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The Waves – 2016 New Art Writing Challenge Finalist

Dear readers, we are publishing the essays of the 12 finalists from the Artblog + The St. Claire's 2016 New Art Writing Challenge Contest! Thanks to all those who participated, and thanks to our jurors–Cara Ober, Meredith Sellers, and Paddy Johnson–who picked the winners. We are energized by all the wonderful writing that was submitted, and know you will enjoy reading it! — Artblog Editor


The Waves
by Robert Winston

I lived in West Philly, at 57th St. There was a small ginkgo tree in the back courtyard. It was impossibly hot, I had no money and spent my time at the house, reading, painting, and dreaming of food.

I painted every day, from early, at dawn, usually till noon. Sometimes I had a drink early, but usually I beared it out, walked to Cobbs Creek to read in the shade, came back, and started drinking.

On that particular day I woke up and went into the living room. I framed another canvas and set it against the couch. I stared at it in the dark.

It was already very hot. I couldn’t paint and there was nothing to drink. I walked up Haverford to 59th and then a long walk to the Elks Club at Lancaster. After half an hour I could see its broken awning in the first rays of the sun. It was the only bar that would be open this early.

“How you doing baby? What you want? Eggs? A Heineken?”

“Yeah, eggs, a Heineken, a little one. Gonna get a 40 to go but let me have a couple while I sit here.”

“Nice and cool in here, eh?”

“Oh yeah.” I looked up. She had light green eyes, freckles, and a beautiful smile. Sparkly bits of mascara clung to the shadows under her eyes. She had a script tattoo on her neck, deep blue but opaque against her dark brown skin.

“What’s your name?”

“Manina, What you doing around here baby, you work up at the trolley barn?”

“No, I’m not really workin’.”

“I know how that is baby, what’s your name?”


“Alright mister John”

“How you doing Manina?”

“I’m ok, this shift is easy, but no money. It is really slow here. But you know, it’s a job, my cousin runs the place. What you doing around here? We don’t see many white boys in this part of town. Renatta told me a white boy been coming in some afternoons, that you?”

“Yeah, I go to the Acme, I get my shit and this is between Acme and my place.”

“Ha ha, right on, Mr. John!”

We talked comfortably, I had a few beers, I was happy, she touched my arm. It was early. I felt buzzed, the day felt special.

Walking back with a 40 nestled under my arm like my first born, a car pulled up alongside me.

“Hey Mr. John, you want a ride?”

I got inside, her car was cool as ice.

“I hate to see someone out in this heat Mr. John, where’s your place, you down near Penn? Your lucky Renatta came in early.”

“I’m right under the El at 57th, but thanks Manina.”

“No problem baby, you wanna get high?”

She pulled a glass pipe out of the ashtray, we smoked. I opened the 40 and she took a long pull, the foam running down her neck, down over jarnelle 92-16.

“So if you don’t work, what you do all day Mr John?”

“Ha ha, same as we are doing now, I drink. I paint.”

“You mean like fix the place up?”

“No, pictures, paintings.”

“For real? People buy that?”

“They used to.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t know, I never know what people will think.”

“Maybe you should paint something else, something they’ll buy.”

“I can’t. I just paint what I can. I just want to put down what I am feeling, the way I know, I just hope people can see something in it.”

“Ha ha, you crazy as a mother fucker,” Manina said.

“There’s my place, over there.”

“Shit Mr. John, I gotta pee, can I come in?”

“Oh my god,” she said, when she came out of the bathroom, “This is what you paint? That don’t make no goddam sense Mr. John. No wonder people won’t buy them.”

“You don’t like them?”

“But they aren’t really paintings, you are just like scribbling, drawing shapes. Shit, I could do that.”


“Hell yeah!,” She said. “Give me some paint.”

She grabbed the new canvas and just put it flat on the carpet and began to paint. I fixed us a couple drinks, I still had some rum and flat soda. I imagined her drawing her kids or maybe a sunset on the beach. I went in the back to turn the air up, I cleaned up my bedroom, and I brushed my teeth. I grabbed the drinks from the kitchen and came back into the living room.

Manina had taken off her shoes and her sweater, she was bent over the canvas, she was using the brushes awkwardly and she had taken paint with her hands and was smoothing the edges of the frame, absently touching her lips with the paint. She had filled the canvas with paint, there was blue paint everywhere around her.

“Don’t look yet!” She shouted at me and turned to block me. She pushed me into the bedroom and I pulled her onto the bed. She laughed and I began to run my hands over her body, her breasts, her ass. We moved slow, I entered her and everything seemed suspended, in slow motion. You could hear the old clock and its funny lilt. Click…clickclick click…clickclick…click…clickclickclick, against the rhythm of our bodies.

I woke up, it was already getting dark out, her back was to me. She smelled of baby powder and smoke, her round ass a perfect thing, a magical thing.

I went to the kitchen, I had a beer. I looked out at the traffic, a guy selling cleaning products out of a truck. An older Asian man selling vegetables and steamed crabs at the corner. An El train made its way across the horizon above me, and the sun hung low above the El. The sheer joy, the relentless pulse, the absolute sadness of it surrounded me.

I looked down at her painting and it was beautiful.

Robert Winston is a Philadelphia writer. This is his first published piece. He can be reached via Artblog or The St. Clair.