Note: There are 12 sections to this story that will be posted starting December 26, ending on January 6, the day of Epiphany. “Wanderers” can also be found in my book “My Best Christmas and other stories of the season” at Amazon.com.
Among the dozen or so portraits, Ruby’s eyes lighted on a picture of a guy. He was older, she could tell by the gray hair sticking out beneath the back of his blue baseball hat turned backwards on his head. At that Ruby perked up a bit. Her lips almost broke into her first smile of the morning as she thought of this old guy with the backwards hat being a member of some gang of young thugs.
It was a full length picture of the guy. What drew Ruby’s eye wasn’t the fact that he was wearing a white, grease stained apron. It was his face and especially his eyes that caught her. He was holding a pot of coffee, like the one that Betty was using to dose her customers. There was a twinkle in his eyes, yet at the same time Betty captured with her brush a vacant distant look. Ruby glanced from his face to the coffee pot and back to his face. His kind face said something like, “This is all I have to offer, but it’s yours if you want it.”
“That’s Harry,” a gravelly voice said. Ruby jumped. Arnie poked his head through the serving window and said, “That’s Harry Spaulding. He used to own this place. You know, before Betty. Before he, uh, well you know.” He tossed an order of scrambled eggs, wheat toast and a side of bacon on the shelf and went back to his griddle.
“Oh,” Ruby sighed, rubbing her eyes, she pulled up her nose at the breakfast on the counter. She let her gaze wander from the portrait over to the mural covering the wall across the room. From where she stood there was no discernable single image that she could say, “Oh, that’s a this or this is a that.“ It was as if Betty had tossed every color imaginable from her artist’s palette onto the wall, converging them into an undistinguishable maelstrom of color.
Yet there was something there. Like the other paintings there was more to it than just the dizzying swirls of color punctuated by dots of, what, light? She couldn’t tell. Ruby shivered and scrunched her coat around her.
What she saw in the scene caused her to feel a coldness that penetrated to her core. It was a feeling that drew her in even more, enticing her to explore more of the confusing conjunction of color that captured her eye. It distracted her from her young memories of Grandma Start, the yucky breakfast and the old guy with the backwards hat.
Ruby found herself so absorbed by the painting she forgot all about Arnie, Betty and Thomas. All of its color and texture played in Ruby’s mind making her wonder. Then, as if by magic, the hint of an image emerged from the abstractness on the wall. People emerged. It was as if they were walking out of the fog, and Ruby could dimly begin to see them. She found them with her fingers, then traced the streaks of shimmering light and the sparkles of what appeared to be a stable, animals and people sharing a cold, starry winter night.
As she gazed it was as if she were being drawn into the painting even more. Some part of her was being nudged. She was coaxed into the story of the mural by an unknown storyteller. It crept into her mind. For a brief moment she grasped at it, but couldn’t yet gather it in that the story the mural told, in part, was her story. A story not easily discovered except by those meant to discover it.