Amber’s story about artistic integrity begins where so many stories end, an artist being scrutinised by a critic. In this case the artist is Paige, a young retail clerk who has been hired by Tara to paint a mural of Humpty Dumpty for a nursery. Paige’s interpretation is not what Tara had in mind.
What I like about this story, beyond when Paige yells “Don’t blame me if your kid grows up to be some leisure-class hooker-wife on a reality tv show!” Is the way the author plays with our expectations several times in the space of this short story. As a reader I swing between bemusement towards Paige, to feeling she’s more stuck up than her customers, to finally relating and even liking her.
This is a story about artistic integrity, but it’s never moralising, and taps into the struggling artist in all of us, even the ones working behind the retail counter.
OF INTEGRITY AND RETAIL
A Story About Artistic Integrity
by Amber Fernie
“So, what do you think?” Paige asked, chewing her nails as she watched her latest work being scrutinized. Tara, the young pregnant woman who had hired her, stared speechless at the mural on the wall, opening her mouth and then closing it a few times, weighing her words carefully before speaking.
“Well, um Paige it’s….I mean, it’s great. You’re really so talented. But…I don’t understand. This is not what we discussed. I just wanted a simple painting of Humpty Dumpty, but this…”
The mural in question was a very disturbing depiction of a man lying prone next to a graffiti-covered brick wall on a sidewalk littered with empty whiskey bottles and other trash. He had a gaping head wound, and his face was frozen forever in a look of abject terror.
“Well, yeah,” said Paige. “That’s my interpretation of Humpty Dumpty.”
“Um…okay. But, Paige…he’s supposed to be an egg. You know, like in Mother Goose. He’s supposed to be a clumsy, friendly egg.”
“You didn’t say you wanted an egg. You said you wanted Humpty Dumpty. This is how I see Humpty Dumpty in my mind.”
“But everybody knows Humpty Dumpty is an egg, Paige.”
“Just…everybody. Everybody knows that.”
“It doesn’t say so in the rhyme,” she said, and at that Tara did a quick recital in her head twice before realizing she was right.
“Okay, so it doesn’t. But Paige, this is for a nursery. We can’t keep it like this. It will give the baby nightmares.”
Paige sighed heavily. Plebeians, she thought. Try to interpret something a little differently, try to expose their stupid kid to some culture, and they can’t handle it. I should have known.
“I’m sorry, but no,” she said.
“No, I’m not painting some ridiculous egg. I suppose you want me to include a bunch of horse doctors and foppish men with feathery hats, too! I’m an artist, Tara. I don’t paint friendly eggs!”
“Well,” Tara replied. “I’m sorry, but I think we’re going to have to get someone else to do the mural, Paige.”
“Fine! But I want my objections noted, and don’t blame me if your kid grows up to be some leisure-class hooker-wife on a reality tv show! Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go stand at a cash register like a veal for six hours and help a bunch of suburban queen bees buy craft supplies so their existence can feel valid.”
With that, she left feeling very smug about not compromising her art for money. However, six hours in retail can feel like twenty, and as her shift at the craft store wore on, she began questioning the decision, and that’s when the lady with the poster board approached.
There were a few customers who went out of their way to be polite, but most tended to leave their humanity at the automatic doors. As the frazzled woman approached her register, plopping a stack of poster board down on the counter, Paige could already tell she was one of the latter.
“There’s fourteen,” the woman said, and then gave an exaggerated roll of her eyes as Paige counted them anyway.
“I’m counting eleven, ma’am,” said Paige.
“Are you sure? I need fourteen. Count them again.”
She did, slowly and out loud.
“Still counting eleven, ma’am. Would you like me to…”
“That’s not right! I know there’s fourteen because I put down three, picked up ten, and then added one. So there should be fourteen!”
“I’m pretty sure that’s eleven, ma’am.”
The woman narrowed her eyes at Paige. “Don’t you get smart with me, young lady. I’m married to an engineer! What do you do? You’re a cashier! Count them again, please.”
Paige counted them again, this time silently.
The woman threw her hands in the air and shouted, “Fine! I’ll just go grab four more.”
That was the final straw. As Paige untied her apron and tossed it on the counter, the customer asked, “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Lady, I don’t have to take this shit from you,” she said. “I am an artist!” And as she made her exit, she turned and added with a flourish, “I’m going to go paint a stupid egg.”