Potential by Thomas Kearnes

A teenage tearaway with a talent for both drawing and getting into trouble finally attempts to draw his art teacher, whom he holds in high regard; by Thomas Kearnes.

Other guys drew cartoon characters with huge, floppy genitals or whatever model of car they wanted even more than the hottest cheerleader. The whole hour of detention, however, I drew Mrs. Simpson. The bitch of it was, I knew I'd have to draw the whole picture over again because all I had was a No. 2 pencil and a sheet of lined notebook paper. Coach Elliott didn't allow me to bring my sketchpad or charcoal pencils into the portable building where all the delinquents waited for the clock to strike four. I'd convinced myself if I didn't finish the picture in time, I'd never finish. I always made stupid rules for myself. I believed them at the time, but then I broke them and forgot why I believed them in the first place.

The building smelled like stale bubblegum. Chester sat next to me, picking at the blackheads on his forearm. The fucker had big-ass arms. My friend mentioned catching him at the Anytime Fitness down the highway from school. She said Chester was pumping iron with a demonic look in his eyes, like he was punishing himself. I was in okay shape. I didn't really think about that shit. Vanessa liked me all right, and Natalie had her eye on me, I could tell. It was kinda fucked up that a junior college drone like Natalie would scope me out, but it's good to keep your options open. One day Vanessa might realize my ship was doomed to sink.

The stench in the portable was about to knock me out. Three minutes till freedom. I shaded the part of Mrs. Simpson's neck right below her jaw. Finished, I held the picture as far back as my arms allowed. Frankie whispered that it looked just like that art teacher bitch. I shuddered, kicked myself for accidentally showing her my hard work. Frankie was too damn much. I mumbled my thanks and slipped the drawing inside my world history textbook. There was a test on Monday. I don't know why I had the book with me. I didn't really believe in studying. Coach Elliott slammed his palm on the desk and ordered us home. I shoved everything into my satchel and scurried out the door. I knew the kids trapped with me but didn't feel like talking.

I didn't ask what Gary had done while I sat in detention. He let me borrow his car a couple of days a week. I think he was trying to grow big enough balls to ask if he could suck my dick. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with fags. A couple of years ago, when I started high school, I thought I might be one myself. Fucking a guy sounded so forbidden, more exciting than poking yet another pussy, but I never tested my curiosity. Gary waved while I was still halfway across the parking lot from his neon green Nova with the busted right taillight. He'd probably been waiting like a jilted bride for fuck knows how long. When I reached him, I asked if he was bored. He laughed and told me about all the losers he saw getting into their cars. I tried to resist, but it was no use. I dug the drawing of Mrs. Simpson from my satchel. Gary clucked his tongue, praised how much it looked like her. He asked why I was so determined to draw every bitch on the faculty. I shrugged. People our age have boring faces, I said.

Fridays sucked for one principle reason: I had to go deep into downtown Tyler to meet with my probation officer. We lived in a little town seven miles south of there. I had no reason to be nervous. I'd quit weed since it stayed in your system so long and focused on six-packs of Keystone during the weekends, the occasional snorts of coke before first period or before my mother got home in the afternoon. I was grateful Gary agreed to take me to Mr. Feldman's office. Gary was a decent guy. We met through theatre classes. I'd still be the villain in Arsenic and Old Lace if I hadn't flunked algebra, English and biology. Stupid fucking UIL rules. Gary was short and thin with a kind face and shaggy copper-colored hair that tickled his collar. He always laughed too long after my jokes.

Downtown, Gary found a slot across from the fire station. Parking in that part of Tyler was a bitch. I had to hoof it four whole blocks to the twelve-story cinderblock building where all my fellow fuck-ups had their lives dictated by underpaid, frustrated bureaucrats. Natalie liked to teach me words most guys my age wouldn't know, like bureaucrat. Girls like a smart guy, she always said. On the tenth floor, I waited for Mr. Feldman to call me back. Sometimes I waited thirty minutes before the bastard popped his hairless head through the doorway and chirped my last name, like I was a private in the Army. To kill time, I leafed through a pamphlet for Alcoholics Anonymous. This one featured a twenty-question quiz that promised to prove if you were a boozehound. Total fraud. I bet half the fuckers in my homeroom would flunk. I'd heard AA was a Jesus cult.

Mr. Feldman asked about my grades. Since my guidance counselor sent him my report cards as a condition of my probation, I couldn't lie. I told him about the three classes I'd failed. He tilted his head to the side to express his concern. He asked if I had ADHD or some other learning problem. I had personality conflicts with my teachers, I muttered, and he laughed like I was goddamn hilarious. He reminded me I had to complete five hours of community service before the month's end. He asked if there was anything else he needed to know. I hated that question. Probation wasn't my idea; I didn't know what to report. I wanted to tell him how great my new drawing had turned out, but I'd be totally humiliated if he actually gave a shit. When I returned to the car, Gary smiled and asked if I needed bail. I didn't laugh.

I flicked my cigarette ash out the window as Gary turned onto the street where he lived with his Republican parents and slut sister. This was our arrangement: if I needed the car, I could drive it from his place as long as I returned the next morning to pick him up for school. Since it was Friday, I didn't know how long I could keep it. He might've needed it back Saturday morning or he might have let me jet around town till Monday. After Gary pulled into his driveway, he collected his books and hopped outside. I rounded the car and slid behind the wheel. Try not to get pussy on my upholstery, he said and laughed. That poor bastard, always trying to convince me he wasn't a fag. His gums were starting to recede. I told him if he wanted it back before Monday, he'd have to suck me off. He jerked away from the car, looking stricken. I was kidding, I said. Maybe it was bound to happen, some Friday night after a twelve-pack of beer and a joint: me and Gary. He didn't respond, just gave a weak wave, like he was having a stroke.

Vanessa had the house to herself till six. She played the mascot at school. The only reason I bothered with those lame pep rallies was to watch her pump her fists and urge the crowd to cheer while decked out like a damn bulldog. The first time she wore the costume, she almost passed out from the heat. We each had two shots of whiskey from her parents' stash before we dashed inside her bedroom to fuck. It surprised me how I was still into her. We'd been getting together at least five months, maybe six. She wasn't my official girlfriend or anything. Even losers like me knew girls like Vanessa weren't really dating material.

I loved the way she could cram my whole dick in her mouth, her lips reaching my pubic bone. I loved the way she rode me and shuddered each time I rolled my hips. I loved how she smelled like the Hallmark store in the mall. After I came, Vanessa swung her leg over my body and landed onto the floor with the grace of a gymnast. Still naked, she stopped at her dresser and gazed into the mirror. She brushed her long ash-blonde hair. She always did five strokes on one side then swished her hair to the other shoulder and gave it another five strokes. Rinse and repeat. I told her she had a great body. That got her attention. She glanced over her shoulder and said that was nice but then asked why I'd say that now. After all, we were done fucking. She was a little heavy, but all her parts were in fine proportion. She could've hosted an infomercial on how to make extra weight look good. I tried to smile and told her that I complimented her body because it was true. She looked like she wanted me to keep talking. Vanessa and I had an understanding, though. She asked if I wanted another shot of whiskey.

The joint Vanessa and I shared after fucking left me giddy and relaxed as I drove back into town. She lived far out in the sticks while my parents lived on one of the shorter blocks of a subdivision called Clear Springs nestled behind the elementary school. Growing up, my mom used to walk me to the school's front door every damn day, rain or shine. I missed that. When I walked through the back door, hoping to avoid her, our dog Peaches went apeshit and started barking like I was table scraps. Seconds later, my mom appeared in the doorway. She still wore her turquoise velour workout suit. Ever since Anytime Fitness opened its doors, the whole town had been trying to outdo one another. I don't approve of you cruising around in some boy's car, she said. You're not even sixteen. I reminded her my birthday was only a month away and told her I'd be in my room till dinner. She puckered her lips and squinted at me as if a fogged glass stood between us. Moments after I closed my door, I heard a newscaster announcing how many were injured in a pile-up on the interstate north of Tyler.

I lay on my unmade bed and admired all the women tacked to the wall. Over three years, I'd been adding one after another. Currently, I boasted over fifty drawings, pegged to my wall in stacked rows of ten each. Gary wasn't being fair when he teased me about drawing the entire female faculty. I sometimes drew women that weren't teachers. One drawing was of my mother, another of Aunt Suzanne, and another of the Hospice nurse who stayed with my grandmother during her final days. The youngest woman was still well into her thirties. Young faces never interested me. I wanted to document life, represent women flush with experience, maybe wisdom. Vanessa often asked when I would draw her. Each time, I made up lame excuses, told her she was too gorgeous.

Mrs. Simpson had seen most of these portraits. Since my freshman year, she'd encouraged me to pull my head out of my ass and think about the future. You can't get into a decent art school with D's and F's, she said. I wasn't used to a teacher being nice to me. I kept drawing, kept my eye sharp for new faces, incredible faces. Earlier this semester, she invited me back to her house along with two or three other kids to look at her 'private' works, the stuff she wouldn't bring to school. We thought maybe she painted pictures of naked people and satanic shit. I never found out because I bailed. All that scrutiny made me feel worthless. I was convinced Mrs. Simpson would one day smack her ruler and announce her patience had expired. I was a loser, a burnout, and I needed to leave the classroom before I humiliated myself.

My sketchpad rested against my thighs, my head pressed into the pillows. The practice sketch of Mrs. Simpson lay beside me. Maybe I thought it would make a good reference. Even with it right there, though, I was thinking of ways to make the picture different, better. I fantasized about giving it to Mrs. Simpson and her being so blown away, she convinced my other teachers to pass me because my talent must not be derailed by something as trivial as a letter grade.

It took me a few moments to register Natalie knocking on my window. Like Vanessa, she definitely wasn't slim. She knew, though, how to make the most of her curves. Today she wore a cable-knit burgundy sweater over a pair of black cotton tights. The sweater's hem dusted her knees. Her dark, shimmering hair was twisted into a French braid. Didn't you hear me knocking, dummy? She laughed as I dashed to the window. It's not like she planned to crawl in or anything. Actually, I think she liked our little routine of flirting through my bedroom window. It was like a scene from those dopey sitcoms she liked to watch late at night instead of studying. You haven't stopped by lately, she said, her lips a red-stained pout. I'd never kissed her. If I did, I wouldn't stop there. She turned twenty-one at the end of summer. She'd already promised to buy me booze whenever I wanted. I told her about detention. She playfully smacked my shoulder, sending me back a couple of steps. She was stronger than she looked. You should draw me, she said. I could give you experience with the female form. Chicks are what I draw already, I said. Natalie laughed, a throaty explosion of sass and cynicism, and informed me she meant the nude female form.

My mom called out that dinner was ready. She and my dad let me go wherever I wanted as long as I joined them for dinner every night. I have to go, I said. Natalie waggled her fingers, tossed her head as if she'd forgotten her hair wasn't loose, and stepped away. I watched the mesmerizing twitch of her ass until I again heard my mom call for me. Vanessa had asked me to the football game to watch her perform. I had no clue why I remembered that just then or if I ever truly forgot.

Dinner was just my mom and I. My dad wasn't due back from Dallas until Sunday and both my sisters were staying with friends for the weekend. She asked how school was going. Unlike my probation officer, she didn't need to know what a fuck-up I was. As long as I wasn't held back a year, she didn't pry. While I choked down her dry meatloaf, I got a text from Donnie. He wanted to go to the game. That meant Skunk would join us, too. Gary wouldn't have the stench of pussy in his car after all.

I went into your room while I was cleaning, my mom said. Her voice trailed off as if she expected me to jump in. I didn't. Your great-grandfather was a painter, she said. We lost most of his work in a fire when I was a girl, but he was phenomenally talented. I told her I'd come home after the game, but she looked to the floor like I'd belched at Applebee's and she didn't want the restaurant to know I belonged to her.

Donnie watched Skunk attempt a trick on his skateboard to reverse direction without busting his ass. Skunk, as always, fucked it up. Donnie wailed with laughter, barely noticing me as I pulled into the driveway. Donnie slid into the passenger seat but Skunk couldn't open the door to the backseat. That means you're not invited, dipshit, Donnie yelled. This car is faggot-proof! I laughed because Donnie needed people to think he was funny. I clicked a button and Skunk climbed into the backseat. On our way to the stadium next to campus, Donnie and Skunk bet which girls they'd convince to suck their dicks behind the concession stand. These dumb fucks were still virgins. They admired me. They never asked to see my drawings.

When we turned onto the street leading into the school parking lot, Donnie asked why we weren't parking at the stadium instead. I jammed the brakes in alarm. Really, I'd intended to drive to the stadium. After all, I'd promised Vanessa. I'd made a rule never to disappoint her in little things. Maybe it wouldn't sting when I disappointed her over something major. Skunk grunted, laughed like a jackass and dared Donnie and me to slash some tires. I know which cars belong to which teachers, Skunk added. It would be nice to fuck with Coach Elliott's world, I thought. We don't have anything sharp, Donnie said. Instantly, Skunk whipped out his pocketknife and produced the blade. Always be prepared, he said. I learned that in Boy Scouts.

We parked underneath a massive oak at the far edge of the lot. The three of us targeted cars with obnoxious bumper stickers: LET GO AND LET GOD. IT'S A CHILD, NOT A CHOICE. HE'S NOT MY PRESIDENT. Each time, the luxuriant hiss of air escaping the tire soothed me. I was good at this. My friends agreed. I was doing something most assholes just fantasize about. Skunk pointed out a burnt orange Escort, muttered that the bitch had it coming and marched forward. I dashed ahead of him and blocked his path. Skunk's lip curled into a sneer and his eyes narrowed to slits. You fucking that bitch? he asked. I told him that car was off-limits. Slash any other tires in the lot. I didn't give a shit. Not the Escort, though. No fucking way. Skunk was always a pussy. He backed off right away. The three of us kept slashing until a harsh, booming voice ordered us to stop immediately. The police were on their way.

Donnie and Skunk booked it as the man screamed after them. It took me a moment to identify him. It was twilight, but the lights had yet to switch on. Fucking Coach Elliott. That bastard was everywhere all at once. My friends were long gone. A thick forest of pines bordered the west end of the lot and it absently swallowed both of them. I hadn't moved an inch from the last car we slashed. I had a rule about that: when you're caught, you're caught. Own your damage like it's a drawing, like it's the most fantastic face you've ever seen. Coach Elliott stomped up and grabbed my arm, shook me, demanded to know what I was thinking. Always pulling shit like this, he shouted, spittle flying. I didn't look at him. I stared directly at Mrs. Simpson.

While Coach Elliott cussed me out, I gazed at Mrs. Simpson watching me from the entrance of the band hall, her face like a spoiled surprise. I thought about the picture. I'd planned to finish it after the game, after putting in a token appearance for Vanessa. My gut churned, I felt short of breath. Would Mrs. Simpson even want to see it now? I'd been looking forward to showing her, like a kid waiting for Santa. Coach Elliott demanded I stay with him until the police arrived. He finally let go of my arm, but I didn't move. Mrs. Simpson crossed the lot to her burnt orange Escort, unlocked the door and climbed in. She eased through the lot and left campus. That's the look I'd give her in the drawing, the look she gave me as Coach Elliott shook me senseless. I'd start from scratch. I owed Mrs. Simpson my best.


  1. Nice portrait of a lost kid who's not even sure what it is he's looking for, even though there are times when it's staring him right in the face.

  2. i agree with Jim, I also think many people have talents they are just frightened to let out, but a good story

    michael mccarthy

  3. Very well written story of a lost teen. The writer evokes the pathos of these lost kids in a realistic and fashion. I thought the dialogue and thoughts of the main character were right on. It's so sad that he keeps on doing the loser things that will ruin his life because he has no confidence he will ever make anything of himslef.