Peggy the Painter

This is so typical of me. I try to be smarter and nicer than the next guy, and what do I get? Outsmarted by my own stupidity.

I got this flyer on my door. It said in broad, swooshing strokes, “Peggy the Painter!”. The text wasn’t totally centered and the copy was of crappy quality. Too many fonts, too many exclamation points and not enough class. On the bottom, sort of crooked and also off centered, was a gold foil stamp, obviously applied by hand. Some sort of Asian symbol, I think.

It boasts a “free color consultation with every job”. Nice.

Do I throw it away? No. I do not. I look at it and think to myself, “Poor Peggy, she’s probably trying to just get started. Spent her last money on printing these crappyflyers and delivered them by hand.” I set it aside and wait for my good sense to kick in. It never does. I have two painting jobs that need doing anyway, and why not slide this budding entrepreneur a job?

“This is what keeps America great”, I think. Grease the wheels of this economy. Give someone a chance so they can stay self-sufficient. Even if they’re not totally a class act. Am I? No I am not. Would I print something slightly off center? Yes, I might. And I would want to be given a chance. I think this might be where I went wrong.

I called Peggy and asked her to come and bid a couple of jobs for me. One is my living room (the parlor, actually), the other is the ceiling at my rental house. After talking to Peggy on the phone and in person, I decide it would be a good idea to have her work on the rental property (this is the voice of my inner intelligent person directing me) first. See how she does at painting a ceiling. At someone else’s place.

She is nothing like the chipper feminist with paint in her hair that I have imagined. She’s somewhere north of 50 with an immense cascade of thick blonde hair, skin that has spent way too much time in the sun, and blue eyeliner. Because her hair is the wrong color for her age and because of the eyeliner and the fact that she seems hyperactive, I have trouble gauging her age.

The fact that her hair and makeup is well coiffed but her pants are splattered with paint seems weird, but because she is generally very weird, it isn’t my biggest concern. When I tell her I am hoping for a warm color for my parlor because it faces north, she nods. She thinks for a minute, hand holding her chin. “I have it! You’re gonna think I ‘m crazy, but I know exactly what you need in here. This is so weird, but sometimes I have a feeling about things, and man! This is going to be so great.” She’s pretty excited.

“What you need in here is a pewter color, or a steel gray. And I think we should do some stencils, too. You know that one design, the one the french like, it’s on lots of stuff.”

“A fleur di lis?” I venture.

“Exactly. Pewter, with tone on tone stencils of fleur di lis. Oh I have to do this job, now. Once I get an idea about something like this, I won’t rest until I see it done. My last customer told me what she wanted, and I told her I had this good idea. I told her I’d re-do it if she didn’t like it, but I insisted on doing this really cool orange and black thing. She loved it.”

Hmm. Let’s get that ceiling done, shall we? We agree that she should meet me at the rental house on monday. She’ll have to scrape the ceiling off before she paints, but she lets me know she will need some money to buy paint before she can start the actual painting.

I brought her over a check for half the job. She was excited to see me so she could show me pictures on her phone of, “This table I painted, wait till you see it. You are gonna freak out! Here, look at this picture! Is that just the shit? Those colors, aren’t they wild? My boyfriend says I should sell it for a thousand dollars onEbay. Isn’t it just the shit?” It was, in fact, the shit. As near as I could tell by the cell phone photo.

She worked all day, scraping the ceiling and then patching where it was needed. The next day she called to say she’d be late. Imagine the smokiest hippie voice saying, “Ahh man, my friend Mike… He’s a great guy, but he broke his arm. He’s always been there for me, you know? Well he needs my help hanging some ceiling tiles. With the broken arm, you know?” I allowed as to how it would indeed be hard for mike to hang tiles with one arm.

“Great, Lisa. You’re my kind of person, you know? You have a kind spirit. Can I say that? Is it totally weird? I know. It is. But I feel like I can say it to you, you know. Anyway, this tile is really great, I’m kinda curious about how it hangs anyways. It might be great in that one room of yours. I’m still really excited about that. I’ll probably be over at the rental around noon or so.”

Noon rolls around, two rolls around. I get a call. “Yeah lisa, Hey, I’m glad I caught you. This ceiling thing is turning out to be… Well, lets just say it’s nothing like what I thought it would be. Mike’s a great friend, but… I’m gonna have to go over to the rental tomorrow. Mike’s got this broken arm, I can’t just leave him half-done, here.”

When can she make it to the rental to finish their ceiling so they can move their furniture out of the hallway? “Ahhh man, I can be there tomorrow morning. First thing. It shouldn’t take me more than a day, anyway. Tell them they’ll be watching the news tomorrow night in the living room. With a nice new ceiling.”

Tomorrow rolls around. The renters call me to ask when she’s coming back. “She didn’t come this morning? FFFFff… Ok. I’ll try to get ahold of her.”

No Peggy. The weekend goes by. No Peggy. I send an email. I call again. Finally my brother and I go over and sand and paint the damned ceiling. Cursing Peggy’s name the whole time, because we got left with sanding and painting above our heads.
We speculate about what happened to Peggy. Not the least of our curiosity is because all of her equipment is at my rental house. All in tubs labled either “Peggy’s painting” or “Peggy’s Cleaning” Hmmm. We put it all in the basement and start watching the obituaries.

Three weeks later the phone rings. It’s Peggy. Alive. And out of jail. It wasn’t her fault. It was a misunderstanding, but they have her truck, so she can’t do any work. She’s still excited about painting my living room. I’m trying to talk myself into slate gray for my parlor…


While my mom was sick, we were operating in crisis mode. Day to day, worry to worry. It’s hard work, dying. And not just for the sick person. It’s hard work. Lots of hours. Hours on the road, hours in the hospital. In hospital rooms, in hospital halls, waiting rooms, elevators and parking ramps. Hours at her house instead of mine. Much of it is just stupid. But we had a mission, and we were on it.
The stupidest thing I think we had to do was plug the parking meter while we were visiting my mom. Visiting isn’t even a good word. We were being with her. Hours and hours every day. But the meter doesn’t care how important my presence is. I suppose it was a good break, a reason to go outside. But sometimes looking for a goddamned quarter is the last straw on a very heavy and precarious load.

But I digress. The caring time was drudgery. It was work and it kept us all busy. But after my mom died. After all the trying, and thinking and working was over; there was something else waiting. And it wasn’t something better than work and exhaustion and sadness. It was fear. I can’t remember exactly when it was in the saga of this part of my life that I started to be afraid.

But I remember what it felt like. I remember waking up gasping and terrified. Abject horror and doom prickled my skin and made me sweat. I just woke up scared. The kind of scared I haven’t been since I was a kid. But when I was a kid, there was usually a bad dream preceding the scary feeling. And if I yelled loud enough, my mom came down and I felt safe.

This scared was new. There was nothing solid to hang it on, no dream to talk myself out of. Not to mention no mom to holler for. Sometimes when I was in bed and feeling really scared, I’d just reach out a hand or a foot and touch Andy. Just touch him. And it made me a little less terrified. Until I fell asleep and woke up scared again.

Maybe a month after my mom died, I got sick. I had had a nagging sort of pain in my side for months. My doctor said it was not a big deal. But it worried me. I do lean towards hypochondria. But all of a sudden I was really sick, projectile vomiting so hard I wet myself. I couldn’t keep a couple sips of water down without being sick. I think I went a night and half the next day without eating or drinking.

I was dehydrated and miserable. Dehydration is one of the worst feelings in the world. Everything feels bad and wrong. My head hurt, my joints hurt, I couldn’t stand up without feeling nauseated and dizzy.

I was terrified. Looking back, I had the flu. But I was certain I was dying. I was sure that what I had was related to the pain in my side. And the fact that my mom was dead. Funny leap there, isn’t it? But I made it. In my defense, all my mom’s sickness started with a pain in her side that woke her up in the night. She went into the hospital and 7 monthes later she died.

I insisted that Andy call my doctor’s office and get me in. They told him I probably had the flu and to keep trying fluids. I laid on the floor and cried. I told him to keep calling, call another clinic. We found somewhere that would see me. I imagine I looked like a sad, sad puppy. I couldn’t keep my head up. I shuffled and I carried a barf bag.

When the nurse brought us into a room, she was very nice to me. She asked if I wanted the lights off. I did. I wanted them so off. And she turned them off and wrote by a little nursey-light. But when she asked meif I’d like the lights off, I almost wept. And as she asked me about my symptoms, I answered her questions, but the thing I wanted to tell her was, “My mom just died. She seemed fine. But something inside her was killing her and we didn’t know. She didn’t know. It’s killing me now. Please understand me, I’m not crazy. I’m not whining. I’m scared and sick and I need you to help me.”

The thought had ricocheted around in my head that what I was afraid of for the last weeks was death. But everyone (except Kwai Chang Caine) is afraid of death. I wasn’t prepared for how toothy, ugly, lurking and real death becomes when it takes a real person from you. I imagine it’s different when someone dies young like my mom. When they seem OK, and then they just aren’t. It made me scared for myself.

If someone dies after a lingering illness or a few close calls, I imagine you get fear, maybe even abject terror in the night. But I also imagine it takes a different iteration; less sneaky and toothy and more deteriorating and haunting. But I don’t know. I only know how it was for me.

Like I said, I had the flu. I (with the blessing of my doctor) took one of the leftover cancer anti-nausea pills and started to be able to hold liquids down. I recovered.

But I had the side pain checked out again and found out I had a cyst on one of my ovaries. It’s funny, but although it worried me (only a couple months after my my mom died from “metastatic adenocarcinoma of the ovary”), it wasn’t as scary as when I just had the flu.

I should say, I still have some lingering fear that I’ll die young. But that “doom feeling” has faded. The night terror has abated. I’m getting to a new normal and it’s OK. It didn’t last forever.

Poop, the first

Here in the Morgan household we have a longstanding tradition of hosting foreigners in our home for months or years at a time. My all time favorites were a pair of sisters. They stayed for 2 years. We still miss them. They came over to meet us for just about a half an hour the first time. We knew when they left that they’d be wonderful guests and we invited them to stay.

They’re beautiful girls, still. Dark hair and skin and eyes. Lovely shiny black hair in quantities that made me want to weep. Quantities that, when they tried to do my hair, would have them asking, “But Flaquita, where’s the rest of your hair?”. Flaquita was my nickname. It means Skinny, but it’s the diminuitive and affectionate.

I think (and this is just my theory) that when you’re indigenous looking (and they were), in a culture that looks down on the indigenos, in order to verify you are not low-class, you need to be extra proper. Which they were. Very polite, always asking permission for things and giving great latitude to each other and the rest of the family when it came to personal matters.

One sister needed to return to Peru to help with something in the family. The other stayed here. During this time she and I grew pretty familiar with each other. So familiar, in fact, that I felt like I could play a little joke on her. One of my favorite jokes.

I’m not really a practical joker. I don’t like jokes that startle me, scare me, get me wet or make me look stupid. But somewhere in my armor, there’s a chink. Having to do with poop. I love fake poop. I’m a connoisseur of fake poops. I have no fewer than 4 of them. I have cat, dog, raccoon and a generic turd. The dog and the raccoon are the best.

Usually I reserve them for people working at my house. Guys like electricians or carpenters. They take off their coats and set them down and I just leave a little pile there, and wait for them to notice. By the time they notice, sometimes I’m not even home anymore. But it always makes me laugh if I hear them holler, “What the…Aww. No… Man!”

I laugh so hard sometimes I almost wet myself. With real pee. It’s very base humor. Immature, unsophisticated and silly. Not my best me. But me nonetheless.

So while Aly was out one day, I went up and put the highest quality poop on the middle of her bed. I went back downstairs and promptly forgot about it. When she got back it was hours later. I had no recollection of what I’d done.
She went upstairs and was gone about a half an hour before she came back down. Her face was grave. I was clueless. “Aly, what’s wrong?”

“Lisa I need to talk to you.”

“Sure, honey, what’s wrong?”

“Can you come upstairs and talk to me for just a minute?”

I followed. Worried. Did one of the kids go through her stuff? Was she pregnant? What?

“Lisa, we’re so grateful to be here. I don’t want you to think I’m complaining. I am going to take care of everything. I only think you should know what has happened. Don’t be scared.”

Shit. Maybe there’s a huge bug in her… Oh no. The Poop. It isn’t funny. Humor sometimes doesn’t translate cross-culturally. Especially not poop. Her face is not annoyed or just grossed out. It’s deeply troubled. I am such a clod. What is wrong with me?

When we got to her room, I stopped her. “Aly, I’m sorry. I know what’s wrong. And it’s my fault. It isn’t real. It’s a joke. ” She registered none of what I was saying. As I reached out and picked up the poop she looked mortified. “It’s not real, look.” I brought it to my mouth and clacked it against my teeth. Illustrative, effective, but not reassuring to her. I was not digging my self out. She was not cracking any kind of smile. Yeeesh, I am so not cool.
She was mad, or maybe troubled is a better word. I got called down stairs by one of the kids, and left saying, “Sorry. It was a dumb joke. I don’t know what I was thinking.” I wish I’d thought to have blamed one of my boys. I’m not good on my feet like that.

She came down later. We talked, and she expressed her puzzlement with why that kind of thing would be funny. She was really worried that an animal had come in through a window (her door was shut when she left and when she returned), or that one of the pets was sick or some other real badness had gone down..

Months later, when Zach went to Lima, Peru and spent a month there, we talked and came up with a reason why poop humor doesn’t translate. It goes like this: Here, we have laws forbidding people from leaving their dog poop on the grass. People actually carry little bags around and pick up their dog doo and throw it in the trash. Stray dogs don’t wander around. Stray people rarely wander around in residential neighborhoods.

There are public toilets. And almost all toilets accept not only human waste, but also the toilet paper. In most parts of Latin America, dirty toilet paper goes in the bathroom trash.
We don’t come in contact with real poop very often unless we have small children. Even then, it’s pretty well contained and dealt with quickly. So it’s funny. It’s gross, but in a pretty abstract way. For many people in the world, poop isn’t a joke. It’s smelly, infectious, common and disgusting.

And if I think about it, real poop isn’t funny at all. It’s gross. And Aly had the last laugh because my cheeks still burn when I think about her worried face and apologetic manner. I am such trash.