by Eric Brittingham
When Alexander Quillen’s grandmother told him she expected him to get up first thing in the morning on the first Monday of his summer vacation to help her paint her backyard fence and three-car garage, he couldn’t believe she was serious. Alex had made other plans. Or more truthfully, he’d planned to have no plans. He’d spent the final weeks of the sixth grade imagining that his summer reward for high grades and hard work would be a hot and humid haze of irresponsible sameness, with no discernable distinction between any given weekday and a typical weekend. If planning were necessary, he would say he planned to sleep and eat and perhaps to read (but only comic books and newspaper funny pages) and perhaps to watch television (cartoons and old sit-coms). Of course, he should have known that his grandmother was quite serious and would have no sympathy for such unproductive indulgence. After all, even the self-discipline his mother exhibited during the school year to rise before dawn each weekday morning failed to earn her a weekend reprieve in the eyes of his grandmother, who instead despaired that “laying abed clear to eight or nine o’clock of a morning” revealed in her daughter a dreadful moral failing.
And he should have remembered that he’d promised long ago to help repaint the fence and garage that bisected his grandmother’s backyard. This was no minor chore. The fifty-foot-long fence extended from the neighbor’s property line to join the back of the open-bay garage, which was turned around backwards so the bays opened away from the house and toward the soybean field at the edge of the yard. The sun shone year-round on both the fence and the garage walls, and as a result they required repainting about every five years. It was a job that Alex’s grandmother insisted on doing herself because the painters in the area had been former associates of the late Mr. Charles Quillen and so were persona non grata to his grandmother.
She did require assistance, however, and this supporting role had always been played by Alex’s mother. Although she never expressed any particular excitement about the prospect of a multi-day painting project, neither did his mother ever express an unkind thought about it within Alex’s hearing, and Alex had grown up thinking of the periodic fence-painting operation as something like a holiday. When the fence and back garage had last been painted five summers earlier in 1975, a younger Alex had tried his best to take part, helping with things like fetching water to drink and cleaning up drips, and he’d made his grandmother promise to let him help the next time the fence would need painting. She had in fact promised, with his mother adding dryly that she would be quite willing to hand over this grave responsibility to her son.
When his grandmother reminded him of this commitment, the now twelve-year-old Alex had to admit he’d forgotten all about it, but rather than argue the point, he’d instead put her off, saying he wanted at least a week of rest after what he proclaimed to have been a most strenuous academic year. After that, however, he didn’t even bother with excuses. Each time she would bring it up, he’d shrug and suggest they do it later. At first, she fussed a bit and complained about his laziness, but with his mother busy for several weeks teaching summer school, his grandmother was loath to start the project without some assurance of help. As the summer heat settled in that July, she set the project aside, but when August arrived, the act of turning the calendar seemed to rile her. She put her foot down—not metaphorically but in a literal, foot-stamping demonstration of her frustration—and she decreed a starting date for the project that following week. She wanted to get it done that summer, dag-nab-it, and she was done hearing his excuses.
“We’ll start the scraping and peeling early morning so we can get it done by noon. It ain’t no chore to be started with the mid-day sun beating down on you the whole time.” Alex demurred, noting the misfortune that, now that he was old enough to be helpful, he’d reached the age of requiring double-digit hours of sleep. She was unmoved by his protests. She repeated her schedule and left it at that.
The morning in question dawned, lightened, and began to burn more brightly with no Alex in sight, and she began without him, which he discovered at eleven-thirty as he sauntered through his neighbors’ backyards—his mother’s house was on the same side of the road as his grandmother’s and separated by only two neighbors—and he could see as he approached that she’d already worked her way down the fence line more than half-way. She’d scraped away the loose and flaking paint from its entire length on the side that faced the house, the easy side with the outward facing boards, and on the other side with the difficult angles of attached board she’d worked nearly to the gate-break that swung out from the section that met the garage. He was impressed with her determination and the quality of what she’d done, and the weight of shame and disappointment made his arms feel heavy pulling on his shoulders. He thought he would volunteer to do the garage in the afternoon, but his paper-thin level of maturity burned away when he came to stand across from her on the other side of the fence and she locked eyes with him through the slats just under the fence header. “Just sit yourself inside, boy, and I’ll be in directly to make your dinner.” Despite her anger—the sweat rolling down her reddened face revealed the effort she’d expended—she spoke to him the way she’d spoken to him when he was a little boy, when she would set him up in front of his cartoons with his TV tray in air-conditioned comfort. “I wonder if I could trouble you to mix up your own chocolate milk. And draw me out a glass of water with three ice cubes. If you would.” Alex didn’t say anything. He merely nodded, which she didn’t usually accept as an answer, but to extend his humiliation, she ignored his juvenile response, dropping her eyes and resuming her scraping.
After a quiet lunch, she said she was done for the day, that it was too hot to work anymore, and that he should “just go on home.” He didn’t even look at the fence as he ran from the yard. His mother had gotten home by then, and when he came in through the back door she was coming up from the basement with an empty laundry basket and said, “You’re back awful early.”
He didn’t want to talk about it. He sat down in the kitchen while his mother moved around the house, and he tried to understand why he was so angry. He knew he was in the wrong, more or less—as long you discount the notion that he was, after all, a kid on summer vacation. He figured he had every right to relax and not to have to do chores, to appreciate the freedom of being young, or so all the grown-ups would say when they got nostalgic and depressing and envious of his so-called freedom. He was only doing what they wanted him to do, he reasoned. He grew indignant. When his mother came back though the kitchen on her way somewhere else, he said, “What do we have to paint this stupid fence and garage for, anyway? Don’t they have people who do that? What do we have to do it for?”
She stopped and stared at him for a few long seconds. “So what happened?”
“She started without me. And then she’s all like, ‘It’s too late now, go home, it’s too hot anyway.’”
“I do wish she’d hire that job out.” His mother pulled out a chair at the kitchen table and settled in. “But I don’t think she ever will.”
She seemed to be validating his bitterness, so he asked indignantly, “Why not?”
“Because your Grampa was a painter, and she judges all of them by his standard. You know he had a little trouble with his drinking.” There was no humor in her eyes, no wistfulness, only her normal flat stare. “He was friends with all of them. All the painters and builders. He was 4-F during the war—you know what that means, right? He had a bad back, and the Army didn’t want him—so he got a lot of work in the war years and got to know all the other painters and builders around here. Your Gramma thinks to this day they all drink and carouse like your Grampa used to, and she won’t hire any of them. It doesn’t make much sense because none of those men work anymore. But it doesn’t matter. She’s set in her ways.”
He was pouting, building up a grievance against his grandmother, as well as the fence. Alex had a love-hate relationship with the fence. He loved it as a pretend outfield wall when he played baseball in her backyard, but he hated that it was in the way for just about any other kind of play. It was an obstacle, an eye-sore that cut her yard in half for no obvious reason. “I wish we could just tear it all down. Her and her stupid fence. How about if we just get rid of it?”
His mother frowned, and her eyes hardened. He was surprised. She usually supported or at least was amused by these little frustrated outbursts about his grandmother’s obsessions and interests. “You don’t know the story of that fence and garage. Do you?”
He shrugged, then shook his head. His grandmother had never told him anything about the history of the house, except for occasionally saying, “I wish they’d built it a little better, but anyway, the roof don’t leak.”
His mother said the house had been his grandparents’ first home together, built from a standard plan offered by a local builder back in 1943. Dee had wanted a garage that was bigger than the single-car building in the plan, but the builder wouldn’t compromise, and he asked too much for the customization. So, as a surprise, Charlie called in all his debts and favors and arranged to have a big new open-ended three-slot garage with an attached fence built in the back, with a new extension to the driveway dug out and stone put down—all of it done by his buddies in the week while they were away on their honeymoon in Atlantic City.
“That was back when things were still okay with the two of them.” His mother was staring off at something, nothing, just looking into her memories. “Daddy was drinking then. He always drank, but not like later.”
Alex didn’t know much about his grandfather. Neither woman wanted to talk about him, and they didn’t seem to miss him all that much, as if he’d been something they’d had to live with for many years that had simply been removed one day, like the food and fuel rations during the war years or a long spell of foul weather that had passed. “Was Grampa that bad?”
“He wasn’t easy.” She took a breath and looked at him again, a smile lifting her mouth as if remembering it was Alex she was talking to. “Your Gramma, she’d fuss and fume at him about his drinking. It didn’t help. Might have made it worse.” She dropped her eyes for a moment and shook her head. “For your Grampa, life was just too much to handle. I think he thought maybe your Gramma was strong enough to handle it for both of them.” Her eyes were smiling again. “So, the fence and the garage, they were a gift—really a wedding present from your Grampa to your Gramma. So that’s part of the reason they might be special to her. It may be just about the only thing he ever gave her that she really wanted.” On saying this, she frowned for a moment, and her eyes darkened. She looked at Alex, as if to see if he was still paying attention. He was, but he hadn’t heard what she’d said. That is, he’d heard her words, but he’d not understood her accidental meaning. She rose from her chair. “Anyway, it means more to her than just a fence and a garage. That’s the point,” she said, rubbing his shoulder on her way back to the basement.
That evening, after supper, when the orange sun had dropped behind the houses across the road, Alex got permission from his mother to play in the yard while she watched television in the living room. He knew his grandmother would be doing the same thing in her living room, and so he snuck out of his mother’s yard and along the edge of the soybean field to his grandmother’s backyard figuring he’d be sure to have the back garage all to himself. There were several relics of his grandfather’s life in there. Hung on the south wall was his wooden ladder, splotched and spackled with spilled paint. Several slats of leftover press-board paneling lay across the rafters. Folded against the back wall were a pair of metal-framed canvas-seated lawn chairs. He pulled one of these down and unfolded it and sat in the mouth of the middle bay of the open garage, looking eastward over untold acres of soybean field and beyond that to the forest of elm and oak trees that lined a distant road. The night was coming on, and from where Alex sat it wasn’t a sunset, but instead it looked as if the darkness was rising in the east, the emptiness of deep space at the tops of the trees deepening and pushing the bruised border of the daytime sky over and behind the garage. Stars were flickering awake by degrees, no moon was out, and no safety lights had yet turned on as Alex sat in the gloom with the things his grandfather had left behind after he drank himself to death years before, back when his mother had been much younger than he was then, only eight or nine, still a little girl.
Until that day he’d not given much thought to what it meant to be a man named Quillen in this family, but as he reflected on the history lesson his mother had given him that day, he found there was little to recommend them. It was no wonder his grandmother hadn’t bothered to remarry, and he guessed this bad history must also be the reason his mother would never allow his own father to be a part of Alex’s life. Whoever that man had been. She would never say.
He considered for a squeamish moment what his grandmother might be thinking of him as she watched him growing lazier in the summer heat. Did she think it was typical? Just like a Quillen man? Or was it all men? Is that why his mother hadn’t said anything about it? Is that why she never let him have a father? Maybe she thought all men were just as useless as her father had been, all of them useless and lazy. But Alex didn’t feel like that. He wasn’t intending to be lazy his whole life. He wanted to be lazy that summer. He figured he had his whole life to be a grown-up. So why hurry? Why not enjoy it while he could? But what if that’s the way all bad men think? What if you just keep thinking that way, all the time, forever?
Alex’s departure had not gone undetected. His mother’s footsteps crunched the gravel in the turn-around in front of the bays. The light was so weak that she had to get within a few yards to be able to see him. “I thought you might come here,” she said. She pulled the other chair off the wall and sat beside him in the growing darkness. “You know, your grandfather used to sit out here like this, too.”
Alex didn’t exactly like hearing this might be an exclusive behavior of Quillen males. “Did you sit with him, too?”
“Sometimes. And sometimes I’d sit here by myself, after he was gone.” She paused, and he thought he heard her snort, like she did when she smiled at something kind of funny or kind of naughty. “Sometimes it’s good to get away from your mother for a little while, isn’t it?”
That wasn’t what he was doing, though. “I guess it’s good. Maybe not always.”
“That’s true. I’m trying to focus on the good part, though.” It was getting difficult to see her in the fading light, but she was turned to face him. “It’s hard to recall only the good parts out here in this place, but it’s nice that you’re here, now, Alex. I can’t tell you what it means to me right now to see you sitting next to me in that chair.” She put a hand on Alex’s shoulder and then ran her fingers through his hair, just past and over his left ear. It was a touch she often used to soothe him when he was younger, and it usually made him feel safe and comfortable. This time, though, he couldn’t help but feel that somehow it wasn’t meant so much to comfort him but instead to comfort her.
Now he didn’t want to sit out here in the dark anymore. “I guess maybe we should go inside, though. I guess I need to get up early if I want to help Gramma.”
It was too dark to see his mother’s eyes, but he heard her take a breath and let it out. “Yep. That sounds good.” They put the chairs away and started the walk back home. He’d begun to feel too old for it lately, but she wanted to hold his hand, and he let her this time. It was dark, after all, so no one could see it. And it was kind of comforting.
The next morning at seven, he sprinted over to his grandmother’s backyard, meeting her as she was beginning to pull out the equipment to finish the fence and start stripping the garage. She frowned at him, but he’d decided not to rise to any of her baiting. While she finished the fence, he took the ladder and started scraping and peeling the old paint off the west side of the garage, the side with the most weather damage that would be blistering hot in a few hours, saving the north and south sides for the afternoon when there would be shade. He worked until lunch and then afterwards went out alone and finished the rest of the building on his own.
While he was scraping and scraping and scraping, many times his arms and shoulders and legs would tire, and he’d take a break and think about what he was doing. As he watched the yellow chips flying off the boards and fluttering and twirling and diving onto the grass around the garage, he wondered how deep he’d have to scrape to get all his grandfather’s paint off this building. And how many of those flakes belonged to his mother, when it was just her and her own mother left to do the whole job themselves? He wondered if that was why his grandmother had been scraping so hard when she went at the boards herself the day before. He wondered if she did this every five years just to freshen up the paint or because she wanted to get rid of every last vestige of that man if she could. Or maybe he wasn’t in her mind at all. She’d kept the ladder and chairs and plywood, after all. She was nothing if not a practical woman.
He and his grandmother hadn’t said much to each other all day, but in the late afternoon when Alex was done and putting the ladder back into the garage, she came out to survey his work. She squinted in the brightness, shielding her eyes with her hand as the sun beat down on the scraping he’d done that morning on the west side. “You do good work, boy,” was all she would say about it. “There’s storms coming on, so make sure you get everything inside.”
The next morning, they started the painting, but they both stopped at lunchtime because the sun was too hot. When they resumed the following morning, his grandmother stopped them after they finished the western side. “I don’t know if we’re laying it on too think, or if the boards are soaking it up more than normal, but we’re about out of paint. I’m going to have to send your mother to the store to get another gallon, I reckon. Maybe two, just to be safe.” She had a few marks of cream-yellow paint on her checks and nose. “About time to quit for the day anyhow. You think you can get your mother to go to the store this afternoon?”
He was committed to the project now. He told her he’d see to it. After helping her put away their tools, he ran to tell his mother about their chore.
He never wondered why his mother had to be the one to go buy the paint. He just assumed it was one of the things that his grandmother was set in her ways about, and sometimes she delegated tasks to his mother. He went along to the hardware store, feeling as though he wanted to see out this aspect of the project, too, and when she asked the service man to mix up two more gallons of Gin Fizz, he didn’t even notice, really, what she’d said. But as they were riding home, his mother asked him, “Did you overhear what the paint color was?”
He repeated it for her.
“Now, this might seem a little strange, but do you think you can keep that to yourself?”
“Sure, I guess.” He shrugged it off, and then, when they got home and they carried the paint inside and he watched his mother popping the lid off one of the cans and smearing paint over the words “Gin Fizz” that the paint-mixer had helpfully written in grease pen, he understood what was going on. “You mean, Gramma doesn’t know that the fence and all is painted in Gin Fizz?”
He didn’t know what the “fizz” part meant exactly, but he knew about gin. He started to laugh at the thought of his grandmother surrounding herself with this color of paint named after booze—so much righteous indignation over liquor, like when she insisted that she would disown them both, him and his mother, if he was allowed to go on a school-sponsored trip for all the year-long honor roll students to a theme park because the park was sponsored by a beer company. He started to guffaw dramatically, but when his mother turned to look at him as if he’d just interrupted a funeral, he stopped himself. “I know it seems funny to you,” she said with her teacher’s gravity and self-possession, something he rarely saw at home, “but this is serious, Alex.” She secured the lid with some well-placed hammer blows, set the can on a porch step, and invited him to sit beside her.
He was already feeling repressed. “Why? I don’t even know what ‘gin fizz’ is.”
“It’s a cocktail. An alcoholic drink with gin and lemon juice. And I don’t know why your Grampa chose this color. Of all the colors to choose. I don’t know if he meant it as a joke, or if it was just a coincidence. But she’s always loved this color, ever since the day she saw it. That’s what she told me. She had Daddy paint the whole house this color, even the little garage and some of the lawn chairs we had when I was little. You know she likes cream-colored things.” She did have a number of yellow or cream-colored objects in or around her house, including wall paint, curtains, bed linens and coverings, dresses, shoes, hats, and the interior of the car she drove. “He knew she liked things that are lemony and citrus colors. I like to think that he just picked a color she liked regardless of the name and then tried to hide it from her for her own good. So she wouldn’t have a fit and reject it for the silliest of reasons.”
“What’s her deal with that anyway? I thought she was just like that because of Grampa. She was like that before, too?”
“I believe so. Her daddy’d been a bit of a drinker, too, and when her mother died kind of young, she had to care for her daddy and sisters, and it made her kind of bitter.”
Alex had never before considered his grandmother being any age other than as old as she was then. Even when he’d been imagining her as this newly-wed with a new house and husband, he saw her as wrinkly-faced and gray-haired. But she’d been a little girl once, and her mother had died, and she’d had to move into her aunt’s house, and she’d had to deal with a drunk father and two younger sisters who weren’t responsible to the mistress of the house like she was—he’d heard this history before in bits and pieces. Now he saw it. He saw that girl. He saw them trying to get away with all manner of foolishness, and how she would straighten them out, make them be a respectable family, make them mend their ways—or she’d have her foot up their asses.
“So, your Grampa had me go along with him the last time he picked up the paint for her. He let me in on the joke then. He was tickled by it. I was little, but I remembered. We had to keep it a secret. We had a lot of secrets.” He looked at her then, but she got up and moved to stand in front of him. She grabbed the handles of the two cans. “Let’s go drop these off and let her know it’s done so she won’t fret over it.” Before they left the yard, she stopped. “And we’ll keep the name to ourselves?”
He was suddenly uncomfortable with secrets. Keeping secrets was maybe another male Quillen characteristic he didn’t want to inherit. Still, he nodded. He didn’t want to make trouble.
The paint went up, across each board and down the posts and around the windows. In one way or another, he’d touched nearly every board of the garage, and a lot of the fence, and it was all covered now, all of it, with his own layer of paint, and he knew it was all Gin Fizz.
His grandmother was unquestionably pleased when they were finished. “It sure looks a darn-sight better now, don’t it?”
“Sure does. A darn-sight better.”
They went into the house, and although the air-conditioning made the ninety-degree weather feel even stickier by contrast, they decided to take their celebratory glasses of lemonade out into the yard and sit in the shade behind the house and look on the sunbrightened results of their week-long efforts. They’d both downed a full glass and were settling into their second when a sick feeling took Alex’s stomach. He thought it might have been too much lemonade too fast, but when he closed his eyes, what he saw was a dark garage filled with secrets.
He held his tongue for as long as he could, but he saw no end to this discomfort. He had to make it stop, and he felt it wouldn’t stop until he’d gotten out from under the shadow of at least the one secret he knew about. “I heard about something the other day,” he said, believing he was being delicate and discrete. If he’d had a beard to stroke or a pipe to hold in front of his nonchalantly squinting eyes, he would have effected these poses. Instead, he plowed ahead with a quavering voice. “Have you ever heard of a drink called a Gin Fizz?”
His grandmother made no move at all for several moments. She didn’t even appear to be breathing. She looked straight ahead at the fence, same as she had been before he uttered those contemptible words. Finally, she took a sip of her lemonade and continued to look out into the yard. “I take it you did in fact accompany your mother to the paint store.”
He nodded, but she wasn’t looking at him, so he said, “Yes.”
She took another sip. “I know all about that. Yes, yes, yes. I know all about Gin Fizz.”
The truth had emerged from the darkness, but it hadn’t lightened his stomach. Now what had he done? Had he betrayed his mother? He hadn’t meant to do that.
“Your mother thinks I don’t know. Is that what she told you?”
“Her daddy probably told her that. But he’s the one who told me. Never trust the memory of a drunkard.” She looked at him now, and he saw the color of her eyes was a lighter brown than his or his mother’s. He’d never noticed that before. He may have never really looked until then. “Told me a few times. Trying to hurt me. Your mother was too little to know anything about any of it. He’d do a lot things and not remember. Or claim not to.”
They were quiet for a while, and Alex felt calmer in the silence. So she knew. She’d known all along. “You’re okay with Gin Fizz?”
She pursed her lips, like she was about to spit. “That don’t mean nothing to me. It’s just a dang color name. And look at it.” She pointed her glass at the fence. “Your granddaddy weren’t good for much, but he knew his paint.”
“Why didn’t you ever tell Mom then?” He was growing upset again, this time because it was like she was keeping a secret from them. “So you could make her keep buying the paint?”
“No, boy. She buys the paint because she thinks she’s keeping a secret for her daddy. It ain’t got nothing to do with me. But I never have told your mother because she never has asked me about it.”
“Shouldn’t we tell her?”
“What for, boy?”
“Because.” The truth was self-evident. He didn’t know how to explain it. But she didn’t respond to him and didn’t seem likely to. His stomach was no less sour, and he didn’t like the idea of these secrets at all. There were too many secrets. He hated them. It was too much to hold in. “Because secrets are lies. You’re just lying to her. You’re not telling her the truth.”
His grandmother took a sip from her lemonade, ruminating on the matter. “Boy, sometimes things just ain’t that simple.”
“Yes they are,” he said. But after he thought about it, he asked, “What do you mean?”
“They ain’t that simple. It ain’t just about lying and such. I can’t explain it to you. You’re too young to understand. It ain’t your fault that you’re too young, so don’t go on belly-aching about it. But there’s some things that are best left dead and buried. They ain’t secrets so much as they’re just dead history, and just like you don’t go digging up dead things to prove they’re still dead, you don’t go bringing up old dead history just because you want to feel good about yourself. Am I making myself clear, boy? It ain’t a secret not bringing up stuff nobody wants to talk about. It ain’t lying.” She took a breath. “It’s just common decency.”
He knew now he’d been right all along about the garage, no matter what his mother had told him, no matter what his grandmother might think of it. They’d be better off without that man’s garage, just like they were better off without the man himself. But they wouldn’t rid themselves of it. They’d live with it, and every five years or so when its ugliness threatened to reveal itself, they’d scrape the ugly away and paint over it, cover it up, and make it look like they loved it. Even invent excuses for it. Make you feel bad for even suggesting there’s anything wrong—oh, no, there’s nothing wrong here, nothing dark or ugly to see here. Look how pretty it is now, shimmering in the sunlight. No one’s ever going to know what darkness is inside it. As long you don’t say anything about it and embarrass everybody.
“I don’t understand,” Alex said into his sour glass of lemonade. But it wasn’t true. He was beginning to put it all together, beginning to understand exactly how it works in a family with secrets to keep. In fact, he was already playing his part, trying to fool himself and his grandmother, saying what he wished was true. “I just don’t get it.”
“I thank the Lord for that.” His grandmother leaned back in her chair, a rare contented smile warming her face, and closed her eyes against the brightening reflection of the lowering sun. “The Lord knows if it were up to me, boy, you never would understand.”
Eric B. Brittingham was born and raised among the soybean fields of downstate Delaware, and now lives and works as a technical communicator in northern Alabama. He is currently working on a novel that further explores the lives of the characters in this story. This is his first published work of fiction.