The Real Mr. Vankos

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
September/October 2000

By Laura Aberle, Illustrated by Jane Westrick

When Mr. Vankos painted a giant portrait of himself on the side of his house, I heard many mentions of him being totally out of his mind. Everyone in my neighborhood had a house of solid color with shutters of the opposite shade. It seemed to anger them that someone would paint their house more than two colors, like it was a sacred tradition to be dead boring. With so many people against him, I had no reason to disagree with the statement.

My natural curiosity got the better of me, though, as usual. For as long as I could remember I had been expected to find things to do, to play by myself if I must. My parents were always working and I was left alone with Anita, who had her hands full with all the housework, and my three younger brothers. When my friends weren’t available, or when no one could drive me somewhere, I would just wander around and try to catch pieces of conversations between the neighbors or see who was putting a new addition on their house next. So I have always been extremely curious—even nosy—and I was no less than captivated by the strange man with the colorful house.

“Who would do such an absurd thing?” my nanny Anita muttered early one morning as she was ironing my shirt. “That lunatic was slaving over some portrait for weeks, knowing the only thing he’ll get from it is the whole block thinking he’s nuts. Well, I tell you,” she continued with a littie smirk, “he succeeded in doing that.” She pressed the last crease out of the shirt and handed it over to me, sighing. “That house was so nice before he moved in,” she breathed, putting her hands on her wide hips. “He must have been a very deprived child, wanting all this negative attention. Why doesn’t he move back to the city where they’re used to all this weirdness?”

The Real Mr. Vankos ironing a shirt

“Who would do such an absurd thing?” Anita muttered early one morning as she was ironing my shirt

I took the shirt and scampered down the hall to my bedroom. I flicked on the light and changed out of my pajamas into my school clothes. Ignoring Anita’s cries to hurry up, I crossed the room and pulled back a lacy curtain. A soft morning glow came filtering through as I peered out the window and tried to get a glimpse of the painting. Mr. Vankos’s house was two away, but it was set back farther than the other houses, so I could see the side of it. Unfortunately, the only thing visible above the fence at the edge of his yard was what seemed to be the forehead of a giant face, topped by a disheveled mass of black hair. It seemed to be slightly grainy in appearance, as if not all the colors had totally mixed. I stood on my tiptoes to get a better look, but just then, Anita hurried into the room.

“Lynn, speed it up or you’ll be late for school,” she hissed impatiently. “Your mother will have my hea- . . .” She suddenly saw me craning my neck toward Mr. Vankos’s house. “Sweetie, you stay away from that loony Vankos or you’ll never leave this house again on your own. Understand?”

“Oh yes, Anita, I was just curious about that big picture you were talking about . .” I replied, trying to sound as if I wasn’t truly interested.

“Well don’t be,” Anita snapped, pulling the curtain closed in one hasty motion. “Now slip your shoes on and let’s go!”

My nanny waved to me from the window as I began the walk toward school. I could see the tiny form of my friend Jill waiting for me at the corner. I picked up the pace, my breath fogging up the frigid air in front of me. My backpack bounced along on my back, my cold feet tingled as I splashed through a slushy puddle, my hands swayed unsteadily as I tiptoed around a patch of ice, until suddenly, I halted.

I had arrived at Vankos’s house. It looked pretty normal with its white shingles and black shutters, but as I took a step backward I could see the left side.

The painting was gigantic. I stood there in awe and gasped. Below the hair and the forehead were two sharp green eyes covered by tiny gray glasses with a long, pointed nose between them. Two thin black lips were frowning near the bottom of the waxy, white face. For some reason, the whole thing mesmerized me. I stood there and gaped, breathless.

“That is the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen. How can you even look at it, Lynn?” a girl’s voice moaned. I hadn’t realized Jill had walked up beside me. I jumped slightly at her words.

“Wha-?” I asked in confusion.

“I said that thing on his wall is gross,” Jill complained. “Vankos looks like a madman.”

“How do you know it’s a picture of him?” I asked, my eyes still glued to the house. “I mean it could be anybody— no one’s ever seen him, have they?”

Jill shrugged carelessly and said, “C’mon, let’s get to school.”

With one last glance at the painting, I reluctantly followed her down the street.

All day I couldn’t concentrate. I kept thinking about the evil green eyes on that horrible pale face. Although frightening, the portrait intrigued me and I had to know more.

I knew the only way to calm myself was to knock on the lunatic’s door and ask him about the portrait. I was wondering if he really was insane and he’d try to attack me or something when someone asked me, “Lynn, do you have a story for your newspaper article?”

I took a deep breath and glanced around the room. I was in my Young Reporters class and the teacher was making sure we were preparing for our articles.

“Yes I do,” I replied firmly.

“Good, I’m glad to see you haven’t been daydreaming but actually working for a change,” the teacher muttered a little too loudly, marking something down on her clipboard. I ignored her comment. Instead, I opened my notebook and began jotting down questions to ask Mr. Vankos.

At the last bell, I made up a lie that I had to hurry home to help Anita with something. I lied well and escaped having to walk with Jill. She’d definitely be against my interview with Mr. Vankos, just like everyone else, and I didn’t want any complications. As I approached the house though, I began hoping for her to come along and stop me from getting myself in deep trouble.

I picked up the cold metal knocker tentatively and thought momentarily. Would the knocking be the sound of my death or the sound of me about to shed light on some misunderstood man?

My hand quivered uncertainly. I could imagine Mr. Vankos taking me hostage for disturbing him.

Suddenly I imagined my parents not caring that I was gone. They didn’t know me well enough to mourn my disappearance for too long. Maybe they wouldn’t even care enough to pay the ransom!

On the other hand, though, I would care if I was taken hostage and I could almost hear Anita sobbing, “I told her not to go, I told her he was trouble. Why couldn’t she listen?”

Maybe it isn’t worth it, I thought. I should just pick another topic for my article. Even if it’s a boring one, at least I’ll be alive and well.

I dropped the knocker and before I could realize what I’d just done, it swung back toward the door and emitted a loud bang. I froze, unable to make a break for it—or maybe unwilling. My natural curiosity had glued me to the spot while my mind was shrieking, Run, Lynn, run while you still can!

Before I knew it, someone was opening the door. The interior was dark, but I could see the outline of someone standing there. I stared at the person, and my eyes moved to their hand. The hand was holding a long thin object dripping with a glistening red liquid. Blood?

I couldn’t stand it any longer. I screamed. Actually, it was more of a strangled yelp.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” a gentle voice wafted out of the darkness. “This paint should come off your shoes in no time.” I automatically looked down at my left shoe and saw a little splatter of red. Obviously paint. I felt like an idiot as I remembered that Mr. Vankos was a painter. All the rumors of him being crazy had apparently gone to my head. I squeezed my eyes shut and breathed deeply.

“Um, uh, M-Mr. Vankos?” I squeaked.

“Yes, that’s me.”

“Could I just ask you some quick questions about your paintings?” I asked. Then I quickly added, “It’s for school.”

“Sure, what’s up?”

The normal, casual tone in his voice surprised me. I stuttered for a few moments and then glanced down at my notepad. I read from it, “I would like to know why you, urn, put that, uh, painting on your house? I mean, it’s not exactly . . . uh, similar to the other houses.” I paused, waiting for Mr. Vankos to leap out of the shadows and strangle me. I shuffled backwards a bit and said, “And, um, is it a self-portrait?”

“Well,” the man began, “as you can see it’s definitely not a self-portrait.” He stepped into the fading light of the afternoon and I saw it was true. The young man before me had short, well-kept blond hair and sparkling blue eyes. He had a warm smile and good complexion—almost the opposite of the painting. I scribbled something on my notepad as he continued with, “And as for why I did it, I don’t know. The picture just came to me, and I guess I wanted to show off my skills with it. It’s a special kind of painting, you know.”

I was silent.

“Let me show you,” he said and took a step forward. I leaped backwards, still uneasy around him. He grinned and began to walk around to the other side of the house. I reluctantly followed him, scribbling on my notepad.

I had never been so close to the portrait before. It was even more amazing than before. As I looked closer at it, I saw that it was made of little boxes and within each box was a person. Every person was different from the others. There were people running, swimming, smiling, laughing, and painting. They were all different colors with different expressions. If they’d all been the same, it would’ve been boring and incomplete. I almost laughed as I studied all the different people.

“Do you have any more questions?” Mr. Vankos asked.

The Real Mr. Vankos talking to an artist

I saw that it was made of little boxes and within each box was a person

“Um, yes,” I said. I didn’t look at my notes this time, but right into his sparkling eyes. I said, “Don’t you know that people hate you for this painting?”

The man was silent. I couldn’t tell if he hadn’t known that or if he was angry that I had brought it up. My body tensed but I would not run. I had to know the truth. I couldn’t let this man go on being lonely unless I knew the truth. Mr. Vankos turned and stared at the portrait, then lifted his hand and brushed it across the surface. The paintsplattered hand lay there as Mr. Vankos thought of an answer. Finally, his hand dropped and he said, “That’s their problem,” and turned to go back into the house. “Please excuse me,” he muttered.

I almost called after him because so many more questions were bubbling up inside of me. Instead, I glanced at the painting and without another thought, rushed home.

About two weeks later, as I was walking home from school, Jill ran up to me with a paper flapping in her hand.

“You actually went to his house?” she shrieked, horrified.

“Yeah,” I replied nonchalantly. “No big deal, he’s a nice guy.”

“Wow, you’re brave. I can’t believe everybody thought he was so psycho.” Jill studied me with admiration then repeated, “Wow.”

I shrugged and smiled. Jill looked down at the paper and said, “I love this part of your article, Lynn. It’s great. Let me read it.”

“Jill, I know what I wrote, you don’t need to. . .”

“‘I believe that we are all trapped in a square, with different moods and appearances, likes and dislikes. If we were all the same, wouldn’t the world be boring and incomplete? So if the people in this town are too cruel to allow Mr. Vankos to become a part of our ordinary tapestry, if we do not want a little color and fire in our lives, then you will never know true happiness. Let the town remain the same, but remember my warning when you’re wishing you had been kinder and wiser. . .'”

Jill trailed off and sniffled, pretending to be deeply moved. “That is just so touching,” she murmured. I laughed.

As we passed Mr. Vankos’s house on the way home from school, a group had formed around the painting. Everyone was pointing to different squares, talking. In the midst was Mr. Vankos himself. He smiled and waved. I smiled slowly and knew that I had made the town’s painting complete.

The Real Mr. Vankos Laura Aberle

Laura Aberle, 12
Glastonbury, Connecticut

The Real Mr. Vankos Jane Westrick

Jane Westrick, 12
Mechanicsville, Virginia

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One Comment
 
  1. Joyce Boomsma April 15, 2017 at 5:50 am Reply

    I love stories that remind me to be a better person. Thank you, Laura, for giving me that gift today.

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