‘Utility’ by Jack Garrett

sc june 18

For a week I wore kneepads. Seven days, wherever I went. Put them on first thing in the morning, seat of the toilet, took them off last thing at night, edge of the bed.

It began with a realization. Whenever my knees came in contact with a hard surface––as they did once a week when I scrubbed the floor under my bed––sharp pains would shoot through them. The pains while not constant were frequent, inescapable, and the most acute recurring pain of my life. Was there something wrong with my knees? I don’t know, but they felt just fine when they weren’t grinding against linoleum-covered concrete.

So I bought kneepads, a nice pair, durable, professional. More than I expected to pay, but I figured they’d last the rest of my life, and amortized over that span they were reasonable enough. Of course, that’s when I was figuring on only wearing them once a week for chores.

Monday

This was by far the longest time I’d ever spent scrubbing under the bed, so you can imagine the job I did. But beyond that, the feel of closed foam cushioning snugly strapped to the largest joints in the human body heartened me. The task complete, I rose and went to the kitchen area for a tangerine, and as I walked from here to there, I noticed my gait was transformed. I’d always been a plodder, but now––propelled by flexed elastic––I moved with a kind of martial rhythm, foot snapping forward with each stride, something between a march and a coy swagger. I caught a glimpse in the full-length mirror: even my posture seemed improved, which given that I’d just been hunched and frog-spraddled under the bed was pretty remarkable.

Peeling the tangerine, a natural air freshener, I went to my window. The asphalt below gleamed black and empty, the neighboring light manufacturing blocks reassuringly muted, beige. The brown hills beyond rose into a hazy late-morning sky, beginning to burn off to blue. I felt healthy. Went up on my toes, stayed there a moment, came down on my heels. I wanted to go outside. This was rare; not that I didn’t go outside nearly every day of the last fifty years to run some errand, perform some task, arrive someplace else. But to go simply to have gone––out beneath a sky that hung overhead like an inverted sea, gravity the only float to keep me from falling in––didn’t happen much. I felt I could sail the world on the soles of my feet.

So I kept the kneepads on. Put my pants on over them. Looked in the mirror. Took my pants off, took the pads off, put my pants back on, and the pads over my pants. That was more like it. Took care to pull taut any bulges in my pantlegs above the pads, then seeing that looked too studied, pulled little bulges and folds back into them. Too puffy now. Tried again. Could’ve saved myself the trouble. Simply walking back and forth to the mirror a few times restored the bulges and tucks to my khakis that legs in natural motion conferred. Or so I told myself.

I put on crepe-soled desert boots and a matte black t-shirt, turned sideways by the mirror. Who was this? Someone with intent, whose day entailed risk, who spent time prone––laying cable, tacking shingle? Wrong clothes. An acrobat or puppeteer? The former’s too cocky to wear visible safety gear, and the latter being stationary can just use a pillow. Maybe an artist executing a chalk mandala in an old stone piazza. Or an actor playing a little boy or dwarf, scooting around with half-pants and empty shoes masking the rest of him. A crude illusion, but easy enough to buy into.

Never mind. Here I was. Who I was. Dark glasses, yes. Hat, no. Keys, wallet, hanky, and out. My knees flexed smartly as I went down the stairs. Almost had to hold the rail. Skipped the last three altogether. When I hit the ground I wanted to spring. Into action? The air? What was plausible? I was wound tight as an old toy.

I cleared the concrete wash and when I got to Jefferson stood on the curb, arms across my chest, a hand on either shoulder. I could hear my heart. I picked a spot in the passing traffic and fixed my gaze, taking the pulse of the street. Counted fifteen with my fingers, nine with my lips: that’s thirty-six vehicles per minute, the harder math I’d do later. A light flow but swift, good practice for the rush. With both volume and speed, I’d be Johnny-on-the-spot. Because who else? I did a 180 pan, caught a few figures in my periphery––phone pole, palm tree, cobrahead streetlight––each roughly sharing my profile but taller. Nobody else.

I approached the phone pole, saw where the climbing rungs began a few feet overhead, pressed a knee against the cracked black wood, gauging its texture and give. Frowned, looked down. Supposed I could climb it but wouldn’t. Another day.

Tuesday

Woke from a delirious sleep, grabbed my notebook, wrote, Walk on, walk east / sun slaps your face / with every step but every step / gone, behind you / Go ahead. And look: / You’re going ahead. Rolled out of bed, went to the toilet, strapped on the pads, and by the time I finished breakfast had a plan: GO. LOOK. SEE. DECIDE. But above all: GO. So pads off–pants on–pads on and down down down the galvanized steel stairs. I felt if not invincible, inexorable.

I seven-leagued it to La Cienega and turned north, two squares of sidewalk per stride, exceeding four miles an hour. Feet reaching, snapping, heel to toe and vice versa, I didn’t take note of a single street crossing, and aside from major intersections didn’t stop till the park past Olympic to pee. One other guy in the men’s, brushing his teeth, and even that seemed ennobling. Outside again I circled beneath the trees, stately and green, then bolted. By the time I got to Wilshire everything gleamed a shade of white: structures, shirtsleeves, cars, dogs. Near Beverly Blvd. a white panel truck spilled men in white caps carrying buckets of paint. I caught up and fell into stride, nodded. One nodded back, glanced at my kneepads. They turned down an alley and I saluted their backs. Not my crew. But that hardly meant I’d never be numbered among them. Paint? Today I could paint like a crazyman.

And here, suddenly, was something. To give a hundred rooms a clean, wet coat, on my knees, starting with the baseboards. Nobody liked doing those. I could do all the baseboards from there to Melrose, given enough paint and daylight. Corner to corner, room to room, zig-zagging across La Cienega, gallon buckets swinging, windows flung wide so fumes could disperse harmlessly across the district. Of course surfaces had to first be prepared by the others: scraped, sanded, shop-vac’d, drop clothed, masked. Then my turn, on my knees with the fine work brush.

Not a problem. If I don’t finish today, I’ll be back tomorrow. If I don’t finish tomorrow, I’ll be back Friday. I may take Saturday off, and if I take Saturday off I’ll take Sunday off. I’ll be back Monday, unless it’s a holiday. Don’t worry. It’ll get done. The only thing stopping a needful thing from getting done is the needful effort to do it.

By now, mid-morning and my oatmeal had fallen down some hole inside before getting a chance to nourish. On impulse I went into a donut shop, made straight for the display case, signaled the clerk with my right hand and dropped to my left knee. Over a rack of jelly-filled I saw her smooth brown shins through the glass. I tapped at a maple-cream, nodded and rose, but as our eyes met dropped to my other knee and tapped at a coconut glazed. By the time I was up again her shapely back was turned. I added a small black decaf and paid.

Sat at a hard little table by the window. The whole wall was a window, from the crotch up. The part of the wall that wasn’t a window was beneath the window and obscured by tables that were crotch-high. I took a bite of the maple cream, cool, sweet and yielding, chewed just enough to blend crust and glop, swallowed. A taste, a feel, so good, and never not so good. Sip of scalding decaf. Deep breath. Here I was. A worthy place.

Satisfied but curious, I pivoted left in the seat, bent forward at the waist. Felt the kneepads press against my shoulders. I’d forgotten all about them. They’d become part of me, in the kinesthetic sense, from which all senses flow. Bent so, I turned my head toward the display case glass, but when her legs appeared I quickly turned toward the dark beneath the table, the wall once white marred with stains large and small, yellow and brown, as well as black squiggles, symbols, obscenities, numbers, words indecipherable. No big mystery. The shop was open 24 hours a day. Every minute of every life could be spent in here, one donut after another. People left their mark. It was ugly but what could be done?

Ah. Well. Paint these walls. Sure, but when? There were always donuts––porous, puffed or gelatinous––to absorb the noxious fumes. Around the clock. Still, it had to be done sometime. Would it be done sometime?

Wednesday

Having slept on it I came back, wheels turning. In the 24-hour cycle there was surely a fixed time for product changeover, when customers were few and donuts stale, and in that window I could do it. No time for cleaning, prepping. Just paint over the chaos, cover it up. Make it new. Do it now. On my knees, cushioned, comfortable, brush flicking out like a rapier. Occasionally making eye contact with the clerk––is she pleased? There are distractions. As the bars close, drunks shamble in with their vituperative asides about manhood. Working, I turn a deaf ear. THESE DOORS TO REMAIN UNLOCKED DURING BUSINESS HOURS is a long and narrow sign.

Yes, I could paint the donut shop. Did I want to paint the donut shop? I didn’t discount the obstacles. Did I exaggerate them? No, because I could be another Michelangelo and the Duchess of Donuts would not allow a passer-by, even a good customer in kneepads, to paint her shop. Not without persuasion. If she’d come out from behind that display case and sit with me, slim fingers curled around her coffee, and listen to me tell her why I should paint her donut shop, something I said would make her trust me, no longer fear me. No, not fear. Disdain, if not scorn, if not pity. Conversely, she’s so wise and brave and generous that she’ll smile sadly, humiliate me, and let me paint her donut shop. It’s a nasty little place and deserves a coat of paint. And that’ll happen, eventually, long after I’m gone, I guess. Thanks for the time, the donuts, the change from a five that I never know whether to leave in the big plastic jar. It’s not much but approaching 15% and the jar’s dusty and I bussed myself. I should be a better person. I’ll go now. Thanks.

The job I could do was not the job given me. I dumped my decaf, crossed La Cienega and caught the #705. One thing I noticed. The pads didn’t feel as good on the bus. If my legs were bent more than 90 degrees the straps pinched and even through my pants the foam made my thighs sweat. Not the sweat of labor but of stasis, the calories burned breathing and beating your heart, the fever of being there. 98.6 may feel normal on the inside, but it’s oppressive anywhere else.

Thursday

Stayed in. Put my lawn chair by the window, made a cup of instant full-caf, paid attention, took some notes. Sat in my boxers with my legs thrown out so the pads didn’t pinch. Though my back hurt a little. Still, I barely held onto a kind of joy, a joy I knew would soon go bad if I didn’t use it.

I bounced up, took a turn around the room, then went online to price paint, a setback. But for lunch I opened a nice can of tuna and a jar of olives. Thought about the afternoon then relented and thought about tomorrow, each forkful of tuna spearing an olive. Siesta’d till two but couldn’t rest: the kneepads of course. Bounced back to the chair with my notebook, drew three columns. Wrote PAINT. Then DONUT SHOP. Then SHE.

Stymied, I turned the page and began a list. ALTERNATIVES TO PAINTING THE DONUT SHOP. Some were the kinds of things I might do once a year, like taking the train to Pomona. Some were things I’d done once before––going to the zoo but instead of buying a ticket, lingering around the perimeter to see what I could glimpse through gaps in the wall. Taking a few pictures. It was a kind of espionage but potentially helpful to the animals.

Others were things that just occurred to me––like drinking several cocktails then going to the laundromat with an empty basket, setting it on a counter to look legitimate, and spending the rest of the day encountering customers. Let the kneepads do the talking. I’d have every right to be there––or seem to––and the others, waiting for their clothes, would have little to do but submit. While you wait for something, time cracks open to let in something else. Sure, not everyone would consent to an interview. You’re sitting there minding your own business, someone in kneepads blurts a question, who needs it? But unless it seems threatening or obsessive, why not engage? What is it I want to know? Almost anything. And you don’t have to tell the truth.

Alternatively, if I went to Pomona, I’d have to coordinate train times. But what would I do in Pomona? Sometimes you have to go someplace just to know that you needn’t have gone. You get there, walk around the block, then get right back on the train going home. I needed to fight that impulse, but there was never enough time. If I missed the last train back I’d have to look for a cheap motel, and even they weren’t cheap. None of them hurt for business, what with estranged spouses, evictees, drifters, deadbeats, convicts, addicts, dealers, sex workers, sex offenders, sex change patients, parents in town for graduation––they all need a cheap place to stay, by the week, the night, the hour, cash up front, and choose to overlook the grit in the bedsheets, the mold in the tub. This was an expense I’d find hard to justify, at least in the moment. But how would I know in the moment? After the fact, how much of my life, anticipated or not, would I erase from having happened? And what would I gain thereby? For the motel room in Pomona, maybe $49. That’s a week’s groceries. On the other hand, a week’s fast is good for you, they say. Anyway, Pomona likely has a 24-hour donut shop where I might lay my head.

This was a list to sit with a while, subject to accretion, deletion––still, a good start. Meantime, I’d have to pick something for tomorrow. I put it away, seared eggplant steaks for dinner, cleaned up, aired out, sat. Glass of sherry. Another. Darkness fell and I turned on all the lights. Put on some music which made me glad. Something from 20 or 30 years ago which while alive for I hadn’t actually heard until 10 or 15 years later, though I now associated with the time it came out. So my nostalgia was once-removed, and all the more poignant for being illusory and corrective. I should’ve liked this music when I was 25, not 40, but now past 50, it was as if I’d fixed that and made having been 25 that much better.

I jumped up and danced like an old sailor, kneepads keeping it brisk and choppy. Fluid movement is overpraised and fetishized. Ballet bores me. Synchronized swimming though impressive makes my skin crawl. Grace is a dull default for mankind. I spun, hopped, landed badly but kept my feet, skipped across the floor like a great big Shirley Temple. Waved at my window, a black rectangle, curtainless. I was in a box of light within the night, the whole world watching. But unless you were halfway up the Baldwin Hills with binoculars shooing coyotes, in which case more power to you, what would you see? The music ended, and still undecided, I collapsed panting. Did people remember Shirley Temple, the machine she had to be to steamroll despair? I brushed my teeth, hung up my pads, and turned out the lights.

Friday

At dawn I peed, went back to bed, face to the pillow, and didn’t wake again until ten. I could have cried. I threw off the comforter, swung my legs over. Sat looking between my knees at the floor beneath my bed, dust and hair already coalescing about the iron chassis that served as legs, its sheer tonnage wearing runnels in the floor. Here, I realized, was the crux of the problem. My bed would not be moved, and as long as it wouldn’t, perhaps as long as I lived, I’d either be sleeping in it, or down on my knees, scrubbing under it. And as long as I did, I’d be wearing pads. Sobered, I took them from the bedpost and went to the toilet.

Another day lost. After an early lunch of beans and greens I caught up on some filing, reorganized the pantry, looked again at my list, added to it. Tomorrow I’d get the hell out of here.

Saturday

I sat on a bench in Long Beach looking out at the tiny island of oil wells. I wore board shorts, legs crossed at the kneepads, doubling the bulge. Yes, I’d taken myself far away (pat on the back) but I was frying. I tied my hanky on my head, draping the loose corners over my ears. Roller bladers went by, one lady wearing pads––knees and elbows, nothing special. I watched her go, then looked at mine.

I stood, took a dozen pumping strides across the sand, stopped, and dropped to my knees, instantly realizing I could’ve just as easily done it padless. I got up, tried to brush the sand off, but some stubbornly lodged behind the elastic, grinding into my knee with every step. Went and bought three tacos and ate them in a hurry, trying to take the next bite before the guacamole fell out. Sauntered a few blocks inland, chain belching, saw the train coming and ran for it. An hour’s ride, reading ads, making notes, looking out the window at high-crime areas.

When I got home I bent over and smelled something bad. Lifted a knee to my nose to be greeted with the sweet and sour pungency of sweat and mildew, like the scent of the undersides of a pair of large breasts at the end of a sweltering day. Someone’s anyway, I once knew. On her back in clammy bedding, falling to either side, me playing Sisyphus. But she smiled for me.

Took a shower but other than pads didn’t dress. Made a double gin gimlet and drank it with salted nuts. Saturday night. Strutted naked from one end of the room to the other, then several slow turns around the perimeter. Felt my genitalia distending, the usually constricted components somewhat enhanced. Finally ate some 4-day-old Popeye’s and slaw, watched three episodes from my Mayberry box set, took two diphenhydramines and passed out. Later woke in the dark, felt for a sock on the floor and jacked into it. Scraped off my pads, fell back to sleep. Alas, forgot to brush my teeth.

Sunday

Had an insight. Took the pads to the toilet, smelled them, and sat there. Here was the thing. I’d never much liked the way I walked. Now that that was taken care of, the rest was up to me. The archer bends the bow just so, no more, to loose his arrow at the target. I was tired of the hundred random pulls it took to simply not sail into space.

I dressed, ate, and stopped myself from imagining what came next. I would find out the moment it did, no sooner. I opened the door and walked out. No, I didn’t tumble down the stairs, but my feet weren’t snapping out as smartly as before. Had the elastic already begun to wear or had my joints begun adapting to the resistance? Likewise, my pace up La Cienega was less propulsive, more measured, barely a square a stride, and this time I noted crossings calmly, in turn, Cadillac, Airdrome, Saturn, and when the light turned red at Pico, I noted the paint store on the corner. Sure, I’d seen it before, filed the fact, but it was as though I needed to be surprised to find it––strings of colored flags hanging over the sidewalk––open for business, welcoming.

I went inside, up one aisle, down another, swinging my gaze from shelf to shelf, affecting anxiety––though in fact my heart was pounding––until greeted by a stocky guy blocking my way at an endcap. “Help you find something?”

“Paint?” I said doubtfully.

“Came to the right place,” he said. I tried to look relieved. “Interior or exterior?”

“Interior,” I said, “though with double doors to the exterior. Which swing open and closed. Frequently.”

“How many square feet are we talking?”

Patience, I told myself. “About yay long,” I said, one arm swinging behind me, “and yay wide,” the other at the closest wall.

“How many rooms?”

“One.”

“One big room, okay. Say 500 square feet. Coverage is about 350 square feet per gallon per coat.”

“But I’m only painting below the waist.”

“Below the––?”

“It’s all windows from there up.”

His smile flattened a bit. His hair was close to his head, his shirt tightly tucked. “Enclosed porch? Sunroom?”

“No, just a place with a lot of windows that gets a lot of use––or rather abuse. There are people in and out at all hours.”

“Rec room? Gym?”

“No, no rec, no exercise, just eating. All the time. Have to paint it in a hurry because of the fumes. One coat’s got to do it. White. Maybe an eggshell finish. I’ve done some research.”

“Dining hall? Kitchen?”

“Do you have to know?”

“Might help.”

“It’s a donut shop.”

He looked at me. “You’re painting a donut shop?”

“Yes sir, I am.”

“That where you work?”

“No sir, it isn’t.”

“But this–– is a job you’re contracted to do?”

“Not as such.”

“Not as such,” he repeated and closed his eyes longer than a blink. When he opened them he was looking, as though for the first time, at my kneepads. “Okay. I tell you what. For a high-traffic room you’ll want a satin or semi-gloss, not an eggshell––easy-clean, stain-resistant. For a single coat you’ll need a paint/primer-in-one––I don’t recommend it but I’ve got it. Drytime’s about 60 minutes, soap and water cleanup, in a nice white anywhere from a dove to a bone you can take home today for $37.95 a gallon.”

I glanced away as though embarrassed for him. Perched at a counter a young woman flipped through pages of color chips. I’d tried to prepare myself for this moment, assuming franchisee reimbursement would be iffy, but it was hard. “How about something where the color was mixed wrong and the customer returned it?”

Silence. He scratched his neck. “Mistints are usually premium, with minimal markdown, but for what you want I might be able to go, say, 15% off.”

“So, about $19 a gallon?”

“More like 32.”

“Interesting.” I waited, but so did he, steady as a pilot. His right ear flared out slightly more than his left. Finally I said, “How about half-empty cans people bring to you for disposal?”

I saw him breathe. “Sir, we’re required by State law to dispose of returned paint responsibly.”

“Would giving it to me to put on a wall be responsible?”

“You know, that’s a question I wouldn’t want to have to answer.”

As though considering this I gazed out the window onto Pico, the too bright day beating the glass and metal of too many vehicles. I was in the moment but the moment was sinking beneath me. Could I do this? I could say I tried. Sometimes that’s all you can do. There are songs that say so. And whatever else happened I’d undeniably found a paint man. This guy knew his stuff. There was so much to know.

And that reminded me of the very last note I’d added to my list of issues before turning out the light the night before. I’d scribbled it down bedside, then quickly crossed it out, crossed it out so thoroughly that no one might ever decipher it: Why paint? And giving into despair––or trusting the man more than I could admit––I heard myself voice the question aloud.

He looked at me like he wasn’t sure he’d heard me. Then he smiled. “Funny,” he said, “I’ve been in this business 23 years, and that’s one I’ve never heard.” He shook his head. “Of course, it could mean Why do it? or Why is it––what it is?” He shrugged. “But either way, good question.” He looked around, then lowered his voice. “Things change,” he said, “but paint is still basically binder, thinner and pigment––something to make it flow, something to make it stick, and something to give it color, from sources petrochemical or natural quote-unquote––you’ve heard of volatile organic compounds?”

“Not really.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. Anyway, paint is for changing the view, covering your tracks, starting over. Why? Does it matter? For me, it’s a reason for not rolling over and staying in bed. Because here I am, on a Sunday afternoon, not feeling that well, doing what I thought was the right thing. You know what I’m saying?”

“I think so.”

“I think so too. That’s why you’re here. You have a job to do. You’re concerned about price and you’re right. Fifty, sixty dollars is a ridiculous amount of money to pay for a can of paint. Obscene even. Yet that’s actually a very competitive price, maybe a great price for a particular product. That’s something I’ve learned. Something I say.

“But listen, what you want is whitewash and we barely carry it anymore, nobody wants it, present company excepted. Then again, this could be your lucky day. I might just be able to dig around in back and find you a nice gallon of premixed quality whitewash for $23.99, no questions asked.”

“I don’t have cash.”

“Debit? Credit? PayPal?”

Three shakes of my head. No turning back now.

“I see,” he said, eyes fully closed for a moment. “Okay. Tell you what. First off, this part of the conversation never happened, alright? Actually none of it did, but here’s what you do. You walk out that front door right now and go do whatever you will, out of view please. But in about twenty minutes wander back to the alley behind the store and nose around some of the pallets there and you may just find a couple of open cans with enough paint to get the job done.”

“White?”

“White enough. Tell you what, there’ll be a little X on the ones for you, alright? Just give them a good stir.”

“I’ll also need a brush.”

“Of course you will. And I’ve got just the brush I’ll throw in, no extra charge.”

“Thanks.”

“Forget it.” He waved me toward the door, then said, “By the way, where is this donut shop?” I hesitated, told him. “I like donuts. Maybe I’ll come check it out sometime. See what you’ve done.”

I nodded, turned, walked out, crossed Pico to Walgreens’s, sat by the pharmacy in a blood pressure sleeve, and in 18 minutes went around to the alley, found two old cans of paint with a fat foam brush tucked between them. I stuffed the brush in my shirt, picked up the cans, and walked away. At Olympic I peed in the park, lingered among the trees until the light began to wane, and by the time I got to Wilshire the day had faded to a soft gray revealing bits of blue and green. I walked on past Beverly, stopped outside the donut shop. A short line backed away from the counter, she in uniform behind it. I went in, stowed the paint under a table near the door, out of her sightline, and sat down, waited. Nobody bothered me.

When the crowd thinned, I got up, went to her. “Excuse me,” I said. “You’ve seen me here before.” No response. I glanced down, realized the counter blocked her view of my kneepads. I blushed, but it didn’t matter; she was watching the street, the passing parade they call it. “Nice day, wasn’t it?” I said. Her hands were on the counter, one in a disposable glove resting atop the other, bare. “Can I help you,” she said, not a question.

“Please. As I mentioned, I’ve been here before, and I couldn’t help but wonder. And what I was wondering was––who paints your walls?”

“Hm?”

“Your walls.” I threw an open hand behind me. “They need painting.”

Her eyebrow creased, just enough to let me know that the barrier between us was both broader and deeper than language, that our relations would forever be confined to the world behind the glass of her display case, a world that was complete, that had no place for my wonder about her walls.

“A half dozen plain bowties,” I said, paid, and took them to my table. I bent at the waist to look beneath, saw again the the glyphs, the codes, the curses, messages meant as much for me as anybody. I toed the cans. Sunday evening had fallen. From the bag I pulled the wax paper square and flattened it on the table, extracted the bowties––raised, glazed, braided and butter brown––and lay them side by side. Over the course of the night I would eat all six, but slowly, meditatively, chewing each bite a hundred times like a Zen master, until the moment arrived.

The first bite I only managed fourteen, but that just made me dial up the mindfulness. It’s a paradox. When something tastes that good you want to chew and swallow as quickly as you can to get to the next bite, the next taste, but swallowing both fulfills and truncates the pleasure of each bite. Anticipation is sweet, but its sure satisfaction makes the urge to accelerate the cycle irresistible. Continually murdering moments of bliss, your tongue wears the cloying coat of lament.

The night deepened, softened. I was three donuts down when the magnitude of the project began to hit me. Yes, I might paint under my table discreetly, even do a fairly neat and thorough job of it, but what happened when I moved out into the open floor between tables? Much less when I had to do the painstaking windowsill work, the baseboard edging without drop cloth or tape? That’s where the kneepads came in, I reminded myself. To do a job well you had to remember what inspired you in the first place. Besides, the floor was hardly pristine.

An hour might have passed, my eyes half-focussed on the distant display case, conjuring through the glass glimpses of her calves tensing, her clear-gloved hand reaching. With one donut left I snapped out of it, queasy. It was hard to breathe and I hadn’t even opened the paint yet. Then I remembered I hadn’t had a proper meal since I left home at noon. Six donuts would have to be dinner. My brow broke a cool sweat, futility rearing its head. Never mind. I’d made my bed. When the last donut was gone, I’d begin to work. Or should I save it?

Abruptly I dropped to my knees, turned into the shadows under the table, grabbed a can and with my house key levered off a lid. Just then a customer entered, three in fact, together, shuffling through the doorway. I thrust the brush into the paint and without stirring slapped it against the wall, sweeping to and fro in bands of white, slopping more than I’d hoped on the floor. The customers seemed to have paused––I noticed their shoes. A little boy didn’t have to bend down to see my face. “What are you doing?” he said.

“Careful,” I whispered fiercely. “Wet paint.”

“What?”

“Go away.” The boy and his keepers, appearing to heed me, sidled up to the counter. I kept working, acutely aware of the family choosing their donuts, she filling their box.

Then a brief silence followed by an “Ay” that I knew was hers, an expression of muted alarm, confusion, resignation. I froze, sensed her leaning out over the counter, then kept on. By the time the little boy stopped to say goodbye, I’d finished the patch of wall under my table.

Then her voice again. I looked around. No customers so she must’ve been on the phone. But it was curious: speaking perfect English but cryptically. I caught a few phrases. “La Cienega and Rosewood . . . the Yum-Yum near the corner . . . right now . . . 5150,” she said, “but old.” She sounded serious, overly conscientious about getting the address right. “5150,” she repeated. “Hurry.” Scooting sideways on my pads I began to slosh paint on the open wall, when it struck me that 5150 was no address.

I dropped the brush, sprang up off the floor and out the door. Did a scurrying jaywalk across La Cienega and ducked behind the bus stop shelter. Crouching hands on kneepads, I saw that both were covered with paint. I tore off the pads, tossed them up on the shelter roof and shoved my hands in my pockets. Catching my breath I belched up some sweet bile, swallowed. By this time the red and blue flashers had pulled up across the street. I remained very still, then carefully peered around the shelter to watch. She was out from behind the counter––I’d never seen her unobstructed before––waiting for the officers. They seemed in no hurry, pulling something out of the trunk. When they finally went in she showed them my work. One leaned over a little. She pointed at my last donut, then out the door, across the street––toward me, but not at me, because I was just some guy, minding my own business, waiting for the bus. She didn’t know me.

Then a siren barked once and a boxy red ambulance lurched up behind the police car. Paramedics got out, opened the back, pulled out a stretcher, its collapsed wheeled legs automatically folding open before it hit the pavement, a nice technology. They’d started to roll it up onto the sidewalk when one of the cops stepped outside and said something. They stopped, said something back. Cop shrugged.

Then the other cop came out, looking down––must’ve been following the paint drips, but lost the trail at the curb. One cop looked one way, the other the other, then both went back in the donut shop. The paramedics looked at each other, followed them in. They all looked at my wall, under my table, shook their heads, stood around. Then she went behind the counter and everybody had some donuts and coffee. There was paperwork to do. But I was here, I was fine, I was free.

I picked a spot in the traffic, counted. Fifteen by fingers, twenty-four by lips, ninety-six a minute. Fast as my heartbeat this warm Sunday night. Tomorrow was chore day, my kneepads were gone. I thought of the paint man coming here, his disappointment. Through the glass I saw her laughing. One of the cops was sitting down now, sipping coffee, smiling. A paramedic bit into a big donut. The wheeled stretcher sat waiting in the gutter by the curb.

And there, at this scene of calamity, was my answer. A hospital gurney. Infinitely maneuverable, fully collapsible, narrow but railed for safety, with high clearance and 360° swivel wheels, enabling me to sleep anywhere. Roll it around my room and lock those big wheels in a new location every night––under the window, against the door, beside the fridge, smack in the middle or diagonally from any corner. As for scrubbing underneath, from one day to the next there’d be no underneath. Never have to be down on my knees again. The pads would still be out there if I ever needed a kick in the pants down the road. They’d always be. Meantime I’d start checking around––hospitals, nursing homes, mortuaries. They couldn’t hold onto those things forever.

Jack Garrett has worked in radio in Colorado and New Mexico and performed onstage in New York where he helped found a theatre company. His fiction publications include TLR (The Literary Review), The New Orleans Review, Fugue, Natural Bridge, The Portland Review, The Santa Monica Review, Quarter After Eight, The Los Angeles Review, Split Lip, Monkey Bicycle, Witness and The Superstition Review. He is also a voice actor and audiobook narrator.

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