The Book of Qualities by Ruth Gendler is a real book of short essays and it’s a treasure. I edited the selection down to avoid copyright infringement. Kyle’s essay about Alienation is by me.
I’m not an artist at all, but I had fun dreaming up what the kids may have painted.
Cami leaned forward in her seat to look at Grant in the dugout. He had a smile on his face while pantomiming some exercises for an outfielder. During their lunch with Joe and his wife, Joe had reminded Grant that injured or not, he was expected to attend the home games. Grant said he planned to be there all along. They had a leisurely meal together, arriving at the stadium in time for the team meeting and warm-ups. Cami now sat in the stands with Joe’s wife, Ellen.
“I really enjoyed our lunch,” Ellen said. “I was astonished when Joe came home and said we were going out with you and Grant.”
“I had a good time, too,” Cami said. “Why were you surprised, do you not socialize with the team much?”
“No, it’s not that. Joe has tried to reach out to Grant, to be a friend, and he’s made it clear he’s not interested.”
“That doesn’t sound like Grant. He’s friendly and open with everyone.” Cami sipped her iced tea and watched the visiting team take the field to warm up.
“He’s always cordial,” Ellen said. “But Joe takes his position as a veteran player and a Christian seriously. He’s invited Grant to Bible studies and prayer groups. Grant always refused.”
“Now that doesn’t surprise me. God is chasing Grant who’s working hard to ignore Him. I’m convinced God is using this injury to get Grant’s attention. I said as much to him right after it happened, but my timing was bad. He didn’t want to hear it.”
Delia entered their row and began working her way past knees. She paused when she came to Ellen and Cami.
“Hello.” Delia’s voice was flat.
“Hi, Delia.” Cami made sure there was no hint of triumph in her tone.
Delia continued past them and settled into a seat next to her sister. They whispered together and ignored Cami and Ellen.
“What’s that about?” Ellen asked.
“Speaking of Grant being open and friendly, Delia wouldn’t take his hints that he wasn’t interested. He finally called her a few days ago and left her no way to misunderstand or pretend ignorance.”
“I wish I’d been a fly on that wall. She’s been trying to snag a Coyote for a couple of years now. I’m sure she thought she had a live one in Grant.” Ellen settled back in her seat as the announcer began welcoming fans and the opening pitch was thrown.
For the next few hours, Ellen and Cami confined their conversation to baseball. Every so often, Grant would search the stands to make eye contact with Cami. He would grin and she returned a wave and a reflecting smile.
During the seventh inning stretch, Delia followed Grant’s gaze to rest on Cami. Delia flipped some blonde hair over a tan shoulder and turned her attention to the good-looking fan in the row below.
Grant must have seen Delia’s flounce because he wiped some imaginary sweat off his brow as his eyes held Cami’s. She laughed. Who knew you could share an intimate moment in the middle of a sold-out stadium?
The following week, Cami stood in the middle of the rec center art room, preparing the students for a new project.
“Let’s get started,” she said as Kyle slid around the corner from the hallway with Anthony right behind. “I’m going to read from The Book of Qualities by Ruth Gendler. She takes a character trait and personifies it. In ‘Courage,’ she says, ‘Courage has roots. She sleeps on a futon on the floor and lives close to the ground.’” Cami paused. She had used this book once before in enrichment classes and this was the line that grabbed their attention.
“ ‘Courage looks you straight in the eye.’”
Cami looked up from the book and smiled. “What do you think?”
Tara’s hand was first in the air. “What book is that again?”
“It’s called The Book of Qualities. We’re going to read more of the essays, but let’s talk specifically about this one first, Courage. What are your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree?”
Another girl spoke up. “I liked the idea of Courage being a real person. My sister moved to New York City and she sleeps on a futon in a friend’s loft while she tries to find an acting job. I think that takes courage.”
For the next half hour Cami read more of the poetical essays about qualities. She read Pleasure, Contentment, and Doubt. Then she asked them to brainstorm how the qualities should look, what colors exemplified courage and contentment. Then she assigned them a quality to paint. She gave choices between Courage, Alienation, and Joy. The students worked quietly until the time was up. Then the room came alive with adolescent bantering, water running, and paint lids snapping on.
Kyle, Anthony, and Tara stopped to say good-bye.
“Thanks for getting us in touch with Mr. Andrews,” Tara said. “Kyle’s doing a phone interview with him tomorrow.”
“That’s great.” The students turned to leave when a question struck Cami. “By the way, how did your SUV article turn out?”
“Great.” Anthony said. “I have a copy of it somewhere.” He opened his backpack, pulled out a three-ring notebook, flipped to a section with laminated articles, removed one and handed it to Cami.
She took it, swallowing her laughter. “You’re so organized, Anthony. I’m impressed.”
He shrugged. “I like to know where things are.”
Cami skimmed the article. The students were split about evenly in decrying the gas-hogs or defending the rights of citizens to drive them. “Interesting.” She handed the page back to Anthony.
“We had a long discussion about the whole issue at school the other day,” he said, snapping the notebook closed and replacing it in his backpack.
“It’s immoral to drive anything that costs more to fill up than dinner and a movie would be,” Tara said.
“Oh, brother,” Kyle said. “Are you going to say that everyone should drive an electric car? Where do you get the electricity? You know, some of it’s from fossil fuels, too.”
“For someone who claims to be a Christian, you don’t seem concerned with the state of God’s creation. What would Jesus drive?” Tara swung her bag over her shoulder.
“Are you kidding? He’d drive an SUV. He had twelve disciples to lug around, not to mention baskets of leftover fish and bread.”
The other kids still in the room erupted with laughter and Kyle slapped a victorious high five with Anthony before the trio left.
Shaking her head, Cami started her own cleanup. Sounds of students leaving the building echoed down the hallway. It was free skate day at the center and whenever the door banged open, she could hear snippets of the music blaring across the parking lot for the skateboarders and inline skaters.
She collected the paintings, setting them on the counters to dry. She’d have to come back tomorrow, before the martial arts class, to pick them all up.
She paused to look at Tara’s depiction of Courage. Interesting. A blue sea full of drab olive green fish swam through a matching kelp forest. A shadow could be seen in the back coming closer to the foreground. In the center of the forest, one bright orange fish stood out, a clear target.
Cami continued around the workstations, shuttling paintings in various stages of dryness to the counter. She picked out many of the artists with a glance at their canvas. Then one in particular drew her attention. Kyle’s.
All black. Except for the barest lightening into a dark gray in the very center. A piece of lined paper was taped to the back.
“If psychosis is the last stop on the bus line of humanity, alienation is the next to last stop. Many people get off in Alienation rather than continue to the end of the line. Holden Caulfield. Richard Nixon. Kurt Cobain. Alienation is a small town, but it manages to feel like a large city. People come and go without getting to know their neighbors. It’s not uncommon for someone to die in his or her apartment, and the neighbors don’t know until their noses can no longer deny it. Lots of people get off the bus in Alienation, but few get on, either to continue to the end of the line or to return to Hope.”
This was from Kyle? Those were some deep thoughts for a young man who should be concerned about what the cafeteria was serving for lunch instead of brooding about alienation.
Her cell phone rang, bringing her back to the room.
“It’s Grant.” His voice ran through her ear and down her back until she shivered. “We’re invited to Joe and Ellen’s for an early dinner before the game. Can you come to Fullerton?”
She took a deep breath before answering. “I guess so. I’m done at the center. What’s their address?”
He rattled off numbers and a street name as she scribbled on a piece of paper. He was about to dictate directions too, but she stopped him.
“As long as I’ve got the address, I’ll get a map off the Internet. I’ll see you in about an hour.”
As they hung up, she marveled at how much better Grant sounded than even a few days ago. This new friendship with Joe had really turned Grant into an optimist. Although he still had pain and struggled with therapy, he was no longer fighting against the injury. He seemed to have made peace with it, even making it a partner, using it to become stronger.
She packed up files and reports into her backpack and took a seat in front of the classroom computer. The outside music had stopped. She checked her watch. The center was going to be locked soon. She tapped her foot while waiting for the PC to boot up, then directed the browser to a map-finding site. She consulted her note for the Spencer’s address: 3381 North Bond. As soon as she typed in the first digit, a dialogue box opened showing other addresses also beginning with a three that had been searched for on this computer.
She stared in disbelief at the screen. 392 Maple Street, Agua Vida. That was her address. Someone had searched for directions and a map to her house.
On this computer.