“O, Tiepolo,” by Jessica Gregg, is the First Place winning story in the young adult category for the Eighth Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with Grand Prize winner Sandra Anthony and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine. And click here for more information about entering the Ninth Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Jessica's winning entry.
by Jessica Gregg
First, there was Lia. The babysitter.
Best described as fifteen and enchanting. Raphael-like, actually, with her deep-set, unreadable eyes. Her prominent nose. This was the feature she shaded now on the paper in front of her as the smell of paint from across the classroom filled her real nostrils. Stroke after stroke, the marks on the page in front of her were finally turning into something. She painted as quickly as she could. Dabbing. Brushing. Sweeping. Avoiding the clock that counted down the precious minutes she had left before the college hurled her back out onto the street and she became a regular person again. Instead of an artist, finally and mercifully encased in a place that was for her. She painted and painted, oblivious to the other students around her. She used every scribble of time, until sadly her teacher announced, “We have to clean up.”
Then Lia packed up everything and walked the four hot blocks to the bus stop. The whole time she reminded herself that in 20 hours she could return to class.
Second was Leo. The baby. Fat-cheeked and dimple-fisted. A smiley-faced da Vinci cherubim. Ten months old and easy to please. Lia’s charge for the summer when she was not in art class.
Her father had insisted on a job: “See if TCBY will hire you.”
She had scrawled through the application, the corner of which was smeared with paint, and turned it in to a counter server who had the small eyes of a Modigliani subject. No one from TCBY called though, so she ended up babysitting.
Luckily, Leo was a good baby. Lia always arrived in time to feed him lunch, a long and messy meal that she was never quite sure was finished. Leo kept reaching for food and Lia kept feeding him, until she grew tired of it and then she cleaned him up. Which took like twenty minutes. See, Leo was learning to eat solid food. Real food. Crackers and bananas and apple sauce and slices of mushy avocado. And he wanted anything Lia had in her hands. Her sandwich. Her cell phone. Her Starbucks cup. Anything he could try and put in his hands. And then in his mouth.
Leo spent the afternoons sleeping or playing in the yard and trying to eat fistfuls of grass, riding in his stroller and reaching for anything he could to put in his mouth. He even reached for the absurd: the streetlights, the garbage cans on the corner, the people who walked past them. Halfway into their first stroller ride together, Lia realized that Leo couldn’t really reach anything he wanted to grab, much less shove it in his mouth, so she stopped worrying.
Leo’s parents were Sadie and Mike. They were fairly cool. Pretty laid back, too. Their one big rule was no company. They didn’t want a sitter who had friends over all the time. That rule was easy for Lia. She had been avoiding her friends because she didn’t know how to tell them she wasn’t taking the animation class she had told them about, that instead she was painting winged people. And kinda liking it.
Which brings us to Giambattista Tiepolo, the most celebrated fresco painter of the 18th Century. Lia had not known the difference between a fresco and a mural, but she could not take her eyes off the image of the gold-crowned Apollo escorting a bride through the sky, her white dress billowing into the clouds beneath her. Or the image of Mercury, reclined in the sky, catching the eye of an angel. The triumphant Virtue, victorious and as sure of herself as any movie star. Lia could look at these paintings forever, with their majestic faces, winged heros, wreathed gods.
Normally, she thought stuff like that was such crap. Because it really was.
And she had always been more of a found art sculpture sort of person. But lately as she pushed Leo in his plastic, big-wheeled stroller beneath the hot sun, counting the cracks in the cement pavement, she found herself wondering why nobody ever painted angels anymore.
Lia, Leo, and Tiepolo. Oh yes, and there was a cannoli. A beautiful perfect cannoli from Mastellone’s. Perhaps Tiepolo was still on Lia’s mind. Or maybe, just maybe, she was just tired of pulling her food away from Leo. Whatever the reason, when Leo reached for a bite of cannoli, she let him have it.
At first, just a little bit. A little cream that she fed him with her finger. But he liked it so much. So she gave him more and a little more. His bird mouth was filled with cannoli and he smiled. By the time she had wheeled him back to the rowhouse, Leo’s diaper was full, his face was red, and his mouth was open in a holler that told Lia she had given him something she shouldn’t have. He kept crying. And he kept turning more and more red.
“It’s okay, It’s okay.” Lia herself was panicking. She couldn’t get the key in the door. “Shh, it’s okay, Leo.” The keys dropped out of her hand. Leo squirmed in her arms. The stroller slid down the front porch steps and clattered to the sidewalk.
“Here.” Two ink-stained hands picked up the keys. “I got the door.”
This was Joe, Leo’s neighbor, the boy two doors down. Lia barely knew him, but she had seen him around. And he had seen Lia struggling with the screaming Leo. “Here.” He shoved the door open and then went down the stairs for the stroller.
Joe looked like Screaming Leo had rudely awakened him. His hair stood up in weird tufts and his face was sort of crinkly. Then again, Lia thought, maybe he always looked like that. A little skater, a little uncool.
She patted Leo on the back and followed Joe inside. “He ate a cannoli.” She offered, not wanting anyone to think she had done something on purpose to make Leo scream like that.
“I guess he didn’t like it”
“I guess not. I think I need to change his diaper.”
“Oh, yeah. … Well, all right, then.” Joe waved. His duty served, his good will no longer needed, he fled the house and the imminent diapering.
Insert one sketchpad. Just like hers. That’s what he left behind. Lia found it by the stroller later, and with great interest, flipped through its pages. Dragons, snakes, owls. Myth-like men with inflated muscles and fists that popped out of the pages. Steep-cheeked women. Bearded wise guys. Chihuahua dogs. Kites. Cameras. The boxes that Chinese food comes in. The front pages of newspapers. Computers. Subway cars. Graffiti copied from city walls.
A little crinkly. A little messy. A little uncool. Maybe.
OK, clearly he wasn’t studying thick-paged books with the works of Michelangelo, Picasso, the Impressionists like Lia did, and waiting to feel the centuries of knowledge course through those paintings and into his fingers. But his stuff was good. Sorta good. Almost too good. What would he think of hers?
On her way home, she stuck the sketchpad between the storm door and the front door of Joe’s house. Nice work, she wrote on one of the pages, and fell back into a Tiepolo daydream as she walked home.
The sketchpad returned two days later with a cartoon drawing of Leo and a giant cannoli.
Two days after Lia returned it, the sketchpad came back with a real drawing of Leo. Not bad, she wrote, but put Joe’s drawings out of her mind, for there was so much else occupying it, mainly her final summer project, which wanted to be wonderful and perfect, better than anything she had ever done, and every minute that Leo was asleep, every minute she was home, she sketched. When she wasn’t drawing, she piled old boxes, a torn shoelace, egg cartons, plastic – even though she knew she couldn’t use this, she shouldn’t use this. She had to get serious and really draw and show them what she had in her.
One day when Leo was asleep, Joe came to join her in the backyard, bringing his own cartoons and a set of colored pencils. They worked together, side by side, and she was so busy working that she didn’t consider at all what Joe might be drawing, not even when he said, “I can’t wait for you to see this. I will show it to you tomorrow.”
“OK,” her pencil not leaving the paper.
Actually it was Sadie – Leo’s fairly cool and allegedly laid-back mother -- who saw it first in the backyard, on one of the Adirondack chairs. Mike’s chair, actually. It was waiting for Lia’s hands and eyes to discover it first. But it was Sadie who saw it there on the chair where her husband always sat and read after a long day of work. She opened it and studied each page, the anger and fear rising in her, the evidence in front of her of just who this babysitter was and what she had been doing at their house that summer when she was supposed to be watching Leo.
“It’s all there,” Sadie’s eyes blazed as she held the sketchbook in front of Lia, one by one fingering through the drawings of Lia’s lips, her hair, her eyes.
No, Joe didn’t study the Italian masters like Lia, but it turns out that he understood exactly how to capture the essence of someone’s eyebrow.
The bow of her lips.
The curve of her neck.
The tendrils of hair that didn’t quite make it into the clasp of Lia’s ponytail.
All that time, she thought he had been sketching his cartoons. But he had been drawing her.
Sadie flipped page after page of pencilings, until finally she showed her the page that displeased her most, a sketch of Lia’s breasts.
Oh, Lia stared at her own nakedness, imagined and unreal -- but more real than anything else at that moment. Joe hadn’t just been drawing her.
She found her voice, but it didn’t matter. “That’s not me,” she said futilely. “I didn’t draw these.”
“But this is your sketchpad.” Sadie would sure of it. She knew that it was Lia – their Lia, Leo’s Lia – the artist, the nice girl who had come so highly recommended from a friend of Sadie’s, who had drawn these pictures of herself, and worse – much, much worse – left them for Mike to see. There had been a note on them after all.
This is what I’ve been working on. I hope you like them. “No,” Lia protested again. “I didn’t draw them.”
“But then who did?” Sadie asked. “Who would have done such a thing?”
O, Tiepolo. Here’s where it became tricky. To admit that it was Joe was to admit that he had been in the house. That she let in a man who sat in their yard and drew pictures of her breasts. To say it was hers would have been a lie, and would have led Sadie to believe that Lia was after her husband. Either way, Lia would be out of a job. And she would have to tell her father she had been fired.
“I’m sorry,” she muttered before she grabbed the sketchbook and ran. Out the front door, onto the pavement, past Joe’s house. She kept running and running until the Baltimore streets around her disappeared, the buildings flattened, the earth gave way, and she ascended into a bank of clouds, to her place in the sky.
Winged Venus, eyes cast down, with a face of beautiful sadness.
A baby. A boy. A painting. A cannoli. A sketchpad. A big, big mistake.
A babysitter. That was me: Another artist who suffered for her work.