Chris Wood

© Copyright 2001 by Chris Wood

When I was four I took a red Magic Marker and drew two aliens behind my uncle Steve's bedroom door in my grandparents' home outside Luray, Virginia.

I don't know why I did it. Even at such early age, I must have known that people sometimes do things for no reason, even if they spend the rest of their lives looking for one.

Photo of a boy's basketball team.

The figures I'd drawn were aliens. They had no root in a reality. From where they had come remains a mystery. I drew one above the other: the one on top, a sort of ship with a face and an antenna on its head; the one below, an anthropomorphic ant that stood on two feet, regarding me with two bulbous eyes beneath two raised antennae.

With the careful precision of a veteran artist, I drew the figures on the sky blue wall with a lead pencil. Then I traced over the lead with the red pen. The ink was permanent. At the age of four, I had made my first masterpiece. Or so I thought.

When Steve came home that night, he found me crouched behind his door, doing some last-minute touch-ups on his wall. Not yet twenty and still living with his parents, he noticed first my unwanted presence in his bedroom, and, when I stepped away from the wall, two unwanted drawings that would haunt him forever if he didn't do something about them soon.

Taking me by the hand, he led me into the den where my grandparents were watching TV. The window was open, and a cool June breeze blew through the screen, worrying the white curtains. I have been many places since then and have never felt or smelled a breeze quite as sweet as the one that cooled the Shenandoah Valley at night.

My grandparents were in their preordained nocturnal seats: my grandfather in his green recliner, and, beside him in her brown rocking chair, my grandmother. My grand- father looked like a middle-aged Paul Newman. A construction worker by trade, he paved roads as far north as Washington, DC, and was part of the crew that built the Wolf Trap Theatre. Since he had to get up before dawn, he usually went to bed early, which was right after supper and the six o'clock news. Judging by the way he was snoozing in the recliner with his feet propped up, I assumed he'd had his fill of both and that it was best not to disturb him. Uncle Steve must have thought likewise. Standing in front of his mother, he held up my hand that still gripped the pen.

Before she'd had my dad and Steve, Grandma had been a stunningly beautiful woman and, even after her mastectomy, remained so into middle age. She had short brown wavy hair and brown eyes. Already dressed for bed, she was reading the latest copy of Reader's Digest. When our shadows fell across the pages, she looked up, first at Steve, then at the pen, and finally at me. Slowly she removed her reading glasses.

Just yesterday she'd caught me playing with my yellow Tonka dump truck on the polished living room floor, an area of the house she'd already warned me about. Seeing the tire marks I'd left, she'd yelled at me until I'd cried. Then she'd put the truck in her attic and had ordered me to play outside for the rest of the day. I'd never seen her so mean before, and I felt the same feminine fury bubbling up within her when she followed Steve and me back to his bedroom to behold the aliens.

With her reading glasses hanging around her neck, her pointed chin cupped in her hand, she could have been an art critic studying something new and undiscovered. Only Grandma was no art critic; she knew a rat when she smelled one. Ordering me from the room, she told me that I was never to go back in there, that she would have to paint the walls all over again.

Like any child, I did as I was told, even though I didn't understand, learning, as children did, the ways of the world in an unconscious way. I never went into Steve's room again, even when it wasn't his anymore. I didn't go back when my grandfather passed away, and I didn't go back after Grandma committed suicide. Staying away seemed to be the best thing for an alien, especially when there was no hope of fitting in. Steve sold the house, and strangers moved through the rooms, never to know the secret hiding beneath a layer of paint behind one of their doors.

Twenty years later, I was visiting relatives in the valley, and decided to take one last look at the house I'd visited as a child. Life hadn't turned out the way I'd planned. After the incident in Steve's room, I never really drew with such conviction again, feeling guilty whenever I put pen to paper to express myself. I tried to put my life in perspective, but the only perspective I'd known was too aesthetic to comprehend.

The house looked the way I'd remembered it. My grandfather had fashioned it out of bricks and concrete, determined to last. Weeds had grown around the foundation, and there wasn't a car in the driveway. A for-sale sign had been tacked to the mailbox. Cupping my hands to the front door, I could still see the tire treads I'd left with my truck. A light coating of dust concealed it from the untrained eye, a secret of my childhood.

I walked around the house, looking through windows as I went. All I saw were empty rooms where people had laughed and cried, where Grandma had stormed alone before dragging her rocking chair out to the garage with the car running inside. No one would ever know the rain that had raged within her, the secrets she'd kept to herself like so many used tissues in her purse. In the wind, I thought I heard her whisper.

At last I came to the window in Steve's room. The door had been closed, and looking through the pane, I was surprised at what I saw, a sight that would change my life forever. Grandma had been true to her word; she had painted the room. But when she had got within inches of the aliens she'd painted a frame around them. They seemed to come alive in the sunlight, and suddenly I was four again, looking at them with wonder.

We were no longer aliens anymore.

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