At first, I couldn’t see anything but the tanned, crepey skin of his forearm through the small window. When I opened the door, he jerked himself into an erect posture, as if he’d been called to attention, and smiled. He was leaning heavily on a walking stick made from a gnarled oak branch, which made him seem ancient, though in fact he was no older than I. His eyes were sunken and sad. He was wearing old jeans and a threadbare flannel shirt, and carrying a plastic tote tray with four cans of spray paint — two white and two black — a set of large numeral stencils, and a rag. His shoulder-length hair stirred listlessly in the breeze.
“Good afternoon, sir,” he said. “My name is Mike and I’m painting curb numbers for the Disabled Vietnam Veterans? We can paint your house number on your curb in white letters on a black background, using high-quality reflectorized long-lasting paints. We guarantee our work for three years, and the price is only four dollars? I just painted your neighbor’s curb if you’d like to see an example of my work. Remember, the money goes to help disabled Vietnam vets. Would you be interested, sir?” His presentation was made in the sing-song common to telephone-sales people.
He shifted a bit, watching for my reaction. He looked almost as skinny as his walking stick. His fingertips were covered with paint, and the number 228 — my neighbor’s house number — was stuck to the side of his tray with masking tape. He had that look of yearning and cowed hopefulness common to dogs who’ve been beaten and to people for whom life has been deeply disappointing, but who manage to persevere nonetheless.
It hit me hard, the appearance of this bearded derelict at my door. I’d seen plenty of derelicts, of course. I had even been one for a while, a draft-dodger and Vietnam casualty of sorts myself. I had slept next to other derelicts in abandoned automobiles and under freeway overpasses, shared their wine and listened to their pickled sophistries. I’d been cursed by the well-to-do from the safety of their cars, and I’d been harassed by cops. But that was a long time ago, and a lot had changed.
Facing Mike on my doorstep, dressed in my Lands’ End polo shirt and my all-cotton cargo shorts, I felt I was being visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past. Looking at this man, who must have been born in the late forties or early fifties, a man who grew up, as I did, on hula hoops and Twinkies and later the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and who now looked immeasurably old and broken, I knew we were feeling a similar pain just then. I knew he understood that we’d been through the same time and had come out differently.
He had called me “sir,” twice, as if I were his sergeant. I felt it almost as violence, to be called “sir”; it brought back all the brutality, the crisis of conscience felt by every male teenager in the lunatic atmosphere of the sixties, in the film clips on TV, in the angry Bob Dylan lyrics that I repeated like Hail Marys throughout my teenage years.
I could hardly speak to answer him. I don’t know if he was aware that the next second was for me many years long. He couldn’t have seen the pictures careening through my mind, the corrupt memories surging up like bile from so long ago. I doubt that he knew how jarring it was — like being in an auto accident — to have him appear in the midst of my pressing out a pile of designer-label shirts.
Finally, I managed to say, “Well, that sounds like a good deal. Sure, go ahead.”
He said, “Fine, then. I’ll come back and get you when I’m done so you can check out my work. Let’s see, your number’s 234, right?”
He limped down the walk and I went back inside. I flipped the collar of a dress shirt onto the ironing board. The bitterness strangled me as I thought of all the vets from all the wars back through the long human story, wars large and small in every country that ever existed, in which every side knew it was right and every young man felt the same tugging virtuousness. What did the survivors do in other times, I wondered, when there were no curbs to paint? What other demeaning tasks did they undertake to make it through the rest of their crippled lives? Tears ran down my face, incongruous in the bland Sunday atmosphere. Mike the curb painter had unknowingly become the symbol of the folly of our whole existence, of the endless butchery from which the dead suffer for a few awful moments and the living suffer for the rest of their lives.
By the time he finished, I had pulled myself together. We walked to the curb. There they were, white on black, just as promised, the numbers 2-3-4 gleaming smartly on the curb.
I said it looked great. That didn’t seem to be enough, so I added that I’d always wondered who painted the numbers on curbs, then immediately felt foolish.
He said he got a third of the money and the rest went to the California Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. I gave him a five and he handed back a one pulled from a wad in his shirt pocket. “Well, thanks for your support,” he said. I wanted to tip him but felt awkward and took the bill.