Monday, September 24, 2007

Painting the Town Blue

[The following is an excerpt from my novel, "Below Sea Level." Though the setting will seem familiar to some, the actual events in this story are fiction.]

One day, without any real forethought, I stopped at the Home Depot on the way home from work and bought two cans of brightly colored spray paint. They keep that aisle locked at the store, so I had to wait a few minutes before someone was available to open it. The clerk did not ask me what I needed the paint for. I suppose I looked innocent enough. Not the profile of a sniffer, gang tagger, or anything remotely like that.

The cans rolled back and forth with each other in the passenger seat of my car, competing for center position. I stayed focus on the small highway leading to the farm, as more people died there each day than died from skydiving without a chute. Fifteen minutes brought me to the house. Eric’s rig was not visible, nor was he expected from his job for another few hours. I pulled into the drive and parked as usual; then changed my mind and turned the car around so it was facing the driveway. Eric had once referred to this as “combat parking.” Sometimes I just needed that little extra kick of safety. I had also fooled myself into thinking it saved me precious seconds on driving into work the next day, not having to back out and turn around. Logic was never my strong suit.

I grabbed the cans on my way into the house, where I was greeted by a bevy of hysterical dogs and a flock of recalcitrant cats. Leaving the cans on the fireplace mantle, I undertook my usual series of chores: feeding the hounds and tigers; checking on and feeding the guinea pigs, making sure to throw them a few fresh carrots or orange slices; and lastly, mixing together a small coffee can of sweet feed and supplements for the horse and carrying it out to him along with a few flakes of grass hay. Watching him pace along the fence, or take off kicking his heels up in protest at being the last to be served was always the highlight of my day. I slid his feed tub under the fence and tossed the hay in beside him. As was my habit, I leaned against the fence and watched him eat for a few minutes as I filled the water tank back to overflowing. After turning off the water, which I really only seemed to remember to do about nine out of ten times, I returned to the house, where the dogs had long finished licking each others’ empty bowls. The cats had retreated to their usual hiding and sleeping crannies, and I was free to use my time as I pleased until Eric came home and dinner might need to be prepared.

I had changed out of my work clothes before heading out to see the horse, so I had nothing left to prepare other than the removal of a handful of framed photos decorating the front room of the house. Not even the nicest of pictures did much to enliven the aged paint job of this old house, so their removal did not take away much, either.

Without looking at which color I was choosing, I reached behind me for one of the cans of spray paint. As I shook it vigorously to and fro, I glanced out the front door window to make sure my retired neighbor hadn’t decided that this would be a good time to stroll over with his Labrador and get me caught up on local gossip. No sign of him, so I turned to my canvas. In large blue letters, I wrote, “I have never broken my vows of marriage” on the wall one saw first upon entering the house from the front door. It was more satisfying than I had expected. Writing is like that, sometimes: once you get started, you just feel like writing more. Cathartic.

I shook the can a little more and moved to the wall with the small front window. Next to it, I wrote, “I have never slept with any of your friends.” As an afterthought I added below it “or your enemies.”

I still worried I was not being specific enough, so I set the blue can back on the mantle and reached for the orange. I shook it for the recommended period of time, and continued. I moved back to the largest expanse of wall. I tried reaching up higher so I would have more room to utilize. “I have never dreamt of canoodling with Tom, Dick, Harry, or anyone else you have ever worked with. (I stopped to paint a nice illustration to go along with "Dick.") I have never screwed any employer I have ever worked for - male or female.” I felt like I was finally starting to lay down the proper specifics. Still, the mostly bare walls of the adjoining family room beckoned. I now had one can of paint in each hand.

“I have never used my phone for illicit conversation with any individual. I have never lied about the identity of the person on the other end of the line—EVER—nor have I ever had reason to.” I was running out of blue paint. I set it down and re-shook the orange. What was I missing? His office.

Not much room to spare in there, but somehow I managed to make my message small enough to fit. “I have never used our computer to share romantic e-mails with anyone at anytime since we have met.” That one came out particularly well, I thought, though near the end I did get a little paint on one of his framed contractor licenses. I had just a few dregs of paint left. I walked into our bedroom and climbed up on the bed. Above it, I wrote, “I do not cheat on my husband.” Near the end it trailed off as the can became spent. It was still readable, though.

Damn it. I had managed to get a fair amount of blue and orange paint all over my thumb and forefinger. It was going to be a real bitch to get that off. Irritated with myself, I threw the cans into the kitchen garbage and walked out into the backyard to distract myself with the dogs. There were some lingering fumes in the house, and I didn’t see any need for the girls to get sick from them. I tossed the ball for them until I heard Eric’s diesel pull into the front drive. I stepped back towards the back door and quietly slipped the doggie door into place so he would not be completely overwhelmed by what awaited him in the house. As satisfying as my work had been, my heart now pounded like Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart. I had already placed my car keys in my pocket, and I felt them again to make sure they were still there. Soon enough I heard the front door open, then complete silence.

After a few moments, I heard him close the front door gently. His movement across the carpet was noiseless, but I could make out his broad silhouette moving through the front room into the family room. He stood there for several full minutes. Surely he could hear my heart all the way from inside the house by now. It was as loud as church bells. Finally, he turned and entered his office, where he fell back quietly into his chair. He dropped his enormous collection of keys on the desk in front of him, and then dropped his hands onto his lap. I had moved to where I could still see his outline, and I watched as his head dropped back against the back of the chair. I could not see them, but I imagined his eyes had closed.

I had brought collars and leashes out back before he got home, and I thought this was as good a time as any to take all the girls for a short jaunt around the neighborhood. May very well be the last walk I lived to give them, for all I knew. It began to occur to me that I had gone completely insane. Would he call the police, or the hospital where we had taken him for help earlier that year? Only time would tell. One thing was certain; bravado fueled by anger was rapidly giving way to fear fueled by experience.

Darkness eventually drove the dogs and me back home, as the only thing we were more frightened of than Eric was an errant pack of hungry coyotes coming out of the Arizona hinterland. When we entered the house, the dogs all ran for the office, where he still sat. I heard him greet each of them separately, then fall silent once again. The dogs quickly filed back out into the main room, as his mood was clearly palpable to each of them. This did not bode well for me, but little had for some time. I walked slowly to the doorway of his office and leaned against it, keeping just enough weight on my feet that I could still get the hell out of Dodge pretty quickly, if I had to.

He did not turn his head to look at me.

“Bad day?” he asked.

“A few,” I replied.

“I am not painting these walls.” Well, why would he? I was the one with so much to say, apparently. I quickly realized that was not what he meant.

“Of course not.” I said. So far my heart had not leapt from my chest, which I considered impressive. “I have a three-day weekend coming up. I planned to paint them all then.”

He seemed mildly startled. “You’re not finished, then?” He still hadn’t looked in my direction, for which I was grateful. His black-brown eyes would have brought me to my knees.

“No. I mean, yes. I mean, I had been planning on repainting the walls before my family came out again, anyway.”

“That would probably be a good idea,” he said. He remained quiet for a few minutes and I thought I sensed my opportunity to escape. I straightened up as if to leave, when he began to speak again.

“I never said you had slept with anyone.”

He had in fact spent several drunken years accusing me of all kinds of traitorous activities, but arguing with Eric - even a sober Eric - was a futile experience. He was not likely to remember that he had, in any case. He had an unusually good memory, but a highly selective one. I did not bother to reply.

“It’s them I don’t trust—not you.”

“I wish that were true, but it is not," I said. "You trust no one, except maybe the dogs. Even as I wrote all these things, I knew I was wasting my time, because you’d still never believe me.”

“Didn’t stop you from doing it.” He turned to face me, and I used the doorjamb to brace myself against his gaze. Though he was showing only a fraction of it, his anger sucked all the breath from my body. My next words were barely audible.

“I guess I reached a point where nothing would have stopped me from doing it.”

I turned to leave. “I don’t need any dinner tonight,” he said, as I walked away.

Neither would I. I felt like doing nothing more than leaning my head and shoulders over the toilet and vomiting blue and orange paint into the bowl. I had rendered myself sick. Still, in the depths of my shameful soul, there remained a part of me that jumped joyfully up and down, delighting in her unexpected and splendiferous crime of passion. A small smile escaped me as I walked out into the front room, but I just as quickly swallowed it again.

Eric turned in early that night, forgetting even to drink, not mentioning the final words under which he rested his head. I waited until I could tell by his breathing that he had truly fallen asleep, and then joined him and the dogs in what little space remained in the bed. That night, I had my first dreamless sleep in about six months. When I woke up, my eyes darted to the walls around me. They were completely white.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear God, that was heavy. That poor woman. I hope she can someday believe herself to be free of the danger of him. That she can find herself again and live life as it should be - with joy.