I was very fortunate to take part in a two-part writing workshop a few weeks ago. The instructor is a playwright, screenwriter, editor and university instructor. The first part of the workshop ended with a writing assignment. Some pages were passed out and there were basic ideas for a short story. Our task was to write the story or paragraph and turn it in at our next meeting. We then read our completed assignment to the class. The class was limited to 10 writers and it was inspiring to hear the various ideas and adventures we created.
There were at least 15 to 20 story ideas we could choose and I thought I would share the story I created from the page I selected.
My writing assignment was to be a “sign painter.” The company I represented did not have a lot of integrity and I hated working for them. The premise of the story was that one day I was sent on a billboard painting job and just as I was ready to start painting, the company called and said to stop because the job was cancelled. Maybe this disgruntled painter wanted to go ahead and paint his “own” message.
I thought this was an interesting topic so I chose that one.
Here is my finished project:
One Town One Clown
I felt sorry for my brother, Frank. I know my parents didn’t have much money when we were growing up and that’s why they couldn’t fix Frank’s nose. His nose was misshapen, bulbous and red. It was easy to understand how ornery boys in grade school would call him Bozo or Clown Face; cruel and hurtful names. Things got worse back in ‘79 when a big media sideshow was made about burying the famous clown, Emmett Kelly, right here in Lafayette. We shared his last name but we weren’t related. That didn’t seem to matter to the junior high guys and from that time forward, Frank’s name became, Emmett. Even his teachers in high school started calling him Emmett, not to be cruel, but because they heard everyone else call him that. Hell, he even answered to Emmett no matter where he was.
I was always jealous of Frank, not for his looks of course, but for his artistic talent. I couldn’t draw a good stick figure, but Frank was drawing and coloring beautiful landscapes, cars, people, and animals when he was a kid. Going into sign painting and designing retail store windows was a natural for Frank.
He started up with “Indiana Sign Company” right out of high school, in 1985. I remember Frank never liked the bosses at Indiana Sign; he made some disparaging comments about them at family gatherings or when we went out for a beer.
I’m writing this now so the truth gets told once and for all. Sometimes it’s best to hear the words straight from the horse’s mouth so I’m going to print out Frank’s words from his journal or diary or whatever you want to call his notebook that’s filled with writing and some of Frank’s drawings. The drawings are real good.
Here are the exact words of my brother, Frank Kelly, as he wrote them in his book:
June 15, 1990—I’ve been doing sign painting for five years now. There are probably worse jobs and dirtier jobs but sometimes this job can be a bummer. I don’t think the two guys that own this company knows how lucky they are. Their daddy worked hard to build this place into a good living for those two. They make fun of the customers all the time and call them nicknames. They do me too, just like always. I’m proud of some of the windows I paint at Christmas time. I know the storekeepers sure thank me over and over. But Todd, one of the owners, will laugh and tell me “it’s time to give Ernie the Jew a little Christian spirit on his windows, so go do him up good, Emmett. Don’t let him talk you into putting a yarmulke on Jesus.”
I don’t know why they think they are so funny, but they laugh at every mean thing they say.
June 15, 1995–I can’t believe I’m still working for Indiana Sign now for ten years. I don’t suppose I can do anything else. I was going to write more in this book but I got very sad the year after I last wrote here five years ago. I’m still feeling that way but life moves on, they say, so I’m moving on. I liked Tamara Thomas since 6th grade. She never called me Emmett, never stared at me, pointed at me or laughed at me. She always told me I was so talented. I know I was always trying to stand close to her at football games or mixers, but she didn’t seem to mind. I thought someday we would be having a date and I even thought about what it would be like to kiss her. I know she went away to college but I was so happy when she moved back here to Lafayette. I saw her at the movies one night with some of her girlfriends but it was too hard to talk to her then. I got up the guts to call her at her old number but her parents said she was moved out and I’d have to get that number directly from her. But then Todd really hurt me when he gave me a billboard assignment. The biggest billboard in town was out on the bypass by the Wal-Mart. I was supposed to paint a big heart and in the middle of it I was to write out in big font, “Tamara, will you marry me, I love you, Todd.” I cried for the first time ever when I had to do that sign. They’ve been married for two years, now.
June 15, 2000–I guess I’m going to make another entry in this book today. I saw that I’ve been doing it every five years, so I will keep my ritual going. I’ve been looking for another job. I think I’m getting too angry to work for those Burns brothers, Todd and Jerome. I’ve been here 15 years, now. Other places are starting to use those new digital billboards and some are using the pre-painted signs. I just go and paste them up and don’t get to do very much free-lance drawing and painting. I still love doing windows but the economy isn’t too good now. Everyone is calling it a dotcom crash but I don’t know what they mean. I hope this Christmas I’ll have lots of windows to do. I feel bad about some things that Todd made me do this past year or so. When the new BBQ place opened, they bought the big billboard out on the bypass. I got to do the whole thing free-hand and the new owners really liked it. Todd always called them the “N” word and made me purposely put a wrong telephone number on the billboard. He laughed and said they would never notice it. If they did he said he would give them another free month. They noticed it right away and he argued with them that it was their mistake on the original copy. They had a go-around and in the end they all blamed me. Todd said I should either take the heat or move on. I’ve been looking for a new job but haven’t had any luck.
June 15, 2005–twenty years now with this company, doing this same thing, every day over and over. I’ve never been this mad before. Yesterday was the end for me. The billboard out at the end of the interstate is one we do and an out-of-town church paid to have us put up a terrible sign. I told Todd I wasn’t going to do it. He yelled at me and said “the pays the same you stupid clown so who the hell cares what it says. I like what it says. Are you some kind of closet fag?” The sign I had to paint was mostly just letters. It said, “Homosexuality is an abomination.” I feel terrible because my brother, James, told me a few years back he was gay. It didn’t make me feel bad. I still love my brother.
Today I was sent out to do the big billboard by Wal-Mart and I was actually on my scaffold with my paints in my hand. The bicycle shop was going a big summer sale but my new cell phone rang and Todd said the bicycle shops’ check didn’t clear, and to leave the job. He said another contract was coming in next week and we’d just let the big board stay blank.
I’ve decided to paint my own billboard tonight. I’ve rigged up a power generator to give me a little light and to hook up a special lift motor. I’m going to give this town and Indiana Sign Company something to talk about. It’s time for my message to be on a billboard. I have had things to say for a lot of years and nobody to talk to. My billboard will talk to everybody. I’ve been thinking about this all day and believe this will be the first actual 3-D billboard ever.
James, if you read this, I’m sorry I painted up that sign from the church yesterday. I’m going out there tonight and cover it in graffiti before I paint my big billboard with my message. I love you James. Thanks for never calling me Emmett. Frank
So, those were my brother’s words written five years ago. His big personal billboard will always be part of the history of this city now. It was admired for a few days before people understood it. Then it was a horrible catastrophe. It was truly a three-dimensional work of art, but it was very sad.
On the left hand side of the billboard was a life-size clown with the left leg raised up and the left arm raised up pointing to the huge words in red paint. “By blood a king, in heart a clown”
I have to admit I drove by the billboard and admired it myself. I didn’t know who had purchased it or why they used the Alfred Lord Tennyson quote. The 3-D clown that was hanging by a rope looked amazing. It stuck out from the billboard and looked real. Then we knew after a few days, it was real. The body was decaying. Somehow my brother had built small wooden ledges to prop up his leg and arm. He had rigged a generator up with a remote switch that pulled the rope tighter and tighter until it strangled him.
I hope all the people who made fun of my wonderful brother will be teaching their children how to respect others.