The Art School

by Dilia Narduzzi

Image by Lesley Loksi Chan

1960

Tall, with a pointy nose and watery, rheumy eyes, he held a hand out to pull the boy up. Silent he stared at the man. “Is your father home?” the man asked.

Val, his older brother, ran over. “Excuse me, can I help you?”

John stumbled up, the ball covering his mouth, his tongue thick and not seeming to work. He wouldn’t understand where his shyness came from until later on in life. The tall man redirected his gaze toward the older boy.

“Is your father home” he repeated.

“He’s inside,” Val said, looking backward towards their house. “Should I call him?”

“Please do,” the man said. “Tell him I’m here to buy his house.”

Val was confused but went inside anyway to call his father out. Their house? Dad just bought this house a few years ago after they’d rented down by the train tracks since they’d come from the old country. Val knew there was no way Dad would sell now.

****

1993

At the art school, we had to walk in a certain way, with our heads high and our backs straight, even when we were moving from one class to the next. We ate our lunches in the hallways and when we got to dance class we sashayed and swung our hips from side to side; we had to learn how to be inside our bodies, Mrs. Ramirez would say. In woodworking, Mr. Mandel taught us how to use power tools and handsaws and we learned how to make something out of nothing. These weren’t the silly little art projects that we made in regular school. In art school, we made tables, chairs, and other things that we could use. In art class, we held our paintbrushes properly and learned how to flick our wrists in the exact fashion that would spread paint on a canvas such that what we were trying to paint actually showed up in front of us. In theatre, we practiced lines for the final production, and we said them over and over again until we learned them by heart. We were twelve, thirteen, but our teachers trusted us to make art. Some of us were better in one category over another –– Susie was a dancer and I was a lead in the play –– but we were all taught as if we all could do everything well, as if we truly were artists. Because of that, sometimes we were.

****

1960

The ball was medium-sized, the diameter of a cantaloupe, and bouncy. It looked like a ripe melon, too, in that it was scaly and beige on the outside. The house behind the front yard was brown, compact, a war-built bungalow. The street was the busiest in the city, so a wooden fence blocked John and Val from the road. John wasn’t tall enough to see over it, so he’d often close one eye and try to catch glimpses of the traffic from between the slats. They were so close together, though, that all he would see were flashes of colour –– red, grey, white –– as the cars barrelled by. Mom stayed in her bedroom most of the time, sick with a neurological disease that struck just a month after they arrived in Canada from Italy. Dad was out all day since he worked as a tailor at the local clothier, cutting suits out of Italian silk fabrics, making clothes from his hands and working the sewing machines. Val would make lunch for himself and John and then they’d kick the ball back and forth or walk over to the park to play tennis. The stranger looking for Dad must have chosen a Saturday on purpose to come and visit, knowing that most men in this neighbourhood were out at the factories all day during the week.

John tried to find his voice while Val was inside calling Dad out. He wanted to ask the man why he was here, why he thought the house was for sale. They’d just settled in a year ago. He liked being close to the park, where they could meet friends to hang out and watch the girls pass by. He wasn’t that young. He noticed short shorts and tanks in the summer. But he couldn’t figure out what to say and just as he opened his month, Val stormed out and said to the man, “You have to go inside if you want to talk to Dad. He’s eating his lunch.”

****

1993

At regular school, we had to wear uniforms. Girls in kilts and polo shirts and boys in black pants and polo shirts. You could also go with the rugby shirt or the button-up collared shirt if you wanted something different. By the time we were in tenth grade, girls were allowed to wear pants too and as soon as that was allowed, many of us made that shift. Some of us liked wearing uniforms, because we didn’t have to make decisions about what to wear and how. It allowed us to fade back into ourselves and the peacock dance of teenagerhood was dimmed, at least in the way of adornment. But we still wanted to be noticed, which could be confusing. Noticed for what, if not our bodies and how we wore them?

On art school days, we didn’t wear our usual uniforms. They wanted us to wear loose-fitting clothing – jogging pants and t-shirts. We had to be able to move and sashay in dance class and use power tools in woodworking. In theatre we put on costumes from a big trunk of clothes to get into character. It felt funny to wake up on a Wednesday morning and wear civvies. Even though we weren’t supposed to dress up, we were more responsible for what we put on our bodies than on uniform days. Those days everyone looked the same. I usually wore my pink t-shirt and Susie often donned bright blue pants.

****

1960

Primo hung up the phone. “The deal’s done, boys. We’re moving up the mountain.”

John didn’t say anything. Val, who was nine years older – one baby before the war and another after – asked “why?”

“Well, the schoolboard is giving us fifteen percent more than market value for the property. They’re building a new school and our house is sitting on their location. We could stay but they’d probably build around us and we’d end up getting less later on when the house is in the middle of a schoolyard. We’d never be able to sell,” Primo said.

“Mo and his family moved up the mountain,” Val said to John, who’d taken to hiding behind his brother. “Maybe we’ll be nearer to them again.”

The immigrant families all seemed to start out downtown and slowly, as if they were climbing a ladder, they moved up – to bigger houses, larger yards, more space around them. But John liked being hemmed in by traffic, noise, and other people. He didn’t see how that was bad. He liked looking through the fence slats to the cars on the other side. He liked hearing people speak Italian on all sides.

John worried about his mother. She was always sick in bed. Their dad tended to her as best he could, tended to the house and cooking, too. His mother and father were children in Italy together. He’d heard his father say to Francesco that the move across the ocean had caused Lina’s illness. John didn’t understand why that would be. He’d also heard that they’d moved to Canada for a better life. It seemed worse to him though because in Italy his mother wore flowing dresses, and they’d walk on the beach together every day after pre-school. Those memories existed only in wisps now.

“Let’s take a drive and look for “for sale” signs,” Primo said. They had to act fast now – they only had two months to find a new home. Interest rates were steady for the moment and Primo hoped they could break even – prices were steeper on the mountain, but with that extra fifteen percent they might just make it without having to take on more loan than they already had. “Before we go, let me make sure your mother has everything she needs.”

John picked up his ball and waited. Val punched him in the arm, smiling broadly. “Don’t look so down, Giovanni,” Val called John by his Italian name. “You’ll like it up there, you’ll see.” John didn’t want to leave where they were now. He’d already moved across an ocean and left his friends behind in the Old Country, and now they were leaving again. What if he never saw Peter or Pino again?

****

1993           

All of us at the art school were there because we were smart. There’s not really another way of saying that that doesn’t sound cocky. But we were smarter than the rest of the kids at the normal school, so our teachers recommended to our parents that we be allowed to go to the art school. Some of us had artistic aptitude, but mostly we were bored in regular classes but well-behaved and so were designated art school material. We were out of the hair of our regular teachers for a bit; they could focus on the bad kids and we got to do something different. We were  bussed down once a week for the whole day on a Wednesday and rotated through the classes. Dance, creative writing, theatre, painting, woodworking.

I was a dreamer, one of four main characters in the end-of-year play, held at the city’s largest theatre. We four were from different schools, and for whatever reason our teachers must have thought we would make good leads. We were a mystical crew who travelled dimensions, realms, and possibilities beyond the now. With our hats on, we were able to connect hands and travels to places other than Earth. At least that was the working concept of the play, the production we were mounting for their parents and the friends of the school. Considering I found it difficult talk in front of people I didn’t know –– shy, my teachers called it –– I didn’t understand why I was chosen. My sister, she was a tree that came to life at certain times on the sidelines; all she and the other trees had to do was sway and moan and pretend a storm was brewing. I had pages of lines to memorize (that was the easy part) but then I had to say them out loud. Today, all these years later, my friend Diane says that sometimes you can be really nervous on the inside but nobody on the outside can see. I guess that’s what happened. I was shaking inside when I practiced my lines and couldn’t fathom saying them aloud to a large auditorium full of people with that fear being invisible to others. But they said my voice was strong and clear and I did a good job. That was interesting to me, to realize that. Also, I couldn’t see a thing on stage, so that helped. When I looked out towards where everyone was seated, all I could see was bright light. I’m not sure the lighting people did a good job. Aren’t you supposed to see the crowd and picture them naked? Whatever. We were dreamers and we felt important for being chosen. We said everything we were supposed to say and everyone clapped at the end. Because all I could see was light, my other senses took over. The applause roared in my ears (it probably wasn’t that loud but in my memory it’s thunderous), and when we dreamers walked off stage and hugged and said good job, our hands on one another felt electric. My eyes took an hour to adjust back to normal, and by then my other senses had dulled.

Even though I didn’t want to be in front of the crowd, another part of me did. I confided to Tim, from the other school, and he said he felt the same way. He called it contradictory and said it was normal to feel two things at the same time; his parents were both psychologists, though. Mine worked in the factories. I didn’t understand what he was saying, not fully, it was as if some necessary part of me that would have been needed in order to comprehend was missing. But I held on to the essence and over time it’s become a part of me.

****

1960

Val and John rode their bikes down the mountain. It was stupid move since traffic was treacherous after school and the fences along the escarpment road were shit, but they were boys and they didn’t care. They made it downtown intact, anyway, and Primo could hardly keep an eye on them and Lina at the same time. After school, he usually told them to go outside until dinnertime. Pino – who had lived several doors down from their old house – told John at school that the demolition trucks had been on their block yesterday. John was seeing out the year at his old school, and Pino was keeping tabs.

They turned down Main Street toward the house and ducked down Pearl Street, just across from where they used to live. They 180ed their bikes and slammed on the brakes, and they were positioned directly in front of the old place just as the hydraulic escalator slammed down on its brown roof. Wood, brick, and concrete smashed into pieces seemingly easily.

“Holy shit,” breathed Val, almost under his breath. He was remembering his bedroom, right next door to their parents’ room, with John just on the other side of the bathroom.

The noise from the machinery was loud enough that it drowned out the roar of the traffic from the busy thoroughfare.

 The view from the other side of the fence seemed somehow different, even though the slats were the same on both sides.

John just looked across, stone-faced and numb, until Val knocked him in the arm.

“Eh!” John squealed. And then he jumped back up onto the seat of his bike and started pounding the peddles around the corner and towards Wentworth Street and the stairs up the mountain. Val popped on his bike and followed closely behind. Once they got off of the main drag, Val pulled up beside John and they stopped for a second.

 “Can you believe it?” Val asked.

“It sucks.” John said as a response.

They got off their bikes and started walking them up the stairs and back home.

****

1993

When our dad found out about us going to the art school, at first, he didn’t say anything at all. He didn’t know what it meant, really, and he was busy with work anyways. And while my mom knew that my dad used to live downtown – she did, too, when her family immigrated to Canada – she didn’t know the exact spot. One day early on in our art school tenure we were driving by the school and my sister pointed it out – we were bussed after all and so our parents didn’t pick us up or drop us off.

“That’s St. Joseph’s! The art school!” she said as we casually rolled by on Main street after a Sunday afternoon trip to our dad’s favourite pizza place, Armando’s.

My mom knew it was there; she’d taken a drive down one day just to see where her kids were going on a Wednesday. “Look, John! It’s to your left,” she said to our dad.

“That’s where I used to live,” John said in the joking manner he’d become known for. We never knew if he was being serious.

“Dad, you couldn’t live in a school,” my sister said.

“That’s where I lived,” he said again, with the same joke in his eyes as before.

“John, is the school where your house used to be, the one you lived in when you were a boy? The one your father sold?”

“That’s the exact spot,” John said, more ponderous now. He was a father himself now, so he understood why his dad sold the house for a profit all those years ago. Then, he didn’t care anything about money. All he cared about was playing ball, riding his bike, and fiddling around with engines.

“Whoa, dad. That’s crazy. That’s where you lived with Nonno Primo and Nonna Lina?”

Both of our grandparents were dead now, but we remembered them. Nonno Primo always gave us a brand new $5 bill when we went over to see him, the crispest and cleanest bills from the bank. Nonna Lina was pretty, and frail.

“That’s where I grew up,” our dad said, and he continued to drive. A vision of himself and Val sprang to mind as he did – they were kids, kicking the ball around in the yard and stopping by the fence for just a moment to peer out between the slats and look at the cars whizzing by.

****

We walked back to the car after the show – my dad, my mom, my sister, and me – and my sister and I were buzzing after being on stage. Our mom had a big smile on her face, and Steffie just kept spinning around and around in the parking lot as if she’d had a Halloween night’s level of sugar coursing through her. My dad gave me a high five and said I did a good job. At the art school, we became other people, and I think my dad saw that and was intrigued. I saw him pause for a second before we got into the car to head up the mountain after the play. Dad had a misty look to his eye and what we didn’t know was that he was remembering kicking the ball, Pino, his dad, the old rheumy man, and all of it, all of those days when he was a boy and we – the rest of us – hardly even existed at all.


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