In Lapland

Christopher Merkner

On Thursday my wife returns from work and says she needs some color in the house, can’t live in this cell-hole another minute, what have we done to bring ourselves to this way of living at our age, we aren’t twenty-five-year-old twits, not anymore. Country Rill is the green she shows me in a magazine. “Look at that,” she says, thrusting the glossy in my face, “and tell me it wouldn’t change everything.” I cannot tell her this. It’s time to do something, truly. We are in agreement. It is time. We have waited a long time, and at our age we cannot any longer afford to wait to do anything. Everything must be done last month when there was time.
    On Saturday we compare Country Rill prices at four stores and none of the Country Rills green the way Country Rill greened in the magazine. A woman at one of these places is juggling the Qs of five other customer couples, each team looking plaintive and positioning themselves for sustained explanation of paint application.
    The woman fielding these Qs has no time for this. She is a rough sort of woman, a person made hard by excessive painting, I think, and not the person to articulate the ways of reducing such hardness. She is saying to another couple, “Look, paint is not permanent. It can always be fixed. You just go and you just do it and you can do it again.”
    When she turns a few minutes of her time to us, she studies her store’s litmus-looking paint sample against my wife’s picture in the magazine. “Same thing,” she concludes.
    “No,” my wife says. “Not at all the same.”
    The woman brings the paint litmus and the magazine up closer to her face, lifts her glasses off her nose, props them on her forehead, and seems almost to smell the Country Rill. She is very serious. “No,” she finally says, “not the same. But they’re as close as can be.”
    “You have thousands of paints,” my wife says. “Can’t you mix a blend to get it to look like this?”
    The woman looks up, hands the magazine back to us, and studies my wife’s face. “Yeah,” she says, “but it still won’t be what you want.”
    There is silence. My wife is looking at me. She wants me to confront this woman. I think about what to say to coerce her to make the color. Then the woman speaks again. “Look, if I mix this paint for you, to try to get you this color, you won’t like it. Trust me. You have to just get a color and like it. This,”—she points to the magazine in my wife’s hands—“this isn’t your paint. It’s someone else’s, and you cannot have it. That’s the way it is with paint.”
    This enrages my wife, who contends that she has never heard anything more ridiculous in her life. “Color is a science, not an art. Paint is not unique. Color can be manufactured to a precise and desired specific quality. We aren’t dealing in the subjective,” she says, and I agree with her. But because we’re both originally from the Madison, Wisconsin, area, we’ve reserved all this direct outrage for the car ride home and really let the car windows have it.

All day Sunday we’re on broadband scrolling over online paint resources. By sunset we have selected a Country Rill from a company in Pennsylvania and have it shipped overnight to the house. We pay an ungodly figure to overnight this paint, but there is no looking back: when it comes to paint, when it comes to everything at this point in our lives, cost is negligible. We charge it. We have no time for savings. All the savings we’ve been doing, all that’s over. For the first time that weekend, we eat dinner without rushing. We have even turned on the television. It’s the last supper.

We lie awake and talk about timing. How long does it take to paint trim? Can you paint in the evening, or should you paint in daylight? Does daylight diminish the quality of the paint, does direct sunlight undermine the integrity of the pigments? Should we paint every night of the week, or wait and complete the paint job all in one weekend?
    I say, “I don’t think I could do that, physically.”
    My wife reaches across my nude chest and seizes the telephone to call her sister. I can hear her sister’s answers to the questions:
    “You’re freaking out. You’re freaking out about nothing. Do whatever you want. Paint a little, paint a lot. People with a lot less education than you—people in Lapland—paint all the time and have no problem with it. Don’t make it a problem. Paint when it feels natural to paint. There’s no right way to paint. When our house got painted, we didn’t even want it painted. It just happened. We were like, ‘Well, I guess we’ll have a painted house now.’”
    Her condescension is a wet metal rod—a horse bit—in my mouth.
    When they’ve finished and phone is back in cradle, I remind my wife that her sister has a cardiologist husband to pay for a professional job on their house, that it was a luxurious position to say it didn’t matter what you did with paint, luxurious to believe that you could do whatever the hell you wanted with the trim and all things would come out all right in the end. Of course things will not come out all right if you do not do them deliberately and thoughtfully.
    My wife doesn’t want to hear it. She flips a hand at me.
    “And,” I say, “to the matter of education and the poor subjects in Lapland, your sister has no idea how many people are actually painting in Lapland, very likely none.”

I dream of kneeling and working by the fireplace, those shit corners. What size brush should I use? And the tape job. That blue stickless tape. Of the trim along the floor, the carpeting.

By Monday colleagues ask me my story, say things like, “What’s your deal,” and I tell them.
    “Oh my God!” one of them says, a woman I dated years ago and who clicks an ongoing interest in my personal life before me like a metronome. “You are going to do such a good job! I can completely see that for you, for your house! Your wife must just be like, ‘Ah!’”
    The males don’t have a response at all to the painting question, only that I’ve shared anything about my domestic life with this old girlfriend. Do I think she won’t somehow take advantage of this personal information, ask for example to come over and see it—help, even, somehow? They laugh.
    They haven’t married yet, these guys. They have no idea what lies ahead. I try to level with them: “Can you paint trim every night or does this make the job uneven? Can paint go bad or change color if it’s left too long?”
    They look at me and shrug. One of them answers, “Keep that kind of shit to yourself. Trust me, you don’t want people telling you what’s best for you and your wife.”
    “I’m talking objectively,” I protest. “What’s best for paint, generally speaking?”
    “That’s like asking what’s best for cement, generally. It all depends on what kind of cement you want. Rough, textured, flat, matted, shiny. I can’t tell you what you want. Anyway, even when you know what you want, to a certain degree you’re just going to have to take what you get. You can’t control cement. That’s the bitch of mother nature.”

That evening, the sun is at an odd angle, gleaming off the cans on our front stoop. They have arrived. I yank them each inside the house and read their instructions over and over. It’s exhausting. I feel woozy, the smell of the cans and of the future with the cans. I’m predicting the cans’ smell. I close my eyes . . .
    I open them, and my wife’s ready. She throws her bags on the floor and tears off her shirt and slacks. She’s in her underwear before I’ve sat upright. “Let’s go,” she says. “Get that lid off. Did you shake it? Stir it.”
    I say, “Is this the right color?”
    She says, “It’s fine. Let’s go.”
    “I’m not sure it’s at all the right color.”
    “It’s fine,” she says again. “Just shut up and stir.”
    “We need to tape.”
    “You didn’t fucking tape?”
    I look at her.
    My wife swears a noun, an ugly thing. She throws herself into the sofa. She is ruddy and damp. Her warm body is twisted on the sofa and hangs loose, pretty. She pushes her hair back from her eyes and sighs, and she swears again. She closes her eyes, and just as I think she has forfeited her interest, she shakes her head and says, “To hell with it.” She hops up again and takes my brush, thrashes it through the roller dish.
    “The carpet!”
    She is deaf and she is dumb. She is swiping at the chair rail in long, reckless strokes. She’s made a speckled rill of Green Rill on our old Berber. She’s crouching like a catcher, raking along the wall adjacent to the fireplace walls. Paint is flinging and dripping. She strokes in those long, reckless strokes, lavishing the wall above and below the rail. Her muscles tremble and twitch. Her knees crack. I take a glob in the forehead and come to. The small of her back.
    I have lost my breath.
    I haven’t really ever seen her like this. She turns and takes my hand, yanks me toward her, kisses me, her tongue firing into my mouth. “C’mon,” she pants. “Get into it.”
    Those walls that had kept me up at night are done in thirteen minutes. In thirteen minutes I’m on my back panting beside my wife looking. We’re both breathing out of our mouths, leaning against the sofa. It’s a whole mess we have here. However, in the public sense, it is done.
    Or, as my wife puts it, “It’s started.”

Later, the nooks of the fireplace wall have filled like lake locks. My wife and I are strewn across the floor like castaways, drunkards. She lies flat, draping her arm over her eyes. Her cheeks are red. She swears again. She asks me if I smoke. We laugh. We are utterly wasted. We are glowing. She says, “Could you do more?”
    She looks up at me. “Seriously.”
    I am thirty-four years old. I am a little bit nauseous. Later, it’s Tuesday evening, and we are stripped down again and going at it like reckless teenagers, like we are doing something lewd that needs to be done very lewdly, very quickly. The windows are done in ten minutes. The cat has Country Rill paws. We laugh.
    The laugh is not, as it had been on Monday, robust.
    I say, “Do you like it? Is this something you’re liking?” I shake my head. “I mean, are you glad we’re doing it?”
    “It’s fine.”
    “Is it the color?”
    “No. It is what it is.” She scratches her cheek. “It is what it is. But it’s good.” She is not telling me the truth. She cannot tell me that if she were able she wouldn’t just do it all herself. I cannot be obviated, because the project is too enormous for one person. Science hasn’t yet really come this far. Not to the Midwest anyway, not to the suburbs and the middle class. It is the contract we’d agreed to, for better or worse, anyway, that I be included here. All this is sticky-noted across her face, and then, because she knows that I am reading this, she rolls on the floor and laughs affably.

The first thing we see at the Engelvedts is their trim. It’s running up and down every room in the house. Every damn inch of their house blinds us—finished and lovely color, matted color, glossy color, the shadows of work completed and past, distant hardships. In tremendous insult, they have even sanded away some of their color for a look of fashionable oldness. The kitchen stings with what I’d seen called Icicle spreading above their tall cabinets, just a subtle flourish, but it’s there plainly enough to gall. The bathroom has crown molding the color of mud. I have my eyes shielded through half the visit. At dinner, I compliment their attention to detail. “Really,” I say.
    Bob says, “Really?”
    I push the matter. I want to know how long it took them. How long did they have to work, wait. “Give me a ballpark.”
    Years, for them.

I suggest we take a day off on Wednesday, a day away from the painting. It’s clearly become a mechanical thing, a means to an end, and is in no way enjoyable. This should be enjoyable, right? Everyone says it should be fun, right?

And we finish off the master on Wednesday night. And we shower together, and my wife says, “We have to do a second coat, you know,” and she waits for my expression and says, “We aren’t done, little buddy,” taking my penis in her hand. “We have the rest of the week to do more. We still have Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and maybe even Monday morning. We need to get as much paint in there as possible—as much as we’ve got, as much as you’ll get, we need to get it up there.” And she calls me little buddy and tells my penis not to pretend he didn’t know all of this when we started painting. Because nobody likes a forgetful little buddy.

Thursday, we paint, I think.

Friday, the brush is frayed and starchy, limpid and stiff at the same time—caked in a sort of translucent lacquer and generally incapable of offering a stroke of Country Rill to the wood that does not somehow ruin a previous stroke. My whole rhythm is off. I’m doing harm. My wife just winces, says things like, “Oh Guud.” I have covered the kitchen walls three times over. My arms ache, and my hands have been blistering badly. I picture my shoulders as the insides of a rotting boat on a destitute beach. I drink water like a dog. I’ve taken to eating M&M’s again. I’m taking down the big bags from mega stores that require paid memberships.
    I have no idea where my wife is by Friday—
    She’s glassy eyed across the dining room table from me. Our dinners are fast food, delivered, frozen. When we drag ourselves to the dining room table we no longer pray, no longer regard one another, no longer speak. Anything that does come out of our mouths has to do with the painting—and it’s all bad news—and we bite it off the instant it materializes, without our consent or wishes, so that neither of us has to hear that which is bothering our heads in silence. I say on Saturday am, “Well?” She shrugs.

Who am I kidding? The house and its paint will always be hers. It will always reflect most on her. No one’s damning me for anything in this labor. I apply myself.

I say I’m going running on Saturday afternoon. My wife raises her eyebrows, questions of where this energy will suddenly be discovered appearing on her brow. It isn’t being discovered; I am lying to her. I take the car instead to the store where we were agitated by the rough worker, because they are hosting a free painting clinic there from eleven to two, and I have seen this in the paper at some point, and the rough woman stands in the middle of a square countertop unit that is mounted by at least five cash registers on all sides, and I cannot believe how many people have come to hear her speak.
    I can only imagine what things must be like for these others to have brought themselves to this lowness. I came because I did not expect this woman to be the person sawing off advice.
    The rough lady goes on and on and on about paint brushes, concluding that of course no brush is actually any better than what you ultimately do with the brush you have. She moves then to paint itself and paint cans and paint types and concludes with the exact same premise, that all paint is the same in so far as it depends on what you do with the paint you have: patter.
    The other customers—geese—are nodding and pecking frantic notes in ink on their palms. I am about to leave when I hear her say something that I take with me out the sliding doors near floral: “Once you start painting, you can never really stop it. Painting is a snowball.”

My wife breathes deeply. “I don’t know,” she says. The clouds outside are bursting, and when all has been cleared and touched up by late, late Sunday, when at last everything is shoved away into the garage and vacuumed and clean and finished, we hold each other, hold each other so tightly I have my wife’s rib in my hand. She is trembling and hot, and we can see plainly that we can see nothing clearly. That’s it. The color is there, but it exists now as its own thing unrelated to us. The rest is up to everyone else, we guess. We guess we have done our part. We guess that the time after will be worth the time before.

Christopher Merkner teaches creative writing at the University of Colorado. He received his MFA in fiction from the University of Florida and is completing his PhD at the University of Denver. He has stories in Black Warrior Review and Gulf Coast. He and his wife and their two kids are planning a trip to Lapland, Sweden, in 2011.

“In Lapland” appears in our Autumn 2009 issue.