Happy National Short Story Week, everyone! In honor of this most esteemed week, I am going back in time to 1999 when a young, fresh-faced girl living in Washington , D.C. heard that her short story, “Out of the Blue” had won a fiction contest and would be published. I remember getting the call and immediately telling everyone around me, “This is what I want to do with my life.” And while life has taken many different directions for me, if you were to put a Wonder Woman lasso around my waist and ask me, I’d still say “this is what I want to do with my life.” There is nothing, just nothing, like writing. It is my happiness, my sadness and the most treasured piece of my mind. And so, in honor of that fateful day in 1999 and the millions of words that have come after, I offer you that first piece. And a piece of my heart.
“God has spoken” was Grandma’s way of explaining things that didn’t need explaining. If the bread didn’t rise or the milk was sour before its time, God definitely had something to do with it. God had his hands in the middle of everything. He was a meddler, messing with everyone’s business for some higher purpose. When I wanted explanations for things like not getting asked to the prom or first getting my period, my adolescent curiosity could never be satisfied by Grandma.
“Don’t ask too much of Him,” she would say. “He’s busy with someone right now.” Like a personal secretary up there in heaven, Grandma knew all about God’s schedule and never let you bother Him in the middle of a meeting. So when the painter up and died like that, there was no need to wonder. It was just God making an executive decision.
Billy had died in the middle of painting Grandma’s old house a bright cornflower blue, and she didn’t have the heart to hire another one. So there she sat, out on the porch of that big house, with great strokes of blue across its weathered white boards. It was like a canvas some impressionist had given up on years ago, right in the middle of painting the blue, blue sky.
Mama and I had tried for years to talk her into painting that house. We hated that faded oatmeal color and couldn’t wait to go visit her in a house that was freshly painted and inviting. Mama and I spent hours clipping out pictures of blue houses with white shutters from Better Homes and Gardens, leaving them posted on her fridge like family photos. We just knew that a house like that would always smell like Pine-Sol and that no sadness could come in at all.
“Don’t want a blue house. Wouldn’t go at all,” she said. Perhaps referring to the mismatched vinyl furniture or the oil paintings of fish that Grandpa painted all those years ago. Grandma lived under the assumption that whatever you got, God gave you, and anything else just wasn’t worth wanting.
When Grandpa met Grandma, she was all blue eyes and hips and a voice like hazelnut custard. She had three brothers who all worked in their daddy’s furniture company; making chairs and beds out of the pines that surrounded their house. Father and sons working for years over a beautiful piece of pine like it was a woman.
Daniel and Jack, the older boys, loved the work. Loved the curve and smell of the sanded wood. Earle, who was only a year older than Grandma, wanted more than a circle saw and a staining rag. So he turned to Grandma and told her all his dreams of women and life. Through her starry-eyed, strong-armed brother she learned the secrets of men and that the chase is all.
“Don’t you ever want to catch ’em?” she asked Earle one day as they sat outside sipping water out of an old thermos.
Earle thought for a minute and scratched his arm where a mosquito bite was just starting to show. He took his fingernail and made a little cross on top of it, just like their mama had shown them to do to stop the itching. “Well, sure, honey,” he said, grinning from under his old blue bandanna. “We just want to make sure that the prize is worth it. And sometimes men gotta run a long way to figure that out.”
Earle talked like he spoke from experience. But she thought maybe he was just talking about the women who lived in his mind while he worked. She wondered if she would ever be the kind of woman that a man would turn his thoughts to while he sanded a particularly beautiful piece of pine; who had a song written for her about the sky and maybe a little bit about a porch swing and kisses sweeter than wine.
Handsome like the devil, Grandpa Max had always been the ladies’ man of the county with a broad smile that took up his entire face whenever he laughed. And he laughed most of the time. Always bubbling over with that throaty mixture of mirth and masculinity. According to Grandma, every girl in town had her eye on Grandpa. And I believed her. Not like Auntie Olida, who told me the same story eight times over about how handsome Uncle Tyler was in his day, and how lines of women would form outside the post office where he worked. Because I had spent every Christmas for as long as I could remember sitting across from Uncle Tyler at the dinner table, and he had crooked teeth and pores on his face that looked like they had been stretched open by tiny little hands. But I never let Auntie Olida know I doubted her. Because maybe to her, in her pea-green housedress and flip-flops, Uncle Tyler was still lining women up outside the post office.
I believed Grandma, though. She used to say that when Grandpa would walk through town, young ladies would press their powdered noses up against the windows of the fabric shop and just watch him walk. In Grandma’s photos I think he looks like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — dashing and patriotic; like a Boy Scout with his back straight as a ruler and his eyes tilted upward as if he were saluting something American and grand.
Grandma first met Grandpa down at Mattie’s Bait and Tackle. On that particular day, Grandma was situated in Aisle 4 with the fishing line and nightcrawlers. Some women would have avoided Aisle 4 and those nightcrawlers at all costs, but Grandma could bait a hook like she was threading a needle. Men used to come down to the pond and watch her bait those lines with her pearly fingernails and just sigh to themselves while looking through the reeds at such a beautiful woman doing such a simple thing.
Grandpa watched Grandma down there at Mattie’s from behind the bottles of beer down the aisle. Her hair was brushed back in a rubber band that hung low at the nape of her neck. She had a wide mouth, and her eyelashes curled out from over her eyes like a canopy as she read the labels on the cans of bait. And he smiled. He liked her arms and her hair and the way she stood with one foot on the ground and one resting on the bottom shelf, her small shoe left on the floor and her painted toes tapping absentmindedly. And for one brief moment she looked up from those labels, put a stray piece of hair behind her ear, and looked Grandpa straight in the eye. According to Mattie, who was watching the whole thing, Grandpa just about knocked over every bottle of beer in the place.
Grandpa used to paint pictures for Grandma and help her hang them on their bedroom wall. He painted ships out on the ocean with mermaids all around them and another one of a woman sitting on a hill with a big straw hat on. And to me, it looked like the woman in the picture was waiting for her lover to come walking by with a broad smile and a new compliment.
Even late in his life Grandpa would take this beat-up easel out into the front yard every Sunday after church and paint. This all started when Grandma and Grandpa went over to Auntie Olida and Uncle Tyler’s house for barbecue one Sunday evening — sitting around on the back porch with the heavenly smell of smoke in the air. “Beautiful barbecue, Tyler,” my Grandpa said, leaning way down in his chair with a wide grin.
Tyler smiled. “Nice to have you folks over tonight,” he said. “Haven’t seen you since the wedding.”
Auntie Olida and Grandma looked at each other and laughed. “They’ve been busy, Tyler,” Olida said. “Doin’ what newlyweds do.”
Tyler blushed and wiped his hand over his thin blonde hair. Grandpa laughed and took Grandma’s hand in his. Olida, who had always thought Grandpa was something of a looker, watched his fingers stroke Grandma’s hand on the armrest of the chair.
“Max,” she said, “you have got the most handsome hands I have ever seen. Look Tyler, aren’t they something to behold?”
Uncle Tyler, not too keen on estimating the loveliness of another man’s hands, concentrated solely on the barbecue and grunted something like “humph.”
“Well, they are,” Olida said. “Just handsome hands. Saw a picture once of that artist Renoir and his hands were just like yours. Long and heavy. Why, Max, I do believe you have the hands of Renoir.”
Grandpa Max shook his head, laughing. “And you, dear Olida, have the face of Venus de Milo.” Olida, who really had no idea who this Venus gal was, but liked the way it sounded when Grandpa said it, giggled and slapped his knee with her hand.
The conversation eventually turned to Rodney Waystrap’s new double-wide or May Lamberton’s permanent wave, and the notion of Grandpa having hands like Renoir seemed lost. But Grandpa liked the idea of having the hands of a great painter who had things hanging in big galleries all over. And after a little thought, he took himself on over to the corner store and bought some paints and an easel; hoping maybe the hands God gave him would prove to do more than hold Grandma tight.
There’s about 20 of these paintings still up in Grandma’s house. “The Gallery,” she calls it, with all the pride of one of those New York City dealers with Picassos in his foyer. To her, these paintings are like love letters she can read even when company is there.
After they were married in the Presbyterian Church on Fourth Avenue, Grandpa took Grandma in his arms and they made love with the windows open and the smell of pine in the air. I never liked to think about my grandparents making love. I guess I thought that my Grandma, with her warm, inviting bosom and gray hair up in a bun, was not someone who could ever do something like that. But as I got older and had kissed a few men out in their Silverado trucks, my hips and elbows digging into empty cans of tobacco, I understood for perhaps the first time that my grandmother is a woman. And a woman making love to a man she adores is just about the most natural thing in the world. For Grandma, making love to Grandpa was like breathing. It was strong and natural and necessary to their continued devotion.
When grandpa passed, Grandma’s house changed. Mama would bring flowers and stories, and Grandma would smile, but Mama knew how hard it was for her to go to bed every night without the smell of aftershave on the sheets.
Being a strong-willed lady, Grandma kept the house just the same for years. Most of all, she didn’t want to repaint the outside. It had always been the color of oatmeal and apparently it would always stay that way. Until Billy Watson.
Billy Watson was a neighbor kid from down the street. Kind of a rebel, with a cigarette behind his ear and long hair. And I thought he was just about the sexiest thing I ever saw. He drove a motorcycle that was beat-up and rusted, but still made that glorious sound of popcorn popping when he started it up. He would ride that motorcycle around town, proud as a peacock, with no shirt on. I hoped that one day he would ride up to me while I was doing the wash, and he would grab me around the middle and pull me onto that machine. We would just let our long hair blow together in the wind, and I would sing songs like “Amazing Grace” at the top of my lungs. And the notion of burning my calf on the stainless steel engine seemed almost romantic. A fiery tattoo of Billy and our ride.
Billy Watson had about a thousand girlfriends with names like Sarah Marie and Naomi; they wore Daisy Dukes with little half moons of their butts sticking out from under the hem. Everyone said he had sex with them out behind the bleachers at Montgomery High, since that was the only place he could get them alone. And you couldn’t really lose your virginity on the back of a motorcycle. Though I often thought about the logistics of it before I went to sleep.
So when Billy Watson came strolling up to Grandma’s porch asking if she wanted her house painted, we were shocked to find that she accepted. I think Grandma just decided she needed a little color after all. And she even agreed on a bright, beautiful blue that spoke of summer skies and exciting company. Blue walls, white shutters and a red door — “just like Elizabeth Arden,” Mama said.
Billy came every morning and I would watch him from the top stair, as I’m sure Grandpa watched Grandma down at Mattie’s all those years ago. Grandma would bring him a sandwich and a beer in the middle of the day, and they would chat about things that I never thought someone like Billy was capable of talking about. I figured his vocabulary was limited to words like “axle” and “gasoline.” But he and Grandma talked and talked over sandwiches and beer, and she would laugh and touch him on his sleeve.
Mama wasn’t too thrilled with the way Billy was painting the house. Instead of finishing up one section at a time, he roamed around, painting wherever his fancy took him. So the house ended up looking like a patchwork quilt in progress. But Grandma never complained about it. I guess she figured Billy had a way of doing things that would eventually work out. As if the colors would suddenly learn to run together on their own.
On a Tuesday night, Billy was riding home from Hollie Anne Wilson’s house when he ran into a tree and died. One minute he was making out with Hollie on her front stoop, his hands everywhere and her Mama peeking through the window. And the next he was gone. They had a big write-up in the paper the next day with this great picture of Billy that his Dad had taken of him on a fishing trip, and he’s smiling this mischievous grin, with his elbows resting on his knees. I cut it out and keep it in my jewelry box.
At first we figured Grandma didn’t want to finish painting the house out of respect for Billy. For her, having someone finish the house so soon after Billy’s death was like a widow remarrying in a fortnight. And we all agreed that it was right. But it wasn’t just a temporary thing. She just decided to leave it that way. We thought the house looked like a bunch of Okies lived there. We thought she was just being stubborn. But no matter how much time went by, Grandma was set in her ways, and God had spoken.
You can still see the house from the new road they put in off of Highway 62. It sneaks up on you and suddenly it’s all you can look at. Families with little kids in the backs of their station wagons probably titter about who lives in that preposterous house. Couples driving along must wonder at the strange house that is half blue and half oatmeal colored. But they really shouldn’t wonder at all. They really shouldn’t wonder about a house sitting there, like a canvas. Like the painter just took a break for a cup of coffee or a nap and he’ll be back soon. I promise.
Katie Mauro, ’95, MA ’96, is a publicist in Washington, D.C.