Angel Olson's nerves graze the top of her bumpy pink skin like Mendel's law memento's. Behind her thick glasses, the bumps grow to the size of mosquito bites, reminding me of Pacman icons ready to munch, or of a neighborhood of round people. Maybe I notice those eyelids more because Angel doesn't have eyelashes or eyebrows. Angel sits across from me in tenth grade art class at a table that looks similar to the one in the painting of Christ's Last Supper. She draws the same picture from one day to the next, changing only the shading. It's always an eye, the right, with a tear falling from the corner. I can't tell whose eye she draws; she only draws with pencil and never adds color. Angel talks all the time, but under her breath. I can't tell what she's saying and for weeks I don't interrupt.
Today in class our substitute teacher says we are supposed to draw the person across from us with colored chalk. I ask Angel if she wants to comb her hair before I start. I ask her if my hair looks okay, fluffing up the front, I ask if I need to reapply lipstick or blush. I'm feeling like I have to puke, but I want to look my best. She mumbles something under her breath and I decide to let it go. "Okay," I say, "do you want to take your glasses off so I can see your features better?" Angel says, although barely audible, "when you draw, you start with the inside of a person, not their appearance." That sounds to me like she's been spending too much time in Mr. Ellis's psychology class or in Ms. Mitchell's cooking class with microwaves. But in a way I'm impressed. She appears deep; maybe there's more to Angel than I think.
As Angel and I sit drawing, I ask what it's like living with Larry Wilhelme, the cutest boy in school. Angel's a foster kid, living with Wilhelmes on the corner of Frost and Johnson Parkway, right across the street from me. "He's an asshole," Angel says in a whisper. Wilhelmes have 13 kids of their own, 12 of them ordinary, and one, Larry, who is every girl in Johnson High School's fantasy boyfriend. "He's an asshole on the ice," I say. "But then again, we need him to be if we're to go to state for the tournament." Larry is the goalie for our school's hockey team, and his appearance is often enhanced with a black eye. His nose forms an "L" from being broken so many times, but I love that because my name, Lydia, starts with the same letter. I'm convinced Larry's nose is representative of my name, even if he doesn't know it yet. Needless to say, I'm not opposed to Angel's whimsical way of thinking. "But getting back to what you said earlier," I say, "I couldn't agree with you more. It's what's inside a person," I say, '"that makes him or her beautiful." Angel glares at me with those magnified bumpy eyelids. Her chalk is talking louder than she is. "Larry's an asshole inside," she says, still under her breath, then adds, "and his old man's no better."
Mr. Wilhelme supports his family by taking in foster kids and selling jewellery he finds with his metal detector. Mrs. Wilhelme never sits down, except late at night, I sometimes see her on her porch year round smoking a cigar. Mrs. Wilhelme wears a pentagon symbol made out of nickel around her neck on a black rope. It swings in unison to her to-and-fro motion of her huge breasts. She always has on the same dress whether it's summer or winter. Every season its yellow fades to a more solid consistency of beige. The same color I'm using to outline Angel's face on my chalk portrait. I search for color variation, give her hair a livelier color than the one I'm using for her outline, although in real life her hair and skin tone match. "Here's the perfect color," I say as I hold up a color called Vanilla Vogue. "Is my talking making it difficult for you to draw me?" I ask Angel. She says, "Talk away," then smiles. Her teeth are also the color of Vanilla Vogue, but I won't make this portrait that representative of her. I won't put in the red bumps on her eye lids and I'll draw in lashes and brows. I'll make Angel into a homecoming queen, sunken cheeks, and beautiful squared chin with a dimple. Even a trace of glow in her otherwise murky irises.
"Did you see Larry play his heart out last night?" I ask Angel. "I hate hockey," she says. How could anyone possibly hate hockey, I think. "Well, the sport isn't for the faint hearted," I say as I search for a cinnamon shade for Angel's eyebrows. My drawing of Angel isn't the best. I've never been a serious art student but I've watched caricaturists at the fair work their magic. They always start with the eyebrows. But then again, they usually have a model with brows to work with.
"You ever see a baby born dead?" says Angel, staring at me with bald eyes. I grab hold of my stomach and squeeze it. "It's not for the faint hearted," she adds. I wonder if Angel is a witch or in conspiracy with the devil. Talking like this, those weird bumps on her lids. Her catatonic coloring. "Just what does that mean?" I ask Angel. I am re-thinking my portrait just now. I draw horns on the top of her head. I'm thinking of Rosemary's Baby, the movie, and how Mia Farrow had a devil baby. I wonder if Angel will have the devil's baby some day. "I bore a dead baby last year and no one saw but me," Angel says. I'm used to her mumblings now and I hear every word she says with precision. "I'm gonna have a baby this summer," I say to Angel. "I know," Angel says as she keeps a steady hand on the chalk.
The substitute teacher stands behind Angel and says, " that's an interesting drawing." She holds Angel's portrait up and the class is quiet. For the first time I recognize the tear and it is clearly my own.
BIO: Suzanne Nielsen grew up in St. Paul's East Side, a working class community, the setting for most of her short stories. She is known to be compulsive in many areas of her life, including writing genres. She writes poetry, fiction, essays, screenplays and memoir. She teaches writing at Metropolitan State University and her work has appeared in various literary magazines internationally in all-of-the-above genres. In addition to teaching, Suzanne is a wife and mother, a doctoral student at Hamline University, as well as the owner of two dogs. She grabs time whenever she can to create because if she isn't creating, she isn't happy. Suzanne firmly believes nothing is more truthful than the writing of fiction. View her monthly column, Cool Dead People at www.doubledarepress.com.