In Joshua Tree, a number of years ago, my brother Ethan and I happened upon a junkyard. There was nothing unusual about the junkyard except for the owner. To both of our surprise, instead of the normal haggling and bartering to sell his dusty goods, the old man was giving away his stuff for free, including the famous Joshua Tree Oasis Road Runner sign. Nobody gives anything away for free these days! The calm manner that glowed from him showed that he seemed to be happier giving things away than keeping them… The interaction with the old man resonated with my brother and I long after that afternoon, and became the basis for my children’s story that is featured in my book and show, “The Night the Moon Ate My Room!”
For it was true, indeed, that what the old man gave us that day was a lesson worth more than all his items put together in that junkyard… and I share it as often as I can.
A short story by Jesse Wilson
“Dreams are like the paints of a great artist. Your dreams are your paints, the world is your canvas. Believing is the brush that turns your dreams into a masterpiece of reality.”
The very old man wore a white cowboy hat, blue-tinted glasses, and had a scraggly gray beard. All his life, he’d collected junk in an old school bus he once bought from practically a lifetime of giving away junk. As he was setting up for his latest junkyard, in the distance a beat-up truck drove over the hill. Finally, at the junkyard, the truck rolled to a stop. The painter got out and began to look around…
# # #
At his last and final art show in the city, just like all the other shows that came before it, not one single painting of the painter’s was ever sold. The gallery owner, whose job it was to sell art to the public, decided to stop trying to sell the painter’s art anymore.
“What can I do, if no one wants to buy your paintings?” the gallery owner said to the painter.
When the painter had returned to his tiny studio, he looked at his paintings with disgust.
“These are the ugliest paintings in the world!” the painter shouted. “I hate my paintings! It’s no wonder no one wants to buy my paintings! Why can’t I be a famous artist like Monet or Picasso?”
He began to destroy his own paintings.
In the midst of his anger, a filthy, skinny cat appeared on his window sill, crying out in hunger.
“Go away,” the painter said. “I have nothing to give you.”
The cat leapt from the window sill into the painter’s small studio. “Go away now!” the painter shouted.
Startled by the painter’s anger, the starving cat scrambled onto a loose shelf, and ended up dumping several cans of paint all over itself. “Oh no, look at all my paint on the floor!” the painter said. “Ahh, what does it matter? Nothing good will come from that paint anyway…” He was so wrapped up in his own misery that he forgot about that poor cat who was covered whiskers to tail in fresh paint. Sadly, with a line of colorful paw prints following him, the cat leaped onto the window sill and disappeared into the night.
The next day, the painter got in his truck, and moved to the desert. For a long time, he lived all alone in a small house out in the middle of this huge, sandy no-where. He tried to tell himself that he was happy, completely alone; but in time he began to feel lonely. He missed the company of people around him. Deep down inside, he wished he could paint again– beautifully, as he once had, many, many years ago before he thought about being a famous painter.
One day, feeling more lonely than ever, he got in his truck and he happened upon a small sign off the side of the road. It said: “Junkyard, 1 mile ahead.” Curious, the painter turned onto the dirt road, and headed towards the junkyard, expecting to see a lot of people buying and selling things like most junkyards. But there was no one in sight.
He got out of his truck now, and began to walk around, looking at all the junk displayed. He saw a dusty mirror. A rusty trombone. A rickety writing desk. As he was looking at a bunch of old hats, seemingly out of nowhere, a very old man appeared out of the blinding sunlight. Even before the old man spoke, the painter sensed a friendliness so huge in him, he no longer felt like a stranger to the man.
“I’m Bob!” the old man said in a country drawl. “How are ya, young man?”
“Fine. How are you?”
“I’m doin’ pretty good for an old man. But it’s a beautiful life, and I ain’t complain’ one bit. Come see the last of my goods. A lot of people have taken things away already,” the old man said to him pleasantly. “Look around! If ya see anything you need, ‘ya just holler,” old Bob said. “All ya have to do is ask.”
The painter walked towards what he thought was a bunch of paintings leaning against a dusty bookshelf. He approached one canvas frame with its back turned to him. Curious, the painter turned it around, but discovered this canvas was perfectly blank. “How much does this strange old man think he can get for a blank canvas?” the painter thought to himself. He started to walk away, when the frame tipped over on the ground, knocking over a bunch of other seemingly worthless items.
“Ahh! You’ve discovered something you like!” the old man said.
“But I didn’t touch—“
The old man went right on talking as if he hadn’t heard the painter. “Well boy, it’s yours! You may take it home with you!”
The painter didn’t want to be rude and tell the old vendor there was nothing on any of those canvases he saw. As if old Bob could hear the painter’s thoughts, he began to chuckle. “There’s plenty of stuff on ‘em, young fella– you just got to look a little closer…”
The painter picked up the frame and this time, when he turned the canvas around, a painting did appear! Colors began to circle and turn and weave inside and out, until he saw his own house in the desert filled with many other paintings— an amazing sight to the painter, filling him with an excitement he hadn’t felt in so long. “Paint, young sir,” the old man said. The painter wasn’t at all sure why the old man had given away this magical painting for free. “You mean… for free?” the painter asked, hoping there wouldn’t be a price for it. He certainly couldn’t afford it– he barely had any money left to his name.
“Sure, free!” the old vendor answered. “Don’t need anything for it.”
At his home, the painter stood back, admiring his newest painting on the wall. He felt a great rush of excitement… something he hadn’t felt in years. He built himself a studio outside his house, and with the little money he had, he bought brushes, paints of all sorts of different colors, and blank canvases. In a few days, he was painting again. He tried copying what was in all those paintings inside the one magic painting– they were paintings of the desert, and they were all so beautiful, filled with the colors of his dreams. But as he did, mysteriously, the painting on the wall went blank, as white as a bed sheet! “That old man must have played an evil trick on me,” thought the painter.
Trying to remember what was in those paintings, the painter began to explore the desert. There were millions of thorny cactus plants outside his home– just like in the magic painting. So he painted every cacti he could see. And then he discovered fantastically shaped rocks now. Desert creatures. And sunsets. And sunrises. He fell in love with the desert and forgot about trying to remember what was in the magic painting. All that mattered was that he was painting again. In his search for everything around him in the desert, he began to forget about being famous and rich and all the noisy stuff that had nothing to do with what was in front of him right then. There was so much to explore.
As he was painting one day, a very strange thing occurred. The paint on his own canvas began to disappear! “Do I need glasses? Am I going blind? Could there be something wrong with my paint?” He had to see the old man for help. Right away.
The old man seemed to be expecting the painter…
“How does your new painting look on the wall?” old Bob asked curiously.
“Well, it was fine until it went blank!” the painter exclaimed. “And then my own painting disappeared.”
“Hmm, that’s interestin’,” the old man said. “Let’s see if I can lend a hand… First, you might want to know why this strange old man gave such an unusual painting away? It must be worth plenty,’ maybe you’re askin’ yourself…”
“Well, yes, I—“
“That’s a wonderful question, and I’d be happy to tell ya, kind sir. It makes me feel good to do it. My greatest pleasure is helpin’ somebody else to dream again… Have any idea who that might be? You see, my dreams, like the paintings, are strictly for sharin’. If ya hold onto ‘em too tightly or let ‘em go… and think only about what you’re gonna get from it, sometimes them dreams can just… disappear. They lose their magic! I’ve given away everythin’ that meant anything to me in this beautiful life. Well… almost everythin’…” His old hand gestured to the remaining canvases. “And that’s how I hold onto my dreams… How about another painting here ‘ya might like?” the old man suggested.
The painter quickly picked up another blank canvas. Colors behind to swirl, then, another painting transformed in front of his eyes! It was of a colorful cat happily napping on the edge of a bed. Both the cat and the room in the painting began to look very familiar to the painter.
“Take it,” Bob said. “Take it home. Oh, and be careful driving.”
On the way home, a cat darted in front of the painter’s truck. Screeeccch! The painter swerved off the road, almost hitting the cat! When the painter got out of the truck, he found the cat, all skin and bones, sitting on the side of the road, yawning, like nothing had happened. “Crazy cat,” the painter said. “If you knew how lucky you were to be alive…” The cat looked like it was starving. Feeling a little sorry for it, the painter picked him up, deciding to take him to his home in the desert.
Right away, the cat was given a bath. Now most cats hate to get wet, but this one seemed to relish in the attention. Once the dirt was washed away, the painter saw how beautiful the cat really was, covered from whiskers to claws in beautiful colors! Amazed by this, the painter decided to name him Vincent, after a famous artist he admired— Vincent Van Gogh.
Boy, was Vincent happy to eat! He garbled down as much food as it possibly could. The cat was incredibly happy. It jumped up on the edge of the painter’s bed, curled up, and fell into a deep, cozy sleep.
As the painter hung his new painting on the wall, he suddenly realized Vincent on his bed looked… well, he was just like the cat in the painting. Something magical, indeed, was happening. But then the painting on that canvas began to disappear. And so did the actual Vincent on the bed. As the “real” cat was fading away in front of him, he could hear Vincent’s thoughts saying to him, “The magic only works if you share your gift.” The painter wanted that magic, the kind that Junkyard Bob had shared with him.
Quickly, loading his truck with every one of his new paintings he’d made, he drove into town. The town was desolate, sad, colorless. The painter visited as many homes as he could, giving away his paintings for free. The townspeople thought the painter was crazy, but they couldn’t deny how wonderful his art was. Almost instantly, the entire town was talking about the new painter who shared his art with everyone. They all said the same thing when the painter knocked on their doors: “We have nothing to give you for it.”
“Don’t need anything for it,” the painter would reply, cheerfully. It felt so good to give the paintings away after he’d spent so long trying to sell them in the city. But he was getting something back now. Much more than he’d ever imagined.
The beautiful colors transformed that town with laughter and happiness.
More and more color grew in that town…
It seemed as if the painter couldn’t stop painting. For days and days he painted. The more he gave away, the more he painted. And the more he painted, the happier he made everyone else, including himself. It was the happiest the painter had ever been in his entire life.
One afternoon, while busy painting, the painter saw that the last canvas Bob had given was changing. The colors were turning… He now saw what looked like his old studio in the city where he used to live; he saw paint splattered everywhere; and he saw the skinny, filthy cat standing on his windowsill, dripping with paint. He noticed Vincent at his feet now, looking up at the painter. “There was a time when you were worried more about the paint on the floor than a hungry cat in your window.”
Suddenly, the painter remembered that day in his city studio. It felt like so long ago.
“Of course! That was you, wasn’t it, Vincent? Covered in paint! How selfish I was! And you followed me all this way out here in the desert! You wonderful cat!”
He heard Vincent’s thoughts in his head again: “You wouldn’t be painting if it wasn’t for that old vendor in the desert.”
“How selfish of me!” the painter exclaimed. He realized he had never truly thanked Junkyard Bob for what he’d been given, receiving nothing in return. He was painting again because of Junkyard Bob.
Quickly, he got into his truck and drove to see the old man.
The junkyard was gone. No one was there. There was nothing but the empty desert again. Disappointed, he was about to return home when he discovered a new canvas at his feet! Where had this canvas come from? He held it in his hands, waiting for a picture to emerge. But nothing happened. It remained blank.
Sometimes, a blank canvas can show us more of an actual picture than what our eyes can see. It was then the painter suddenly understood: it was up to him, the painter, to create his own future… If he was willing to share it.
With old Bob’s final gift and with Vincent curled up on the seat next to him, the painter drove home, heading for his future that was already beginning to take shape.
If you’d like to purchase a copy of Jesse Wilson’s children’s book, buy it on Amazon.