Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Painting Tacoma, Chapter Twenty-Five: Welcome to the Jungle

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Shawn sat on Shelly’s roof, taking in a blimp’s-eye view of the stadium. He wondered if she ever had football parties up here.
            I am an autodidact, he thought, trying out a new word. He stretched his legs over the asphalt shingles and considered today’s lesson, The Importance of Illusion. Take this trim board, sticking out an inch further than the clapboards underneath. It used to be he would lie on his back and painstakingly paint the underside edge. Later, standing back, he would spot the little squibs that snuck onto the clapboards anyway.
            Now, he made his color-break at the natural corner of the board, letting his brush run off the edge into open air. Voila! Straight, sharp lines. And nobody had to know that you cheated.
            It also occurred to him that he was getting way too analytical about this. But then, he was doing a hell of a lot of painting. The residents of Tacoma had a home-improvement switch that flipped on sometime in March, and word of Shawn’s one-man operation was getting out. After Shelly’s exterior (blue-gray with white trim), he had a three-tone Victorian in Gig Harbor, then a couple of bedrooms in Spanaway. The first was a friend of Ivy’s dad, the second a regular at the Kickstand. How funny that he would be making so much money so soon after breaking up with Tacoma. Or she with him, he couldn’t remember.
            “Richard! Geez, you scared me. What brings you up this way?”
            “I’m attempting to master my fear of heights,” said Richard. He stood with his neck at the gutter line, looking like a decapitated head. “It’s not working. How do you do this all day?”
            Shawn applied the last touch to an air vent. “I envision all the spine-mangling injuries that might occur if I slipped.”
            “I... I don’t think that would help.”
            “Ah, but we come from opposite ends of the problem. My weakness is overconfidence, yours anxiety.”
            “So you practice negative affirmation.”
            “I am an autodidact,” said Shawn.
            Richard ignored the verbiage and hefted a large plastic jar onto the shingles.
            “What the heck is that?”
            “Macadamia nuts. Mom thought you could use a snack.”
            “Me and what army?”
            “Uncle Marty went to Hawaii. I’m allergic to nuts. Well, I better go, before I verti-go.”
            “Wait,” said Shawn. “Can I ask you a question?”
            Shawn wasn’t even sure what the question was. Richard spent the pause shuffling his feet on the ladder.
            “Is... is it working for you?”
            “Is... what?”
            “Christianity. Has it helped?”
            Richard looked across the street. The scene of the crime.
            “Yeah. But it’s not easy. In a perfect world, you want to develop a moral compass long before you’re tested. Like building up your muscles before an athletic competition. I’m trying to re-learn my lessons, courtesy of the scriptures, but I’m always putting them to use before I’m really ready. I am literally surrounded by my old life – temptations on every streetcorner. And it’s pretty freakin’ amazing to look back on it now. Just how far gone do you have to be to sell meth to a teenager a hundred feet from your mother’s porch?”
            Shawn laughed. “That would take some cojones.”
            “And there’s the biggest temptation of all: concluding that your sin is so egregious that you are beyond salvation. Damn powerful excuse for sinking even lower. Which is why you need to accept forgiveness even when you don’t deserve it, and why you need...  why I need, the book and the church and Jesus Christ himself to keep me on track.”
            “So you might say, you’re pulling out the big guns.”
            Richard smiled. “Exactly. But yaknow? I’m not counting on Jesus to save me if I fall off this ladder, so I’m gettin’ the hell off.”
            “Hasta la vista, amigo. And thanks for the munchies.”
            The sun had worked its way through a long train of clouds, and was splashing the roof in sunlight. The splendor of Northwest sunshine was well worth the long drizzles, but this was a secret the locals seemed intent on keeping.
            Shawn envisioned a moral compass – right, wrong, east and west – and wondered if his was in proper alignment. Technically, yes. He was a free man, and had acted with the best of intentions. Emotionally, maybe not. That morning, for the first time since moving to the city, he woke up with a woman who was not Tacoma.

He had taken the day off, because he had a gig that night, and didn’t want to wear himself out. A month of brushwork had caused his middle finger to go numb, which could not be a good sign. Faced with an open morning and scads of dirty clothes, he settled on doing his laundry.
            He arrived in the basement to find Angie, swatting clothes into a dryer, wearing a T-shirt that did not entirely hide her floral panties. Shawn made a scuttling step so as not to surprise her.
            “Finally decided to wake up, huh?”
            “Sure,” he said.
            “Oh!” Angie turned with a start. “Shawn! I didn’t know it was you.”
            “Okay,” said Shawn, puzzled.
            “Why do you still use your suitcase for laundry, sillyboy?”
            “You’ve seen the size of my apartment. Suitcase or laundry basket – but not both.”
            “Just be careful. This hallway is the favorite dumping-ground of departing tenants. Andrew is pretty quick to haul stuff away. Four smelly mattresses last week.
            Angie slid her quarters into the machine and smiled. “Now get over here and give me a proper greeting.”
            “My pleasure.”
            Shawn held their embrace a little longer, enjoying the vanilla scent of Angie’s hair.
            “Jesus, woman! Can’t you wait till I’m gone?”
            He was a thin, wispy-looking guy with a Deadhead beard and long, tied-back hair. He wiped away any ill intent with a practiced grin.
            Angie burst out in giggles. “Jason! This is Shawn, the guy I told you about.”
            “Cool,” said Jason. “The guardian angel.” Shawn shook his hand, noting that Angie’s apartment door, previously closed, was now open.
            “I told him about the Great Windshield Attack,” said Angie, then smiled sheepishly. “Jason’s decided to become a permanent fixture.”
            Jason wrapped a hand around Angie’s waist and gave her a possessive kiss. “That’s Angie’s way of saying we’re moving in together.”
            “Wow!” said Shawn. “Congratulations! What do you do for something like this? Send a card?”
            “Maybe we’ll have a shack-up shower,” said Angie.
            “Well hey,” said Jason. “Gotta race. Nice meeting you. Bye, hot stuff.”
            He kissed Angie and left through the basement exit. Shawn waved, feeling awkward.
            “Nice guy.”
            “He’s a landscaper,” said Angie, investing the word with the cache of nuclear engineer or brain surgeon. “Oh, but I shouldn’t... go on about...”
            Shawn was touched by the thought. “Come on, Angie. I had a marvelous romance. Now it’s your turn. If anything, it’s good to see love and biology still working their magic. Hey! Let’s do dinner next week. I’ll interrogate the little bugger and give him my inevitable blessing.”
            “That would be great!”
            “Well,” said Shawn. “I’d better start my laundry.” He pulled his suitcase next to the washer.
            “And I’d better put on some decent clothes,” said Angie. By way of parting, she put a hand on Shawn’s shoulder. He felt the imprint on his skin, all the way up the elevator.

Two hours later, he stood in the Kickstand bathroom, critiquing the paint job as he peed. Not bad, but they didn’t get all the way behind the toilet tank. There was a thing for that, called a “long johnny,” a skinny roller with a long handle. Or it could be, he thought, I’m getting way too obsessive about this shit.
            Halfway down the hall, he heard someone crying. It came from the back room, a red-painted Chinese number they called the “opium den.” Seated on a high-back wicker chair, head in hands, was Wendy. Shawn put a hand on her shoulder.
            “Hi,” he said. “What’s up?”
            “Hi Shawn.” She looked up with red-rimmed eyes and a sad smile. “Lies. Goddamn lies, biting me in the ass.”
            “No,” she said. “Me.”
            He pulled up a black ottoman and sat down.
            “Forgive me,” he said. “But what the hell are you talking about?”
            “I wish I knew.” She laughed and pulled another Kleenex out of her purse. “Gordon’s sweet, and wonderful, and charming and handsome, everything I should...”
            “Forgive me,” said Shawn. “But who the hell is Gordon?”
            Wendy let out a snort. “You didn’t think his real name was Pancho, did you?”
            “Well, I...”
            “Oh!” Wendy shrieked. “Don’t confuse me. Just listen, okay? I came to Tacoma to get away from my parents, and religion, and all socially conventional behavior, right? So first thing, I meet a nice boy and fall in love. What the fuck is that? A Frank Capra movie? So Gordon... Pancho, wants us to be exclusive, and I tell him no. Do I have a good reason? No! I’ve just got my little agenda, and you gotta stick to the agenda. Otherwise you might end up being happy! What am I doing to myself?”
            She fell into another crying jag. Shawn squeezed in next to her and pulled her head to his chest.
            “Knew this guy,” he said. “Left his hometown to get away from this pricktease Christian girl. So he moves to the city, where he falls in love with a Christian girl. Getting my drift?”
            “Yeah. You’re an idiot, too.”
            “The King of Idiots. On the other hand, if you force yourself into a relationship with Pancho just because it makes sense, you’ll probably take it out on him later. Frankly, he deserves better.”
            Wendy wiped her eyes. “So what happened with the Christian girl?”
            “Don’t know,” said Shawn. “This weird thing about money, and then he fell in love with music, and she got sucked in by her obnoxious family. Neither of them had any energy left for each other.”
            For no logical reason, Wendy was now grinning like a maniac.
            “What?” he said.
            “You heard of the expression ‘maintenance screw’? ‘Friendly fucking’? ‘Booty call’?”
            “Well, I...”
            “Come on, honey, you owe me one. It’s the only thing that’s gonna make me feel better. There’s a nice comfy couch in the back room, and I give a blow job like nobody’s... Oh God...” She studied his expression. “The neutral gaze of the ethical male. Shit.” She grabbed her purse and took flight, stopping at the door without turning.
            “I really love you, Shawn, but once in a while, couldn’t you just be a penis?”
            A half hour later, reading the trails of nutmeg at the bottom of his cappuccino, Shawn found his reasons. First, he couldn’t do that to Pancho. Second was Tacoma, and the upping of standards. It wasn’t that a jump in the sack was no longer in his repertoire. But the first time back, it would have to be for a better reason.
            Because they never gave you the chance?
            He looked at the American flag atop City Hall, fluttering in a slow wind.
            I had the chance, sweetheart.

Jessica was divorced, about a year, and ready to get back into dating. Shawn came by to give a bid on a paint job, but she seemed more interested in self-analysis.
            “I’m a human light switch, on/off. When I got married, fifteen years ago, that side of my personality just disappeared. My ex-husband has an advantage, since he didn’t give up dating during the marriage. Which leaves the sexy but slightly overweight Jessica in her present predicament.”
            Hello, Mrs. Robinson, thought Shawn. Note how she fishes for the compliment. He asked to use the bathroom, found photographs of a younger, slimmer Jessica on the counter. She had been, in fact, a babe. Could you sleep with someone for what they used to be?
            Jessica led him upstairs to the master bedroom, hexagonal with a trio of large windows. The walls were covered with a dark, mealy-looking green.
            “Everything in the house is so girly-pastel, Jeff insisted on something masculine for the bedroom. We laid down a kelly green, then sponged it over with hunter, and now it looks like a stinkin’ jungle. I swear at night you can see snakes. What is so funny?”
            “Sorry,” he said, still laughing. “Stinkin’ jungle. Struck me funny.”
            “Oh, that. I was starting to swear too much around the kids, so now it’s stinkin’ this, and stinkin’ that.”
            Shawn had already switched to numbers. Two coats to cover the color, no trim, popcorn ceiling...
            “How’s a hundred and forty? That includes the paint.”
            Jessica flounced on the bed, showing off an ample but likable ass.
            “Money’s kinda tight,” she said.
            Great. Mrs. Robinson without the cash.
            “Tell you what,” he said. “I always leave a little room in my estimates for unexpected obstacles. Let’s call one-forty the absolute ceiling. If everything goes smoothly, I’ll drop the price accordingly.”
            “Deal.” She popped up on her knees, displaying an ample bosom.
            “Mom! Are we havin’ dinner soon?”
            The question was followed by a boy with ragged blond hair – seven, eight years old.
            “Charley! This is Shawn. He’s going to eradicate the rain forest.”
            “But I like the rain forest! It’s dark, so you can sleep better.”
            “He’s got a point,” said Shawn.
            “Charley, the jungle is giving your mother nightmares. Now go wash your hands. Dinner’s in five.”
            Charley stomped down the stairs, shouting “Save the rain forest! Save the rain forest!”
            “Cute,” said Shawn.
            “Cute like a Gestapo. But he is the only man I’m currently getting along with. So tell me. How is ‘the scene’ out there?”
            Given recent events, Shawn felt profoundly unqualified to answer. But he gave it a try.
            “It’s like business. If you want to maintain a strong negotiating position, you have to be willing to walk away from the table. If your primary motivation is the fear of going home alone, you will end up going home with a long line of freaks.
            “On the other hand, if you learn to cultivate your solitude, and treat good companionship as a small miracle, you may just find someone to worship you – which is exactly what each of us deserves. And stay away from drunks, especially the ones who say they hardly ever drink.”
            “Such wisdom!” said Jessica. “Are you sure you’re not fifty? Although I have no idea what could be freakier than a husband who wears his wife’s clothing. Oh God. Did I just say that?”
            “’Fraid so,” said Shawn. “Tuesday all right? Ten a.m.?”
            “My. You’re unflappable. Tuesday’s fine.”
            On the way out, he met Summer, a skinny, morbid-looking 13-year-old who looked like anything but her name. She responded to his introduction with three unintelligible words.
            They stood in the front yard, exchanging the usual pleasantries, when the ex-husband pulled up in his pickup. He was in the neighborhood, dropping by the check on the kids’ weekend schedule. Jessica felt obliged to introduce them, and to explain the reason for Shawn’s being there. Shawn tried to force back the image of Jeff in a yellow sundress, then waited the mandatory thirty seconds before fleeing for the garden gate.
            Yikes! he thought. This place is a goddamn tarpit.

The gig was at the triangular coffeehouse on 9th Street. Shawn sat at his drums after sound check, peering down the long room at the magic fishtank. Ivy was sitting there with a stunning blonde, a collection of understated, angular lines to go with Ivy’s arcs and semicircles.
            It was a little unsettling, playing to a sober, visible audience. They sat in rows of chairs, theater-style, and studied the proceedings like they were watching a chess match.
            The first surprise came at the end of the first set, when Ivy introduced a guest singer, Autumn Stolling-something, and the knockout blonde took to the stage.
            “And don’t be alarmed by the looks on my bandmates’ faces,” said Ivy. “They had no idea I was going to do this.” Ivy turned to the band and half-whispered, “‘Summertime,’ a little slower,” then slipped from the stage.
            Pancho took it lighter as well. Shawn matched him on the snare, stirring his brushes like featherdusters. Autumn perched placidly on her stool. She had clearly been there before.
            She came in more soprano than Ivy, more air than earth, and formed her phrases as if she were blowing small glass animals. More jazz, less blues, little touches of Ella and Sarah Vaughan.
            The end of the song brought the added applause of discovery, and another surprise: Autumn wasn’t going anywhere. What’s more, Ivy was standing in line for a mocha. Shawn was about to signal for a break when Autumn turned around and said, “I don’t suppose you guys know ‘The Girl From Ipanema’?”
            A breeze of aha’s wafted through the Swingin’ Richards, who had wondered all month why they were learning a song so ill-suited to Ivy voice.
            Just as they started, Autumn said, “Don’t be thrown off.”
            By what? thought Shawn, but he was busy forcing his Yankee fingers into a tricky bossa nova, clave off-beats on the rim of his snare.
            Autumn began singing – in Portuguese. Shawn was impressed.
            But not Bobby Budoric. Stowing his bass for the break, he muttered, “Sounded a little flat to me.”
            “No, no,” said Shawn. “That’s the Brazilian style – little flat and breathy. Sergio Mendes, Julie London, Antonio Jobim, that kinda thing.”
            “I knew it,” said Autumn, appearing over Bobby’s shoulder. “The drummer is always the musicologist. And this one plays like a singer.”
            Shawn found himself looking at eyes the color of Caribbean lagoons. “Is that good?” he asked.
            “God yes! You have a way of shaping the dynamic structure, laying down a path for the singer. So attentive.”
            “Easy with  you,” said Shawn. “You’re amazing. How do you know ‘Ipanema’ in Portuguese? And where’d you learn to round up to the notes like Ella?”
            Autumn smiled. “Daddy’s superb record collection. And you?”
            “Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Poncho Sanchez. They keep sneaking in vocalists. Let me try this on you: Keely Smith.”
            Shawn smiled. “Correct response.”
            Autumn put a hand on Shawn’s chest. “Hey, I gotta say hi to some friends. Can we continue this later?”
            They were soon into the second set, the fervor escalating every time Jimmy Catarino stomped his distortion box. A few couples even ventured to dance on the patch of hardwood in front of the restrooms.
            Ivy took the mic to announce their finale, “Sweet Home Chicago.”
            “This is a very special night for me,” she said. “Because it’s my last.”
            The room went silent. The band turned into a diorama.
            “I’ve been offered a chance to house-sit in Los Angeles, for nine months, and I guess it’s time to get on with my acting career. Even though it wasn’t on my agenda, this band has been like... a miracle. I want to thank every one of you for... coming along.”
            She stopped to wipe a hand over her eyes, then took a deep breath.
            “Can we start this goddamn song before I start bawling?”
            Shawn clicked off the four-beat, and Pancho jumped in. The rest of them caught up later.

They adjourned to Ivy’s house, where they conducted a half-sendoff, half-wake with the help of her new margarita blender. At three a.m., they gathered at the front porch and, one by one, collected enough momentum to take their parting hugs and drift away. Shawn worried about Pancho driving, but concluded he was more melancholic than alcoholic. Pancho had a fatalistic view of the life-span of bands, and this was feeding right into it.
            Ivy walked Pancho to his car as Shawn stood by the gate, studying Ivy’s house, a two-story rectangle topped by a triangle attic, like a child’s drawing. An evening rain had coated the grass in crystals of water, sparking in the streetlight, drilling holes in his heart. Since the breakup with Tacoma, the music had filled the desert spaces of his evenings – and Ivy was the gatekeeper.
            He didn’t need to turn around; he could hear her footsteps coming up the sidewalk.
            “Why so sudden?” he asked. “Why didn’t you tell us sooner?”
            Ivy wrapped her hands around his chest and nuzzled his hair.
            “I only heard about the house-sitting two days ago. If I didn’t go right away they were going to get someone else.” She walked around to face him. “You okay to drive, bubbelah? Need some coffee?”
            “I can’t go.”
            “You can’t...”
            “I’m not going.” He walked to the porch and turned around, arms out like wings. “The drummer and the singer, Ivy. Nothing like it. Guitarists are mere chaperones, walking alongside. I’m in front of you, laying cobblestones, building bridges. I’ve never made music like I have with you. Like ‘Cold Shot,’ when we stop and head for the hook, and I’m dropping tom shots like smoke signals, sliding you into the pit. Or ‘Help Me,’ when Pancho cuts off and I pop! the snare and out of the snare comes you, spitting and growling like a nasty Venus from the Sea, churning agony and beauty. Sometimes, I swear, it’s like the best sex I ever had!”
            Oh, he’d done it now. She was crying. He met her on the walk and traced the backs of his fingers across her cheek. She took his hand and kissed it, then smiled wickedly.
            “Shawn? Would you like to try for better?”

The last of the high eaves was done, sharp as a new suit. Still, Shawn wasn’t ready to leave. The afterglow was scribbling an alphabet of pink cirrus across the sky. Sometimes he wanted to live up here, vault from housetop to housetop, never touch the ground.
            He thought of their second go-round, when Ivy and her Amazon curves had worn him silly, when he and his penis were ready to call it a night.
            “Oh no,” said Ivy. “We’re not done with you yet.” She slipped off his condom, washed him with a warm cloth, then set to reviving him with her tongue. What came next, as she rolled on a condom and climbed aboard, was like the world’s most pleasurable vise grip. Like sending your penis through a washing machine. He came in a matter of two minutes. Ivy stayed there, gathering her senses, then rolled to his side, kissing him and smiling.
            “A matter of pride,” she said.
            Shawn plucked a stray bristle from his brush. Leave it to Ivy, he thought, to do the job right.
            He noticed the tablespoon of white at the bottom of his painting cup, found a spot under the front gable, and drew out the letters “SPT” across a shingle, where only he and the occasional seagull would see it.

Photo by MJV

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