A PAINTER’S SECRET
by Matt Whelihan
I met Toad during a rough time. I mean, I wasn’t sick or addicted or anything. Nobody I knew had just died, and I wasn’t living on the streets. It was just that Jen wanted kids as fast as she could have them, and she was letting me know this as often as she could.
I had no problem with kids, but I had told her when we got married that I needed something more secure in the work department first. I was just a contract painter, floating from job to job, hoping the boss always had more lined up. I needed my own crew, or maybe a more permanent facilities position. Then we could get to work on having babies.
Things only got rougher when I finished painting a couple of places in Cherry Hill and took on a new contract in Camden without talking to her first. I told her it was guaranteed money, something we needed to pay the bills, and me looking for something else could mean not bringing home a pay check at all.
The argument itself was bad—Jen told me I was lazy, that it was sad to have no goals beyond being a painter that worked for someone else, that I needed to call my boss and tell him I’d changed my mind, that it was time to grow up—but the aftermath was worse. She perfected the cold shoulder and made the house lonely even when she was around. But I took the Camden contract, and that’s when I got teamed up with Toad.
I’m not sure where the nickname came from: the guy didn’t look anything like a Toad. He was sinewy and straight backed with a tuft of white hair on his head. And, despite having a good 40 years on me, he moved about quickly. I was never left picking up his slack.
I was riding shotgun in the van as we drove to the first house of the contract, just looking at the mess of a neighborhood we’d be in for the next couple of months. The houses were on the Delaware, but there was no waterfront charm. The place was like a ghost town where people just happened to still live. Aging brick storefronts had empty windows and empty interiors, while the sidewalks had empty cigarette packets and empty bottles.
Amongst the blocks of compressed, two-story houses, aging cars, and potholed streets, one thing stood out: a large sign in a field of weeds near the river. It read, “The Future of the Camden Waterfront” and featured a computer-rendered picture of brightly-lit shops, restaurants, and apartment high-rises.
Toad caught me looking at it.
“That sign’s been there for six years,” he told me. “Only work they’ve ever done was putting that sign in the ground.”
Then he pointed at the only large, well-maintained house in the area—a massive, three story place decked out with white siding, black shutters, and new windows. Next to it was a separate, two-car garage, and a looming, gated fence surrounded the whole property.
“See that place,” he said. “Belongs to Bruce Willis’s father.”
“Oh, it’s true. That guy grew up in this neighborhood. After he made it big, he wanted his old man to ship off to California with him, but the old man refused. So Bruce bought that land, bulldozed the shack that was there and built that thing. Somebody told me there is even a security guard on duty 24 hours a day, but I don’t know about that.”
I took another look at the house. I didn’t know either.
“Crazy how some kids give a damn and some don’t,” Toad said.
I mumbled my agreement and kept looking at the property.
The place we pulled up in front of was in a different class. It was a Cape Cod that sagged like it had given up on the idea of being a home. Inside, it was stifling and dusty, the rooms tight even without furniture in them.
Before we had set out that morning the boss had given us the run down. We’d be doing about a dozen of these places—the type of slum-lord specials that needed nothing more than a $200 security deposit to get you in the door. Our job was to cover every wall and ceiling with white paint and to do it quickly.
“This ain’t no Picasso,” the boss had said. “Do it and then do the next one.”
That meant drop clothes were helpful, but not necessary, globs of paint in the small ridges of door frames and baseboards were excusable, and second coats were a joke no one wanted to hear. After the couple of years I had spent painting McMansions under the watchful eyes of housewives, it would be a welcome change.
I brought my paint-speckled boombox out of the van and set it up in the living room. I tuned it to a Philly rock station and started to stir some paint. Toad made his way over to me, placed his hands on his hips and looked down.
“Listen,” he said, “I’m going to teach you an old painter’s secret.”
He fiddled with the radio’s tuning until I heard the sound of violins emerge.
“Really? This shit?”
“I’m telling you—just let it play. You’ll thank me.”
I had worked with nutcases in the past. There had been the guy who would eat his lunch with winter gloves on cause he was afraid he might accidently ingest some paint, or the goon who’d piss in a corner of the room if he felt like he got a dirty look from the client. I’d learned debate didn’t go far with guys like that. It was just best to ignore them and get the work done. So I let the music play.
Painting can be mind-numbing. Poor lighting means you struggle to see how the coat of paint is going on, and an empty, white wall still looks like an empty, white wall when you’re done painting it white. Time can sort of slow down too, and if you focus on any of your motions—the strokes of the brush, what your left hand is doing while the right is working, the way your feet are pointing—you get that same sort of odd feeling you do when you repeat a word over and over until it doesn’t sound like a real word any more. It’s a job that requires focus, and one that reminds you of just how difficult and irritating constant focus can be. Toad’s music changed the experience though.
I had seen something on TV about monks staring at a wall for a whole year, and that day I sort of felt like I understood them a little better. I was focused but gone at the same time. Then I heard Toad’s voice.
“You ready for some lunch?” he asked.
And I was back, standing on scuffed floorboards in a dim Camden living room with smudged windows and cracks in the ceiling. I was back, and I had finished painting an entire wall. It was one hell of an old painter’s secret, and I knew this contract would be different.
We sat on the front porch steps for lunch, eating hoagies and small bags of sour cream and onion chips. I took a couple of gulps from my can of Coke and turned to Toad.
“So you know a lot about classical music?” I asked.
“I don’t know shit,” he said through a mouthful of chips. “I found out it helps you to kind of zone out when you paint, but I don’t know those songs. Hell, I don’t even know what half those instruments are. Bassoon? What the hell’s a bassoon?”
“You’re asking the wrong guy. But it was, kind of—”
“Exactly. I used to get angry when I painted. I was angry about everything back then. I felt like the world was telling me I couldn’t do what I wanted—that I couldn’t be who I wanted. I was angry that I had to get up early each day, angry that I was eating $5 dinners each night, angry that I was a painter instead of a lawyer or a doctor—just angry.
“Then, geez it must have been about 25, 30 years ago now, I’m painting this place down in Brigantine—this big, beautiful place right on the ocean—and the guy who owns it is in the other room listening to this classical music.
“I’m pissed that he’s rich and I’m not, and that music didn’t help things at all. But then, next thing I know I’m feeling calm, and the room’s almost done.
“So I tried it the next time I painted, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I’ve shown a lot of young guys like you that. It just sort of erases the rest of the world. Sometimes you need that.”
He took a bite of his sandwich.
“Doesn’t help with road rage though,” he added. “I’ll tell you that right now.”
When we finished eating, Toad said he was going for a short walk to help him digest. I went back inside the house and laid down in the middle of the living room floor. I usually called Jen after eating my lunch, but that day I stared at the ceiling instead.
The lunch calls had been a routine since before we were even married. Jen had been so stressed out by her new job as an oncology nurse that we had aligned our breaks so that I could give her a pep talk every afternoon. Eventually, she settled into her new position, but the calls had continued—something we both looked forward to. Then the fights about babies had started, and she had clammed up during the lunch chats. I could barely get her to talk, and that led to no calls at all.
The rest of the first week with Toad went the same way. We’d paint a few rooms a day, listening to classical music as we worked, and then we’d move on to a new house. It felt less like work and more like a break from my life. I knew I had made the right decision.
On Friday, a chunky guy with thinning hair broke the routine. He wandered into the house we were painting in a pair of faded jeans and a hooded sweatshirt with a hole in the front of it—right where the hands go. He had the slightly dazed and damaged look of someone getting too much of some things and not enough of others. I was waiting for him to ask for a couple of bucks when Toad walked over and shook his hand.
“So you found the place?” Toad asked.
“Yeah, yeah, I got it,” the guy said.
He looked at me quickly, then turned away.
“Grab a seat,” Toad told him. “We’ll break for lunch soon.”
He slumped down to the floor and pressed his back to one of the walls we hadn’t painted yet.
“This is Larry,” Toad said. “He’s an old buddy from the area. He likes to stop by when I’m working around here.”
“Hey,” I said.
Larry managed a nod.
Toad never talked about Larry when he wasn’t there, and so I never asked about Larry when he wasn’t there. I guess it was just sort of like his nickname: it just was. And when Larry started to show up every day, it just seemed like part of the routine.
During most of our lunch breaks Toad would give Larry part of a sandwich or a banana or some TastyKakes. Sometimes I’d even bring him a couple granola bars or some soft pretzels from Wawa.
At first, the three of us ate in silence. Toad might ask Larry a couple of questions, but he kept his responses clipped, like he only had a certain number of words left to use. Gradually he got more comfortable though, and the guy turned out to be a local gossip. He would talk about new vacants in the area, long-term residents passing away, or whose kids had started showing up at his favorite bar.
“It was Chucky’s son,” he’d say. “You know that guy that married Paula’s sister. He joined the electricians’ union and now he drinks and bullshits at the bar like he’s been going there for years.”
He would complain about the guys that sold drugs across the street from his apartment, not so much because they sold drugs, but because they were loud when they did it.
“I wish they’d keep regular hours like a bank,” he’d say. “Then maybe I could get some sleep at night.”
He also seemed to know about all the real estate transactions in the neighborhood. For a week he talked about the storefronts across the street from the Willis place.
“I heard someone bought the block with the barber shop and that corner store Big Mikey used to own,” he told us one day. “Remember when Mikey beat that kid with a bat for snatching a Snickers bar? They say that kid was never the same in the head.
“Anyway, they bought the whole stinking block. They’re planning on knocking it down and putting in a parking lot. Parking for what? That’s what I want to know.”
Jen and I lived just far enough from Camden to make me feel good about myself, but not far enough to stop someone else from feeling bad for me. It was the first house we’d ever bought. It wasn’t our first choice, but at 25, any place with no leaks and a backyard big enough for a table, a grill, and a small vegetable garden was good enough for me.
Every afternoon, the sight of the house left me confused. I was home, but I was also about to enter the most uncomfortable part of my day. If I wasn’t coming through the door with info on a new job, or the start of a five-year plan, Jen didn’t really want to have a conversation. I would try to tell her about Toad, about Larry, about the classical music, and she would smile and say something like, “That’s nice. Does this Toad have any children?”
I would laugh and say that she sounded like a character in a kid’s book—one where animals talked and your species was your first name. But she didn’t seem to find that funny.
Things went on like this for the first couple of weeks I was painting in Camden. To try and relieve some of the tension—which was lasting much longer than when I had blown $500 in Atlantic City, or when I had taken a painting job on the day of her sister’s wedding—I invited Toad over for a barbeque. I thought maybe he could cut through the tension or show her why my current contract had been worth taking.
Toad came over on a Saturday, and Jen did seem to open up more. We had some beers and listened to a Phillies game on the radio. When I went to throw the steaks on the grill, Jen continued to talk with Toad, and I could hear her laughing. It was when we sat down to eat at our small patio table that the mood shifted. That was Jen carefully maneuvered the conversation.
“So Toad—I still have to get used to calling you that—do you have any children?” she asked.
“No, no children,” Toad said as he cut into his steak.
“What about a wife? Have you ever been married,” Jen asked.
“No. Never married either,” Toad said. “I think I just liked dating too much to get married. And then next thing I knew I was too old to even date.”
There was some polite laughter and then Jen went on.
“Oh come on, you aren’t that old. Plenty of people date into their 60s and 70s now. I just read about a man that is 85 and a woman that is 92 getting married. They said it never seemed odd to them.”
Toad seemed to think about this for a minute as he chewed a piece of steak.
“Well, I can see that,” he said. “I guess my idea of dating might just be a little different. If you can’t give 100%, and I am certainly not at 100% anymore, I don’t really think it’s worth it.”
I was sure Toad was hinting at there being no more lead in the pencil, and I could tell Jen wasn’t catching on. She was starting to say something else, probably something about how Toad seemed in perfect health to her, when I decided to change the subject and save my friend a little dignity.
“Hey, you know I saw this thing about toads on TV the other night,” I said.
“He loves those kinds of shows,” Jen added, “always wants to watch the science and history stuff.”
“Yeah, I don’t know, they just kind of suck you in,” I said. “But this show said toads are just a specific type of frog, not actually a different animal. They live in the same places, eat the same things, have the same type of bodies. It’s just the skin that’s different.
“But the amount of eggs they lay is crazy. And they have to constantly protect them from predators. It said if they lay 2,000 only 5 of those will survive because of all these fish and birds and other things constantly attacking.”
Toad stop chewing. He looked up from his plate and seemed deep in thought.
“Those aren’t very good odds,” he said.
I almost laughed, but I wasn’t sure if Toad was making a joke or not. Instead, I scooped up some potato salad.
“Hey, Toad,” I said, “tell Jen about the classical music. I don’t think she believes me. Or maybe she just doesn’t think that her husband would be caught dead listening to that stuff.”
Toad seemed to perk up at my suggestion.
“Well, I was a very angry young man,” he started.
For the next few weeks, as the summer started to wind down, my life fell into a pattern. Toad and I had a system even if we never actually discussed it, and with each new house, there seemed to be less need to communicate. We knew who carried what into the place, who pried the lids off of the paint, and who put new rollers on their frames. We’d each drift to one side of the house with our gear and go to work. We did the rooms in the same order, while the classical music played in the background and helped me to forget everything that existed beyond the wall in front of me.
I even got used to Larry and looked forward to his jaw sessions. I began to understand the connections between all the people he mentioned, and they became like characters to me. It wasn’t just bullshit: it was entertainment.
After the day was done, Toad and I would hop in the van and talk baseball or the chances of a hurricane as we drove back to the small office the boss operated out of Collingswood. Once there, Toad would give me a stiff little wave and tell me “Don’t get in any trouble.”
I’d drive home feeling good, content in the fact that I had chosen correctly when I took on the Camden contract. At home things were quiet, but not miserable. Jen seemed a little more willing to talk about Toad now that she had met him, and even if our issues did not feel entirely settled, our arguments had stopped.
By September though, Jen must have caught on that the silent treatment wasn’t getting us anywhere. On a day when the weather was just starting to demand that you switch to a long-sleeve shirt, she seemed to be waiting for me when I came in the door.
“Have you started asking around about more permanent work,” she said. “You need benefits if I am going to have a baby.”
“Jesus, I just walked in.”
“Oh, good, another excuse. You’re getting really good at that.”
I started to untie my boots. I wanted to groan and tell her the truth: I just didn’t feel like doing it. Instead I lied, hoping it was enough to stop the argument before it really started.
“Well, I did start looking. I asked the boss about benefits, about going full-time, but he said money’s tight. Nobody’s getting that kind of thing right now.”
“Okay, that means one option was a dead end. But that’s just one option. Make a phone call; use the computer; do whatever it takes. This is getting—”
She paused and turned her face away from me. I knew she was getting choked up, something she had been able to avoid through all of the past arguments and the quiet weeks.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “This is not ever the way I thought we’d be. And I don’t want to give you an ultimatum, or say something drastic to you, but talking, and waiting, and nudging, and prodding—none of it works. I need something better than your partial answers, and I need it now. Don’t you want this?”
I released the laces on my boot, stood up, and wrapped my arms around her. I wanted that embrace to make a difference for her, at least for that moment, but her body reacted like I was a stranger.
“I’m working on it,” I said. “And I do want it. I promise you.”
But I wasn’t looking. Everything seemed to be moving ahead smoothly for once, and I didn’t want to change that. Searching, asking around, doing some groveling, just to start a new thing with a new batch of guys who could be fucked up in a thousand different ways was not appealing. I had it good with Toad. For once, work didn’t feel like a burden. For once, my life felt like it had locked into an arrangement that I actually wanted.
By the end of month, I knew things couldn’t last forever though. Toad and I were painting a place just off the main drag. It was a single-story house and I knew it would only take us a day to do. It was another rush job, another time to slap white paint on and provide the illusion of cleanliness.
“The boss get any other bites for this area?” I asked Toad as we poured paint into trays.
“He hasn’t said nothing to me. I think there’s just that one on the next block.”
“If it’s anything like this place, it won’t take long.”
“Yep. Another day or two, I’m guessing.”
This didn’t seem to affect Toad as much as it did me.
When we stopped for lunch, Larry told us about a dog that had been hit by a car a few blocks over.
“Linda let it out while she was smoking on the stoop—she’s one of Francine Sabatini’s kids—and I think she did it on purpose,” he said. “I used to see her walking that dog and she was constantly just yanking on its neck. She’d just keep yelling, ‘Let’s go, you little bastard!’
“Her kid was devastated. Cute little blond girl. But Linda just stood there smoking a cigarette, and telling her daughter that she’d get sick if she touched the dead dog. It was a real shame.”
I could see the little girl crying, her mother like some grotesque cartoon villain lingering over her with an exaggerated, evil smile and blazing eyes. I gave the rest of my lunch to Larry and stood up. I wasn’t hungry anymore. As I walked back into the house, he nodded his thanks and dug in.
Around two, as we got to work on the final room in the house, the sound of police sirens drifted through the neighborhood. It was nothing new. We heard that familiar blare a few times a week, but this time I could tell it was closer than usual.
Toad told me he was going to go check it out. I thought maybe he wanted a chance to give Larry some gossip for a change, so I told him I could finish up the last room. After he left, I turned the music up a bit and got back to work.
Once I was finished, I washed out the brushes and trays in the kitchen and loaded up the van. Toad still wasn’t back, so I drove around a bit to see if I could find him.
I found the cop cars outside of the Willis place. A small crowd was forming, and I could see Toad among them. I parked a block away and he jogged down to the van. He looked fidgety and haggard. His paint-speckled clothes made him look more like a homeless guy than a painter.
He came up to the passenger-side door and rested his arms on the window frame.
“These bastards,” he said. “They’ve got Larry in the back of a car. He didn’t do a damn thing. Just give me a few more minutes.”
He jogged back down to the scene and strained to get a better look into one of the police cars. I could see what looked like Larry’s head in the back of the car.
While Toad circled the crowd, a large woman in tight sweat pants crossed the street and stomped towards the police car. She smacked the rear window with the side of her fist and started to scream. Two officers raced around the car to corral her. She struck another blow to the window and bellowed, “Fucking pervert! Get you, asshole!”
I watched Toad place his hands on his hips and look around. He seemed unsure of what to do.
I turned on the radio in the van and found the classical station. I thought it might help when Toad came back.
After the woman had been moved back across the street and calmed a bit, the cop cars pulled away. Toad looked toward the Willis place for a moment, then walked back to the van, and climbed in.
“What’s going on?” I asked. “We need to go to a station or anything?”
“Ah, just head back,” he said. “I’ll take my own car over. I don’t think we can do anything anyway.”
I started to drive. Toad was shaking his head slowly. He moved his lips like he was mumbling, and he tapped a fist against his thigh. I wanted to know what had happened, but thought a question might push him over the edge. It might bring the angry young Toad back to life. I might get a story I didn’t want to know.
“He didn’t do shit,” he blurted. “He used to sit in this little inlet down there by the river—I know that’s what he was doing. He would just sit. He grew up here. Used to go down there when he was a kid. Then that damn big house gets built there. They put up that fence, hire that security guard. That was his spot down on the river. Nobody gets that. Those damn cops don’t get that. A man has certain things that are his—certain things that he needs. Certain things.”
We were both quiet. A few seconds passed. Then, he burst again.
“Jesus, just turn this shit off!”
He reached out and pressed the power knob on the van stereo.
“Jesus,” he said again.
As we drove out of Camden, I realized it was the first time I had really looked at it in over a month. We crossed train tracks that a train no longer ran on, passed an empty factory, and caught the gaze of three men standing on a corner by a stop sign surrounded by waist-high weeds. I made eye contact, and they stared back like tired predators. I turned my eyes to the rearview mirror, and there was the sign about the future of the Camden waterfront.
I knew the next day would be my last one working with Toad. We’d paint the final house on the contract with the same efficiency we had painted all of them. The music would play, and we would barely speak. The van would get loaded, and we would head home.
I knew I only had one day left to keep me away from my future. And I knew it was time for me to have a conversation. Not with Toad, or Larry, or the boss, or any guys I knew that might have a lead on a job. It was time for me to have a conversation with Jen.
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