Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Ruth Mallory's Lost Diary Entry


            Oliver said there would be a next time, and he was right.
His letter arrived on the morning of Wednesday, April 7th, 1994. Seeing his tight, spiky handwriting was like seeing his face at the other side of a busy restaurant. The same sequence of reactions -- delight, shock, confusion – and the reflex to dissemble. Spies at some formal function of the ruling Junta, presenting a neutral glance as they’re introduced.
We actually did run into him at dinner a few years ago. Some little downtown restaurant, after a show. Oliver was dining alone at the next table. It turned out he had been to the same play the night before – the Charles Durning-Kathleen Turner revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Harlan quoted the doctor’s line about wishing he had a pill that could make people disappear.
Thousands of restaurants, dozens of plays … twenty tables. And there he was, picking at a salad without even a paperback novel or a sketchbook to hide behind. I put on my clandestine social smile while we all exchanged small talk. I thought of my mother, applying her make-up before going out for the evening, saying, “I have to put my face on.”
I remember we agreed that Durning made the perfect Big Daddy. We wound up laughing. Oliver’s Kathleen Turner impression was spot-on. A perfect little soap bubble moment, too fragile to touch. It made me sad. That lovely friendship, lost forever.                                                                    
I finally opened Oliver’s letter just before lunch, long after Harlan was gone for the day. My hand was shaking so badly I tore the elegant Crane ecru stationery. The English stamps told me instantly that something was up. Oliver hates England and never goes back unless he has to. “Marriages and funerals only, my Dear” he told me once. In this case, his father’s funeral. He’s the executor of the estate, which is quite complicated, with “numerous greedy cousins squabbling over the remnants”. Oliver is the oldest of three children. His sisters never left Oxfordshire. Oliver has always handled the family’s financial affairs, co-signing loans for his sisters, securing a nursing facility for his mother when she lapsed into late stage Alzheimer’s, and on that trip selling off various properties and managing the disbursements. But it was “a dreadful slog” and he couldn’t wait to get home. His sister Pauline had found a haven with local Evangelical sect; Dorothy stuck with the bottle. He had very little to say to either one of them.
At the end of the letter he said, “The only real family I have left is the one I chose.”
By which he meant me.
He wanted to see me when he returned to New York the next month. But it was impossible. I remember my feeling at the time was … things die and deserve the dignity and respect of being left alone. Digging them up is morbid and ghoulish. I thought of The Monkey’s Paw, reading that old story to Robert when he was eight or nine years old and him crying out “Don’t do it!” when Mr. White wishes his dead son Herbert back to life.
From the mouths of babes.


I avoided him for weeks. It seems like that would be easy in a city of seven million people spread out over more than thirteen thousand square miles, but New York is famously a cluster of small towns, and the art world is one of the smallest and most claustrophobic, like some little hamlet in Maine where everyone knows you’re pregnant because you stop buying tampons at the local drug store.
 There were parties I refused to attend because I knew Oliver would be there, openings I avoided because his presence was guaranteed. Harlan caught on quickly. “Go if you like,” he said about some fundraiser for the Met (Oliver is on the Board), “Talk to him. Normalize things. I’m fine with it.” But I could tell he liked it that I kept my distance. I think he enjoyed punishing both of us.
Maggie Barudsky knew it was true.
She invited me to lunch at Le Cirque. It can be a brusque and hurried experience dining there, but Maggie was great friends with Sirio Maccioni and had apparently helped him pick his new chef. I hadn’t eaten there since the glory days of Daniel Boulud, but Maggie assured me that Sylvain Portay was a worthy successor. And indeed the food was wonderful, from the truffle risotto to the lobster with chanterelles and artichokes. Still, the food was the least memorable aspect of the meal.
When I arrived Sirio showed me to the table, a prime one in the center of the room, the old room with the sepia paintings and pale wall paper and forest green upholstered chairs. It’s all different now of course, but the restaurant had the elegance of a private club in those days. It didn’t matter, I was given less than thirty seconds to enjoy the atmosphere. I saw Maggie’s table before I had taken ten steps in to the room. Seated across from her was Oliver Graeme.
My lungs closed, I wanted to turn and run, but the ambush was perfectly executed. Every eye in the place was on me. Fleeing would turn a simple meal into a scandal.
“Oliver,” I said, sitting down. “What a pleasant surprise.”
He took a sip from his water glass. “I should have thought more like, what an appallingly discourteous shock. Don’t be alarmed. Your face is a perfect mask. It’s only your eyes that give you away.”
Maggie’s face was stern. “Harlan gets everything. You get nothing. I’m sick of it.”
“Maggie -”
“I’m sure he’s with a girl this very afternoon! That Lithuanian girl he’s been painting. Lina. While you sit home alone and avoid your friends. This has to stop, darling! It’s making me insane.”
I looked from one to the other, those two calm patient loving faces. Then I gave in.
“What’s good here?”
We talked about London (“Drab and provincial as ever”), our new President (“Tiresome philanderer”) Oliver’s favorite new Asian fusion restaurant (“Vong – who knew an Alsatian could make such sublime Thai food?”) and The Children of Men (“I have a weakness for P.D. James”). We talked about Robert and Hotchkiss and the dance I was working on for Meredith Monk. We talked about renovations at the gallery and the Draconian new building codes, and Maggie’s planned trip to Milan for the Prada show.
As we were leaving, Oliver slipped me one of his cards with an address in Brooklyn on the back. “I want you to meet me there, if you can arrange a convenient time.”
There was no point acting coy any more. I just smiled and said, “How about tomorrow?”
The address was on Berkeley Place, in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, just off Eighth Avenue with a charming view of the Grand Army Plaza, whose trees were just coming into leaf in early May. Its marvelous Soldiers and Sailors Arch dwarfed the one in Washington Square Park I had grown up with. I had never even seen Prospect Park before that day, which seems strange now, even to me. But I grew up in Manhattan, and for coddled Upper East Side kids Brooklyn and the Bronx might as well have been separate countries with their own languages and customs. They were rough dangerous territories back in the sixties – and remain so to some extent, even as the twentieth century fades. Among the row houses on Oliver’s street, some looked derelict, some were in the process of renovation; one had recently been gutted by fire.
I found Oliver standing on the steps of his four-story brownstone, hastily putting out a cigarette, as if I didn’t know he smoked.
He hugged me, we are exactly the same height, and pressed his lips to my neck. The touch of his mouth brought me home. How can something be so exciting and exotic and yet so consolingly familiar at the same time?
“Thank you for coming,” he said.
He gave me the tour – the antique paneling and the bright modern kitchen, the newly sanded hardwood stairs and the big loft on the top floor that he used for painting. “I bought it so we could have a place to meet,” he told me. He must have noticed the look on my face, because he hurriedly added, “Don’t worry, my dear. When you leave me for the last time, I’ll sell it and make an outlandish profit. This is going to be one of the great neighborhoods of the city in a few years.”
We wound up in his bedroom on the third floor, and in his bed. A clandestine adulterous assignation … and yet even lying thrashing naked under his sheets, with his head between my thighs, it didn’t feel wrong. It was a continuation, like taking next step in a dance, remembering the lost name in an anecdote. We simply picked up where we had left off. He had always been a gentle, meticulous, single-minded lover, determined to wring every last spasm of pleasure from my body and not particularly interested in his own. That hadn’t changed but I came to understand it during those long afternoons in Brooklyn. In our happiest days, Harlan had craved my body. Oliver worshipped it.
Not that my middle aged flesh deserved his adoration! Please, I know better than that. But he would never let me deflect a compliment and the luxury of submitting to that lovely pure unwavering reverence made me happier than I’d been in years. How many years? Well it had been six years since our time in California. The better part of a decade.
Of course it wasn’t all sex and long lunches and strolling through Prospect Park. We fought sometimes, Oliver’s stubborn silent stoical attack so different from Harlan’s bellow and bluster.
The worst one happened the day after Meredith’s company premiered my pas de deux, “Solo”. Perhaps based on my marriage, it was an unusual dance for two in which the performers essentially ignored each other in ever more extreme ways until colliding near the end of the piece. I thought it was funny; so did Meredith. But the rehearsal period had been fraught and taxing. I was physically unable to demonstrate many of the movements I had designed, and I could tell the dancers, particularly the man, Jerrol Jenkins, viewed me with poorly concealed disdain. I was an interloper, a dilettante, fiddling with a form I had never mastered. Poor Jerrol died of AIDS a year ago. He could be cruel but he was charming and funny as well. He loved the celery stuffed with herbed cream cheese I brought to a late rehearsal -- my mother’s recipe -- though he claimed I was trying sabotage him with fattening foods. “Weaponized vegetables!” he said, taking a third stalk. His only reading matter was comic books but he had a sharp eye for the absurdities of super hero life. “Would Iron Man win an iron man race?” I heard him ask one afternoon. “There’s a swimming section! He’d sink like a stone and rust on the bottom.”
He was just as withering about me and I complained to Oliver because Harlan wouldn’t listen. Then the reviews came out and I was heartbroken. I took his silence for solidarity until he stood during one of my arias, and walked out of the room.
I followed him around the house, and finally badgered him into talking.
He blurted it out: “You would believe anything anyone said about you! As long as it was sufficiently insulting and defamatory. It’s unbearable.”
“They said terrible things.”
“So what?”
“They hurt me.”
“Sticks and stones.”
“Words hurt. They do.”
“Because you’re weak.”
“I -- yes, I suppose ... I don’t --”
“And it’s more than weakness. Everyone is weak. Everyone has a breaking point. I don’t judge you for that.”
He looked away. I could see he regretted talking.
“What then? What?”
“Very well.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I despise your utter lack of self regard. You have no ego! You scarcely exist, you have no independent existence! You are whatever some scribbler calls you. If that woman at the New Yorker said you were great, you’d be strutting about like a peacock. But she called you a fraud so you are inconsolable. Who am I talking to?” He touched my forehead with a fingertip. “What’s inside there? Is anyone home? Or is it just empty rooms full of newspaper clippings and soggy tissues? You should go. Tell your troubles to your husband. It’s his job to listen.”
I left but I never said a word to Harlan. I called Oliver several times but his answering machine picked up. No cute outgoing remarks, just a curt “Speak.” So I did. He never returned the calls and it was a week before I could get back to Brooklyn. I took a cab, climbed the stairs. I had a tipsy moment of cowardice, like a drunk who stands up too quickly. But I knocked. I heard footsteps and tensed myself for the chilly English reception he had been bred to deliver.
He opened the door and took me in his arms. “I’m so sorry. Can you possibly forgive me?”
I spoke to his chest. “I’m here.”
He stepped back. “Please – come in. I have coffee on the stove.”
I followed him into the kitchen. He placed the Chemex and a sterling silver cream-and-sugar set on the table. “Two percent milk and half decaf coffee. Just the way you like it.”
“You’re right,” I said. “I shouldn’t pay attention to those people.”
He took a sip. “I’m the same way. Perhaps that’s why I find it so disturbing.”
I made the little laugh that comes out almost as a sigh – more of an announcement of a perceived absurdity than a response to a joke. “You’ve never gotten a bad review in your life.”
“Only from your husband. But they sting.”
“He’s just jealous.”
“Precisely what I always tell myself. A paltry rationale.”
“Some people don’t read reviews at all.”
“That requires a different brand of fortitude, I suspect. And a certain deficiency of imagination. I’m sure you could invent far worse things to say about yourself than some critic could devise.”
“Probably.” I drank some coffee. It was perfect, as always.
He was staring at me. “I wish sometimes you could see yourself as I see you. But then you would be truly insufferable!”
“I’d like that.”
“Indeed you would! But that will never happen, so let me offer you this small consolation instead. You will receive dozens of bad reviews in your lifetime, if you keep working, if your career lasts long enough. They’ll spank you for staying the same and dismiss you for changing, praise your worst work, pan your best, flatter and flense with equal gusto. Well, I say -- fuck them all. Pardon my French. Or rather my 16th Century German. The two impostors.”
“The who?”
“It’s from a Kipling poem my father always quoted. I had to read it at his funeral. He loved his Kipling. ‘White man’s burden’ and all.”
“I don’t think I know the poem”
“Then you were never an English schoolboy! The bit in question goes like this –
            If you can dream, and not make dreams your master;
            If you can think, and not make thoughts your aim;
            If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
            And treat those two impostors just the same…”
“Then what? If you do all that?”
“Ah. That’s the crux. Here’s the last quatrain:
            If you can fill the unforgiving minute
            With sixty seconds worth of distance run
            Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it
            And – which is more – you’ll be a man my son!”
            I laughed. “I bet he hammered you over the head with that one.”
“Quite so. And I believe Kipling himself was the only artist who ever qualified for full manhood in my father’s eyes -- with the possible exception of Paul Nash, who had the decency to fight in the First World War.”
We were silent for a moment, then I lifted my cup in a modest toast. “The two impostors.”
“May we despise and ignore them forever.”
We gulped the last of our coffee, and then he took me up to bed.


I’ve been thinking all morning about the Bennington Caper, as Oliver called it. Our great secret, our final tryst. He had arranged to teach a master class during the summer session at the college, and the school had found him a charming little house in town. He had never visited Vermont before – no one knew him, and he was looking forward to a six weeks of anonymity, artisanal coffee and long walks in the leafy countryside.
We were having breakfast in the big sunny kitchen when Oliver suggested the idea. It was brazen and outrageous but we had gotten bolder over time. Harlan often stayed out all night, supposedly working at his studio and sleeping on a cot there. I knew if I managed to get home by nine or ten in the morning, I would be safe. Once he arrived home before me and I simply lied – I told him I’d risen early and taken a walk. He was shockingly easy to fool. I suppose he wanted to believe me, and I doubt he wanted to compare notes on our extra-marital activities. But I was tired of skulking around, and these easy spring mornings made me long for an unfettered life with Oliver. I was missing California, and I told him so.
He set his coffee down. “Come with me to Vermont.”
“For the whole summer?”
“It’s Robert’s last year of camp. And Harlan will scarcely miss you.”
I shook my head, the way you do when you have water in your ears. But the idea had gotten in there. “It’s impossible.”
“I can’t just go. I’d need some kind of cover story.”
“That’s easy. You’ve been talking about following the various dance festivals around the country literally for years – The American Dance Festival in Durham, the Boise Dance Festival, Jacob’s Pillow.”
“I don’t understand.”
“My dear girl, that’s your cover story.”
“No, no, that wouldn’t work. It’s a lovely thought but …”
“You don’t seriously think he’d check up on you?”
“He wouldn’t have to. He pays all the bills and sees all the credit card receipts.”
“But you wouldn’t have any.”
“Ah. I see.”
We left it at that, but Oliver talked the problem over with his favorite co-conspirator and early the next week Maggie Barudsky caught up to me at our health club. She paced along beside me on the next treadmill, striding much faster but getting no farther, one of the small satisfactions of walking in place. In the real world she’d would have had to slow herself down, accommodating me, or I’d come around a bend in the path and see her standing impatiently, tapping her foot and taking her own pulse.
“I’ll go to the festivals,” she said after a few minutes, not even out of breath. I was panting and the lactic acid was making my bones ache.
“You’d – what? Why?”
“I think it would be a charming way to while away the summer.”
“No you don’t! Dance bores you. I’ve seen you fidgeting. And you hate to travel.”
“Well, it’s not my ideal vacation. But I will keep an open mind.”
“Besides, how would that even -- ”
“I would take your credit card, and spend your money and no one would be the wiser.”
“But … it’s – you’d have to explain … I mean, where would you say you were going?”
“My mother took a fall and broke her hip. I went to Chicago for the summer to take care of her. I’m an exceptionally dutiful daughter.”
“Would Alfred believe that?”
“Probably not. He’s seen me with my mother!  But it doesn’t matter, darling. He’s in on the scheme. He will lie like a tax lawyer if the cause is right.”
We got off the machines, toasted each other with the awful spinach, beets and spirulina smoothies the club served in those days. And the pact was sealed.


The house was weathered barn board with a stone chimney, on Harrington Road near the Walloomsac River. It was a drive into town and a drive to the campus. Oliver had found a used VW bug and enjoyed cruising in it, rattling across the covered bridges, exploring twisting empty roads that curled up into the mountains like smoke.
Oliver’s schedule was light, so we had plenty of time to play house, cooking out of Julia Child, adding a rug or a wing chair from the local antique store to the sparse furnishings, sleeping in, taking Sunday breakfast and the Blue Benn diner. It was terribly hot that summer and we slept naked under the old sheets in the upstairs bedroom with the windows open and the fans pushing the humid air at us. We had students over for impromptu dinners and dined with faculty members from time to time, but for the most part we were on our own, and we liked it that way. The evenings seemed eternal and the days stretched out into weeks ahead of us, but we knew our time was short and we were loath to waste a minute of it.
I have to smile, writing this, thinking of some future art historian skimming these paragraphs looking for the revelations promised by a ‘primary source’ document, waiting for me to talk about the portraits.
Very well, Professor! I apologize for my girlish digressions.
It started with sketches. He sketched me all the time -- in bed, in the bath, cooking, walking the woods, working in the little garden at the side of the house -- wire-bound sketchbooks he flailed and flicked with his prized Utrecht pencils.
I didn’t know he was making paintings out of those studies until he took me up to his studio on the campus early one Sunday morning. A still, stifling day, with rain clouds building from the north -- July 21st, 1993. It would rain all night and most of the next week. But for the moment it was just falling barometric pressure and the tension of waiting. We were alone in the old barn. Saturdays nights were wild and the kids slept in.
Oliver had stacked the paintings against the long wall. He turned them and set them side by side for me, one after the other.
How can I describe the cascade of emotions?
The first was shock – simple horrified inexcusable Puritan mortification. I was … well, any professor who troubles to read these pages knows that I was naked in the most powerful of Oliver’s canvases and the raw erotic charge in what he referred to as the “bedroom tryptic” was overpowering, terrible, traumatizing.  I felt betrayed, used, invaded. I was too angry to speak and I’m so happy, looking back, that I didn’t. Because my feelings changed as I studied the less sexually charged pictures, the kitchen paintings, the garden paintings, as I stood with the collection, surrounded by it, hidden as well as revealed in the deep forest, the secret clearing, of Oliver’s masterful unblinking regard.
Ultimately even the nudes shifted for me. They were liberating and at the same time humbling. He was painting me but he was painting something more, some female archetype that I represented for him. They were me and simultaneously more and less than my actual person. Oliver said to me once, “I despise love poems. They’re so impersonal.”
Those canvases were his poem to me.
And then came the realization that I was looking at a collection of incomparable late period masterpieces by a major Twentieth Century artist, a group of pictures that could dramatically reconfigure his reputation. And at the same time, I knew he was going to keep them private. No one was going to see them but me, because if anyone ever did our underground summer of love would become public property and small juicy scandal of it would wreck my marriage and ruin my life.
It seemed unfair, crazy, absurd. We fought about it. That was where our war broke out. I told him I didn’t care. I was going to tell Harlan the truth and leave him for good. The marriage was over anyway. If Harlan wound up humiliated, so be it. He deserved to be the public cuckold.
Oliver didn’t believe a word I said.
And at the height of the argument, with an uneaten dinner cooling on the dining room table, we heard a rapping on the front door. It silenced us and came again. Somehow we both knew who it was. My husband was standing on the welcome mat.
Harlan had found us.


Well, that was how it seemed at the time. Perhaps it would have been better if he had worked some miracle of forensic deduction and followed my well-camouflaged trail to Oliver’s door. The actual story was much simpler.
That weekend was our scheduled visit at Camp Killooleet. With me traveling all summer, Harlan had volunteered to go up for the day, meet the counsellors and campers and take a box lunch to Texas Falls. Hancock was just two hours north of Bennington and Robert, who had the return address on all the letters and packages Oliver had sent him, had begged his father to patch things up.
 His plaintive, twelve-year old declaration: “I miss Oliver.”
His thorny, heartfelt question: “Why can’t you just be friends?”
Harlan had no answer, at least none he could sensibly offer to a young boy. So he agreed to the diplomatic mission and arrived in the early evening after a day of procrastination and soul-searching.
I didn’t know what he was doing there, or how he’d found the place or why he’d come. I knew one thing only: Harlan must not find me there. No drug dealer with piles of cash and heroin on the kitchen table a table and the police shouting “Open up!” could have reacted as calamitously as I did.
I grabbed Oliver, and said in an awful croaking whisper, “Don’t tell him I’m here!”
I fled to the basement stairs, but not before seeing the sad stoical knowing look on his face. He had just won our argument conclusively – action mattered far more to him than words – but he took no satisfaction from being proved right. I know that part of him had wanted to believe me. That was impossible now.
From behind the door, I heard Oliver offer to buy Harlan a drink in town, and a few moments later the screen door slapped against the frame. I stood with one hand clutching the glass knob until I heard the note of Harlan’s car engine fading away toward River Road.
I was all packed when he dropped Oliver off three hours later, having refused the obligatory invitation to stay the night. Harlan had reservations at the Four Chimneys Inn.
Oliver saw me with my suitcase and sighed. “This is better,” he said. “I prefer tragedy to farce.”
I slept on the couch, and the next morning he put me on the Vermonter at St. Albans for the trip back to the city.
Everything unfolded from that moment just as Oliver had known it would. I remained with Harlan, the two men have made stalwart if sporadic efforts to rebuild their friendship and have crossed paths awkwardly, touchingly, at the hospital. Oliver makes no effort to hide his visits to me here, we are well past any tinge of scandal now, but his Vermont paintings, like my time there that summer, remain our secret.
There is one small coda to this story. After a terrible fight that fall, I desperately needed to see Oliver again. I took subway to Brooklyn, and found my way to Berkeley Street. But Oliver was as good as his word.
The house had been sold.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

A Liberal Education: Six Months on a Trumpland Paint Crew


            The first second I saw Dave Smiley, slouching around the side of his boss’ paint trailer in a suburban Connecticut driveway, smug and slovenly, wearing a Millennial scowl of stymied entitlement, I thought: “This kid represents everything that’s wrong with America today.”
And I hadn’t even seen the TRUMP sticker on the tailgate of his truck.
            Today: December sixteenth, 2017, under a stony sky threatening snow.
            “We need more plastic for the living room,” he said to the boss, a burly fireplug named Roy Bartkolovitch.
            “It’s in the trailer. You guys put things away where they’re supposed to go, you can find things no problem. This is Steve. He’s gonna be working with us.”
            A quick, hooded glance. “Hey.”
            “You want me to look for you? Guarantee I’ll find that plastic in twenty seconds flat. I know the kind of mess you make. I got your number!”
            “I can handle it, Roy.”
            “You better!” Dave walked back toward the open end of the big trailer. When he was gone Roy turned to me. “I love giving him shit. He makes it so easy. Dave Smiley and I never seen him smile once! But I’m telling you, these guys make me crazy. I have to clean out that trailer every other day. The pigs who work for me! Great guys though, God bless em. So you start on Monday. I’ll text you the address. Then we’ll see if you can paint.”

            The next time I saw Dave it was at a house in Waterford. Escrow complications had delayed my first day, and the crew had been out of work for a week, as the house closing inspections and paperwork crawled along. It was ten days before Christmas, his wife was out of work, both his kids were sick, his pay checks had dwindled, his furnace was broken, and the Connecticut Energy Assistance bureaucracy was stalling the repairs. The last thing he wanted to see was another person on the crew, gobbling man hours and shortening the Pre-Christmas work-week. He gave me a grudging nod when I arrived at the house. “Can you cut in? I need someone on the crew who can cut a ceiling.”
I assured Dave I could manage that --“Painting 101”, an old pal on Nantucket sneered when I told him this story.

Dave just squinted at me. “You get paint on the ceiling, you clean it yourself.”
I nodded. “Sounds fair.”
It soon became clear that I had mastered the fundamentals of the trade, along with some minor procedural details (Unroll rosin paper from the top of the roll so the paper doesn’t curl up on the floor; fold sandpaper twice and then tear it, so you don’t need to cut it with a putty knife – and some more obscure tricks, like rigging circus style staging arrangements (OSHA would not approve!) for paining the high walls above twisting flights of stairs. “I can’t believe I don’t have to paint these fucking stairwells anymore,” Dave remarked a couple of weeks later, after my third performance (ladder propped on rubber wedge, supported by 5-gallon mud bucket on the step below). “I’ve had to paint every fucking stairwell on every fucking job for the last five years.”
The comment was typical. I had begun to see a new side of Dave Smiley. This grumpy overweight redneck had a way with people. A terse word of praise (“Nice job”, “Looking good”) and better than that, an easy tolerance for mistakes (“Happens to everybody,” “We can fix that no problem”) made him look like one of the better bosses I had ever worked for, despite the unnerving fact that he was young enough to be my son. The kid could organize a job, too, getting three or four or five people moving on various aspects of a project with no fuss or confusion. As he himself pointed out, things worked much better when “Hurricane Roy” (as he called Bartkolovitch) wasn’t around.
 Dave was stoical about his heating problems, wistful about a disappointing Christmas for his kids, and utterly devoted to his wife, whom he referred to as “my girl”.
“My girl got a great job this week, so things are looking up,” he told me, on break one day.
At first I had kept to myself during those rigidly mandated fifteen minute rest periods, since I was the only one on the crew who didn’t smoke cigarettes. But I wound up hanging out with the gang eventually, and poking at the hornet’s nest of our political differences. That TRUMP sticker on Dave’s truck seemed more and more inexplicable. Dave Smiley was not quite the deplorable I had expected.
“So, you know Trump hates dogs, right?” I ventured one bone-chilling morning, after we’d spent an hour in the sub-zero darkness loading up the trailer from Roy’s storage space in the rustbelt moonscape of Baltic Connecticut.
Dave ground out his cigarette. “Are you kidding?”
“No man, I’m serious. He’s the only President since McKinley who doesn’t have a dog, and that was like a hundred and twenty years ago.”
“Shit, really?”
“And McKinley died of gangrene after an assassination attempt. Just sayin. Probably no connection.”
“Trump doesn’t like dogs?”
“He hates em! Somebody compiled his tweets. Dogs are his go-to insult animal. ‘I beat him down like a dog, he was begging like a dog, he choked like a dog, I fired him like a dog -- ”
Dave laughed. “He fired a dog?”
“Yeah, on Celebrity Dog Apprentice. He fired a seeing eye dog.”
“Come on.”
“Okay, okay, but everything else is true.”
“You really don’t like the guy, do you?”
“Hey, I’m just the messenger. Trump hates dogs.”
A few days later, at lunch, I said, “Have you noticed, Trump never laughs.”
“Sure he does.”
I shrugged. “Search the internet – vimeo, youTube, whatever. Find some footage of Trump laughing.”
            Two days later as we were tearing down the plastic that had draped a kitchen where Roy had sprayed the popcorn texture glop on the ceiling, Dave admitted, “You’re right about the laughing. Nothing. Who the fuck never laughs?
“Your President.”
He sighed. “What kind of fucked up country are we living in where the only choices are Trump and Hillary Clinton?”
I was cautiously intrigued. Dave sounded disappointed – and pissed-off. Buyer’s regret?
“I just wanted … change,” he said.
“Things getting worse is change,” I replied helpfully.
He shook his head. “Tell me about it.”
Perhaps it was just a sour mood. I friended him on Facebook that night.
It was an eye-opener.
Among the novelty posts, he liked and shared items about speedboats shaped like sharks, a guy who makes furniture out of chocolate, and plant matter biodegradable bags, the heartening aesthetic cheerleading (for Lars Von Trier and Hunter Thompson), I found the predictable right wing chatter of half-digested propaganda and lazy false equivalences, attacks on gun control advocates and pro-choice liberals, claims that Trump would end corruption. I almost wrote a comment, but after a series of kamikaze letters to our local newspaper, I had finally learned my lesson: no one ever did any serious damage to themselves by hitting the delete button. Whatever our political differences I still had to work with this guy every day.
And the work itself was getting more grueling all the time. Bartkolovitch billed himself as a “Residential and Commercial” paint contractor, but I had no idea what the commercial side of the business entailed until he took on the State Of Connecticut employment office job. The low-slung building was located in the crumbling municipality of Montville, half an hour north of New London on route 395. 
The cavernous space, twice the size of a supermarket, was wedged between a mortgage broker and a liquor store in a strip mall, opposite a McDonalds and a hill of ragged trees. The trees offered an elegiac note, evoking the ghost of a rural paradise long bulldozed for this disintegrating commercial shanty town.
It was dark inside the building, with bare beams and hanging coils of wire and giant propane heaters taking the edge off the winter chill. It reminded me of that conversation from Kevin Smith’s first movie Clerks, when one of the titular convenience store employees chastises George Lucas for the destruction of the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi. The battle station in the first film was a fully operational military machine, full of soldiers. The second one was still under construction when it was blown up – the only people there were the workers.
I felt like one of them in the echoing dimly lit industrial cave of the half completed employment office. Would the Millennium Falcon come zipping through it, shooting off proton torpedoes?
One could only hope.
The job was a “prevailing wage” opportunity, which meant roughly double the hourly rate for painting.
What does the term “Prevailing Wage” mean exactly?
According to the Connecticut Labor Board:
The term "prevailing wage" means the total base hourly rate of pay and bona fide fringe benefits customary or prevailing for the same work in the same trade or occupation in the town where the project is to be constructed. The prevailing wage rate schedules developed by the U.S. Department of Labor (and used by the Connecticut Department of Labor) indicate specific amounts for both components of the rate.

Of course, most of these compensation packages were determined through labor union negotiations over the last fifty years. Labor Unions: the last bastion of power for the Democratic party. I didn’t mention that to Dave. My disagreement with him about the Montville job had nothing to do with his history of the labor movement. He just couldn’t believe I was willing to give up the fifty bucks an hour because I didn’t want to work nights. That anyone would give up fifty bucks an hour for any reason seemed crazy to him. The money would change his life that winter. Was I independently wealthy? No, just a morning person who would become a liability on the job after the sun went down.
Roy accepted my refusal, but used it to trick me in his shrewd blunt affable way. “I want to start at six tomorrow morning. That’s your good time!”
Even working days was hard at Montville, but Dave managed to keep things moving, spraying vast swaths of wall while the rest of us cut in against the metal bands that marked the edge of the ceilings or caulked the endless metal door casings. In a warren of small offices I had to jump from room to room as Dave caught up to me with the sprayer. At the end of the first day he took me aside. “Hey, it got really confusing in there for a while. You should go back and check, make sure you didn’t miss anything. I know I would have, and Roy gets crazy about shit like that.”
I took his advice, and found an embarrassing number of misses. I thanked him, and quoted an old school Nantucket housepainter who used to advise you to “step back and admire your work” – knowing you’d see all your mistakes when you did.
Dave shrugged. “Yeah except you can’t see shit in this fucking place.”
Still, he managed to teach Josh Tilden, the youngest member of the crew, to use the sprayer on that job. Dave was typically firm, patient and attentive: “Have the gun moving before you hit the trigger, make sure it overlaps, keep it moving, that’s it. Sway with the gun, get the rhythm, nice. You got a sag there but not problem, Pete’s rolling out behind us.”
There were two Petes on the crew. One was Roy’s brother-in-law, a shrewd, easy-going bear of a guy, part Grizzly, part Winnie-the-Pooh. He worked part time to help out, and handled most of the company paper work. The other Pete was a sad squinting barfly with thinning hair and fading tattoos, who hadn’t expected enough from his life to be disappointed by it. But he managed a consistent stream of petty griping that got on everyone’s nerves.
“He’ll be gone soon,” Dave told me. “Guys like him don’t last working for Roy.”
Dave had higher hopes for Josh, a good looking, blithe spirited work horse who had run off-shore fishing boats until an injury sidelined him. Knocked overboard by a trawling net, he was pulled half frozen out of the Atlantic with a two broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder that never healed properly. “I got some nice Jones Act dough out of it, though,” he said when he told me the story. They had given him vicodin for the pain and he was soon addicted. Heroin was cheaper he was shooting up twice a day until he “got into the program” and switched to methadone. He’d been on methadone for a year.
“He could still get straight,” Roy told me, on the long drive to a southern Connecticut paper mill where he had contracted to paint the ceilings. “I’m not so sure about Dave.”
That caught my attention. “Dave?”
“You kidding? He’s been on methadone for five years. He’s never getting off it. That shit is in his bones.”
Roy was a recovering addict as well. I soon learned that he had gathered most of his crew from Narc-anon meetings. The secret came out when Josh was having trouble finding a methadone source in the paper mill town, where we would be staying for three days. But Roy had connections there. It wasn’t a problem for Dave because he wasn’t going.
 “We did a job there last year,” he told me, “And I am never going back to that
place. I told Roy.  Never. That is the worst fucking job you’ll ever do. Don’t go, buddy. That’s my advice. Stay here, we’ll finish up Montville together.”
It took me a while to bring up the methadone revelation, but Dave shrugged it off. “Pretty much everyone I know is doing smack or in a program. Half the friends I went to high school with are dead already. I’m serious. This shit is real.”
Somehow I had landed not just in Trump country, but in the dead center, or more accurately the central vein, of the opioid crisis. I never asked Dave how he started doing drugs – maybe next year, if we work together again.
After a long day of soothing customers, instructing the crew and cutting in half a dozen rooms with me, I told him he should go into business for himself. “I’d work for you any time,” I said. And I meant it. Indeed, it did seem like Dave was planning some kind of move, since Roy was teaching Josh a lot of the managerial basics, from painting 101 to driving with a twenty foot trailer behind the truck.
Jeff was right about the paper mill. Forty feet up on a rusting metal catwalk, peeling dead paint off a corrugated ceiling in the ninety degree heat, bones shaken by the relentless vibrations from the giant machines below us, ears battered by the roar of white noise, I knew I couldn’t handle working up there in a suffocating protective jump suit and vapor mask, whose filters would clog as the day wore on, making it ever more difficult to breathe. I was on the verge of an asthma attack on day one. I knew I couldn’t hack it, and Roy had to lead me out of the mill and drive me back to the motel. He was good about it. “Some people can do this work and some people can’t.” he shrugged. “Now I’m a man shy but we’ll get it done. Take it easy and God bless.”
Calling my wife to come get me felt like calling my mom to take me home from summer camp early. But I had escaped. The longing, stoical looks on the faces of the other crew members as I started down the steep metal stairs to the factory floor told me I wasn’t crazy.
The job was crazy.
Dave just laughed. “Told you so.” And he had me beat: “Last trip, the platform was so hot they wouldn’t let anyone up there for more than fifteen minutes at a time. Plus it was a part of the mill where the metal was always wet so we had to use paint you could spray onto wet metal. Guess how toxic that shit was. At least the Chinese buffet was good.”
Roy did take us all out to the Chinese buffet restaurant that Dave mentioned, but it struck me as sad – a luxurious treat for someone who had never eaten in a really good restaurant and probably never would. My sense of Dave’s life as a prison of hard work and austerity sharpened on the day he offered to drive me home from a job in Uncasville. He asked me to wait outside his house while he changed his clothes – because of the mess? Because of some sense of my class snobbery? If so he had me wrong there. I had lived in squalor for years and had knew how hard it was for a couple to keep house with two full time jobs and two kids – two times too much to do. I strolled his neighborhood while I waited, taking in all the grim details – the weeds growing through the cracked asphalt, the rusty cars on blocks, the cheap plastic toys scattered in the narrow yards, the bent crooked blinds in the windows. The little side street felt abandoned. How would Dave ever get away from here, move up, claw his way into the middle class? He definitely needed to start his own paint contracting business and I mentioned it again on the long drive down 395. Did he really think Trump was going to help him with that? The guy who had stiffed every contractor who ever worked for him -- and even stiffed the lawyers who defended him in the lawsuits against the contractors?
“At least he respects the flag,” Dave said.
We were into it now. “The Russian flag?”
“Come on. This is America right? Innocent until proved guilty. That’s what I learned in school.”
“Innocent until you stop the investigation – or pardon yourself.”
“He can do that, man. He’s the President. You gotta respect that. He doesn’t take shit from anyone. Look at that Colin Kaeperneck thing. Disrespect the flag and Trump will take you down.”
I took a breath -- tread softly. “That protest had nothing to do with the flag, Dave. It was about police brutality and cops killing black people.”
He sniffed. “Fine. But don’t use the flag then. I thought Tim Tebow was full of shit too, when he did it to protest abortion. I’m pro-life, but leave the flag out of it, you know?”
I gave him marks for consistency, but he had opened up another topic. “Something you posted on Facebook bothered me the other day,” I began.
He laughed. “I bet it all bothers you, buddy.”
“Well … ”
“Tree hugger.”
“What about you? You posted about those biodegradable plastic bags.”
“It’s a good idea.”
“Trump doesn’t think so.”
“How do you know?”
“Those bags solve a problem. He doesn’t think the problem exists! He doesn’t believe in climate change.”
“Hey, slow down. The jury is out on that one.”
“No it isn’t! The jury is in. The verdict is guilty and the sentence is death.”
“Come on. There’s tons of scientists --”
“There’s two. Out of ten thousand! And they both work for oil companies. Look, you can prove it for yourself. It’s common sense. Sunlight enters the atmosphere in long waves that penetrate the carbon dioxide. They bounce back in short waves that can’t penetrate it, like the glass in your car. That’s why cars get hot when you leave the windows closed. Here’s a slogan—‘Global Warming Killed My Dog’.”
He frowned. “I have to think about that.”
“Yes you do. You have to think about all this stuff. Like comparing pro-choice advocates to mass shooters.”
“That’s not what I was saying.”
“The lady hates guns because they kill kids, and she just killed her own. That was the gist of it.”
“Okay. So what?”
“It’s … a sloppy comparison. It assumes two absolute ideas, when one of them is anything but. People disagree about abortion. No one disagrees about murdering innocent children with military assault rifles. People don’t even agree about when abortion becomes murder. Some people think masturbation is murder – sperm slaughter. I’m serious. I’m not talking a stand for or against abortion or choice or whatever. I’m just saying, it’s hard to think clearly when you have all these weird off-kilter analogies kicking around in your head. Calling a pro-choice lady a child killer is just a way of not listening to her. Like that post where you say people who are against assault rifles don’t know anything about guns. Hundreds of Sheriff’s Departments and Police Departments have come out for reasonable gun control legislation. I read an article by an ex-Navy seal who said you don’t give military armament to civilians. You think that guy doesn’t know about guns?”
“I think you spend too much time on my Facebook page.”
We both laughed. “Maybe you’re right.”
A few minutes later, as we sat in a commuter lot just off the highway waiting for Annie to pick me up, Dave said, “Roy’s having a tough time right now. Couple of customers are stalling and he just had his big workman’s comp audit. Paychecks may be a little late. So I mean … if you need something to tide you over – my girl’s working two jobs and we’re doing okay right now.”
“No, I’m good. But thanks, man.”
“Hey, I told her you’re a writer and she wants to read your books. I don’t read but she loves that shit.”
“I’ll get her one.”
Dave’s wife Jackie worked with us one day a few weeks later, during the always horrible cleaning-out-after-a-finished job phase of a nasty residential marathon, east of Norwich. She worked hard and tirelessly, with no need for instructions. During a break she told me she was reading the book I’d given Dave and mentioned that he was the eldest of seven children. It made sense. Roy was the mostly-absentee Dad and the crew made up the rowdy, lackadaisical crowd of younger siblings, regardless of our actual ages. “It was nice, what you said to him about working for him if he goes out on his own. He was happy to hear that.”
“Do you think he’ll do it?”
“I don’t know. I sure hope so. Give him a call when you come back next year.”
I was heading back home to Nantucket soon, and there was a lot we never got to talk about. But I knew Dave had already heard some of what I was saying. A few days later, Roy was griping about a kid who had quit and started a rival painting company, using many of Roy’s techniques and poaching several of his customers. “You don’t do that,” he said, “Bite the hand that feeds you.”
Dave looked up from cutting a sheet of rosin paper. “What are you talking about Roy? You didn’t feed Jerry! You paid him for a day’s work. And the guy worked hard. He worked rings around me some days. Don’t compare him to a dog! Dogs don’t work – anyway yours doesn’t. And you own your dog, man. Nobody owns Jerry, except maybe the IRS.”
He got to his feet, headed for the door, grinned as he walked by, and whispered, “Bad analogy!”
That moment of linguistic solidarity prompted a vision of a potential friendship, down the line. It sounded like a joke: a tree hugger and a gun nut walk into a bar. And the bartender says – what? “We need a Priest and a Rabbi to make this gag work!” or maybe, “If a tree falls in the forest on top of a gun nut, does that count as ‘concealed carry’?”
Or how about … the bartender says, “What’ll ya have,” the gun nut buys a Bud Lite, and the tree hugger takes a glass of Pinot Noir. They each roll their eyes, then they take a hike in the woods and spend an hour at the shooting range. Not particularly funny, but oddly heartening in these days of partisan tribal warfare.
I’m back home now, but Dave and I still “like” each other’s posts on Facebook and try to keep in touch. I know he’ll never be Democrat, but maybe I can talk him around to becoming an old-school Republican – the kind that hates Russia and loves the FBI. I hope our months of working together showed Dave something surprising about pansy lefty wing libtards.
As for me, I learned that I was dead wrong that first day in December. In fact Dave Smiley represents most of what’s best about America – hard work, generosity, leadership, decency, a spiky sense of humor and a willingness to see beyond the grotesque cartoon parody profiling that defines our political discourse. 
I still want to discuss the link he posted recently about the Democratic Party being the “biggest threat to America”, though.
Really Dave? The same party that fought for the prevailing wage laws that meant so much to you, and the fuel assistance program that got you through the winter? Oh, well. Maybe next year.
It’s worth a try.