stepladder The Painter is Here

Cathy Warner

The painter is here to transform my house. He wears white like a doctor, except he's spattered with pale shades: cream and wheat and flesh and almost white but not. The painter is here, the thin line of a necklace ridging through his T-shirt, and my fingers like a baby's want to follow the track over the cotton, around and around like the painted horses on the merry-go-round and the gold band that circles my finger. There is no beginning and there is no end, I sing it every night. I gave my love a cherry that has no stone.

The painter is here with Mona Lisa smile and hair spackled gray. He removes his splattered boots at the door, tucks in the laces and pads over the carpet in bleached athletic socks. The painter is here. He calls me Dear and asks where I want him to start. I don't know I tell him. What do you think? I think he says that you should take the baby to the park. The fumes will be strong.

The painter is there with drop cloths and ladders and talk radio debating global warming. Eight-foot walls that could be anything wait for his touch. I am here in the green and the sand in the park in the middle of the morning with the other mothers, our days ordered like a paint-by-number. I change a diaper on a picnic table, push the dinosaur swing, and cradle a shoe that fits in the palm of my hand, careful not to push too high or look away or let the other shoe drop.

The painter is there with rollers and trays and five-gallon buckets. He stirs, mixes, pours and strokes life to my walls. I am at the market, a tiny chin suctioned to my collarbone, confronted with jars of color: plum, carrot, pea, apricot and I can not decide. The baby on the jar smiles. He must have a different kind of mother.

The painter strides through my house brushing big and huge across the walls. He applies a second coat and I am at the library choosing sturdy books for stubby wet fingers and eyes that have seen only what I show them. The painter coats semi-gloss on baseboards and trim. He eats a sandwich in his van, reads a catalog, calls his wife. I drive through shadows of elm and maple past wrought iron gates down a narrow lane that bisects rolling green dotted with marble in white and gray, words scratched in memorial. Today I will not stop.

The painter takes one last look around, bucket at his hip touching up the flecks he missed. Then he is in the driveway, van doors flung wide to the world. He folds tarps, wraps brushes in plastic, hammers lids closed with a fist. He's done this every day. He knows his life by heart. I watch from my car three houses down the street, fuzzy head sucking at my breast. I wait, wait for the painter to leave to my house, but the baby spits milk in my hair, in my lap, over my shoulder and I decide to go home, deadly fumes or not.

Let me help you the painter uses his library voice. He hangs plastic bags from one wrist, diaper bag from the other and smiles at the baby while I unlock the door. I left a fan running in the baby's room. He sets groceries on the kitchen counter and opens the windows. I wet a dishtowel, blot myself and thank him.

Let's take a look. His fingers touch my arm and he guides me into the living room. The baby flexes his feet against my ribs. The painter sweeps an arm as if displaying prizes I've won on Wheel of Fortune but there is no music or applause, just the hollow noise of a room where draperies have been stripped from windows and furniture piled like puzzle pieces jumbled from a box. Is it what you were hoping for? His fingers tighten a fraction. The scratch of slammed doors and the gray scuffs of a shoe thrown across the room, the dent of a saucepan and the orange drip of tomato sauce that defied Comet have vanished.

It's the color you wanted, right? I think of the paint samples, their tiny rectangles of whites. I can't remember if I chose Glacial Ice, Pearl Illusion or Winter Landscape, or if I could tell them apart if they were striped across the walls. I look at the painter, a thread of sweat wrinkles above his eyebrows. I want to erase it along with his memory of my walls before he disguised them. I shift my weight to the rhythm of an imaginary lullaby and rub the baby's back. I have no idea what I want I say but I'm sure it's fine.

He pats my skin and I feel it deep, like he's painted Sympathy Pink along my veins. Well, then. He tucks a hand in his pocket. I'll leave the bill for your husband. That will be fine I say. He clears his throat, pulls out an envelope and lays it on the counter behind us. I follow him to the door. Call me if you need a touch up he says and the latch clicks behind him. Then the painter is in his van driving home to a painter's life.

I am here in the house. I ease from room to room, the practiced steps of a mother with sleepy cargo. The walls are white, neo or nouveau. Whalebone or Jedi Warrior or Polar Bear; I can't remember which. Furniture hides mid-room under beige tarps and the carpet looks dingy now as it creeps toward the fresh walls. Lightbulbs like ceiling mushrooms cast shadow ghosts in the corners.

I am here in the living room and the painter is gone but he has arranged the stack of pictures I took off the mantle. My wedding photo is centered in its silver frame. We're young and tentative in black and white, holding rosebuds and baby's breath, Mark and I. Our baby's pictures flock around it. That's not how I'd displayed them, but they look better this way.

I am cornered in the house like a mouse in a box waiting for the paint to dry, waiting for the baby to take his nap, waiting for my husband to come home from work and leave his shoes at the door. Waiting for him to tell me Everything will be okay. Wanting to believe it. The painter has gone but I wish he were here.


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