Issue 9 / Spring 2017
At first, the scaffolding had taken some getting used to—the men’s work boots at eye level, their cell phone conversations, the Spanish radio, the dark. Beneath the filmy cocoon of painter’s cloth it was always dusk, every room shadowed. It was that way for two months, until suddenly the cloth was rolled up and secured to the roof because someone, at night, had been climbing the scaffolding and sleeping under its cover. A man she hadn’t seen had been right outside the windows, the ones that didn’t properly lock, sleeping or watching or listening or pissing.
But that was three months ago, and still the scaffolding stood. There had been some snafus, the crew manager said. She frowned, not because of the building’s ongoing problems, but because snafu was kind of an old-fashioned word. The crew manager spoke through a wheezing breath. He was large in every way, both tall and thick. Every day he wore painter’s shorts and beneath them his calves were taut and swollen. White socks gathered around fat ankles and his tennis shoes bowed out at the sides. He would die of a heart attack before he was seventy, certainly.
The men called him Tony, and Tony was a bit of a bullshitter. Weeks earlier, he’d walked through the apartment, stepping on the baby’s blanket with his dirty shoes, noting where old lead paint needed to be sanded from hinges, telling her to remove every platter and coffee mug so that the shelves could be repainted. “We’ll get ’er done,” he promised.
The trouble began on the outside. The exterior of the building was going to be repainted, but before that could happen it needed to be pressure-hosed and sanded. There was no warning the day she woke to find her windows taped over with plastic, dirty water seeping through badly-caulked sills. There’d been some question as to whether the glass could take the pressure, warbled single panes fit into century-old arches, but it did.
It was during those early days, after the building was washed and sanding began, that leaden paint dust was blown into the building. The baby had to be taken to the hospital for a blood draw. Not through his heel the way the nurses had gone when he was first born, when they checked his bilirubin levels to gauge the severity of his jaundice. The yellow cast on his skin was normal, they’d assured her, but still, if unchecked, could lead to brain damage. She was learning that so many things were like this, on the edge of danger and lasting consequence.
Blood was instead drawn through a vein near the inside of the baby’s elbow. She sat in the adult-sized chair with her son’s legs pinched between her thighs, one arm across his chest while two nurses held down the other. His small, soft arm was held prisoner against the adult-sized armrest. He arched his back and screamed, meeting her eyes directly, beseeching her to make it stop. The needle plunged in but missed the vein and the whole thing had to be done again on the other arm, the one she’d held firmly against his heart.
Afterward, the nurse tried to give him a juice box with the plastic wrapping and a narrow, sharp straw. “He isn’t old enough,” she protested, feeling like the nurse should have known. She left the laboratory feeling as battered as the child, and also deflated because her singing had been eclipsed by another woman who began a rendition of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star in a heavily-clipped accent and with a voice so loud, and so startling, that it calmed him.
Lead dust isn’t visible to the eye, but it is heavy and it clings to things. Of course, the baby had spent the last few months on the floor, as babies do, putting things in his mouth. Her husband was immediately alarmed when he saw that their kitchen window had been removed and that no tarp was laid down. But it hadn’t occurred to her that anything was wrong. Her mind hadn’t made the leap between the building’s age and the health threat that repainting inherently posed. She could blame the sleep deprivation, but the truth was that it just wasn’t something she knew about.
She was hesitant at first, apologetic even, when she brought the issue of cleanliness up with the building manager. There was also the issue of the escaping heat and rising electric bill. “The baby,” she said.
The building manager deigned innocence, even surprise. “Oh really? I’ll speak to the guys. Of course, everything should be by the book.”
The next evening, after the kitchen window had again been left gaping and the counter and sink basin and floor were decorated with a smattering of wood splinters and paint flakes, one of the rougher looking men, with a balding pattern that left only half his hair in tact, oddly blond, knocked on the door. “I’m here to clean,” he said. He looked like he had not shaved in many days. His tone was uneven and hinted at sarcasm, and he had not brought any cleaning supplies. She was alone with the baby, on her hip now, and it was after dark. She looked behind the man for an industrial HEPA vacuum, but there was only the dim hallway. He took a step forward. “You have to agree that it’s acceptable in there before I can leave.”
She leaned backward to acknowledge that she’d looked. “It’s good. It’s fine,” she said. “It’s not that messy. I’ll clean it up.” She quickly shut and locked the door even though it wasn’t clean and it wasn’t fine. Her heart pounded as though she’d dodged something and, after the baby went down to sleep, she set to work scrubbing the floor and counters.
The day after that she called the city inspector and the painters were fired.
They had to move out of their apartment for two weeks (and in with her in-laws) and when they returned they found that years, maybe even decades, of paint had been scraped from hinges and latches, and made again into functioning metal locks and clasps. But the shelves had not been repainted, and the streaks of dirty water Tony promised his men would take care of still appeared as accidental art inside cabinets. Her husband found two razor blades and some screws on the floor, and she could see that the baby’s high chair had filmy layers of grease and dust and could not have been touched by the professional cleaners, whom she suspected were not actually cleaners, but this new lot of painters, wearing hooded white sanitation suits and taking directions. She stood that night in the ruin of her apartment, looking at all the things broken or piled and needing to be wiped down and put away. All her son’s beautiful plush toys, everything new and selected and given with love—what she was supposed to do next? Give them away? Send them to a drycleaner? And what about the wool rugs?—especially the one that stretched the entire length of the room and was too heavy to lift. His company only handled hard surfaces, Tony explained.
She thought that night of The Velveteen Rabbit, a storybook she’d loved as a child, and a tale so bittersweet that it was almost inappropriate for children except that it was so much like life. She didn’t have the will to clean and restore order that first night. Instead, she ordered a pizza, which never arrived, and opened a bottle of wine.
The blinds had also been taken down while they were away. As the weeks passed, she waited for them to be returned. Finally she asked Tony, who replied that they’d been thrown out.
Whose job was it to order new ones? He shrugged and said he’d look into it—which, like all the other things, was the thing to say in the moment.
Her home had once been filled with angling light and now it was again. She was completely exposed—no shroud of painter’s cloth, no window treatments. One day a workman happened to see the child suckling at her breast. He quickly retreated—embarrassed, she thought—but soon there were four men pretending to survey something. There were no rooms without a window, and so she looked hard at the men, hoping to shame them, and yet they seemed unmoved.
It was unacceptable, her husband said. But what could she do? Talk to Tony. It was always that, the answer to every question: Tony.
He looked ill, and yet she felt, or tried to feel, a surge of compassion, having seen him outside so many days, for so many months, barking orders and keeping track, however badly, of what needed done in each unit, learning what everyone’s names were, and their kids’ names, and telling everyone to call him with any concerns. He gave out his mobile number scrawled on the back of someone else’s business card. He always sounded like he was on the verge of collapse, spending his very last breath on her petty concerns—the old, crappy blinds. As much as she hated to pass and say hello, a scene always drawn out by the arduous process of getting the stroller and the baby out the door and down the front steps, she was never able to forget that Tony was a warm-blooded man with desires and needs. It was hard not to think, as he mopped sweat from his brow and the back of his neck, that at the end of the day he’d go home and peel back those socks, and rest in some reclining chair.
He looked at her impatiently. “Erin—”
“Christine,” she corrected.
“What can I do for you?”
She was going to complain, of course. That’s all anyone did. There were many good reasons to. Tony’s sunglasses were secured to his head with a thick strap that dovetailed around the back into a knot and a bead. In the moment of her hesitation, taking in the largeness of him, she saw how fruitless it was—telling him about the men ogling her breasts. Later they would just glare at her every time she passed. Or else they would laugh.
A small voice within her asked: Who was to say, after all, that she had not done such a thing on purpose? Parts of her life had begun to feel secret while other moments opened up like flowers to the sun. The men had seen her be a good mother, cooing to her son, coddling him, and at other times they saw the empty wine glasses and the unfinished laundry. Or how some days she never changed out of her bedclothes. It was a strange thing to be constantly witnessed, and also strange to so quickly acclimate to it.
Tony lifted his hand to his many-pocketed vest, his fat fingers fiddling with a zipper. She felt the double horror of her cowardice and what she’d planned to say: The men were staring at me.
There was no conviction there. She could try: I felt violated. It was disrespectful.
Maybe just that last part, she thought. That was reasonable, but the moment passed. Tony pulled yet another business card from his vest pocket. “If you remember,” he said.
There were days she gravitated to the internal corners of her apartment, when she fed her son from behind the couch, back pressed against the cool wall. There were days when it all felt overwhelming. She gave up watching the news on TV after learning there had been a murder only a mile away, in broad daylight. That and the report of rabid bats found near an elementary schoolyard. Somewhere else, far away, but still. Instead, as she breastfed, she read articles on her phone. There was one that went viral about a doctor who died at 37, leaving behind a baby girl. Somehow he’d found the time to write an open letter, admonishing everyone against chasing after the wind. But what she wanted was not the wind. It was to take her son and to burrow into the soft earth. It was a desire to hide somewhere safe and quiet and warm, just out of sight, just for a while.
In total, it was seven, nearly eight months, before she woke to the racket of the scaffolding coming down, the metal bars clanging loudly as they were pieced apart and tossed into the bed of a truck. She felt then the palpable relief of having weathered a storm. Just when she’d come to believe that life might always be this way, the work was finished. The outside of the building was a new color, a dark gray with white trim, and her windows were once again inaccessible from the street. Within an hour, Tony and the men were gone.
She thought back to a postcard she’d received in the mail a few weeks earlier. The front of the card looked like it had been brushed with wide swaths of black paint, leaving the negative space to form the vague shapes of clouds. It read: A cloud is now passing. That was all, and it had lifted her—until she saw that the card was intended for someone else. Or had it been? she wondered as she walked to the correct address to redeliver the card.
The night the scaffolding came down, she ventured out into what felt like a new world while her husband watched their son. To be anywhere without the baby happened so infrequently that she felt disoriented. She wanted to leave and not leave in equal measure; her anxiety was through the roof as she considered how many things could go wrong.
“You’ll be fine. We’ll be fine,” her husband assured her.
It was probably true. And perhaps it wasn’t the baby she was worried over; perhaps it was herself, because she’d adapted so quickly, and so completely, to being needed.
She drove to a bookstore to listen to a writer she admired read a few pages from his new book. She was early, so after she parked she spent a long time in her car watching a man disembark from the bus with a toddler and stroller. The boy had curly red-orange hair. The man carried a reusable grocery bag and a bouquet of sunflowers. She watched as he unfolded the stroller, rested the flowers across the top, and struggled to secure the boy into the seat. She wondered where the mother was, what she was doing. The father and son’s heads were bent together as a single petal from one of the sunflowers fell quietly to the ground.
The world, and every small part of it, was always in flux. This was gravity’s intervention, she thought.
After the reading, instead of waiting in line to have her book autographed, she idly thumbed through a rack of greeting cards and said hello, briefly, to someone she knew. Yes, the baby was 10 months now. She found herself itching to go home, but was also frustrated that she was always having one feeling in the moment she should be having another. So she agreed to have a drink, instead, with the friend.
One drink, in and out. She felt a little hot in the face on her way home, feeling maybe the alcohol or else the guilt that it was so late. Her milk would soon be tainted; there was a rough 30-minute window before the alcohol would hit her bloodstream. She’d left a bottle at home, of course, but it was probably gone by now.
As she crested the hill that led to her apartment building, she came upon a man standing in the middle of the crosswalk, waving his arms in distress. This particular intersection formed a square at the top of a hill and the man was perfectly framed by her headlights. Behind him a trail of lights stretched the grid of city blocks that led to the ocean, where things went silent and dark once again.
The man needed something, some help. She panicked, afraid to get out of the car. She could turn left or right and navigate around him. She could take a slightly longer way home and be done with this business. And yet offering assistance was the right thing to do—what if something terrible had happened? What if she could make a difference? What if it were her son? She was a mother now, which meant that she needed to be a braver, better version of herself, the kind of person she hoped her son would grow into.
She put the car in park and stepped into the street. She left her lights on and the car running. “Are you okay?” she yelled. It felt like a yell, but was perhaps a bit quieter.
It was then that a woman stumbled out into the crosswalk to join the man. Only then did she realize that the woman had been there all along, in her peripheral vision, just beyond the swath of light.
The woman wore a fitted black-and-white striped dress and teetered in 4-inch heels. She noticed that the woman carried no purse, and here she was now, doubled over, laughing.
She felt a flush of embarrassment and quickly retreated back into her car, locking the doors and feeling like the joke was on her. The man and woman began dancing lewdly in the crosswalk. The woman held one arm, one fist, in the air as she moved. The man’s pelvic thrusts were like caricatures of a man dancing. There was no way to pass without going around the block. But no, she decided, she would not do that.
They were drunk, of course. And they were dressed well, if not warmly enough. Probably they were out on some kind of date, though she couldn’t think where, unless they were coming from a dinner party at one of the larger houses up the hill.
There were moments when their hips met and moved in time. When they looked directly at her, she understood that the stretch of road between them made her nothing more than a dark silhouette. She was only the shape of a person, and no one to them. Not a mother or woman or anyone specific. Just a person in a car who, for a moment, crossed paths and thought they needed help.
Soon enough they stumbled off and down the street, leaning heavily against one another, still laughing. She felt a rush of endorphins as she coasted down the hill toward home, and a slight shiver ran through her. These were antics they would not remember fully or well, later. Nor would she. Everything was made, over time, blisteringly small.
Suzanne Barnecut earned her MFA from California College of the Arts, and previously worked as an editor for Carve Magazine. Currently, she lives in San Francisco with her husband and daughter and writes marketing materials by day, and fiction at night. Her short stories have appeared in journals including Eleven Eleven, Fourteen Hills, Slush Pile, Beeswax Magazine, and the Santa Clara Review. For more, visit: https://suzannebarnecut.com