Her shift at the café finally over, Dola Fern walked along the dark water’s edge thinking about her seventh grade English teacher, Miss Clinkscales. Shriveled and looking like she had moved out of her tiny body prematurely, her old teacher liked to give assignments that sent her pimply, giggling students careening down unpaved, awkward roadways in search of their emerging young selves.
Specifically, Dola Fern was remembering the assignment to write about what colors represent her life. Flipping open her blue spiral notebook, she had thought this one sounded like fun. Her mind cart-wheeled through all 48 of the colors in the big Crayola box she had treasured as a child, speculating what colors represented her particular life. Stormy sky blue, Halloween pumpkin orange, juicy apple red, new lizard green, carnival cotton candy pink.
She sampled for color matches and discarded each offering. Sitting on the rickety front steps of her faded mobile home, Dola Fern mentally held up color swatches to see if they might be the exact color of her tender, promising life. Slowly the hope oozed out of her as she came to see that the only colors she found familiar were the beiges, browns, tans…mushroom colors that reminded her of dull, used up autumn leaves after all of the summer living had bleached away. Discouraged and desolate, the uncompleted assignment became her unfulfilled quest.
Fifteen years later, alone and empty, Dola Fern walked along the muddy shore of the big lake just outside of town, feeling only inches away from her seventh grade self. Colorless. Drab. She often thought she was like a ghost that people tried to capture in a photo. They saw the ghost, clicked the camera, but only empty space stared back from the developed photo.
She had tried hard to climb over the rough places in her life, but effort did not seem be to enough. Folks at the café mostly only noticed whether their coffee was hot, not the hand that brought it to them. The girls over at Miss Lizzie’s Boarding House were nice enough, but she had heard them whispering that they wished her room was unoccupied so that Jolene’s cousin from West Texas could move in. She used to think that Bobby Buck would saturate her life with passion and purpose. She now knew of course, that she had been only a pause on the buffet line of his life. Even her best friend Flora seemed bored with her. She had thought her life would mean something. Somewhere. To someone.
No matter how many times she got up in the morning determined that today she would pull a red or blue or pink crayon from her big crayon box and change her life, by bedtime she felt pale and passed over. She was weary of feeling like a vacant lot. Full of faded weeds. Unused. Always waiting. She had had enough. The beckoning, monochromatic belly of the lake waters offered comfort and respite from her anguish. Here her gray little life could disappear unnoticed in the deep blackness.
As Dola Fern slipped off her beat-up tennis shoes and eased into the cool, embracing water, she heard tiny, whimpering squeaks escaping from a soggy, discarded box near the shoreline. Intrigued, she turned back to follow the helpless, sad-voiced summons. She guardedly lifted the box flaps to reveal a pair of terrified eyes the color of hazy summer sun. In spite of herself, Dola Fern grinned as she tenderly rescued a trembling handful of warm puppy from the cardboard walls of his intended fate. Quivering. Lonely. Hopeless.
They took each other back to Miss Lizzie’s Boarding House for a hot supper, furry cuddling, and a much welcomed reprieve. Of course he would need a name. Something shiny and bold. And everyone knew that a boarding house was no home for a puppy. Tomorrow they would go together to look for a little place with some green grass. And maybe she would get her crayons out again.