Plastic is beautiful in the sun. It glows and ripples, full of light, catching color all around it. When they paint a house, they put plastic on everything, then throw it all away. Even from inside a dumpster it glows a little, layers balled up like a small rippling ocean. It’s unrecyclable. He wants to put the plastic in a painting and he wants to recycle it.
He’s working on a house they call “The Toilet Bowl” because it’s yellow with brown trim. It’s a tall house with small rooms, three stories, and a roof deck, a style of house he’s heard the neighbors refer to as a “cracker box.” He’s on a 40 foot ladder with a view of the lake, taping plastic over the windows, when his boss turns the corner and shouts up at him about rain tomorrow.
“But it might not,” his boss says. Then he says something about getting into another site, something about if it clears up in the afternoon, it depends on the drywallers, something about coming in on Saturday.
“Hold on,” he says, starting down the ladder.
“I don’t have time for shit from you about this,” his boss says.
He doesn’t mind when work is canceled, because he can spend the whole day in the studio instead, but he hates being on call and his boss knows it and starts to walk away.
“You’re just going to walk away?” he shouts from the middle of the ladder.
He misses a rung. When he hits the ground, he first thinks very calmly: You fell off a ladder. He thinks: Try to move. He successfully wiggles a toe. The sheet of plastic he had been taping is unsecured in one corner and flaps overhead like a flag. He can feel his hip hurting. His boss stands over him.
“Holy shit man, are you okay?” his boss asks.
“I’m fine,” he says.
“Can you get up?” he asks. His boss extends his hand and pulls him to his feet.
He rubs his hip. His boss watches him.
“I’m fine,” he says again.
“You’re not going to call worker’s comp again, are you?” his boss asks.
Last year he tore a muscle in his knee. He ended up having surgery.
All his life is paint. Ten years ago he entered art school like it was a monastery. From waking to sleeping he painted, late into the night, sleeping on the floor of his studio. He missed meals so he could buy canvas and paint. When school ended, he took a job painting houses, the first job he came across, it didn’t matter. It’s a situation his accountant can’t understand. She takes his receipts and looks at him like he’s an idiot.
“You paint for someone else and you paint for yourself?” she asks.
He tries to explain: “I paint pictures, and I paint houses,” he says.
“You lost money,” she says incredulously.
When he doesn’t look surprised or disappointed she tells him, slowly, “Your expenses are more than your sales. A loss.”
The job leaves him bone tired and covered in paint that sticks to his arm hairs and buries itself in the corners of his eyes. When he first met his girlfriend she was fascinated with it, with everything about him, because they were newly in love and she loved everything about him, even the paint on everything. She photographed him, nude and paint speckled, his hard tired body marked everywhere with use. But now she finds paint on the couch or the floor and calls it out like an accusation.
When he comes home, she’s holding out a throw pillow.
“How did this get here?” she demands, and he knows there’s some paint on it somewhere, though he can’t see it across the room.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“Please,” she says, “take off your clothes in the doorway and stop tracking paint all through the house.”
She looks back at her computer.
He removes his boots, then his shirt, then his pants.
“What happened?” she asks. She is looking at him again.
“What now?” he asks.
“Your hip,” she says.
He looks at his hip where a grapefruit-sized bruise is already dark.
“I fell off a ladder,” he says.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“I’m fine,” he tells her.
“Did you crack a rib?” she asks.
“No,” he says.
She crosses the room to examine him and place a soft kiss on the bruise.
“I’m making tacos for dinner,” she says, and returns to the computer.
After dinner, he gets in his studio. It is actually a storage room, just big enough for two people to stand in comfortably, but he’s strategically arranged shelves and made it work. When his girlfriend gets into bed, she calls out to him from their bedroom a few times, but eventually she falls asleep. He’s been trying to take his art more seriously because last week he received an email telling him he’s a finalist for an award from the local arts magazine. They are coming to their apartment to photograph him and his art and he wants to have new work to show them for the profile. He paints late into the night. Under the studio lights in the silent house he feels outside time, like he could paint forever, like he has what he wants.
His girlfriend is worried about the couch. Their cat has scratched the arms down to the yellow foam. She tries to sew the gap shut, then tries draping and folding blankets over the arms.
“They’re not coming to look at the couch,” he says.
“But they’ll see the couch,” she says.
“Maybe it’s good,” he says. “Maybe they’ll buy my paintings because they feel bad that we’re poor.”
“When has that ever happened,” she says. Then after a pause, she corrects him. “We’re not poor; we’re broke.”
He is so consumed with painting that he starts sketching out ideas during his lunch breaks. One day, working in the suburbs, he leaves early to beat traffic and arrives before the rest of the crew. He sits outside the job site on the hood of his hatchback and sketches in his notebook. Twenty minutes later a cop pulls up behind him.
“How’s it going?” the cop asks.
“Just waiting for work,” he says, gesturing to the new house with plastic over the windows.
“Where’s the rest of the crew?” the cop asks.
“Stuck in traffic,” he says.
“What’s in the notebook?” the cop asks.
“Drawings,” he says. He turns the notebook around and shows the cop a sketch of tree shadows over the sidewalk.
“That’s pretty good,” the cop says.
“I went to art school,” he tells the cop.
“Some of the neighbors thought you were casing the neighborhood,” the cop says.
His piece of shit car is a problem. Pulling into a high-end grocery store on a break from painting whatever house in whichever nice neighborhood, his muffler rattles and women in luxury SUVs glare and honk. When he enters the store in his paint-covered overalls, past quaint floral displays, into a well-stocked deli area with local pickles and espresso drinks, they keep their children close and eye him like he’s a drug dealer. They say excuse me without smiling when they reach past him into the cold case.
For the fourth of July, his boss invites the crew to his house for a BBQ, so they can enjoy the fruits of their labor on their day of unpaid vacation. Getting ready to leave, his girlfriend looks him over and complains that his only pair of jeans is ripped at the knees.
“You need new pants,” she says.
“Well, I can’t get any,” he says.
Summer has not yet broken through winter’s gray ceiling and the mornings especially are still cold. The black rubber seal that runs the perimeter of his driver side window has loosed itself from half its frame and hangs down near the sideview mirror like a toy snake, bouncing with every pothole. Moisture constantly seeps into the car, fogging the windows, and both the heating and AC have long stopped working, so he keeps a squeegee by the driver’s seat to clear the fog from the windows. The car is a stick shift and every winter drive is a dance between the wheel, the shifter and the squeegee. Three times the car was stolen and abandoned just blocks away, he assumes when the thieves could no longer see through the windshield. He likes the way the fog diffuses the light and the way a streak of color will open up when condensation rolls down the glass.
To take to the BBQ, his girlfriend has assembled something she calls a cake, the preparation of which involved neither cake nor baking, but layering graham crackers with whipped cream. It has an American flag made with strawberries and blueberries on its top and little toothpicks to keep the cling wrap from touching. She holds it in her lap with a look of concern as they drive to his boss’s property.
“This is going jump out of my lap,” she says.
He doesn’t reply.
“Why is it so bumpy?” she asks.
“The road is shit,” he says. “There are so many rich people in this city but they can’t even patch the potholes.”
“It doesn’t look that bad,” his girlfriend says. “Maybe you need to get your shocks looked at.”
“How would you know? You never drive. I have to drive you everywhere,” he says.
“Believe me, riding with you is no pleasure. I would love to drive myself, but you won’t teach me how to drive a stick,” she says.
“I don’t want you to ruin my car,” he says.
“Like it could get much worse,” she says. They hit a bump and she frowns theatrically.
“I have to hold this thing with two hands and now I can’t drink my coffee,” she says.
Her coffee sits in the console between them. He holds his in his left hand and steers, shifts and squeegees with his right.
When they arrive at the BBQ, his girlfriend hands him the cake and picks up the coffee. He hands the cake to his boss.
“I can tell you’re a true artist,” his boss says, eyeing the berry flag.
“Jackie made it,” he says. His boss thanks his girlfriend for the cake and makes a point to call his wife over to admire it when he places it on a folding table near a grill, shiny and obviously new.
His boss gestures at the grill.
“What do you think?” he asks. He proceeds to take them around the yard and through the garage, showing them motorcycles, a koi pond, fishing poles, an ATV, a woodworking table.
“Glad we could make it happen for you,” he says to his boss. His boss blushes and chuckles.
“Ah man,” he says. “It could be yours. You could start your own business and try to compete with me. All you have to do is go into debt and give up on your art.”
His boss gestures to a band poster in an IKEA poster frame above the woodworking bench, his boss’s band, from before.
“You get to keep the memories,” he says. “My wife won’t let me keep this in the house.”
They stare at the poster and take deep swigs of their beers.
“Fucking SubPop,” his boss says.
The next day when he parks his car on the street, muffler rattling, down the block from the job site, a neighbor stares him down from their porch. When he returns to his car at the end of the day he finds a note, written on a sheet from one of those stationary pads made for grocery lists, the kind that sticks to the fridge with a magnet. The note reads: “I pay a lot of taxes for this property. Don’t park here!”
On the day that the magazine people schedule to visit his apartment for the profile, he works at a job site where the homeowners will not allow him in to the house to use the bathroom and his boss has forgotten to order a Honeybucket so that all day he has to walk down the street to a coffee shop and buy something so he can use their toilet. In a way he doesn’t mind, because he’s tired from staying up late, painting. He gets a coffee, then a muffin for lunch, and after lunch another coffee.
At the station set up with cream and sugar and lids, there are no lids. The line is long, the barista is busy, and everyone is looking at their phones. He sees a lid in the trash, pulls it out, and uses it.
On the way home from the job site he gets stuck in traffic and has to pee so badly he begins to get stomach cramps. He’s late getting home. His girlfriend stands in their living room making small talk about their cats to the magazine people, who brighten as soon as he walks in the door.
“One second,” he says, excusing himself into the bathroom.
“What work does he do?” someone asks.
“He’s a housepainter,” his girlfriend says.
“Oh really!” he hears.
He leaves the bathroom and greets the magazine people with damp hands. There’s an older man with a camera and two young girls who look just out of college.
“I’m sorry, I got stuck in traffic,” he says. “Do you mind if I go change?”
“So you paint paintings but you also paint houses!” one of the college girls says.
“It must be hard work,” she says.
He nods again.
“I think it’s great,” the photographer says. “Let’s photograph him like this.”
He talks to them for an hour about where he went to art school, the old famous painters he most admires, his technique. He shows them his paintings, talking about the stages they went through to get to their finished form, about how he puts paint on and takes it back off again. Two weeks later the profile runs with the photo of him in his paint-covered overalls and the heading “The Proletariat Painter.”
“I don’t get it,” he says to his girlfriend, looking at himself in the magazine.
“It’s a fancy word for working man,” she says.
“But my art has nothing to do with that,” he says.
“I guess it’s just very novel to people in Seattle that you aren’t a ‘Creative’,” she says.
Between the article and the ceremony he paints. He paints a beautiful old Craftsman with a loose parrot that wings around the living room and perches on the refrigerator. He paints a new beige house in the suburbs where a child stands in the lawn and stares at him. He paints a tall house, a ladder wedged between bushes in the three feet between buildings, and the neighbor shouts at him for trampling the plants and kicks the ladder he’s standing on. He paints a new house in an old neighborhood and a man carrying a yoga mat, talking on the phone, says loudly “I hate this new construction,” photographs him, then returns to his phone, saying “I know, right?” He paints a condo in a high rise where the owner talks to him all day with advice about marriage and financial investments. He paints a house for a “potrepreneur” who tries to talk him into taking weed instead of a paycheck. After work, he paints.
His girlfriend makes plans for the money he hasn’t won yet. She asks for new running shoes, a fancy blender and a weekend wine-tasting trip.
For the award ceremony he wears a suit he bought for his grandfather’s funeral and buys a cool new tie. They stand intimidated in the lobby of an old theater eating snacks passed on trays and drinking. People he knows find him and congratulate him. People he doesn’t know want to meet him. Nicely dressed people compliment his paintings and tell him they’re sure he’ll soon he selling enough to quit painting houses. He thinks somewhere in the crowd he sees someone whose house he painted, but any of them could be someone whose house he’s painted. He imagines painting their perfect walls the exact right shade of white, then hanging his paintings on them.
When it’s time for the ceremony to begin, they’re ushered into the theater to hear the list of event sponsors and watch a brief slideshow of the competing artists’ work. A band on the stage plays intermission music while the judges make their final decision. His girlfriend squeezes his hand. On the stage the publisher of the magazine says someone else is the winner.
He claps politely with the crowd. The band strikes up and the winners dance together on the stage, passing a bottle of champagne between them.
“Stick around! Celebrate!” the MC calls, but he is already leaving. On the way out, a friend tells him the name of a karaoke bar.
Outside the theater, he walks with his girlfriend to the car. Drunk, she starts crying.
“It’s fine. It doesn’t mean anything,” he tells her. “It’s a big deal to even be nominated. I didn’t think I was going to win.”
“I wanted you to be able to buy new jeans,” she says.
“I’ll get new jeans,” he says.
Her mascara puddles around her eyes like shadows and he doesn’t tell her. She messes with a bobby pin and sniffs back her tears, defiantly.
“Let’s go to the karaoke bar,” she says.
They drive silently.
At the bar he lets himself get very drunk.
“No one gets it, man,” he says to his friend.
“At least you were nominated,” the friend says bitterly, then excuses himself.
On the karaoke stage a bald man scream-sings a classic rock love ballad he doesn’t recognize. He misses every note. And the crowd eats it up.
Tara Atkinson is the author of two books–Boyfriends (Future Tense) and Bedtime Stories (alice blue books). Her work has appeared in Hobart, Moss, Fanzine, HTML Giant, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Seattle.