“The Mural” –a short story

On Sept. 20, I had the pleasure of attending Art Squared (home of the best neighborhood parade in Indianapolis) and participating in its Masterpiece in a Day competition.

For fiction writers, it works like this: Three elements are chosen in the morning of the event and writers have until 3 p.m. to submit a max. 1000 word short story. A panel then judges them without authorship information.

The elements chosen this year were Architecture, Post Office, and Mismatched Earrings.

Here’s what I came up with (It and other winners in fiction and poetry will appear in an upcoming issue of Punchnel’s Literary Magazine):

The Mural

by Lou Harry

“Turn here, Becky.”

I took a right at yet another blinking traffic light and drove down yet another small town street to yet another post office. Not much different than the last few. Two story brick building. Raised granite basement. Classical revival style. Tuscan columns of Indiana limestone.

Prior to meeting Carly, if I was on Jeopardy and the category was architecture, I would have just hit the buzzer, said “Who is Frank Lloyd Wright?” and hoped for the best.

But in my seven months with her—before and after she graduated—I picked up a few things. Picked up things like one of those prison guys by the side of the highway. Not particularly interested in what I was picking up. But doing what was required.

We looked up at the factory workers and the farmers. Carly went on and on about how Thomas Hart Benton traveled around Indiana and painted a series of panels for the Chicago World’s Fair, establishing the rulebook for these celebrations of the nobility of the American worker.

I tried to think if I knew an actual factory worker or an actual farmer.

Nope.

“Pretty cool that he painted all of these,” I said.

No, Carly corrected me. These weren’t painted by Benton. They were “inspired” by Benton. Carly said “inspired” like it was something she had told me many times without it sinking in.

The original Benton murals, she said, weren’t in post offices. Most of them were actually in IU Auditorium.

Almost four years of my life there and I didn’t notice.

Outside, Carly sensed something.

“What?” she asked. Or said. I wasn’t sure.

“I just don’t see…they aren’t needed any more, right? These post offices. Isn’t that the thing? Because if they were needed…”

“It’s not about what they were. Or what they are,” Carly said. “It’s about what they can become.” She and her firm were trying to figure out what these no-longer-needed post offices could be turned into.

Another small Indiana town. Another post office on the closure list.

At some point, Carly had told me that a mural is a painting applied directly to a wall. You can’t take it down and move it somewhere else. Well, in some cases you can. But it’s a delicate process. And ethically questionable. A mural, Carly said, is an essential part of the architecture of a building.

I told Carly I was going to pass on this one, watching her as she climbed the wide steps, rising into another nearly abandoned, pretty-much unnecessary postal temple. I guess you can be sad about something like that. The end of something. But I think it’s more important to deal with the reality. Assess the facts and make the necessary decisions.

After a few minutes, I scribbled a “Be right back” note on the back of an old receipt and tucked it under the windshield wiper. I could have texted, I suppose, but I didn’t.

In dollar stores, I always end up buying something, even though I’m not looking for anything. This time, I picked out a pair of flowered earrings.

“Will that be all?” asked the woman behind the counter.

“That’s it,” I said.

Outside, I took off one of my drop earrings—the ones that Carly gave me at Christmas right after we met—put it in my pocket, and replaced it with one of the flower ones I just bought. I left the other drop in my other ear and the other flower on the cardboard.

—–

Carly was standing by the car when I got back.

“So,” I asked as I got close. “What do you think?”

She looked at me. Looked right at me. Then at the post office.

“I know that there’s something that this can become,” she said.

“Maybe there isn’t,” I said.

–end–