Although home improvement projects can be welcome distractions, they can prove equally as daunting. I find great pleasure in ripping things out and knocking other things down, creating cataclysmic change that renders my husband speechless for a day, or so. A dainty little chainsaw is right in my wheelhouse: oh, the projects that could be embarked upon with one of those! I will have to contain my enthusiasm for this coveted instrument of destruction.
My next most favorite angel of change is paint. Miracles can be performed with a gallon of color and a roller, and I haven’t been forbidden from using this medium, yet, so the continued potential is limitless. When we moved into our house eight years ago, it was all about the paint. The living and dining areas were romper-room yellow, the hallways were powder blue, and everything else was a suffocating flesh color. The tile in our bathroom was teal, a popular shade in the fifties apparently, which made you feel like you were trapped inside a Tiffany box, distorting your reflection, a healthy pink tinged with a corpse-like cerulean. A few coats of primer and a soothing wash of beige was all this little place needed to erase the geriatric carnival feel and replace it with a calm repose.
I turned my attention to the exterior, and the aged red brick ranch needed a face lift. I bought brushes and rollers and paint trays, and a huge drum of high quality white paint, an exhilarating action because big purchases mean big change, and this was going to be great, I could feel it. The first area I tackled was the stucco part around the front door and kitchen window, this was my warm up area. I took down the shutters and there was an awful lot of dirt, dust and bugs and such that I did not have time to clean off, so I hurriedly painted over them before anyone had a chance to tell me I had to power wash or something crazy like that.
Things were shaping up nicely and this whole house painting thing was proving to be quite a breeze. Day two was as sunny and warm as day one, perfect conditions for a makeover. The Sherwin Williams helper guy had advised me to roll at least two coats of primer before the actual layers of paint, which was about the silliest suggestion I had ever heard. I laughed and patted his well-meaning shoulder, That’s not happening, I told him. He persisted, telling me that if I didn’t prime the paint would peel and chip and all sorts of horrible things would happen, but I was familiar with this sales tactic and was not going to budge. A woman whose credit card has her husband’s name on it is a notorious pushover for upgrades and non-essential purchases, warranties and add-ons, but I was not going to fall into that stereotype; this guy did not know who he was dealing with, apparently.
As I rolled the first few blotchy stripes of white onto the ruddy brick, the thrill of transformation nearly overwhelmed me. Up and down and then at diagonals I worked the same four-foot square, throwing tiny drops of white in every direction as I rolled, splatters dotting everything, the porch, the sidewalk, my legs and arms, my hair, the shrubbery. After an hour of labor intensive re-creation, my arms ached and the heavy, sodden roller slipped from my grasp, landing on the sidewalk with a soft squish. It’s a good thing I had so many other things to clean up, I thought to myself, otherwise this little mishap would be upsetting.
I stepped back to examine my progress, and it was not impressive. My eyes scanned the length of our little house and the thought of painting its entirety was suddenly overwhelming. Brick is porous and drinks paint exhaustively, the divots and crevices, the mortar and irregular textures, all compounded the complexity of the project. The longer I looked, the bigger it grew, the foundation and it’s redness stretching and expanding like an inflamed rash across the yard and into the sky. Perhaps that sales guy at Sherwin Williams was onto something with the primer suggestion. I did what any defeated visionary would do: I abandoned the project until my inspiration returned.
Every day for weeks the pure white four-foot square by the front door challenged me, gloating in its triumph, until a tall, slight boy with a curly mop of dark hair and an innocent smile knocked on the door. Justin Something, he introduced himself, and in naive upspeak he pitched himself as the leader of a crew of experienced young students painting houses for college cash. For a deal too good to be true, he made an offer I couldn’t refuse, and one week later Justin and his smile and his workers appeared and started prepping. For two days they taped and tarped, but mostly walked around aimlessly, dragging ladders around and drop cloths, back and forth, back and forth, then rest, then lunch, then dragging stuff around again. Not a brush or roller did I see for those two days.
By day three, the team was reduced by half and only three showed to amble around my back and front yard in a purposeless stupor. The following day another neglected to show, and Justin was dispirited, betrayed, his poor boyish charm clouded by confusion, and under this cumulus the painting began. They didn’t get very far, and they didn’t seem to know what they were doing; painting brick is like dancing in quicksand and these boys, understandably, were not enjoying themselves. It was July and the insufferable heat and humidity was unforgiving in its grip on Saint Louis. Day five saw Justin’s team reduced by another and my four-foot square started grinning at me, again. It was the end of the week and our little house’s transformation was supposed to have been completed, and from what I saw they had a good 99.5% to go. The temperature sailed past one hundred degrees and the sun was determined to beat these two weary painters with soft private school palms and naive university minds into submission.
Justin gave his crew of one the weekend off and he started painting on his own in a comical attempt to make up lost time. He climbed the ladder like it was made of string and suspended in the air over a sea of man eating sharks, white knuckling the sturdy metal rails with a terrified grimace. It took him ten minutes to reach the top, about fifteen feet, and ten seconds to realize that he had left everything he needed on the ground below. One by one, he brought each item to rest on the shelf at the top of the ladder: the tape, scissors, a paint brush, gallon of paint, paper towels. By the time he had all that he felt he needed, it was time for a long, well-deserved lunch. And this is how it went for Justin from eight in the morning until eight at night, all weekend. I watched him in the way one would watch a city person try to light a fire with a flint stone, only to set themselves alight, and not the huge pile of wood in front of them, every time. Monday rolled around and Justin had no helpers.
By the time our house was finished, I was weary of him. He had painted everything: the sidewalk, the deck, the windows, the gutters, the flashing, the front door, the driveway, my husband’s car; nothing was spared from Justin’s splashes and splatters, his fallen brushes and rollers, his spilled buckets and cups, his drips and drops. The yard and the plants were covered in a fine film of white, our entire acre suffocating under the carelessness of one boy. In his defense, Justin did offer to de-film the car if I would present a bottle of denatured alcohol, but somehow that seemed like a horrible idea. He thanked us for our business and our patience, he flashed his sweet smile and bounced his curls around playfully, and I fought an intense desire to smack his pink cheeks with a rubber glove.
I had forgotten about Justin. As the landscaping matured it had covered all of my reminders of him, until last weekend when my dad and I ripped it all up. Revealed was the story of the epic painting mission of a boy from Texas, oozing with cuteness and hope, squashed by reality and incompetence. As I surveyed the dots and slashes of white on black shutters and gutters, even the leftover strips of tape that nobody bothered to remove and that withstood several years of storms and temperatures, I started to laugh. The four foot square that started the whole mess was staring at me, again, reminding me of my own painting adventures and inability to properly plan, organize, lead, and set realistic expectations. Perhaps I hired that Justin seeing something familiar behind his smile and beyond his curls that we both had in common, and perhaps it was our shared inability to color within the lines.