Lost on the streets of Tokyo, a Yamamba Girl falls from her shoes. Here I am trying to varnish a built--in walnut bookcase for Mary Fizer. I stop to listen--the radio tuned into NPR, plugged into the Japanese city. The girl wears silver hair stiff as wire, white lipstick and eyeshadow. Glitter cheeks. She moves in ten-inch platform boots--knee-high with a shiny chrome zipper. Blue leather mini-skirt and fuzzy white angora sweater. Named for a mythical mountain witch, she storms Shibuya streets. But she is falling. Tipping, swaying. A heel trapped in sidewalk crack. Ankle bones snap like glass-blown straws. She falls before my eyes. But I only hear her words filtered through a radio translator. Ruined knees, shattered dreams of American pop life. This morning, I close my eyes and see the Yamamba Girl falling from her shoes. All day she stays with me.
Call me housepainter and handyman. I fill holes and cracks in the walls of Mary Fizer's house. I cover up stains, fingerprints, and other identifying marks. Double and sometimes triple coats of paint. Everything clean and flat and perfect. I inhabit her home--slipping out just before she returns in the evening, arriving just after she leaves in the morning. And things will feel different when she comes home each day. She will know I have been there, but just barely. I keep my canvas drops rolled up tight, stashed in the garage with the paint cans and brushes. Certain walls have changed colors or slipped into a different shade. Doors shine with white enamel, dressed to kill. Cabinets glow with a polyurethane sheen.
I know this, Mary. The house feels different since your young husband died in his car, since I showed up to paint your walls. You shuffle around the big empty spaces in your slippers. You stand there, just before you climb between the sheets, staring at the clean white surface of your bedroom door. The glossy enamel finish. Fine brush strokes mimicking wood grain. And you wonder what it would feel like against your cheek. You lean into the door and feel it cold and hard like steel. And then you jerk your head away suddenly and stare at the bed, expecting to see him there--his glasses perched at the tip of his nose, gazing at you with bewilderment. What on earth are you doing, Mary?
That first day, she nearly died when she saw me. I stood at the door. Her back was to me. I rapped on the glass and Mary just about jumped out of her skin. I pointed at my white pants and pantomimed the painting motion. She clasped her hand to her chest and opened the door. "Oh, jeez. You scared me, " she said. "I wasn't sure if you were going to show." But I didn't want to disturb her. People need their morning routines, the habits that keep them sane. Coffee and a bowl of granola for her. One hundred pushups and a cigarette for me. She opened a drawer, fumbled around in it for a moment, and handed me a brass key.
"My work number is here next to the phone." She pointed to a small chalkboard tacked up to the wall. "Well, I guess we've already talked about what needs to be done. So, I'll just be going." Her nerves had gotten the best of her. I could tell right off, the way her hands fluttered around her face. It's hard for a person to just hand over her home to a stranger. I've seen this before. Someone leaves or dies. Someone else is left behind. She can't let go of the past but she wants to change it, take possession of it. She wants to resurface it.
"Just one thing," I said.
"The contract you signed. Did you get to read it?"
"Excuse me?" Her eyebrows wrinkled with concern. She tugged at the tails of her navy blue blazer and smoothed her hands over her skirt. "I read most of it."
"Page three? It clearly states that I would like to have a radio tuned into NPR when I arrive in the morning. If it's not too much to ask." I'd do it myself but I like to stay out of the customer's cabinets--medicine, stereo, or otherwise. "If it's a problem, I have a small radio in my truck, nothing too obtrusive."
"Oh, right. I'm so sorry. Just a minute." She plopped her purse down on the kitchen table and hustled into the living room. I waited by the door until I heard cabinet doors open and the warm sound of familiar radio voices.
"Can you hear that?" she called.
She grabbed her purse off the table and scurried out the door, late for work. Soon, I was lost. Wrapped up in my work and the soothing baritone inflections of Bob Edwards, his seamless transitions to the straightforward news reporting of Carl Kassell. Give me Nina Totenberg, Korva Coleman, and Sylvia Poggioli--especially Sylvia Poggioli. She is the one who comes to me from Eastern Europe and her name sounds as beautiful as any poem I've ever heard. Sylvia Poggioli, Sylvia Poggioli. That night and every night when I leave, the radio stays on. I imagine that she will come home to the voices of Linda Wertheimer, Robert Siegel, Noah Adams. She might find herself unable to shake the feeling that someone is still in the house. Probably a bit unsettling. But I've decided that it's a good thing nonetheless.
Yesterday when I arrived, the radio was on just as I had requested that first day, just as it had been for five days straight. I laid out my drops, cleaned brushes, and poured up my paint for the day. It was still early when I heard the story of a man who listens to bugs--the rhythmic tapping of tiny treehopper insects. I found myself wondering about her. Wondering if Mary Fizer might be listening in her car, if she had picked up the habit yet. I listened to microphones capture the sound of shoes crunching Virginia leaves, and the radio voice of our NPR storyteller, Alex Chadwick. It didn't take much for me to see this other man he talked to--a scientist clipping tiny spy microphones to pencil-thin twigs. I imagined Mary parked in the lot outside her building, listening to the same story. She might tell her coworkers about the man who listens to bugs. And they too might see him hunched over green shrubs. His fingers wrapped in plastic Band-Aids. Too many thorns. Sweat stains seeping out from his pits and staining his khaki shirt. Maybe he wears kneepads, the kind that gardeners wear.
Just above the rhythm of my brush on the wall, I heard the language of the six-legged--the soft drumming diction of insect chatter. He has identified a pattern to their tapping. They call each other for dinner, drop pick-up lines in leaf bars, and rally the troops for marches. This man--I wish I remembered his name--he sat in a small room in a large house, his hands spread out on a round wooden table. He punched buttons on a large black recording device, slipped headphones over his ears, and listened to his tapes, tapping a pencil on a table--trying to speak their language. Imagine what he must have given up to be there. Imagine what he gets in return.
You want the bedroom painted Terracotta. Something warm and earthy. Your bathroom, Caribbean Blue. The hallways, I'll paint with eggshell enamel--probably some neutral beige color. The eggshell was my idea. You stood in the front hall, flipping through a thick fan of color samples. I don't know why--showing off maybe--but I told you that an eggshell finish in your hallways and bathrooms keeps the kids from smudging up the walls with their greasy little hands. I even wiggled my fingers in the air for emphasis. You looked at me, chirped once to stifle a full-blown bawling and squeezed your nose with your fingers. Then you began to apologize as the tears balled up and rolled down your face, your words getting caught below. I felt stupid for that one. Young dead husband. Big empty house. No toys in the yard. What was I thinking? Upstairs, you want one of the empty bedrooms painted black. You plan to cover it with glow-in-the-dark stars. At first, this grated on my sensibilities as a professional. You simply don't paint bedrooms black. But now I like the thought of you, Mary Fizer. Auburn hair released from its braid or bun, draped over the neckline of your husband's old T-shirt, you stand at the center of a black room filled with plastic stars.
I've been in her home for a week now. The job is almost finished. It is a Monday and I am still sitting in my truck at 7:42 in the morning. She should have left for work twelve minutes ago. I begin to imagine that she has fallen in the shower or succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. I walk up to the back door and peek inside. Mrs. Fizer sits at her kitchen table. One corner of her pink fuzzy bathrobe hangs to the floor. Her hair a tangled mess, she rubs her temples with her fingers and looks up at me suddenly. But she doesn't seem frightened to see me there, not like that first day. She smiles warmly and waves at me to come in. I twist my key in the knob and push the door open.
"Shhh," she says. "Come here. Listen." The radio plays--the voices loud and clear. She points to an empty chair at the table and pours me a cup of coffee. She tiptoes back to the table.
She whispers. "This woman, her mother died of cancer. She's been trying to make sense of it." She raised her hand and pointed to her ear. "Listen," she says again and sits down next to me.
Behind the gentle tones of the reporter's voice, comes a rough muffled sound. A thousand wooden bowls stacked on a table in a museum for cancer victims and survivors. They move like ghosts. A thousand carbon memories burned into the bottoms. I remember the way my mother used to brush her hair at night. I remember the way my mother laughed at her own jokes while she was telling them. A daughter loses her mother to cancer. I remember seeing my mother on a pogo stick. An artist recognizes the burn of memory. And all we can hear, Mrs. Fizer and I, is the shunk-pop-clunk of bowls moving in the background, the sound of shuffling grief. Lift one up and move it aside before you can see another.
"Did you feel that?" she asks placing her hand softly on the back of mine. Her fingers, thin and bony, look like they should be cold--but their touch is warm.
"The connection," she says and flattens the same hand over her heart. This gesture makes me nervous.
"Last night. You should have listened last night," I begin. "On All Things Considered there was a story about Iris Murdoch, the respected novelist." I twist my fingers into knots under the table. "She's suffering from Alzheimer's, you know. And her husband has written a book about dealing with it. He said he woke up one night to find her sitting on his chest, holding a pillow over his face. And then another time, she jumped from a moving car and rolled down a grassy embankment."
"And when he found her," she says, interrupting me. "Iris was laughing."
"Yeah, yeah. And he said it was 'sane' laughter."
"Like she knew what was happening to her," she says.
"But she couldn't quite put it all together."
"You've been listening," I say.
"I can't stop."
She calls in sick to work. We don't talk about color samples, semi-gloss varnish, or the progress of painting. Mary moves from room to room, smiling when she sees me working. She combs her hair out and leaves it down. She sits out on the back porch with me while I smoke a cigarette. I tell her about the Yamamba Girls in Tokyo and she says she can almost picture them falling from their shoes. Throughout the house, the radio plays, and we fill the spaces between stories with talk of her dead husband. She wears one of his old beer T-shirts--faded thin and almost transparent. His name is Dale. In the basement, she shows me a hole in the sheetrock where Dale put his fist through the wall during an argument. She asks me if I can show her how to patch it.
©Copyright Steven Church