Tom Sawyer – reflections on painting a fence

There was no one in the paint department at Liquidation World when I sauntered through, idly wondering if I could match up my fence colour so that if I missed a spot in covering over the weathered wood, it wouldn’t be too obvious. I found a clerk associate at the till who very amiably agreed to page the paint clerk for me.

This latter arrived with a beaten look on her face. The happier sales associate scurried away back to the till, advising her colleague, “This one’s first (pointing to me) and then him.” There was a line up starting to form.

I asked paint-woman,””Do you have any Tile Red left? I couldn’t find any.”

“Sold out.” she stated flatly. I wondered what kind of bad day she had had before coming to work. She had permanent worry printed on her face.

“I’ll take the Garnet, then. Just one can.”

“It’s purple,” she stated, as if to say only a fool could choose purple for a fence.

“Purple?” I reacted, a bit baffled. The paint colour had looked rather brown with a reddish tinge. Maybe Magenta. Maybe Italian red oxide. I always think I know my colours fairly well.

People call the same colour by different names. Maybe it was just a case of that, I thought.

“The paint samples are over there, ” she said, again with a disagreeable flatness that hinted at her customer’s lack of perspicacity, that is, my complete lack of perception. It was a caution that I’d better give my head a shake, had better reconsider my choice, or at the very least, make sure that I knew what I was doing.

I took the time to see if I could understand her choice of the word “purple” to describe the colour of the mini picket-fence post that hung above the paint shaker on the back wall. There were about four warm brown to red colours – Chestnut, Garnet, Tile Red and Rust. I could see that the Garnet was a cooler red, or conversely a warmer brown, but I made up my mind that it wasn’t going to be lilac or royal purple and it would be slightly happier than the existing brown on my fence. The minor mis-paints would not be too obvious.

All that decision-making could not have taken more than four seconds. It obviously takes longer to write it than it does to think it.

“I’ll take one can of Garnet, then,” I said, turning back to her. “Can you mix it up for me?”

Well, I knew what I meant.

“We don’t mix colours. It’s already mixed,” she answered. “Oh God, I must be dealing with an idiot,” she must have been thinking. The sourness had not lessened in her physiognomy.

“Well, shake it on your machine, then,” I said, not to be put off by her rebuking stance.

She didn’t even answer that one. She took the can from my hands and shook it. In less than a minute, she handed it back to me. I made my way out of the paint department and then to the till thanking my good fortune in having a happier disposition.

The woman at the till, a smile on her face, chirruped, ” You got the paint you wanted?”

“Think so,” I said back with a grin. It’s wonderful how a smile can generate another smile and happier feelings prevail. Her curly blond hair seemed to bolster her cheeriness. This woman, too, had lines on her face. At sixty and working all day in a visually depressing store, she might have had difficulty in keep one’s spirits up, but her face lines were laugh lines, and the weathering was soft and a bit marshmallowy.

(A prayer aside. “Dear Lord, I’m an aspiring writer. Please don’t ever let me see someone else’s description of what I look like. Or are you reserving this for me in Purgatory for when I die and have to account for my life? It really is part of a writer’s job, describing people…. I’m doing the best I can….”)

So, let’s skip a bit here. My stories are always a bit long:

So now I’m out in the back yard having found a screw driver to open up the paint can with, a wide brush, three plastic tray liners stacked together for strength because I can’t find the metal paint tray, and a brand new roller thing on a old battered roller holder. I’ve got paint thinner and a couple of rags.

With the screwdriver, I gently lever the lid, turning the can around inch by inch, until I get lift off on one side. Then with a bit greater pressure, I manage to pop the thing off with out spurtling paint all over.

I’ve got fencing completely around the back yard. There’s the almost new fence with lattice work on top adjoining Lara and Glen’s yard at the back in chocolate brown. There’s the decrepit fence that separates the length of the property between my yard and the pioneer neighbour, Jack’s, yard. This fence is finished, really, It’s an expensive project that I’m leaving until later, especially since a developer has just purchased this magnificent one acre property and is going to put, depending on the rumours afloat, three monster houses with rental suites or five duplexes (read 10 families) or twenty three town houses. This single-family neighbourhood is aghast at the prospect. All of a sudden, three monster houses sounds better than the last of these choices. The developer, rumour has it, needs two years to get his Plan 23 in place to apply for the development permit. In between time, he is not going to do a darned thing with the fence. It can rot in place.

Last year, a section of it came down in one of the violent wind storms. It was rotted at the base. The fence posts were just mush. There was no point in repairing it. There is simply a six foot gaping hole in that stretch of fence – all one hundred and thirty eight feet of it – and there is no point in tackling that until some decisions are made. It doesn’t distress me. I rather like a rural look; a falling-rotting-barn kind of look. It’s poetic. It has a weathered patina that can’t be bought. There’s a trace of original colour (it might have been Tile Red or Garnet, methinks) lots of bare grey, sundried wood, and a variety of lichens, mosses and entwined vines and volunteer trees growing through its cracks. It has character. Sort of like a tottering drunk with a friendly grin, but none the less tottering and unkempt.

The only stretch of fence that was small enough to tackle, reversibly if Garnet Purple didn’t appeal after all, was the one that encloses the back from the front, going from mid-side of the house to the ancient fence. It is about thirty feet long with a gate in the middle.

I poured a quart of paint into the pan. It looked a dark brick red colour to me. Garnet was a bit of a highfalutin name for it, but it would do. It would freshen up things. Missed spots would not be noticed much. It was flat deep brown underneath. What I did notice though, was that fence stain was a different consistency than other paints. It was rather more liquid.

I started to roll the stain over the fence boards. It covered quickly and well. In all, clean up included, it didn’t take me more than two hours, for which I was grateful. It gave me two hours to think, not only about the job at hand, which I took as a meditative opportunity to let my mind run free, but also a s a task with intrinsic value. As I poured, rolled, and brushed, I wondered about Tom Sawyer. I had no one around to con into doing my work. It was just me. I should have rather been wondering where Huck Finn was.

But it wouldn’t have been the same. As soon as there was a chattering voice to answer mine, the peace and tranquility of it would have changed. I was happy in my painterly solitude. There were no artistic decisions to be made – no composition, no questions of value, no considerations of texture or pattern, no leit motifs of meaning, no thoughts of positive and negative shapes, no checking of spatial relationships forming and altering as developments occurred.

I was simply dipping my brush in the thin Garnet liquid, applying the brush to the corners and the cracks, and to the places the roller could not attain. The biggest visual decision I had to make was “is there a dribble” followed by “have I obliterated it”.

At the end of my two hours, I had spent an agreeable time; I was covered in deep brown speckles (the colour looked darker on my skin) on arms, feet, hands, glasses and my painting clothes. I had only lightly spattered the gravelly stones between my feet. I stood back to get some perspective on my latest painting and the fence was looking super, clean and kempt.

Then I took my paraphernalia to the back steps under the porch and started to clean my roller and brushes. I had used up the whole tin of paint. I poured some methyl hydrate into the pan and rinsed out the roller then the brush. I rolled the roller on two local weekly papers until the most of the remaining paint was out of it and then enclosed the almost clean roller in a plastic bag. I’d learned this last trick from Charlie the Painter. If I continued on painting next day, I didn’t have to do a proper job of now. I would wait until I had truly finished painting with that colour.

I rinsed the brush in a cleaner pot of thinner and then loaded it up with dish detergent to loosen up the remaining paint binder in it. It took three times of this water and detergent stage to get it looking like new, not counting the metal ferrule which I never try to get really clean. I left the brush outside to dry and transferred the dirty thinner into a glass jar. I was done.

I took one last look at my handiwork. It was nine o’clock and the July light was fading fast. I was happy with my work.

“Maybe. Just maybe,” I thought, “this colour is maroon. It sure dried fast. It’s got a certain je ne sais quoi to it?

“Maroon? …Or maybe purple?”


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