T H E M E S S O F P A I N T M A D E O L F E R T want to reach for a cigarette even though he hadn’t smoked for twenty-three years. It was that kind of moment, a long deep-breath craving that fresh air couldn’t quite quench. The ride in her smoker’s car must have triggered the yen he thought he had vanquished. If she hadn’t left so abruptly he could have bummed a smoke. But it was more than the scent of tobacco in a woman’s car—it was the north wall of this neglected cabin. Windowless, the wall looked as if the dregs of a hundred paint jobs had been slapped and splashed on the plywood panels serving as siding. Fish flies, moths and dried leaves clung to the cobwebs that dulled the colours of the surface.
“Start on the north side,” she had said, as they unloaded fivegallon pails of primer and forest-green paint, brushes and long-handled rollers, paint trays and a bundle of rags from her trunk. They set down the supplies beside the railroad ties that divided the driveway from the overgrown yard. Lawn didn’t apply to the greenery surrounding the cabin. Olfert gawked at the weathered front and deteriorating deck bathed in the morning sun. Rustic, a realtor would have said.
As Olfert lifted out the last pail, the woman had pulled a picnic cooler from the backseat. He followed her as she carried the cooler past a half-dead crabapple tree and set it on the edge of the deck. Then she had pulled a key from her tattered jeans. “Here you go, I’ll pick you up on Sunday night. Gotta go.” Olfert had pinched the key as she scampered back to the car.
“You’re leaving?” he’d said, starting after her.
She’d opened the driver’s door, stepped one foot in, then called over the doorframe, “The water turn-on is at the back. Just follow the pipe.”
“But I thought—!” The car door slammed on his words. Before he could reach it, the car had backed out of the driveway, and with a spurt of gravel she’d been gone.
“What’s going on?” he had yelled, then looked around to see if anyone might have heard. Summer foliage veiled the neighbouring cabins.
His watch had shown barely eight o’clock. She had picked him up at 6:30. Only the two shortest bars showed on his phone. The battery 20 percent. In his drowsy hurry he hadn’t even brought a change of clothes, let alone his charger. Olfert had powered down the phone. No one to call anyway. She hadn’t given him her number; he hadn’t offered his.
Mostly in shadow, the wall appeared bloodstained, the ruddy paint sagging where drips had run down until congealed. He had a flash of the woman’s face, makeup smeared. He shook himself. This morning her face had been scrubbed clean so he barely recognized her from the night before. His belly tightened. He not only didn’t know her number, he didn’t know her name. Had she said Liz? Lil? Libby? Surely not—nobody was called Libby nowadays.
While wandering about the Exchange District on First Friday, Olfert had stumbled into a gallery hosting an opening for an artist he knew slightly. Bothwell cheese and box wine. Large abstract canvasses, bold colours, in your face with an I-dare-you-to-understand-me attitude. Wistfully, Olfert had surveyed the room for familiar faces, pleasing women, erotic imagery.
Holding court at the wine counter, the artist with his trademark crimson deerstalker pulled down on his head despite the July heat, had been filling a plastic goblet with Merlot for a bare-shouldered woman. Turning away before he could be acknowledged, Olfert had stepped up to the raised area where the new paintings were hung and peered at a vertical 3 x 4 canvas mostly greyish brown with a diagonal slash of yellowish white. As he bent to squint at the title (Rats are llamas) on the label card his nostrils picked up the turpentine residue of men’s cologne. Olfert straightened up to study the canvas again, straining to discern rats and llamas in the egg tempera, but movement beside him distracted him and he saw the source of the stale scent. A greying man wearing a pullover sweater as a scarf had waved his spectacles at details in the next painting. “The invisible
is the path to intrinsic external reality,” the man said to the woman pinching a red-wine goblet beside him. She had regarded the painting with a slight smirk, then caught Olfert staring as the man bowed to read the label card. Olfert thought she had winked at him as the other man said, “The Higgs boson opens mortal energy. Perfect title. Profoundly enigmatic.” Olfert heard the words, but by then the spaghetti straps on the woman’s vivid summer dress had sent a tremor of blues down his spine. To keep from ogling the woman, he turned back to Rats are llamas and waited for the pair to move on. The man’s voice was not soft, however, and at the next painting Olfert heard him say, “The key to joy requires a symphony of genes.” Should he feel inadequate, Olfert wondered, or call bullshit? He moved over to the painting the sweater man had first commented on. The title really was The Higgs boson opens mortal energy. Olfert perused the canvas from various angles, stepping back to change perspective, but it had only reminded him of a child’s finger painting that had been snatched away a moment after it had turned to mud.
Then he had sensed the woman beside him. “Do you paint?” she asked.
The wall made him think of stagnant water—a shallow polluted lake seen from the air, the multiple colours of the lakebed—sand, rocks, algae growth, mud, maybe even the murky effluent of his subconscious. Get a grip, he muttered. He glanced over to the painting supplies he had carried to the deck, and spotted the cooler Libby (he decided) had left him. Should put that inside, he thought, but unlocking the door seemed like a commitment he wasn’t sure he was ready to make. He feared the disappointment he would feel when he entered. A reminder of the fantasy that got him into this in the first place. A sucker for bare shoulders and a smile. The ego boost of oneupping the sweater-as-a-scarf guy’s artsy-fartsy talk.
A battered broom leaned against the deck. Sweep the cobwebs and fishflies from the wall and mull over the possibility of hiking to the highway and hitching a ride back to the city. Back to his empty cluttered house. Enough with the artsy talk, he scolded, and he began sweeping at the top left corner. At first he focused only on the cobwebs under the overhang of the roof. He pondered Libby’s instruction to turn on the water at the back of the property. No, washing the wall with a hose might just drive the dirt into the cracks.
Balancing precariously on a rusty chrome chair he’d found beside the deck, he swept downward, clearing the debris clinging to the
paint that made him think of blood. When he paused to claw away webs sticking to the broom straws, a cartoonish profile of a longnosed face emerged from the mess of paint. Olfert climbed down to move the chair and when he stepped back he saw an image of a man wearing a ruddy lapel jacket over a high-collared shirt with an ascot standing in a rain of blood. He swept down to reveal more, but the lower parts of the figure dissipated into the background. Back on the chair, he brushed off the area behind the man’s back and found a woman’s face in profile, like a cameo. A faint, larger female head in silhouette lurked behind her. At least they’re not rats and llamas, he muttered. Traces of anxiety trickled from his underarms.
Olfert moved the chair and set about clearing the overhang to the end of the cabin, then proceeded to sweep down the wall. Next to the faint woman’s silhouette a headless broad-shouldered torso loomed, tall, tuxedoed, robed perhaps—maybe ecclesiastical—dark robes over white or grey flannel trousers. The lapels exposed a white chest or shirt. Maybe a smoking jacket. Olfert’s mind shifted back to “ecclesiastic.” One who speaks to the assembly, he recalled from once having looked up the word in a dictionary.
Back turned to the looming headless ecclesiastic, a dark-haired, dark-faced woman, arms folded, her backless white dress sporting flounces at the hip, seemed to be staring at a Dickensian old man with white hair, an unruly beard and a skull face. A troll squatting on a spinet piano, Olfert thought, but when he stepped back the Dickensian figure appeared to be crouched on a cat’s head resting its chin on a book.
Get out the primer and cover this mess, he muttered. After all, that’s why Libby brought him out here—and she had promised to return on Sunday night. Clenching the broom, he attacked the dirt, determined to see only messy paint, but then he saw two part circles resembling spectacles peering out of a white cloud. When he stepped back the white patch looked like a plunging waterfall, and then more like a chalk cliff. A dark figure sat hunched against the white cliff, knees up, back curved. At the same time the white patch resembled the lower half of a naked back. The more he looked, however, a darker nude figure seemed to rise from the white chalk, shoulders and arms bare, as if sitting on a white low-backed sofa chair.
Olfert assaulted the remaining dirt, not stopping until he had cleared off the dross down to the splintered lattice work halfheartedly covering the gap between the ground and the cabin floor. He dropped the broom and headed over to the deck and opened the
cooler, saw beer and grabbed a can. After a deep swallow, he glanced at the cabin door, fingered the key in his pocket.
Being alone in this place was not what he’d had in mind when he’d answered Libby’s query with, “I’ve been known to dip a brush.” On a whim he had added, “After all, making tea self-interacts with the unbridled path to intrinsic external reality.” She had actually raised an eyebrow, a feat he’d thought possible only in books, then nudged him with her hip and murmured, “You maladroit scamp.” Olfert had allowed himself a tentative glow as his mind scrambled to determine if he had been complimented. He started to mutter something about the son of Lady and the Tramp, but had sensed that a Disney reference might not earn him another nudge from her hip.
In the middle of a swallow of beer he was jolted by a scream. ” You maladroit scamp!” A woman’s voice. He glanced at the driveway. No car. He tiptoed back to the north wall. The white cliff accosted him first. He seemed to detect movement at its base, but a closer look showed all was frozen. However, he made out three figures striding toward what looked like a rider on a bucking horse beyond the cliff. He heard the scream again. “You maladroit scamp!” A chorus of women’s voices. Women in long skirts chasing a ghostly bronc rider and heaping him with scorn. He squinted and for a blink saw a sweater worn as a scarf around the rider’s neck. Then the image blurred into a mess of paint.
Still he heard the women screaming. Chanting the imputation. Olfert downed the last beer from the can. How had that word entered his brain? He wiped his eyes with his sleeve, only to confront another white turmoil in the lower right corner. The paint swirls resolved into a figure on its back fending off kicks from another a figure looming over it. He heard muffled grunts. Really, he must paint this unruly wall.
Crushing the can in his fist, he plotted a strategy for doing the job, remembering the promise in the nudge of Libby’s hip. Roll on the primer, let it dry, roll on the forest green. Even a maladroit scamp could do that. But rats and llamas, before his very eyes the white cliff transformed into a parka hood in a blizzard—an Arctic ghost inspiring light and awe in the fighting figures in the bottom right corner. For a second he heard blowing snow.
That’s when he noticed how some parts of the wall appeared to gleam. Olfert walked up to the wall and ran his fingers over the paint. He felt no cracks or peeling blisters. Texture, yes: where the paint had run, vertical grooves in the wood panels, rough spots and ridges that
seemed almost deliberate. If the paint job weren’t such a cacophony of colours there would be no need to repaint. He wiped his palms up the wall as high as he could reach. For new paint to stick he would need to take a wire brush to the wall. He almost felt a nudge at his hip.
On his way to look for a wire brush he heard snickering like rustling leaves, but human, just enough to make him feel like his fly was open before a party of women. No wire brush among the gear she had left him. Maybe a woman wouldn’t think of such a thing. The snickers grew into giggles. Olfert peeked at his fly, wobbled a little, adrift.
He double-checked every bag and container, but found no wire brush or even a scraper. He noticed the horizontal siding covering the front wall—wide, rough, wavy edged boards, bare. Perfect for staining. But Libby had not mentioned stain, had not said much about the job other than she wanted the cabin painted green and that he should begin with the north wall. The radio had been playing during the drive up, just loud enough to make conversation awkward, and although she had smoked only one cigarette, she kept her side window rolled down so car noise pretty much prevented any normal talk and nothing worthy of a shout had occurred. So early on a Saturday morning her lack of babble had had some appeal, as long as he hadn’t considered that she might be ignoring him. He had tried not to gaze at her too obviously as she leaned forward slightly, gripping the wheel at ten and two, eyes intent on the road. The two earring holes in her earlobe had intrigued him briefly as he tried to remember what had been dangling from them when they had sipped box Merlot while she enticed him to accept this painting job. Weekend at the lake. Help me with a little painting.
He eyed the cooler, decided it was too soon for more beer, and went to look at the south wall. Peeling Winnipeg brown. This wall definitely needed brushing down, even scraping in spots. Cobwebs coated the two small windows like grey cotton candy. A quarter-inch PVC pipe from under the cabin merged with a red-wheeled copper shut-off valve, then curved and snaked west into the overgrown grass, ferns and seedling poplars. Olfert followed the pipe for a few steps, then turned back to look at the west wall. Less weathered than the south one, the surface was still mostly peeling paint all the way to the tin vent just below the peak. How was he supposed to reach that without a ladder? Was she bringing a ladder on Sunday night? Was that why Libby had said to begin with the north wall? But even there he would need at least a stepladder to do a decent job.
A small shed stood against the trees on the north side of the property and then he spotted a dilapidated outhouse tucked in beside a clump
of trees. Something useful, he thought, but when he turned the swivel latch and pulled open the door he was faced with firewood stacked six feet high. No access to the throne.
Inside the shed he found a wooden stepladder, four steps and the top. He rummaged through the jumble of odds and ends but found no wire brush or scraper. A flat spade hung from a nail next to a buck saw. He took it down, thinking he might be able to scrape the south wall with it. He grabbed the stepladder with his other hand and was about to step outside, when he noticed a clear bag hanging from a nail with what looked like a large artist’s brush inside. No, he muttered, and carried the ladder and spade to the south wall. Then, retrieving the broom, Olfert concentrated on preparing the south wall for priming.
The flat spade served passably as a scraper, and he felt an occasional nudge at his hip as the paint chips spluttered down on the dandelions and ferns below. He had scraped nearly half the wall when a scrabble of voices erupted from the north side. He slapped the wall with the spade, but the babble continued and grew louder when he resumed scraping. A man’s voice yelled, “Hidden meaning results from positive facts,” and a woman screamed back, “True identity lies beyond personal sexual energy.” Two other women cooed in harmony, “Your movement drives self-righteous silence.” Then the voices calmed to background babble punctuated by a clanking dragging sound approaching from the road. Olfert held his breath and listened. The babble faded. The clanking continued.
He peered around the corner and choked up. The spade fell from his hand. A woman was dragging an aluminum extension ladder over the railroad tie at the driveway. For a second she looked naked, but then he saw her pale tan bikini and flip-flops. A peaked straw hat shaded her tawny face. Olfert opened his mouth but his throat was too dry to speak. Timidly, he stepped out toward her, opening his arms. The woman dropped the ladder.
“I’m sorry,” he said, lowering his trembling arms, embarrassed. “Said you might need this,” she said in a curiously youthful voice.
“Who?” Olfert asked. He couldn’t keep his gaze off her sinewy weathered body, half expecting to hear her say, ‘You have to look?’”
“The new one,” she said, placing her hands on her hips as she looked him up and down. Her scrutiny made him feel uneasy, even guilty.
“Needs work, this place. You the husband?”
“No,” he croaked, “just a friend.”
Olfert felt his guilt double.
“Good then,” she said, lifting her hat to wipe her brow. Her silver-streaked cropped hair startled him, somehow strange, yet eerily familiar.
“Be a hot one. Heading to the beach. Just down that road.” She pointed. “Come on down when you need a break. It’s quiet. Water’s clean. No algae blooms today.” With that she turned and walked away with a wiggle that could have been deliberate or merely a limp. As he watched the woman move along the road, Olfert felt seen through, and painfully forlorn.
Before the woman was out of sight, the voices resumed. That figures, he thought. He tried to shut out the voices by picking up the ladder, but then couldn’t decide where to carry it. So he laid it against the lattice covering the side of the deck. His stomach growled then and he opened the cooler. He pulled out a baggie with a sandwich, and another beer. Before he could take a bite the voices erupted in a chorus of laughter that rose and fell and rose again, quieting down to one or two voices then bursting out again in a contagion that shook the entire cabin. “Come down when you need a break,” a woman’s hysterical voice cried out, setting off another cackling explosion that rattled the skewed screen door.
Olfert’s heart thumped like a booming bass. One of his knees gave way and the beer slipped from his hand. He grabbed at the cooler to steady himself. His other hand braced against the deck, crushing the sandwich. Slowly he sat down on a five-gallon pail. The rim of the lid pressing into his buttocks felt strangely reassuring, until a sonorous bass voice cut through another crescendo of chortling: “The future relies on total success.”
“Future? Future?” A descant of sopranos chanted as the bass repeated his phrase.
“Success? Success?” A single alto called as if conducting an auction.
“Impossible,” a velvet baritone crooned to a close. In the silence Olfert’s heart thumped on, while in his mind the bikini woman limped down the road.
Olfert opened the baggie and carefully separated half of the crushed sandwich and slid it out. Bologna and cheese. He chewed like a raven attacking roadkill. When he’d eaten it, he retrieved the beer from the grass, cautiously popped the can and rushed it to his mouth to catch the foam. After a big swallow, he pulled out the other
half of the squished sandwich and devoured that. He finished the beer, stuffed the can through the lattice, and stood up. He fished the key from his pocket and stomped up the steps and unlocked the door. A rectangle of sunlight on the kitchen table revealed a new wire brush lying on top of two packaged dollar store painter’s coveralls. Next to it, a white painter’s hat.
The wire brush spurred Olfert into action and he scolded himself for not entering the cabin sooner. Back outside, after emptying the cooler into the fridge and using the composting toilet, he followed the PVC pipe through the bushes and mosquitoes to the back of the property and turned on the faucet he found there. The mosquitoes followed him back to the cabin where he vigorously brushed down the south wall until not a blister of old paint remained and his shirt dripped with sweat. Inside the cabin he had a large drink of water, then stripped to his underwear and slipped on the disposable coveralls, flimsy and cool on his skin.
He felt Libby’s hip nudge him as he pried open the primer. Maybe this scamp isn’t so maladroit after all, he thought. He was hungry again by the time he finished priming the overhang and the window frames, but he switched to the roller without missing a beat and refused to stop until the south wall was all white. After another sandwich, he sipped a beer while he gazed into the one bedroom with a double bed. The other two bedrooms had bunks. He chuckled at a memory of bunks, then for a moment was overcome with gloom. Did Libby have kids? Olfert shook off his negative thoughts, chugged his beer, and headed outside to attack the west wall.
Now that he had committed to the task, the wire brushing and the painting proceeded with a speed and ease he could not have imagined before. A slight breeze filtering through the flimsy coveralls kept him cool and mosquito free. As the afternoon heated up the neighbourhood came alive with voices and laughter from people strolling past on the way to the beach. For about an hour the peace was shattered by a gang of kids on dirt bikes roaring up and down the road. From some distance away he heard the rowdy sounds of a drinking party, soon drowned out by the roar of lawn mowers and the occasional whine of a chainsaw. For Olfert the noise functioned like a cocoon, drowning out his thoughts and helping him keep his focus on the job in front of him. He eased into a trance where he felt the odd nudge of her hip and her voice purring, “You maladroit scamp,” with an inflection suggesting she didn’t really mean the “mal.” Not once through the long afternoon did he hear voices from the north wall.
After he put away the painting gear for the day, he went back to look again at the north wall, thinking he would wire brush and prime it first thing in the morning. It was just a mess of paint after all. Sure, he had seen images on the wall, but that could just be his subconscious trying to be artsy fartsy and Libby wasn’t impressed with that. He stood well back to take in the whole wall at once. But he couldn’t unsee what he had seen. The images seemed even clearer now and with the ache of the day’s work in his bones he began to see even more. A familiar face emerged from the top right corner, then formed by the spaces between the other images, her body sprawled across the wall.
Olfert passed a few cottagers as he walked along the road she had pointed out, but the beach was deserted when he stepped out on the pebbled slope to the water. The sun hovered just above the horizon and he took a deep breath as he gazed at the shimmering lake. In the sandals he had found in the cabin, he walked down the beach in the shallow lapping water.
Where the shoreline curved into a sandspit jutting into a clutter of boulders in the water, two tattered turkey buzzards slumped on the ashen branches of a dead tree. They seemed to be eyeing him as he approached, but didn’t move even when he came near enough to meet their gaze. He wondered if he were to look at the north wall from another angle might he see these birds in that mess of paint.
Past the spit, on a smaller beach, he saw several large convoluted rocks at the water’s edge. A last ray from the setting sun revealed her in her tan bikini nestled in a hammock-like hollow of one of the rocks. Her eyes looked wet.
“I miss you,” he said.
“I know,” she said. “Your time will come.”
“Please forgive me,” he said.
“Forgiven, but not forgotten,” she said. “Forgive me.”
“I forgive you, but I can’t forget,” he said.
“I love you,” she said.
“Should I paint over the north wall?”
“For Libby?” she chuckled. “You’re on your own there, lover.” Olfert looked away over the darkening water. When he looked back at the rock he saw only the empty hollow.p