This story is Part I of a series I’m writing called “Joe’s Tales.” It’s all in that messy, first-draft stage right now. Find Part II, “Uncle Marty Falls Down” here.
The muscles in Joe Battaglia’s upper arms and neck ached, and his eyes burned with turpentine tears after standing under a wooden staircase scraping away at peeling chips of dry dead oil paint all morning long. Somewhere behind him a saltwater breeze blew from off the Atlantic Ocean just one short block away from where he stood. Joe tried his best to ignore the memories of such pleasures as ocean winds and walks along the beach. “After all,” he told himself, “Work is work and play is play, and you must work today. Maybe later on you can entertain your better nature.”
“Mornin’, Mr. Battaglia,” said the voice.
“Howdy, Dr. Bretcher,” said Joe.
“‘Nother fine day here at the shore, isn’t it, my friend?” said Dr. Bretcher. “Sun’s shining and all’s right with the world.”
“You said it before I could,” said Joe.
“Well, the missus and I are soon off for our afternoon walk, and then we’ll be visiting neighbors for an early supper. Anything we can do for you before we leave?” said Dr. Bretcher.
“No, sir, Doc,” said Joe. “I’ll be finishing off this staircase and maybe getting to the second-floor deck before I call it a day. I’ll make sure to put up some Wet Paint signs, so you won’t forget and step on something slippery.”
“See you, tomorrow, then, Mr. Battaglia,” said Dr. Bretcher.
“Bright and early. Right after I go to Mass at St. Peter’s here in town.”
“God is great,” said Dr. Bretcher.
“God is good,” said Joe.
Joe almost messed up the conversation by saying, “. . . and we thank him for our food,” but he caught himself just before he let the words out. Those words sounded Protestant to Joe anyway, and Joe Battaglia was a Catholic man, through and through. Each night, before he went to bed, Joe said a prayer to the Virgin Mary. He didn’t quite understand what the prayer’s words meant, but a prayer’s a prayer is what he told himself.
Dr. Bretcher was a tall, skinny man who wore black-rimmed eyeglasses and picked his nose a lot without realizing the nasty habit. He owned the two-story vacation home that Joe was that day preparing to paint. Many of Joe Battaglia’s customers were rich people, at least they seemed rich to Joe when he considered that they owned houses in the big city, where they slept and ate and did their business during the winter months. As well, these folks maintained beach-side mansions with second stories and wraparound porches and wicker rocking chairs that they never sat in set up on those porches so as to look all relaxed and such.
Joe Battaglia lived ten miles away from the ocean, in a one-story house of maybe one thousand square feet, covered in faded asbestos siding, power blue with white stripes. His porch was made of poured concrete, dyed olive green, and there was a fault-line crack in it that stretched from the house’s front door down to near the first of three steps that led to a short cement path that in turn met the Thompson Avenue sidewalk. A great big maple tree grew beside the curb. Its roots caused the sidewalk to buckle up into the shape of a broken hill, so if Joe wasn’t extra careful when he left for work in the morning before sunrise, he’d trip before he reached the driver-side door of his 1960 Chevy Impala.
Joe kept ladder racks on the car’s roof and gallon cans of paint and turps with brushes sitting overnight inside the turpentine to keep the brushes wet and supple. Joe’s next door neighbor, a small-time numbers runner, parked his panel truck — marked Paul Cincerella’s Tires on the sides — in the driveway between Joe’s house and his. Joe tried not to stare too much at Paul’s truck, because if he looked at it, he started to feel jealous.
Joe’s painting business was all about underbidding the next guy. Joe worked alone, so competing with the local major contractors was a dirty game in more ways than just the obvious ones of messing up your clothes with linseed oil, buttery paint and the peeled chips that fell inside your socks and shoes, that and cracking up the palms of your hands by washing paint off of them with kerosene at the end of a working day.
Joe had to bid low and dirty, too. A job that a three-man crew might charge twelve hundred dollars to complete was maybe a three-hundred-dollar deal for Battaglia and Sons, Inc. Joe Battaglia didn’t have any sons, but he thought the name made his business sound bigger than it was. Joe didn’t have a wife either. Joe lived alone, but he listened to a lot of music to keep himself from feeling lonely. That, plus he danced inside his living room. With the draperies pulled wide open, so he could see the maple tree’s leaves shimmying right along with him.
When shadows shifted behind Joe Battaglia’s back, he decided to take a break and walk down two blocks to Louie’s Luncheonette. Louie wasn’t really a friend of Joe’s, but they knew each other enough to say hello across the counter.
After washing up a bit by dipping his head under a spigot in Dr. Bretcher’s alley and rubbing some paint and sweat off his face, Joe began to get in touch with his better nature. He thought it must be the salt air and the cold water that made him feel refreshed.
He made sure to lock the Impala’s doors, and then he started to walk. Along the way, he stared at the random pattern of paint splotches that decorated his once-white canvas overalls. On the bib portion he imagined that he saw a violet-colored daisy. He said hello to the daisy and flicked his thumb and index finger at one of her petals. The petal fell to the sidewalk and a breeze pushed her backward toward the ocean.
Joe switched his glance to the grass that grew beside the curb. Tiny yellow flowers shivered between the green blades, which made Joe feel like shivering with them. The flowers seemed to wave at Joe, and he waved back at them. He began to sing Zippety Doo Dah and danced a staccato rhythm. Tap, tap, clop went his work boots. The boots felt heavy, but Joe’s feet felt light. Joe noticed that the yellow flowers had picked up and matched the patterned beat of his step.
By the time Joe reached the front door to Louie’s Luncheonette he’d just about finished the last verse of Zippety Doo Dah, but he continued to hum the melody, as he opened the screened door, listened to the bell above the jamb jingle, and waltzed his way to the vinyl-covered stool at the far end of the counter.
Joe sat down and asked Louie to serve him up a salad. Joe liked to eat light and healthy whenever he was working on a job that would require long hours of labor.
Louie was young, dark-skinned and fat. On his face he wore the shadow of a beard. His lips were thick and his eyebrows were bushy. He rarely smiled, but he never frowned either.
Louie said, “Hello, Joe. You look splattered and you look happy. What’s got into you? Usually, you’re a grouchy sort this time of day.”
“Well, Louie, it all started when a daisy’s petal fell off my overalls. Here’s the rest of her, look, right above where my heart’s supposed to be. Ain’t love grand? Especially once love’s grown old enough to lose a petal or two and still survive.”
“You’re nuts, Joe,” said Louie.
“I just feel like dancing,” said Joe. “And I’m hungry. Is that salad ready yet?”
Louie placed a dish piled high with salad on the counter in front of Joe. Red tomatoes, purple radishes, green cucumbers, orange carrots and more. The plate clattered. A cherry tomato rolled off the plate and onto the counter. Joe picked it up, tossed it into his mouth and bit down into it. He liked the way the juice squirted onto his tongue.
“Want some dressing?” said Louie.
“No. Don’t really want to cover up all these pretty colors,” said Joe.
Joe picked up his fork, bent his upper body toward the dish and stabbed at the salad. Some paint chips floated from the bib of his overalls and onto his food. Joe ate them along with the carrots, the tomatoes, the cucumbers and all the rest.
When he’d finished eating, Joe left a couple of dollars on the counter beside the empty dish, got up from the stool and said, “So long, Louie. Thanks for the salad and thanks for the company.”
“So long, Joe. See you next time,” said Louie.
Back under the wooden staircase, Joe returned to scraping dead paint chips. The chips fell in shower formation onto his shoulders and on down to where his work boots touched the ground. The salt-air breeze blew stronger than it had earlier in the day, and this time Joe felt its coolness brush against his face.
When he’d finished working for the day, Joe set his tired body behind the wheel of his Impala and he smiled. “I suppose that love and labor can sometimes sprinkle color into a working man’s life,” he told himself.