he practiced hands. Casey’s hands specifically, but they were practice and were more ambiguous than the portion of torso centered in the page with its vague lines to indicate sinewy, young limbs.
When he came up for breath—to check out of the corner of his eye whether Tori Kel was spying on his work—he noticed she’d ceased reading and sat holding her phone in the crease of the book, a photo of a dog centered on the screen. Her lips were sucked in between her teeth in a pained expression and though the wind tugged at her weave she didn’t flick the strands away from her face.
She noticed him looking and gave him a wan smile. “My boo, my dog. Been my best friend since I was three.”
She tilted the phone toward him. The sun caught the screen and overwhelmed the photo so all Brendon really saw was a glare and a couple of blotchy spots. He nodded in sympathy.
“She was cute.” Tori Kel twisted the phone away, nearly blinding Brendon in the process. “I step through the door and expect her to come running. I lay on the couch and still leave a space automatically.”
“She must have been something.”
“She was more than something. She was everything.”
Brendon turned the page of his sketchbook. “Can I see her again?”
This time he leaned over to get a real look at the dog. A corgi, with perky, upright ears and a stubby, furry neck. His pencil got moving almost on its own accord. It was just a sketch, a nothing really, but Tori Kel’s eyes got wider, wider. Wetter too, like she held back tears by force alone.
“I’ll give you a twenty if you paint her for me.”
That was Brendon’s first real commission. The first time someone had given him more than a few quarters for spank-bank material or folder decor. It meant something.
To Tori Kel, how her tears finally leaked when he presented her with the finished canvas the first week of school.
To Brendon, who finally realized what Mr. Wexlar meant about why the girls never asked him for his sketches. Like Tori Kel said, that dog ended up meaning everything.
Meant something to Casey too, who snarled worse in Tori Kel’s direction and berated Brendon for “consorting with the enemy.”
“It was just a dog, Case,” muttered Brendon, the twenty in his pocket crinkling under his fingers.