Karen O'Conner had gotten her wish. Ten years old with real oil paints, long wood-handled brushes and a white oval palette.
For the past three months, since returning from a visit to her aunt in California, she had used every opportunity to push for her own paint set. She washed dishes, windows, clothes and the car. She promised perfect behavior and swore unwavering obedience, all so she could make those beautiful shapes and colors herself.
Now, after an hour of false starts and three hours of tongue between the teeth effort, she had finished her first painting. It was good. She was an Artist, just like her aunt.
Karen brought the masterpiece into the kitchen where her mother and Mrs. Baker from next door were having tea.
"Look! Look what I made!"
Lynn O'Conner stopped telling her friend about the rose aphids and made an exasperated sound with her breath as she put down the pink china teacup. John had overridden her objections and decided to give in to Karen's incessant begging for a paint set so she could imitate his sister on the coast. If he could only see his darling daughter now: smears of paint started at the knees of her Oshkosh'B'Gosh overalls and went up from there. Greens, yellows and reds smeared over blue hippos and pink flowers and continued into what at breakfast had been corn silk blonde hair.
"Look what I made," Karen said again, not quite as confidently as before.
"Look at yourself! I hope you realize those pants are ruined. And your hair...!" Mrs. O'Conner snatched the gaudily painted shoe box lid from her daughter's similarly painted hand.
"Give me that," she said, and then "Damn" to herself as she wiped the ultramarine from her thumb onto a paper napkin.
"Now go up to the bathroom and wait there until I come in. And while you're waiting I suggest you think about what you're going to tell your father."
Karen felt her face flush as her mother grabbed the painting. Through an incredible effort she managed to hold back the tears until the bathroom door closed; until the lock clicked.
Safely inside, her self-control dissolved into tears of embarrassed rage. She buried her face into the thick bath towel hanging from the rack: "I HATE YOU!!!" She shrieked it with all the emotion the words could hold. Her tears fell into the deep blue terrycloth that she now realized was the same blue as the cloud that her mother's thumb had just destroyed. She cried even harder.
After a while, each sob was more difficult to bring up, until she forced the last two or three out like small knots of pain lodged between her throat and chest. She wiped her eyes on the towel and went to stand in front of the sink.
The face that looked back from the mirror had red eyes and wet, mottled cheeks, random daubs of blue and yellow and a long thin streak of green, bright as a soda bottle, that ran down through the hair by her right ear. She smiled a little and sniffed: at least she looked like an artist.
When she had stayed with Aunt Kathy ("Kate" when they were alone), they would paint together in the studio with the big skylight. Kate had painted a pink angel with light blue wings on the smock Karen was wearing. By the time it was Karen's turn, they were giggling so hard that the bright red heart she tried to paint on Kate went everywhere except where it was supposed to be and the attempt ended when they were both laughing too hard to speak.
Karen looked into the mirror again. She remembered her aunt playing a tape of a woman who had their same last name and an echoy voice that ran back and forth between a growl and a whisper. She'd asked to see the picture on the album. At first she laughed at the singer's head, shaved bald, but Kate explained that it was so people would deal with her as an artist and not as just another pretty girl.
The bright blue box was decorated with white cartoon barber poles. Every month or so her father would sit on the step stool in the bathroom as her mother cut his hair with the buzzing black trimmer.
She stared at it now as it sat on the counter by the sink. She stared at the cartoon barber poles, at the fang-like attachments and at the little brown snips of hair on it all. The plug made the tiniest blue spark as she plugged it into the outlet.
"Am I really going to do this?" She thought about Sinead O'Conner as the switch moved up and the vibration ran through her arm. She thought about how she felt painting the picture. She thought about how she felt when her mother tore it away from her, and as she moved the clipper along the line of her part, the corn silk blonde hair fell away from the pale white scalp underneath.
She returned the bright blue box under the sink and stuffed most of the hair into the plastic wastebasket. She walked down the hall and quietly closed the bedroom door behind her. She sat on the floor with another shoe box lid. This time she would paint the ocean.