Kenny handed me a pair of overalls. I switched to an old pair of shoes from the trunk. I stoked a Camel I bummed from one of the boys. We passed around a pint of Old Grand Dad. Kenny handed out assignments. I was on trim with Phil. Phil was a beer-bellied, balding, florid man around thirty who was none too pleased to get handed the newbie. He spat a piece of tobacco and glared at Kenny. I was on the crew.
Phil, a master of the expletive, gruffly took me to a large room that had a bank of windows. He field-stripped his Camel before entering the home and parked it in his puffy lips. The room was big enough for a cotillion or a meeting of waxy Republicans. I counted ten large windows that I had to "cut" for Phil or he would be really mad, or something. He faded into another part of the house to help the "goddamn Indian", whoever that was.
I was left alone in the big room. I could hear the goddamns and fuckings from distant parts of the old mansion. The room was empty. Canvas drop cloths covered most of the floor, sheets covered furniture pressed into the center of the room. A patina of dust was over everything and hung in the dry hot air. The furnace was cranking full blast--to dry things faster I imagined.
I cranked open a can of paint that Phil had pointed to. There was a brush next to the paint can. I had no idea of what to do. I held the brush and stared at the windows. Outside bare trees waved in a mist over brown grass.
"You want to keep that brush wet. That's the secret. And have a good brush. That looks like a good one. I like a horsehair filbert for trim, but I think you’re okay with a slanted brush like that."
A pasty dust-covered man sat on a sheet in an armed dining room chair. He had a body like Phil's with a tired needy face. He had a smoking cigarette in his mouth. There was no odor.
"What he wants is for you to paint the trim so he can roll the walls faster. I would hit the floor board first, then the windows. If you keep that brush loaded you can go a lot faster. Lot faster. That'll keep you tits up with Phil. I broke in like that, cuttin' trim with my dad and brothers. Don't worry about spills and splashes, that brush you got there won't drip much."
His voice modified to a wistful tone,"You really like her, don't you? So pretty she is. Never did get married myself. Came close, so close, but couldn't quite do it."
His eyes glistened through the white dusty face like a seal pup in a snowstorm. Something or someone had hurt the poor bastard. He looked outside the windows. He chatted on about school boy triumphs and other of life's big disappointments. He kept giving me pointers on the paint job. Eventually, I got the hang of it. My arm was tiring. I was looking forward to lunch. Maybe I'd cadge another smoke and a swig of that Grand Dad.
"Who are you fucking talking to?" Phil was checking in on me.
"The guy in the chair there."
"There ain't no one in this room but you. Hey, you got the windows done? Now there's a surprise."
I was not inclined to argue with the raspy voiced Phil. Let the rummy have his day. He was right though, the guy on the chair had disappeared. Slowly my painting instructor's identify dawned on me. Having learned that The Process was somewhere on the fringe with these Chicago guys I was not too shocked to have the literary figure of Studs Lonigan give me painting pointers. Studs would always give you a day’s work.
A familiar restlessness was settling in. I thought about the Heinrich thing. Had I been dosed in the car? This phantom Studs. The pigeon. Was Maureen even real?
Kenny, the foreman, came into the room. He was noticeably irritated. “Just off the phone with Tommy. The bitch doesn’t like the color in the dining room. Philly, you and this guy head back there and pitch in. Fuck!” He slammed his hand on one of the covered pieces. A small envelope flew from his top shirt pocket across the room. The foil packet slid over the canvas near my feet. I knew it was a Process medallion packet. The top was folded over, it had been opened. I hoped the medallion was used up. He bent over by me to retrieve the thing.
“Looks like a pack of rubbers. You reuse your rubbers? That thing was open,” Phil growled.
“No, it’s not what you think. Don’t worry about it. Get going on the job. You and this guy.” He was positioned with his back to me. Kenny and his boys had been painting in the adjacent room.
Later, at Maureen’s, she and I sat on the leather sofa in her livingroom with the patio door open. The night was warm and the cool lake breezes were refreshing. The air disturbed the drapes and rustled magazines on her coffee table. We sipped wine and listened to Scheherezade on a nice stereo.
“I want to be with you like a normal person, out in the daylight. Coming around here late at night is a little weird and very scary.”
“Enjoy what you have. Don’t you like this? My family is strange, but they are important to me. They wouldn’t understand me with you. Not yet. Give me some time.” She turned to me on the sofa and nestled close. “ And you do like this...” She slipped to the floor, her hair trailed down my arm.
She had a way of ending conversations, changing the topic. I didn’t press, I did not want to appear needy. Questions danced in the air like the weak stars above the city. I believed a relationship this intense deserved some sort of light of day status.
My time in Chicago was running short. But there had not been one night that I did not want to make the dangerous walk to get to her. The drone work of painting allowed me to think of her all day. The only break was the time with the characters around the creaky hotel neighborhood.
By the third week, I was on a first name basis with the geezers, half of whom were named Pat or a variation thereof. Their bloodshot Irish eyes would light up whenever they saw me. Waxing merry, they wanted to know the latest: “You see her again?”, “Did you pass anyone on the way out?”. Their barbs were kind, I laughed along with them. In the aggregate of years that these fools had spent living I was sure they had seen it all. I felt at home in the rat trap, the odd encounter in the stifling halls were less troubling as I learned from the coots who the real horrors were. At the Ambassador Arms each door closed on a life story written in rap sheets, tattoos and worry marks. When you did the side-step in the halls--the feeling was mutual.
As it turned out, on Friday, I was pulled from the paint crew--much to my relief. Tommy shouted my name and waved me over to the black car. He dipped in and out of the passenger side; he was carrying on a phone conversation. He cupped the fat end of the tan phone, "lose the overalls. You're with me today. Breaks your heart, don't it?"
We settled into the comfort. He snapped off some quick directions. He gave the phone a hard look as it jangled. "Biggest mistake of my life."
I was feeling loose on what could have well been my last day, "what's that?"
He answered as if talking to himself, "giving her this number.”
Compared to the stiff-wheeled Aspen, Tommy's car was a dream to handle. I was noticing slight vibrations as if an electric current pulsed through the steering wheel. The scenery seemed to flash by faster than the car was moving. The rearview mirror danced; at stop lights I noticed a maroon Aspen following. Tommy was agitated on the phone. He barked directions. We pulled up in front of the temp agency where Maureen worked.
I waited a few minutes before I ducked in to say hello. The usual assortment of job seekers fidgeted on the wood bench. She sat regal--phone at ear. There was a palpable tension in the office. A doe-eyed supplicant on the bench cast a glance from me to an open door. I caught the vibe. Maureen gave me a startled look and also looked to the half-open door. She signaled with her graceful hands for me to get outside.
I leaned against the fender. She darted from the building. "What are you doing, coming in like that?"
"I had no idea there was anything wrong with that."
"I work with my family. They can't see me upset."
"I didn't know you got upset. Why?"
"Nothing. Just that seeing you in there..."
"No big deal. Your brother brought us around here. I just stopped in."
"I know, I know. It's, uh, I'll explain later." She hurriedly stepped back to the office door.
"I'll see you tonight." I called after her.
"Ok." At the door she mouthed I love you. "Call first," she said.