Improvements

He looked at the old house, then turned and said, “We’ll be married before it needs paint again.”

She squeezed the bristles under the spigot, and her hands ached with white water. Dark hair stuck out from the front of her paper cap; she pushed a tuft behind an ear with the moist back of her hand. A general shadow from the front cedars contorted itself across the cellar doors. She looked for her sweatshirt.

“What else you got planned,” she said, without curiosity or even inflection. She kept his calendar, after all. It worked like this: every January Brad would choose between the funeral home calendar and the real estate agent one, and he’d pin the winner on the living room wall with a thumb tack. He kept the days blank, and Linen would move the months for him when she was by herself. Still, the old calendar usually was showing September or October when he put up the new one. (After dating Brad a few years, Linen quietly accepted his view that Thanksgiving and Christmas sort of took care of themselves.)

Brad’s path was slow and narrow and cleared of all social obligation. He was a maintenance man, and his life was a hard rhythm against a tuneless cycle of repairs at work and home. Linen lived by this rhythm because she had none of her own. Her mind would drift to accompanying his rhythm with new instruments and music she might find within herself to play. She knew their relationship could improve, but she knew also that improvements had sharp edges for Brad and took him some getting used to. She knew he would file down an improvement in his mind until the idea became as dull as any maintenance item — until he could get his hand around the idea as comfortably as he could a paint brush.

She glanced up at him now. She was pushing her hair again, this time with dry hands rubbing against the thickening paint in her hair. What does he see when he sees me? she wondered.

“What?” He met her eyes. “You put the tops on the cans out front, right?”

She walked around front. The high, white shine was off of the house, and the low autumn sun threw vague shades of orange and pink against the boards, suggesting an uneven coat. Linen turned and studied the sun as a moviegoer might look back at a malfunctioning projector. She looked at the house again, this time longer than she had ever looked into a man’s eyes. Dusk was coming, and the boards were becoming as indistinguishable as the years.

[In response to “A Line Waiting for its Story,” posted on December 27, 2004 at The Middlewesterner.]

Posted December 2004