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A Better Color

a short story

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© 2005 Joe Smith

There's paint in my chest hair, and there's just no getting it all out. These days it's also in the hair on my head, my arms, in my eyebrows and eyelashes, and once, inexplicably, in my pubic hair. Baby blue. The oil-based stuff, too, so I choose to trim instead of risking turpentine that close to my dick.


On this particular morning, I bolt up and slam the snooze button hard, and I'm not sure the alarm even went off. I can't remember hearing it, anyway. But it is 6:45 . I swing my legs out of bed to finish waking up. Ugh. I sit for a minute, breathing hard through my nose, staring down. There's Jade Semi-Gloss in the cracks of my knuckles.


In the bathroom, my paint clothes are hanging over the shower rod. They're dry now with a fresh layer of Beige Eggshell. Fucking Beige Eggshell; I'm sick of it.


My pants are pretty crunchy. I'll have to get some new ones and be more careful about wiping so much paint off on them. The shirt's worse, but at this point, with the shirt, I'm seeing how long I can let it go. It's now about twice as heavy as it once was, and stiff. I wouldn't say it was bulletproof, but I'd be perfectly comfortable having someone, say, throw a dart at me.


I get dressed and go back to the bedroom, where Samantha's half awake and holding her arms out. I lean in for a quick kiss, but I don't want to get paint chips in the bed. She has the same thought but her solution is to start taking my shirt off.


I say, “I gotta go, baby. He'll be here in two minutes.” She ignores this and keeps pulling off my shirt. I back off the bed, more briskly than I intended.


“Don't do that, please. I leave myself just enough time to throw on clothes and grab some toast so I don't have to spend two dollars on a bagel, and I don't want to feel like the bad guy because I don't have time to cuddle. I'm sorry.”


Immediately I know I handled this badly and that Sam's hurt. She says “okay,” but I know it's not. Shit.


Rowan pulls up in his jeep just as I hit the corner. Some people buy jeeps because they're sexy and fun and you can flirt with people at red lights, and Rowan is one of these people. And when you're Rowan, it works; women are charmed, traffic lights are green, and pussy rains from the sky. I hop in and we head to Dunkin' Donuts for iced coffees the size of fire extinguishers.


The air feels good, still cool and clean-smelling at 7:15 . We take Mem Drive , hugging the Charles River , which looks peaceful and crisp. The straw sliding into the little plastic “x” of my iced coffee lid is making a very satisfying sound. I slide it up and down a few times, and twirl the cup to activate the sugar at the bottom. I slurp it up and crunch on the sweet granules.  For a minute I think about nothing at all, and then I think about Samantha.


I suddenly hope she'll be there at the site. We'd go up fast for a huge, tight hug. I'd say “I'm sorry about this morning,” and she'd say “I'm sorry, too.” And we'd hold on strong and desperate, savoring the brief stillness before the next tornado, the one that might finally carry one of us off.


We roll up to the site and Pete is out front, having made no attempt whatsoever to wash yesterday's paint out of his hair. He's laughing as we pull up.


“I haven't slept a fuckin' wink!” he says with a big smile.


Pete tells us about his gig last night, how he got phone numbers from two different fat girls, and about the page he got at 2 a.m. ; his boss at the cab company asking him to cover for someone who called in sick.


“I just dropped off my last fare an hour ago,” he says, still laughing.

He bounds up the front steps, nimbly enough for a guy who turns 40 next week, turns and looks at me. “Be-Bop-a-re-bop!” he says, and makes his “crazy” face, which cracks him up for a good minute. “Not a fuckin' wink!” Pete reminds us, eyes red and watering.


Today's job turns out to be a piece of shit campus apartment in a building that should probably be torn down, but the university apparently wants to suck the ancient teat for another year. So our job is to slap some lipstick on the old broad and gussy her up for one last night on the town.


Rowan makes it clear that we need exercise only the bare minimum of care with this place. So we patch up the major holes and throw a few coats on. We don't worry about drop cloths or taking the faceplates off the light switches. We paint over wall outlets, baseboards, and door knobs. We even paint right over the ½ inch of grease on the wall by the stove, getting as much grease on the brush as we do paint on the wall. It's a stupid and short-sighted way of doing things, but as Rowan reminds us, we're being paid as painters, not cleaners. The university obviously wants to spend just enough to get the place to pass code. The ceiling is in such crap shape that I have to be very ginger with the roller, so as not to loosen big chunks of ceiling, which threaten to fall out any minute.


When we're done the place looks pretty decent at a quick glance, which I'm sure is all the prospective tenants will get before a lease is pushed in front of them. Some 19-year-old English major will think he got a good deal until he leans against the wall and hits a soft spot.


We finish up in under four hours and hit the sub place around the corner. I chew a chicken parm sandwich, Rowan's outside at the pay phone, and Pete is hitting on the girl who made his meatball sub. After a few minutes he comes back to the table with a big grin saying “well, I fuckin' tried, didn't I?”


Rowan comes back in from his phone call, agitated.  He says he needs the two of us to take over his afternoon clean-up job. I sigh internally, realizing that yeah, I'm not the greatest painter/construction/whatever guy in the world, but it's still a blow to the ego that it takes two of us to equal one Rowan.  But I'm in, and Pete, unphased as ever, says simply, “Yeah, shit, okay. I can use the money more than the sleep.”  Rowan drops us off at the job with the promise that he'll be back at 6:30 to pick us up and take us out for steaks and beers.


I wonder if he means at Paul Bunyon's, where Sam works. She's got a shift there tonight. I picture her in that huge blue denim shirt with the picture of Paul Bunyon on the pocket and her name embroidered on the sleeve.  She says that when she wears one she feels, appropriately enough, like a big blue ox, a situation not helped by my saying, “Babe, no you don't.”


I laugh through my nose thinking about this, and when Pete looks at me I turn it into a sniffle to avoid having to explain the whole story. The job is in a huge industrial kitchen in a church basement. Rowan painted it yesterday with a sprayer, since all the exposed pipes and beams would've made hand-painting a bitch. He'd taped and tarped all the areas not meant to be painted, so now our job is to clean up all the little spatters that found their way into the no-paint zones anyway. Armed with work gloves, a canister of turpentine, and a big bag of rags, we scrub paint flecks off the floors, the drawer handles, the stovetop. It's serene work, and we do it without talking much.


Some cool air comes in through the skinny windows near the ceiling. I feel it on the back of my head, newly sensitive from yesterday's very thorough haircut. Sam used to grab the back of my hair when we'd fool around, and hated when I got a haircut and gave her nothing to hold on to. I loved it when she tried, though. Her hand felt good there. I know she's not at work yet, but for some reason, that's where I picture her now; with her tables of businessmen who hit on her and tip her poorly; with her senior travel groups, who tells her how pretty her hair is, then tip her poorly; with her Harvard kids who order beer and then show their Harvard ID's, which contain no birthdate, implying that their Harvard status should be enough. She refuses to serve them, they manage to get beer anyway, and then they tip her poorly. I picture her joking around with her friend Amy at the server station, laughing that great, cackling belly laugh. I picture her with Dennis behind the bar, shoulder to shoulder at they draw simultaneous draughts, jostling each other to try and make the other one spill. Maybe she wonders fleetingly if Dennis might be able to love her better than I do; more simply, more unreservedly. I wonder if she'd be right.


And this is what I'm thinking about when my hand catches fire.


What's funny about this is that my brain decides that before any act of self-preservation, I must first and foremost take the time to yell, “FUCK!” - then attempt to not die.


I fling the crackling fireball of rag and work glove off my hand and against the newly painted wall, which decides it wants to be on fire as well. Pete, God bless him, is The Man, and within seconds has grabbed the fire extinguisher from the wall bracket and doused the flames just as they started to climb. He turns to me, shook up for the first time I've ever seen, extinguisher poised in case there's any part of me still on fire. There isn't. And it slowly, slowly occurs to us the monumental fucking idiocy of what we'd been doing; working on a gas stove top - containing a live pilot light - with turpentine-soaked rags.


My hand is fine, though now hairless up through the middle of my forearm. Pete and I laugh cautiously, shaking our heads. We re-paint what was damaged, finish cleaning up, and later that night chew our steaks slowly, nodding at each other with tired grins.


In the end, it's not a tornado that takes Sam and me away from each other, but one last insistent breeze, like a tap on the shoulder from a hotel concierge at a private function at which we don't belong. We walk away as we do from work; me singed and tired, she given less than she deserved.


A year down the road, when I next find myself with a paintbrush in my hand, I'm standing in my new apartment in north Cambridge . There's no furniture yet, and all my boxes are in teetering piles on the front porch. I retired my old painting shirt after it got heavy enough to actually snap the plastic hanger I tried to dry it on. Today I'll be christening a new one; a promotional give-away T-shirt that says “Raisin Bran Crunch” on one side, and “Breakfast is Back!” on the other.


It took me an hour and a half at the hardware store to decide on a color for the living room, knowing only that sure-as-shit it wasn't going to be Beige Eggshell. I pick up the can I decided on and smile. I shake the hell out of it, pry open the lid, and dip my brush. And with Blues Traveler playing loud on my beat-up clock radio, I begin to paint.