In a tiny, dusty store with strange operational hours, a young woman with a plant’s name was cradling a wire duck and her dreams, both crushed. While a store packed with old things might seem like an odd place to visit to mend your crushed dreams, the store owner loved Amaranth Birde, as she had been a neighbor and a friend for many years, and so it was in the Dusty Locket Antiques Shop that Amy sought solace every few weeks.
“Buck up, Amaranth,” an elderly woman’s voice creaked in the stagnant air of the shop, “that old art club isn’t going anywhere. There’s always next time.” Amy stared into the mushroom-shaped soup mug Mrs. Wallabee had thrust into her hands. The weak beef and squash stew inside seemed to stare back at her. A pale chunk of something slipped up to the surface. Amy sighed and sipped it. Lukewarm. She set it on a nearby dresser and wrung the edge of her baggy button-down shirt in her hands.
“I know, I know.” Tears blobbed up in her eyes again. She fought them back and let Mrs. Wallabee fold her in a hug. She had surprisingly strong arms. “I just don’t understand why they won’t let me in. I mean, sure, I don’t love everything I make, but I can make things, Mrs. Wallabee! I can!” she croaked. The thick tears were back. The tightness she felt in her chest threatened to break. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have come here. It’s far too late for me to be bothering you with my problems.”
“Oh, lovey, of course it isn’t. You know I’m nocturnal anyways.” She smoothed Amy’s wild brown hair away from her freckled face. “But you have work tomorrow, don’t you? Four in the morning is a little late to be out.”
Amy nodded and turned to gather her bag. Her hand hovered over the lump of twisted metal she’d spent weeks shaping into a perfect little mallard. Its head sagged backwards; the black glass eye was crushed in gruesomely.
“Are you going to leave him here with me again?” Mrs. Wallabee asked. Amy shook her head.
“No. He’s just junk now.” She scooped the wire mallard into her bag and winced as a sharp piece from the broken neck stabbed her thumb. “Goodnight. Thank you for letting me cry on you again,” Amy mumbled and whirled out the door, sucking the bead of blood off her thumb as she went.
“Bye, love!” The older woman cried after Amy. “Be careful getting home! You never know what might happen.” She turned back to her little store and shuffled to a corner with her feather duster. “I never can go right to bed after she comes by,” Mrs. Wallabee said to herself. “Poor girl.” In that corner, the wall was filled with paintings of birds and insects, little clay statues of bears and toads and deer. Watercolors of wisp-like fairies were tucked in every nook. There was a piece of Amy in every single one. Rain began to fall on the concrete outside.
Amy worked her whole shift waiting tables in a daze. Her eyes burned from crying the night before, her thumb smarted, and she couldn’t stop thinking. The sneer that duck had been met with had somehow hurt more than any other attempt. She had been so proud of it, too. But no. Kelly’s nose curled. He’d picked the sculpture up, pinched between his fingers, and held it inches from his eyes, squinting.
“No,” he’d said. “This is not good enough. Dreadfully small.”
“Worse than the last one, in my opinion,” Maria grumbled.
“Yes, yes, worse than the last one by far,” he agreed.
“Why are you so determined to be disappointed?” the others grumbled around the room. “Why must you keep on pushing into where you don’t belong?”
Amy faltered. “I just want to be part—”
“Part of what?” Kelly cut her off. “What we do is not the same as what you do. You may very well be creative, but your work lacks a serious quality. It is all very childlike and naïve.”
Daniel finally spoke up. “I like it. It’s very well-done.” He reached out for the wire duck. “This must have taken hours to make.” Kelly pushed Daniel’s hand aside and set the duck on the table, squeezing it just a little too hard. Amy’s eyes bugged as she watched its neck bend and crush at an awkward angle between his fingers. Kelly did not seem to notice, or if he had, he didn’t care.
“I’m afraid that if you truly want to be considered for membership, you are going to have to create something much better. Paint something highbrow. Your magnum opus. Leave the fairy tales and cute animals behind.”
A masterpiece? she thought on her short walk home. The request wasn’t even fair. Artists’ masterpieces are subjective. How am I supposed to come up with one? To be quite honest, Amy frequently asked herself why she had wanted to be accepted by the group anyway. But her heart craved it. There was very little point in trying to sell work without recognition. Nobody had placed an order from her in months, and every penny she earned from waiting tables went to art supplies. That membership would net her patrons, customers, possibly even friends. She could imagine herself with a frightening clarity. She would leave her little apartment for the studio in the evenings, hunch over the table as she sculpted, drink coffee while she packaged hand-painted cards. It would be the perfect atmosphere. The perfect life.
Setting her jaw with a sharp inhale, Amy fumbled with her keys for a moment. I’ll give you a painting, Kelly. The best painting I’ve ever done, she thought with a swift kick to the door.
Amy tied her hair up and chewed her thumbnail, staring at the blank canvas. Paint something, she thought. Come on, brain, think of something! A few ideas had flitted in and out of her mind, all frustratingly similar to works she had already created. She bent over to pick one of the many crumpled sketches up off the floor. A foggy idea hovered in her mind for half a second and slipped away right as she was about to catch hold of it. The pencil she had been clenching in her fist snapped.
“Darn it,” she grumbled. She ran her finger along her earlobe, the four dangling earrings she wore clacking together. Then, she had it. Now, that’s an idea, she thought. Like a welcome downpour after a blazing summer day, the idea poured down on Amy. She couldn’t draw fast enough with her splintered pencil nib, it was all coming so fast. Always good to have too much of an idea than too little, she thought to herself with a squeal of excitement. She was going to make it this time! Now, she thought. Now we paint. She hurriedly squeezed the tubes of color onto her palette and began mixing colors with vigor.
Amy took a deep breath and bounced on her sandalled toes outside the art studio. She had spent the day trying to convince herself she felt confident, that they must accept her now. But in the back of her head a small, anxious voice worried, “What if I got it wrong?” The canvas crinkled in its layers of paper and plastic wrapping. Her fingers twitched. A dark figure hovered in her periphery. Maybe the late nights were beginning to get to her.
“Sorry,” Amy said to nobody in particular, just in case. “Sorry, sorry.” She clicked her teeth and fumbled with the doorknob.
Before one could reach the art studio, one first had to go through the gallery. Gallery seemed too grand a word to describe the small room with cracked black-and-white checkerboard linoleum, but that was what everyone else called it. There were no pieces displayed on this particular evening. Anyone might think that the building was abandoned if it weren’t for the white glow from the hallway and the slight echoes of pencils tapping on tables and a carving knife scraping against soft wood. Amy’s sandals tap-tapped slowly, almost reverently to the light.
“Excuse me,” she said, suddenly out of breath. “Excuse me, I’ve brought something I want you to see.” Kelly didn’t look up from his carving.
“What medium?” he half mumbled.
“Acrylic, glass, and fiber on canvas.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Interesting combination. Daniel, get her an easel so we can see the latest attempt.” Daniel hurried to obey. Amy noticed his hands shaking as he straightened the easel’s legs. The scratching pencils had stopped, each work in progress abandoned in favor of watching Amy unwrap her piece. The whole room seemed to hold its breath. Would she be shot down again? Daniel shot her a reassuring smile. Maria’s nose had already wrinkled. Amy set it on the splattered wood and stepped back, scratching the side of her thumb with her forefinger anxiously. Murmurs hummed around the room.
Kelly wiped his hands on his apron and approached the canvas. He examined each part with no visible emotion. The blue heron on the canvas seemed to examine him back, its yellow eye sharp and bright. Individual feathers had been carefully embroidered over a full acrylic portrait; tiny glass beads sprinkled throughout. The effect seemed so very sublime that the bird might come pushing out of the frame in a flurry of feathers and screeching. Kelly stepped back.
“You said you wanted my magnum opus,” Amy said. “That is it.”
“It certainly is,” Daniel breathed. “Amy, this is incredible.”
“It is barely acceptable,” Kelly replied. Maria stifled a laugh.
“Barely acceptable?” Daniel cried. “Barely acceptable! What more do you want from her?”
Amy couldn’t say anything. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t move. Daniel continued to argue, his voice pitching.
“What on earth could possibly be a better version of this? Kelly, why are you intent on being cruel to a person who only admires you?”
“It is not a matter of cruelty,” Kelly said. “It is a matter of quality—”
“Quality! Pah! The bird looks alive, man! It’s beautiful!” Daniel had begun to advance on Kelly, fists clenched.
“Never mind.” The men turned to look at Amy. “I see. It all makes sense now.” She was surprised she wasn’t more upset. “You have made it clear that nothing I do will ever be good enough for you.”
“Amy,” Daniel began.
“Don’t worry,” she said simply. “I won’t be back.” She knew they were whispering about her. She knew that she had heard a hushed “That doesn’t seem quite fair” and a “Please, that was nothing” as she wrapped the painting in its paper and plastic once more. They sounded distorted, almost as if she were under water. Without another word, Amy left the studio, painting tucked under her arm.
“Hmph!” Mrs. Wallabee harrumphed and slapped her ladle on the back counter of the antiques store. “Sounds like good riddance to me! Those pretentious brats deserve a whacking. They have no taste!”
Amy accepted a bowl of the bland chicken soup and sipped at it. At least it’s hot this time. “No, no,” she laughed dryly. “It’s alright. I’ll figure something else out. Online classes or something.” The two were interrupted by the cowbell above the door clanking. Amy looked up to see Daniel. He took his glasses off his nose and wiped them on his shirttail.
“’Lo, Amy. I knew I guessed it right.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Only you would go to an antiques shop only open at night.” He replaced his glasses and stood in the doorway in the uncomfortable silence. “Are you doing ok?” Mrs. Wallabee huffed and stalked to the back of the store, muttering something about “the audacity.”
“I’ll be fine,” Amy shrugged. “It’s not like I have to stop doing what I love.” She swirled the soup in her cup. “I’m thinking about saving up to rent a studio of my own, instead of just working in my apartment. That way, at the very least, I can have stuff spread out and leave it that way when I need to step away.” Daniel chewed his lip.
“I thought you might be thinking something like that,” he began. “That’s why I was looking for you. Um, I have my own studio, actually. I mean, not yet. The landlord agreed to let me use it if I was willing to do the repairs. Broken floor, stuff like that. Would you want to rent it out with me? If money’s a problem, maybe we can work out an I-pay-sixty, you-pay-forty kind of thing…” he trailed off. Amy’s face split into a grin.
“Really? But what about Kelly and the others?”
“What about them? They’re a bunch of pretentious snobs. I’d rather share a space with someone who likes to create for the joy of it, not lord their work over other people.”
“Well, if that’s the case, we have a deal. I’ll help you fix the place up and everything.” Amy stuck her hand out. Daniel shook it with a shy smile.
“Pleasure doing business with you, Amy.”
Amy and Daniel stood side by side; Daniel with his hands on his hips and Amy bouncing on her toes.
“Isn’t it pretty?” she said excitedly. He chuckled in response.
“You say that every time!”
“And I mean it every time.”
The scarred wooded floor had been polished to a faint shimmer, the holes in the walls were filled and whitewashed, and the two massive workbenches stretched across the room. A file cabinet in the corner held the paperwork for the studio and a budget plan for their next additions to the space: a kiln and a pottery wheel, both something that Amy had dreamed of owning for years. Thanks to a local art-dealer friend of Daniel’s, Amy had sold enough work that she could afford to bring those dreams to fruition.
“Shall we break it in now?” Amy asked.
“Let’s. I’ll be right back; my stuff is in the car.”
“’Kay,” Amy called as he shuffled out the door. She kicked off her sandals and skipped on the wood warmed by the setting sun streaming through the windows. Amy Birde perched up on her stool and curled her golden wire into the body of a new duck, sighing in contentment. The setting sunlight made her hair and eyes glow the same color as the wire. The studio was silent except for soft music. She hummed along to “Vedro Con Mio Diletto.” This, she thought, is the perfect life.