In This Room I Make Red.
I hate the word boyfriend. But like red walls, once you're in them, they feel like home. You stop fighting, embrace sappy because it feels right. Cynicism is for those entitled brats at school who never had to worry about being so poor you spray paint your mom's shoes black to camouflage your giant hand-me-downs. Cynicism is for those who never had to worry about losing their home, who never saw yellow envelopes turn pink and then turn into foreclosure, and then the bank lets your dad rent the house he owned last month.
Right here, for now, I have a red room with Hector, a home that'll last as long as our workday. He mashes a plastic baggie against the wall next to me. He's churning out a brown-red vein of marbling. It slithers from the top right corner, splitting into two directions, and then merging to find its target. Maybe Hector doesn't think about the direction of his paint. I never know what he's thinking. He's concentrating on the wall, eyes boring into the sheetrock. His tongue curls at his thin black mustache. His forearms flex and slack to the rhythm of his hands. Blood-red flecks dapple his sweat-slicked wrists. My dad would say he's a natural, would hire him in a second. But I found him first. I fuck him and I might love him, and my dad can't stop that. Dad can't make a wall look soft as leather, hard as marble. Can't turn a room into sex.
Hector catches me staring at him. He bends to the paint pan to dip his baggie. Instead of putting it to the wall, he slashes it against my chest. "I'm docking you for that shirt," I say.
Paint drips cold down my skin. I yank the shirt over my head, toss it on the dropcloth. The wet-heat of the room feels better against my bare chest. I wish I could always work like this, without a shirt, in just my bra, shirtless like summer painters. But it is winter and I have tits.
Hector keeps glancing. They're not big tits. But when I'm quoting jobs for dad, they get me in the door and I always land the bid when it's the Mr. at home. When it's the Mrs. they act like they get it, like they owe me something because I'm out there working like they aren't. These little tits work for me, and they're working now, drawing Hector's brown eyes even though he's seen them a hundred times.
I dip my baggie into the paint, cup a handful of red, and splash it against his shirt. He makes like he's offended for a second, then peels off his tank top.
We jab wet paint baggies into chest and hair and legs. He smears red over my mouth. Tastes like bitter. I spit, wipe my tongue, punch him in the stomach. He grips both my wrists. I jump and swing my legs around his waist, twist and yank him to the ground. He falls like I want him to. Hector always follows well. It's what he does best.
He flips us over so he's on top. His dick stabs my thigh. He pushes my wrists to the dropcloth until my fingers tingle. His hips slide as he tries to center his dick. He smiles like we're still playing. I hook my toes in the waistline of his shorts, yank them down. His tongue glides against his thin black mustache again. He's concentrating, his eyes narrowing, getting all bedroomy, all dopey and half-closed. Guys get so serious when they're about to put their dick into something.
I swing him over so I'm on top, and then I stand over him, unhook my bra, slip off my shorts. I walk away. Back to the wall and the paint pan, wearing just black panties.
I know he can't stand it, know he's squirming, fiery red, chest thumping. I go back to painting. This feels like control. This feels like I own my life, like I choose what happens next, not my dad or the bank or the cardboard boxes of photo albums filled with me and my sister at every age. Mine: Hector sucking my clavicle, Hector's arm wrapped hot around my ribs, Hector's pelvis pressing against my lower back, Hector's dick against my spine. He cradles my ribs, rocks me, rests his chin on my shoulder. His chest rises and falls to my rhythm, my breaths. He's testing what it feels like to live in my body. Following the lead of my lungs, my heart, my blood. It's killing me not to turn around and pull my panties to the side and slide him inside me. But I want this to last as long as it can. Fucking doesn't last. It's paint fumes. It's a cursive-scrawled love letter lost under primer and two layers of top coat.
The bedroom window rattles, clinks. On the other side, Tack smashes his lips and tongue while he raps at the glass so hard it should break. I wish it would, wish shards would slice his tongue clean off. Hector's arm shoots over my breasts.
Tack jimmies his finger under the cracked window and swings it open. He squeezes his own fat tits. "You worried I'm gonna see your girly's Clementines?" he says.
I squirm out of Hector's cover, turn my back to both of them. "At least I'm not dragging around a pair of saggy fucking watermelons," I say and scoop up my shorts and bra, but can't find my T-shirt.
"You said you were coming later, at dark," Hector says.
"Well, it's fucking dark, man." Tack picks up one of our extension poles and aims it at the window. "Look outside."
We all look, and of course it's dark. It's almost 6. Winter in Michigan. The sun has as much chance as a match buried in a snowdrift.
"Shit, I don't even remember seeing the sun today," Hector says. He's standing there talking to Tack naked. His dick sways when he scratches his ass.
"Maybe you should quit smoking so much pot and jacking off until 4 in the morning," Tack says. "I was up and out of the house by 7.1 did more before 9 than the goddamn army."
"You didn't do shit," Hector says.
"Sold an eight-ball to Sherman. Fueled up the Corsica. Stole a Big Bite at 7-11." Tack pokes the extension pole into Hector's chest. "And I banged your momma."
I find Hector's shorts and throw them into his face. While Hector's leaning over to put them on, Tack rams the extension pole into his right ass cheek. Hector laughs, hops away on one foot. Tack follows him, propping the pole in front of his crotch and jabbing it at Hector. I wish Hector would get mad, like I am. I wish he'd hate this asshole for hijacking our almost-fuck, our time, and turning it into one of Tack's games of humiliation, but nothing bothers him, like usual. Hector just stumbles along to Tack's lead. I kick the pole out of Tack's hands. Hector pulls up his shorts.
"You broke my cock," Tack says. "You better kiss it and make it better." He leans over to pick up the pole again.
The paint fumes scorch my lungs. The room has become smaller, hotter, burning. "What the hell is he doing here? This is a customer's house."
"That's what I told Tack, that no one would be here. We can do whatever we want."
The pole drops between Hector and me. My shirt dangles off the end. I reach for it, and Tack pulls it away. He lowers it, wags it in front of me, but I won't reach again. I'm not his fucking joke. The shirt hangs there stupidly. And there's my dad's business logo crinkled in the draped shirt: googly eyes and a big idiotic smile pasted on a paint can. A brush dips into its hollow tin head. I used to love that logo when I was a kid. Dad made it for us, this cartoon version of the work that gave him a chronic cough and forced surgeons to tear open his rotator cuff three times. That stupid paint can never paid the bills that Dad pretended were as surreal as a cartoon until collections came for the house. Now when I look at that logo, I imagine the brush lobotomizing that goofy bucket. Only way to stay sane is to have half a brain. I won't do this long enough to ruin myself like Dad, to need some fantasy version of work. Just long enough to make enough to move out of this town and get a real home with Hector in the city.
Instead of grabbing at the shirt again, I grab the pole, jam it at Tack, aim for his nuts. He gasps, reaches at his crotch.
"You're lucky you missed," he says. He holds his fingers together. "By that much. I'd of punched you right in the cunt."
"Your dick's so tiny I'd have a better chance finding a dime in your momma's giant snatch."
"You don't get to talk about my mom." Tack stomps over to me, pushes his gut against my chest. He glares with squinting blue slits.
Hector laughs. "Why would a dime be in her snatch?"
Tack backs off. "I keep telling her to stop keeping her change there."
I pull Dad's shirt over my head. Hector lights a joint. I open another window. Cold blasts into the room we heated. The smell of paint and sweat and us sucks out, and I let myself forget. Hector offers the joint to either of us. I let Tack take it first. I don't care if I'm second. I don't care if I'm anything, I guess. I hired Hector to paint with me. I let him love me, fuck me, but there's always Tack, that giant mass that sucks everything good we have into his pile of shit. I'd hate him less if Hector didn't become blind to me when Tack's around. They already live together at Hector's mom's house. If I were Hector, I'd be dying for a second alone.
Tack takes a few puffs, exhales, takes a few more. His giant lungs devour the joint, fill the room like a fire. He passes it to me, and Tack's spit squishes in my fingertips. I take a hit, take two and three and four, show Hector I can fill a room just as good as Tack. Even if this is my job, my responsibility, my money to lose, my lungs are just as deadly. Hector shakes his head, says, "Damn, April. You're the champ." Tack clicks his tongue in agreement. My head feels scooped out already.
I've only been smoking pot for a few months, since I met Hector. On our third date skipping Mr. Feldman's geometry class, Hector lit one up at Conservation Park, back by the Girl Scout cabin while I chucked stacked firewood on the roof. I sang Tiffany songs at that cabin when I was ten and the sky was dark and a dozen girls in Guess jeans surrounded me at the campfire. I was the only one without the right pair of jeans, because my mom said my dad wouldn't give her the money, but I knew she was keeping it again, stashing more cash away in coffee cans she'd bury in the yard. There was darkness that night to hide my Wrangler jeans, but also the betraying glow of campfire, the logo-hunting eyes of cruel little girls. With Hector, there was just a tiny ember in daylight. Hector could see everything. His fire was just for me, and he'd never given a shit about Tiffany or Guess jeans.
"The McClatchys must be millionaires?" Tack says. "This house is fucking huge."
"It's just old," I say.
"How much are they paying you to rub plastic baggies on their walls between fuck breaks?"
"They don't pay me. I subcontract for my dad."
"Jesus, whatever." Tack passes me the joint again. "How much?"
"Nine hundred for the room, I think."
"Holy fuck balls." Tack grabs his chest. "They're just jizzing Franklins on their walls."
"It's a fair price for faux finish. Lots of people pay that." Really, I can only think of two in the last three years. The other one had a single accent wall done. But somewhere, in real cities outside tiny Alma, lots of people would pay.
"Lots of people get robbed by crook painters, you mean."
"They're getting exactly what they asked for," I say. "This is primo fucking work. You couldn't do it. Takes a skilled hand."
"Like yours?" Tack says. "Like his?" He grabs Hector's fingers, sniffs them. "Is that April's skill I smell?"
Hector lets him sniff. His hands are limp in Tack's grip. It feels like that campfire glowing, lapping light where I don't want it, exposing my wrong-logoed hips.
"I can't explain skill to someone who only knows how to leech off people and fill them full of shitty drugs." The joint's back in my hands. I suck it down and flick the roach out the open window.
"Selling shitty drugs takes skill. The shittier, the more rhetoric, my dear. Charisma. My skills aren't in my hands, you runt of a grunt. They're up here." Tack knocks knuckles against his skull. "And I wouldn't be able to give Hector and his bitchy girlfriend quality chemicals if I didn't have the skills to profit off shitty drugs. So I'm skilled and fucking philanthropic."
I ignore him and go back to work. My head's getting too loopy to keep up with Tack. I'm morphing into that paint-for-brains bucket on my dad's shirt. That's how Tack gets what he wants, how he wins, by making our brains floaty.
We should have three walls done by the end of the day, and there's still a half wall left to go. I've lost Hector. He's sucked into the Tack show. While I paint, Tack rifles through the drawers of the bureau tarped off in the middle of the room. Mrs. McClatchy's purple silk panties go on his head. Black lace bra masks his eyes. They look expensive, and I pray they don't rip.
I don't bother trying to get Hector back to work. It's hard enough keeping a whole wall wet, and that's what you have to do with faux work. Stopping points kill the illusion. The slightest seams are fault lines. Faux must never look faux, must never reveal the truth of the agreed-upon lie. So I extend a dark brown vein from the ladder, hop down to redden near the baseboard. I'm jumping up and down, red to brown, floor to ladder rungs. Tack's pot has now fully hollowed out my skull. When I swing up from kneeling, my eyes go gray, my head hurtling. I exhale, wait for the color to return. I keep painting anyway. Sweat drips down my forehead, weighs down my shirt. I may be ruining everything. I maybe doing my best work ever.
Hector and Tack find Mrs. McClatchy's dildo. Tack chases Hector under my ladder, waggling rubber whir. Hector stumbles, falls, and Tack jams it in his ear. He punches Tack lovingly in the jaw. Tack sits on his face. Hector wails on his gut. The dildo slips from Tack's grip, splats in my red paint pan. Mrs. McClatchy's embarrassment lumps my throat. She's got all that beautiful underwear, is paying for us to turn her bedroom walls into sex. But romance fails. It's a dirty rubber dick in a gal's own hand.
The dildo buzzes against my aluminum pan until 1 finish the wall. I step off the ladder, dip to my knees. The red paint jiggles, like an overfed carp death-seizing in a blood puddle. I fish out the dildo, switch it off, wipe it with a rag. I rinse it in the sink, use some of McClatchy's expensive-smelling soap. On my way back out, I cradle it in my shirt, hope the boys won't see it and get to laughing again. I'll smuggle it back to its proper hiding spot. I pull open the drawer, and it's a mess of crumpled lace and satin and silk and leather. Straps tangled with buckles latched to hooks. There's no way Mrs. McClatchy won't know we went through her things. So, I grab the top of the bureau and pull. It topples, spills soft things all over the carpet. You can't help that: a casualty of repaint, some tipped furniture. I'd rather admit accident than make her face the pang of exposure, and Dad will knock fifty bucks off the job.
For the first time since Tack arrived, the boys look at me. Hector lifts his palms, says, "Whoops?" Tack chews his cheek, squints at me sideways.
I bow to the bureau, start lifting it up. Hector grabs the other side. Together, we pick up Mrs. McClatchy's sexy underwear and stuff them back into oaken drawers.
"Okay, yeah, I dig this plan, little sister," Tack says. "We mess up the place, make it look robbed. And you can say someone smashed a window or some shit when you weren't here. The beauty of it is we get to take our time, find all the best stuff and secret hiding places. No dildo shall be safe." Tack shoots up his fat victory fist.
"That's not what I was doing." I tamp down the top drawer so it'll slide shut. "I'm not that stupid."
"I don't know," Hector says. "It's pretty brilliant."
The McClatchys are gone until Monday, and we could have until then to take everything. Dad would lose business, his reputation, but who cares. He lost my house already, the house where my sister sleeps, where my mom cowers and never leaves and now someday soon she'll have to. If we stole enough, Hector and I could leave this town and Tack.
Tack wraps his hand around my shoulder, sucks me close. His armpits smell like pepperoni. "If you hang around long enough, even a girl house painter will sprout a light bulb over her head."
I push away from Tack. He squeezes tighter until I'm really pushing, and then he lets go. I stumble, am about to fall, but Hector catches me.
"She used to get straight A's," Hector says, "until we came along and blew dumb into her lungs."
This is the first time Hector ever said anything about me being smart. Hector never put much stock into the word, and he hates school even though he reads like he's possessed, gets high and pours over leather-bound history books he steals from the library until 4 in the morning. He's always talking about getting his GED with Tack. Tack got expelled three years ago, and now he's gloriously free, a twenty-year-old dropout living the dream. Skipping the ass-in-a-chair-waste-of-time classroom is smart to Hector. He wants to swim to freedom, be swept into its current and drift.
"Where should we start, April?" Tack asks. "Where's the secret stash?"
I've seen the gold-winged eagle emblazoned on the safe in the basement, next to the cans of paint. I've heard the tinkle of thin metal and tiny stones when I moved the nightstand. But I wasn't snooping. Being a house painter means seeing everything, but only watching walls. A two-dimensional sight that's time-stuck. No future or past, only this brushstroke pushing this paint bead. And yet, I can't be blind.
Just as I'm about to tell Tack about the safe--but not about the jewelry--the front door downstairs shakes open. Dad calls, "Quitting time, Ape." He's trudging down the hallway. His steel-toed boots clomp harder than my heart.
"Get the fuck out of here," I hiss at Tack. "Dad said he'd call the cops if he saw your ass around me again."
"Well, fuck him," Tack says, trying to sound tough. But he's already straddling the windowsill, waving at Hector. "Let's go, man."
Hector steps toward the window, but I grab his arm. "He knows you're here. He's paying me to pay you. Leaving is stupid."
Tack tumbles out the window. The hedges outside the window cringe and crack under his weight. Hector shakes me off, swings a leg over the window, but Dad stomps into the room before he can escape.
"Ape, what's your help doing in the ding-dang window?"
Hector looks at Dad, turns his head toward the night that swallowed Tack. It looks like he's still deciding whether he'll sneak away, long past the point where sneaking would make any sense.
"He's cooling off," I say. "Hot as a bitch in here."
"But it looks mighty dandy." Dad whistles. "I'd never have the patience for this stuff. Lucky the lord blessed me with a girl that's got a cool head and steady fingers."
These days, it's rare for Dad to acknowledge I'm a girl. The more I look like a woman, the more he tries to pretend I'm some kind of androgynous species. I remember the shock on his bleached face the first time he changed the bathroom trash stowing one of my tampons. He carried the bag out of the bathroom and out the front door held in an arm stretched like he was willing his shoulder to disconnect. I'm sure he'd give his blown-out shoulder in trade for this bit of blood going back inside his daughter. After that day, he started calling me by the gender-neutral simian title of Ape.
"Your protegee worth a dang?" Dad points at Hector still seesawing the windowsill. One thing Dad hates more than acknowledging that I have a vagina is imaging a boy exploring what's inside. In Dad's forced imagination, Hector is only my laborer. I've told my mom we're seeing each other, and she has to know we're fucking. They know. But Dad can pretend, because Hector's a ghost story. Hector's never around, hates the idea of meeting family. Now I've trapped them together. They both have to face reality and they both hate it. Dad won't quit staring at Hector, and Hector gazes up at the raised window, as if contemplating a bilateral guillotine.
"He's a natural," I say. "Born to paint. Worth every penny. And he's beautiful."
"Nothing harder to find than good help." Dad pretends to ignore the last part, but I see it splash red flush across his cheeks. He strides toward Hector and juts out his hand. Hector tries to look away, to look up, out, over Dad's shoulder at me, and then, inevitably, at the hand of the father of the girl he's fucking. They shake. Both of their forearms tense. I'm waiting for one of them to punch the other in the face and make a run for it. Dad's pointy shaved head gleams over Hector. Hector straightens his back, steps into the room, stands, still shaking Dad's hand. Hector is almost the same height as my dad, and I don't think Dad was expecting to look straight into his eyes.
"He's a tall one. Hardly needs a stepladder, I bet." Dad finally drops the handshake to look Hector up and down. "How tall exactly, kid?"
"I don't know."
"What boy doesn't know how tall he is?" Dad says. "What's your doctor say?"
"Never been to one."
"What's on your driver's license?"
"Don't have one."
"Be honest now." Dad stabs his finger into Hector's sternum. "Are you legal to work in the best country in the world?"
"Which one is that?"
"Gosh dang it, kid. Don't smart-butt me. Are you an illegal?"
"Jesus Christ, Dad," I say. "We go to school together."
"Who knows?" Hector shrugs.
"God knows." Dad points up. "So spill it. How tall you think you are?"
"I don't know. Five-nine maybe."
"What! Ridiculous, kid. You're almost as tall as me, and I'm five-eleven-and-a-half."
"Just a half-inch short of perfection," I say, quoting one of Dad's mottos.
"You're dang right." He breaks his gaze from Hector to rub his knuckles against the side of his bald skull, something he's always doing when heavy thinking is required. "Ape, I'm going to need a level, measuring tape, and four-foot stepladder."
Before I can tell him how stupid this is and rescue Hector, Dad's already in action. He's twisting Hector's shoulder, positioning him like a mannequin, pressing his back against Hector's. His black hair falls atop Dad's shoulders. Dad shouts orders. "Don't slouch, son. Kick off your shoes. Don't prance on your toes like a fairy or nothing. I want this square and fair."
I toss Dad the tape measure. He steps on the metal foot and yanks it to the point of his head.
"Five-ten," I say, measuring from the largest part of his skull and not the pointed peak I'm sure he'd prefer me to use.
"That's bull. Climb up the dang ladder first so you can read straight."
I climb up the ladder. "Five-ten," I say.
"It's the carpet padding in here. We're sinking in at least an inch and a half." Dad elbows Hector's ribs. "I told you we're almost six. Now the level, Ape."
I place the level across their skulls. Black hair and waxy white flesh. The neon green bubble dances, swishes from side to side and then settles toward Hector. Dad will be humiliated. I love it. I love Hector a little more and his mommy and daddy for their wonderful long bones. Hector keeps trying to inch away from Dad, who keeps inching tighter. Back to back. Head to head.
"Don't leave us in suspense. Where's the bubble lean?"
I wait a little longer, steady the level with one hand and palm Hector's chest with the other so Dad has to see me touching this man. "The bubble's on Hector."
"Son of a mop bucket." Dad springs away from Hector. He studies him up and down, grapples his chin. "By my guesstimate, I'd say you break the six-foot mark by a good quarter-inch, boy. Nice scouting skills, Ape."
I hook my arms around Hector's neck and hop down the ladder, but Dad's already turned, headed out the door.
"This work and that giant call for a beer on me," Dad announces to the world outside the room. "Let's quit this place, kids."
Hector and I linger in the room. Even with only three walls done, I can see their effect on Hector's face. His tan skin glows warmer. His lips look thicker, eyelashes longer. We have to go with Dad, but I want to stay here and finish what we started, this job, our fucking, the minutes we have alone that are so short. I know it won't last. No job ever does and just when they look best you move to the next one and start over. Hector already wants the next thing, wants out, wants a window egress rather than a date with Dad. But tough shit. He's with me. That he doesn't see what I want and how I want him just pisses me off. He'll learn. I'll show him I'm better than Tack and the tiny life he can have here in Alma. Better than bullshit dads and fake walls. I'll show him what real red looks like.