Today, I am giving you an entire short story- a short short story. I wrote it many years ago and used some circumstances of my family’s life as plot. The motivations and thoughts expressed by the characters, however, are a complete fabrication for the purposes of telling a tale. I have made this mosaic to go with the story; it bears the story’s name.
As the paint from the broken jar slowly spread across the garage floor, the color surprised Harry; it was pink like the stuccoed walls of a Mexican restaurant. It reminded him of something from his past, something just out of reach of clear memory. He couldn’t remember why he had chosen that color. However, his recollection of the circumstance of his purchase was distinct; he’d gone into the paint department at Home and Garden to buy paint for the garage cabinets. After all, the plan was to sell the house soon, right after his move into Happy Village, and surely The Boys down the street would be more interested in buying his house if the musty garage cabinets were freshly painted; made to look pretty.
When he had walked into the paint department at Home and Garden, he’d intended to buy a pre-mixed container off of the shelf; no fussing with details for him. He recalled brushing up against a table loaded with paint cans, all remnants and unclaimed special orders, all priced to sell quickly. The stacked cans quivered and one toppled from the table, thudding and rolling on the floor. The can disappeared under a display of painting supplies, but it did not occur to him to retrieve it and to return it to its place on the table. Never before having passed by a bargain rack or sale table without stopping, he was compelled now to stop and gaze at the bounty of discounted merchandise. No question but that he should purchase his can from the discount table.
He had been looking uncomprehendingly at the labels for several minutes when a young salesman broke in to his fog and said, “Anything I can do for you?” “No, no, not really…Uh, say, what kind of paint should I use on my garage cabinets?” “Well, what kind of cabinets do you have? It all depends on what the cabinets are made of.” “Well, they’re brown… uh, they’re brown pine cabinets and uh, I’m going to sell the house and thought I’d paint the garage cabinets a pretty color. You know, I really like natural wood, I just like the wood color, but these cabinets are covered with grime… I’ve lived in this house twenty-five… uh, thirty…no, no, forty years now, yeah, forty years and they’d just look prettier if I paint them.” “Well, sir, I’d recommend a good primer first, maybe one of your primers that will kill any stains you might have, and then I’d recommend a good quality enamel, since cabinets get so much wear.” Then the sound of the store’s P.A. system had broken into their conversation and the salesman had glided away, promising to answer any more questions as soon as he had finished with this phone call.
Harry stared at the table of paint cans, thinking of the forty years he had lived in his house; no, not his house, their house. Mabel had passed away only four, no, maybe five…eight years ago, and they had bought this house when Bill was 10 years old and the twins were only 7. They had come down on the train from Cleveland; just the two of them; made the 1500 mile trip to spend the weekend looking for a place to live. He hated to miss the days of work; felt guilt over being away from his old job in order to tend to the details related to the new job he was about to start, but he had been consoled by the fact that he’d found them a new house so quickly. Just one day of looking; one morning, really, and he’d spotted just what they’d needed: a tidy three-bedroom home on a street overflowing with children; plenty of room for the family, if the two boys shared a bedroom. It certainly was larger than what they had been living in back in Cleveland, which was a converted poolside bathhouse on the former family estate in the suburbs. He remembered that on the house-hunting trip, Mabel had gently chided him for not allowing the real estate agent to take them to see the homes in a brand-new subdivision a few miles away, saying “Harry, maybe we can find a house that has another bedroom or one with a den.” Mabel had been like that; she was forever seeking things beyond the realm of the practical, the necessary. He had quickly dismissed her suggestion, knowing that she would not directly express her dissatisfaction over the matter again, and then they had driven back to the agent’s office to sign some papers and be on the 7 p.m. train back to Cleveland. They hadn’t even had to spend a night in a motel. He had thought about how convenient and thrifty it was to pay for two nights’ lodging simply by purchasing a couple of train tickets.
The paint cans on the table came back into his consciousness and he focused on a can that said “Inspirations Soft Matte”. He picked it up, trembling a little as he did so. The gallon can was heavier than he remembered it should be and he struggled as he lifted it across the table. He wasn’t sure what “Soft Matte” meant, but he liked the idea of “Inspirations”, as if he were about to do something creative and important. He noticed a smear of paint across the top of the can and felt the reassurance of familiarity when he realized that the color of the smear nearly matched the color of the bathroom walls at home. Mabel, in an effort to match the pink-trimmed maroon tiles of the bathroom, had chosen pink for the walls. Once, he had been vaguely aware of the clash between the shades of the trim, the walls, the pink curtains, and the pink towels, but he’d been proud that Mabel had made all her purchases on sale, allowing them to squirrel away the savings in their account at the bank.
He carried his can over to the register, where the same salesman smiled at him and said, “Find everything you need, sir?” Harry said, “No, no, no, yeah, yeah, I found what I needed.” The salesman reminded him about the stain-killing primer, but Harry just stared and didn’t respond. As he pulled his wallet from his pants pocket, he noticed that his hand was shaking slightly, and he had to concentrate to make it stop. He needed to hide this infirmity from the young salesman. He fumbled with the bills for a while, then slowly counted the change that the salesman had returned to him. As Harry left the register, heading for the exit doors, the salesman ran after him with the wallet that Harry had absently left on the scanner glass.
Harry didn’t remember the trip home from the shopping center very well. He suspected that he had gotten lost a few times trying to locate his car in the enormous parking lot, and he also thought he remembered some impatient driver blasting the horn of a pickup truck behind him on the street. Harry didn’t live far from the Home and Garden; the shopping center had been built rather recently in a fit of construction frenzy on the part of a developer eager to profit from the resurgence of interest in this part of town. Harry enjoyed having a shopping center so convenient to his house and he tried to recall any shopping areas he might have seen around Happy Village.
After eating a slice from the pan of lasagna that someone had sent home with him after the last church supper, he ambled out to the garage, a dark, somewhat cluttered space, and opened up his can of paint on the workbench. He was startled by the brightness, the intensity of color of the paint inside. The light coming in from the streaked window caused the pink paint to glow amid the grease-coated tools and dusty unfinished projects cluttering the work surface. He pulled a color-encrusted mixing paddle off its hook on the garage wall and slowly swirled the paint in the can. The color reminded him of the medicine he had taken a few weeks ago when his digestive system refused a different medicine given him for an infected toe.
He’d damaged his toe; mashed it, actually, when he had dropped a frozen chunk of stew beef onto his foot. He prided himself on his cooking skills; always bragged about his baking escapades, when he’d make peach cobbler for the senior citizens’ group or cookies for the entire church congregation at the reception following worship on Sunday morning. He noticed that he had been bringing home more and more leftovers, but he attributed this to the fact that he had made such generous portions in the first place. On the occasion when he had damaged his toe, he had been preparing to make a pot of stew for himself and was removing the beef from the freezer when it had slipped from his trembling hands and dropped onto his bare foot. Anyway, the swelling in the toe had subsided after a few days and he had forgotten about the frozen beef incident.
When his shoe started pinching his foot and causing a dull ache in the damaged toe, he made a trip to his doctor and found out that he had developed an infection that required antibiotics in order to heal. The pharmacist had counseled him that the medication could cause an upset stomach if he swallowed the capsules without also eating a snack, but he hadn’t paid much attention to the pharmacist’s words until later on, when he became quite ill after taking his first dose. While he was in the bathroom recovering, he looked at the array in the medicine cabinet, and had decided upon swallowing a pink liquid in a bottle he found there. He couldn’t read the print on the label, but the contents looked familiar, and he figured that if he were to swallow just a little, he couldn’t feel worse afterward, and might even feel better. The liquid oozed down his throat, and some time later he realized that he was no longer sick. He really hadn’t thought about that episode again until now, when he gazed at the pink paint swirling in the can.
Harry took the mixing paddle out of the can and laid it on the workbench. He surveyed the tools hanging on the wall over the workbench and located a paintbrush, which he removed and dipped into the can. As he smoothed the paint onto the door of the closest cabinet, he marveled at the transforming power it had upon the surface. As he worked, the knotted, stained wood surface yielded to an intense, vibrant finish. He was amazed at the potency of the color, and he painted faster, dipping the brush and slapping the paint onto the cabinets with his shaking hand.
After a few minutes of reckless painting, he tripped over his wheelbarrow lying on its side in the gloom. Realizing that he shouldn’t take the wheelbarrow with him to Happy Village, he thought about leaving it with the house for The Boys down the street. The bottom was rusty, and there were holes through the metal in several places, so he decided to spruce it up a bit by painting it to match the cabinets. Besides, he reasoned, The Boys would give him a better price for the house if he left them with all the conveniences.
Harry paused in his task long enough to look for another container for his paint. The gallon can was getting heavy and it was streaming with paint anyway; he’d never be able to get the lid back on. He found some glass jars under the workbench and emptied the can into three of them, unaware that the color was spilling onto the garage floor as he poured. He screwed the rusty lids onto a couple of the jars, thinking about how far-sighted he’d been to save the jars long after their original contents were used up. He picked up the remaining open jar of paint and returned to his work.
As he enthusiastically applied paint to the wheelbarrow, Harry noticed that some of the color had splashed over onto a bicycle, which had been propped up in the corner for several years. The bike was a ten-speed; it had belonged to his daughter when she was a nursing student at the university downtown. He remembered how he’d worried every time she left the house riding the bike. He was always concerned about the crazy drivers who might run over her, or the maniac dope-fiends looking for an easy victim. He hadn’t counted on a killer coming from within his daughter’s own body.
Harry recalled the phone call on that Wednesday morning so many years ago. The doctor was calling from the hospital in Washington, D.C. where his daughter had been admitted the night before for an early morning lung biopsy. Becky, who was now a nurse in the hospital’s psychiatric unit, had assured them that it would be a routine procedure; that there was no need for them to come so far to be with her; that this was just one more test to try to determine the cause of her chronic cough. It really would be nothing to worry over since she was not a smoker and did not abuse her body in any other way. The doctor was now phoning to tell Harry and Mabel that their 30-year-old daughter was in critical condition; that she had gone into cardiac arrest on the operating table; that she suffered from a massive tumor; that she probably wouldn’t make it.
In the shock of disbelief that follows such news, he and Mabel had hurriedly discussed what they should do. Since it just didn’t seem possible to him that they could lose their young and seemingly healthy daughter in such a way, without a struggle, Harry had felt no urge to get on a plane and fly to Washington to be with her. He reserved such extreme action for times when he was needed; when he could do something useful; when there was lifting, hauling, or carrying to be done, or decisions to be made. Now he would put Mabel on the plane; let her go to their daughter; let her nurse Becky back to health. Mabel could even bring Becky back home, back to the bedroom she had grown up in; care for her like Mabel had done when the twins had contracted first the chicken pox, then mumps a few years later, and finally, the measles. Mabel had protested his decision not to go to Washington with her, saying that she was worried about traveling from the airport to the hospital by herself in a strange city, but Harry had been distracted by the process of buying her plane ticket and getting her to the airport himself, so he had not really paid attention to her fears.
Becky was dead by the time Mabel’s plane landed at National Airport. A few days later, after Harry had joined Mabel, they had gone to Becky’s apartment in Washington, D.C. to dispose of her belongings and to bring home mementos from their daughter’s life. Harry had spotted the bike propped in a corner of the kitchen, and had carried it downstairs to the rented trailer. Back at home, he had pedaled the bike himself for years, until his knee pain had gotten so aggravating that he’d had to quit riding.
Without being aware of it, Harry had ceased painting several minutes ago, and now he was shocked out of his trance by the sound of glass shattering on the concrete in front of his feet. He stared at the paint spreading across the garage floor. After he puzzled for a time over the color oozing across the concrete, his mind began to clear. He shuffled back into the house, tracking pink blobs across the kitchen floor and down the dim hallway. He stopped in the doorway of his daughter’s old room.
As he stared into the light bursting through the window onto the pink walls, he recalled the feeling he had had when Mabel had called with the news of Becky’s death. Since the phone shelf was built into the hallway wall right outside Becky’s door, he had been standing in this same position when he had answered the phone call from the doctor all those years ago. He had had a twinge of guilt back then, wondering if he should have been on the plane with Mabel, heading for Washington and Becky’s hospital room. At the time he’d dismissed the thought as too theoretical, too ambiguous, too uncomfortable.
But now, as he stared into the stream of light, the thought came back to him and he imagined himself on that plane; imagined the rush of the plane as it raced down the runway, mashing him back into his seat; imagined the turbulence as the plane rocketed through the clouds that were always forming over the gulf coastline; imagined the pilot calling attention to the “fasten seatbelt” sign in preparation for landing at National. What if he’d been on that plane? Would the universe somehow have been different? Perhaps the very act of his boarding the plane; inhaling the engine exhaust, tracking his own dust onto the plane’s striped carpet, would have rearranged the universe just enough to have given history, his personal history, a different outcome.
His mind now running uncontrolled in unaccustomed paths, the old man stared and breathed heavily. He felt a burning sensation in his nose, and his eyes started to run. As he examined the furnishings of Becky’s room, his mind peopled the room with children; first, his own young Becky looking up at him from her rocker with her wistful, puzzled eyes; then later, two unfamiliar children. As he gazed at the two sleeping children snuggled into the comforter on Becky’s bed, he began to feel that he somehow knew them. He sensed an uncomfortable pain, almost a swelling inside, when he realized how much they reminded him of his own children. He watched the little girl’s nostrils taking in and letting out her shallow child-breaths and he saw the familiar dark lashes flicker against the boy’s cheek. “What if Becky had lived?” “Would these have been her children?” Never before had Harry experienced a consuming regret, and now he was overwhelmed by this amount of emotion. His wet eyes turned downward from the sleeping children to look at the pink liquid dripping from the paintbrush he gripped in his shaking hand. Alone, Harry wept.