With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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I invade people’s lives for a living. At dawn I climb ladders to their second-story windows and fiddle with their locks. I place flammable materials in their garages and wake their sleeping dogs. I meet flannel-robed housewives as they hurry their husbands out the door.
I’m a house painter. I beg hesitant homeowners to paint their sitting rooms Chinese red. To suburbia I bring color wheels and clanking planks and dropcloths as multicolored as Joseph’s coat. To a world too busy with rush-hour traffic and the concerns of Wall Street, I bring beauty and color.
I am an artist on a grand scale. I paint the dreams of architects, of builders, of husbands, wives, and children. I fail often enough. I choose the wrong hues; I must darken and reapply a stain; I have fallen fifteen feet onto a carpet of red bricks.
At times I paint palaces.
I bring art books to work. I’ll paint a bedroom the color of the lantern light in van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night, holding the book up to my happy client’s walls. I’ve brought Goya, Sargent, and Bonnard to construction sites with cement mixers out front. To morning kitchens alive with coffee and popping toasters and kids rushing off to school, I’ve brought Rubens.
Last year I brought Vermeer to an oceanfront house owned by a family of Germans. Grandpapa had bought the two-story, redwood California cottage in the thirties. Now he was gone, and Papa, his son, was the elderly head of the flock, still with a shock of black hair and ten grown boys of his own and a wife in a nearby nursing home.
Every day, after visits with Mom, a few of the boys showed up at Papa’s house unannounced with gruff, shouted greetings. They were all cabinetmakers, fallen from the same old-world tree. They’d shoulder each other about while cooking in the kitchen, joking and laughing, the two family dogs wandering in the forest of legs, hoping for fallen tidbits. It kept Papa going.
Upstairs, painting a bedroom, I had Vermeer’s View of Delft at hand. When I had counseled Papa to paint his bedroom the color of the yellow house in Vermeer’s distance, Papa had nodded. I’d told him how Proust had written of that house, of its yellow color, and Papa had nodded. And when I was done exclaiming my passion, he’d raised a bushy eyebrow and said simply, “You’re the painter, painter,” and left me to my work.
After a couple of days of seeing me gnaw an energy bar for lunch, this garrulous family adopted me. “Painter, lunch!” they’d call. “Get your ass down here!” We’d sit at the long table and pass dressings and pitchers of juice, and the boys would tell stories and shout at each other and eat platefuls of sausages and sauerkraut, then get quiet as they discussed how Mom was doing. When their pain became too obvious, they’d shake it off and ask, “Painter, why aren’t you eating? How’s that yellow going upstairs, painter?” Rather than talk of Vermeer, I’d reply, “Fine. Pass the damn sausages.”
In the living room two La-Z-Boy chairs faced a window that looked out on the ocean. After lunch Papa sat in one; a son, full of sausages, collapsed into the other. Both draped warm cloths over their eyes, pulled up light blankets, and reclined like mummies laid out for their final rest. Each dog found a lap — Cuddles nestled in one, Buddy in the other — and they were all soon asleep.
As I’d tiptoe up and down the stairs for tools and paint, one or the other dog would half open a sleepy eye, then go back to snoring.
My life as a painter is as simple as a sparrow’s: a morsel here, another there, no planning too far ahead. It’s the times.
It wasn’t always this way. Not too long ago I was booked for years in advance. New houses were hammered into being overnight, and owners of the older ones were spiffing theirs up. There seemed to be no end to the shine Southern California was putting on. They call it a “bubble,” but it didn’t pop so much as gradually deflate, like an old kickball. Five years ago we heard the first leak of air: a slight psff. Now I am booked for only the next two months with absolutely nothing beyond that. The ball is flat. I keep my business cards ready — “Thirty-Five Years Painting Houses by the Sea,” they read — hoping to catch the eye of potential customers as I work on the Germans’ house on the boardwalk. But I finish the job with no new work on the horizon. When a loyal customer named James calls to ask if I can fly to Hawaii to paint his vacation home, I am on the next plane. I would have flown to India.
I bring a book on Titian with me to Hawaii, where I have come to paint a seven-million-dollar house that looks across a turquoise sea to a distant horizon. I get to live here while I restore its beauty. The plantation-style house is spacious, breezy, comfortable, lived-in — and painted a god-awful mustard yellow, the walls black with mildew. I’ll be here two months for sure, on the island of Oahu, where I grew up.
I sleep on the pune’e, a large Hawaiian couch, which faces the ocean. I watch the full moon pull itself from the blue water, feel the trade winds rustle my sheet. Two coconut trees cradle the moon. I plan my next day’s painting as I fall asleep.
A Pacific golden plover is my constant companion each day. Her feathers tawny and black speckled, she scurries about the lawn, stops, raises a slim leg, and balances in silence — a ballerina with a long yellow beak — then drills the ground for a worm. I watch her from my ladder. It’s April now. She’ll be here through May, like me. Then she’ll fly three thousand miles without landfall to her summer home in Alaska.
When the real-estate ball finally hissed flat, it affected everyone.
My old friend Terry is a builder. His father was one too. Throughout his high-school summers Terry climbed the wood skeletons of buildings and hammered nails. After graduation he went to the University of Notre Dame but still came home in the summers and hammered. Even with a master’s in English in his pocket, he continued to work construction. It was his first love. He built houses in Southern California for thirty years or more and then made the leap into the surging tide of commercial real estate: he planned and built a business center — offices to rent, sidewalks, sprinkler systems, a two-story atrium in the foyer. He threw all he had into it, even mortgaged his house. In the booming economy it was a no-lose venture. It was the times.
I painted Terry’s house five years ago. It hadn’t been done since he and his wife, Maureen, had bought it. It took me an entire summer to paint it, inside and out — a long, hot Southern California summer.
I worked around Terry, painting the four children’s rooms, though the children were all grown and moved out. Bold blue, sage, sunflower yellow. Maureen loved colors, and with belts loosened by the booming economy, she had freedom to turn the house into a jewel box after thirty years surrounded by Navajo white.
One daughter’s room was destined for a deep, sensuous rose, but it would have to wait. It had become Terry’s office, filled with blueprints and books on various city ordinances, a steel-gray draftsman’s stand in the middle. It was the room where he kept his dream. I can still see him bent over the plans for his business center. Construction hadn’t yet begun. He appeared like a woodcut of Erasmus: high forehead, full face, small glasses, pen in hand, studying the scroll before him.
Every other weekend that summer, Terry and Maureen would travel to Mexico to build houses for the poor. I was left behind to paint their home and care for their sheepdog, Molly. I’d sometimes enter Terry’s office, thumb silently through the pages of a blueprint, and wonder at his courage. His business ventures and generous charity work in Tijuana made my life and career seem so much safer and simpler.
On July 4 I returned from a walk on the beach to see Molly standing on the garage roof, a shaggy, hundred-pound sentinel. I had left an upstairs window open to air out the room, and Molly had scrambled through it. From down the street she looked like a large gray bird. Not sure whether to laugh or cry, I coaxed her in with a cold Fourth of July hot dog.
I think of her often now, in light of what has happened to Terry’s dream — Molly the sheepdog, balancing on a rooftop, pondering the future.
For the first week I bleach the Hawaii house with a Hudson sprayer eight hours a day to get rid of the mildew. I protect the red and the yellow hibiscus and the ginger plants that circle the home, but I fail to protect myself and nearly bleach the skin off my arms. I limp to an urgent care in town to be swaddled with gauze and given antibiotics.
I don’t tell James, who lives on the mainland, about my mishap. Jobs are scarce; one has to be Superman today. “Thirty-Five Years Painting Houses by the Sea” also means that I am old. After work I walk the soft-sand beaches. I do my push-ups. I never tell a client my age. I have to stay strong to do this work. It’s the times. And this is the house I’ve been given to paint.
I want to paint it white, and I know just the right shade. It’s the white of the queen’s summer palace. I haven’t told James yet. I need to visit the palace first.
One morning I drop from the rugged crown of the Ko’olau Mountain Range into a mist-showered valley where sits Queen Emma Kaleleonalani’s summer palace, a pearl in the forest. Known as “foster child of the moon,” the palace was used by Queen Emma and her family as a retreat from hot and dusty Honolulu in the mid-1800s. Today it is a local landmark, well kept by the elegant Daughters of Hawaii, a mixture of nineteenth-century-Boston wood siding and relaxed Hawaiian roof lines. A stream bordered by royal palms runs through the grounds. Building and gardens included, the queen’s summer palace is about the same size as the home I’ve been entrusted to paint.
I stand on the porch with a fan deck of white paint swatches in my hand. Charlotte, one of the palace’s docents, watches from the lawn. She is Hawaiian, a trace of Tahitian red in her white-gray hair, and descended from royalty; her childhood bed is one of the museum pieces inside.
Charlotte lifts the hem of her muumuu and walks barefoot up the porch stairs. She touches a finger to the paint chip in my hand. “In the morning it’s white like this,” she says, and I can smell the ginger flowers in her hair.
It took me thirty-five years to come to this royal palace, to choose a color for another palace. I get to play this delicious game because I’ve given all those years to my trade. I am old enough to have primed doors with linseed oil and waited a week to apply paint; old enough to know about split coats and antiquing, to have learned these things by rote. I’ve had old Italian guys on job sites tell me, “This is how my father did the wood.” I read books on wood finishing and went to school to study colors. I learned that preparation is 75 percent of the job. I learned how to use blowtorches to remove paint, to use “long-oil primers” and other old-world techniques now illegal. Who knows how much skin and lung I’ve given to my craft? But each day spent breathing sanding dust and washing my body in paint thinner brought me a little closer to this serene palace porch where I am discussing colors with Charlotte.
“At noon it looks like celery,” she says. “In the evening it’s the rose of roses.”
Charlotte has seen the ghost of the long-ago queen twice. Both times she was descending these porch steps in her white wedding gown.
“This is the white you want.”
Thank you, Charlotte. Thank you, Queen Emma. I go home now, to paint.
Terry had hoped one day to build an entire village in Mexico. He had an eye on a hilltop outside of Tijuana. There he’d build small factories that would produce toilets, siding, cabinets, doors, and windows. Homes would occupy the tree-lined streets, with schools and libraries sprinkled about. The residents would work in the factories and send their children to the schools and the libraries. And with the money from this success, Terry would buy another hilltop, and another community would blossom.
But this grand scheme hinged on the success of Terry’s venture north of the border. Until his business park was rented out, Terry would continue building single homes in the dense neighborhoods of Tijuana.
It takes only a day to build a house in Mexico. I know because I went there with Terry one spring Saturday to be in charge of the painting, with the help of volunteers from a Catholic high school. We left at dawn for the two-hour drive south.
Terry is laconic, with a wry sense of humor. We talked baseball — I told him I was sorry that, even so early in the spring, the writing was on the wall for his Dodgers — and spoke sparingly of the charity work he had done for twenty years, always getting his whole family involved.
“It helped give my kids an idea of what they had,” he said.
When we got there, the volunteers stood in a circle outside an empty shopping center close to the border and said a prayer. Terry stood a bit distant, head down, silent, unsure of public prayer, perhaps. We go way back, he and I, both taught by Jesuits.
When work on the house commenced, Terry was the master builder. The site was on a steep hillside. Across the street in an empty lot were the lumber, the paint, the busload of lost-looking high-school students, and me. We were a haphazard and unconvincing bunch. I went about opening five-gallon buckets and piecing together the brushes and rollers.
A stairway of used tires driven into the dirt slope led up to where Terry stood with the woman who would receive the house. They were discussing where the windows and doors would go. Terry bent down with chalk while the young woman looked proudly out her imaginary windows to the view below: brown-dirt hillsides and dwellings of concrete or bleached wood in need of paint. The streets were chalky cement, dirt, or gray stones cobbled together. The only bright spots were the women in floral dresses on the way to market, red-striped baskets on their shoulders — and, in the distance, a man in a straw hat walking with a bouquet of cotton candy, the pink and blue clouds floating in the dust he kicked up.
I wished we had some blue or red in our color palette, but it was all chocolate brown. Hearing Terry’s voice in my head — It’s donated; use it — I coached the kids on how to paint the siding panels and the two-by-fours while others banged the skeleton of the house together. Terry straddled a beam and some joists, directing the action with a large hammer, pointing with the butt end to give instructions, then bending over to drive in nails with a resounding whack.
He patted the woman’s children gently on their behinds, moving them like chicks away from the swinging beams. He was tougher on the adults: I heard him say to a photographer recording the event, “Sir, you can stand anywhere on the planet except where you are standing.” Then he walked the tightrope of two-by-fours to straighten another corner.
The young woman wore a white dress, delicate and seemingly out of place in the dusty bustle. Her little ones, wearing T-shirts down to their knees and rubber sandals on their feet, alternated between holding her hand and running off. On a hillside across the way, goats wandered, their bleats and bells joining the sounds of saws and hammers.
Her new house went up around her.
In Hawaii in the evening I read my book on Titian, plan my painting for the next day, and watch the plover step demurely about on the lawn. It delights me to read, after a long day, that in the last stages of a work’s completion Titian “painted more with his fingers than his brushes.” It pleases me to learn, too, that in his later years critics of the master misread his bold innovations as evidence of his faltering powers and failing eyesight.
In the words of a visitor to Titian’s home in 1566: “I found him, although he had become extremely old, with the brushes in his hand for painting.”
I imagine that I am working for the queen, painting long lines of wood siding, keeping a wet edge, and listening to the wind and the sea murmuring on the reef. I climb the ladder and pull the three-inch brush left to right, then descend and move my ladder, climb and pull again. It is not a baleful repetition; more like a workman’s chant.
I talk to the plover as I paint. She stoops to peck, then raises her head to watch me and whistles. I have been painting alone here for three weeks. In another week she may answer.
“The queen would be happy to see this color,” I tell the speckled bird. I dip my brush, climb, and pull. I say to the plover, “In the evenings, this white is the rose of roses.” I know the queen would love her color. I hope my client does.
The house in Tijuana went up like a toy model: a bedroom, a bath, a family room, and a loft. Terry’s own design. I laughed and joked with the high-school kids as we painted. Their hearts were in it, but their young bodies balked at the hard labor. I sensed it was no one’s calling, yet they did a beautiful job.
The house complete, the workers and family thanked each other, and the key to the front door was presented in a simple ceremony. The kids could throw their schoolbooks inside before going to play in the streets.
The neighbors watched with good-natured curiosity, as if a circus had come to town and was now pulling up stakes. Terry put away his tools and told me that he and I had one last stop to make before we headed home.
Our destination was in a tightly packed neighborhood close to the center of town, an area of steep, cobblestoned streets and sandwiched homes. Terry had to look at a house in need of a roof, to decide if he would help. The decision would be based on time, money, and need.
We parked on a slope so close to vertical that we had to put rocks behind our tires to keep the truck from rolling. Then we climbed a ziggurat of well-worn, foot-high concrete steps to reach the home. The owners met us at the blue-painted front door: an older couple, short, with the high cheekbones and tight facial skin of Mexico’s indigenous people. The man, in a work shirt and jeans, said nothing for the duration of our visit but stood quietly by the open front door, arms folded in a polite manner. It seemed he could have stood there patiently forever. The smell of barbecue and cement filled the Saturday-evening air as the woman of the house led Terry and me around.
The house had two rooms. The entry room doubled as sitting room and kitchen: a gas stove in the corner, pots hanging from nails, a couple of straight-backed, white-painted chairs with seats of straw mesh. The only light was from a small window with a flowered curtain that allowed a peek at the hills of Tijuana.
Terry stepped carefully, inspecting the block walls, knocking firmly on them, as if wondering what exactly was holding up this small casa. I did my best to appear knowledgeable and thoughtful but probably looked comical. The woman followed us, as close as a shadow, nervously straightening her white blouse and saying, “Bueno, bueno,” each time either of us touched a wall or glanced at the low wooden ceiling. An earnest smile never left her face. She knew this was some sort of test for her little palace, and she would do all she could to make sure it passed.
The bedroom was as dark as a cave. A black-and-white television sat atop a dresser, showing a soccer match. The bed filled the room, and there was the scent of wax candles. Our heads grazed the ceiling as, like a pair of monks, we circled the room, touching the walls and ceiling. “Bueno, bueno,” the woman said.
Terry didn’t reply but just continued to touch, look, and think.
The three of us backed out of the room and smiled our way to the front door: three very different smiles — Terry’s thoughtful, mine hopeful, the homeowner’s pleading.
“Gracias, muchas gracias,” the woman said at the front door, bowing slightly, and Terry and I made our way to the street, removed the rocks from behind the tires, and backed down the hill to begin our drive to the border.
I offered that it was lucky for the couple that the rainy season was over.
“There will be many more,” Terry replied.
As we drove north, I talked around the question I wanted to ask, whose answer I felt I knew: How did that business-center enterprise of yours finally make out? Instead I asked Terry how many homes he had built in Tijuana.
“Hundreds, Phil.” Hundreds. I thought of Molly balancing on that roof.
It was almost dark now on the freeway. Traffic was light. We were both tired. Terry wore his Notre Dame ball cap, the faded fighting leprechaun on the bill. He moved his shoulders in slow arcs — he’d had two operations on them and was due for a third.
I asked Terry how he felt the day’s build had gone.
“I think it went fine.”
The small talk was over: no more Dodgers, no pennant wishes. I asked about his project, the dream that would carry his family, and his charity work in Mexico, into the future.
His worn shoulders gave a slight upward flinch. Bad timing, he said. “I’d be fine moving in with one of my kids, as long as I had work.” It was too dark for me to see his eyes. “It would kill Maureen if we had to move out, though. She loves that house.” I thought of the children’s rooms painted red rose, sunflower yellow, parchment.
Terry turned on the ballgame. I’m not a Dodgers fan, but it felt good to hear Vin Scully’s voice. He had called these games through many an economic up and down. We drove home listening to baseball.
Later, on the living-room couch with Maureen and a beer, in a room no longer painted a dated, smudgy white, Terry thanked me for my help. “She’ll get her roof, not to worry, Phil,” he said of the woman we’d visited.
How many homes, how many roofs over others’ heads?
The plover has flown, beginning her long, uninterrupted journey to Alaska for the summer.
I clean my latex brushes at the bar sink by the pool. It is late afternoon, a Saturday. Terry built a house today in Tijuana, three thousand miles away.
As I clean up, a chameleon watches me from his perch on a jade stone frog. He watches from the corner of his wide yellow eye. We have become late-afternoon partners of a sort.
I sleep on the pune’e, listen to the surf, watch the moonrise. I wake and go back to work.
The trade winds have increased and blow about twenty-five miles per hour. I hold tight to my ladder. The myna birds have discovered the lawn and march about like cocky majorettes. The hibiscus flowers are in full bloom, bursting with yellows and reds, but the bushes themselves lacerate my skin like a visit from the Spanish Inquisition. I carry band-aids in my pockets. I work my way steadily down the sides, the tired mustard yellow disappearing under my brush. The owner won’t be visiting for months. He has given me complete authority on all decisions. I wonder what he will think of this color’s royal lineage.
In the evening it’s the rose of roses.
I watch the chameleon from the corner of my eye. White blossoms loosen and flutter from the tree nearby. A rose-red sac falls from the chameleon’s throat. He raises a curious olive-green head and pauses, then does his quick push-ups in the slanting sunshine.
I work till dusk, climbing to close the French windows to within a hair’s breadth, clanking my ladders down as quietly as I can. Visitors sit on the front porch next door, swing on the mango-tree swing. There’s lemonade and laughter. It is summer.
I kneel on “Thirty-Five Years Painting Houses by the Sea” knees and tidy my makeshift shop. The neighborhood mongrel trots in and pants at my side. “Poi-dog,” the Hawaiians call such an animal: “all mixed up.” I pet the poi-dog’s freckled face.
I’m as poor as a church mouse, having spent all my money, happily, on books and travels. This has both prepared me and left me unprepared for these times — these worn, gray, mournful times of colorless economic news.
I tighten the caps on my thinner, acetone, and denatured alcohol to discourage curious children and pets. I scour my brushes with a wire brush, straighten them, and set them bristles-up in a plastic bucket. I ready tomorrow’s materials and scratch behind the pooch’s ears.
Then I work my way quietly about the house, checking today’s progress and folding the Joseph’s-coat tarps, making sure the hibiscus and ginger plants have endured. I dust the windowsills and cover my shop.
The chameleon sits on the frog’s head as if it were a throne, and this place were his palace.
I was so transfixed by the quiet lyricism of Philip Kelly’s essay “Painting the Summer Palace of the Queen” that I wanted to hire him to paint my home. Never mind that I’m bound by my apartment lease to keep my walls as white as the paper that the document is printed on; it would be enough for him just to pick a color.