The Masterpiece

by Bianca Taylor

 

            “Trey, no!”  Trey heard his mother pleas but ignored them.  She had no idea how much pain she had put him through, all for this one man, the one man that was standing over her with a raised fist, ready to put more bruises on her battered face.  Trey wasn’t going to let it happen again, not now, not ever.  Choking through the tears and sweat that were dripping down his face, he pulled out the shiny 9mm he had bought on his 18th birthday, just two days before.  He raised the gun with shaky hands, stared straight in the man’s eyes, and...

            Trey jolted awake with a start.  He sat slowly up on the lumpy cot and pulled the measly blanket off of him, revealing the bright orange jumpsuit that all the inmates were required to wear.  He put his feet on the cold cement floor that was sparsely illuminated by the rising California sun.  Not that he could tell, really, There were no windows in his cell.  There were no windows in any of the cells like his, but he was used to it after nine years.  His eyes immediately grew accustomed to the dark when he awoke before sunrise each day.  Still sitting on his bed, he slipped on his leather shoes, and then waited, like he always did, for the guard to unlock his cell.

            At seven o’clock a.m. the other inmates started waking up.  Shouts of profane slang and hooting laughter echoed off the stony walls.  As the guards came by and started unlocking cells one by one, the jumpy men formed a line to the cafeteria, where they ate the first of their three meals a day.  The guard reached Trey’s cell and carelessly took his time searching for the right key on the ring full of jangling metal.  He finally unlocked his door and pushed it aside with a loud clang, and Trey stepped out into the line.

            “Hey pretty boy, you gotta get to the back of the line!” a fat man with too many tattoos to count bellowed as he shoved Trey in the back of his shaved head.  Trey didn’t say a word, and kept walking.  “Hey, I was talkin’ to you, boy!”  The fat man grabbed Trey by the shoulders and yanked him backwards with massive hands.  He pulled his face close to Trey’s, expecting a pathetic apology.  Trey stared blankly at the man’s face, and then turned away and kept walking forward.  His piercing dark green eyes had a habit of speaking for him so he didn’t have to.  In fact, Trey rarely spoke at all.  The only words he had spoken during his time at San Quentin, on record, were on the first day he arrived.  He seemed so out of place; a tall, sturdy, high school boy being restrained by two maximum-security prison guards.  He answered mandatory questions in monosyllabic replies in his soft, husky voice.  He stood out at the prison like a sore thumb.  He was disconcertingly good looking, and before his head was shaved, had shaggy dark hair that swept above his green eyes.  He didn’t seem like a heartless killer, but he certainly didn’t show any emotion.  And how could he, the cafeteria workers would whisper among themselves.  After all, his own mother called the cops on him.  One of workers had heard that after he killed his step-dad, he tried to kill himself too but the police showed up first.  Poor thing, they all thought.  He’s such a handsome young man, what a waste.  Yes, he’s a mystery, that boy, they agreed.

            Trey ate his breakfast by himself in silence, not leaving any leftovers on his plastic tray.  He finished before the others, and quietly returned his tray.  On his way back to his cell, he stopped to look out the lone window in the cafeteria.  It seemed abstract and unfair, a fleeting glimpse of freedom behind a thick fiberglass screen.  He had been looking out of that same window every morning, but it was still weird.  Everything was weird on Dearth Row.

            “This is my painting!  Me and daddy made it!” five year old Trey exclaimed loudly, holding a white poster board covered in messy paint.

            “That’s very nice Trey, now who would like to go next for show and tell?”  Trey’s teacher peered over her red cat-eye glasses.

            “Wait!  No, I’m not done Ms. Lizzy!”  Trey chimed.  He motioned again to the picture.  “This is me and my daddy,” he pointed to two green blobs in the middle of the paper.  “And this is my mommy.  She’s planting flowers!” he pointed to a brown blob in a sea of green.  He looked up eagerly and searched the audience of parents for his dad’s beaming smile.  He couldn’t wait for the next weekend because his dad didn’t have to work and could spend the whole weekend with him getting messy with paint in their garage.

            “Hey...sport.  I’ve got to go away for a little while...your mom and I need to go on a little...time out, just for a little bit.  I’ll be back soon and we can go buy that new canvas...K, kiddo?”  Trey could remember his dad mussing his hair and packing a suitcase.  An that was the last he saw of him.

            The guard strolled over to Trey’s cell and saw him sitting on the edge of his bed, ready to go to the cafeteria.

            “Well, don’t we got a little surprise for you today, boy?” the guard chuckled as he unlocked the door.  Trey remained seated, staring at the wall.  “We’re taking’ you animals to an art class.”  Trey looked up at the guard.

            “What?” he asked quietly.  The guard was surprised to hear him speak, so surprised that he didn’t say anything back.  “What?” Trey repeated.

            “Don’t be a smartass boy, just get in line with the rest of’em!” the guard barked when he got over his shock.  Trey rose slowly, giving the guard an odd look as he joined the mass of men on the way to the new art class.  Trey wondered if any of the other inmates knew they were headed to an art class instead of breakfast.  He doubted it; seeing as none of them seemed angry or upset that they would be painting instead of stuffing their faces.  The image of the fat man holding a palate and brush, standing critically behind a canvas flashed through Trey’s mind, but left as quickly as it came when Trey stumbled over a foot from behind.  He fell forward, regained himself, and looked over his shoulder at a snickering man with spiky hair getting a high five from one of his friends.  The men were herded into a small room, with a dozen or so easels set up  all around.  In the front of the room stood a short, portly woman who had her gray hair pulled into a tight bun while a pencil held it in place.  She was dressed in gray slacks and a gray jacket and looked to Trey more like a lawyer than an art teacher.  He glanced at the other men’s reactions and found them staring at the woman with disbelief.

            “What the hell is this, man?” the spiky haired man jeered.  The others mumbled in confused agreement.

            “Welcome gentlemen!” the woman boomed, startling Trey.  “My name is Ms. Schroeder.  I will be your art teacher for the remainder of your stay here,” she said cooly, looking around at the men critically.  “I know many of you do not want to be here, but I’m afraid you have no choice.  You see, in this great state of California,” she continued, walking around the room, arms outstretched, “we believe that somewhere in your dark cold hearts is a lost soul, waiting to be liberated through the outlet of art.”  One inmate laughed abruptly and Ms. Schroeder whirled around and marched up to him.  “We will begin our class with a simple still-life drawing,” she said slowly, forming each word and spitting it out.  “Now, get to an easel and I will provide you with necessary materials,” she turned briskly and began setting up a bowl with wrinkly fruit arranged inside.  Trey found an easel in the far back of the room, apprehensively picked up the charcoal stick, and began working.

            Ms. Schroeder soon rose from her desk and began walking through the clusters of unshaven, unkempt men in their orange suits.  They looked big and awkward behind the easels.  Trey put his charcoal down as she stopped for a moment looking at his drawing, her wrinkled hands stroking her chin.  When she finally spoke, she murmured, “My, this is very advance work.  I’m impressed with this shading.”  She looked at Trey as though she expected him to say something back.  Trey lifted his gaze to meet hers and stared back coldly.  She lingered at his easel, and then continued down the aisle.  Trey dropped his charcoal onto the easel tray, he was done for today.

            Next Tuesday came too soon for many of the inmates.  However, no one denied that Ms. Schroeder was a refreshing change from the cranky guards, and she quickly became the new subject of gossip among the cafeteria workers.  As the classes went on, the assignments got more and more personal.  One Tuesday, Ms. Schroeder announced the inmates were to paint self-portraits of themselves.  She passed out palates and brushes to the men, and wasn’t surprised to find many of their paintings literal drawings of face with scribbled features.  She was surprised, however, when she paused at Trey’s painting, which immediately caught her attention.  He had covered the canvas completely with thick, black paint, which he had managed to texture.  There were fine gray lines that whiskered off to form red channels that snaked through the black.

            “Well, this is certainly unique...” She started to speak, then mused over the canvas some more.  Trey stepped back and glared at her, as if daring her to critique it.  “I think it’s excellent,” she said slowly.  Trey lessened his glare.  “...Very individual, thoughtful, use of texture...” she continued.  “Yes.  Very nicely done.”  She smiled and carried on down the aisle.

            It wasn’t that Trey became excited about Tuesdays with Ms. Schroeder.  He was just glad that it meant a break from the guards and their remarks and the reality of Death Row.  The other inmates didn’t like it; they hated Ms. Schroeder and her ‘artistic ideals’, as she put them.  Trey didn’t mind her very much, she reminded him of someone he used to know, though he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

            Their next attempted ‘therapy through art’ was to paint their idea of love.  Amidst groans and perverted chuckles, Ms. Schroeder barreled through the instructions and sent them to work.  After a half hour Ms. Schroeder began her inspections.  “Hm.  Now this is different!” she chuckled, spying Trey’s canvas.  “May I ask why you chose an inanimate object such as a tree to represent love?”  Trey just stared.  “Why not a family?  Or a couple, perhaps?” she pressed.  Trey blinked and mumbled.

            “Because not all families are loving.”

            “I see...and what is your name young man?” she inquired, softly.  He looked up at her with his piercing green eyes.  Them seemed sad.  He told her his name.

            “Well Trey, do you have a last name too?  Or are you achieving Prince status and will soon be referred to as a symbol?”  Trey furrowed his brow, confused, but saw that she was smiling.

            “Trey Alcavera.”

            “Ah I see.  Mr. Alvavera, you have an impressive knowledge of shading and depth.  Have you taken art classes before?”

            “My dad and I used to paint together when I was little...”  Trey heard himself say.  He stopped hastily.  He had never told anyone about his dad before.  He dropped his eyes to the floor again, and hoped Ms. Schroeder would go inspect someone else’s work.

            “That’s all for today, gentlemen.  I look forward to seeing you next Tuesday.”  Ms. Schroeder called above the din of the men anxious to leave, with her eyes still fixed on Trey.  She then turned and walked back to her desk in the front of the room.

            The next Tuesday would be Trey’s last art class.  His case had been decided, he had pled guilty, and the jury had agreed.  On Wednesday, he would be sentenced to death by lethal injection on charges of first-degree murder.  None of the other inmates or workers knew it was Trey’s last day at San Quentin, only the guards, Trey, and the execution officer.  So when he walked into art class and was given the task of sketching his favorite memory, he had a lot to think through.  He paused with his pencil above his paper, sifting through all the thoughts he had tried for ten years to block out.  He thought of his mom and his dad, before his dad left.  He thought of his early birthdays, of when he got a puppy one year for Christmas.  He was so happy that day that he hadn’t even noticed his mom and dad fighting.  Now, of course, he remembered the fighting.  How could he forget the fighting?  But he wasn’t going to draw that.  That wasn’t going to be his last memory, he told himself.  He started sketching, slowly, what would be his last picture.

            The next day at noon, it was announced.  Trey Alcavera was dead.  Many inmates weren’t surprised, in fact, most didn’t know who he was.  Fewer still noticed the drawing taped up on the wall behind Ms. Schroeder’s desk on Tuesday.  It was a sketch of a father and son.  They were