SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 26, 2009Something about the heat today feels worse, more oppressive than usual. I have come to the determination that there are different forms of heat; that even when it is the same temperature two days in a row, each day feels different, has its own texture and nuances. Yesterday’s ninety-nine had the slightest of breezes, as if it was laughing at itself and didn’t want to be taken seriously. Today’s ninety-nine is like an airport interrogation – an enclosed room, a seething customs official, an expired passport.
In other words, it’s damn hot.
At seven this morning I stepped outside to get the paper and felt the heat of the day already. I braved it again an hour later, armed with a hose and bucket, determined to get the film of Central Valley dust off our cars. By the time I made my grocery run at ten I was scurrying through the parking lot like a bug – car to store, store to car – as if the sun could be avoided.
It’s too much, this heat.
I had grand plans of running this morning, maybe heading down to the college track and doing a few laps, then going for the ultimate burn by running the bleachers. Of course, to do this, one needs to wake up earlier than seven, and be out the door earlier than eight…
I told Will the other day, I think we’ve had six months of summer.
At least you were gone for a month of it, he replied.
Oh, don’t remind me – lovely little Ireland, where it rained every ten minutes just to remind us that we weren’t in control.
Will takes Baxter for his walk and comes back sweaty. I eat lunch and lay on the bed beneath the AC vent, sucking a piece of ice.
It’s the end of September, the 26th to be exact, and I feel justified in my anger. I’m sick of the two seasons we have here, the hot summer and cool spring. I’d give anything for a good thunderstorm, for leaves turning red and brown, for the chance to wear a scarf. In my garage sit a pair of snow boots, forgotten but hopeful. I walked through a department store last week, running my fingers over sweaters – wool, cashmere, cotton – and felt like crying.
I’m heartened, though; the newspaper predicts a drop to eighty-one by Monday. I allow myself to revel in the deliciousness of that number. Eighty-one means cool mornings, maybe even long-sleeve shirt weather. It means open windows and no air conditioning. It means no more excuses, time to pull out my running shoes.
I can feel it now, that change in the air. Or maybe it’s just the AC, kicking on again.
A few years ago, I painted the exterior of my house. I did this because it was less expensive than hiring a painter, and also, which perhaps carried more weight with my reasoning process, because someone suggested I wouldn’t be able to do it. My house isn’t large, but it is somewhat complicated – a front porch, a back patio, overhanging eaves, lots of trim. I had done some painting in college, on various mission trips (somewhere in Chicago is a room with two different shades of white, because we ran out of paint halfway through and couldn’t match it), and so I set what felt like a reasonable goal: one week, Saturday to Saturday.
I should mention that this wasn’t a solo endeavor – long-suffering Will, who would have been happy to hire a painter in the first place, took that Friday off work. My nephews, for $50 apiece, were happy to help. Mom donated two afternoons and a lasagna. Dad, the world’s most obsessive perfectionist, was enlisted to paint the front door, and my sister and her husband braved traffic on 101 to help with the final coat of trim.
But for the first four days, it was just me – balancing near the top of the ladder, one arm steadying myself and the other wielding a paintbrush, I worked my way around the house, painting the eaves. Despite sunblock, I burned. Despite a bandanna covering most of my head, I ended up with large globs of paint in my hair. And despite my wish for solitude, I got to know my neighbors.
Everyone on the block stopped by to comment on my progress and admire the new color (desert sand), or ask if I was available for hire, or say the things they’d meant to say to me for years, if only our paths had crossed sooner. I learned that my house is never truly alone – the meter reader stopped by, a city worker climbed a utility pole for an unknown purpose and waved down to me. A man from the pest control service jingled through the side gate, nearly causing me to topple from surprise. The mail carrier stopped to chat each day. On Thursday, my neighbors lugged their garbage bins to the alley, waited for the garbage to be collected by massive rumbling trucks, and wheeled the bins away. The cats followed my progress from each window, sometimes extending a paw in my direction, as if they too wanted to help. Baxter did his best to be underfoot, preferring to sleep between my ladder and the wall I was painting. Whenever I looked down, he was looking up at me, his side embellished with a desert sand racing stripe.
And through it all I painted. I painted and reloaded my brush and painted and climbed down and moved my ladder two feet and started up again. When I reached a certain point, I went back for a second coat. Ladder, paint, repeat.
What I learned is that I’m good at mindless, repetitive things.
I would be a great factory worker – at least until, wandering in my thoughts, I lost a finger to a conveyor belt or an arm to a mangle.
What I learned is that I like a bit of solitude, and that when my hands are occupied and my mind is free, I can create.
I wrote a million stories in my mind that week. I invented a few worlds that didn’t exist, and populated them with people who were anything but flat characters. I put myself back in the situations where I should have spoken up, and this time around I did. I was unfiltered, uninhibited. I was queen of my ladder.
Left up there too long, the skin on my neck beginning to peel in raggedy strips, I would have gone crazy. I would have told stories to my plants and carried on conversations with the odd dragonfly. Will would have had to coax me down in the evening, or set a sugar trap in the kitchen.
But eventually, I ran out of eaves to paint, and the house was finished, and I went back to my regular, non-painting life. I haven’t forgotten, though, the curiously satisfying feeling of going it alone, stroke by stroke. It comes back to me every so often, like now – one key after another, word following word, and I sigh from the satisfaction of finishing a sentence. And start it up again.
The man seated two tables away seems compelled to talk – to the barista who brings him a fresh cup of coffee, to the family members who call him every twenty minutes on his cell, and to me, typing away and trying to look unapproachable. He translates his phone calls for me. “My wife,” he mouths in the midst of a set of convoluted directions. After another call, he told me, “My daughter. She just had a baby.” “Oh! Congratulations,” I say. “Well, she isn’t married,” he responds. I smile and look down, and after this, try to avoid all eye contact. It’s difficult because at this point he’s half-twisted in his seat, his shoulder open to me, inviting conversation. He seems to be only pretending to read his newspaper, which I can hardly criticize, since at the moment I’m only pretending to write my novel.
A man walks by and barks something incomprehensible and both of us – the newspaper-reading man and the novel-writing girl – look up, following the progress of this t-shirted man with a heavy backpack as he crosses the street in front of us and continues out of view. “Does he have an earpiece?” Newspaper man asks me and I shake my head. I had the same thought: Maybe angry t-shirt man had a Bluetooth device; maybe whatever conversation he was having was so important that he couldn’t be bothered to wait until he got to the office, or home, or his parole agent’s, and he liked to have his hands free just in case. But sadly, no earpiece; the important conversation that couldn’t wait was only with himself. I felt bad for him, and then sad for myself, because what is this piece of writing if not a conversation with another part of myself?
Back to Newspaper man, whose phone rings. It’s his wife, lost again in downtown Modesto, needing further directions. “From Graceada, cross Needham onto 14th and you’ll see it. The little coffee house on the left. What’s the name?” This last part to me; I wish I had an unfriendly face, or at least an inscrutable one, dark like a secret agent.
“The Queen Bean,” I say.
“The Queen Bean.”
“The Queen Bee,” he repeats into the phone.
Let it go, Paula. Let it go. But I can’t; the same impulse that caused me to labor with a pen over sophomore essays, scribbling comments and hash marks that my students wouldn’t read or care about, leads me to repeat, “The Queen BEAN.”
“Oh! The Queen Bean,” he says in the phone. “Cute.”
The barista brings him a sandwich stabbed through the heart with a toothpick. I begin to dread the arrival of his wife, who, despite muddled directions, will soon be here. The man takes a bite of his sandwich, then asks, without benefit of swallowing, “You come here often, huh? This is like your regular place?”
Yeah, I guess I do. I guess it is.
Paula Treick DeBoard