I MADONNARI

By Victoria Heckman

"Eee Madonnaree," I said softly to myself as I laid the brilliant chalks in my locker. My name is Lace Matsuyama, and I'm a senior at Morro Bay High. My friends on the football team call me Lace for the superstitious way I lace my shoes before each game, and because I'm not crazy about my real name.

I Madonnari is the annual street art festival in San Luis Obispo, California, that continues a tradition begun centuries ago in Italy. Professional and amateur artists would flock to the mission grounds on Saturday to begin their works of chalk art on ten-by-ten foot sections of sidewalk. I am one of the few student artists granted a square.

I slammed my locker shut and headed toward the cafeteria, noticing the black band across the library door as I passed. My enthusiasm dimmed as I remembered the reason for it. Miss Emory, the librarian, had died last Tuesday, and school had been closed the rest of the week. Now it was Monday, the first day back.

Well, died, I guess isn't quite right. She was murdered, her body found floating in the little pond in the park next to the campus.

My friends shouted to me from our usual table, "Hey, Lace, saved you a seat!" accompanied by table pounding and shoving to make room. After the usual assessment of the food (bad), the conversation turned to the death of Miss Emory.

"Do you think they'll get a new librarian right away?" Kelsey asked.

"I don't know. We need the library though." Barry shrugged.

"Yeah," Kelsey continued, "it's not like it's the scene of the crime or anything!"

"Aw, man!" Groans from the group. Kelsey looked embarrassed, but just for a second.

"Well, I for one," said Brittney in her snotty way, "hope the new librarian is better than the last one."

Don added, "Anyone's gotta be better than the Library Hag." They all laughed. He continued, encouraged, "It's all about that orange hair!"

"Do you think it's a wig?" asked Kelsey. "No, way!" said Barry. "Too scary. Who'd buy it?"

"What about her wardrobe?" Don asked. "She might as well wear black everyday and fly by the light of the moon!"

My friends laughed and tossed food across the table, continuing to bash Miss Emory.

We had lots of reasons not to like her and I don't know anyone who did. She refused to display student art or work in the library. She never said "hello" unless she thought the principal or someone important was watching.

When I was a freshman, I once copied a picture out of a book without asking first. Miss Emory swooped down and snatched it away.

"But please, I need it for my report!"

"You should have asked first."

"I'm sorry, I didn't know. The copier is just sitting in the middle of the room!"

"That's too bad. See, you've learned something today, and isn't that what school is for?"

"Please. That's my last dime and it's due today!"

Miss Emory crumpled the paper and threw it in the waste can, then folded her arms across her skinny chest and fixed her beady gaze on me.

Back at the cafeteria table, Kelsey said, "She is such a b---!" I finished with "witch" instead, and someone from down the table said, "Was, not is."

That was enough for me. "I gotta go."

As I walked back to get my books, I waved to my favorite teacher, Mrs. Coyne.

"Hey, Lace, got your plan for your square?"

"It's all right up here." I tapped my head with my finger and we both laughed at the private joke.

In art class, she always said, "Ideas are great, and you've gotta have them, but unless you get them from here," and she'd tap her head with her finger, "to here," then she'd tap the paper, "I can't grade them!"

Mrs. Coyne, a short, small-boned blonde with a ready smile, is a popular dynamo at Morro Bay High. She has guided my art study from my freshman year and encouraged me to apply to several top art schools for next year. She told me she has connections and will help me get a scholarship that could lead to a career as a professional artist. She got me a coveted spot as a student artist at the festival.

When my mom just took off and never came back the summer before I started high school, Mrs. Coyne really helped me. My dad went somewhere inside himself then, and I felt alone.

Along with being my art mentor, I guess you could say she was a mother-figure. Feelings I can't talk about have always come out in my paintings and drawings, and Mrs. Coyne helped balance my emotions and art. Each school year that passed I grew stronger as a person and as an artist. Now, as a senior, I feel ready to go out into the world, and I wanted to do something special for Mrs. Coyne to show my appreciation.

In our many after school sessions I had come to know Mrs. Coyne, too. She had moved to Morro Bay the same summer my mom took off, after Mr. Coyne died of cancer; that she, too had thrown herself into her own artwork and her students to combat grief; that teaching was her whole life now, and that I had somehow helped her, even as she helped me.

Today she wore slim black jeans and a black sweatshirt with "Goonies" emblazoned in white. She's young-looking and often dresses like a student. I remember when I was a sophomore and she wore that same outfit. I saw her from my locker when she was on her way to the library. I followed, needing to renew a book.

Miss Emory had been standing at her usual post in the library office doorway, like a buzzard waiting for roadkill. Mrs. Coyne crossed to the circulation desk at the same time Miss Emory marched toward it.

"Get out of my way," Miss Emory said to her. I could see that Miss Emory wasn't really looking at her. She just saw a dark, young figure and assumed student. Mrs. Coyne stopped like she had run into a wall. I stopped also, stunned at this rudeness.

"Get out of my way," Miss Emory repeated, barely missing her as she parted groups of students like a battleship. Mrs. Coyne turned on her heel and walked away. I've never seen her in the library since.

"Good for you, Lace, that's the hardest part. I'm so excited for you. I can't wait to see it!" She smiled and continued down the hall.

On Friday, I had to turn in my sketch of my I Madonnari square. I'm one of two students of Japanese descent at MBHS, and although I don't talk about it, my heritage is important to me. My last name, Matsuyama, means Pine Mountain, and I decided to use that for the background. Ten feet square means an awful lot of background. The center of my piece would be a Japanese person in the front of various activities set against a pine-dotted mountain. I wasn't sure exactly who or what kind of person to use as the focus, and thought I would wait until I was working there, with an audience, and the energy of the crowd and other artists to inspire me. I knew the person would be from ancient Japan, in native dress; from a time when honor and integrity were a way of life.

Mrs. Coyne was wonderful about things like that and didn't press me for details when I handed her the unfinished sketch. I knew she'd come by to see my finished work on Sunday afternoon. Everyone from the school and the community would be there. I would be a celebrity.

Saturday was beautiful; the skies clear and blue, wisps of clouds over the mountains.

I had really lucked out. My square was in Mission Plaza, where the cement was smooth. Other artists not so fortunate had squares on one of the blocked off streets, where they must try to create magic in chalk on hot, smelly asphalt.

I sketched in my background and had completed most of it by late afternoon. My back and knees ached, as did my left hand from propping myself up to draw. The day had sped by, and when I tried to rise my body felt a hundred years old and refused to cooperate. Other artists were having the same problem, and we laughed as we hobbled about collecting our materials, finding drinks, and realizing we were pretty sunburned. All the same, I couldn't wait to return on Sunday to finish my square. I was totally in my element and was filled with joy and excitement at my first professional showing.

Saturday night I dreamed of an argument I had overheard between Miss Emory and Mrs. Coyne last week. In the way of dreams, I was present but they didn't seem to notice. Miss Emory thought she had discovered a discrepancy in Mrs. Coyne's teaching credentials and threatened to go to the principal and even the school board to get her dismissed.

Last week when I talked to Mrs. C about what I'd heard, she said if she lost her job she'd be forced to move. Budget cuts had made arts teaching jobs impossible to come by, and she said she couldn't teach in a regular classroom.

In the dream replay, Miss Emory rose into the air and swooped and cackled above Mrs. Coyne and me while we cowered under disintegrating canvases I had painted. Mrs. Coyne pleaded for us both, tears streaking her face, to no avail. I shouted threats while Miss Emory's bat-like shape flew away, my artwork crumbling to dust. I woke up tired, but knowing what my final picture would display.

Sunday was as hot as Saturday, and good-humored crowds ebbed and flowed around our work. Oblivious, I worked steadily until the three o'clock deadline.

The first of the small scenes surrounding the central portrait showed Miss Emory yelling at Mrs. Coyne near the circulation desk. The next was Miss Emory and me as a freshman at the copy machine. The third was Miss Emory talking to the school principal, making public the charges about the discrepancy in Mrs. Coyne's credential. The fourth scene showed Miss Emory bending over the driver's side window of a car in the school parking lot. The fifth showed the car parked by the pond and a figure placing Miss Emory's body facedown into the water.

Behind me, I heard Mrs. Coyne. "Oh, Lace, no." I looked up at her and she put her hand on my shoulder. I looked again at my picture and saw it was wet and gooey in the lower corner where I had just signed my name, "Martin Matsuyama, Jr." I was crying.

The centerpiece of the square showed the face of the murderer on the body of a Samurai warrior in ceremonial kimono and obi. He was kneeling, face out, just at the moment of thrusting the short sword into his abdomen, in the act of seppukku, or ritual suicide. The look of pride and joy on the warrior's face is unmistakeable. He knew he had done the right thing. The picture was a self-portrait.



Copyright 2000 Victoria Heckman

Email the author at: v.g.heckman@thegrid.net