Buy the book at Amazon.com
Shawn knelt on the pumpkin-orange carpet of Shelly’s basement, eyeing a wall of freshly primed wood paneling. Shelly must be crazy to think I can pull this off, he thought. He stabbed his putty knife into a bucket of joint compound and smacked a glob to the wall.
He ran the blade once, twice, then an S-curve through the center, till he flattened it to a quarter inch. He was beginning to see the pattern: Italian restaurants, artful swoops and cuts like the flight of a bird. As in algebra, the idea was to show the work. No room for straight lines or symmetrical intentions. In a blur of three hours, the wall was covered. Shawn sprawled on the carpet to stare, in love with his own work.
“Shawn, it looks fabulous! I knew you had the knack. Let’s take lunch.”
They went to Harbor Lights, a seafood place on Ruston Way. The sparkly lightbulbs of the sign reminded him of a Mafia hangout somewhere in Jersey. Shelly signaled her intentions by ordering lobster. Shawn went for the swordfish.
“The man at the store said it would take 24 hours to dry, so I thought we should call it a day and eat someplace fancy.”
“Sure,” said Shawn. He tried not to think about his splattered jeans.
“So how are things with Tacoma?”
“Superb. I’ve never been this... deep before.”
“That’s wonderful, Shawn. She really is a beautiful girl. Tell me about her family.”
“Yeah. Let me play amateur psychologist.”
“Okay. Well, Mom has bipolar, too. Dangerously chatty. Get her on the phone and she’ll talk half an hour before you say hello. She seems to adore me, but I don’t see how she could know.”
“What about Dad?”
“Largely absent, after the divorce. But they’re back in touch now. Lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he does some sort of job in between fishing trips.”
“So all this adds up to being raised by Grandma?”
“Yeah. Mom was pretty unstable. So she lived with Grandma in South Hills Pittsburgh. Grandma had lots of money – inheritance, I think. Had a live-in boyfriend, young black dancer, twenty years her junior.”
Shelly laughed. “Grandma had style, didn’t she?”
“Grandma was a babe. Vaudeville showgirl. Could’ve been in Ziegfield’s Follies, but – well, long story. By the time Tacoma returned from college, Grandma had ditched the boyfriend and refocused her energies on running Tacoma’s life. That’s when she took off.”
“God! It’s amazing she turned out so well.”
“Yes. And she still calls Grandma once a week, even though she spends the whole time bitching about Tacoma breaking her heart.”
“And that’s why you love her.”
“One of many reasons.”
Shelly smiled and looked out over Commencement Bay, where a tug was drawing into the harbor.
“One reason I wanted to take you somewhere nice, Shawn, is that... I’m afraid I’ve run out of house. And I did want to thank you for making it look so lovely. Perhaps next summer we can start on the outside. I hope you’ll be all right, finding work.”
“I’ll be fine. But I’ll never have as much fun. You’re a dream client, Shelly. And don’t think I’m going to disappear, just because I’m not working for you.”
“Just as long as the neighbors don’t talk.”
The waiter brought their dishes and Shawn dug in, savoring the lemon and basil on his swordfish.
“Richard’s coming back,” said Shelly.
“Richard? In-jail Richard?”
“He’s being paroled. I’ve agreed to let him move back in.”
“Is that... wise?” asked Shawn.
“No. But... Tacoma loves her grandma, and Richard is still my son. His parole is contingent on regular drug tests, and he’s staying in the basement, where I can keep an eye on him. And, this may be difficult for you to process, Shawn, but Richard’s found religion.”
“Call me a cynic.”
“We’re not all as strong as you, Shawn! Some people need rules, discipline, a promise of heaven or hell. Look at Tacoma’s childhood – don’t you think she needed it?”
Shawn realized that Shelly was debating with him – seeking his approval for a foolish act. He wasn’t about to withhold it.
“Just as long as you’re tough,” he said.
“As nails,” said Shelly, snapping her lobster tail.
Photo by MJV