May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
October 10, 2003
I painted houses this summer. They belonged to one of my church’s deacons, and were not actually houses, but rotten cabins, with wooden siding that should have been replaced, not painted. They were once part of a camp for boy scouts, and were the only structures remaining. My Dad always told me to do a job right. He would never paint rotten cabins, but would tear them down and build them up again with good strong wood that paint would stick to. I had to listen to the landlord though, and he just wanted them painted. He said neighbors had been calling, because they had to drive past and look at those brown rotting houses. He wanted to cover up the rot so they would forget it was there, dying and stinking underneath that white paint.
I painted my first cabin, which housed a janitor who called himself a maintenance technician. He was a small man, simple and quiet. Sometimes I would see him coming home from a long day at the elementary school where he cleaned up the spills and vomit of hundreds of kids who lived in real houses in the city. He had a lot of awkwardness about him, and one day he disappeared after the lady in number three turned him down for a date. “A rotten cabin can be a hard place to live alone,” I thought. Nobody who lived in those cabins ever saw him again.
I painted the cabin that Shannon lived in with his son Ben. Shannon and I got along pretty well. We would have had a lot in common, but he hadn’t gotten the breaks I guess, or maybe the only difference was that my house was painted and his wasn’t. There were also two women who sat on the couch inside and yelled out the window at any children that were close enough to hear. They disappeared after a while too, maybe they found a better man with a better couch to sit on, or a better TV next to a bigger window with more children around to yell at. I did find out that neither of the couch sitters was Ben’s mother. I guess three women in the house were more than even Shannon could handle, so his wife got bumped. One day Shannon had too many beers and kicked Ben in the face right in front of me. I stood there holding my brush, dripping paint on my shoes and pants, while the drunken father explained to his six year old why he deserved a kick in the face. I never said anything to Shannon about that. I just went back to my painting.
I painted cabin number three, where the kids took care of themselves all day so their mom could go to work. I never saw their mother, but wondered what kind of job she had, that took up eight hours a day, and still didn’t earn her a better place than a rotten cabin. I also wondered what made her, a single mother over thirty, too good to date an up and coming maintenance technician.
Finally, I painted the cabin which housed a man with a cocaine habit and his alcoholic wife. Sometimes I would listen to them fight, so critical of each other’s failures and blind to their own. There was a swing set behind the house, where kids used to play, until someone took them away after one too many late night police interventions. One day in August they sold their car to three different people and skipped town. The car was there in front of their rotten half painted cabin and three new owners fought over it for days. The keys were locked inside anyway, and I laughed at the clever joke while I painted the coke addict’s house.
All four of those rotten cabins got a fresh coat of thick, white paint this summer to cover their rottenness, but rotten runs deep, and when I loaded my ladder and supplies into the truck that last day, the paint looked gray and thin like watery sugar frosting and the dark rottenness was still there underneath.
The landlord loved the paint on those houses, and the neighbors stopped calling about the ugliness. Cars drove by on lazy Sundays after church and looked at the paint and the white cabins, and the people were glad that they could look at painted houses now from the road. I think they knew that those cabins were still rotten from the inside, but I guess when you’re driving by, you like your houses painted.