Nine-year-old Jim dreams of becoming a famous artist to help lift his family from poverty. However, an illness in the family forces Jim to give up everything he worked so hard for.
Jim sat on the roof of his tenement building and held up the drawing he’d just completed. It was a pencil sketch of the skyline to the south, where tall office buildings and fancy apartments reached for the heavens.
He took his broken piece of pencil lead and made some corrections before placing the finished sketch in a folder he’d found in a dumpster last week. All it needed now was some color. Jim then hid the folder under his sweater so his brothers wouldn’t see it and returned to his family’s tiny, two-bedroom apartment.
All six of Jim’s siblings were sitting around the TV eating dinner. A pang of hunger twisted through Jim’s gut at the smell of food.
“Soup’s on the stove,” Jim’s sister, Mary, told him. “I saved half a biscuit for you too.”
“Where’d you get biscuits?” Jim asked as he went to fetch his food.
Mary shrugged. “That new guy at the bakery gave them to me. They’re stale, so they were going to throw them out anyway.”
Jim sat down and wolfed his dinner. He dragged his finger through the last bits of liquid at the bottom of his bowl when his brother, Vincent, reached over and poked his side.
“What’s this?” Vincent asked.
“Give that back, Vinny!” Jim reached for his folder, which Vincent had stolen.
“No way!” Jerry passed the folder to Arnie.
“Why are you wasting time drawing when you could be finding food?”
“This isn’t going to feed us!” Arnie held Jim’s folder out the window.
“Don’t you dare, Arnie!” fear washed over Jim like an icy wind.
“Leave him alone!” Mary snatched the folder back from Arnie. “Jim does a lot for us; he deserves to have something he enjoys.”
Arnie scowled and hung his head. “I’m sorry, Jim.”
Jim took his folder from Mary and dashed to hide it beneath his mattress in the room he shared with his brothers. Someday, he hoped to use his best sketches to make paintings and couldn’t bear the thought of something bad happening to them.
Jim woke early the following day and tiptoed from the bedroom. He’d gotten a job helping out on a farm during winter break. He was going out the door when Mom came home from her night job.
“Morning, baby.” Mom smiled and hugged Jim.
This was one of the major perks of Jim’s job: he had a few minutes to see Mom in the morning. Mom had lost weight over the past few months, and bony bumps poked Jim when he hugged her back. She felt fragile, so he hugged her gently.
It’d never be enough to pay for Mom’s medical treatments. He ran into his bedroom and reached into the hole in the drywall where he kept his savings.
“Will I see you later, Mom?” Jim looked up into her eyes, which had dark circles beneath them.
“I have the night off,” Mom replied. “When I get home from my day job later, we can all spend some family time together.”
That was amazing news! Jim hurried to the farm and gladly got to work. At the end of the day, he took home a whole twenty-five dollars. It felt like riches compared to what he’d previously been paid for doing odd jobs. He could even afford to save some of the money for paints.
Jim stopped by the convenience store to buy rice and chicken. His family would eat like kings tonight! As Jim walked home, he dreamed of the day when he’d be a famous artist, and nobody in his family would ever go hungry.
Dinner that evening was rowdy since everyone was happy to share a meal with their mother. All Jim’s siblings spoke simultaneously while Mom’s head turned like a carousel from one child to the next. After dinner, Jim fetched his sketch of a statue to show Mom.
“This is beautiful.” Mom held Jim’s drawing up to admire it.
“You have so much talent.”
“Thanks, Mom.” Jim frowned. Mom’s fingers shook as she held the drawing. “Are you okay, Mom?”
“Of course.” Mom smiled, but Jim couldn’t help but notice how tired she looked.
Little Amy came over then to show Mom the doll Mary helped her make from scraps of cloth. Jim put his folder away and then joined Arnie and Mike’s game of cards. The neighbors in the apartment above were playing upbeat music, and Mary started dancing to it.
Soon, the whole family was laughing and dancing. Their stomachs were full, they were together, and it seemed like everything was good with the world at that moment.
Then Mom’s eyes rolled back in her head, and she collapsed.
Jim ran up the stairs to his apartment. The rest of his family was still at the hospital waiting for news of their mother. He was the fastest runner, so they’d nominated him to return home to get the emergency money jar from the kitchen cupboard.
Jim’s heart sank when he saw the pitiful collection of coins and bills in the jar. It’d never be enough to pay for Mom’s medical treatments. He ran into his bedroom and reached into the hole in the drywall where he kept his savings.
“Goodbye, paints and canvas,” Jim said as he added his money to the jar.
He could never have guessed how right he was to listen to his instincts the night he chose not to erase the silly little picture he drew in the dirt.
The doctor gave the jar of money a very strange look when the children presented it to him.
“Er…this won’t be enough, I’m afraid, but we can start the treatment and see how it goes.”
The children all looked at each other. They were used to a hard life of hunger and struggle, but none of them knew what to do in this situation.
“We need to get money, fast,” Mary said. “It doesn’t matter what we have to do to get it, so long as Mom will be okay.”
The next day, Jim went straight to the convenience store after his work on the farm. He asked the owner for a job packing shelves, but the man said he was too young. Jim then decided to hang around at the exit to offer his help carrying grocery bags.
He made a few cents from an elderly lady, and a man with a limp paid him a dollar to carry the bags to his car, but it wasn’t enough.
It was getting dark, but Jim couldn’t bear to go home yet. Instead, he knelt beneath a streetlight and dipped his fingers in the dirt that had collected in the gutter.
Jim traced lines of muck across the concrete pavement to form his mother’s smiling face.
He found reddish dust that he mixed with the mud to add shadow, then scraped moss from the bricks around the storm drain and smooshed it into a paste. He used this to add definition around Mom’s nose, eyes, and the curls in her hair.
When he was finished, Jim leaned back to study his work. The linework and shading were fine, but the colors…Jim shook his head. If only he had a rainbow of paints or even chalk to bring the portrait to life. He dipped his hand into the muck once more and was about to smear it across the picture, but he couldn’t.
He thought of Mom telling him how talented he was as he stared at his portrait of her. It felt wrong to erase her face from the sidewalk, like doing so would bring some misfortune down on him.
So Jim left the picture. He looked back at it once as he headed home. Somehow it felt like she was watching over him from the drawing.
Jim returned to the store the next day and made two dollars helping people with their groceries. The store owner also gave him a bottle of milk nearing its expiration date and a few dented cans of food.
Afterward, Jim returned to his mother’s portrait. It had held up well overnight. He touched up the spots where the dirt had flaked away, then added some yellow using lichen he’d collected on the way home from the farm.
“It’s still no good,” Jim muttered when he’d finished.
Jim spun around and found a strange man standing behind him. He gave Jim a friendly smile and introduced himself as Mr. Finn.
“I’m the editor-in-chief for a local art magazine,” Mr. Finn continued, “and I love what you’ve done here. Such an unusual choice of medium, but what an excellent result! This is a very exciting form of artistic expression, young man. With your permission, I’d like to use a photo of your work for the cover of our next issue.”
Jim’s heart soared. He didn’t fully understand everything the man said, but he knew being on the cover of a magazine was a big deal. He was already nodding when he realized this could be what he needed to help Mom.
“How much will you pay me?” Jim asked.
Jim counted the wad of bills Mr. Finn gave him several times on the way to the hospital. He still couldn’t believe how much he’d earned for a photograph of his dirt drawing.
He started spending every evening making art on the sidewalk near the convenience store. He experimented with different things he found to add color and shading to his art, and soon he started getting noticed.
“That’s amazing!” A teen girl said as she admired Jim’s drawing of a sleeping fox.
“I’d love to have that on a t-shirt.”
“I can do that,” Jim said immediately. He didn’t know for certain if he could pull it off, but there was nothing to lose by trying. “Just bring me a t-shirt, and I’ll do it for you.”
“How about these birds?” A man standing nearby asked. “Could you put those on a t-shirt too?”
Jim nodded enthusiastically.
“What about custom art?” A tough-looking man asked.
“Anything you want,” Jim replied.
During the next month, Jim completed several orders from people who wanted his art on t-shirts and baseball caps. He’d taken an enormous risk using the money he’d made at the farm to buy fabric paints, but it was worth it.
Mr. Finn returned to interview him too. It turned out that Jim’s artwork had caused a huge buzz, and plenty of people were curious about him. After the interview was published, Jim had even more people ordering clothes with his art on them. Several people hired him to paint murals in their homes too.
It was a proud day for Jim when he and his siblings entered the hospital to pay off Mom’s medical bill. His heart almost burst with joy at the delight on her face when they presented her with a box of chocolates and some flowers.
“I always knew you’d do good, baby,” Mom muttered to Jim as she kissed him on the cheek. I’m so proud of you.”
Mom was released from the hospital a few days later. Jim continued to sell his art even after he returned to school for the next semester. Soon, the family was doing so well that Mom was able to quit her second job.
A year later, Mary helped Jim create an online store. Now, his art was spreading across the globe! National newspapers interviewed him, and he was even invited to appear on a TV show. However, the best was yet to come.
Jim was thirteen when he held his first exhibition in a local gallery. Fans and art critics clustered around his paintings like bees around a honeypot.
Jim watched them all from a quiet corner of the room. It seemed impossible that all his dreams had come true. He could never have guessed how right he was to listen to his instincts the night he chose not to erase the silly little picture he drew in the dirt.
What can we learn from this story?
Never give up on your talent. Jim had nothing but dirt and muck to draw with, but his art was still of high quality, earning him recognition.
It’s important to support your children’s dreams. Although they were poor, Jim’s mother played a critical role in his life by praising his art, which encouraged him to keep at it.
Share this story with your friends. It might brighten their day and inspire them.