The color is a strange green like crabgrass sprung out into the sun for too long until it is bleached away and then tossed back and forth by a fast spring shot of rain. Soaked, it might be hard green again, rich seaweed dotting the dirt path circle around our crippled house. It always seemed to change while we poured it from the bucket and into the pan, coiled it around on rollers and dipped brushes through it making long, thick slices where it would be dark in one spot and light in another.
No one talks about this while the paint gets spread across the skinned up sides of our house. I’m suppose to be grandpa-sitting for Renee Turner today, twenty-five dollars toward a thirty-six dollar gas bill, but the house was due for paint and this changing shade of green was on sale at Clifton’s. Eight buckets, after Mom’s employee discount for running the cash register three days a week. Three paint pans, one for my sister, one for my brother and the last for me. The rest of the money went to brushes and rollers. Labor is simple. The three of us working the sides of the house and Mom dipping into the paint here and there, catching her dress from swimming in the wind and into the paint and giving us all breaks to open a fresh bucket, overseeing the work. The foreman with the three of us working hard and not talking much, not even asking why we’re painting the house now. It needs done, that’s all there is to it. It’s needed done for a long time.
The sun dries the paint almost as fast as we slide or swipe it over the wood, it’s so hot and never stopping. A breeze coming off the cliffs to the east of our ridge pushes all that heat onto the paint and bleaches it out as fast as we can whip it off the tips of our brushes. The new paint is bright in the pans and then dark when we run a cut down the sunned-out patches of old paint. Still there were bright and darks spots so that the house has green measles now, marking up its face so even people from the road could see it if they drove by. The rollers are now just flaked-up thick sticks, heavy at the ends so that all of us are avoiding them, holding onto our brushes like they have our names stamped across them and breathing paint fumes furnace hot into our lungs. I shouldn’t be worrying about how heavy the long rollers are now, being the oldest, but it’s Sissy who’s stuck with that lopsided monster right now. I feel a little guilty, but she’s doing okay with Mom stepping in more for her than the rest of us.
I know what Renee’d say. She’d say, You big old bunch of hicks. She’d say, Poor Jenny Aimes and her poor little brother and skinny knot-haired sister slapping away with snot-green paint on a broke down house with old Janice watching it all like a hawk, and I’m sitting here with Grandpa and his wheezing and his crazy talk all split up with too many vowels and not enough real words. Me here with Grandpa when I could be down at Gearhouse Video piling up on Kevin Costner movies for two dollars each and romance books for fifty cents and a dollar. Renee’d say, What’s the point? That’s what Renee’d say. What’s the point?
But I don’t talk about that, about how I’m worried now about how we’re twenty-five more dollars away from the gas bill, about how I hope Renee don’t find a grandpa-sitter and pull up in her Chevy Rabbit and start talking about how ugly the paint is and how silly it is for us to work any at all on that old house. Like putting a new flag up on a burned down school, she’d say. And I don’t think about how Mom would just drop her head and then pull it back up, reminding herself that Renee Turner is only standing in her dirt-slick yard because her grandfather and my father were friends somehow before my father became a heart attack story a year ago. Thinking how she wouldn’t be standing there if she was stocked up on movies and books and didn’t need a break from the old man. I concentrate instead on my brother, Berry, who’s the youngest with just two years of school under his belt.
Berry’s just half-lapping away under the kitchen window, holding his small brush with two hands. His face is caked over red from the heat and the skin under his eyes is white, just like around his mouth. We’re all dog-tired three hours into the job. Paint is drying faster in the pan and dark and light spots are all over the place now. I tell Mom we need a break. She nods her head and waves a leather brown hand and climbs two steps up to the porch and into the swing. She pushes her dress inside the scissors of her legs and holds it there with her knees. She leans her head over into the palm of her hand. Around her mouth is white, too.
Sissy, whose real name is Annabelle, climbs up into Mom’s lap and finds the spot for her head on Mom’s heaving chest. It’s been the same spot for all the eight years she’s been alive. In no time, she’s sleeping, a splatter of paint shining like swamp peat in the moonlight shade of our front porch, wore out from the monster roller and me wore out from guilt and sore at the wrists. Berry’s in the corner with a glass of water from a tin pail by the front door. Inside the pail, chunks of ice as big as potatoes float and ping against the sides each time Berry dips his glass in for another drink. Mom tells him not to take too much too soon or his stomach will cramp and there’s more paint and more house and, Lord have mercy, more daylight. She doesn’t say, If your father were here. She always only says, Lord have mercy.
My father’s the reason this house is so bad. He never spent a second keeping up any part of it. He wouldn’t even pick stray garbage out of the yard, garbage that had been lifted by the wind or some animal out of the can for pickup on Thursday nights. For three years a refrigerator was in our front yard doing nothing but sitting there for so long nobody could remember if my father brought it or somebody dropped it off or if it just grew there out of the dirt, a broken gift. Renee’s grandpa, who everybody called Hoss, finally hauled it off one Sunday evening, making noises outside with my father, drinking hot cans of beer and talking about getting started taking off the refrigerator until it was almost too dark to do any work. And then the man who used to be Hoss pushed the fridge against his tailgate and squat-lifted and wiggled the dirty metal flower of a thing into the bed of the truck. The man who used to be my father sat on the porch and watched, weak-hearted sounds from the darkness, slurping foam and making sleep grunts while the tail lights ricocheted down our driveway.
By early afternoon, we have three sides of the house finished, including the front porch, which takes away our resting place. All through the afternoon cars move back and forth in front of the house and honk horns, passengers roll down windows and yell things up the ridge to the ugly green family with their ugly green house. They might as well be animals making sounds through the woods to one another for all we care. The job’s hacked up and splotched and Sissy’s inside and back asleep, her sunburn scratching endlessly across the basket-weave fabric stretched thin across our couch. Berry, also burned but too stubborn to stop, refills pans, prying open buckets with a claw hammer and a loose brick from the basement foundation.
Mom perches on the hillside facing the side of the house still rubbed raw from chipped white paint that none of us remember buying at Clifton’s or anywhere else. She sits with her elbows on her knees, her hair hanging off her shoulders full of oil from sweating all day. Her face is gone into boney exhaustion, except her eyes. Her eyes are bright and alert, as blue as in her wedding pictures. She says, We should have scrapped off the old paint before we started this. I just nod and sit down beside her, making my arms do what her arms are doing, my hands and fingers dripping off the ends of my kneecaps and I straighten my back so that we’re both as skyward as we can be like the high grass building up off the hillside where snakes have not heard the whir and buzz of a weedeater all summer. We’re both afraid of snakes and those high weeds, but we sit there with the weeds around our shoulders trying to somehow think the old paint away from the house just from staring at it long enough with our blue diamond eyes.
But I still know what Renee’d say. She’d say, Look how tired and wore down, you are. Poor Kelly, and all the work you had to do today when you could’ve had good cash just sitting with a blabbering old man, and not moving a muscle unless it was to make a microwave dinner. Now there you are, humped up and your bones feeling old before you even graduate high school and not a penny more in your pocket for all that.
But Renee is a sad case and everybody knows it. What’s happening in her world is just another day trying to avoid grandpa-sitting by building books and movies around her like a bomb shelter against the world. What’s happening out here under the last-round punches of late afternoon sunlight is me sitting with Mom on the hillside looking at a job almost finished and it’s my sun-beaten baby brother pouring cheap paint onto his only pair of shoes and my sister slipping away into sleep so deep there’s no dreaming, just rest.
Seeing what we’ve done together, I don’t even think about the twenty-five dollars gone and what’s going to happen when the gas bill don’t get paid. All I do is huddle close to Mom, lean in, and take Sissy’s spot for a couple of seconds, hearing her heart against my ear, beating like bird wings under the skin.
There’s still dark spots and light spots, I tell Mom. But she only laces her long fingers together and smiles a little, watching Berry try to keep paint off his shoes while she says, That’s the way it always is, Kelly, a little bit of good and a little bit of bad in everything. She says, Lord have mercy. I know for sure what Renee’d say to that. Renee’d say, Lot’s of worn out looking on the bright side junk. But sometimes something simple like that is all a person needs, magic words said so many times it’s the same as breathing slower to keep yourself calm in a fight. Besides, Mom says, tomorrow’s second coat of paint will clear those patches right up. She says, Tomorrow it’s all of this again until we make it right.