A Jersey Story
Okay, the first time I painted her I was about sixteen. No! It’s not that kind of a story. Nothing artsy fartsy. I have two hundred hours of community service to perform for the court. Don’t ask; that’s a different story.
My mother didn’t want me on a road crew picking up trash all summer, and I’d be damned if I’d wash police cars every Saturday for a year. The only other choice (and it wasn’t a choice, it was something my mother’s brother Angelo arranged) was to paint her. She wasn’t a girl! I told you it wasn’t that kind of a story. She’s an Elephant! Big grey one six stories high, down by the beach. Her name’s Lucy. Lucy the Margate Elephant. I had to go up on the ladder and paint her because the regular guy was too old to climb up anymore.
Well there were two. Sallie and Benno. They’d sit there on milk crates with a quart of beer in a paper bag and yell how bad I was painting.
“Hey kid, what ya doin’ up there painting your toe nails?”
“Yeah, paintin’ them like Benno’s fruit cake cousin in Philly!”
“Who? Jo-Jo? Jo-Jo, he got no feet!”
“Kid, hey kid, you got no feet like Jo-Jo the swish?”
“What ya doin? Ya did that side!”
“Twice ya did it and what, still nothin’ on top?”
They could go on like that for hours, walking around and pointing at spots I missed or where the paint wasn’t even. Finally, I was so mad I came down and made them show me on her leg how to paint. Those two miserable old bastards yelled and cursed, but by God I learned how to paint. How to cut in the edges nice. How to use the whole brush, flat, tip, and side. By the end of my two hundred hours I could paint pretty well, and you know I was hooked and stayed on until I finished the job. Sallie taught me about the colors, how to mix my own and get it just right. Whatever you wanted, glossy or flat, thick or thin, whatever.
Benno, my God, that crazy old man Benno. I never to this day met anybody who could use a brush like him. He taught me all the tricky stuff, like how to paint shadows that aren’t really there. We painted the stairs inside her together. If you’re from around here you know she has stairs.
He gave me some of his old brushes and taught me how to do the fine work. On the bottoms of the steps he painted pin-up girls. I was too embarrassed to try that so he had me paint religious stuff. I painted Mother Mary, and Jesus, and I think half the Saints under those stairs.
Next summer I came back and painted her again. Summer after that I was in ‘Nam. By the time I got back, oh my God you should have seen her! What a mess. Sallie and Benno both gone. They died while I was overseas. The City had no money to hire a painter, so I did it for free.
Uncle Angelo still had pull at City Hall so he got me the paint. All the years I painted, her or anything else, I never paid a dime for paint. It all went on the City’s tab. Last week of every July, I’d spend my vacation painting her! Rest of the year I’d paint what came along; condos, beach houses, stores, apartments, even the casinos along the shore. Good money, all cash, but I didn’t like the people. Acted like they were better than everybody else.
But then one day I was upset and told the head guy in charge, “You never painted no elephant so you don’t mean shit to me”. And I quit. I’d rather go where I belong and work small. The hell with them all.
Just people I know and one elephant. Sure, the neighborhood’s changed over the years. Everything’s different now. We’ve been through a hell of a lot down here. That last storm, you wouldn’t believe the mess! So much damage; and so much gone. But Lucy’s still here and so am I. And know what? Come last week of July I’ll get her all dolled up again. We take care of our own, here in Jersey.
Doug Mathewson writes some decent short fiction and some pretty average poetry from his home on Connecticut’s eastern shore. He has been published by exceptionally kind people both here and abroad.
He is a member of Full of Crow Press and Distribution http://www.fullofcrow.com. His current secret project is called the Mambo Academy of Kitty Wang. Further information not available at this time, as it is a secret. He is the Senior Editor of Blink-Ink http://www.blink-ink.com , the hottest in ripping edge ragged contemporary 50 word fiction. Also he is Planet Betty section editor for DK&BP at Pandemonium Press of Berkeley California.