Student Committee for the Arts proudly presents the winning stories from the 9th Annual David Sedaris Humor Writing Contest:
by Ellie Martino
It gets so quiet in the museum at night. The portrait wing, “Hall F” according to the map on the wall, turns into a pressure can of stillness from 8pm to 6am. These are the hours when I do the most thinking, for better or worse. I turn my head to the left to look at Philippe. It’s so dark I can’t see anything, but I can tell he’s sleeping peacefully. Lucky bastard. He’s keeping secrets again. I can tell.
I can always tell. Sure, he’ll smile and give me, “Oh Darling” this and “My dove of everlasting sublimity” that, but I can see through it. Somehow his smile, his doe-eyed expression of innocence seems painted. Then again, all of his expressions seem painted because they are—with oil paint, sealing powder and, apparently, lies. There’s something he’s not telling me. But nighttime has a way of stirring up bad thoughts. It’s almost morning, anyhow, and morning has a way of erasing those bad thoughts. Today will be another perfect day, just like yesterday. It starts just as every perfect day does, with the small, warty janitor flicking on the lights. I can see! I immediately turn to Philippe. He immediately turns to me. We sigh.
“You!” Philippe exclaims, handsomely.
“You!” I cry, gorgeously. We embrace. Clutching the insides of our frames is as close as we can get, but the sentiment is there. As usual, he tells me I have never looked lovelier and, as usual, I remind him that we literally look exactly the same every day, but I take the compliment anyway. The morning goes on. He falls into his adorable routine about how he’s just a third rate Garborello and how he could never deserve me. I tell him that’s not true, even though it is. I am a Bellini, after all. It does make me rather desirable and does make our stars rather crossed, which, I should say, is rather exciting. After musing on this, we spend several hours getting lost in each other’s star-crossed eyes and whispering sweet star-crossed nothings between our gilded frames. The trouble starts at around noon, when the first visitor arrives in Hall F. The foot traffic in the Renaissance wing has grown pretty scant ever since they added that Picasso exhibit down in the modern wing. On slow days, we sometimes don’t get any visitors at all, so I’m typically pretty attention-starved (well, more attention-starved than usual). But today’s visitor I could do without. It is a woman. She is younger than me, which is a concern and makes me instinctually hate her—though, to be fair, anyone born in the last 500 years is younger than me, but that doesn’t make me less entitled to my feelings. As she approaches, I try to remain calm and think non-suspicious thoughts. I hold my breath. She walks past me without looking up. Typical. No respect for realist portraiture. I get it. We’re not eccentric enough for these modern types. As I work up the nerve to scoff so Philippe would hear me, I notice the woman stopping in front of him. The blood rushes to my head. I feel my face turning red, or at least I feel whatever feeling I would feel if it could turn red. It stays its usual “creamy opal” hue, but right now it’s just more aggressively creamy opal than usual. The woman gives Philippe an up-and-down glance and then continues down the hall. She might as well have stabbed me through the canvas. Homewrecker! I calmly ask Philippe who this woman is and why she was giving him the ‘eye,’ but he plays dumb. He always plays dumb.
He says, “Calm down, she’s just a casual observer, simply an admirer of great art.” At this, I gasp and have to restrain myself from slapping him across the frame.
“So what does that make me? She walked right past me! Am I not great art? Am I just a cheap caricature?” Another, more troubling thought occurs to me.
“Am I ugly to you, Philippe?…Am I UGLY to you, Philippe?” He tries to protest, but I stop his excuses. “You don’t have to say it. I obviously disgust you. I see how it is. I know I’m no longer Grand Salon material. I am not new anymore, like those geometric types in the modern wing. The time for realist portraiture is long past and I must accept it.” He does his comforting act, reminding me that realism is alive and well, that realism is sexy, but I don’t buy it. He says I shouldn’t compare myself to the abstracts and the cubists.
“It’s not healthy,” he says, “Portraits like us, we know we can’t measure up to the Dalí’s or the Kandinsky’s down in the modern wing. We just have to embrace what we are.” And there it is. His
secret. “I knew it! I knew you preferred modern art! I knew someday you’d get tired of me and leave me for a newer style! First it was just those impressionists, then it was the pointillists, but now THIS? This takes the cake.”
“The Dalí, Philippe! The Dalí is the goddamn cake! You know, the one that was moved the other day. During the renovation. I saw the way you looked at her.”
“Darling, I was only trying to figure out what she was. It takes me a long time to figure out surrealism, you know that.”
“What do you even see in her?”
“Dismembered fingers and dripping eggs! That’s all! Nothing more! It’s not like she’s that Picasso piece down in G Wing. At least she’s an actual person.” AHA! So this is it. I have found him out. I tell him so.
I say, “AHA! I’ve found you out!” “The Picasso?”
“You were ogling her!”
“I was not ogling!”
“Just because she’s painted in the nude!” I scoff so hard snot almost comes out my nose.
Philippe goes on the defensive.
“You don’t know that! She’s just abstract! The colors…” He moves his arms about, trying to
explain, “…they sort of…they cover…. you can’t tell if she’s naked!”
“Does it even matter?” I cry. Then I come to the logical conclusion,
“You obviously think I’m hideous! You wish I had never been born!”
“Clarissa, you were never born. You’re technically an inanimate object. You’re not actually
alive.” I am aghast. After 500 years of profound imbecility, he decides to become a smartass now. “How DARE you.” It’s almost too much to bear. I don’t recognize this Philippe. It’s like he’s
become a painting of a different person.
“I knew you’d get like this,” he says, putting his hand on his forehead, “I can’t even look at
another painting, not even to simply admire its technique or its framework or…” he trails off and looks away, “You wouldn’t understand.” I am fuming.
“Well why don’t you go talk to your naked Picasso girlfriend about it! I’m sure she has plenty to say about technique. You probably talk about it for hours when I’m asleep. She probably runs her mouth all night long!” He pauses.
“Clarissa. She has no mouth.”
“You don’t know that! What about that blobby shape? The one on her elbow. I thought that was a mouth.”
“I thought that was an ear.”
“Oh. I guess that could be it.”
“Could be an eye,” he offers.
“Hard to tell,” I muse. All of a sudden, I snap to and remember that I hate Philippe’s oil-painted
guts and want him to die a slow and embarrassing death. “That’s not the point! The point is that you don’t love me anymore! You’d rather run away with that blotchy, ambiguously-clothed, mouth-less abstract!”
“Well at least without a mouth she’d be quieter than you!”
“Oh! You bastard!” I shriek, trying to think of a comeback. I’m usually the one with the upper hand in combative repartee, so this is a rather unfamiliar and infuriating setback. I finally lurch into action. I go straight for the kill. “Well, you know what? You’re frame is un-gilded and you know what? It’s SMALL!” He is taken aback.
“That’s not fair! You know I’m sensitive about my frame size!” I give him an up-and-down look and cross my arms.
“Well I can see why!” He gasps.
“You can’t speak to me that way, I’m a DUKE!”
“You’re just a PAINTING of a duke!!!” This hurts him, but he retaliates,
“You Duchess of Lies! You call yourself a real Bellini?” I parry,
“I have more class than you ever will, you amateur Garbarello trash!”
“Well you know what I think?” He’s sweating with rage now. “I think you’re a FAKE.” I gasp. “Take that back!
“You’re just a mock-up! An imitation masterpiece, sold for half price!”
“TAKE IT BACK, I SAY!”
“MAKE ME!” We glare at each other. Our frames make it hard to make full eye contact, but we
hold our position. We tremble with anger. We stay like this, grumbling and fuming for hours. It grows dark. I can’t see Philippe, but I can tell he’s still glaring. The night goes on. This isn’t over. I hate him. As I drift into my rage-slumber, I think, “I never want to see him again.” I hear the janitor’s footsteps. Ah, morning. Today will be another perfect day, just like yesterday. The lights switch on.
Barry Samson tentatively waddles into the fiery pit of plastic, paper mache hell that most call the fourth grade. His mom wraps his bloated fingers around her own, subtly announcing their mother-son bond to the other pearl-encrusted mothers trailing behind their sons in their wakes of independence and resentment. His mother says walking ahead of someone is discourteous. As Barry approaches the ABC-lined gates of hell, his swollen feet slow to a clumsy meander, forcing his mother to half pull half drag him into Satan’s lair of times tables.
“Remember pumpkin,” his mother says just loud enough for three pairs of pigtails to giggle, “good boys love going to school.” Barry smears a grin from one rosy, speckled cheek to the other, hiding his internal eye roll. With a kiss on the forehead, Barry’s mother leaves him to a tundra of energetic nose-pickers, princesses, artists and nappers. Barry becomes painfully aware of his khaki cargo shorts that fall past the knee which his mother matched with a neon orange Chuck E. Cheese shirt that exposes his protruding belly when he reaches above his waist. His cross necklace itches Chuck E Cheese’s nose as Barry walks to the seat with his name plastered across it in cursive writing. His mother says cross necklaces make young men look wholesome.
“Students! Welcome to another great year at Oak Tree Elementary!” Ms. Gliteman exclaims as if going to school is an honor bestowed on boys like Barry Samson. “As we go around the room I want to hear everyone’s name and… hm… favorite dinosaur!” Caroline likes Velociraptors, Jenny likes triceratops, Paul, Mark, Sam, John, Carson and Lenny like T-Rex. Barry stands, leaving behind the comfort of his cubicle desk. He wipes his sweaty palms on his shorts, leaving a brown streak around his pocket.
“I’m Barry,” he says to the floor.
“What about pumpkin?” a pigtail whispers. Her pigtailed friends erupt in a fit of giggles followed by a long silence prompted by Ms. Gliteman’s death glare. Barry curls his hand into a fist, digging his bitten fingernails into his palm. His mother says retaliation is for the weak.
“And your favorite dinosaur, Barry?” Ms. Gliteman asks encourag-
“Well um… I don’t know… my mother says the man made invention
of dinosaurs goes against the glorious gifts God created for us in seven days as outlined in the Book of Genesis.” He looks up from the floor just long enough to see Ms. Gliteman’s jaw drop.
“Oh! Well um… That’s great, Barry. Who’s next?” The only girl not wearing pigtails stands with conviction, a skull charm dangling aggressively from a chain around her neck. Barry’s mother says skulls are a sign of the devil.
“I’m Jackie.” Her voice is quickly drowned out by Barry’s pulsing heartbeat. Barry spends the remainder of the class picking at the remains of a smiley face sticker stuck on the leg of his chair. His eyes never leave the floor, and he never regains his breath. His mother says diabetes makes people tired easily. As Barry packs up to exit the snot-stained inferno that most call Ms. Gliteman’s classroom, he notices an elaborate drawing on Jackie’s binder. Geometric blocks interlaced with lines dancing around circles outlined by a language he does not recognize. Jackie follows his gaze to her binder. “Watcha staring at pumpkin?”
Barry immediately resumes his eye contact with the floor, but her eyes remain planted on his eyelids. “Um… My mother… She says doodles are for heathens,” he blurts clumsily, masking his peaking interest. Jackie chuckles and stuffs her binder in her backpack which she slings over one shoulder. “Well my dad says fat kids shouldn’t wear bright colors.”
“A Date With Death”
“I swear to the devil Christian, you HAD to go and kill someone just as I finally was starting to relax!” the small girl sighed as she leaned over to inspect the corpse.
“Hey don’t blame me short stuff, I was just doing my job,” Christian leaned against the cold brick wall of an alleyway, arms crossed as if he was the protagonist in some overrated indie film.
“I did society a favor with this guy anyways, all he ever did in life was play Pokemon Go and hold up McDonald’s lines. Honestly, I’m surprised that I got to him before the chicken nuggets did.” The girl turned to him suddenly.
“Don’t call me short stuff,” she growled, the ends of her hair beginning to smoke. “Unlike you humans, us immortal beings pay no attention to artificial social constructs such as height to make us feel a sense of superiority.”
“Is that the only thing you heard? That was like ten minutes ago.”
“I learned to tune you out a long time ago Christian.”
“Well then tune this out, short stuff,” Christian smirked, resting his elbow against
the top of the girl’s head. Her hair combusted into flames, and her eyes turned red. The sleeve of Christian’s caught on fire, only to be quickly snuffed out against the cold brick wall.
“It’s so hot when you do that,” he gave her yet another grin. “Get it? Hot?”
“You know I’d easily kill you if I didn’t have to spend ETERNITY with you,” she muttered. The girl leaned down once again to the corpse of the utterly obese man at her feet, searching for his soul and pocketing it once she found it.
“I’d commit suicide just to be with you, Death,” Christian flashed a smile as he stuffed the body into a bodybag. The zipper caught around the man’s stomach, but with some effort, Christian was able to fully zip it up.
“I’d commit suicide if I had to be with you,” Death muttered, ready to leave and finally get that time to herself she’d been craving.
“Going so soon?”
“Do I have a reason to stay?”
“Don’t you think it’s odd we keep meeting like this? I think it’s fate. Though I
have to admit, I love watching you walk away.”
“First of all, that line is so unoriginal. And second of all, Fate would never deal
with the likes of scum like you.”
“Come on dollface, lighten up won’t you?” he waved a lighter at her with a
grin. She rolled her eyes. “Why don’t you give me a smile? It could really brighten up that sour face of yours.” Christian lit a cigarette. Death gave it a glance and it turned into ashes on his lips. She cackled as his face contorted and as he choked. “See this is what I love about you,” Christian wheezed. “You always go out of your way to make my life miserable. Most girls just offer to buy me a drink or ask for my number, but you go the extra mile to really get under my skin.”
“Stop killing people Christian. I’m tired of dealing with you,” she turned on a heel and was about to stalk away when she noticed there was a dumpster blocking her path. On it, written in blood, read the word “NUDES?” Death whirled back to glare at Christian.
“What the hell is this?” she asked.
“Don’t you know when a guy’s asking you out?” Christian said. The ends of Death’s hair began to smoke. She turned away from him and said nothing. Christian uncomfortably cleared his throat. “There isn’t a demon who’s getting it on with you that I should be jealous of, right?” That remark swiftly earned him a punch to the arm.
“I prefer to deal with Lucifer rather than spend another minute with you,” she spat. “Look, you are going to have to deal with me either way. I’m not going to quit being an assassin, so we’ll have to see a lot more of each other. But this way, it might actually be enjoyable,” Christian ran his fingers through his hair. Death began to determinedly walk away once more before he called after her.
“You know I’m just gonna keep this up right? I’ll murder a string of people and pen you a love letter in limbs. Doesn’t that sound romantic?” He ran after her, caught her wrist in his hand. “Look dollface, I could get any girl I wanted. I chose you, don’t you get that? Aren’t you flattered?” He leaned in for a kiss but Death, caught off guard, immediately burst into white hot flames. The fire licked into Christian’s skin and turned his hair ash black. Her red eyes watched in horror as he burned before her.
“Christian,” she whispered, a single tear dropping to her cheek. “I’m so sorry.” He managed one more of his perfect smiles.
“I’m not,” he said as his skin charred and in between screams of terrible pain. “I now will forever be able to try and freak it with you.” He died a painful death in her arms, as Death began to openly sob, not for at all for his fate but entirely for hers.