Ceremonial Gold

Meathers began the first week of June with the exterior, covering those rich cedar shingles Linda had loved so much. He used Ceremonial Gold, the color of deli mustard. When they’d bought the place the shingles had sheathed the house in natural burgundy but intervening years had faded them to dull wet sand. As was true for himself, Meathers figured the last few years had inflicted most of the damage. The evening he finished he stood on his lawn and appraised his work. Unpainted, the Meathers place had always stuck out; now it fell in step with its compatriots up and down the block: a squadron of zombified colonials boasting mounted flag posts like erections.

Except the trim. The trim, Meathers now saw, retained its original burgundy. So he painted that Ceremonial Gold, too. And after the trim, he painted all the window frames and mullions the same color, using a small purple brush that belonged to his daughter and came as part of a set. To reach the high portions, he used the thirty-four foot ladder from the Kellerman site.

Each afternoon Meathers washed his hands carefully with the backyard hose, left his boots in the breezeway, and hung up his workpants and shirt on the chin up bar in his study. Then he stood in the kitchen in boxer shorts and drank two or three glasses of cold water from the tap. The kitchen window looked out on the sloped backyard, which dove toward a creek and a fence out of view. Many winters he’d sled down the hill with Megan, rolled down it in summer. The ground evened out before it reached the creek, so there was never much real danger of rolling into the water, but as a little girl Megan squealed every time her father sent himself careening like a runaway log, cheering when he magically stopped himself just before plunging into the creek. Meathers stood in the kitchen in which just this past spring he’d made peanut butter with Megan for a school science project while Linda prepared kale and banana smoothies for all three of them in the bullet blender she loved so much. Though not old, these memories seemed irrecoverable, like an eon or era or some other large span of time Meathers could only guess at.

He decided he wanted a kale and banana smoothie. He searched every cabinet and drawer in the kitchen for the bullet blender, even the ones he knew it wouldn’t fit in, extracting various utensils and implements and laying them on the floor: spinners, whiskers, separators, dunkers, poachers, infusers, bowls and pans of all manner and intension. Meathers kicked his way through this domestic phantasmagoria until, with every kitchen cavity emptied, realizing the blender wasn’t there, that Linda had taken it with her.

By the middle of the month, when all the shingles and all the trim and all the window frames and mullions were painted, Meathers painted the windows themselves. He used the same Ceremonial Gold latex he’d applied to the cedar, but it streaked on glass and wouldn’t form a coat. Meathers kept at it. After two days he’d slopped enough paint on the front windows to coat them, closing eyespots so his house appeared as one gold glob. He performed the same task on the side windows and the rear windows, blinding the entire house. After that, Meathers sat on the peak of his roof by the chimney to rest. He liked the view: eye-to-eye with the rooftops. Why had he not made a habit of coming up here? Why doesn’t anyone spend any time on the roof? He thought it would have been a good spot to sit with Linda and Megan and watch the neighborhood settle into evening from twenty-five feet above.

Meathers began doing just that, sitting on his roof around seven when the daylight was low but not extinguished. The evenings were warm and Meathers looked down on some trees, dogwoods and poplars. He spent an hour or more up there, coming down only after dark, when lights flicked on in his neighbors’ homes and the katydids started up their arthropod dramas, calling to each other, flirting and falling in love, betraying confidences. Sometimes Meathers heard longing in the sounds they made, sometimes anger or the tones of a single brave insect staging its fight, making its case before the insect judge and jury, standing for invertebrate honor. As he listened, their sounds grew indistinguishable from one another and when that happened he felt his way over the lip of the roof, locating the ladder with his foot. The susurrus of large groups didn’t move him; these days only individual striving held his interest.

His neighbors took notice of the time Meathers spent on the roof of his newly yellow house. They pretended to walk their dogs or maintain their bodies with exercise but Meathers recognized curiosity in their lingering gazes and jogging in place, their pointing. Meathers waved at his fluorescent neighbors and their dogs. Some of them he knew. A few had come for dinner in the past, entire evenings spent discussing teachers their kids complained about and a particular infestation of caterpillars that had plagued the neighborhood the previous summer. On some of those nights, for some of those neighbors, the ones now pointing up at Meathers on the roof of the yellow house, he’d brought out the good bourbon—before, of course, Linda poured it all, good and bad, down the sink and Meathers had unwrenched a gasket under the sink and tried to spoon out what bourbon had pooled in the garbage disposal tank. Before Linda began bringing Megan to Linda’s sister’s place some nights. Before some pupated into most emerging finally as all. Before Meathers finished things up at the Kellerman site and then stopped going to work. Before he decided to paint his own house. Before he discovered the roofview.

Meathers drove to the hardware store. “You again,” the teenage clerk said. Meathers purchased another five-gallon drum of Ceremonial Gold and eleven drop cloths. The clerk helped Meathers carry everything to his rattletrap GMC with the Soaring Colors decals on the sides and tailgate. At home, Meathers set drop cloths in every room, covering all the carpet, linoleum, and pine flooring. He started in the den, by the pellet stove he’d installed a few winters back in an attempt to save on heating bills. Meathers dipped his siding brush directly into the five-gallon tub. The job called for rollers but the siding brush, an outdoor tool, struck Meathers as satisfyingly atavistic and masculine. What had Linda said before leaving? Be a man, why don’t you?

“I am,” Meathers said out loud, edging around the stove. “This is what it looks like.”

For the rest of July Meathers turned all the interior walls Ceremonial Gold. He painted over the paint that was already there, no stripping or sanding. No priming. He painted over wallpaper, the anchors and ships in the downstairs half bath and vines sprouting berries that ran along the hall between kitchen and den. The air inside, with the windows painted over and shut, stagnated. Meathers took to sleeping on the sofa, which was cooler then the upstairs bedroom. Even the ants he and Linda had been battling for years fled to more temperate environs. Outside it was hot but inside it was thick. Meathers wrenched open a few windows, which eased things a bit.

On the first of August he rolled a layer of Ceremonial Gold on all the first floor ceilings, finally abandoning the siding brush. At one point Meathers tripped on a kink in the drop cloth he’d put in place to protect the dining room hardwood. He kicked at the cloth and then maneuvered it with his feet into a heap in the corner of the room, revealing the finished pine he’d many times had to instruct Megan to remove her shoes before walking over. Now Meathers looked at the deep burgundy floorboards, took his roller, crouched, and rolled a streak of Ceremonial Gold right down the center of the dining room floor. He swung around and rolled another streak. Meathers stood and grinned at the two yellow streaks, which formed a wobbling X. He spent the next few days painting all the non-carpeted floors in his house.

At the end of the week, Meathers called Linda at her sister’s.

“Daryl,” he said.

Daryl didn’t say anything at first. Meathers said her name again.

“Ben, you promised you’d give her space.”

“All I want to do is wish my wife a happy birthday.

“It’s not really a good time, Ben.”

Meathers heard muffled jostling on Daryl’s end of the line.

“Why are you covering the phone?”

“Ben, listen to me.” Daryl was whispering.

“Who’s over there?”

“It’s just not a good time, Ben. I’m sorry.”

“It’s not a good time for me to wish Linda a happy birthday?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t want to get in the middle of anything.”

“Where’s Megan? Put her on.”

“Oh, Ben. No. I don’t think that would be a good idea.”

“Daryl, put my goddamned daughter on the phone.”

“I can’t do that, Ben. I’m sorry. I don’t want to get in the middle.”

“That’s where you are. That’s exactly where you are.”

Meathers hung up. He went to the kitchen, the exposed concrete floor of which was now painted and tacky, and urinated in the sink.

He continued painting. He painted the furniture, the refrigerator, the television, the pellet stove. He painted the beds. He painted the sofa he’d been sleeping on and the curtains and the lampshades. He painted photographs in their frames and painted all the mirrors and other reflective surfaces. He used Megan’s purple brush until it snapped as he painted the microwave door.

Meathers returned to the hardware store. Pawing through a bin of small brushes there he heard someone call his name. He ignored it. Then the voice was right behind him. “Ben?”

Meathers knew the voice. He didn’t turn around.

“Ben, how are you?”

“Griff,” Meathers said. He showed Griff the small green brush he’d picked out. “It’s for Megan.”

“Megan? I thought—Nevermind. Hey, Ben. How are you?”

“I’m good, Griff. Thanks for asking. Really. Means a lot. Listen, I have to buy this brush. I’ll see you round.”

Meathers moved toward the counter but Griff stuck with him. “When are you coming back to work, Ben? I mean, don’t you think it’s been long enough?”

“I have money, if that’s what you mean. Cashed in some stocks. There’s just one of me now, you know.”

Griff put on a sympathetic expression. “Listen, Ben. I don’t mean—Goddamn. Listen. It’s not a problem or anything. I’ve been covering for you. So, no worries on that front. But, do you know anything about a missing thirty-four foot ladder?”

“You need it?”

“Me? No. And, like I said, it’s not a problem or anything.”

“So it’s not a problem.”

“Of course. It’s just, when I called the Kellermans to arrange pickup for all the materials left at their house they said someone already picked up the ladder. Left everything else but picked up the ladder. They said someone came in the middle of the night, which they thought was a bit weird, and clanked around in their yard, sent their Scottie into a protective rage.”

“It’s a heavy ladder, Griff. Thirty-four feet.”

“Right. Absolutely. No argument there.”

“Only way I can reach my roof.”

“Your roof?”

“Come by sometime. I’ll show you.”

They were at the front. Meathers put his brush down. The clerk, a different teenager, scanned it. He was thick and looked powerful, an athlete of some sort, probably a wrestler. His hair was buzzed all around and he had a case of ringworm on one check and the side of his neck.

“Do you know Megan Meathers?”

“I don’t think so,” the clerk said, his voice escaping from somewhere in his chest. “Does she work here?”

“She’s my daughter.” Meathers felt Griff standing behind him. “She’s in sixth grade.”

The kid looked surprised. “I’m in high school,” he said.

“Good,” Meathers said.

Griff followed Meathers out of the store. They crossed the parking lot under a bright and sunny sky. Meathers looked at the endless blue and squinted. “Griff, why aren’t you working today?” he said. “You’re wearing nice clothes.”

“They promoted me, Ben. I’m a supervisor now. Spend my days driving around in an air-conditioned truck, company issued, checking on sites. I pull a percentage off everything in my district. The whole Farmington Valley.”

“That’s great, Griff.”

“So, what do you say, Ben. You want to come back and work for me?” Griff smiled as he said it.

“No, I don’t, Griff. But thanks for asking.” Meathers slid into his truck and spoke to Griff through the open window. “Come by any time for the Kellerman ladder. I’ve made some changes to the house. Would love to show you.”

During the third week of August Meathers began ripping up carpets, some of which he’d already painted. To do this he used tools that had been in storage in the garage almost as long as he and Linda had owned the house. As he worked on all fours, wearing kneepads and using the old tools, dripping sweat onto exposed concrete, Meathers remembered a fight he’d had years ago with some diesel dogs outside a bar in Newington. Linda had been there, too. This was long before Megan was born, before they were even married. Meathers guessed it was one of their first few dates. A group of four at a nearby table, boilermakers, some comments about Linda’s outfit, that sort of old, old story. Meathers said something, issued threats and the whole deal. The diesel dogs scoffed but appeared to ease up. In the parking lot afterwards, Meathers heard the door open behind them and knew. He fought hard and knocked one of the dogs out cold, kneed another in the groin, before they overpowered him. One had an aluminum bat. Later, in a hospital bed with his head and one arm and both hands wrapped, Meathers apologized to Linda for the whole thing. She stroked his arm, the unbandaged one, and said she was proud to have a man who fought when the odds weren’t good but the mission was true. Meathers didn’t think those had been her exact words but that’s how he remembered it. Laying in the hospital, he’d felt he could never love anyone or anything like he loved Linda. They’d gotten married, bought a house, raised a child. They did what many people did. Their mission, it appeared, was true.

On the final afternoon of August, Meathers sat on his roof, the last remaining unpainted surface, drinking a tall glass of ice cold water. He leaned against the chimney and watched Daryl’s blue Camry come down the street. She pulled into Meathers’ driveway. After a minute, two women got out. Linda stood by the passenger side, Daryl by the driver’s. They didn’t see Meathers hidden by the chimney crook. The women paused on each side of the car, closed the doors slowly and then looked at one another. Linda had cut her hair. It was much too short and she pawed at it, as if she knew it was too short, as if the length bothered her. She looked younger, somehow, with so much of her neck exposed. Linda took a few steps toward the house then put both hands to her head. Daryl said something Meathers couldn’t hear. Linda paused, appraising the house once more, before walking back to the car and getting in. They drove way. Meathers finished his water and then set the glass against the chimney, where it fell in place next to a wayward flap of tarpaper. He closed his eyes. When the breeze kicked up, it raised bumps on his exposed arms and legs. The breeze carried, faintly, the scent of wood tar.

Somewhere in the middle of September Griff came by in his gleaming new pickup equipped with a ladder rack and bright Soaring Colors decals. He honked twice when he pulled into the drive and Meathers, kneeling by the front stoop, set down the small green brush he’d been working with.

“You here for the ladder?” Meathers said, walking up to Griff’s truck. “It’s out back. Shut off your engine and I’ll help you load it.”

“Ben, what happened? I mean, what did you do here?”

“I painted the house.”

“And the windows? Did you paint them, too?”

“You’re missing the trim, Griff. Look at the trim.”

“Listen,” Griff said, “You all right, Ben? You need anything? You don’t seem yourself.”

“My wife and daughter are gone, if that’s what you mean.”

“Hey, I didn’t mean—jeez, Ben. I‘m sorry.”

“You didn’t take them, did you? Come on. Ladder’s out back.”

While they were mounting the ladder in the truck’s rack, Meathers set his drink on the ground and whistled a tune. Griff snapped his end of the ladder in place. Meathers slapped the top of the truck. The two men shook hands.

“You want to see the inside?” Meathers said.

“Some other time,” Griff said. “I’m late as it is. Listen, Ben, come back and paint for me. When you’re ready, I mean. I don’t think Cloud will make you a supervisor, not with how you up and left us all like that, but if I put in a word I bet he’ll take you back on board. From there, who knows. You were always a good worker, Ben.”

Meathers hoisted his glass of juice. “Appreciate it,” he said.

Griff drove away. Meathers watched after the departed truck and then he faced his slathered house. “You look good, house,” Meathers said. “Better than ever before.”

He finished his juice and then tossed the glass into the yard, unmowed since May. He returned to the front stoop and sat on the concrete. He picked up the green brush from the paint pan where he’d set it and resumed what Griff had interrupted: applying a thin stripe of Ceremonial Gold to each blade of grass running along the perimeter where yard met concrete. Meathers whistled as he did it.  

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