Skip to main content

Susan Fife

Six times in the last four months I have gone into town and parked next to the post office in the small lot that serves Sherwin-Williams and D. J.’s Small Engine Repair. Six times I’ve driven away without buying the paint. Three gallons of flat, white latex is all I need, but it’s no use. 

Sometimes, as I sit inside my kitchen that still smells of fresh-cut lumber and new linoleum and look out the window on Monkton Ridge, sometimes I see a painter’s truck driving by on the dirt road. It rattles up, shifting gears about the time it nears the sugar maple, strapped ladders clanking against its sides. Dust hangs over the road where it has passed and I wonder where it goes: there are only two neighbors farther up, and though the road eventually hits Hazen’s Notch, it is a mere track by then, hardly a short-cut to anywhere. 

Rick and Celina come over and we sit around the kitchen table or out on the porch. If there is Molson in the fridge, we drink some and talk. Rick and Celina just finished hiking the Long Trail from Stowe up to the Canadian border. It took seven days; they stopped often because of the humidity. As they sip, they look at me sideways, and Celina asks casually if I wouldn’t like to join them on the southern section, down to the Massachusetts border. But my garden needs looking after and the last side of my house needs painting. 

After a cup of coffee at the Green Mountain Café where I read the want ads in the Valley Examiner and the comics in the Burlington Free Press, I head over to Sherwin-Williams. Getting out of the car, I realize I’ve never actually been inside D.J. ‘s Small Engine Repair so I go over towards the dusty glass door covered with Bosch Sparkplug decals and a large florescent orange sign that says OPEN. The bell tinkles and the blare of a ball game on a radio comes out. In the semi-darkness D.J. sits behind the counter surrounded by lawn mowers, rototillers, and snowmobiles which seem to have grown there and have no intention of leaving. 

“Those darn Red Sox don’t know how to play ball no more. Used to be the best team around, worth a trip down to Fenway Park just to see ’em. You’d have to pay me now to go-bunch of half-cocked players they got themselves. You follow the games?” From his look I know it’s no use pretending because he can already tell. I must look like someone who doesn’t follow the games. 

“Now, what can I do for you?” 

“Actually, I was on my way over to Sherwin-Williams for some paint and thought I’d stop in for a look around.”

“Well, I’ve got something for you. Got this five-horsepower airless sprayer over here. Guy brought it in last summer to be repaired but never come back. Just needed a new piston was all. I’ll give it to you for four hundred and fifty, though it’s worth at least twice as much. I just want to get the darn thing outta here. Takes up too much room.”  

“Well, I really only have one side left. We did the others last summer.”  

“Out at third,” screams the announcer. The crowd roars. “Damn. Those jerks can’t play worth nothing. I told ya.” 

“Well, I should be going.” 

“Suit yerself. But remember, I got this baby right here if you want her.” He turns up the radio. 

I head for the car. No point buying paint until I’ve made up my mind about that sprayer. 

On the way home I stop where my driveway and the road meet and reach out my window to open the rusted mailbox which leans to the right ever since Mickey skidded into it during that late March ice storm. I pull out a single, square envelope. 

Back at the house, I consider weeding the tomatoes, but sit on the front steps instead, thinking about the airless sprayer, wondering if I could paint with it. From the front, my house looks nice, the flat white tinged with a warm glow as the sun nears the horizon. Only the back is still raw, with nothing but a layer of primer on the scraped boards. Next to me on the steps, unopened, is the letter. I pick it up and examine the envelope. I can tell from the little fiber specks and the beige color that it is made from recycled paper. I notice the Boston postmark and the familiar handwriting. I put it down and consider the airless sprayer once more. 

As the last rays of the sun vanish, an engine rumbles down the road-a small truck of some sort. Sure enough, around the bend comes that painter’s dusty red pick-up, shifting gears just as it passes the sugar maple. Without so much as slowing, the truck drives on in lower gear, followed by a screen of dust. A painter’s truck heading up my road: could the neighbors farther up be in the painting business? I haven ‘t talked to them in at least three months and don’t much feel like it either. 

Fifteen days and nine painter’s truck sightings later, I set out on foot to visit my neighbors up the road. The chicory and Queen Anne’s Lace of July have been replaced by the goldenrod of August. Low grey clouds huddle in the sky and mosquitoes dance in the humidity. I slap as I walk. The LaBerge farm is twenty minutes away; a huge satellite dish in the front yard nearly obstructs the view of the crumbling silo in the back. Long strips of green paint are peeling off shutters and doors. There is no vehicle that looks even slightly like a painter’s truck. I knock anyway. LaBerge senior answers. No, he’s not painting. Hasn’t noticed any painters around either. What in creation would they be doing out here? 

I walk and slap another fifteen minutes until I come to the small frame house of my only other neighbor, Pinky Goldberg. Pinky comes up every summer from New York to write or paint, I’m not sure which. Wearing his Birkenstocks, he is mending a stone wall at the edge of his property, a la Robert Frost. Pinky has no clues either; hasn’t noticed any vehicles on the road at all, as a matter of fact. Not inclined to talk, I head back. 

As I pass LaBerge’s farm, it begins to sprinkle, and soon great, cold drops are pummeling me, leaving long streaks of hair plastered to my forehead and my shirt clinging to my back. I inhale the wet smells of fern and decaying leaves, feeling relieved though I don’t know why. 

Then, above the rhythm of rain in the maples and birches, an engine reverberates. As it comes closer, I recognize the motor, already switched into low gear, and soon the red cab is coming towards me, splattering mud and smelling of hot diesel fuel. From behind a bush, wet branches clawing at my arms and legs, I watch as the truck passes with tied-on ladders clanking against its sides. I strain to look inside the cab but the rain-streaked side window and the slashing wipers block the interior from view. 

At home in my kitchen that still smells of raw boards I drink hot peppermint tea while rain continues to fall. During the night, I dream of the painter’s truck driving down the road, red body, black bed, shifting gears just as it reaches the sugar maple. This time instead of driving by, it turns up the driveway, spewing small stones before 

stopping around back. A person I recognize climbs out and begins to paint the back of my house, brushing the primer covered boards with straight, smooth white strokes. 

Morning sun streams in through the back windows and, lying in bed, sheets pulled up against the early chill, I decide to go back to Sherwin-Williams and buy that paint. I’ll go in to see D.J., too, and make a deal with him on that airless sprayer. Maybe I’ll write a letter. I think of last night’s dream. While my coffee drips a muddy brown, I go outside to see what last night’s rain has done to my garden. I glance up from a tomato plant. Cool early morning light is shining on the back of my house, the windows reflecting like gold liquid and the boards clean and white. I start up, sweat forming suddenly on my body. My house. I look again. No, of course not. But I run over and examine it closely, my fingers smoothing over scraped and primed wood boards. No, of course not. 

Inside, the room smells of nothing but coffee and toast, warm and embracing. I pick up the phone and dial. Hey Celina? Still planning that hike down to the Massachusetts border? As Celina begins to reply, there is a rumble outside and a shifting of gears, but by the time I reach the window, I am too late to see what it is. Because of last night’s rain, not even a cloud of dust hangs in the air.