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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer

War Planes

   The new owners of the home on Glasseye Lake were two weeks from their scheduled move-in date. They hated the carpet. It was all coming out. But they were mostly fine with the paint job. There was just one upstairs bedroom that needed a coat of primer and a couple coats of something called “Oceanglory.”

     Marvin’s boss had met him at the Get N’ Go gas station on the southern edge of Multioak and given him the key to the lake home, a few gallons of primer, and a five gallon bucket of Oceanglory. He had also given Marvin hand-written instructions, which he had read aloud to Marvin twice and then made Marvin read back to him twice before sending him on his way. “Upstairs hallway, second door on the left.”

     The rain started right as Marvin arrived at the house. He ran his equipment in from the car in three clumsy trips. The house was dark and empty and every sound Marvin made attested to that emptiness. He walked into the living room and stood in front of the bank of windows that stretched from one end of the room to the other, looking out over the tossing, heaving lake as the rain tapped against the glass. He leaned forward and rested his forehead against a window, slipping his hands into the pockets of his white painter’s pants which were spattered with the paint of a dozen different jobs, most of it some slight variation of beige. Marvin’s lower back throbbed in expectation of the coming labor, but he was glad for the hours, glad for a chance at a few more dollars to throw at the credit card debt.

     He got both cans of primer, two roller pans, and the 18-inch roller out of the front hall and up the stairs in one trip, although one of the primer cans knocked a small chunk out of the varnished wooden handrail. “Second door on the left,” he said to the vacant hallway, and he pushed the door open with his knee. He dropped the equipment on the carpet, turned on the light, and then stood still with his finger resting on the switch, gaping at the walls of the bedroom.

     They were covered, all four of them, from floor to ceiling, with a beautifully intricate painting of what had to be the biggest, most outlandish scene of aerial combat ever conceived. Jets and planes of all kinds, from all corners of the globe, waged war on each other on the walls of the bedroom. They swooped and soared and spiraled down in flames, cutting the puffy cumulus clouds to shreds. Anachronisms abounded. A half-dozen World War I biplanes, the scarves of their tiny pilots snapping in the wind, swarmed around a lumbering A-10 Warthog like sparrows harassing a vulture. Two Messerschmitts bore down on each other with guns blazing while a Japanese Zero came out of the sun and careened towards an empty point in the sky where all three planes would converge in seconds. A B-17 Flying Fortress tried to fly cool and casual above it all, but a Spitfire with smoke billowing from its engines was barreling toward it with other ideas.

     Marvin went back into the hall and counted the doors on the left side again. Then he consulted the written directions again and again counted the doors.  Then he went back into the room and poured a can of primer into the paint tray. He dipped the roller, which was screwed to the end of a four foot plastic pole, into the primer and rolled it back and forth in the tray, feeling it become heavier as the primer soaked into its thick nap. Then, with one smooth, smacking swipe, the painting of the massive dogfight was incomplete. Jets fired missiles into a wet, white nothing and bullets came back at them from the nothing, exploding their fuselages. Marvin painted another swath down the wall, overlapping the first by an inch, not quite doubling the size of the primed area, and the battle was diminished that much further.

     Years ago, when the kids were all young, Marvin and his family had lived less than a mile from an airbase. He would be out on the back deck grilling cheeseburgers while the kids tried to lasso the dogs with jump-ropes and then they would all hear a low scream coming towards them and look up and a trio of flashing jets would streak across the blaring blue sky, their crisp contrails chasing after them. Sometimes an unseen jet would break the sound barrier, an act Marvin had thought to be illegal over residential areas, and he would feel the sonic boom shivering through his bowels while he stood at the kitchen sink and washed oil sludge from the mini-bike off of his hands. Marvin’s kids had been afraid that the jets would accidentally drop bombs on them.

     “That can’t happen,” he told them.

     “Yes it can,” they said, nodding their heads up and down and knowing they were right. “What if the bombs aren’t stuck on tight enough? What if one of the pilots presses the wrong button?”

     “That won’t happen,” said Marvin. “They would get into so much trouble.”

     “You said everyone makes mistakes,” said his kids. “You said that.”

     “I did say that,” Marvin admitted.

     Once, Marvin had taken the kids to an air show at the base. There was a near collision between two stunt pilots in F-16s. He didn’t know how they had managed to miss each other. From his spot on the grass, with his kids scattered around him reclining on beach towels and wearing colored sun visors on their heads, it looked to Marvin as if the jets had been mere inches apart, yet neither pilot had ejected. He had been so overcome with emotion that he started to cry and his kids got very quiet, watching him out of the corners of their eyes. What could he have told them? That human error crawls all over everything, no matter how well-devised or well-defended or well-rehearsed? That in reality accidental bombs fall in constant showers because people are always failing to stick them on the planes tightly enough or pressing the wrong buttons?

     Marvin used the very last of the primer to cover the final, narrow section of the wall over the door frame, a MiG-29 banking for a hard turn disappeared in the wake of his roller, and the room was all white. Where the primer had dried, faint shadows of the warring aircraft could be seen as through a thick haze, but the first coat of Oceanglory would take care of that. The wind outside hurled the rain against the bedroom window in intermittent bursts.

Marvin’s cell phone rang in his pocket.

     “I told you the wrong room,” said Marvin’s boss. “It was supposed to be the first door on the left. I must have written it down wrong. How do you feel about taking the blame for this one? You know, with kind of an ‘honest mistake’ approach?”

     “I’d prefer not to,” said Marvin.

     “We’ll talk about it,” said his boss. “Take an early lunch. I’ll be over with more primer in a half hour.”

     Marvin went to the first door on the left from the top of the stairs, the correct door, and opened it. He turned on the light. The walls were a flat beige color.

     As usual, there had been no warning, no air raid siren, and here he was again, picking through the rubble.

Discussion Questions

  • Why does beige get such a bad rap?

  • Would you prefer Oceanglory or Beige?

  • Is the history of the world basically just the history of Human Error?

  • At the end, is Marvin correct in his belief that there was no warning? Really? What makes you say that?

  • Are you surprised that a middle-aged house painter isn’t very jolly? If not, is it because you know that painters are subject to long, mind-numbing stretches of time in which there’s nothing to think about except the unfairness of their individual situations?