Monday, April 7, 2014

Painting Tacoma, Chapter Five: The Late Richard

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Shawn put on his rain jacket and set out for Shelly Norman’s. The address was Stadium Way, so he decided to head for the high school and figure it out from there. In the light of day, he could re-appraise the architecture. The spires became pyramidal gables topped with Russian-looking ornaments, bronze gone spearmint green with patina. The externals were a matter of three stripes: steep wooden roofs, two stories of thin, flame-colored bricks, and a five-foot base of rough-cut sandstone.
            A plaque in the courtyard explained the materials as windfalls from Tacoma’s long-standing international port – bricks from China, sandstone from Italy. It was built by the Northern Pacific Railroad as a hotel, in the style of a chateau, then abandoned during the 1893 depression and later purchased by the city.
            Crossing the parking lot, Shawn peered through a high spiked fence to find the reason for the school’s name: the largest high school stadium he had ever seen, set into a natural basin facing Commencement Bay. The field was artificial turf, alternating five-yard stripes of kelly and forest green, bracketed by two small mountains of concrete bleachers. The far end zone was so close to the water that a well-booted field goal could, at the moment, land on a Libyan freighter anchored on the other side.
            Shawn circled the field, not realizing that he was on Stadium Way until he heard Shelly’s trilled greeting.
            “Shawn! Shaw-awn! Over here!”
            She stood in front of a three-story Tudor with a peaked roof, decorative planking and a low covered porch. He was painting this?
            “Hi,” he said, climbing the steps.
            “You can imagine what it’s like on game nights,” said Shelly. “Of course, it used to hold twenty thousand, so I shouldn’t complain. Come on in! I got us some doughnuts.”
            Shawn had to work to keep down his salivary glands. With dwindling cash and the menacing bubbles on his spare tire, he had yet to buy groceries. He sat at the kitchen table and dug into a jelly-filled as Shelly outlined the project.
            “At the end of the driveway is my garage, which Richard converted to a studio about ten years ago. I haven’t quite figured out what to do with it, but I do want to keep it in good condition, and it’s looking a little doggy. You’ll need to give it a good scraping first, so I got you a wire brush and a putty knife, whichever you prefer. I also got some primer, for the bare spots. That’ll probably take you most of today. If we get sun tomorrow, you can start the painting then. I’ll pick up the paint this afternoon. Do you like grilled cheese?
            Shawn wiped his mouth with a napkin. “Sure. Love it.”
            “Good! I’m not much of a cook, but when it comes to melting cheese, I’m an artist. You like Coca-Cola?”
            “Well, there’s your lunch. I’ll bring it out in a couple hours. Oh, and there’s a ladder next to the studio. Be careful, though – it’s a little rickety.”
            Shawn took a glazed old-fashioned to the driveway and set the ladder under the front roof beam, where constant exposure had done the most damage. He thought of his response the night before.
            “Paint? I... painted my dad’s tool shed once.”
            “Would you paint for me? I’ll pay you ten dollars an hour.”
            “Um, sure! Just so you know I’m no expert.”
            “Expertise is not required. A good heart, patience – that’s what I need. Tomorrow at ten. Here’s the address.”
            Working the putty knife under the more obvious flakes, Shawn was forming a plan of action. If you paint over a piece of loose paint, it will start to peel that much sooner. Therefore, you must scrape like a fascist, seeking and destroying all flaws. It almost seemed like fun.
            Most of the work was on the beam, along with three sun-baked patches on the front wall (which was, essentially, the old garage door, nailed shut). After scraping, he found an old broom and ran it across the walls, cleaning out cobwebs and small flakes. Then he pulled out the primer. For this, he had a more immediate reference.
            “I don’t think I’m doing it right, Dad. It looks all... blotchy.”
            “No, no. That’s fine. The primer has its own special job. It soaks into the wood and seals it off. If it looks blotchy, that just means it’s working. That allows the paint to do its job, which is to cover everything and make it look pretty.”
            His dad stopped to scratch his moustache. “Gee. You might even say the primer is a man and the paint is a woman. But you might not understand that for a while.”
            Where scraping afforded the luxury of destructiveness, primer afforded the luxury of sloppiness. Shawn stirred it with a fallen twig, then used an old brush to slap it over the patches of bare wood. He had just about finished when Shelly appeared on the back steps with a paper plate and a Coke.
            “Hey! Look at you! You’ve made some progress. Come and have some food.”
            “Sure!” said Shawn. He cleaned the brush under the garden tap, then joined his employer on the front porch. He was surprised to find that he’d been working for four hours.
            “You should have seen what Richard went through when he first painted that thing. Someone had let one of those godawful passion vines take over both sides. It took him two days of yanking and clipping to get rid of it – and then another day for scraping, cleaning and priming. Gee willikers, you were hungry, weren’t you?”
            Shawn had polished off the first sandwich – made with generous slabs of Swiss and cheddar – and was halfway through the second.
            “I’m not much of a breakfast person,” he said.
            Shelly peered over Shawn’s shoulder. He could see what made her eyes so interesting: a mottling gray that gave them the appearance of of blue opals.
            “I’ll tell you what,” she said. “The way those clouds look, I’m thinking you should leave the actual painting for tomorrow. I am, however, going to pay you in advance, on the condition that you get to a tire store and replace that nitro-glycerine spare. I don’t want you running off a road somewhere and leaving my poor studio half-done.
            She handed Shawn a fold of cash. He slid it into his pocket, thinking it rude to count it in front of her. When he looked back up, she was staring at a spot across the street.
            “Richard certainly loved those football games.”
            When he reached the far side of the school, Shawn took out the cash and counted out 124 dollars. An hour later, the guy at the used-tire place let out a low whistle.
            “I’d give you maybe ten more feet before she blew.”
            On the way home, he had to force his body to relax. What with black dogs and exploding tires, he had gotten used to driving all tensed-up, prepared for calamity.
            The next morning was so bright that Rainier’s snowy flanks disappeared in the glare. He decided to walk to work, just to take it all in, and stopped at a coffeehouse shaped like a ski chalet. When he got to the house, Shelly proffered a trio of bear-claws and a box of supplies: a three-inch brush, stir-sticks, a key for opening paint cans and a gallon of exterior flat the color of buttermilk.
            He started from the beams, and once again began to develop a strategy. The back of the can said to brush toward the previously painted area, to avoid lap-marks. But this didn’t entirely work. It didn’t fill in the rough grain of the baked-out wood. He found he could apply a number of strokes in the opposite direction, as long as the final stroke was back toward the paint. As the hours passed, his brushwork became increasingly fluid, and he sensed that he might even have a talent for this.
            By lunchtime (grilled Muenster on sourdough), he had finished the roofbeams and front wall. He did the side walls during the afternoon, and by four-thirty was standing in the pre-dusk light, admiring his crisp white structure. He was especially proud of the beams, which betrayed nary a sign of their previous neglect. He heard the kitchen door creak open behind him.
            “Goodness!” Shelly half-sang. “A Michelangelo in the making. I don’t think Richard would even recognize it.”
            He assumed, from her constant references, that Shelly’s husband had died fairly recently. She spoke of him as if he were still around.
            “I know I paid you in advance,” she said. “But it looks so splendid, I want you to take this twenty and have some fun tonight. Then, on Monday, we can start the kitchen.”

Photo by MJV

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