There’s a posture your body learns when you’re always on ladders. Your thighs stay clenched, tailbone forward, hips up-thrust to keep you on balance. You keep your feet wide, quads pressed against the rung they’re closest to, arms steady overhead, brush in hand.
You learn micro-seasons invisible to most: the April weeks of spiked black widow eggs; crows stripping bark from palm trees when they go from roosting to nesting mid-June. September is hell on paintbrush bristles, the smear of paint you’ve perfected goes gummy when the Santa Anas blow. November is either another summer or a Guns N’ Roses ballad, there is no in-between. Decembers when you get to the jobsite at seven, the sun is barely risen and the iron too cold to paint but the sideways light on iceberg roses is a special kind of trippy. No one spends in January; it’s your season of doubt.
You learn humans a different way. You’re brown, a worker on doorsteps, with a ladder, a bucket of paint, your long hair up in a bandana, eyelash extensions. You speak to the maid who answers the door in the language you both learned to love in. You speak to the woman whose house she cleans in language that throws her for a moment because she wasn’t expecting that. You speak the words of privilege and knowing: say powder room, comment on the Tromp L’oeil, compliment the granite. You drop your drop cloths and voice, keeping it modulated while you patiently explain to the client why the Art Deco finish she wants will throw off the composition of the Tuscan-inspired foyer. You’re an artist, you say, you know. What you really know is that artists can charge more than painters.
At lunch you kick it with the landscapers around the tiny hot plate they set to heat their tortillas. You know how to make plumbers laugh and how to navigate the white supremacist contractors you carry a charm against. You stay kind and present, with just enough fuck around and find out in your eye. You pick up on a client’s values by how often they have the portable toilets serviced and if they allow lunch trucks on the property. Do they trust the workers or are they watchers? You can read a house for status and speak it back to the client in a way that’ll have their checkbook out. You see what they want to show the world.
You learn the stories of the security guards who patrol the gated communities you’ve been allowed in to beautify. The Pasifika femme who loves talking about her wife, the Black Mason who gets fake mad when you call him Illuminati, D who’s never been the same since his kid died some years back on his way home late from the casino. And there are ones you’re careful with: the NRA blonde you think modeled herself on Twin Towers from Police Academy and that one brown man who loves his uniform a little too much. Sometimes you hang with security in the shack, and they show you footage of drunk drivers who’ll never be prosecuted, spinning out and totaling their third Ferrari that year. Those cars are so light you should never slam on the brakes, but rich drunks man, rich drunks.
Once in a while a client will ask you questions, invite you to sit at the counter and offer a Perrier. You have to gauge whether they’re in white-savior mode, Christian, or genuinely curious. If you feel safe, you talk about books, the ones that have changed you, the ones you’re writing. You tell them that painting pays the bills but you have plans. They know and you know you’re good, the only one around who specializes in these faux finishes. You could make a lot of money but scrape by just enough because when you’re not on a ladder, you’re on a page, creating. If they ask, you say yeah, you’ve published. This is when you get nervous. You pick at the dried paint on your right hip where you always wipe your brush. You say a little more if they ask a little more. You watch their face for the micro-season of surprise. You always see it, the moment you become human.
Lizz Huerta is the author of the forthcoming young adult fantasy novel The Lost Dreamer (FSG for Young Readers, Winter 2022.) Her work has appeared in ZYZZYVA, The Rumpus, Time, The Cut, and The Miami Rail. She lives in San Diego, CA and has worked as a wrought iron painter for twenty years. More of her work can be found at lizzhuerta.com.