The Happy Piece from Prins Hall

By: Tyler Chitwood

The seven-story, brick dormitory shaded the parking lot when the sun set. Eight gold letters covered in rust read “PRINS” above the double-door entrance. The building was dressed in white, frost living on every ledge, fog penetrating each dorm window. The dead limbs of the pine trees out front offered weak hugs to the residents of Prins. Two urns sat at each corner of the front wall to ash cigarettes in. Overall, the building was an eerie thing to look at.

            Most days I’d usually leave through the back entrance of the business building, which lead to a dirt path that connected to Howard Street, one of the few flat streets that in our mountain town. It served as a miniature highway for students who lived in the two apartment complexes off campus. Also, it was a straight shot to Jefferson Street, the road that Prins was on. Aside from being a shortcut, Howard Street had a paper company, a few apartments, a suspicious Chinese restaurant, and my favorite coffee shop, Espresso News.

            If I hadn’t drank coffee that morning, I’d make a pit stop at Espresso News to get a latte, smoke a cigarette, and talk to the professors who played chess while smoking pipes on the front deck. The locals referred to the café as “E-news,” a shorthand moniker that showed you weren’t a visitor, showed you belonged. It was an oddly shaped two-story brick-building pushed into the back of the storefronts facing King Street, the one-lane road parallel to Howard. The front of E-news looked like a green house cut in half. You could stare through the big hazy windows when you were walking up. Once inside, you saw the coffee bar and stairs leading to the second floor. It was a place for studying but also a place for a pleasant conversation.

             On the days I didn’t stop, I’d continue to Jefferson and hike up to Prins, which was at the top of the hill near the football stadium.

            Prins peaked over the hill about halfway up the sidewalk. If it was quiet enough, someone might think it was abandoned. The constant shade outside of Prins allowed for a hard layer of snow to line the front wall. Cigarette butts peaked through the barrier of snow like orange blades of grass. The flower pots placed by the agriculture club held mounds of snow that looked like bouquets of petunias. Most days I wouldn’t even brush by people on the way in or the way out. It made me wonder if all of us had different schedules.

            I was the only student that I was aware of with no roommate in Prins. Being alone had its moments, but I always liked the idea of meeting my freshman-year roommate and becoming best friends. I lived on the fourth floor which had a variety of freshman stereotypes. Dannon and Dirk across the hall quickly established themselves as the kids who smoked and sold weed. Addie and Savannah three rooms down would always tell me how excited they were to join a sorority. Duncan and Colin at the end of the hall covered their room in tapestries and Jerry Garcia posters, plus they racked up the most noise complaints. Tristan and Alex were rushing for a frat and had a tough time inviting girls over to “hangout.”

            Duncan and Dirk always invited me to hang out with them despite the fact I didn’t smoke weed. Over the period of a couple weeks we began to do everything together. We would study, get food in-between class, watch low-budget sci-fi movies, and play video games. Dirk introduced me to lifting weights and invited me to play basketball. Duncan taught me how to play chess and solve a Rubix cube. They both attended a high school only an hour away from the university so they were familiar with a lot of faces. One of their friends that I clicked with was Emily.

            She was their only friend who lived on the fourth floor of Prins with us. She was also my first kiss.

            Dirk introduced me to Emily early on in the semester because I needed someone to buy Adderall from. For about a month my relationship with Emily operated on the understanding that I was a costumer and she was the seller. On Tuesday of every week she would meet me outside Prins on my way back from my night class around 7:15 p.m. She would hand me a bag of Adderall and I’d give her cash. We never tried to make conversation with each other, which I loved. There were no bullshit sympathy questions like “What have you been up to?” or “How has your day been?” We both wanted to keep it under ten seconds and then we’d see each other if we were with Dirk or Duncan.

            One Tuesday about two months into the semester Emily didn’t meet me outside. I waited at the picnic tables just past the parking lot in front of Prins. The trees guarded the tables from the breeze making it feel like you were inside a bubble. The three lamp fixtures that lit up the parking lot flickered on their own time like the finger buttons of a trumpet improvising a solo. It was only 7:30 and the only noise was the faint sound of cars mushing through the slush on Jefferson Street just past the patch of trees.

            Twenty minutes was still twenty minutes inside my picnic-table bubble. Each time I checked my phone I grew more worrisome. I put on Chet Baker’s 1954 album “Chet Baker Sings” to take my mind away from things.

I saw you last night and got that old feeling

            I walked around the picnic table kicking pinecones and humming along with Baker. I decided to text her out of what I convinced myself was curiosity and not concern.

            I received a text five minutes later that read:

            “Can you meet me in my room? It’s room 4320.”

            Less than ten minutes later I found myself sitting on a grey IKEA couch in her dorm.

            Emily reserved the wall in her dorm with the window as her “art” wall. Over a dozen canvases cascaded across the wall accompanied by indoor plants living in small clay pots like the ones I remember decorating in elementary school.

            “You’d be able to put more paintings up if you used another wall,” I told her.

            “I like people being able to see them right away when they walk into my room,” she said.

            “How often do you have people over?”

            “Rarely. Just kids like you,” she pauses, “clients.”

            Emily was a “dorm” friend. We were cordial with each other, but she was someone I’d only hang out with if Dirk or Duncan were there, never just the two of us. We occasionally bumped into each other at house parties, and I’d offer to walk her back to the dorm. We’d talk about something awkward, like our favorite movie or the best spots to eat on campus. We also loved fashion and talked about that when we could, but our conversations never signaled towards a greater friendship than the one we had. For the first few months we knew each other, the most personal thing she told me was that she cried during the movie “Tinkerbell” when her little cousin made her watch it with her.

            Emily checked every corner of her room looking for the Adderall while I looked over the art wall. The bulk of her paintings were nature scenes with sci-fi characters mixed in. There was one painting of this murky pond surrounded by trees and in the water was Chewbacca and Han Solo laughing with each other. Two over from that was a detailed painting of the New York City skyline with some Pokémon flying through the air. She had at least two or three anime-themed paintings, but I wasn’t familiar with a lot of anime at the time.

            “Do you do art shows?” I asked.

            “No, I’m actually an English major.” She pulled a bag of pills from her desk drawer. “My parents wouldn’t let me major in anything art-related.” She handed me four pills.

            “And they thought English was better?” I put the Adderall in my bag and gathered my things before I headed out.

            “Do you paint?” she asked.

            “I doodle trees sometimes but I’m no Matisse.” There was a drawn-out silence. Emily adjusted a few paintings on the wall. “How often do you paint?”

            “When I’m feeling emotional. I could be sad, happy, angry, or whatever else, and I’ll paint to get my mind off things.” She returned to her desk to uncover a black crate hiding underneath. “I keep everything I paint. I think at least one person will like every painting I make.”

            She shuffled through a miniature library of canvases stowed away inside a black crate labeled “Throwaway”.

            “This is my most recent one.” She handed me the canvas and I sat back down on her IKEA futon.

            It was far different from anything she had on the art wall. It was a square canvas no bigger than a foot on each side. She went for a simple concept: a spiral of colors blossoming from the center of the canvas that disappeared at the edges. It used a variety of colors, but I remember noticing the center, where the spiral came together, was this light-burgundy color that reminded me of the scooter I rode in the driveway of my childhood home.

            “What inspired this one?”

            “I started painting it the day I realized I’m happy.” She told me.

            “What made you happy?”

            “You ask a lot of questions for someone buying Adderall.”

            “You paint a lot for someone who sells Adderall.”

            “Nothing specific. I just woke up one Sunday morning, the sun came in through the window, and things felt okay for this first time in a while. So, I painted that.”

            She grabbed the painting from me and paraded around the room with it looking for an appropriate spot to hang it. One by one she began removing pieces from the wall and reorganizing the rest just to make room for this “happy” piece. Each canvas had a spot of its own, including the happy piece. She spent a good deal of time running through different combinations and grew more and more frustrated by the minute.

            It was amusing to see her frustrated over something for the first time. I wanted her to find a place for the happy piece but instead she found a place on the ground for the rest of the paintings. I could tell she was bothered by the whole situation.

            We both stared at the discombobulated wall of paintings and I started laughing,

            “What’s so funny?” She asked.

            “I’m just thinking about you crying during Tinkerbell.”

            “I can’t believe I told you that!” She tossed the happy piece on the floor like a napkin.

            I grabbed the painting off the floor and reexamined that color in the center of the spiral. I rarely thought about my childhood. It wasn’t something that came up on a daily basis. But this light-burgundy color in the happy piece brought me to a time when the biggest of my worries was jumping over toy blocks with my scooter, a time when my brother and I would spend weekend nights catching lightning bugs, a time when I knew my parents.

            “You should take it.” She told me.

            “What? I can’t do that.”

            “There isn’t room for it here so I’d rather you just hang it up. Maybe it will make you happy.”

            “I think I’m pretty happy now. Plus, it’s your happy piece”

            “I want you to have it.”

            An unforeseen feeling of love fell over me. My mother used to fill my room with her paintings as a kid, but I didn’t hold on to any of them.

            “Can you sign it?” I asked.

            She grabbed a sharpie from her desk and marked the bottom corner with her first name and the first letter of her last name.

            “You’ll be by next week, right?”

            I nodded my head and hid my smile from her.

            Emily gave me that painting on March 19th, 2019. From that night on we decided to meet in her room when I bought Adderall from her. We’d talk about music, art, and other things. A few months later we started dating. The Adderall was free after that happened.

            Today it’s April 14th, 2026. It’s my 27th birthday. More importantly, tonight is Emily’s first art showcase. A group of artists and curators in San Francisco asked her to get together a portfolio of paintings, and they would choose five or six to display at a museum downtown. There is going to be a big banner with the name “Emily Alexander” hung above her own area. Little titles cards are going to be hung under each painting. She’s always wanted that. People at the museum even have the option to purchase the paintings if they want. What a nice birthday present.

            Emily and I got married in September of 2022 the summer after our graduation. Emily got a job through the art department as an art consultant for the University of California, Berkley. We moved straight to California after our two-week honeymoon in Nice, France. We got lucky with a house just thirty minutes from the campus that has a balcony on the second story for Emily and I to paint on. My creative writing major didn’t have companies lining up at my front door so I got a job as a bartender at a place called Appalachian Mountain Brewery. It’s a good way to meet people in the area.

            After work, I stopped by the house to drop off some stuff and then headed towards San Francisco. I can’t remember the last time I was this excited for something. Days like this are what Emily and I call “Film Days.” No clouds in the sky, everyone on the sidewalks glowing, the breeze that hits your face walking down the sidewalk feels artificial, and the trees don’t have all their leaves in place. Every driveway is paved in sunlight. The smell of freshly cut lawns and ocean mist mix in the air. It’s like a big Hollywood movie set just for us.

            I arrived at the museum with two black coffees thirty minutes after they opened. I also had our special 33mm film camera that we used only on “Film Days.” On special days like today, Emily and I get a stranger to photograph us with the film camera so we can hang it on a dedicated wall in our house.

            I scanned my ticket at the gate and hustled through a crowd of suits and dresses. I found Emily talking with two people about one of her paintings titled “Mid-day in Naboo”. It’s a painting of Luke Skywalker playing basketball with Ewoks. There are five paintings on the wall, and I was only allowed to see the Luke Skywalker one. There was one of a red barn in space, another of a man smoking a cigarette on the Golden Gate bridge, one of three teenagers swinging on a rusted swing set, and the last one which was the most special of them all.

            In fine print on a gold-plated title card read: “The Happy Piece from Prins Hall”. Underneath that was a white title card that read: “NOT FOR SALE”. Not many things could have made me happier than seeing that painting on the wall. The happy piece was just as I had left it with that light-burgundy color in the center of the spiral. Emily greeted me with a big hug and we both looked at the neatly organized grouping of paintings that she hung up herself.

            “I love it. But I wish you would have hung up the painting I did of Orlando Bloom on a yacht in the Pacific Ocean,” I said.

            “Next time. Excuse me, do you mind taking a picture of us,” she asked a bystander.

            I handed the woman our camera, and Emily and I posed in front of the happy piece.

            “Thank you.” Emily handed me the camera. “Happy Birthday, by the way.”

            I couldn’t help but smile. It’s hard to believe Adderall is what brought me to her.