percentage of completion


We showed up this morning, seven painters strong.  A dump truck was unloading mulch between the big house and the cottage as crews were spreading it off with two bobcats, steam and dust lifting into the fog.  We walked single-file, from the construction entrance at the edge of the woods, and carried brush boxes, small ladders, a work plank, and more paint.

Three electricians were talking in the entryway to the superintendant.  Plumbers were setting fixtures in the bathrooms.  Tile guys were cutting tile on the porch and setting tile in the showers.  Carpenters were building the closet shelving, their saws set up in the bedrooms, the last finish coat (of paint) remaining.  Glass guys were installing mirrors downstairs, leaning them on finished walls, trying to turn corners in the stairwells.  More carpenters were building a barnwood hood over the kitchen oven and the cabinet guys were tearing out crown molding (already painted) in another bathroom because the floorplans were wrong.  The third cabin down the hill was closed off completely where the floor guys were still applying stain.  This was the Friday, one week from the construction deadline at Blackberry Farms.  And where does the contractor expect us to be?  Everywhere.

So that’s work.  We also have a 100 year old Victorian house going on in Park Ridge.  Two stories, six colors, a couple of guys are there all the time. I try to return phone calls but people call everyday wanting something painted next week.  Late October, I tell them.  That’s best case scenario,
with 8 men working 40-50 hour weeks.

All of this is to make possible job #1: my own house.  Ashley and the boys are living near Washington D.C. and I’ve seen them once in over a month.  I’ve spent three months away from them this year and Thatch is seven months old.  I saw on Facebook that he started crawling on Wednesday and Addair told me on the phone today, “I want my daddy.”  I was driving the van, guys all around me, sitting on buckets behind me.  We went back to the job.  I stained a window in the same bathroom as a plumber who was setting a toilet and I asked him, “Do you guys do much sidework?”

Plumbing has set my house back.  First I couldn’t get a permit, and now I just can’t find the time to watch youtube and read a book to get a drain vent in the right place.  The inspector is coming, I’ve learned all about that.  The plumber in the bathroom told me they were killing themselves to keep up.  I told him that we were too.


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So here we are.  Tomorrow I’ve got the trim carpenter from Blackberry coming to help me hang barnwood siding in the living room.  My best spray-man and I are also going to spray-foam the ceiling with five kits of closed cell foam.  That’s the weekend plan, after a 60 hour week of frantic paced construction.  Next week the tile guys, Joe and Jim, who spend all their time in the shower together, are coming to build my shower pan.  So with a living room finished, a ceiling insulated, possibly one bathroom ready to finish, I could potentially get my momma and the boys back in a matter of a few more weekends.  That’s just how it is.  After that, come late October, KRPC paints one house at a time.  I write country songs, hug my lady often, and take the boys on long walks after a warm dinner that didn’t come from a Pilot convenience store.

Videos of getting the barnwood ready:





10 years through four wedding rings and counting




Tomorrow is Ashley and my ten year anniversary.  We celebrate the date not only 100 miles apart, but she is having to spend the day getting the rack and pinion replaced on the truck.  It hurts, my truck needing me like that, and having to be so far away.  But I’ll probably just paint, and then do something special later on. Like go for the Bacon Habanero Ranch Quarter Pounder.

Sure it’s a little melancholy tonight, but the ten years haven’t been depressing at all.  I think back to 2004 on the beach, bare feet in the sand, I remember her brown eyes and that we both recalled dolphins in the distance behind the pastor.  She gave me a brushed gold wedding band with an inscription on the inside. It said something which only makes sense between us.  Then in late Fall, that ring fell off my finger while I was building a bonfire on a cold night in Warrenton, Virginia.  I rented a metal detector but it was a 200 year old Virginia farm: there was a nickel or a bottle cap under every step.  So I replaced the ring with a simple one from a mall kiosk.  Not a bad idea as it would turn out.

A couple of days before the next Christmas that second ring was cut off in the emergency room after a beer growler exploded in my hand.  A beer growler that I dropped. I nearly lost the finger, and all the tendons were severed.  It was at a brewery where I worked in Nashville, and also the deciding factor to give music a break for a while.  Ashley went back to school and I went into banking, finance, and being picky about neckties.  She graduated, began a masters program, and three years had gone by before we both decided to abandon such wonderful backup plans.  We planned a move for New York City.

But not before Ashley’s redneck cousins dared me to climb a rope hanging from a tall tree.  A skinny rope, too small to use your legs, and it was something they did for building hand strength in high school wrestling.  I made it to the top but had a staggering pain in my finger.  The same finger (it always had sort of a club shape after the beer growler) and it couldn’t take the weight.  And so, the second mall kiosk wedding ring met the emergency room ring cutting device.  You don’t need to buy that tool, just borrow it.

This time I wore the ring anyway, with a cut through the top.  It was fashionable, and you can buy them that way, or so I’ve been told.  We went on to NYC, a month or so later than planned, and the ring was the probably the most fashionable thing I owned.  We weren’t there very long and didn’t pick up on much.

That ring served me well until early one morning, having been back in Knoxville for some time, I was working with a roofing shovel.  The ring must have busted on the handle and the pieces fell into the fingertip of my glove.  The good news is that I didn’t lose them.  I later lost them.  Now I’m wearing my fourth wedding ring.  I buy them all at one mall kiosk or another.

The crazier story is about Ashley’s ring.  It’s a family heirloom.  It was bought with scrip paper in a West Virginia coal mine by her great-grandfather.  This means he bought the ring at the general store in a mining camp with the paper currency which the mine paid him by, to shop at their own store.  There isn’t another ring like it.  Ashley’s mom inherited the ring as a girl and she always wore it.  Then she lost it as a teenager.  Twenty years later she and Ashley were shopping at an antique store on the teensy island of Okracoke at the very end of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  The ring from the coal camp was sitting in the glass case.  She knew it exactly, and the paperwork traced it back to an estate, and then to a collection of someone who was from West Virginia.

So she bought the ring and later gave it to me.  I soon proposed to Ashley in the middle of the night, we were alone, at the top of a 200 foot creaky beam of an abandoned dragline out
at Hopkins County Coal.  I haven’t forgotten what her mother told me when she gave me the ring:

“This ring was lost for twenty years.  Don’t put in a drawer.  Don’t leave it in a glovebox.  I’m giving it to you because it goes on Ashley’s finger.”  Or something like that.  I was 21 and a half at the time, and I knew I’d ask Ashley eventually to marry me.  Pretty soon, I mean, I was to the point of asking her parents about it. But delivering the lost-and found-ring became my plans for the following weekend.  And it’s probably good that I did, because how many rings have I lost?

So here’s my hope:  If our wedding ring situation worked out in perfect story book fashion, the brushed gold ring I lost with the inscription should be found quite mysteriously in another 10 years.  It goes by faster than you think.  The inscription is something no one else would ever write.  I’d tell you what it says but it would take a lot of explaining, and right now just isn’t the time.



chain smoking cured by fast approaching Corolla


It was a long drive home to Knoxville without my wife and boys.  I’m back to jumping around from friend to friend, my pile of work clothes, mouthwash and a toothbrush, and a bucket of protein powder to supplement a convenience store diet.  I told Ashley and the boys that separation is normal for the family of a house painter; it’s because of a place called jail.  But we’ll be together again one day.  Our house is coming along and the police are the least of my worries, not after dealing with the building inspectors.

These are such quiet evenings now, I’m usually alone, and one night last week I picked up my guitar.  It seemed an extravagant luxury to do that.  It didn’t’t wake any babies, nobody needed their bath (at least not within 100 miles), and as always, when I don’t have any energy to do anything, music doesn’t need any.

I was flooded with songs after Addair was born.  When he was tiny I would play wildly for him like he were a million people, just to make him laugh.  But it was getting to be less and less often.  I’m not making excuses, but cracking my jaw like an egg the summer of 2012 was kind of the point I didn’t get over.  I got my mouth wired shut and things became pretty simple after that: just paint.  I had a chip on my shoulder and a new titanium chin (bad line in a country song, but it’s true).

The good thing about painting is that it’s almost guaranteed to earn a living.  If you work hard, a good one.  If you work pretty hard, a decent one.  I made four albums between 2008-2011 but I had a hard time giving them away.  I did the best with what I had.  I got things finished and let them go, I was always proud of that. Painting is about that simple: laying down a lot of tracks and then cleaning it all up.  Then you cash the check.

Ashley and I will be married for 10 years on Thursday.  We talked a lot this weekend about the time, what year 11 might be like, and how we might be better to each other.  I’m still crazy about her and half undone without her.  She’s a beautiful woman and a gracious mother.  And to think she was eighteen years old when we fell in love.  We have something rare, and I’ve put it in a lot of songs.  I want to do it another few times and I will.  The guitar is right there.

Music is where I have historically gotten into trouble.  I’m either a songwriter and all of life is material for songs, and completing those songs is valid even if it makes me flat broke on a bus home from Mexico to live with grandparents.  Or I don’t write anything and the guitar sits in the case.  Looking over ten years of marriage we both noted the laps we’ve taken repeatedly to get some things straight.  Like my old chain smoking and Ashley driving at me with the car! This time around, in regards to music, I’m going to find a balance.  I can’t get by with the recklessness anymore.  But I don’t really consider music as trouble.  I’m grateful for the old stuff that I paid dearly for.  Still, at this point in life it would probably be a better goal to write the hits.

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all that’s riding on a five gallon bucket


It’s been a long time since I sat down and wrote a blog.  Twice I’ve forgotten the domain renewal and let the site go down.  But the old stuff on here is an archive of our twenties and I guess we’ll keep it around.  Ashley has a website now, and I really should be working on mine for the painting business.  But it’s Saturday night.  My family is gone and I’m living from truck to couch, like a real painter.  These guys, my hard living roughneck painters, are what I want to write about. I’ve been experimenting with how to do it.


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I always flash back to working with Ed Moore’s crew for RE Moore and Sons in Madisonville, Kentucky.  Back when I thought manual labor had to suck, and it was only for screw-ups.  (Your first week on a painting crew you aren’t led to believe any different.)  Then Spring Break was over and I was encouraged by the experience towards my studies in Finance.  But somehow, and our blog describes some of the process, I’m the “boss man” of a paint crew.  A little pirate ship, really.  Daily phone calls come in from jail, letters from rehab, while we continually evolve and reinvent our team.  If anybody ever said a good painter is easy to find, they were wrong.  I hire good painters, but I look for professional ones.  A professional painter will always need a ride and he will definitely steal your brushes.  Just factor it into the job.  But a professional painter wants to paint, he’s proud of his finishes, and knows what it takes to make them happen.


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A great painter once told me, “Russ, I like you and I want you to make it in this business. But you got to stop hiring these guys just because they have cars.  They can’t paint.”  That same painter used to spend 3o minutes a day cleaning his personal brush with only his fingertips.  And any of my new brushes simply vanished.  I also took the guy home everyday, always telling him I cared about him, and that it wasn’t enough for him to count on a strip of suboxone to be clean.  Then one night he overdosed on heroin and his mother found him, he went to the hospital, had warrants out, and now we’ve become pen pals.  That guy can really paint.

Somebody once told me to never trust a painter unless he was drunk.  But alcohol, in my experience, isn’t really the problem.  It’s pills.  I never trust a painter who doesn’t put a brush back in the shuck (the cardboard case that most folks throw away).  Or a painter who doesn’t strain the paint, or one who doesn’t put throat oil in the pump.  I’m even skeptical of a painter who doesn’t smoke.  But a painter who wants to stay drunk is always looking for the chance to hit you up for a $20 advance.  I kick those guys down the trail.

Pills are the real epidemic.  A lot of guys get by by taking pills.  They take them for the grind.  And I’m not talking about painting the nursery pink.  I’m talking about working the spray gun all day, enclosed in rooms of plastic, where the oil-base fumes soak into your eyeballs and the respirator peels off your face.  All other souls leave the building except for the painters, rags on their skin and vaseline on their eyelids; and when you come out to breathe after a day like that, you reach for whatever you can find to forget it.  I have two little boys and their momma.  I do everything I can to make our jobs never be the hopeless grind.


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People don’t want to read about painting, most people despise painting.  I also don’t want to tell roughneck gonzo stories for the sake of them, or even a gagging heroic account about giving second chances to juvenile-acting men who are the age of my father, in bandanas and camouflage sunglasses.  But if you should see me around town, making my morning bus route in a E350 1 ton van, with 20 paint-splattered ladders tied to the top with romex cable, rest assured the guys are riding behind me on 5 gallon buckets.  And wherever we ride, we crack tall ladders through clouds of cigarette smoke, the Graco pump hammers on, and empty caulk tubes hit the grass faster than smoking brass.  I love it, and I love these guys.  I’d write about that .

the dream of Knox Revival Paint Co.


Over the last almost three years I’ve slowly come to the place where I believe that housepainting can save the world.  A lot of people feel like the world needs saving.  It’s good to.  I’m okay with saving poplar siding.  The world has gotten narrower, yes, and it’s been a process (I even wrote a mediocre memoir which my wife and mother-in-law adored) but the important thing is to do your work with vision.  Any work will do.

Housepainting is unlikely to get most of you excited.  I know, and you probably don’t consider housepainters first when you think of eliteness.  That’s ok.   The good thing about a painter is how colorful they themselves can be.  I have a lot of stories, maybe for another time.  Instead I wanted to line out the vision for Knox Revival Paint Co.  Mostly to get it out of my head and down on paper.  When I’m not climbing big ladders and whistling Indiana Jones, I’m looking around the neighborhood at all the peeling paint.

Some basics to our business plan:  with few exceptions we work in the historic district.  That’s not out of snobbery, these are actually the houses most painters don’t want to mess with: scraping dangerous lead paint, tedious trim in multiple colors, a maze of ladder moves, and the lost art of window glaze and sash weights.  It’s often hard to do it right given the typical economic factors.  Lead abatement is cost prohibitive.  Lead-safe practices (RRP) are required but low-ball bids often penalize those of us who try to comply.  And the work is just plain slow, no way to help it.  I have a crew of five professional painters.  Not handymen, not guys between jobs, but painters.  This is our niche.

Let me think out loud for a moment.  First, we incorporate.  Form an S Corp and take on investors.  Neighbors, I’m proposing.  It gives liability protection and organization for us do-gooders.  And we get the equipment we need like wind screens and HEPA vacs to correctly address lead paint dust.  Then we buy a 30 foot driveable man lift.  Excessive?  No.  It would save days on jobs and make slow work become faster.  And safer.  What if you could get a 25 year premium paint job with necessary repairs, proper scraping, caulking, windows clean, the gutters fixed and trees cut back– down close to the price of your typical “blow and go” contractor’s bid?  What if a company had the earnings to donate a needed paint job on a regular basis?  Amazing.

Dividends for our neighborhood shareholders (or any) would be more beautiful neighborhoods, increased property values, less blight, and good old fashioned cash dollars.  That wins.  Of course some of us will be the men who paint (or ladies).  And I could use a few more.  It’s very very hard for a construction company to offer a real job with benefits, workers comp– and a paid vacation is actually a joke among us.  You get rainy days but you can’t eat them.  With better groundwork the painting career might be for some who hadn’t before considered it.  Let me know, I’m going to try to make it good.

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That’s the nutshell.  It’s how housepainting is saving the world.  Please like and share if you do and will.



fragile masculinity: a note


I want to add something to the story I posted the other day, not just throw it out there.  Most of my readers are friends who really know me.  And when the narrator is me they just imagine the Russ/Levon they are familiar with. But in the story I was trying to poke around.  The story is about masculinity being fragile and often too conscious of itself.  The narrator’s issues are evident (and here I go being too conscious, needing to explain).  And I have my own issues (like a sworn commitment to a lifelong 225 lb minimum bench press).  The narrator is me, but a very sketched me.  A generality, like in a country song.  He’s manly but he’s sensitive: he loves puppies and if somebody makes cupcakes.  He appreciates to be told in private whenever he looks good in jeans.  Nowadays, macho is too crass.  But masculinity is careful.  There’s a Red Wing boot for every interpretation.  So there you have it, read on if you will.


just reworking an old post last night




We’re getting rained out today from the paint job on the boulevard and it gives me time to address the mounting tension between this kid Jonathan and I.  I’m a painting contractor myself, the one some people know for my Cuban straw hat.  But I’m taking a little time off.  Time off from being caught up in it all.  I wanted to be out there on the boulevard.

I mentioned the kid a few days ago, if you read that particular post.  He took the opportunity to read it because I asked him to.  On the job yesterday he mentioned I shouldn’t be telling half-truths on my blog.  I told him to write down his side of the story and we’d link those up.  He said he wasn’t that kind of guy.  A painter can have a blog, so what.

Well it’s like this:

Jonathan is nearly ten years younger than I, at the peak of his invincibility.  I’ve fallen off ladders, I’m not going to be dumb.  Taken long rides, too, long enough to get some clarity through a glass door-pane.  And I don’t think he even drinks coffee yet.  True, I waste a bit of time with my coffee.  But age overlooks the inefficiencies dealing with drinking coffee.  Jonathan runs around with his pantone colored Gatorades.  I like black coffee.  I like to see blue skies in my thermos cup.  On the hottest summer days I keep it half-full for a little shade.

Yesterday Jonathan was doing some of the ganglier ladder moves.  He had a standoff actually on the roof with a pivot over the gutter.  It was the 24 (foot ladder) and the feet kicked over the bushes out into the yard.  He walked above it like it were stairs, no hands.  It wasn’t steep enough to.  He ran all the soffits and gutters like that, places only reachable by doing something professional.  He’s a good painter; I’m not saying he isn’t.

“Let him do the awesome stuff today,” I told myself.  “I’ll take the long runs, tangle myself through the holly trees, on the side that takes the sun and runs downhill.“  That’s what you do with a little age.  You plod through the thankless parts and preach about them.  Sooner or later they’re over and you get back to your coffee.  Anyway, Jonathan was only doing the moves I invented on Thursday.  We were up there with caulk guns and rags.

It was near the end of the day.  I’d moved out front for a bit, to make, I might mention, the highest ladder move on the job.  I worked it down the roofline until the kid and I reached the corner at exactly the same time.  Let me describe our ladder situations clearly.  The landscaping had made both of our predicaments a little dodgy.  Not very OSHA, if that means anything to you, it doesn’t really to me either.

I was on the 32, fully extended, secured with a wooden stake in the ground.  The feet were kicked out further than my mother would have liked, over those girthy boulevard-worthy boxwoods.  Plus I had a standoff,  its rubber boots hugging the stucco house.  On the other side Jonathan was still walking on his ladder like it was the grade school monkey bars, a drop cloth on the shingles for a safety net.  His ladder-feet were out by the mailbox, almost in the river.  Jogging down the boulevard, people were wanting their houses painted all the time.

It was difficult to reach the soffits and fascia out there, arching back behind you and all that.  I’m left handed and it was a right-handed reach.  Jonathan is right handed but needed his left.  Thinking out loud for a second, I said, “We oughta just get down real quick and switch places.”

Oh man, that was going to invite a comment.

“What’s the matter, you not too good with your right hand yet?” he asked.

“Let me show you something you’ll need to use one day,” I said.  I kicked my leg out one side of the ladder for a counter-balance.  Then I leaned way out the other side like a honeysuckle, the brush in two fingertips.

“Oh, so you know how to do that?” Jonathan said,  “That’s a good one.”  And truthfully, as long as you extend the toe, it is.

The floodlights made areas we both couldn’t see around.  ”Can you reach that spot on your side?”  I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, ”how’s it look from over there?”

“You got two little places behind the fascia that look thin.”

“So do you, right over that bulb,” he said.

”You ever get any work out of that Silverado?” I asked, “or do you just drive it to paint-jobs?”

“What?  You ever gonna be able to put some weight in your trailer and not get an engine light in the Tacoma?”

That was fair.

By then I was touching up.  “I’m going to have to come over to your side and clean it up,” I said.  “You want me to bring you some Kool Aid?”

“I see how it is.  Your soffits were about to drip all week and I wasn’t going to say anything.”

“You should have.  I’ve been so worried about making up time for you.”

“WhatEVer, dude.  Okay, how’s it look now?”

“You got it,” I said.  ”See anything I missed?” He looked around.

“Don’t worry, I was going to get up there and fix it.”

This kid wouldn’t stop.  ”I’m going down,” I said,  ”because your dad wants me to hold the ladder for you.”

“No he doesn’t.  I think he asked you to take more pictures for your blog.”

“I’m not doing that anymore.  They go to your head.  Get that Silverado dirty and I’ll take a picture of that.”

“Ha! I got you blocked in.  Are you gonna pull off in the grass?  I got tow straps if we need them.”

“I think I’m done up here,” I said.  “You are too.  Lets go get you a cookie.”

That’s pretty much how we left it yesterday.  Anyway, that’s how we’ll say it in on my blog.  Tomorrow we start windows, and Jonathan has a cute little brush for that.  I think he got it at an art store.

Rebekah Campbell liked this post

the wax ring at the end of the tunnel



I was just going to change out the toilet.  The downstairs one, take it upstairs, because the water lines had frozen and burst. We could create a functioning bathroom if we shuffled things around.  The tile floor, which my father-in-law and I laid in 2007, was now busted with a sledgehammer along the entire length of the wall.  That’s how you fix a plumbing leak sometimes: a .19 cent CPVC cap and a sledgehammer with some glue.

So I said, Maybe we shouldn’t go back with plastic water lines. We had the kitchen cabinets torn off and several sections of sheetrock cut out, the water singing behind the walls tracked to its source and capped. Another .19 cents.

Yes we will do things right with PEX and brass fittings, I said.  A PEX crimp tool is awesome, since any kid who lived for his Legos can now become a plumber.  (We’ll come back to that thought.)  A good question then became what to do about the cold?

I’ll always love a wood burning stove.  And every part of the process, stretching around the calendar year.  But I’d be lying to say it works for us.  The house is insulated like me in my boxers and a four-year-old’s T shirt.  It was fine for Ashley and I.  Ashley spent most of the winter in the bedroom behind a tower of space heaters.  We could have powered a 13 SEER heat pump like that.  In the evenings we’d visit the YMCA for showers and read magazines in the lobby, drinking tea and coffee in our mugs from home.  We don’t do that with kids.  Certainly not with a record winter like the last.  Ashley left Tennessee with the boys and didn’t live here at all.  Except for February, when we lived with friends in Park Ridge.

So I was going to swap the toilet upstairs.  And run PEX.  Then we would install a new furnace in Spring.  But wait, shouldn’t we insulate?  And frame out the master plan before the duct work.  Oh, the electric panel is undersized and overloaded, two slots already burned up and unusable.  We learned the foundation has been leaking behind the walls and the sole plates are rotted away.  And the gas water heater isn’t up to code, but cheap to run according to the Energy Smart sticker from years 1984-1987.  That’s how it happens.  You want to stay in a place and make it better, you opt for the smaller dumpster, then you call to reorder another four.  You search for apartments and settle in for a long haul.  Your father-in-law’s tile instructions are scattered all over the curb.   Meanwhile, upon the jobsite/dining room table, under the dust and drawings, among piles of random tools and Clif Bar wrappers and Taco Bell cups, is the wax ring for the toilet whenever you’re ready.



painters pants



painters pants


A sign says “Graning Paint Co.” with a Glidden logo in the corner.   There’s a mural on the building behind it with a paint can pouring over the cinderblock wall.  Graning shares its stance with Ray’s Market as the only non-vacant storefronts between the railroad viaduct and the interstate underpass.  Ray supplies the community under the bridge with cold paper sacks and much of the flattened litter you see along the sidewalks.

A rainbow awning covers the sidewalk at Graning, above barred windows holding stacks of mis-tinted cans of beige.  Ashtrays are on the sales counter and real painters are waiting in there; painters with white shorts and white tennis shoes, handle bar mustaches and Big Johnson tee shirts.  These guys don’t have any paint on themselves.  The shelves are cluttered like the back of a van, items with a certain amount of age, and always the doughy smell of paint being tinted and shaken in the back.

A man will ask you at the counter, “Cash or charge, bud?” He starts your ticket on a green metal machine with a lever that seems elaborate for separating a carbon copy.  No prices are written on anything and he looks up every item in a binder, his two fingers dragging a cigarette across the page, then he looks back up at you, then he writes something down on the ticket.

When I was just a homeowner, skilled in the regular homeowner ways, I wore old green hiking paints that came to carry so much paint they were only green behind the knees.  I’d painted far more than most people, I have one of those kinds of wives, but I still considered myself an outsider in a paint store.

Every painter remembers the day they put on the white pants, how the brush seemed to glide wittingly afterwards, and such blinding pants will forever save you the small talk at the gas station counter when you have paint on your knuckles and the attendant says, “I see ya been paintin eh?”  If you’re a homeowner with a wife like mine, and I’m just like you, putting on my pants one leg at a time, but they are white as the souls of angels and you are retiring an old pair of jeans, then the painting became more involved than you imagined.

My dad got me some painting work when I was younger.  His friend was a big-time contractor, and I think it was mentioned between them at breakfast to send me on one of the crews.  It taught me more than painting, and I believe it was felt, and rightly so, that I should experience some more difficult work than lifeguarding.  It served, at the time, to encourage my studies, for that boost I needed in my earliest semesters, to settle for a B and then struggle for it later.  Or else I could ride on a bucket in a crowded van, forty-five minutes out of town, heckle women from the steps of a church, smoke a joint in church, eat Moon Pies for lunch, and get dropped off at a motel where I lived: should I want to be a professional painter.  I could see it wouldn’t afford the cigarettes I preferred, and I didn’t want to do it.

One guy’s name was Cowboy and he had a voice that carried like a wrestler.  He wore a bandana on his head and he kept himself scruffy, although you could tell the mustache was dedicated.  About seven of us were painting the inside of the Baptist church in Clay, Kentucky and he still couldn’t manage not to take the Lord’s name in vain.  Not even to clarify his work directives around church: “You mean the G-D baptistery, or the ceiling over the G-D altar?”

A quiet older man we called Doc had once been a schoolteacher and I guess gotten in trouble with a very young girl some years before.  He was the butt of Cowboy’s jokes, which alluded to the hushed matter.  Doc was the most professional looking in our bunch with his perfect white pants and neat white hair.  Also he was the other guy in the crew with a cut brush, and Cowboy, you could tell, measured a man by the size of his brush.  Cowboy worked with a four-inch Wooster whose ferrule could barely fit in a cut bucket.  A fencepost brush, some people call it.  He could forge a stolen check with it if he wanted, but he painted balcony spindles and heckled Doc, then called down everlastin’ detail about the woman still asleep in his motel room.

My job on that crew was to run around with a caulk gun and a rag.  Whenever my name was called, “Dipshit,” I was supposed to push the guy over who was up in the scaffolding by a few feet.  Otherwise I kept all the plastic taped down and removed enormous amounts of garbage.  At the end of the week I had graduated to a roller pole and a bucket, although I can never pretend I grew up in the trade.  It was only on a few occasions, and soon after that I met Ashley.

I was in a hurry to finish school, a degree in Finance, an incomplete Minor in Piano Performance, and the hurry extended through a lot of apartments that we painted brightly before painting back to white at the landlord’s insistence.  We were in a hurry to become homeowners and I should have just gone with new wood paneling to save me the roller naps, but today I find myself the owner of eleven ladders and still very much in a hurry.

Whenever I’ve put brushes in the hands of my friends, trim assignments on their very first day sometimes, I think about my old crew on those spring breaks in college.  That crew was not a special case of painters, but nor is every crew like them.  I had a good mentor in Knoxville who was, in fact, the opposite.  The whole crew had seminary degrees, except me, the church pianist.  I had been picking up odd jobs before that on Facebook, and refusing to even consider another go in the world of desk jobs.  I realized there was demand for painting and money could be earned if you were not afraid of a tall ladder.  In my dad’s words, “Painting is probably a field where they could always use another good one.”  Songwriters, I had decided, the world was sick of.  And a business degree is about as useful as a two-foot stepladder: always handy, but you don’t really need it for what you can do with it.

One day, headed to Graning, I’d made up my mind.  We had been trying to live without a car in a small city, even with Ashley a few months pregnant with our oldest son.  My bike was locked out front, and a backpack on my shoulder full of brushes and rags.  I had been carrying the same borrowed ladder around the neighborhood and losing open mic contests at night.  I sat a brand new three-inch Purdy XL Glide on the counter.  It was the swan, by the way, get slapped with a brush like that you could drown.

“Cash or charge, bud?” the man said.

“Actually, I’d like to see someone about setting up an account,” I said.  “I’m starting a little painting business.”

“That’s great,” he said.  “Come with me for a second.”

He took me to a paneled office that opened up to one side of the sales floor.  A white headed man I’d seen often got up from his desk and shook my hand, covered in speckled paint.  I apologized.

“I’ll gladly shake a hand with paint on it,” he said.  He had a pleased look about doing business, but also about doing the part of his job that he loved: making painters out of men with paint on themselves.

He pulled out a legal pad and asked about my company.

“Well,” I said, “It’s just me right now.  I have a big job going, but the homeowner already bought all the paint.”

He wasn’t writing anything.

“I know they bought it here, though.  Twice actually.  It was the house where the paint was stolen.”

“Ah,” he laughed.  “Did they ever find who did that?”

“No,” I said.  “But she heard a story from a cop.  There’s some painters over in the trailer park on Central who supposedly have done it before.”

“How bout that.”

“Yeah, I guess they tell customers they’re running a special on grey and yellow,” I said. It was pretty lame to say, I know.

He smiled, “Well, young man, we’re glad you’re getting started in this business.  And glad you came to us.  Let us know whatever it is we can do for you and we’ll save you all the money we can.  And good luck to you.”

I thanked him and signed paperwork right above the word contractor.  We shook hands once again and he walked me out the door back onto the sales floor.  I bought white pants after that and put them on my new account.

Then I walked over to Ray’s Market.  I needed something to celebrate having gone into business.  It was nearly dark inside except for the Pepsi sign and “Please Have Your ID Ready.”  A tub of Laffy Taffys sat on the shelf and I picked out a handful of yellow ones.  I thought they might scrape glass if you needed them to, and I gave the lady a handful of dimes.

I folded the pants and paperwork into my backpack.  I needed to think of a business name and probably hire some painters.  Pedaling up Broadway past the shelters and the mission, people sitting along the wrought iron fence, I thought I’d swing home to take off the green pants and forget those apartment colors forever.

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A Colt Woodsman and the Dotty Shop navy pantsuit


I gave this short story a much needed edit just now, it’s one that I wrote after returning a few weeks ago from my brother’s baby shower.  So I thought I’d share it.

my brother Ryan and his dog

my brother Ryan and his dog


My cousin David shouldered and fired into the ice of the pond.  It blew a hole, lifting a geyser of water and ice to the height of the spindly willows on the opposite bank.  The daylight for good shooting was closing.  I tried with my eyes to follow the rifle crack across my grandmother’s farm.

Harvested corn spanned all around us until the tree lines, the silence now broken and then an echo.   The sky was pink over the Henry Thomas bottoms.  Further than that, or on the tobacco farm across Stateline Road, the sound would be another distant rifle fire at dusk over Dukedom, TN, where the red asphalt becomes black at the border of Kentucky and that is all that happens.

David loosed the next 19 rounds into the ice.  19 cracks stuttered within seconds, you could feel them under your feet, they itched within your palms.  Ice and water fell soundless beyond the charged air, lazy like the spray of waves crashing upon large rocks.  David turned around, the jet-black receiver open and smoking.  The wind across the field could make your eyes red and watery if you didn’t blink, and Ryan, my brother, said, “You look like a guy who put in his overtime this week.”

“I’m getting one of these,” David said.  He rested the gun in the grass and stepped back into the row with us along the side of the pond.  A moment earlier he’d been sore at the mud all over his truck from the deep ruts in the lane.  He probably did have the best tires out of the three.

“Y’all’re bad for even wanting one,” my uncle said, speaking of the gun.  “The police will give you $100 to turn one in, no questions asked.”

“You want to shoot it?” Ryan asked.

“No thanks, I can shoot mine anytime off the deck,” he said.  “But save the brass.  Not the steel, you can’t use it.”

I’d already picked up a handful of the brass casings, but also some of the gray steel ones.

“You got the steel right there,” my uncle said.

“Well I wasn’t going to litter,” I said.

We’d come to throw Ryan a baby shower.  Men are invited to women’s baby showers only when there are games designed to make fun of us.  It’s our role to play, as if repulsed while changing a doll’s diaper containing a melted candy bar.  A better thing to do for a soon-to-be dad is to spend time with his hands free, as far away from the smell of fresh nursery paint as he can get.  That’s my advice, as the older brother, and also as a new dad again just five weeks before.  Ryan and I had painted his nursery all morning and were now free to go.  His wife, Ashley, and my wife, a different Ashley, had both said so.

One day, of course, our boys will be out here with us squirrel hunting.  We were squirrel hunting right now.  Always it included stalking the duck pond, and then staying around to shoot ammunition not intended for squirrels.  We could call David a squirrel hero this evening, for firing the assault rifle, scaring the squirrels into their nests, and letting the hunt end at the duck pond just a few steps from the trucks.

My cousin Lauren walked up next to practice with each of her .38 specials.

A couple of things I was certain to do, I had given it some thought.  Dad and I were trying to get 1000 rounds of 9mm ammunition hand loaded before the impending zombie apocalypse.  I’d brought a few along to see how they would do.  Secondly, I carried a Smith and Wesson E series 1911 .45 ACP semi automatic pistol.  Firing .45s into a frozen pond is an extravagant expenditure of ammo, yes I realize.  But my brother was having a baby.  Secondly, herds of the zombies will inevitably catch a .45 full metal jacket.  My Dad has reloaded so much .45 ammo that the future will hold two types of people: friends of my dad, and zombies.

mike walker

My dad and his dog

My grandmother recently gave us our grandfather’s guns.  I was carrying his Colt Woodsman .22 pistol.  I didn’t grow up far from this place but I don’t come home much.  Not often enough.  I have one big memory of a thousand days of childhood that happened right here.  The pines that I remember the size of Christmas trees are now a forest thirty feet tall.  A lane runs past them and beyond to where the turkey tree once stood, and  I’ll never forget what it gave me to kick a four wheeler higher and higher into gear and keep trying even when there wasn’t another.  My grandfather is still everywhere on this farm, mostly because I’ve not been here often in the years without him.

I walked up to the pond and pulled the slender Woodsman from its leather case.  As a small boy I could be nervous of my grandfather, his cross moods when I was a nuisance.  He was never mean; he was very particular, especially around equipment and tools, but he was magical the way he could become a small boy himself.   You never knew when it would happen and even tried to instigate it yourself.  But if you were wrong, like when you touched everything on his work bench, you might be sent inside to watch the afternoon soaps.

Assisting my grandfather was like watching something fix itself.  He’d been a Buck Sergeant and aircraft mechanic in World War II, stationed in the Philippines to keep the B24 bombers in the skies.  We talked about this while we worked on tractors or the Honda.  Never any details about fighting and war, only the magnetos and pistons in each of the four engines and how difficult it might be to reach for the part you were getting at.

His hands were gigantic, big round knuckles and square nails twirling a wooden handle of a screwdriver that gleamed and smelled of WD40 and I stood barely taller than the Honda, holding extra screws in my hand, watching, but looking around the barn.  Later we’d slide the enormous metal door closed and lock it over the red dirt and orange gravel that pretty soon became grass, although the short walk back to the house was worn to the dirt along the tire tracks.

Before we left I would say, “Touch the electric fence, Grandaddy.”

And he would always do it.  The barn had open bays on each side with wires running along the surfaces, strung between little ceramic circles, each on a nail like you might see in an old house.  The wires were to keep critters out and especially the cows whenever he’d had them.  My grandfather, having been so serious about my mechanical lecture, would reach out and zap himself on a hot naked wire.

He’d say, “Wow!” and it would go “Zip!”

Or he would grab the wire and hold it, with a shuddering in his elbow, the crackling and popping, and then try to reach out and touch me.

“Come here, ha-ha. Hoo!” he’d say.

He got me this way the first time, but never again.  Ryan was brave enough to touch the wire with a large screwdriver, and this my grandfather hilariously encouraged.  He got Ryan that way, only that once.  The only person who should be grabbing the electric fence was Grandaddy.   And if you were holding his hand, you should let go before you got to the barn.

He married my grandmother and had a little welding shop after the war.  One day he went to Fulton and bought the .22 Colt Woodsman.

My grandma says they lived in a house where you could see the chickens running under the cracks in the floor.  She simply could not tolerate that he had gone to town and spent $40 on a pistol.   The next day she went herself and bought a navy pantsuit at the Dotty Shop.

I was holding onto my grandfather on the back of the Honda, riding along the high wall of the duck pond when he told me that story.  He handed me the Woodsman and I pretended to fire it at the head of a swimming turtle.  He always loved the story of how the gun had cost him a pantsuit.

I never saw my grandfather fire the .22 or any gun for that matter, although he owned several.  He liked to carry a gun but I suppose he didn’t possess the temperament or need to shoot anything.  A lot of it probably had to do with thrift.

If they were married in 1947 then the gun must have been a Woodsman Series Two, with the Series One lasting until the end of World War II.  Of course he might have bought it used, and I could look up the serial number to find exactly when the gun was made, but I probably won’t.   Hemingway admired the Woodsman, and carried it himself.  He once wrote of it:

“..and if he is really smart he will get a permit to carry one and then drop around to Abercrombie and Fitch and buy himself a .22 caliber Colt automatic pistol, Woodsman model.”

Hemingway, strolling around an Abercrombie and Fitch.

Ryan loaded the clip and walked up to the pond with the Woodsman.  He didn’t fire it randomly into the blanket of ice but held it in both hands and aimed.  It misfired a shell or two, as it had done for me.  No one had lubricated the gun in well over a decade.  Or maybe it was bad ammo, since .22 shells are the pocket lint of hunting jackets.  My uncle said an old gun could be finicky about using the good cartridges.

It was near dark now, dark enough to see the flare from the end of the barrel.  It was probably time to forsake my notions of nostalgia for the black menace of a high capacity assault rifle.  A varmint gun, some people call it, and poor varmint who trespasses against the sportsman armed with what has historically opposed Communism.

I shot once.  And then a burst.  Another burst, and then the remainder of the clip flashing orange in the blue twilight.

“Were you even aiming?”  Ryan asked.

“That’s what the first shot was for,” I said.  “I hit the pond didn’t I?”

I felt a lot better.  Our pipes at home had frozen and burst a few days before.

My cousin David still hadn’t said another word.  I handed him the rifle, “One more time?”

He took it from me.

He was careful to select something out there, it was hard to tell what, and fired sporadically until he’d emptied the clip.

“Sorry about your dirty truck,” I said.

“Ah, I’m just gonna bear down good on the way out,” he said.  David regularly operates a combine and drag races his Camaro on the weekends.

My uncle told him, “All the money you spend on car washes you can’t spend on a gun.”

“Oh I’ve made up my mind,” David said.

“Hanna won’t let you hang out with us again,” Ryan said.

“Just be ready,” I said.  And I told him how the .22 Colt Woodsman had cost a navy pantsuit.


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