It’s a cold fall evening. I’m about 10. I’m watching TV with my dad in the living room. Mom’s reading magazines in the kitchen.
There’s a knock at the door. Mom answers through the chain-locked door. It’s a guy in his early 30s, white-trash looking with red skin and long-ish hair poking out from under a baseball hat.
I hear him say he’s down on his luck. I get up and listen behind the door. He’s got a bag of supplies, and says he wants to repaint the house number on the front steps. For some cash.
There’s that tension that always accompanies a handout. Dad sits on the couch glaring at mom, mumbling passive disapproval. The guy gives his pitch again. Mom is looking between the guy and dad.
Finally dad turns back to the TV, indifferent, leaving mom with the situation.
She says “OK, hold on,” and shuts the door. She goes to the kitchen and returns with a $10 bill. Dad notices, and scoffs. He turns back to the TV.
Mom opens the front door.
“OK, so you’re gonna to do this now right? You need light?”
“Thanks, ma’am. Just be a minute.”
The guy goes to work on the steps. Mom shuts the door. He’s done in a few minutes and leaves.
Dad’s blurry-eyed again, watching the news. The tension subsides.
I wake up the next morning to shouting. Dad’s voice is the loud one.
“Goddamn it, stupid sonofabitch!”
“You see this godamned mess?”
“OK, I’ll fix it…”
“I fucking told you, those fucking bums. They suckered you again.”
“I’ll fix it, Jack…”
The front door’s wide open. Mom’s in the kitchen crying. Dad storms out to spend Sunday at his shop, leaving the door open. I walk outside, still in pajamas.
The concrete porch is cold on my socks. I step down the stairs and see what the shouting’s about. I see the guy’s paint job from last night. It’s a disaster. Crooked numbers, running paint. Looks terrible.
I step back in the house, and mom rushes past me. She’s got a paint can and brush. She furious, mumbling to herself. She paints over the guy’s work with white wall paint.
She comes inside, puts away the paint and sits down to read magazines. Dad comes home early afternoon. No one talks. Dad sits down and turns on the TV.
It’s early the next day. A knock at the door. I’m eating Cheerios at the table, getting ready for school. Mom answers in a bathrobe.
It’s the guy.
“Ma’am I’m sorry… I… the other night… I did some drinking. Did sloppy work all down the block. Here to fix it.”
“Oh. Well, uh…”
“Really sorry ma’am. Just be a minute.”
She shuts the door. She returns to the kitchen, quiet. I hear my spoon clink against the cereal bowl. I can still hear the yelling from yesterday.
I get up and walk to the window and push aside the curtains. I watch the guy.
He’s on one knee, concentrating hard on his paint stencils, paint cans spread next to him. The early morning’s very bright. Guys are coming out of the neighbors’ houses for work. They stare at the him rudely as they climb in and start pick-up trucks and sedans on the street. Not much money in this neighborhood, but not many bums either. Took guts for him to return.
The guy finishes up, wiping his hands on a rag. He moves carefully, packing the cans into a canvas bag and zipping it, slinging it on his back, looking things over. I notice the thin legs, worn jeans, steady eyes. The sloppiness from the other night is gone. He’s a worker. He’s no bum.
He disappears down the street.
Later that day I see the freshly painted house number. It’s a perfect piece of craftsmanship. My relief is cathartic. Mom is vindicated. The tension is gone.
Later, no one talks. Dad sits in front of the TV. Mom reads in the kitchen. I throw the ball out back and think about the day.