John bumped up the volume on the bedroom set. The door was barely open but he could still hear Shelia in the living room, yanking another bent nail out of the wall. The couple living next door was probably dog cussing her, because she'd been at it for the last hour, tapping, then yanking.
It was his night off from the university and he just wanted to relax, pile up under the covers and catch a good movie. He'd offered to hang her damn painting but she wanted to do it herself. One of those modern women. So he gave her the hammer, a bucket of nails and told her she needed to find a stud. She didn't know how to do that, so he marked them on the wall with a pencil for her. Simple enough.
"What's up with this friggin' hammer!" Shelia screamed from the living room.
John sat up. From the sound of it, she'd knocked over the nail bucket. AMC was showing an old Gary Cooper flick, Ball of Fire, featuring Barbara Stanwyck. So far, the character Barbra was playing reminded him of Shelia. She was sexy as hell but had a mouth like a sailor.
"Johnny, can you come in here a minute?" she called.
Turning over on his side, he shut his eyes and pretended to be asleep. Sometimes it worked.
"Johnny, I know you can hear me."
Throwing back the covers, he pulled on his robe. She was a smart one, and artistic, but she'd never make a carpenter.
Shelia greeted him with a pout, standing on the sofa arm in a pair of faded cutoff jeans, one of her Wilco tour t-shirts, and those cheap white sneakers she liked so much. Nails were everywhere: on the mantle, the carpet, the recliner; everywhere but in the wall.
Somehow—he didn't want to know how—she had knocked a fist-sized hole in the sheet rock. It probably had something to do with the bottle of vodka there on the coffee table. She had polished off nearly half of it.
"I know," Shelia jumped down, "there's no stud, but there's gotta be a way to mount this friggin' thing where I want it."
John let his eyes drift over the canvas again. He still didn't get anything out of it. He'd been with her the night she finished it, freezing his butt off in the basement of the art building on campus. It was on the north side of campus, a good distance from the main boiler. She had called him at the maintenance shop earlier that night, complaining about the cold and some of the lights not working. She was bad about staying late, trying to get her projects finished on time. He usually stopped in, sometimes two or three times a night, especially when things were slow, just to check on her. She tried to teach him a little about art and he was foolish enough to listen. He remembered watching her sign her name at the bottom. Before he could ask, she told him what the painting was supposed to signify: "A humpback whale going down for some calamari breakfast." He also remembered the rest of their conversation that night: "A humpback," he nodded, trying to pick out the whale in what was obviously a messy smear of blue, green and black.
"It's down deep, near the ocean floor," she pointed with her brush, "next to the giant squid."
He looked for the squid, but couldn't pick it out either. He liked painters that showed the way things looked in real life, the way they were supposed to be, like Norman Rockwell. He didn't know what the hell Shelia was painting. Everything she did looked pretty much the same. Her art teacher, Professor Eiland, had told her to dig deeper and experiment more. She called him an old fart and told him that all his taste was in his asshole.
Shelia climbed up on the sofa arm again, tapping the paneling lightly with the hammer, listening for a solid sound, exactly like he had shown her.
"Couldn't we hang it from the ceiling or something?" she asked
"Well, I'd rather not go drilling any holes," John folded his arms, glancing at the bedroom door, knowing Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck weren't going to wait for him.
"Because there's people above us and they're probably trying to get to sleep now."
"You promised me," Shelia shook the hammer at him. "Remember? You promised you'd help me get this stuff up for the party."
John cleared away a space on the couch and sat down. It was true. He had promised. It was the day after she lost her scholarship and it seemed like a good idea at the time, a way to get her confidence back. The rest of her classmates were having an exhibition next week at the campus library and he knew she had wanted to be in it. The plan was to get them over to the apartment afterwards. Wine, food, music. She could show off what she had been working on.
"What if we build some stands?" he offered.
"You mean easels?"
"Yeah, you could put all your paintings on those. That way we wouldn't have to make any more holes in the wall."
Shelia cocked her head to one side, thinking. "You know, that just might work."
"I could build them in the shop, probably have a bunch ready by this weekend."
Shelia jumped down, threw her arms around him and kissed him hard behind the ear. "Baby, you think of everything."
John let his hands roam over her back, then lower. He liked it when she called him baby.
"Let's have a drink and relax," she grabbed the vodka, went to the cupboard, and got down two glasses. "Screwdrivers ok?"
"Fine," John nodded, "just don't make mine too strong."
Shelia shot him a wink. She made them the way she liked them.
"You're so good to me," she whispered, handing him his drink. "I'll clean up in here, you go back to your movie, ok?"
John shuffled back to the bedroom, sipping his screwdriver. It was so strong it made his eyes water. He normally didn't drink much hard liquor, but that had changed lately. A lot of things had changed since Shelia moved in. For a small girl, she certainly could put it away. Sometimes she'd go on these binges, stay lit for three days straight. He'd tried to talk to her about it, but she always handed him this garbage about how some of the world's greatest artist had been alcoholics and dope fiends.
The Gary Cooper movie was in full swing when he climbed back into bed. Barbara Stanwyck was teaching Gary a thing or two about street slang. He could hear Shelia moving around in the kitchen, putting tools away. She had her portable cassette player going. It was the same tape she used to blast at the art building, supposedly blue whales singing to each other but, to him, it just sounded like a bunch of murky moans. It made the little hairs on the back of his neck stand up. She said it relaxed her.
It was around two in the morning when Shelia finally came to bed. John pulled the covers back and she went straight to sleep. He wished he could do that. Second shift had done something to his sleep patterns. He usually didn't get home before midnight, then he had to wind himself down, let his mind relax, watch a movie or something. Shelia's hammering still had him pretty keyed up, not to mention the hole he'd have to patch tomorrow and the nails she had missed on the floor. He just couldn't get over a grown woman not knowing how to use a claw hammer. It was a tool, not a weapon and it took patience and discipline to master a tool.
In no time, Shelia was snoring like a lumberjack. It pissed him off how easily sleep came to her. He decided to mix himself another screwdriver.
Pulling on his robe, he shuffled into the kitchen. She had finished the fifth, but he kept a spare pint under the sink. He got one mixed, then sat down at the kitchen table. The apartment was quiet. His neighbors were asleep. It seemed like the whole world was asleep but him. Easels, he thought. They'd be easy enough to build. He found a pencil, some paper, then sketched one out, figuring in the materials he would need on the side. He had some extra wood at the shop, plenty of hinges, a little chain.
He missed visiting with her at the art building. Sometimes he used to sit and watch her paint, listening as she went on about her whales, how they could stay under water for days without coming up for air; how they talked to each other and found their mates in the deepest part of the ocean using only sounds or vibrations; how so many of them were still on the endangered species list; how she thought they originally came from outer space.
Shelia was a strange one, there was no denying that. He finished his drink, took two aspirin, and went back to bed. He got lucky this time and drifted off after a few minutes.
John woke up around noon and started breakfast. Well, it was breakfast for him anyway. Putting some coffee on, he got out the skillet and some eggs. Shelia wandered into the kitchen and sat down at the table, rubbing her head.
"Christ, do you have to keep banging all that shit around in here this early?" she asked.
John glanced at the clock. "It's a quarter to one."
"God," she groaned, "it feels a hell of lot earlier than that."
"I thought you were supposed to get up early this morning and go talk to your advisor."
Shelia poured herself a cup of coffee. "I'll do all that tomorrow. I was gonna try and finish this piece I've been working on for the party today."
"We still shooting for Saturday night?" he asked.
"Sounds good to me."
"Shouldn't we send out invitations or get it catered or something?"
Shelia laughed into her coffee cup. "It's not gonna be that swanky."
John went in early that afternoon and started to work on the easels. As long as he was off the clock, his boss didn't mind him using the shop for personal projects. The stands wouldn't take him very long anyway.
He'd just finished rounding the legs on the first one when Tim wandered in. Tim was a friend of his from the first shift maintenance crew.
"What the hell's that thing?" he looked the easel over, frowning.
"It's a painting stand I'm making for Shelia."
"Oh yeah?" he fingered the top wing nut that held the two side legs together. "You and Shelia still shacking up?"
"Living in sin," John nodded, screwing on a set of chains to keep the legs from going back too far. "We're having a party at my place this Saturday. Shelia's showing off a bunch of her paintings. You wanna come?"
Tim scratched his chin. "Who all's gonna be there?"
"Mainly Shelia's friends. I haven't really invited anybody I know."
"Artsy fartsy folks, huh?"
"Looks that way," John nodded. "If you wanna come over, I'm sure there's gonna be plenty of food, some beer, probably start around eight or so."
Tim scratched his chin again. He started drawing something in the blanket of sawdust there on the floor with the tip of his boot. "I don't believe I'd feel too comfortable, John. Nothing to do with you, it's just that those kind of people speak a different language, you know?"
"You got that right," John nodded. "Still, It's good to keep learning new things, keep growing. It helps to keep you young."
Tim gathered up a load of plywood, put it in the bed of his truck, then walked back over to where John was. "I'm not gonna hurt your feelings if I don't come out Saturday, am I?"
John smiled. He'd known Tim since high school. Now Tim had a boy of his own in high school. "Like I say, starts around eight, plenty of beer."
"You and Shelia been together a while now," Tim said.
"Seven months," John wrote down some measurements and adjusted the planing machine.
"So, you guys are getting pretty serious, huh?"
"Well," John shrugged, "I guess. Tell you the truth, we've never really sat down and talked about it."
"You love her?"
"I care for her," John searched for the right words. He didn't like where the conversation was going, but he wasn't good at bringing another topic in and changing it.
"I don't mean to be prying," Tim lowered his voice, wiping away the doodle he'd made in the sawdust. "But, you know, she's pretty young—not that there's anything wrong with that—but I just don't want to see you get yourself into something...you know."
"She is young," John nodded. "She's a little on the crazy side, too, but I'll be fine. I don't think we're moving too fast."
Tim leaned on the easel while John screwed in the height adjustment on the planer. "Well, you gotta be a little bit off, thinking you can make a living painting pictures. She needs to get her an accounting or business degree, then she can get her a job when she gets out of school."
"I can't tell her a damn thing," John shook his head. He bent over to switch on the planing machine, then caught himself. He had to take the chains back off first before he sent the wood through. All this talk about Shelia had blown his concentration to hell.
Tim patted him on the shoulder. "If you don't mind me saying so, she just don't seem like she's right for you."
John folded the easel, propping it against the work table. He wished he had a dollar for every time someone had tried to steer him away from Shelia. He hadn't expected it from Tim. People just couldn't mind their own business.
"Well, I appreciate you telling me Tim, but we're doing alright."
"Don't say I didn't warn you, buddy," Tim walked over to the time clock and punched out.
John got one of the electric screwdrivers down from the charging bay and started taking the chains off. It seemed like half his life had been spent taking things apart, then putting them back together.
When Saturday night rolled around, John had a problem: He didn't know what to wear. He figured art exhibitions were supposed to be formal, which meant no blue jeans. So, he dug out his best suit. Then he got down an old felt fedora he liked to wear on special occasions. The suit needed a good pressing, but there was no time for that. The guests would be arriving shortly.
Shelia was in the living room, laying out refreshments. He could hear her digging in the refrigerator's ice tray again, mixing another drink. He hoped she wouldn't be drunk too soon. It would be awkward putting her to bed, then dealing with all of her friends, seeing them off and everything.
He heard her knock at the bedroom door, then come in. Quickly, he put on the fedora and tilted it back on his head, trying his best to look sophisticated.
"Baby Baby," she cooed, aiming an imaginary Tommy gun at him.
"Is this alright?" he asked, looking himself over.
"Honey, you look drop dead. Where'd you get those pinstripes?"
"I've had this thing for a while, I just don't get it out very often."
"Nice," Shelia nodded, smiling, "and vintage."
When the guests started to arrive, it was obvious that he was well over dressed. Some of Shelia's friends wore black T-shirts, leggings, blue jeans with bleach holes eaten in them, tennis shoes. He started to go change, but the room was filling up quick and he didn't want to be rude and excuse himself in the middle of introductions.
Shelia was a nervous wreck, running from the kitchen to the living room, mixing drinks, playing the perfect hostess. John tried to step in and help with the crackers and cold cuts but she just shooed him away.
"Go mingle and enjoy yourself," she whispered, escorting him back into the living room.
John found himself eavesdropping on several conversations, picking up strange words here and there. He stood behind two artists who discussed Shelia's style. They spoke exactly the same way she did, pointing out fancy details he had never noticed before.
As the evening wore on, he caught Shelia slipping one of her girlfriends a wad of money. He couldn't tell how much, but in exchange she got what looked like a tiny cellophane bag of white powder. He knew what it was: Bad news.
She whispered in a few ears and they followed her out on the patio. He'd let them have their fun, but if they started to get loud, he was going to kick their asses out. He'd already warned the neighbors and invited them all, just in case.
"Johnny!" someone shouted, slapping him on the back. He turned. It was a boy around Shelia's age, long brown hair, black leather jacket, and paratrooper jump boots spattered with dabs of paint.
"I'm Kevin," the boy stuck out his hand. John took it. "I just wanna tell you what a saint you are for taking care of Shelia, man."
"Well, thank you," John smiled.
"After she lost her scholarship, I thought she was gonna snuff it," Kevin drew a finger across his wrist in a quick slicing motion. "She's still pretty low, but she's working," he spread his arms around the room, "and that's all that really matters, man—just the work."
"Oh yes, she's still painting," John nodded.
"Yeah. Say, listen, man," Kevin drew close, lowering his voice, "think you could hook me up on a bump?"
"Oh," Kevin pointed, "there's Shelia, I'll ask her. Later on, Johnny."
After his third glass of wine, John began to loosen up. He took off his jacket and tie and sat in on a few conversations. At one point, he looked around and realized most of Shelia's friends were dancing. The tape player was going. The blue whales were singing to each other. They sounded different to his ears now. The sounds were vivid and seemed to take on colors and shapes, each one reverberating into the next. He didn't understand how they were dancing to it. The sounds had no beat, just low moans and high-pitched squalls.
Making his way around the room, he was checking everyone's drink, emptying ash trays, picking up. Most of them seemed to genuinely like him. And he wasn't even trying very hard. They did like to party. It reminded him of a few house parties he'd crashed when he was younger. Kevin cornered him at one point with a flask of whiskey and made him drink from it. The whiskey went down warm, bitter and strong. He had to chase it with a glass of ginger ale.
It was after midnight when he weaved through the maze of paintings again on his way to the bathroom. But then something made him stop: It was the painting Shelia had been working on earlier in the week. He guessed she had gotten so busy with everything, she just forgot to show him that she had finished it. He let his eyes drift over the canvas. It was jam packed with tiny explosions of color. He didn't know where to begin.
Slowly, it drew him in, bathing his thoughts in a swirl of glowing details. A murky ocean floor, several blurred choral reefs, along with tiny schools of fish. It was wonderful. It was beyond wonderful and it kept getting better.
After five minutes or so, he was convinced. It was absolutely the greatest painting he'd ever seen. But the whales, he wondered, where had she hidden the whales? He went in close, knowing they had to be in there somewhere, probably right under his nose.
Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that Shelia's friends were moving in close, continuing their dance, moving in slow circles around him, trying to imitate the eerie underwater sounds that poured from the tape player. Some of them began taking their clothes off, while others wandered out into the back yard. He wasn't exactly sure how, or why, but he figured the neighbors would understand.
Secretly, he wanted to join in, strip off his pinstripes and let go. But his body had gotten old and soft and sagged in places that weren't fun to look at. Still, who was stopping him? It was his place after all. Maybe he would after a little more wine. Besides, he wasn't through going over Shelia's new painting yet.
When he turned back to it, everything was still there, just like before, the reefs, the fish, and more. Near the top, he noticed a faint hint of sky. It was bleeding gradually into the deeper darker blue below. He let his eyes find the bottom, diving down until all the colors ran into a thick jet black. It was almost too deep there, impossibly deep. He could feel the pressure building against his skin, the icy, almost unbearable cold. He ran his fingers over the rough fabric, the fused colors, refusing to believe the magic of it all.
An hour went by, or what seemed like an hour. Someone had switched off the back yard light, but the door was open. He could see naked figures moving around out there in the moonlight, some of them dancing. He was still in front of the painting. He needed to get out, get his bearings, some fresh air, join the others. But his feet weren't cooperating.
"Isn't it wonderful?" Shelia whispered in his ear, slipping her hands around his waist, letting her fingers unbutton the front of his shirt.
John nodded, afraid to speak, afraid he'd let all the oxygen in his lungs escape if he did. Her hands were warm against his chest, an artist's hands, pale and delicate. Suddenly he felt himself rising, like a swollen air bubble headed for the surface. The sky she had painted seemed closer to him now, almost within reach. She whispered something else, something so soft he could barely catch it. Then he saw them.