The man stands on the roof of the mansion enveloped by an amorphous cloud of atomized paint. He waves a spray gun back and forth over the stucco chimney stack, and with each pass of the gun new flecks materialize where others have disappeared, leaving him surrounded by an aura of dazzling light.
Down in the courtyard, William Nolan Jackson watches the iridescent cloud expand and contract beneath the high noon sun. He watches the forms it takes around the painter’s movements, and he studies the colors flashing at its periphery, flashing as if some meaning exists there, playfully hidden, or hiding. There’s a pulse to the paint cloud, an itinerant ease to its transitions that Nolan admires. It is, for him, a thing of beauty.
—Don’t see that every day, now, do you? a voice says.
Nolan turns to find the job site’s foreman standing beside him.
—No, sir, he agrees. You don’t.
The foreman crosses his arms against his chest, lifts his chin, and tilts his head to the side. He squints to see the cloud better. Then, deadpan, he says to Nolan:
—You want a lawn chair or something? Maybe an iced tea and a bucket so you can put your boots up?
Before Nolan can respond, the painter’s compressor switches on, loud and jarring, and the foreman steps forward and raises his hands to his face so that the ends of his fingers press together at the bridge of his nose and his thumbs tripod along his jaw.
—Hey, he yells at the house painter. I’m going to the deli for a sandwich. You want anything?
When the painter turns, the cloud turns with him. It moves slowly, with a systemic elegance. The painter rests the spray gun in the crook of his elbow, his eyes hidden behind a pair of dark sunglasses freckled with old paint. He reaches into the front pocket of his splattered coveralls and removes a crushed pack of brand-name cigarettes.
Behind him, Nolan notices, the sky is vast and white and blue. Wispy strands of cirrus extend into reflections cast in the window banks of a high-rise casino-hotel down on the Las Vegas Strip, and from the rooftop of another sky-rise the long arm of a yellow crane sweeps evenly over the desert cityscape. Nolan watches the painter place a bent cigarette at the corner of a wry smile and raise a disposable plastic lighter to his face. To the foreman, the man says:
—Yeah. Get me a chocolate milk and a nudie mag.
The last of his words are lost to flames.
When he strikes the lighter, the paint cloud explodes, rattling the courtyard windows in their casings. Caught on fire, the man stands in place flailing and screaming, lifting one foot and then the other while swiping at his face and his head like a harried marionette in pantomime. Nolan steps forward, amazed. The color of the flames dull in the brightness of the day. Before Nolan can say or do anything, the painter’s knees buckle, his body collapses to the tiles, and he falls from the second story roof, flames whipping about his body.
Nolan is at the man’s side, swatting out the fire with his work shirt, when the foreman, breathing heavily, shoves him away. The foreman drops to his knees beside the man. Nolan’s ears ring and he can feel the desert sun warm on his bare shoulders. He sees a mason hurrying over with a five-gallon bucket of water. A tile setter hustles beyond the compressor noise, already pressing a cell phone to one ear and his free hand to the other. Seeing the compressor’s yellow extension cord, Nolan reaches down and yanks it from an outdoor wall plug. Suddenly, the job site is quiet. The mason runs up and lifts the bucket but the foreman raises his hand and stops him from dumping the water on the painter.
—No, he says. The lye.
The mason pours the bucket out on the concrete walkway and runs to a nearby spigot.
Nolan steps toward the painter, who lies flat on his stomach, his arms straight at either side, his blistered palms upturned. The burns on his neck range from purple to red to black. Pressed to the dirt, his cheek glistens, and colorful bits of discarded wire-stripping stick to the pocks in his face. Tiny flames linger along the loops of his sneaker laces.
Nolan knows the man isn’t dead, but he doesn’t know the extent to which he’s injured or what to do in the span of time before someone who will know arrives. He feels helpless, the feeling he despises most.
The foreman, careful not to place his hands on the man’s singed coveralls, leans over the painter.
—Set still, buddy, Nolan hears him say. Help’s coming.
When the foreman speaks, a silver filling glints at the back of his mouth, and because of it Nolan notices the sunlight spilling over the painter’s body. He steps back and unfurls his work shirt and holds it up best he can as a shade.
—Come on, man, the foreman whispers to the painter as the mason returns with the bucket of water and a handful of rags. Hang in there.
* * * *
Noon the next day Nolan arrives at University Medical Center to find the foreman and an electrician from the site smoking cigarettes in the shade of a cloth awning. The men stand on either side of a cylindrical concrete ashtray, down a gently sloped ramp from a pair of sliding glass doors that open to the hospital lobby. A camera, the size of a small black bird, sits above the center of the door. The foreman and the electrician raise and lower their hands to their faces and exhale smoke into a hot, dry afternoon breeze that occasionally threatens the electrician’s comb-over. When Nolan reaches the brushed concrete ramp, the foreman says:
—Well, well, well, if it ain’t the Lonely Ranger.
—How’s he holding up? Nolan asks.
—Fucker survives Afghanistan to come home and fall off a roof.
The electrician lowers his face and bites his lower lip and reaches up to smooth down his thinning hair. None of the men looks at each other.
—Nah, the foreman continues, he’ll be all right. Doc says his back’s busted from the fall, but he’ll walk again with some rehab.
—What about the burns?
—The ones on his neck and hands are pretty bad—
—Tell him about his forehead, the electrician interrupts.
The foreman coughs up a floppy lozenge of green phlegm and spits it at the base of a nearby oleander shrub in bloom. Pink blossoms.
—You tell him.
—They grafted some skin up off his ass and glued it to his forehead, the electrician says, tapping his forehead with his middle finger, his cigarette protruding from his curled hand, a stupid grin on his pasty, unlikeable face.
—Old butthead, we’re calling him.
—You’re calling him, the foreman says, taking a puff on his cigarette.
Nolan stares into the electrician’s eyes until the man’s eyes waver and he looks away.
—What room’s he in? Nolan asks the foreman.
—421. His wife’s up there, sitting with him. Go on up and introduce yourself.
The foreman lifts his fist to show Nolan the end of his cigarette.
—We’ll be up in a bit.
* * * *
The house painter lies swaddled in gauze and face down in a bed designed for the injuries he’s sustained. His wife, a petite woman in her late twenties, sits in an armchair beside the bed. She points a remote control in the direction of a muted television, mounted high on the wall opposite. They have the room to themselves, and a colorful bouquet of flowers and a get well soon card adorn the particle-board dresser in the far corner of the room. A Mylar balloon presses against the ceiling. The tiny bell at the end of its ribbon lies nestled at the center of a stack of hospital pillows and folded blankets. The room smells of ammonia and synthetic citrus, and the regular beeps from the monitors are subtly oppressive.
Nolan stands at the doorway, hat in hand, waiting to be acknowledged, but the woman is concentrating on the buttons on the remote. He doesn’t know the house painter outside of work, and even at work, not that well. He remembers one day when, at a burrito lunch the foreman bought for all the workers on site out of his own pocket, the painter shared two stories about his service overseas. The first concerned a raid on a hillside village of mud huts. A child cowered in a corner. The entire thing witnessed through the disorientating green of night-vision goggles. The second story briefly chronicled a spring snowmelt. The bleating of goats, stranded by a flooded river, reached the painter at the makeshift mountain outpost he and his fellow soldiers had constructed. They stayed at the outpost until summer, he said. They drank goat’s milk, still warm, and scoped the valley to no avail for a hidden patch of marijuana, the sweet scent of which was brought by the wind each evening to the young men, far from home.
But Nolan can’t recall the man having ever mentioned a wife.
A streak of light across the room’s only window brings Nolan back. In the distance, smoggy Mojave.
The painter’s wife scoots to the edge of the armchair, and holding the remote with both hands she shoves it adamantly in the direction of the television. Nolan takes a quiet step back from the doorway. The painter’s wife shoves the remote at the television one last time before slumping back in the chair and letting her hands fall in her lap. Nolan steps back into the shadows of the hallway as the woman’s hair falls across her face and her features scrunch and her shoulders begin to shudder. He looks down at his hands, holding his hat, and he turns and leaves.
* * * *
Later that day, at a gas station quick mart, Nolan sets two 22-oz aluminum cans of domestic beer and five microwaved chicken tamales wrapped in plastic wrap on the counter.
—And a half pint of that top-shelf brown, he says to the clerk.
The clerk waves the bottle of whiskey in front of the scanner several times before the coded strip registers with a beep. Above her left shoulder, a small colored monitor displaying Nolan is captured from three different camera angles. Nolan and each of the empty, stocked aisles.
Outside, Nolan sits in the driver’s seat of his truck, parked in one of the quick mart’s parking slots, facing the last of the setting sun, with his white Western hat canted against the diminishing star. Vehicles come and go from the parking stalls around him over the next hour, but he sits in his ’76 Ranger with the windows down, sipping the whiskey and enjoying the cross breeze when it comes. South of the gas station quick mart, just beyond the entrance ramp to the Interstate, a faded billboard advertises an eighteen-hole golf course lined with luxury estates. A small figure waterskis across the glassy turquoise lake at the center of the illustration of the housing tract, the skier leaving in its wake the words Desert Oasis inscribed in elegant script. Nolan traces the letters of the words superimposed on that imaginary world. He traces them right to left so they lose meaning and then left to right so they gather it up again. He knows that what the billboard promises, to some extent, is possible. He’s labored on its behalf in this state and others. He’s profited from helping to will it into the world.
The upper corner of the billboard is torn to reveal a patch of blinding white space, a torn corner where some individual has reached and wildly inscribed, in black permanent marker, the name:
Nolan checks his mirrors, raises the bottle in a silent toast to the inscription and advertisement both, and then takes a sip of the whiskey. He stays in this place until daylight fades completely. Observer and participant. On the streets and avenues below, headlamps course along the undersides of the insulated power lines. Lamp standards flicker on, leaning out over the concrete sidewalks like drooping heliotropes, and living-room windows turn television blue. A dozen beams of white light roam the sky in programmed arcs, centered around a single column of light that emanates from the apex of a substantial black pyramid. A vast illuminated grid has surfaced, the combined light enough to obscure entire galaxies from the night sky.
* * * *
Down on the Strip, the balmy night air smells of chlorinated water and car exhaust. He parks his truck on the top floor of a massive concrete parking structure and walks down a stairwell that stinks of urine to street level. When he emerges from the stairwell, the artificial light is intense and briefly overwhelming.
—Sodom and Gomorrah, a street preacher intones, startling Nolan. Cities of the plain.
He enters the casino where Linda works by a side-entrance corridor lined with tiny storefronts that vend luxury goods from six of the seven continents. The faux-cobblestone flooring is waxed to a high sheen and the ceiling bears a mural of pink and white clouds, shapes too similar to be mere apophenia.
A commotion of slot-machine sounds comes from the far end of the corridor, and cheering erupts from a crowded craps table. Nolan walks carefully from the corridor onto the casino floor, doing his best impression of sober.
—Five point, the stick man monotones at the craps table. Two and three makes five and point.
When Nolan finds her, she’s crossing the floor holding a tray laden with glasses and beer bottles. He sits at an empty slot machine and feeds it the occasional quarter while watching her distribute drinks to the gamblers. He likes how she accepts their tips with two taps of the chips on the plastic edge of her cork-lined tray. The pleated black mini-skirt she wears complements her long, toned legs. Her long hair is tied up neatly in a ponytail.
Nolan smiles at her when she notices him, and she winks back, mindful of the cameras. When her tray is full of empties, she walks over to where he sits. The blinking lights of the slot machine color the white of his Western hat. They glow on the toes of his freshly oiled chukkas.
—I was hoping I might see you tonight, she says.
—You got plans later?
Writing nonsense on her pad, she says:
—I do now.
* * * *
They meet in a sports bar in a treeless strip mall several blocks from the condominium Linda owns outright, bought with money she inherited when she turned twenty-one, her parents having died of pancreatic and breast cancer within three months of each other when she was ten. A little girl left to be raised by a loving grandmother. Nolan sits watching a car race on the television mounted above the bar. Tinted camera dome above the TV screen. The cars race on a banked asphalt speedway until they’re slowed by a minor wreck. The driver of the wrecked car pulls himself through the window of the spun-out car and strides down the bank as the other racers swerve to miss him. He wears a helmet with a visor and a fireproof suit and he walks directly towards the car of the driver who put him there and shakes his gloved fist at him as the fire crew arrives, yellow-orange lights swiveling.
—Idiot, the bartender says, and Nolan nods.
Out the front window of the bar, stark white parking lines glow against the recently sealed asphalt. The lines like a bright white framework that hovers and tilts on an unseen axis in that black void. Nolan watches Linda cross the parking lot on her approach. Long, slow strides over asphalt still warm from the day. She wears her hair down and she’s changed into a pair of fitted blue jeans and a soft-pink cashmere sweater. Stylish and practical shoes. When she enters the bar, Nolan stands and offers her his stool while steadying himself against the bar.
—You look nice, he says.
She hangs her leather wallet on a hook beneath the bar.
—Wait until you see what I’ve got on underneath.
Later, she lies naked with her head on his shoulder and his leg cradled between her thighs. The louvered blinds of her bedroom window partially turned against the light of the community swimming pool two stories below, and shadows and light ripple across the skip-troweled ceiling, swaths of blue light stacking into black.
—There was this old lady at the slots tonight, Linda says. I brought her a Screwdriver and told her the cherry was the same color as her lipstick, and she said, “That’s great, sweetie,” and tipped me a quarter.
—You ask for three more?
—Of course not.
—No, you wouldn’t.
—You don’t know that.
—Yes, I do.
Nolan pulls her closer, and she makes herself more comfortable against him. Her hair smells of shampoo and cigarette smoke.
—She must’ve sat there for three hours, just pulling the handle and nursing that Screwdriver. When I picked up her empty, you could see all the lines in her lips at the spot where she’d sipped from. But the crazy thing is, later, when I was taking this one jackass a Seabreeze, I saw it again. It was faint, you know, from the washer, but her lips were still there. Dirtbag patted me on the tush when I took his order and then didn’t even move to tip when I went to set it down. And I wanted to, I did, but instead I just said, “Oh, this one’s dirty. I’ll bring you a freshy.”
Headlights, pulling into the complex of condominiums, wash over the back sides of the blinds and push long, skinny shadows across the bedroom walls in a slow collapse.
—That’s a tough one, Nolan says, tracing the contours of her bare hip with his fingertips.
—I saw it at the bar, but I debated it the entire tray.
—You did the right thing.
—I didn’t want his bad karma.
Nolan moves his fingers down and then up the curve of her spine.
—How’s work? she says.
Imitating Nolan’s voice, she says:
—What do you want me to say?
—Nothing you don’t want to.
He brings his hand back to the hard protrusion of her hip and lets his fingers stand there before collapsing down to the heel of his palm. After a few seconds of quiet, he says:
—We’re putting the finishing touches on that place I told you about.
—How’d it turn out?
—Like a gold-plated turd.
—Move down the block three lots.
—Same floor plan?
—Bottom to top, but reversed.
—You looking for anything else?
—I don’t know. Not yet.
Nolan stares at the ceiling, at bars of shadow, bars of light.
—Guy set himself on fire yesterday.
—A house painter.
—How’d he do that?
—Lit a cigarette when he shouldn’t have.
—My God. Is he OK?
—He got burned pretty bad, and his back’s busted from the fall, but he’s alive.
—Were you there?
—I didn’t know him all that well. He usually comes on when we’re finishing up.
—Is he married?
—None that I know of.
—I didn’t mean you, jerk.
—I didn’t mean me—
—You’re slow tonight.
—I stole all your chi.
—Is that what it is?
—More like too much beer. And whiskey, by the taste of it.
—Yeah, well, quit working nights.
—Are you going to make an honest woman out of me?
—I wouldn’t put you through that.
—I wouldn’t let you.
—She must be a wreck.
—She’s holding up. I went and saw them at the hospital this morning.
—Can you imagine?
Nolan doesn’t respond. He takes her hand in his own and he tries to feel the softness of her palm through his calluses. After a moment, Linda says:
—You’re a good person. To visit her.
—Well, that goes without saying.
She swats Nolan’s chest.
To avoid confessing to the lie he’s just told her, Nolan pulls her tightly against him and they remain like that for a few minutes without speaking until she says:
—Uh unh, she says, bringing herself up on him while biting her lower lip.
—Music to my ears.
* * * *
He awakes in the dark just before dawn and walks lightly down the stairs to her kitchen where their clothes lie strewn across the linoleum. His pressed blue jeans and pearl-buttoned plaid lie in heaps on the floor, but his hat is crown down on the table where she’d placed it on her cashmere. He likes how she always makes something of them slowly undressing one another on the way to her bedroom. How they stop to kiss against Navajo-white walls. Cupping her naked ass pressed against the oil-based cool of the doorjamb’s trim.
He drinks directly from the sink faucet and the cool water collects on the side of his cheek before funneling down to the brushed stainless basin. The clock on the oven casts the room in a soft blue-green hue. Nolan shuts off the faucet, wipes his mouth on the back of his hand, and sits at a pine breakfast table with his elbow against a stack of dental hygiene textbooks. A receipt from the College of Southern Nevada bookmarks one of the texts. Nolan stretches his long legs out towards the sliding glass door that leads to her concrete patio slab. Above the fence boards on the patio, red and green airplane lights flash on their climb from McCarran. The plane disappears abruptly beyond the wall where the glass door ends.
Nolan turns his eyes from the kitchen wall to a hibachi squatting at the center of the otherwise empty patio. One night, not too long back, he grilled spicy, marinated shrimp for Linda after she passed a test on the way to earning her Associates Degree in Dental Hygiene. They drank a bottle of rosé and made love on the kitchen counter, on the carpeted stairs leading up to her bedroom, at the foot of her bed. He woke up on the floor next to her, tangled in cotton sheets. He watched her snore, mouth open and head thrown back, the deep guttural snores of deep sleep. She’d never been dearer to him than in that moment, but why? When he shifted his weight, she closed her mouth and turned into him and he closed his eyes and fell back to sleep.
A street lamp shines on the hibachi. He can see finger marks on the lid, marks left in the grease, pollen, and dust residue, those made by his own hand, perhaps. Or made by some other man. No, he knows, no other man’s hands but his own.
He sits there, just thinking about the painter and his wife, about the lie he told Linda, about the joke he made afterwards to disguise it. He can feel a part of himself becoming again the cad he’s been before, the one who picks up and leaves a place to avoid that self, only to take it with him wherever he goes. It’s easier for him to lie or to slip away from confrontations of this sort. He’s come to be OK with being that kind of coward.
The refrigerator compressor switches on, electricity flowing through its copper veins. Soon, Nolan hears her footsteps on the stairs. Her ankle joint cracks when she hits the tiled landing. She comes to stand behind him and she wraps her arms around his shoulders and places her hands against his chest. She lays her cheek on the top of his head. He can feel the collar of her plush terrycloth robe against his shoulders. The robe she wears mornings when they have coffee together, sitting on her leather couch, her feet tucked up beneath her, listening to music on her laptop. She teases him for having never been on the Internet.
—What’s wrong? she asks.
—Nothing. I just needed a sip of water.
—What were you thinking about?
—About how nice your jeans look on the floor like that.
—I don’t believe you.
—That’s too bad, I mean it.
—I mean it, too.
Nolan reaches down and cups the slope of her calf, smooth in the palm of his callused hand.
—You’re cold, he says.
—It’s cold down here.
—Let’s get you back to bed.
—No, tell me.
—I wasn’t thinking anything important. Honest.
—OK. I’ll trust you.
* * * *
The aluminum stairs clang under Nolan’s boot steps. He raps on the hollow core door.
Inside, the foreman sits at his desk, hunched over the newspaper. He holds a small mixing bowl in one hand and a soup spoon in the other. He wears reading glasses perched just below the bridge of his nose. The room smells of drip coffee and cigarette smoke. Nolan removes his work hat as he enters.
—Coffee? the foreman offers.
—I’m all right, thanks.
The foreman holds up the bowl.
—Bran cereal and banana slices, Jackson. This is what becomes of married men. Remember that.
The foreman sets the bowl on the newspaper and drops in the spoon. He leans back in his chair and reaches into the pocket of his work shirt for the soft pack of generic menthols he keeps there.
—What can I do you for?
Nolan looks at the scarred linoleum and scratches an itch at his temple with a hooked right forefinger.
—I was hoping I might draw early, for the past week.
The foreman lights his cigarette, sets the lighter on the desk, and sits back comfortably.
—You need me to advance you for the whole two?
—No, sir, just what I’m owed.
Nolan meets the foreman’s eyes through the smoke and something in them makes him look down at where his hands finger his hat brim.
—Moving on down the line? the foreman asks.
The foreman sighs smoke. His desk is cluttered with blueprints and carpenter pencil stubs, cheap ball points bearing advertisements for real-estate agencies and tool makers. An array of business cards have been taped or tacked to the cork board hanging against the particle-board paneling over his shoulder. In an upper corner of the rectangular board, the 23rd Infantry Division shoulder-sleeve insignia, four white stars on a shield of blue felt. He looks Nolan over judiciously.
—How about a raise?
—That’s awfully kind, but—
—How about a raise, a twelver of watery domestic, and a lap dance over at the Gulch every other Friday night?
—Like a gift certificate sort of thing?
—Hell, no. Cash money. I’ll even chaperone and spend most of it on myself.
Nolan looks at his hat and smiles.
—That’s a generous offer, but—
—Bet your ass it is. Twelver alone would keep me on this detail. Gulch is just icing on the cake.
—But you’re antsy to move on.
—Any chance you’ll be back?
—I doubt that.
—Well, I hate to lose you, lost as you get in that head of yours.
—Thank you, sir.
—That wasn’t a compliment. He smiles.
—No, sir, Nolan grins.
—I’ll talk with the girl when she gets in. She’ll get things squared away.
—I appreciate it.
Nolan steps forward and extends his hand across the foreman’s desk. The foreman stands and they shake.
—I figured I’d work out the day.
—Don’t be doing us any favors, now.
—No, I’d planned on it.
—All right, then.
Nolan turns, and the foreman lowers himself into his seat, but just as Nolan reaches the door, the foreman says:
—Old butthead’s wife said she enjoyed your visit at the hospital the other day. Said you had nothing but nice things to say about him.
Nolan looks down at the door knob. Brushed stainless. Same as Linda’s sink.
—Didn’t think I’d mention it?
Nolan turns to face the foreman.
—I thought you might.
—You’re not thinking it’s your fault or some stupid nonsense like that, are you?
—No, sir, that ain’t it.
—Good. My wife pulls that crap. Drives me nuts.
—I didn’t know what to say.
—There wasn’t nothing to say. I mean, look, I don’t mean to lecture you, but something like this, you were there, you witnessed it, and that means you show up, look his wife in the eye, and mumble something about how sorry you are that she married a stupid, clumsy man, and you hope they never breed if he can ever get it up again long enough to try.
—After that, you just stand around for at least fifteen minutes making small talk, sipping burnt, rotgut coffee, and praying to God that some well-endowed nurse comes in demanding to take your temperature.
Nolan looks at his hands.
—Most times, the foreman says, it ain’t knowing what to say as much as it is just being there not knowing how to say it.
—I hope so, Jackson. I really do.
From JOURNEYMAN. Used with permission of Soft Skull Press. Copyright © 2017 by Marc Bojanowski.