Part one is here;
Rain sheeted against the windows and dribbles of white streaked the walls as Mike sponged them down with bleach. Lightning flickered and he waited a full ten seconds for the distant rumble of thunder. He had always liked this house in the rain. It made him think of the board games they had played on the long wet August afternoons, cheap ones with missing pieces: Snakes and Ladders, Parcheesi, Risk. He had never known places like Kamchatka existed until he conquered them with a roll of the dice. War and world conquest had seemed like so much fun then, conducted over pizza and coke, with Saturday morning cartoons running in the background.
With a physical effort, like shoving a bed up against a wall, he turned his mind away from all that, broke the circuit, concentrated on nothing more than clearing swathes of clean wall through the speckled grey of the mildew, the sharp caustic smell of the fifty percent bleach solution searing his sinuses, making him dizzy. The process was simple and satisfying, wreaking order on entropy. He dipped the big sponge again.
One of the brands at the Stop&Shop had offered a lemon-scented variety. Mike shook his head. Why encourage people to smell this stuff? Did they think there were fooling anyone? Then he thought: chemical warfare, and concentrated harder on the job, to break the circuit. The bleach was eating away at the sponge. He would need a new one soon.
Bleaching and rinsing the walls and ceilings took two full days and the over-head work was exhausting. He wore goggles to keep the drips out of his eyes, and covered all the furniture and the floors with slippery plastic.He taped the cracks, skimmed them with joint compound every day for three days while he scuffed the trim with hundred grit sandpaper and ‘floated’ a coat on the woodwork. That was Dave’s term, floating – getting enough paint on the surface so it felt like you were painting the paint not the window casing, making it flow, stroking out the stop-and-start marks. Cleaning his brush at the end of the day he could begin to feel the jitter easing out of muscles and joints. He wasn’t calm and he wasn’t happy. But he wasn’t shaking any more, either.
He put his new physical stability to the test cutting in the walls against the ceiling. He had always prided himself on a sharp straight line, and he got the feel of the brush back quickly. He remembered the right amount of paint he needed, sweeping off the excess onto the wall, and letting a few bristles find the crease where the ceiling began and drawing them along in long deft movements to create the initial border. Then back with the tips of the brush, enlarging the ribbon of paint, and smoothing it out with the flat of the bristles, and on to the next section, moving the step ladder with him. The ceiling was only eight feet high but Dave had taught him always to paint eye-to-eye with the surface. He had to smile; it was like he had never left. “Once you pick up the brush,” Dave had told him, “You can never put it down again for long.”
Dave had issued that pronouncement in a gloomy drunken stupor, sitting at the bar in the Chicken Box, toasting his doomed fate with shots of Cutty Sark. He had been advising Mike to quit, to get out, to see the world and escape.
But Mike had seen enough of the world. He was glad to be back.He didn’t hit the bars at night, he had no interest in getting drunk or seeing old high school friends. He knew they were around, the ones who had taken over their fathers’ restaurants or plumbing businesses, gone into real estate or retail, or swinging a hammer while they raised families and secretly contemplating divorce.
They were all grown up and he was frozen yet he couldn’t help feeling a twist of contempt for them, for their easy island life, the peace and safety of it that they took for granted: all the things they hadn’t seen and would never know and could never understand. Maybe he just envied them. He couldn’t tell. All he knew was that he didn’t want to run into them at the Muse or the Box and ‘catch up’.
They would never catch up.
Instead he cooked simple meals, and ate them with a bottle of beer or a glass of wine, and read volumes of history from the family bookshelves until he fell asleep; Barbara Tuchman, William Shirer, Robert Caro. He wanted to understand, though he knew instinctively that understanding wouldn’t help him, wouldn’t change anything. Maybe people were just bad. Or they were weak and they lacked the courage to be good. Maybe the bad stuff was hardwired into the brain by evolution. That would be ironic. Maybe the fittest didn’t deserve to survive. He didn’t know. He kept reading.
The cable had been disconnected so there was no television at the house. Mike didn’t miss it. He hadn’t watched with any regularity for the last four years, though they had gotten to see occasional event programs – the Oscars. The Super Bowl, and you could watch the news with dinner just like at home. He had developed a peculiar fondness stitched with contempt for the suburban creatures who fixed up their own houses on the advertisements for big box stores.
Rolling his fourth ceiling of the day, as the tireless Nantucket spring rain clattered against the windows and the north-east gales roared by like phantom traffic on the empty roads, he thought of those sprightly do-it-your-selfers. Somehow, they managed to complete absurdly complex paint jobs in thirty seconds, taping every piece of trim, and peeling it away like magic to unveil their faultless redecoration, finally adjusting a single lampshade for the finishing touch. On the one hand he could use some of that effortless speed: on the other hand – taping everything? So these TV wizards couldn’t even cut in with a paint brush. Probably the big box stores just wanted to sell as much of that fancy blue painters tape as they could, at fifteen bucks a roll.
He planted his feet comfortably apart and swung his arms easily, using himself as the base of a pendulum, rocking the roller, heavy with that good dense white ceiling paint, over the patched surface above him. The big box creatures always sort of pushed the roller away from themselves, as if they were raking for scallops upside down. Mostly they didn’t use sticks at all, and just stood on ladders, clutching their rollers by the handle. Dave Congdon had always loved it when customers wanted to attempt the work themselves. When they came back, paint spattered, miserable and exhausted, they showed a healthy new appreciation for his efforts.
People always said painting was boring. But that was what he liked about it, the routine of physical effort that required no thought, only muscle memory and patience. He smiled, rolling off the excess paint against the dry section of the pan, turning the sleeve slightly to catch the drips, like a wine steward with a bottle. Muscle memory, that was the good kind.
The other kind he could do without.