The Unstart

The front lobby would have been incomplete without the umbrellas.  The rich, foggy rain that rolled about required the umbrellas – they were as necessary as doors and windows.  The gray weather seeped into clothes, dripped down hair, wrinkled pages of books and made the world around feel like one enormous sponge.

Macy swept in through the building’s revolving door, depositing the umbrella into the gray plastic container by the door.  The tired raindrops sloshed their way down to the drain that was directly under the bin.  As the water ran down, the synthetic fabric folds of the umbrella sighed and settled into a mushy heap.

Footprint puddles followed Macy and her packages through the steel colored foyer of the building.  The foyer’s hue was reflecting the world outside, muting the colors within.  The red couch in the waiting area took on a dusty tone, while the white reception desk seemed dingy in the half light of the afternoon.  Even the employees, rushing to and fro, seemed shadowed by the limited color palette all around.

Shoes slipping with water carried Macy up the metal stairs, creating echoes with each step she took as she made her way to the fourth floor.  Her arms struggled with the cumbersome purchases she clutched, warding off the water that threatened to creep in to any holes in their plastic covering.  Hair streaming into her eyes, Macy exhaled, pushed open the door to her hallway and wondered why she bothered.

The hallway was the darkest yet, making the white grey clouds outside appear welcoming and the building’s lobby almost cheerful.  The sconces had long since flickered out and the dank carpet smelled of perpetual mildew, yet another gift from the ever drizzling weather.  Listening to the sounds of sad, lonely televisions playing mournfully from various doorways, Macy finally arrived at her own small space in the world, number 4616.

The chipped paint on the door spoke its familiar welcome, as did the outdated blue shag carpet.  In a city where rain was such a part of daily life, Macy sometimes wondered why blue was chosen to cover the floor.  She hoped that someone was wishing for clear mountain skies that had been left behind, but often concluded that a fresh bruise had inspired the color scheme for her small two bedroom apartment.  The blue carpet, pea soup green counter tops and gray-filled window often left her feeling beat down and alone.

The apartment’s cheap radio suddenly crackled as Macy fiddled with the dial.  She thought of the elegant music devices some of her more outgoing coworkers listened to endlessly at her work.  The radio shrieked, popped and spewed forth a melancholy piano tune.  Leaning against the green countertop, Macy gazed at the dusty radio and tapped her slender fingers to the sound.

Turning her stool to face the kitchen, Macy reached into her pocket and spread the wrinkled pages across the counter.  The ink had run in places, a product of the constant rain and some of the corners had torn from being looked at so frequently.  She looked without seeing; the content appearing in negative relief within the confines of her mind.

Macy left the pages to create a checkerboard on the dull green counter.  It didn’t matter whether or not she picked them up, as there was no one else to be bothered by the mess.  Other than the tri-folded pages, there was very little in the apartment that wasn’t tidy.

Moving slowly across the room, Macy picked up a postcard squeezed into a cheap four dollar frame and gazed at the swirling colors inside.  The postcard had been purchased on a field trip to the Art Institute of Chicago and showed a miniature of Monet’s Bordighera.  She remembered thinking that of all the places she would like to go in the world, it would be there.  Monet spent months trying to capture the Mediterranean light with his oils for that painting.  Macy envied his freedom.

Replacing the postcard on the apartment’s lone end table, Macy looked at its companion: a Barnes & Noble CD of La Boheme.  A coworker had given it to her for Christmas one year, after Macy had made a small comment that she liked opera.  At least, she thought she did, having never had the opportunity to see one live.  She turned the CD case over, reading the names of the singers listed on the back.  She opened the case and touched the silvery plastic, wishing once more that she could hear the voices that the disc held.

She laughed quietly at herself as she closed the cardboard CD case and set it back next to the framed postcard.  Who could honestly say that they did not have a CD player in this age of technology?  Maybe someday she would pick one up at the thrift store, but they never seemed to have any that worked.

Her thoughts drifted back to the papers on the counter.  When the doctor had told Macy the test results, she had calmly asked if he could give them to her on paper.  She really wasn’t sure why she asked for this.  It would not make the outcome any less than what she had been preparing for since childhood.

The words on the paper told her what she always knew would be her fate.  The words had a different meaning for her than for most other women.  For her, the words meant hair that never looked right, as the chubby five year old fingers could never manage what other little girls had mothers to do for them.  They meant always needed to know where the bread and peanut butter were, because a distant father could not be relied upon for cooking.  They meant pants that were always too short, as no one noticed when she got a little taller.  For Macy, the words told her that her life would end the way it began: clumsy, confused, struggling.

The doctor had looked at Macy thoughtfully, wondering why she didn’t seem to be impacted by his news.  Instead, she had such a smirk that he was driven to ask her what she was thinking.  Her reply would remain with him for many weeks to come.  She tipped her head, looked at him and told him that the disease had finally won the long, slow race it had been running.  It caught her grandmother at 46.  Her mother at 32.  She was only 24.  There would no longer be any contenders in the fight.

Macy moved toward the soaked plastic packages she had fought to carry up the stairs.  The bags stained the carpet a darker blue with their moisture, leaving a strange imprint that Macy hoped wouldn’t smell like mildew in the morning.  The world was wet enough without the dampness leaving its mark on the very air inside 4616.

As she dragged the bags to the door of the room they belonged in, she paused.  She was not quite ready to face putting things away.  Rather than go inside, she leaned the bags against the unfinished hollow plywood door.  The purchases would have to wait.  She was too tired to worry about sorting them out.

The evening passed quietly, Macy filling the time as best she could.  The radio continued to softly play its static filled songs.  No phone chirruped.  No one stopped by to talk.  Occasionally, Macy latched on to the sound of neighboring voices and clung to the brief company they provided.  Sleep came early and deep, allowing for an escape from the solitude.


Macy awoke to the sound of the rain pouring from the heavens, which was unusual.  The heavy torrents were usually saved for special occasions, like when they would be followed by a terrible cold snap.  The world would then become slick with ice and life would be even more isolating for Macy, if that were even possible.

Sighing and stretching, Macy turned her head to face the faded “Cities of the World” calendar she had used to decorate the wall.  Red x’s marched across the weeks, telling her the day without having to think.  It was Saturday.  The worst day of all.

Macy often thought of taking a second job on Saturdays.  The day always appeared drawn out before her, looming in the nothingness of its lack of scheduling.  Saturdays were the days that reminded Macy of a childhood she’d only read about; one with pancake breakfasts and cartoons with siblings, picnics in the park and trips to the zoo.  Maybe today she would buy a paper and begin combing the want ads for another job.  Surely there were lots of openings.  Who wanted to work on a Saturday?

Once the bed was made up as tight as a military cot, Macy left the tiny bedroom.  She stood in the hallway and inhaled the dank smell of wet carpet.  Her hopes about the mold not growing in the blue shag had been dashed in the night.  She would need to open the window in the kitchen, the window with the fire escape view, in order to give the apartment a much needed breath of fresh air.

In her diminutive hallway, Macy once again faced down her packages from the day before.  The plastic bags had settled into strange shapes around the contents and made Macy feel self-conscious about their presence.  Gathering her strength, she picked up the bags and pushed open the door to the larger bedroom, the one that cost her so much of her monthly salary.  The room immediately took Macy’s thoughts back to the events of the day before.

“What are you going to paint?”

Startled, Macy’s wary expression had collided with the friendly eyes of the matronly cashier in a moment of confusion.

“Um…I really don’t know yet.”

“Well, I think it’s great that you have more than one canvas.  It always takes me at least one to…”

The voice had faded into white noise as Macy finished gathering her purchases and walked numbly toward the parking lot and toward the bus stop.  It was, after all, an obvious question.  A person typically doesn’t buy a stack of canvas and a notebook full of paper unless that person has the intent of filling it with something.  Clutching the art supplies to her chest, Macy blindly climbed onto the bus.

Sitting on the cold plastic seat, the question continued to dog her.  What was she going to paint?  Every mental response sounded empty – like a hollow promise made by a person who consistently fails to follow through.  Suddenly, Macy had felt the urge to get off the bus and take the materials back, as if agreeing with the notion that she probably shouldn’t bother.

Returning to the present moment, Macy faced her little studio, while the question continued to reverberate through her entire being: What was she going to paint?

The studio was new.  New as of Tuesday.  Macy had always planned to put a studio in her apartment, which was why she sacrificed so much of her salary on two bedrooms for one person.  Before Tuesday, the room had just been a jumble of office supplies and papers that needed to be thrown away.  After a lot of cleaning, purging and reorganizing, it now held a particle board desk from the discount store, a chair, and a corner filled with the smallest drop cloth imaginable, which protected the floor.  On the drop cloth stood Macy’s prize possession: a metal easel.

Macy neatly spread the canvases along the wall near the desk and took a step back.  The pristine room that faced her held the artwork of anyone but herself.  Macy had spent several hours at the public library, carefully copying famous artwork from an encyclopedia, which she cut out and taped to the walls.  She had created room to work and had produced none of her own.

She had a large desk calendar with no project deadlines.  There was nothing on any surface that needed to be reworked.  The gleaming drop cloth longed for paint droplets to cover the surface.  The easel, years old, could have been mistaken for new.  A cardboard covered journal held only empty pages.  Macy realized that the only contribution she had made to the room was being prepared.  And nothing more.

Macy thought of the cliché that said that those who can’t, teach.  In her world, she thought, those who can’t stockpile all possible supplies and information with the intent of insulating away the feeling of failure.  Rather than begin, she realized as she looked around, she had simply prepared.

She read books.

She visited museums.

She gathered supplies.

She arranged them neatly.

And when the moment came to start, Macy found that she could not.  She was the unstart.  She had tried her whole life to achieve something, but everything had seemed beyond her reach.  Her teachers, recognizing the sense of loss surrounding her, had tried to fill the void with encouragement and sympathy.  There had even been a tiny community college scholarship that gave Macy the chance to take a few classes and pretend that she was chasing the dream that her classmates took for granted.  But when the money ran out, Macy found that so did her flickering ambitions.

Closing the door to both her thoughts and the studio, Macy determined once more to go buy a newspaper.  She dressed carefully, choosing from her two pairs of worn jeans and putting on a soft sweater she found at a secondhand shop.  She’d been so pleased with the sweater, thinking it made her look, for once, very stylish.  In the kitchen, she waited for the tea kettle to whistle its loud shriek and silently, thoughtfully, ate a banana.  She quickly drank a cup of weak tea, hoping it would keep her warm during her outing for the newspaper.

The streets slushed with water, as cars raced by in a hurry to nowhere.  Macy stayed as close to the buildings as possible, trying desperately to keep out of the wet and to avoid other people’s prying eyes.  No matter how busy or in a hurry other people seemed, their eyes always saw through Macy to what felt like her very soul.  Fortunately, the walk to the drugstore was only a few blocks and was over almost as quickly as it had started.

The drugstore was bustling for a Saturday morning, with shoppers buying all sorts of sundries for their weekend.  Macy quietly skirted the crowds and looked for the day’s paper.  One crumpled paper remained at the bottom of the metal rack.  She was relieved to see that the classified section still clung to the back.  As she moved up the aisle, she smoothed the pages and decided to treat herself to a hot cup of coffee to perk up her search for a second job.

The paper rested firmly in the bottom of yet another plastic bag, hiding its contents from the rain that continued to fall.  Macy clutched her cup of coffee, trying to hold the heat in her fingers before the cold snatched it away.  This time on her walk she looked up at the windows of the towering apartment buildings that lined the streets.  Macy pondered what life was like for the tenants, with their flashing televisions and bustling families.

The gray lobby greeted Macy as it always did, stark and indifferent.  Macy thought of the shabby, inviting atmosphere of the small public library where she liked to spend much of her free time and wondered why the lobby of her building didn’t look that.  The cuffs of her jeans were dragging from the rain, but Macy scurried toward the stairs, hoping to comb through the want ads before the last warmth of her coffee was gone.

The thin newspaper covered nearly all of the green countertop; its stories of crime, corruption and government marching across the pages.  Macy looked at the pictures and read the captions, but really wasn’t interested in the stories.  How much could the policies made really affect what brief life she expected to live?  She turned the pages slowly anyway, taking the time to savor her purchase.

The classified ads were sparse and offered little in the way of work that Macy was able to do.  She circled a department store ad, thinking it would be very ironic if she were to be selling high fashion clothing on the weekend when she couldn’t hope to buy a new outfit.  There was also a position open to stock shelves at a family grocery store.  Macy started planning her afternoon around applying at these places, checking her bus route map to make sure she wouldn’t spend the day lost.

As Macy finished the last bitter swallow of her cold coffee, she noticed an ad that was in a different section of the classifieds.  It was for a Saturday class at the senior center near Macy’s building.  The ad said the class was open to all ages and the fee was small enough that Macy could afford it.  It was a painting class.

The class had already started for the day, but if Macy hurried, she knew she could reach the center before it was over.  She planned to ask the instructor if she could join the class late.  She would be happy to pay the fee for all four Saturdays, even if she had missed the first one.  For the first time since she had read the words on the doctor’s letterhead, Macy allowed herself to feel hope.


Macy pushed open the door to the senior center.  Immediately, the smell of reheated turkey with gravy and medicine in the air mixed with the wetness of the outside drizzle.  She watched as the water divide itself into puddles around her rubber shoes on the green and white tile floor.  A large posterboard sign had a colorful arrow that told Macy the art class was to her right.

Voices and the unforgettable smell of acrylic paint greeted Macy before she even entered the section of the cafeteria where the class was being held.  A pleather accordion wall haphazardly stretched itself as far as it could, in an effort to corral the painters along the mustard colored wall that faced a few windows.  A variety of easels created a jagged horizon, the different heights spiking up like strange trees.

But, oh, the colors!  Macy’s hungry eyes took in the cobalt blues, the deep crimsons and the vivid yellows.  The color wheel sprang to life all around on different size rectangles.  One canvas caught Macy’s eye in particular, because it held a painting unlike anything she had ever seen.  It was a large painting and to Macy it seemed absolutely fearless.

Without thinking, Macy moved closer to drink in the colors of this painting.  She let her eyes trace the movement of every different stroke, admiring the sureness of the painter’s brush and the confidence in the contours of the lines.  The life that was captured in this painting made Macy want to live inside it, forever basking in the glow of the light captured within.

“Well!  Hello there, missy!”

As if the painting itself had suddenly spoken, Macy jumped back.  Feeling foolish, she realized that the words had come from the painter wielding the brush and not the canvas.  Macy turned her eyes to face the creator of the piece, and saw something that she had missed before.

The painter was a woman; her bald head covered only by a bright green scarf. Sticking her hand out, the artist introduced herself.

“Amelia Hart.  And yes, I’m named after her – the lost lady pilot.  I think if my mother could’ve stuck an “Ear” in front of my last name, she would of!  As it is, I’m just lucky that it isn’t my middle name.  Good thing my father had the sense to say no!  Can you imagine!  What’s your name, missy?”

Completely overwhelmed by Amelia’s staccato speech, Macy almost couldn’t answer.  She managed to croak out her name, her voice feeling rusty from infrequent use.  But Amelia didn’t seem to notice, cheerily chattering on.

“Is this your first painting class, missy?  If so, you need to get going!  C’mon, let’s scoot on over to the instructor and get you all signed up, in and ready to go.”

And just like that, Macy found herself propelled across the room, shaking hands with a mousy looking instructor, while Amelia’s voice jabbered away to provide an accompaniment to the introduction.  By the time Macy had collected her thoughts, the instructor had gone back to talking to the class.  Macy looked down at her hands, which were suddenly full of papers, guidelines and a smock.  Her wide eyes turned to face Amelia, whose broad grin creased the whole of her face, right up to the green scarf.

“Well, what are you waiting for, missy?  We’ve got extra easels and supplies for those without their own stuff, and you’ve still got thirty minutes, which is plenty of time to create something beautiful!  Do you have your own supplies at home?  If you do, you really ought to bring those next week.  It’s so much nicer when you have your own things to work with.  Otherwise, it’s like bowling shoes.  You never really know who’s had them first, and whether or not they had clean socks…”

Amelia’s running dialogue gave Macy something to fix on and kept her from dropping everything and bolting from the room.  Shyness was a way of life for Macy, allowing her to peer at the world around her without ever really getting involved.  Amelia did not seem to feel this way, doing everything in her power to make Macy feel welcome, to make her feel like a friend.

“So I was telling him, what exactly did you think I was doing?  Of course I’m going to take a painting class.  It’s what I live for!  He just didn’t seem to understand…”

Macy realized that she had missed the beginning (and quite possibly the middle, too) of Amelia’s story, but she didn’t want to ask Amelia to repeat herself.  Coworkers were always asking her to repeat herself.  Macy shuddered as the familiar feeling of invisibility swept over her, a common occurrence when someone did this.  She vowed to pay closer attention to Amelia’s story, grateful that someone wanted to talk to her.

Macy realized that at some point, Amelia had set up an easel for her and was waiting patiently for her to don her smock.  Macy dutifully did, feeling the soft cotton buckle underneath the layers of paint that covered it.  Thrusting a brush in Macy’s right hand and the plastic paint palette in her left, Amelia looked at Macy and gave a smug nod.

“Yup!  An artist, that’s what you are!  I can’t wait to see what you’ve painted by the end of class!”

And then she was off, bustling across the room, commenting on every painting she could see and leaving a trail of cheerfulness in her wake.  Macy, now smocked and standing before a blank piece of canvas, watched her go.  The tiny lady in the green scarf had not allowed Macy the chance excuse herself, didn’t give her the opportunity to say that she was not ready yet.  Amelia’s run-on sentences had filled the space around Macy and crowded out any doubts.

Macy squared herself to the white fabric stretched before her.  The room around her was quiet, now that Amelia was ensconced in her own work again.  Occasionally voices were heard, but they were mummers, the type of conversation that needed only one participant.  It was comfortable to Macy, peaceful in that she knew she would only be expected to talk to herself for awhile.

Putting down the paintbrush, Macy picked up a rumpled tube of red paint.  Taking a deep breath, she squeezed a blob onto the freckled white plastic.  The shiny acrylic bounced the florescent light back to her on a tiny scale.  She followed suit with blue, yellow and white.  Four perfect mounds of paint, untouched and unmixed.

Macy then reached for the worn paintbrush that Amelia had stuck in her hand.  Her gaze shifted between the paint and the brush, before finally facing the canvas space.  She could hear the other brushes, sweeping across the canvases.  Occasionally, a palette knife would scratch up against an acrylic surface, sounding like a wet denim jacket.  Brush still in hand, Macy straightened her shoulders, pretending for a minute she could touch her shoulder blades together.

She dipped her brush in the red paint watched it ooze between the bristles.  When the thick liquid reached the metal that bound bristles to wood, she knew that it was time.  She had run out of excuses and, with a wet tool in hand, could no longer pretend that it wasn’t her moment.

It was like diving off the board for her first time at the community pool.  The canvas was the calm water; the palette was the spring board.  Macy remembered her knees knocking together, the ruffle on her polka dot swimsuit quivering as she edged her way to the end of the board.  Goosebumps had rippled across her skinny arms, as her clasped hands stayed pressed to her stomach.  Her slight feet barely cleared the end as she jumped into the pool, triumphant in her daringness.

Macy felt that same chill across her body as she did when she was seven years old and experiencing her first diving board encounter.  Her hands felt clammy and the brush threatened to drop from her fingers.  And just before the paint dripped to the floor and splattered everywhere, Macy pressed the brush into the canvas.

And suddenly, it was as if the brush had a mind of its own.

Emotions that Macy didn’t know she possessed began exploding across the canvas in the gleaming primary colors.  She felt as if she could fly.  All of the unspoken words that Macy had bottled up inside of herself began spilling out in front of her.  Her arm stroked across the space, giving Macy the chance to finally express what she could never find the right words to say.

Ensconced in her silent world of paint and canvas, Macy barely noticed the time slip by.  She was busy layering paint upon paint, color over color, telling her story to the canvas.  As she painted, her hunched shoulders gradually relaxed, falling more naturally instead of being pinched together.  She clutched the brush until her fingers cramped, and realized then that the room around her had actually gone silent.  The clatter of stools and easels had ceased, and Macy was nearly alone.

Amelia stood near her left elbow, watching the feverish pace of Macy’s painting slow to a stop.

“You needed this, didn’t you?”

The chirpy voice was softer now, and understanding hung in the air between them.  Macy found herself choking back a lifetime of tears, and could only manage to nod in return.

“Can I ask you something?”

Again, Macy nodded.

“Have you told anyone?”

Macy’s head snapped so quickly to focus on Amelia that it was a wonder she didn’t fall down.  The tiny woman with the green scarf, now slightly askew and revealing a very bald crown, continued to gaze at her with unafraid eyes.  Almost involuntarily, Macy felt her head begin to swivel side to side.

“I didn’t think so.  How’s about we pack up your things and you spend some time with me, telling me about it?  As you can see from the scarf, I’m becoming quite an expert on things of this nature.  I might even be able to help, take you to appointments and such.  It’s always good to have someone that is there for you.  And you look like you could use a friend that understands.”

The tears now dripped down Macy’s checks, splashing on the borrowed smock.  A friend at all was something Macy needed desperately.  Let alone someone who could speak wisdom into how to handle the journey ahead of her.  A wounded sound escaped her lips, and Macy began to sob in earnest.

Amelia’s arms went around her, their bony strength holding Macy still.  The shudders that wracked Macy’s body caused Amelia to shake as well, but she did not move.  Instead, she began to hum softly, like a mother to an infant.

Gasping for air, Macy managed to choke out a few words.

“How…did….you know?”

Amelia, squeezing her extra tight before releasing her, calmly looked back at Macy’s red and tear-streaked face.  Her normally cheery face appeared to hold a thousand years of understanding.

“I know because that is the painting I painted when I found out that I had cancer, too.”


The rains streaked across Macy’s cheap blue slicker, splashing her shoes and seeping into her socks as she walked home.  Her canvas was covered with a translucent garbage bag, guarding it against the wetness.  The cement sidewalk showed soaked spots of its normal dark grey and the buildings were still streaked with moisture.  But Macy hardly noticed the grey.  The cabs, honking impatiently at confused drivers, went unheard.  The fellow sidewalk dwellers, whose eyes Macy typically avoided, were greeted by the eyes of a girl who knew she was not alone anymore.

The lobby’s dingy front desk was occupied by a slumping clerk, who absent mindedly watched the people rush in off the street.  Macy spun through the revolving door and shook the water off herself and the painting she carried.  Her painting.  She proudly held it in front of her, knowing that her little studio would soon be filled with artwork of her very own.  Making eye contact with the desk clerk as she went by, Macy did her best impression of Amelia’s infectious smile.

The footsteps that echoed up the stairs were confident and determined, ringing against the walls of the stairwell.  The moldy smell of the hallway floated past Macy as she sped by the dark sconces and was met by the chipped paint on the door of apartment 4616.   Clicking open the locks and pushing past the door, Macy dropped her coat on the floor of the living room and stripped the plastic off of the painting while she walked.  The plywood door to the studio gave way to the space she worked so hard to organize.  The colors of the canvas were like a beacon, shining across the waves of white.

Macy set the canvas in the center of the wall that faced the door.  She stepped back from her work and sighed, but this time with pleasure.  She wasn’t done fighting yet.

1 thought on “The Unstart”

  1. Jennifer Moulton said:

    That was amazing!

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