the true stories
One summer I was down in Beaumont, Texas. My grandpa was away at sea, bringing oil to Asia. He was due back in port before I had to start school again and I was looking forward to seeing him. I was greeted at the bus station by my grandma.
First up we headed out to the Piggly Wiggly Grocery Store to stock up on things that a sprouting boy likes to eat and came back home with four big brown bags of vittles. After chowing down on a ham sandwich big enough to choke a pony, a can of spiced cling-stone peaches, a cool Pearl Beer and several Moon Pies, my grandma asked me out to the back-yard under the pecan trees.
She motioned toward the garage which stood silent and locked tight til her husband was back from overseas. The dull gray paint was a sixteenth of an inch thick and peeling away in big nasty flakes. The wood underneath was trying to turn to “punk-wood” which is only good for smudge pots and smoking hides. The galvanized corrugated roof was blossoming out into a half-dozen new oxides and compounds starting from the nail-holes.
The back side was chipping and peeling badly. I was partly responsible. That was where I practiced throwing knives when my grandpa was a few thousand nautical miles away. I knew the state of the interior from many long hours “standing watch” while my grandfather performed Swedish magic on a wide variety of motors and other projects ranging from building rabbit cages to making fishing knives from old spring-steel crosscut saws. I still have one of those knives.
The only things I coveted inside were three in number. An old twenty pound chunk of iron used as a smithy tool for striking hot metal on, which I tried each summer to lift until I eventually could do it with one hand. The second was a beige and maroon Bakelite plastic radio tuned to KYKR, that played Tall Dark Stranger by Buck Owens and the Buckaroos every time my grandpa turned it on. Right next to that radio was a RIGID PIPE TOOLS Calendar with my older cousin Deborah Kay on the cover wearing an itsy-bitsy teenie-weenie polka-dot bikini. I remember asking my grandma after the first time I saw it if folks could marry their cousins. She said it wasn't too usual or necessary anymore. My grandpa smiled behind his coffee cup.
The thought of scraping, sanding, priming and sloshing gallons of gray while swatting skeeters turned my mood sour. My grandma told me she reckoned it was a big job and that my grandpa would pay me for it when he returned. She said I was only to do it if I clearly wanted to from my heart. I hated the smell of paint and I told her I clearly didn't.
She then told me that my grandpa expected me to do something useful before he returned to earn my keep and that I could figure out something else more suitable to my temperament. I looked over at their garden. They hadn't planted yet because of the rain and the whole patch needed turning and weeding. I asked if I could do that and she said yes.
Same hundred plus heat, donkey killing humidity, giant skeeters and horseflies but a happier boy you never saw. The difference was working with natural things and good old dirt instead of chemicals. I chopped, forked and shoveled. In about two full days I was forming up the rows for the pintos, tomatoes, okras, crooked-neck squash, string beans, lettuces, carrots, green onions and such. My grandma fed me like a Saudi prince and when I was done, she showed me how to plant old-style.
My grandpa arrived at the docks a few days late and when he got home he walked straight to the back yard to see what I'd done. He looked at the shed first and lingered awhile. My grandma then directed his attention to the garden. A big smile pulled across his face and he dug into his pocket and gave me ten bucks. That was just under a days pay in those days. I walked a little taller that summer.
About ten years later I was between employment, newly married and poor. I answered an ad in a North Shore paper. It was for a painting job. According to the boss on the phone, there was weeks and weeks of work piled up and if I was up to their standard, I would be only limited to how much I could take.
I met the man and his partner at an apartment address in Burnaby for an on the job orientation and training session. I had honestly told them that I had never painted commercially before. I got to the place and met my new boss and his partner. They were surprisingly young and I figured that was a lesson to me that if I applied myself I could be running an outfit instead of being the hired hand.
We got introduced and shook hands. I could hear from their accents that these fellows were from at least Alberta if not Saskatchewan. The fellows showed me exactly how they wanted the jobs to be done. Everything removable from the walls was to be removed, the entire surfaces were to be washed with TSP and the fridges and stoves were to be pulled all the way out and the whole wall behind was to be painted.
The trays, brushes for cutting-in, rollers, sponges, rags, drop-clothes, buckets, masking tape, long poles and wall and ceiling paint were all provided by the boss. All I had to provide was my step-ladder and screwdrivers. It was a real class act. The young men said they'd be back to check my first job and if I passed muster, I would get more addresses by phoning the office. Each job would be set up with the paint and supplies in advance.
I scrubbed and painted like a deck-hand. When I was done, I phoned the office and the boss came out within half an hour and gave it the white glove. He pointed out a few details that needed improvement but at the end he said I had passed my probation and asked if I wanted one or two bedroom apartments to paint from then on. He told me the piece-rate he paid for each. I said two because they paid more. I figured I could do three of those a day.
We shook hands on it and I asked about paydays. He said that he paid once a week on Saturdays and that I just had to phone the office before-hand, list all the addresses I had done that week and they would cut the check after squaring it with their records. I could then swing by the office and pick up the check. It was understood that this first one was not to be paid as I was in training.
He gave me two more addresses, all in Burnaby, for the balance of that day. I set to with gusto and by that night, reeling from the fumes, soaking sore arms in a hot bath, I figured I could paint as good as any man. Now I would work on my speed. I did three apartments the second day and by Thursday or so I was getting fast without being sloppy. I was dizzy from the fumes and relished my beer at days end to kill the taste in my throat.
I started extra early on Friday, so I could wrap up during office hours. I worked without lunch to make that happen, raced to my own apartment in Lynn valley and showered up. I phoned the office to read off my week's list. The operator said that the number wasn't in service. I figured my eyes had been affected by the damn paint. I remembered by the third day that sometimes I would see other colours instead of the steady white as if my brain was trying to save itself from the monotony of a monochrome world.
I dialed again. Same message. I made several other calls and then drove to the office address to have a little pow-wow with the boss. I was halfway through a smoke in the empty lot that bore the address I sought before I allowed myself to realize I had been diddled. My inquiries to the RCMP led to my discovering that the gentlemen I whom had painted thirteen apartments for had started in Manitoba and worked this scam all the way to Vancouver. It was expected they would turn up on the Island in a week or two. They collected the cash up front from the landlords and managers, dropped the paint and supplies and hustled new jobs. Each week they changed towns.
There was nothing I could do and words cannot do justice to the anger I felt. I could have slapped a six foot six Greek palace guard with my left hand and stole his wooden shoes before he landed. Anyway there wasn't time to process these emotions, I had a pretty wife to feed.
A couple of wives later, I was renting a half of a duplex from a fellow I worked with. It became time to cheer the place up with some new paint. I had long buried the above fiasco and had no conscious recollection of the event. My subconscious hadn't dropped the matter though. I didn't know exactly why, but I told my wife and children to go and stay with some friends for about two days while I painted.
This proved to be the right thing to do. About two hours in to the painting job and the full memory came flooding back in perfect detail. I cursed and swore in a multitude of languages and was not fit for the company of anything but a wolverine with a cut on its front pad. I saddled up the rage and turned it in to the best paint-job I'd done up to that time. Two years later, I did her again, this time with no need to send the bairns away with their Mum. I still didn't like the fumes though.
The other morning I was talking to a Guatemalan commercial painter on the bus. He had just finished painting a massive new laboratory at a local university where weird experiments are conducted on truck-loads of animals. He said they came in on a ramp into the underground so as not to alarm the public. Before that he had painted a huge old cathedral in the downtown. He had painted for more than thirty years in several countries. We chatted about different paints and different applications. He spoke of the chemicals that are in paints especially designed to coat metal surfaces.
He asked if I knew the average lifespan of a professional painter. I said I didn't and was told that they were lucky to make fifty-five years old. The leads and heavy metals build up in the system. I told him that when I was a pipe-fitter, I had been handling lead paste daily. It has been working its way out of my hands for the past three years or so. I showed him one of the lesions and he regarded it with a knowing look. In a true Cachiquel manner, he leaned in close and whispered to me to eat tons of cilantro. He held out his hand and showed that it was smooth and unblemished.
A few weeks prior I was clearing some brush up-country and a man came from across the road. I had never met him but he had seen me out his window on several occasions. He was wiry, tough, sun-browned and only his beard gave away his age.
He introduced himself, shook my hand and said, “Every man is a bastard and every woman is a bitch. And I love every one of them.”
“I know exactly what you mean and my investigations up to this point in my life have yielded the same conclusion and personal conviction,” I replied with no hesitation.
As he helped me lift a piece of equipment out of the back of the Suzuki and set it down, he looked right at me and said, “ I knew it! I knew it when I seen you the first time!”
“Ready?” He asked and then he raised his leathery face to the boundless blue and hollered, “God Bless Every Single One of You Sons of Bitches!”
We spent the balance of the afternoon swapping important dreams and talking about the seven different kinds of choke-cherries. That night I finished a four year painting project I'd been working on.
Copyright © 2015 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.